The Man With the Mighty Axe – Marcus Siepen: Gamer, geek and Blind Guardian rhythm guitarist

He’s got connections in Blizzard Entertainment. He’s been playing rhythm guitar for 25 years and wouldn't have it any other way. He’s Marcus Siepen, and he’s the riffwraith for German power metal gods, Blind Guardian. Read on - and don't get too jealous, gamers.

If you’ve played, read or watched sci-fi or fantasy and dropped the word “metal” into polite conversation, it’s more than likely you’ve heard the name Blind Guardian uttered in the same breath.  Donning capes and wizard hats on the table-top battlefield of Dungeons and Dragons comes accompanied more often than not with the rousing, majestic sounds of Blind Guardian acting as soundtrack, aiding the wild imaginations of players.

From their inception almost twenty-five years ago, founding rhythm guitarist, the mercurial Marcus Siepen misspent his youth behind games of all varieties, having been “addicted since [childhood] you know, even with Pong on the very first Atari console.” It’s no wonder that Marcus has stuck with the bombastic German power metal outfit, his expertise over the riff guiding their sprawling epics over nine albums in harmonious tandem with lead guitarist (and fellow nerd) Andre Olbrich.

But be warned – if you’re a gamer that froths at the mouth as soon as you hear about a beta testing phase that you weren’t invited to, prepare to ready your cloth; Marcus has friends in high levels of gaming studios that would even turn even a casual player a pale shade of green.

Marcus was treated as one of the VIPs at GamesCom Cologne, one of Europe’s largest gaming conventions. They were in the fine company of Blizzard Entertainment, the brains behind the wildly popular (and by all accounts just as addictive) World of Warcraft franchise.

“We were invited by a company to check out their latest game called The Cursed Crusade,” Marcus recalls. “Andre and I are the die-hard computer game fans, so this was always something very special for us.

“The last time we went there we played Diablo 3 and checked out the latest World of Warcraft addons and everything. We made some friends in the BioWare camp for the new Star Wars game; it’s just a big playground for us because Andre and I are just the die-hard computer game nerds – it’s just paradise for us!”

Blind Guardian were immortalized in polygons, leaping at the opportunity to write a song for the role-playing game Sacred II, starring as non-player characters in the actual game itself. Knowing Blind Guardian, there wasn’t much arm twisting to goad them into participating - it had Blind Guardian written all over it.

“It was a very cool experience for us; we got screenshots, we got background information for the game and the highlight was that we appeared in the game ourselves in this motion capturing thing if you fulfill a certain quest we perform the song live on a fantasy stage in fantasy instruments and armor, performing in front of orcs and goblins and whatever. That was very very cool and the gaming community loved it. I didn’t hear a single bad word about anything this because this is something that comes kind of natural for us because we’re part of this gaming scene ourselves – it’s not something our management set up and said ‘this would be cool for promotion’ – this is part of ourselves, it’s honestly coming from the heart and it was big fun for us.”

The inspiration for games comes from the fantasy and sci-fi literature which has found its way back on to not only our big screens but small screens in the form of Game of Thrones, an HBO television adaptation of George RR Martin’s “Song of Ice and Fire” book series. Marcus definitely agrees that fantasy has been destigmatized in recent years and embraced by mainstream audiences, much to his delight.

“Yes, I think the latest [Lord of the Rings] films done by Peter Jackson were very popular in the mainstream; Lord of the Rings has been one of the biggest books anyway; it’s the holy bible of fantasy literature and he definitely turned it into mainstream cinema,” he muses.

“As you mentioned, Game of Thrones the TV series  - I haven’t seen it yet, I have to say, I still have to get the DVDs but I’ve heard very very good things about it – people who might not have been into fantasy stuff before are discovering it for themselves. Maybe they had the prejudice that it was childish or whatever; it’s not, obviously. It’s just very very good stories in those books that are told. With Hollywood jumping on the whole thing, I think that’s what turns it into the mainstream.”

Blind Guardian are also trying their hand in creating their own fantasy epic – teaming up with German fantasy novelist Markus Heitz, author of the “Dwarves” series of books only recently translated into English. The novel will provide the basis for their upcoming (and almost continually delayed) orchestral project.

“We’re progressing big time,” Marcus assures us. “The issue at first was finding the right orchestra and we’re using the same orchestra that we used for the last album which is the symphonic orchestra of Prague. We’ve already recorded like five or six songs.

Another big step was making up a background story for it. People were saying ‘will it be Lord of the Rings’ – no – it won’t be Lord of the Rings. Working with Markus Heitz, we’ve always been fans of his books and he’s always been a fan of Blind Guardian. So it’s like the perfect team for something like this. As I said, we have been working on this and we’re aiming for a release in 2013. That’s our plan; there’s no fixed date or anything like that but I think it’s realistic.”

The love and mirth for fantasy and all of its weird and wild permutations keeps the band together at its heights and even during its darker times. In a genre fraught with revolving door policies regarding band members, Blind Guardian’s lineup has only seen one change since their formation in 1985 and he attributes it to one common vision.

“Something in us never changed; we still want the same things, we have the same goals, we have the same vision about the band, we still love the music we’re playing, we still want to achieve things with the band and I think that’s the big secret. We just want the same things, we respect each other, we like each other and we fight with each other just like any other band has the same fights.

“We’re not special [in that regard]; we have the same fights as every other band on this planet. But, instead of just firing someone if there’s a discussion or an argument we try to look for a solution and that’s the very simple thing. We all have our egos and sometimes we fight about musical direction of a song – someone wants a riff to be played like this and the other wants it to be played differently, whatever – those are the kind of fights that we have. But you know, there’s always a solution. We don’t see any reason why we should just keep firing people or hiring others or whatever, you know?”

Many young guitarists dream nothing but taking the stage as a lead virtuoso, mowing down the audience with the brightest licks known to metal kind and reaping the accolades – not Marcus Siepen. Even since the beginning there was no challenge to Andre over who would be sharing the lead duties.

“Because I am, from my heart, a rhythm guitarist,” He proudly boasts. “If you ask me about my favorite songs, I can tell you all the riffs. All the guitar players and their parts. My biggest idol is Tony Iommi because he is the master of heavy metal riffs. Also, if you tell me Richie Blackmore I will always come up with the riffs because I am the riff guy. There are a couple of leads that I play and we play a lot of harmonies; I play the second voice a lot and in some songs I play the main solo, but it’s just a natural separation. I prefer playing rhythm guitar and [Andre] prefers playing lead guitar so that perfectly works for us and whenever there’s a need to play 2nd lead guitar I’ll play 2nd lead guitar. Very simple. There’s no ego problem or anything like that like ‘I have to play some leads too’ it’s nothing like that, I don’t give a fuck about that!

Does it cause problems?

“I don’t think it’s a problem; people tend to think that lead guitars are superior to rhythm guitars; that’s nonsense in my opinion. If you listen to any metal album without the rhythm guitars it will not be a lot of fun because it will be very boring. That’s perfectly fine for me. We never sat down and talked about this, there was never any discussion like ‘I will play leads and you will play rhythm’ – it just happened and everybody feels perfectly fine with it so there’s no real need to think about it or change anything, everything is perfectly fine for us.

“I really prefer to do my rhythm thing because that’s what I feel comfortable with the most. Whenever there’s a need [for me] to play lead guitars, I’ll play them.”

Seeing trends in metal rise and fall over almost quarter of a century could arguably induce some bands’ “metal fatigue;” and there are many bands one could mention that have fallen victim to it. Marcus keeps and open mind when it comes to metal and like a sleuth, can ferret out new bands whose fresh perspectives which keeps him drawn to the scene.

“There’s always bands that come up with something that I haven’t heard so far. What I love listening to at the moment is Opeth who have some brilliant albums. Another band called Orphaned Land from Israel have some brilliant stuff too. What I love about the metal scene in general is the diversity among the bands. I can enjoy Rainbow Rising all day long, listen to Stargazer or whatever for the next couple of days and just get lost in those albums. On the next day I can put on Dimmu Borgir and have as much fun. Then I go back to classic Iron Maiden stuff, then I go to Metallica then I go to whatever. Mercyful Fate. They’re all so very very different but they’re all metal. You can listen to some very very different bands even though it’s all metal. That’s what I love.”

But is metal the only meal on the menu in Siepen’s musical diet?

“I don’t really care about categories in general. I have two categories for music: music that I like and music that I dislike. As long as I like the song I couldn’t care less about if it’s heavy metal, black metal, death metal, pop, classical, folk or whatever. For example, I’m a metalhead since ’81, when I heard Maiden’s Killers album for the first time; that’s what brought me into metal. Ever since I’ve been a metalhead. Apart from this I love Pink Floyd, I love Bad Religion, I love Genesis, I love all kinds of things. Whatever attracts me in whatever way, that’s good music for me.”

In Australia, it feels like we’re isolated from the metal scene at large. The only metal we get on TV is welded into place by reality show contestants and commercial radio balks at anything that even threatens to approach 11 on the rock n’ roll scale. Indeed Germany is the land of Wacken and countless, genre-defining metal bands including Kreator, Sodom, Helloween and Accept. Though the band’s performance at Wacken was broadcast on German television, Marcus explains his exasperation at the general lack of metal knowledge despite its relative popularity in his home country at large.

“Metal, the music itself is big in Germany. In the ‘scene,’ yes. In the media, coverage does not normally exist at all. What happens to be covered is Wacken because the media people found out that it was the biggest metal festival on the planet that attracts 100,000 people every single year so they found it was a good idea to report about it. So since about two or three years ago Wacken has been in the media every year.”

“The second thing that was reported on was the 70,000 tons of metal cruise which we also headlined earlier this year. That was covered in the media and on TV because it was a big thing and was something completely different. A cruise ship that goes to the Caribbean and with forty metal bands playing on it all day long? That was something very very unique, something that never happened before and sounded special so they covered it. There were lots of German TV stations on board doing reports, doing interviews and it was covered big time.”

Funnily enough, Blind Guardian was represented in a “best rock songs of all time” list – but for a cover. DJs are as clueless about metal as the television stations – perhaps even more so!

“To give you an example, one of the biggest German radio stations you receive in the area, when it was Ian Gillan’s birthday last year they said ‘Oh, by the way, Ian Gillan of Deep Purple’s birthday is today and no, we won’t play Smoke on the Water; we will play something very special for you.’ They played Stormbringer! I was like ‘Er, Stormbringer? That was David Coverdale!’ When the song ended the DJ said ‘Yeah, OK, you can stop calling, you can stop sending emails, I fucked up, I know it was David Coverdale.’ That’s the metal coverage you get on German radio.

"So once a month they might play Highway to Hell, if you’re lucky. If you’re very lucky they’ll play Doctor, Doctor on the same day but that’s it. On the same radio station they had voting going on to poll the 200 best songs of all time. And we made it! I forgot the position number, 100-something, 120 or so and the song that they chose was a cover of Uriah Heep’s the Wizard from the Forgotten Tales that we did as a single B-side and that represents Blind Guardian. A cover on a single B-side. German TV and German radio is crap when it comes to metal."

Luckily for Australian fans, a lack of mainstream coverage does not mean a lack of adoration for the band, coming out again for the second time in their career, performing only three times in both Sydney and Melbourne.

“It was great; when we came to Australia for the first time it was great for us – we had been dreaming about playing Down Under actually for many many years and finally it happened. The shows have been great; the response of the audience has been awesome; we had a great time in the gigs and met a lot of great people outside the gigs also, it was just fantastic.”

“Now we have the chance to return – a Sydney date was added for us which was great and we’re really really looking forward to returning.”

Will they be playing their famed cover of the quintessential Australian 80s hit, “You’re the Voice” by John Farnham?

“I have to say we haven’t talked about it yet but it would be an option. If there was ever a place to play that song it would be Australia for sure.”

Photo Credit: Victor Alexandrov