Michael Schenker Keeps Guitar Legacy Alive & Well (INTERVIEW)

His name is synonymous with guitar-driven rock & roll. Since his earliest days as a teenager in the Scorpions, through his years in UFO and variations of his solo band, Michael Schenker has kept his focus on what he can do on his guitar. He has never wavered from his mantra of “pure self-expression” by staying away from new music and trusting what his uncorrupted internal creativity comes up with. From his first song, “In Search Of The Peace Of Mind” on the Scorpions 1972 debut album Lonesome Crow, Schenker started honing in more on what he wanted to say than copying what others were already producing.

At the forty-five year mark in his recording career, Schenker is adding a new live CD/DVD to his abundant catalog titled Michael Schenker Fest Live Tokyo. Featuring eighteen tracks and three prominent singers from his history – Gary Barden, Graham Bonnet and Robin McAuley – it’s a rocking trip down Schenker’s yellow brick road: “Rock Bottom,” “Assault Attack,” “Armed & Ready,” “Victim Of Illusion” and “Doctor Doctor,” which happens to bring all three singers onstage together, whereas the previous songs have each one doing a handful of tunes on their own. If you ask Schenker about this, he is emotionally psyched up to have developed this project from a suggestion by a Japanese promoter to getting everyone together to watching it unfold on a Tokyo stage. “It’s unbelievable!” he almost shouts, a big smile undoubtedly across his face.

Whether you discovered Schenker via the Scorpions, where his brother Rudolf has been a member since the beginning, UFO or MSG, you’ll be happy to know that the German born guitar god is not near ready to hang up his axe. Speaking to me recently for Glide, he tells us about working on new music, putting together the new CD, hunting for great guitarists in his youth and still feeling a bitter sting from his first band.

Why don’t you tell us about this brand new live DVD/CD you have coming out on March 24th.

Yeah, it’s unbelievable! It’s something that started off two years ago with the promoter in Japan. They suggested to have Graham open up for MSG in Japan and sing a couple of songs with us and that made me realize, man, I’m performing all these songs from different singers from my past and it would be a cool idea if I could, especially at this point in time in my life, have maybe Gary, Robin and Graham together in one show on one stage. I was thinking of what the musicians should be and I decided that Steve Mann, he is connected to Robin McAuley in the McAuley Schenker Group, and Ted McKenna and Chris Glen, from the original section for Assault Attack with Graham, and of course Ted and Chris were the original rhythm section after Cozy Powell for Gary Barden. So that made that complete lineup.

So that was the idea and so I pushed for it. Took quite a while before people could understand what I was trying to do and then eventually we started to check up on people if they were interested in doing it and have the availability and so on and step by step it started to move forward. Then we had the first offer for Sweden Rock. So then I started to have to drive all the way up to Glasgow consistently to rehearse with the musicians to make sure they stay in good shape and stuff like that. Then I had a call from Japan last year to headline Loud Park Festival in Japan and I said, “Who else is playing?” And they said, “Well, the Scorpions are headlining the first day and you are headlining the second day.” And I declined, because I didn’t want to do it if the Scorpions were there. But my other promoter found out that I got an offer from that promoter for the Loud Park Festival so they immediately gave me a very good offer to do a Japan tour with the Michael Schenker Fest and Tokyo was one of the concerts and the beautiful venue and it sold out in no time. And I said to myself, I have to capture this!

I hired all the people that were needed and it turned out fantastic. It was so much fun to do that. We played Osaka the night before and we had a lot of footage on our way from Osaka to Tokyo and behind the scenes and behind the stage, the soundcheck and all of that kind of stuff. They put a really good package together and the sound of the record is great and the picture quality is excellent. It was unbelievable. It was like Budokan all over again. When we did Budokan, I was voted #1 Guitarist in Japan and the strangest thing is now I call this Budokan all over again and I just found out I was voted #1 Guitarist again in Japan. It is crazy! (laughs).

Are you taking this on the road?

We got offers for the Michael Schenker Fest all over the world. We get offer from the UK now, we get offers from Spain, offers from France and Germany and other countries in Europe. We had somebody investigate in America and those guys said it looks excellent. The people are so interested. So it looks really good. New things coming and the fans are happy to see you cause they thought they would never be able to see us and it’s available now. They are all happy experiencing the original stuff and so it’s a lot of fun, especially at this point in time. I think it’s a meant-to-be situation.

From what I’ve seen on the DVD, everybody looks like they are having a good time on that stage.

Absolutely! I think some of us thought that was never going to happen again. It’s such a surprise, a pleasant surprise, for all of us that this can happen. Not just for the fans but for all of us. It’s just great.

Was it hard to get everybody’s schedule to line up to do this?

You know, you have to make the calls and negotiate and do all of that stuff. You just have to have the idea, you have to have the concept, you have to know what you’re doing, you have to make sure that you are well-prepared, that you know what the set is going to be, how you feel, how it should be done. That’s all my job. Then to make sure it’s well-rehearsed and everybody knows their stuff and then everybody’s ready and confident.

Japan is always such a pleasure to work with. They’re always nice. Everything goes so smoothly and professionally. If you are ready, they are ready. We get offers, we ask the musicians if they are available or to please keep open this particular period and they do so and then we do our thing accordingly when it’s time, doing a tour or something. We prepare ourselves. There‘s some stuff coming up that I can’t talk about now, which is also fantastic, but some people they want to be the ones to announce it first. But it should be out soon.

Tell us about your early days as a guitar player

Fifteen years old I made my first record with Klaus and the Scorpions. Klaus being a great singer and me being fifteen-year-old lead guitar with talent, that got us immediate international recognition. Then I joined UFO and I took the Scorpions with me step by step all the way up to Lovedrive and opened the door to America for them. I was twenty-three when I finished with UFO, Strangers In The Night, and I tasted the top and the success and knew what it was like up there. I was able to make a decision if I want that or if I wanted to be free and create an experiment with music and that’s what I decided to do.

You know, I was twenty-three when I finished. I was twenty-one when we had the first hit with Lights Out in America and then at twenty-three finished actually being in the limelight and let the Scorpions take over. By the time they made their first concert in America, they were thirty-three years old. I was twenty-three when I finished and I am seven years younger than them. People can’t add this up, it doesn’t make any sense, there’s such a big gap. The older ones were much older before they even get there. It is very confusing, especially to newcomers like Russia and China. I probably don’t even exist for them because when I was twenty-three that was in 1978. They were still walking around in uniforms over there. So it’s going to be a shock for some people because this is the first time I actually talk about that kind of stuff because this is really the first time that I’m realizing all of this. I mean, at my age, I can see the past so clear now, why things happened and how things happened and why they needed to happen. It’s unbelievable. So I’m realizing now there are so many years in-between and half of the world only started to pick up rock music maybe fifteen years ago, twenty years ago, and I was already doing my own little thing.

Japan was the country that supported me throughout all of my experiments, my middle years as I call them, the learning years and the experiment years, when I did crazy instrumentals, starting somewhere and playing for fifty minutes nonstop, you know. The Japanese understood the art of lead guitar playing. And of course my hardcore fans around the whole world understand it but wide mass doesn’t understand, you know. But it’s picking up very good now. The next live album I’m going to be recording in the UK so then I have done Japan, Spain, the UK and maybe one of these days I’ll do another one in America.

When you were young and listening to music, did the blues, like Muddy Waters and Albert King, have any impact on you?

No, I don’t think so. I’ve played guitar since I was nine years old. I started to copy music from the radio, which was Beatles, Rolling Stones and anything that was a hit, any of those pop bands that was played on the radio in those days. I was fourteen years old first time I understood what I wanted to do. That was when I heard Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple and that was it, you know. My focus is on the art of lead guitar so it’s that distorted sound and the drums and the rawness of the rhythm section and stuff like that. That’s my screen and that’s what I put my lead guitar on.

But basically, I think those guys that inspired me, I think they were more inspired by those guys you just mentioned. For me, it’s more like Leslie West, Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton, Rory Gallagher, Johnny Winter, all the great guitarists from the late sixties. I used to go guitar hunting. I used to go to festivals hoping to find great guitarists and that’s what I was interested in. I never liked any songs unless there was a great guitarist in it, with the exception of the Beatles maybe. But when I was fourteen years old, it had to be a great guitarist in the band. That was my fun thing to do, chase and hunt for great guitarists.

When I was seventeen, I instinctively knew I had to stop copying people and I knew that I had to stop listening to music. As a result of that, it kept me fresh and it also let me stay away from being influenced by others and focus on pure self-expression as much as possible. It would be nice to listen to other people’s music, and I’m sure there’s great music out there, but if you have made a decision it’s either this or either that. Sometimes we can’t have both. If you want to do it well and if you want to do it committed and with integrity, I have done it. So I have stayed away from music for forty-three years and I didn’t copy anything. I just focused on the infinite spring from within where it’s endless. You can always come up with something fresh, just like the tropical fish in the ocean. You never have a repeat. Or you look through a kaleidoscope and you never have a repeat. It’s always something different and that’s what I have been doing.

You mentioned you went looking for great guitarists at festivals. Who did you see?

I think I saw people at the same period of time, Alvin Lee from Ten Years After, Jeff Beck, Wishbone Ash, maybe even Deep Purple. It was just a very short time. I went to festivals and there was Uriah Heep. They didn’t have a great guitarist but somehow they had a really raw sound. I liked that. They weren’t necessarily festivals with big name bands on it. That’s why I call it hunting. I was hoping to go to this festival and find something unexpectedly.

But of course there were all the great guitarists that I already knew about, which was Rory Gallagher, Johnny Winter, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck and Leslie West and Eric Clapton and so many others but I was only seventeen when I finished listening so I didn’t do that for very long. Then I lost contact with the rest of the world on that level and focused more on what I wanted to create. I wanted to create an original form of something rather than copying something that is out there and repeating it. I was not interested in that. I knew that there was more but it was more valuable to go within myself and open up, because if I don’t open up, nobody knows what’s going on in there. So by opening up, you let something out that nobody would have seen if I hadn’t done it.

Most people prefer to copy others and they may not have the confidence to show how they see it. Some people I know, they don’t think it’s worth it but there’s not such a thing. Anybody can do it. It’s just a decision. You have to make a decision. Everybody has beauty, everybody has those colors that nobody knows about unless you open it up. That’s the great thing about it. It’s a decision. It’s not a miracle, it’s not something that only some people can do. Everybody can do it. That’s the difference between doing that or being on the safe side and just copy a trend and stay close to the trend. Then of course many people think of money and competition and being #1 and all that kind of stuff and they want to be up there with everybody, not missing a beat, and doing all the latest business tricks.

And you’re working on new music?

It’s not something that is complete shocking new but I play and discover on a regular basis. I discover quite a few things I never had access to before. When I make the next record, I sprinkle those bits over and my hardcore fans, they know where those new sprinkles are and they’re looking forward to them. So they are hunting for them. I play and discover and they consume and play and discover what I discovered and sprinkled over.

People listen to music in different ways. I, for instance, if you asked me what is your favorite song, I can’t play that because my lead guitar playing is the focus and the music I create as a screen to put my lead guitar playing somewhere, because that is where all the emotions are, in the lead guitar playing. A single string has so many different combinations of how it can show emotion. It’s unbelievable, it’s endless, and without a song, the lead guitar just by itself cannot be understood. So you have to have the screen that you can play to and then you can really, really go very far with it. Blessed are the people that understand it because it’s a real adventure, a real place where we can go to with that. But if you haven’t got a connection for those people then it’s not really interesting and that’s why it’s usually not a commercial thing. It’s more like a special thing for people, for specialists. I’ve been playing for most of my life for musicians who understand what I’m doing. I think people are ready to dig a little deeper and want to hear more details and I think people are prepared, so that’s why also what I’m doing today is much better understood than what I did when I started.

And by the way, when I was fifteen and did the first record with the Scorpions, with Klaus Meine – we both joined the Scorpions which made it possible to record the first Scorpions record – I played my first written song, “In Search Of The Peace Of Mind,” which is still one of my favorite solos. But for some reason they decided to credit everybody in the band for that song, which is not fair, and being seven years younger and not really interested in understanding how it should have been done properly in those days, I feel like I’ve been taken advantage of, you know. It was the first song that I did and the others had nothing to do with that song, absolutely nothing, except for the person who wrote the lyrics. The music itself is my creation, my very first creation, and those guys just decided to share it between them. They didn’t do anything to it. I feel like they took advantage of a little boy. I wrote this in the kitchen by myself and then it was my first written song ever and then it was credited to everybody.

Is there anything left for you to learn, to try?

Of course! I’m learning all the time and I’m enjoying every step of it. I think music is music and I don’t think I’m doing anything complicated. It’s all coming from the heart, it’s all about pure self-expression. I write most of the songs and they are me. It’s not something that you have to be a professor for or complex or very hard to do or whatever. It’s just basically, #1 priority is feel and melody, that’s what I do in my lead guitar playing, to go through all emotions, to capture pure self-expression. You are just being yourself. That is different than going to University and learning something very complex. It’s music coming from the heart.


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