Latest Release: Immortal (Nuclear Blast) Website: www.michaelschenkerhimself.com
The extraordinary influence of German born guitarist Michael Schenker is well known amongst musician circles globally. Somewhat underrated by the mainstream yet never one to actively pursue the well-trodden path of immense fame and glory, his dedication to the craft of guitar and creating his own unique music is highly revered. Back in 1979, having already established himself with notable contributions that ultimately launched the legacy careers of seventies hard rock bands Scorpions and UFO, Schenker, as always, took his own path and started the ubiquitous Michael Schenker Group. This was just after the peak of UFO’s success when their classic live album Strangers in the Night was the culmination of increasingly strong studio album output.
A short reunion with Scorpions gave the band a discography highlight with unquestionably great lead guitar work on Lovedrive, before Schenker’s abrupt departure mid-tour. Whilst drifting in and out of his old bands, the sometimes volatile tenures reinforced his desire to focus on developing his career as a solo artist. The Michael Schenker Group has since put out a formidable list of releases, some of which are still celebrated by many active artists. Following that, Michael Schenker’s Temple of Rock and the Michael Schenker Fest band names allowed Schenker to tinker with band structures but ultimately, his guitar playing was always front and centre. Now, his latest release, titled Immortal, sees the return to MSG [aka Michael Schenker Group] to mark forty years as a solo artist as well as fifty years since picking up the instrument.
Immortal is a team effort that seemingly dodged the potential hazards of recording during a pandemic by virtue of being completed to schedule but also allows the guitar mastery of Schenker to shine, as it should. So, in honour of Michael Schenker Group’s Immortal album seeing the light of day, we gladly took up a late evening chat with the forthright and friendly guitar legend that is Michael Schenker.
Your latest album is excellent. What were some of the hurdles that you had to contend with in recording this during a pandemic?
Oh well, it is actually quite a long story. I realised that 2020 was the 50th anniversary of putting my first note on a record. The idea was to celebrate with musicians, friends and fans but things were dragging on, making it difficult to organise. At some point I realised that the album wouldn’t be coming out in 2020. I kind of gave up but my manager told me the Scorpions’ Lonesome Crow album was released in 1972. So, I said, ‘ah, I have two years to celebrate’ and I had hope again. I put together a compact band with people including vocalist Ronnie Romero [Rainbow], the very persistent to join bassist Barry Sparks [Dokken], Steve Mann [guitar and keyboards] and Bodo Schopf [drums]. The strange thing was that when the virus spread started escalating, it was after I’d performed on the 70,000 Tons of Metal cruise. I had recording equipment with me to write on the cruise but actually started writing when I had four days in a hotel in Miami. I came back to the UK and all of a sudden, infections increased so I just kept carrying on with writing. When I had up to eleven songs put down, I was ready to go to Germany to record and put backing tracks down. But, I couldn’t use my usual route because all the borders were locked and everything was chaotic. Instead, we got there using an overnight ferry to Holland to get to Germany. I eventually made it to the recording studio in Germany to put down my composition backing tracks and then it was time for Ronnie to start singing. He couldn’t easily make it and fulfil other commitments due to quarantine. My partner, Amy, is a bass player and has very good musical taste whereas I do not listen to music and haven’t really done so for the last fifty years. I don’t know what is out there but she does and suggested Ralf Scheepers [Primal Fear]. I trusted her judgement and then having asked Mike [Voss – producer and vocalist] who said, ‘Wow, yes, fantastic singer!’ The next day, we were recording. I couldn’t believe it and so it started with him singing on Drilled to Kill. Then out of nowhere, one of the best drummers in the world, Brian Tichy called up Michael Voss, my producer, and said he wanted to contribute to six songs for the 50th anniversary. That was amazing but suddenly, things started to shape into a different direction that was more like what I had originally planned. Brian also said the keyboardist Derek Sherinian also wanted to be involved. I said to Michael, ‘What? He is a heavy duty keyboard player, we already have Steve Mann adding colour with keyboards’ and I wanted to keep it more guitar oriented. Steve is very good, adding tasty parts you barely notice but it adds sprinkles to keep the album fresh, in a way. So, I asked, ‘What are we going to do with Derek?’ He said, ‘Maybe you can do a jam with him?’ But I have never done this with a keyboard player in my life. He suggested, ‘Well, maybe it is the first time and your fans will love it, doing something you have never done before’ and I asked, ‘Like Jon Lord and Ritchie Blackmore?’ I said, ‘Maybe you’re right, let’s do it’ and when it was all put together, I was blown away. I had Ralph Scheepers, Brian Tichy and Derek Sherinian on a song that is right in your face, with so much energy, with the best of the best. I mean, where did this come from? I was so happy. It continued like that so I could say that the virus situation has been bittersweet in that it put my back on track to my original plan but it all happened by itself. I didn’t do anything; it is just that all of sudden, people were calling in offering to contribute. So, when we asked Ronnie again, who was supposed to sing on the whole album, he still couldn’t attend so basically the compact line up that I wanted to use started to involve each musician playing fewer songs. Our solution was still unknown so I asked Michael what to do and he suggested Joe Lynn Turner. I said, ‘You must be joking, he is one of my favourite singers.’ We did an early American production [Heavy Hitters] and I was hired as a session musician and it ended up as MSG. I would never do a cover album with MSG but they tricked me into that but it was also bittersweet because, in a way, it turned out to be an excellent album and I had Joe Lynn Turner singing a cover version of an Elvis Presley song, All Shook Up, and I was playing lead guitar. When I heard that, it was so amazing, I put it on my website and an introduction. We’re mutual fans but you wouldn’t believe it because the next day, we were recording. I now had two songs by Ralf, two songs by Joe Lynn Turner and with all the additional people sprinkling in, it just keep going like that and then I came back from the hotel after I had put all the backing tracks down and Michael Voss said, ‘Listen to what I did’, similar to his B plan of lyrics and melodies with the song Warrior, which became one of the best songs in my career. He played what he did to this new song which became After the Rain and I said, ‘Wow, unbelievable, Michael this is so beautiful, only you can sing this, I cannot imagine anyone else singing this better.’ It was from the heart and so beautiful. The Queen of Thorns and Roses was another that was kind of a strange song and a bit different than usual but Michael did something to it and when I heard it, I again couldn’t imagine anybody else singing it. Plus, the lyrics were a kind of personal message with an excellent song title. I was very happy when we had the two songs with Michael Voss singing and then eventually, Ronnie became available and so it just went on and on and on, developing into something that I originally wanted to do but I ended up doing nothing and everything happened by itself. It is unbelievable.
The Queen of Thorns and Roses has a good outro solo and Come on Over has a nice extended solo. Did you do anything different in the way you approached solos for this latest album?
I have a racing car and I always travel to the studio by car via Eurotunnel in France, Belgium and Holland and so on. But it is a Mercedes-AMG GT Safety Car and it has a very small trunk so it holds my amplifier, a couple of guitars and some clothes. I decided that this time, given I have so many guitars and because I usually use ten guitars and to get them there, not in that car, but they get picked up by the crew and then dropped off in the studio. This time what I actually felt was, ‘You know what, maybe do this differently to what you have done in the past with all of these different guitars.’ There is a guitar I use in Rock Bottom and there is a reason that there is so much soloing going on, and by this time it has extended to fifteen minutes, you know, compared to the Strangers in the Night version and so, that song is a song for me to break out of the familiar melody lines and stuff like that and then somewhere in the middle of the solo, I add something to then go on an adventure which is always very exciting because you do not know if it is going to turn out well or not. The audience are also wondering what is going to happen. You can hear by the reaction and sometimes it turns out well, sometimes it doesn’t, you know, so well. But you can hear the reaction when something magical happens so that is why I love this particular part, to go on an adventure and to take all of my friends with me and just explore and hope for the best. That is exciting because it is something that gives them something when they come to the concert; they don’t know how it is going to turn out so it creates excitement. So, because I used that particular guitar which was the very first Dean [Flying V] guitar that was designed and I played Rock Bottom with that and it works really well for that song with lots of solo playing. I decided, ‘You know what Michael, maybe I will use that guitar for all the songs,’ and that is what I ended up doing. So, that is what is different, I only used one guitar.
Did you reprise the MSG name for this album as a statement? A way to celebrate your solo career after leaving UFO and briefly re-joining Scorpions? What was the reason to go back to MSG?
Oh, you have to understand, first of all, everything I have done from the eighties onwards has really been the Michael Schenker Group. I’ve had so many different line-ups so people lose control understanding what we are talking about, is everything MSG, is it Michael Schenker Group? What is going on? But, then we had Michael Schenker’s Temple of Rock and then we had the Michael Schenker Fest and we even had McAuley Schenker and I gave him [Robin McAuley ] the ‘M’ so we could keep the MSG and I didn’t even care if he had the first ‘M’ or not, I am a kid in a sandbox and I just enjoy playing. There’s no competition and no looking for fame or expectation or anything, I am just happy finding three notes to put together and then creating with these people. So in the eighties, after the Scorpions’ Lovedrive album, having opening the doors to America for them, I wanted to go my own way and follow my vision rather than following a pack, chasing something that I wasn’t interested in so that became my middle years and I did a lot of stuff like acoustic instrumentals, electric instrumentals, cover versions. I did anything I wanted and all the things that I wanted to do there were bubbling away inside of me, you know, ‘I have to do this,’ so that is why I declined Ozzy Osbourne, Deep Purple and Phil Lynott, all of these bands. I could have stayed with UFO and they would have been one of the biggest bands in the world after Strangers in the Night when we started to reach the peak. But, you know, I always look at it as the first part of my development so it was time for me to do something. I wrote Lights Out when I was 21 years old in 1976 and had a hit but I got scared and so I ran away actually because I felt that now the music business wants me to write another hit after another hit but I am not like that. It is just too much and I wanted to be myself and that is why I had the Michael Schenker Group. In the very beginning, the Michael Schenker Group was produced by Roger Glover [Deep Purple] with Simon Philips [drums] and Mo Foster [bass] on the rhythm section; an ex-Jeff Beck rhythm section. Then having MSG with Cozy Powell [drums], Paul Raymond [keyboards/guitar] and so on, you know Michael Schenker Group then there is MSG and then we go further but of course, there is a gap in my middle years with experimenting where I called everything Michael Schenker because it is all solo stuff. Then eventually I got back to my brain or my filing system as all of a sudden, I guess, went full circle and I became 16 to 20 years old again and that was the beginning of me realising that I have done everything that I wanted and I now want to go back to where I came from in the first place, you know, being in love with Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and Black Sabbath and so on and Johnny Winter and Rory Gallagher – all those great 60’s players and lead guitarists. So now, by having subtitles, people know which Michael Schenker Group we are talking about when we say Michael Schenker’s Temple of Rock; ‘Ah, that is the one with Herman Rarebell [drums] and Francis Buchholz [bass] from Scorpions and Doogie White from Rainbow,’ and Michael Schenker Fest is all the original singers from the 80s, doing original compositions and so people understand what it is. Now that I have a fiftieth anniversary, it is not a Michael Schenker Group anniversary, it is Michael Schenker’s anniversary. But, what is important to realise is that Michael Schenker’s fiftieth anniversary, Immortal, is performed by the current MSG or Michael Schenker Group which means it is another Michael Schenker Group but because it is fiftieth anniversary, everybody can relate to that later, in twenty years from now and know what that was all about. So, basically everything is Michael Schenker Group because I start everything and it is always based on my starting the writing, going to the studio and putting down backing tracks and then making an album.
In Search of the Peace of Mind was a pivotal track for you and this new version is also great.
Absolutely important because it was the very first music that I had ever written in my life. I was fifteen years old, in my mother’s kitchen, I was all by myself and nobody helped me with that and actually, Rudolf [Schenker] cannot even play it; it is actually quite complex. It is pretty amazing for that fast picking and it was an unusual way of composing it. It was kind of very important and you know, it is the first thing that I ever did. It is the first note that I put on the album, Lonesome Crow. But Michael Voss sent me the original credits for Lonesome Crow by Scorpions and it said Michael Schenker; lyrics, Rudolf Schenker; lyrics but back then we had zero knowledge of English so how could we have written the lyrics? So that was complete misinformation. It should have said Michael Schenker; music and for whoever did the lyrics, mention that name. Anyway, the middle solo was perfect – I have no clue where it came from but I mean, it happens, like with Stairway to Heaven or Theme for an Imaginary Western, covered by Leslie West [Mountain]. I would never change a note because it is just perfect and I could not understand why I was capable of playing a solo like that at the age of fifteen years old that was perfect. Even today, I would not change a note of that middle lead break and you can hear, on Lonesome Crow, on the rest of the album, where I play lead guitar, that I am developing. Then into Phenomenon, Force It and every year, it got better and so on. But for some reason, that solo, I don’t know if it was played by me or something else happened, I don’t know, but I cannot, to this day, understand where this lead break came from and so it became, for various different reasons, a very important song but mainly because it was my first composition and to finish the album [Immortal] with that was because I wanted to make an epic track out of that. So, I added a solo on the end that now reminds me of an inner conversation and the funny thing is that the song is called In Search of the Peace of Mind which is the theme of my life, looking for contentment and freedom, etc. and going through all my years; adding on this solo with the ‘howler’ [metal device near neck pickup held in place by magnetism], the wah pedal and bending strings with so many different emotions, it now seems like it is an inner conversation; looking for peace, looking into heavier questions. You know, we all have inner conversations, making choices; ‘go this way, make a shortcut here, is this easier?’, and sometimes we go the right way, sometimes the wrong way. So, it is a bit like a description of my fifty years of music, expressed by the end of that outro solo during In Search of the Peace of Mind. Then, on top of it, Gary Barden adds such a beautiful, warm, melodic voice with a great vibrato and a rich range. I asked him if he could sing the first verse as a contribution to the 50th anniversary and he said, ‘Of course, Michael, I’ll do that’ and then Ronnie was singing the next part when it gets higher. Then I asked Robin and Doogie because Graham Bonnethad an operation on his arm and wasn’t available. So in contribution to it they all said, ‘Yeah, of course we’ll do that’ and so I basically ended up with a Michael Schenker Fest on that song. I was blown away. I mean, you have to understand, everything I tried to get that way, from the beginning in 2019, it all happened by itself, based on the virus, back to your original question, because of all of the weird circumstances but somehow this album turned into something amazing.
Speaking of reminiscing, it there anything from the early 80s era of MSG that you’re most fond of, such as Assault Attack?
Oh, I love Assault Attack and I actually love the song Assault Attack too. I mean, Graham Bonnet, when he was with Ritchie Blackmore, I think he had to sing songs written by Russ Ballard, as I guess that Ritchie had him as a singles or hit writer. You know, like the Scorpions did with Desmond Child and so on. I don’t do that, you know, I self-express, that is my passion. I want to do it the way I see it and I don’t need anybody to put in me in a trend to what is, you know, happening today, to make a lot of money and have all the girls chasing you and to become famous, etc. Ha, I never had that. I am the kid in the sandbox here and I just love to play. When I found Gary, he was a kid in the sandbox, you know, no ego, and that is what I wanted after Lovedrive. I wanted to go a slower way with less pressure to just play and play, you know, just having fun. I never expected anything but once in a while there was some great stuff coming out and Graham Bonnet was so happy with Assault Attack. He was so proud of it and I guess that is because maybe it was the first time that he was given a chance to write all the lyrics himself and to sing whatever he wanted because I give that freedom to my singers. I never really write lyrics, or rarely and maybe just sometimes when I have an idea that I really want to express but that has happened maybe three or four times in my whole life. But that album, which was also produced by Martin Birch, it became a musician’s favourite. The thing about that album is that Chrysalis were moving office and they did not pay any attention to promotion and that is why it kind of drowned a little bit, well, it actually drowned quite a lot if you think about commercial success of having a top 50 album. So, it just became a musician’s favourite with Graham’s incredible voice, the production and everything within – it was very attractive to musicians.
Technology has advanced massively in the last fifty years and that includes with musical equipment. Still, is there a particular guitar amplifier that stands out during your earlier career?
Oh, you know, when my UFO amplifier broke down in 1983 or 1984, I went to the repair shop whilst I was on tour but when I got it back, everybody stole everything out of it. That was because it was that famous amplifier and so I had to look for a new one. That was that long ago and I went through so many amplifiers and in the end, I ended up with the 50 watt Marshall JCM800 and then somebody in New York asked me, ‘Michael, did you actually know that you actually designed this amplifier?’ I said, ‘What?’ and then I remembered that I was invited by Jim Marshall to come to the Marshall factory in the UK to do a Michael Schenker model amplifier and we started it but we never completed it, for whatever reason. The papers must have been flying around somewhere and eventually somebody discovered it and then created that JCM800 amplifier. The ironic thing is that I was going through so many amplifiers until picking that amplifier which is the one that I actually designed. I mean, this is mind blowing. It really is weird that after I went through so many amplifiers that I actually found my own amplifier. That is amazing.
The use of a wah pedal is clearly a signature aspect of your sound. How would you say that you’ve changed your approach to how you use that pedal over the years?
Well, the thing is with components; that is how amplifiers and wah wah pedals, basically stuff in general, how they sound great. It was always based on ‘the now’ or what was available at that point in time. So, the old wah wah pedals had parts in them that were not available anymore, later on. All of the original wah wah pedals that I have that I am famous for and found that sweet spot with that sound…well, I kept those wah wah pedals and over the years it [the sound quality] got thinner and thinner. Because it was happening step by step, I didn’t really realise until it got so thin that I said, ‘This sounds bloody stupid, I cannot do this anymore.’ It became so thin and it was all the old ones where you couldn’t replace the components because they were not made anymore. So, I kind of also had a desire to have a fuller sound because I was disgusted by the sound getting thinner and more meaningless to where it was less than what I had in the beginning. That is when I started to actually leave the wah wah out for a while or at least not using as much, actually very little. But I did, once in a while and then later as I went through the whole process of losing my UFO amplifier and then finding the JCM800, I noted that the JCM800 has already got that frequency built into it. So, I realised that if I use a wah wah pedal on top of that amplifier, my sound becomes thin again too. Since that frequency is already in there, I don’t need that wah wah pedal. So, even though it wasn’t as sweet as the original discovery of the wah wah pedal, there was a frequency built in that was part of my design that I desired to have in there. So it was not actually very suitable anymore to use a wah wah pedal. That was the case until Dimebag designed theJim Dunlop Cry Baby from Hell where you could actually make up for the loss and that was incredible. It had so many different controls on it and I am not very technical so I don’t know if it was analogue or not but all of the controls on that wah wah pedal allow you to make up for all of the lost components from the past and then actually find that sound if you really want to, in a way, again. So I was very happy to discover that wah wah pedal and I have played with it in my rig ever since.
Thanks very much for having a chat.
Fantastic, thanks so much for the interview, take care and keep on rocking!