Interview with Hans Ziller of Bonfire

It’s relatively easy to start a band, and many have done that. Out of those, not exactly everyone managed to move beyond the phase of garage rehearsals and lousy club gigs, and just a handful of the chosen went as far as to sign a record deal and tour the world. But to march into the future with sixteen albums under one’s belt and yet one more just about to hit the shelves – well, it sounds like a tale of a Rock’n’Roll survivor. No wonder the new single off Bonfire‘s upcoming album Fistful Of Fire is titled just like that – the band’s leader and guitarist Hans Ziller surely knows more than a thing or two about surviving the hardship of the music business. But there’s a lot more to be discussed with Bonfire‘s mastermind. Streaming services? Ecology? ’80s nostalgia? You name it – we cover it all and more.

Photo credits: Kai Swillus

Alexandra Mrozowska: What was the idea that you had in mind for Fistful Of Fire and can you say you’ve accomplished all the goals you set with the album? 

Hans Ziller: There was no actual concept except to make the best record possible. We are a band from the ’80s so we didn’t want to stray too far from that, but we also wanted a more modern sound and just good songs and I feel we accomplished that.

AM: During the last decade, Bonfire’s line-up wasn’t quite stable. Is it difficult to pursue a cohesive vision of the band in such circumstances? 

Hans Ziller: I was always the leader of the band and actually was the one who started the band. So in that sense, the vision has remained the same throughout. I do take input from the other members and they also have a say in writing and our vision for the future, but I am the chief so in the end I have the final decision on things.  

AM: What was the process of working on the album like? Was it any different than in the case of the previous albums with Alexx on vocals? 

Hans Ziller: I take song submissions from everyone including myself. Then I go through the songs and pick the best, then we go into the studio and start recording. It really works well, so there is no need to change it. We have recorded the last few albums including Fistful of Fire at Flatliners Studios in Ingolstadt Germany. We all work really well together, so… it just works!

AM: The title track on the album discusses ecological issues,which may have been quite a rare topic in this genre, with a few possible exceptions such as Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “All I Can Do Is Write About It”. Why did you decide to bring up this particular topic? 

Hans Ziller: When we were in the writing process, Greta Thunberg was all over the news. Generally life experiences or things happening at the time become the songs – for example, an old classic of Bonfire “SDI” was about America’s Satellite Defense Initiative in the Regan era. So often some songs are reflection of the times as was the song “Fistful of Fire”. I think we all agree saving the planet is very important. And whether you agree with Greta’s approach or not, in my opinion you have to give her credit for what she accomplished as a 16-year-old. She fueled a movement, made headlines around the world and even spoke at the United Nations. So, some people agree with her and some don’t but we all agree the world should be kept clean. This song is about all of that. 

AM: Thirty years ago, Rock music relied heavily on themes of love, lust and heartbreak, with an obligatory party anthem in between. These days, the bands turn to way more serious topics, from pursuit of freedom to the relationship between the humanity and nature. What do you think caused such a shift? 

Hans Ziller: I am not exactly sure… Maybe there were too many songs about love and heartbreak ? To me people generally people listen to music to forget about real life, to go somewhere else, so I think it is ok to try and say something important in a song – but not all the time. People have enough stress in life. Why add more by listening to it all the time, like listening about stressful topics while driving to work…? It is okay sometimes to make a important statement with a song, but not always in my opinion. Music is entertainment and it is great to have a variety.

AM: Bonfire has been many things in the past musically, from Melodic Hard Rock to Southern Rock flavours to more modern sound, but these days the band is actually more powerful and heavier than ever before. Is it the influence of the current band members, Alexx’s in particular, or something else? 

Hans Ziller: I have always been the one in the band with the heavier edge, that harder sound. But often in the past the other members were not so “on board” with that. With the line-up since 2015 the guys all come from a heavy type of music, so we are all on the same page with our direction now.

AM: Fistful Of Fire is in a way separated into three parts with the instrumental parts. Was it a deliberate decision and what was it prompted by? 

Hans Ziller: The intention was not to separate anything. In the writing, some songs just felt like an intro would be cool, so we worked out having intros for those songs. 

AM: As far as the cover artwork is concerned, you collaborated with Kai Swillus who’s not only a designer and photographer but also a musician in his own right. Having collaborated before, why have you decided to use his artwork again? 

Hans Ziller: We worked with Kai previously on Byte The Bullet and Temple Of Lies. He made the videos for “Praying for A Miracle” and “Stand Or Fall”. He also shot the video for the first single from this album “Rock & Roll Survivors” which was premiered on Feb 28th. So yes, we worked well with Kai in the past and thought to give the cover art to him this time. He is really great and we are very happy with his work.

AM: Discussing all things Bonfire, one may wonder what’s the current status of your side project EZ Livin’? Did you retire the band, or is there anything in the pipeline we should be aware about? 

Hans Ziller: Ronnie Parkes came to me through EZ Livin’ and is still in Bonfire now. Bonfire has been taking up all of my time and my main focus is Bonfire right now. I’m not sure what the future holds for EZ Livin’. I am happy with the two albums we had released, but for now all my focus is completely on Bonfire.

AM: Bonfire’s concert schedule for the next months is busy to say the least. One special date is March the 13th – funnily enough, a Friday – when the UK’s HRH AOR festival is scheduled. Any thoughts? And are there any other festival appearances in the works? 

Hans Ziller: We had a great time the last time we were there. It is a great festival and we love to play in the UK. As far as the set for this show, we will be adding “Rock &Roll Survivors” and play some more new songs that we didn’t play last time… and of course songs we think people expect to hear at a Bonfire show. Also, there are some other festivals planned throughout the year – in Germany of course, Scandinavia, other parts of Europe, possibly USA and Russia.

AM: During the April leg of the tour, Tina Schussler Band will be Bonfire’s opening act. What can your audience expect from them in terms of music and performance? 

Hans Ziller: Tina is great. She is in our video “Rock & Roll Survivors”. For those of you that don’t know her, she is a three-time world champion female kickboxer. Her band and music has a Punk Rock edge to it. She is an excellent performer and I am sure people will like her and feel the energy she brings to the stage. She is an excellent performer and I am sure people will like her and feel the energy she brings to the stage. 

AM: Talking about concerts, will the setlists on this tour be more like of a cross-section of the band’s catalogue or will you focus on showcasing the best bits of the new album? 

Hans Ziller: With so many albums, Fistful Of Fire being the 17th, we are starting to find it difficult to make the sets. There are Bonfire classics that people expect to hear, there are people who are fans of the newer sound, so we are trying to make a nice balance of old and new. We plan to switch some old classics that we have been performing to different older songs and add more new songs. So we are working on a good mix of material, but we have about 17-20 hours of music we have to fit into a two-hour show, so it’s not so easy to choose.

AM: Given that Bonfire is active for over 35 years (not even to mention the Cacumen days!), what is typical demographic in the audience on your concerts right now? 

Hans Ziller: I would say the typical demographic is between 25 and 50. With Bonfire being around so long, there are people who were fans from the beginning and there are newer younger fans as well. There also seems to be some kind of resurgence of ’80s music so there are also younger people at our shows – and they know the words to all the songs!

AM: For someone who discovers Bonfire today via platforms such as Spotify it may be a bit disappointing that the band’s classic ’80s releases Don’t Touch The Light and Fireworks are still missing. What is it caused by? 

Hans Ziller: That has to do with record companies and what rights they have to certain albums. We have switched different record companies several times over the 35 years of our existence. So there are some songs that were on those albums originally but maybe re-recorded or re-released on another album and only those versions made it to Spotify. Like “You Make Me Feel”, for example.

AM: Do you think it may be difficult for the bands who started out in the ’70s or the’ 80s to operate within the media world of the 21st century, be it the social media, streaming platforms or YouTube? Did the industry change for better of worse? 

Hans Ziller: I think the industry has changed drastically over the years. The bad part about things such as Spotify and Pandora is they don’t pay the same royalties as radio stations would pay and there is probably more people listening to those than regular radio anymore. Basically it is much more difficult for a musician to make a living than it was before. People download one song, whereas in the past they would buy a whole physical album. There are all kinds of piracy going on with digital releases as well. The law just has not caught up with the times yet… There are a lot of people making a lot of money off music, but unfortunately 99% of the time they’re not the actual writers of the songs.

AM: Having so many years in the music industry under your belt, what advice would you give to young musicians today? 

Hans Ziller: Practice and know your craft. Don’t be an asshole to people. No one wants to play with an asshole, it doesn’t matter how good you are then. Often you play for two hours a night and are together for the other 22 hours of the day, so you have to be both good and easy to get along with. Both are very important.

Photo credits: Kai Swillus

AM: Having been the self-proclaimed “rock’n’roll survivor” for so many years, can you recall any “Spinal Tap moment” or a funny story from the band’s history? 

Hans Ziller: Actually, there was a funny “Spinal Tap moment” not too long ago. We were doing a tour with a pre-recorded intro and we were supposed to run out on stage at the end of the intro and blast right into the first song. Unfortunately, because of arriving late to the venue we didn’t have time to check and make sure everything was okay with the intro. At one point, the MC for the evening introduced the band and the lights went down and we are all hiding behind the guitar cabinets. We push the button to start the intro and nothing happens… We all start nervously freaking out and push it again and something else plays (laughs) At the time, it wasn’t funny but now of course it is. It was very Spinal Tap (laughs)

AM: Can you name the most important song that you’ve ever written? 

Hans Ziller: I would have to say “You Make Me Feel”. Right now that song has the most views on YouTube – around 7+ million – and it is still in the set today.

AM: Is there anything you’d like to add?

Hans Ziller: We are really looking forward to returning to the UK and have a great show at the festival. Our new album Fistful Of Fire will be released on the 3rd of April 2020 on AFM records and we hope to see you on the road this year! 

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