INTERVIEW BY MARKO SYRJALA AND LIVE PICTURES BY MARKO SYRJALA
TRANSCRIPTION BY NEIL BATTY
Legendary Swedish guitar virtuoso Yngwie Malmsteen doesn’t need much of an introduction. He is arguably the most technically accomplished hard rock guitarist to emerge during the ’80s. He has been an important influence and source of inspiration for many of today’s top players and bands. So far, Yngwie has released thirteen studio albums, and now he has been on tour for almost 16 months supporting his latest release “Unleash the Fury.” Last December, Yngwie, and his band did a brief tour of Finland, the last leg of the current tour. The day before the Helsinki show, he kindly agreed to do this press conference for the Finnish press. In contrast to his formidable personal reputation, we were treated with this long, fun, and hilarious conversation. Here are the results. ENJOY!!!
WHAT’S GOING ON?
How has life been treating you this year? Has it been a hectic schedule up to now?
It’s been pretty good, you know. I want to count last year because the tour for “Unleash the Fury” started in May 2005 and started in Europe. We did a lot of the Festivals here, and you know, went all over the place. Then we concentrated a lot in the United States, we did an extended tour of the United States and then went to Japan, then at the beginning of the year went out to the United States again. After that, we recently did a tour of South East Asia, which included Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Thailand. Then we did a big tour of Australia, which was quite good because I hadn’t been for a long time and now we are doing this, which probably will turn out to be the last show for that album.
What’s on your calendar next after this tour is finished?
I’ve been writing a lot of music. I mean, I could probably make five albums out of what I already got. Do you never seem to run out of ideas? You see, I have the luxury of this very strange little function that I have. I always have a guitar and a little amp wherever I go. And if I watch TV, you know, in the house or whatever, I play the guitar and if, oh man, this is a cool riff! I just run upstairs, and I have a recording studio where I do my albums. So I just lay down the pretty elaborate ideas, If they are good enough to put out on record.
So, you create new music all the time at home?
Well, I have asked, doesn’t that disturb the rest of the family?
The other day I wrote a song in my bed! I woke up, and while I was lying there, I had a riff and a melody done in my head. I walked into my bathroom and laid it down! You probably wouldn’t know it was done in the bathroom if you listened to it because it sounds very dark and heavy. For me, the environment I am in is always very sunny.
I hope you’re not going to call it “I Woke Up One Morning”?
Is there any chance that some of your current band members could participate in songwriting on your next album?
Well, NO, because that’s not how I do things. It is a very unusual thing in the confines of rock and roll, so to speak, but I do work very much more in a way that a classical composer would. A classical composer writes a piece of music, he may be a pianist or a violinist, but he also writes for the cellos, woodwinds, choirs, and percussion. He writes every part of the whole ensemble, and that’s what I do. Every time I’ve done it differently, I’ve walked away extremely disappointed and very unhappy. So maybe I was born into the wrong century or something else, I don’t know. But it just doesn’t work for me. For the longest time, I would record with a couple of people in the room with me. They wouldn’t necessarily write, but they would be there. In fact, I would always come up with the idea and the melody. I would tell someone to program the drum machine, ok I want 16 notes here, and I want this, this, and this. I would say to the keyboard player, play this part, and the keyboard player would sit there and play this part and that part. That’s how I did it for years, then I parted with those guys about six years ago, and I said to myself, this could be interesting; what am I going to do now?
Except for the very early days in Sweden, it was always my stuff, although some people like to put out my stuff and call it theirs! I want to point out very strongly that this is not something that is done out of arrogance or selfishness, or anything like that. It’s purely an artistic expression that I feel is much more in the vein of a painter. A painter doesn’t want to let someone come in and paint the background, and you do the foreground and the little trees, oh can I come in and do a little bird in there? No! I don’t want a fucking bird in there! And I don’t want to argue about whether there’s going to be a bird or not! That’s one way to look at it. Another way is to look at it as an author, for instance, Steven King, or whoever, Clive Barker, my very favorite. I’m pretty sure he writes his own stuff. So in a lot of ways, people have a hard time dealing with it. They go, “Look at that Malmsteen guy, he’s a real writer, he’s very full of himself, isn’t he?” I’m not like that. I think you’re full of yourself if you call the band “your name,” and don’t do everything!
There are a lot of people who do that, but I won’t mention names! So to get back to the creation of things, this is a very long answer, I know! I don’t mind, I very much enjoy playing on other people’s albums, and I do that quite often. I played on Derek’s (Sherinian) album twice, and I just did another thing with some Beatles stuff. I do shit like that. People ask me, “Hey, do you want to come and play on this album?” and I go, “Yeah, sure. Whatever?” and when I go in, I do exactly what they tell me. Which is almost always they tell me to do what I want to do, but I’m prepared to do what they want me to do. That’s the way I would like people to have people work for me. That’s why Doogie (White) has been around for such a long time because he’s perfectly well aware of the fact that he’s like an actor in a film or he’s performing a Shakespeare play, and he does it very well. That’s why we’ve been doing it so long together. Every time I’ve been doing it with other singers, out of laziness, I’ve let them write “Oh come on baby, yeah yeah, let’s do it tonight” type of thing; I can’t fucking bear it now. I won’t mention names or records, but I’ve done records I really hate, and that’s only because I allowed that.
LIVE IN LENINGRAD
“Live in Leningrad” has been recently released on DVD. What kind of memories do you have from the time of filming it?
It was a very strange episode simply because it was a very turbulent era in my life. It was simply because I had a lot of personal fucking really dramatic and bad things like family members dying, car crashes and weird shit, earthquakes. It was a horrible time in my life, and I don’t look back at it very fondly, that particular era. So we made a record, and I had to get rid of a manager. He had ripped me off, and I lost everything I had. My house was flattened in an earthquake, my mother died, and this is not cool. So I go out with this new album, which I think was called “Odyssey,” which is a perfect example of what happens when (obviously it’s a very successful record), but in my personal opinion, I don’t want to go there anymore. We did the tour of the States and Japan, and that was it pretty much, then a new manager came in and said: “No, let’s do Europe.” So we did a huge European tour, and my Father happened to have a lot of connections in the Soviet Union, believe it or not. He said he had been there, and apparently, I had sold shitloads of records there. So he suggested I go there, and at the time, no one really went.
I went long before Bon Jovi, Ozzy Osbourne, all other people. So, what happened was it was a huge thing, so they booked 11 nights in a row in Moscow in a hockey arena and then nine nights in a row in Leningrad in a hockey arena! After five weeks of being there, this was before they had McDonald’s and Starbucks and all that shit. It was bizarre, completely bizarre. I’m a beach bum; I like the beach, I don’t like the harsh weather. So it was a very bizarre thing. We had a film crew in from Finland, and we filmed the next to last show. I looked at the footage, and it was absolutely horrendous, fucking horrible. Nothing to do with the crew. It was the lighting, and it just didn’t look good on film. I said, “No, no, no. We have one more night tomorrow”, so it was the last night that we ended up catching, it was ok. It wasn’t an incredibly good performance, but it was ok. I think it pretty much shows what that era was going through. It was at the end of a lot of changes, so it was kind of like the end of something.
Do you have any plans to release another DVD from this tour?
Well, no. I did film a few things on the last American tour. I have some amateur things that could be used as a small teaser. Audio-wise I have a lot of good stuff, professional recordings from this tour that may come out from weird places like Singapore and Istanbul, really good recordings, and really good shows. I wish I had recorded my last Australian tour. That was the pinnacle, and everything was perfect. You have been called the metal god, the guitar god, and a metal legend during the past years. How do those titles make you feel? I have also been called a lot of worse things countless times, so I take everything with a grain of salt! It’s been an equal shower of really good and really bad, but I tend not to take it too seriously. I am extremely self-critical, and I never cut corners on my performance or my recording, live performance, or whatever. It’s always 500%. Maybe 500% effort doesn’t always translate to a 500% result. I’m not saying that, but 500% always goes in. Whatever comes out, it all depends! I’ve got a DVD here, more recent than “the Leningrad” one, called “Concerto Suite for guitar in Japan.”
I was watching it and got a vibe that it was an effort of countless hours to compose. I guess you are very proud of that? I don’t know how the fuck I pulled that off! What happened was I composed this stuff and spent quite some time on it. I’m very happy with it. I basically recorded all the pieces for the symphony, then brought that back and put the guitars on at home. I never played it live or played it in its entirety. Even though I read music, I never utilized that; I never do. So when this thing was booked, I was here in Europe on tour. I didn’t remember the parts; I didn’t remember how many bars go where. I never practiced these things, I do something, and I leave it. Not only have I never played it with an orchestra, I never played it from start to finish, and Id never played it in front of people or filmed it. So, I’m on tour in England, and we had played Nottingham; we drove to Heathrow and flew to Tokyo. I go from the airport to the rehearsals for two hours. Then off we go, we film it. That’s the first time I have done it. If there’s ever a being watching over me, it was then. This piece is unique in that it is written, allowing for so much improvisation. Having a 90 piece orchestra and a 60 piece choir, it’s harder to jam! You don’t jam with these guys; I think the conductor was terrific.
Did you know the conductor from before, or had you just “met at the airport”?
He didn’t speak a word of English! But that was what the thing was; we had a connection. There’s a classical term that means “follow the soloist,” so if I’m playing rubato, which means not a set time, he has to look at me and make the orchestra do that. I have to give him a lot of credit for that. Then on top of that, there are arrangements of my previous stuff; we had to do that too. I had to change stuff, there was a grand piano in the dressing room, and we had to rewrite the score in a couple of hours. It was crazy. I’m very, very proud of it and looking forward to doing more of it.
UNLEASH THE FURY
Your latest studio album is called “Unleash the Fury.” Did you feel furious when you named this album?
No. It’s a little bit of a joke, and it’s not a joke; it is both. What happened a few years ago, something appeared on the internet. All of a sudden, “Oh, Malmsteen is freaking out again!” and what most people don’t know, this incident was in January 1987. That was 20 years ago. The band, me and Joe Lynn Turner and Jens, and those guys were flying to Tokyo. Back in those days, we were out of control, and we were hammering down everything they had, throwing stuff around. Jens was the worst. I always get the blame, but Jens went to the bathroom with these female sanitary napkins (towels), and he put Bloody Mary mix on them. He was throwing them in people’s food, and of course, we thought that was really funny, we would go on for hours. It was a 16-hour flight, and we had to slow down. Hours later, we were half asleep, Joe and I woke up, and there was a lady in front of us with a pitcher of ice water pouring it on top of us. “Cool down, boys!” Fuck, I freaked out completely but instead of saying, “Fuck you, bitch!” I said, “You have unleashed the fury” because I have always been into that sort of thing, that was bizarre enough, but thïnk that the most bizarre thing was somebody had one of those little recorders and decided to turn it on. I don’t know who it was, but I have a feeling that I know, but it doesn’t matter. First of all, to record something like that is very bizarre, then 15 or something years later, it appears on the internet. But there’s no such thing as bad press! So I took that and thought it was funny. However, the record does unleash the fury musically. The song itself doesn’t have anything to do with the incident.
Do you know the reasons why you are so popular in Japan?
Yes, I think I do know why. I do understand why exactly. It was brilliant for me because what happened was, I lived in Sweden until I was 19 years old, and being 19 is young, but I had been in bands since I was 9. That’s ten years I have been fucking going for it, and I had been recording and playing around youth clubs. So I would be all over the place and quite well known in Stockholm, you know. Everybody knew me, but there were all sorts of weird shit going on; I was struggling very much. Then the army thing came up, and that was hell.
MOVING TO THE U.S AND JOINING ALCATRAZZ
Did you serve in the military in Sweden?
Were you kicked out?
Well, I made sure they didn’t keep me in there! When they found out how I was around loaded weapons and how I was acting, they thought, maybe not. I didn’t like it. Anders served in the navy, Jens got out, he had a very innovative way out, but I don’t want to talk about that one, but he got out most innovatively! So most of my friends figured a way to get out, but it wasn’t that easy back then. That was just a part of the frustrations, having said that what I did was so outlandish because the music I was doing then had no commercial value whatsoever, nothing. People go, “What the fuck is going on here?” Waaaaaa! and solos! So to make a long story a bit longer, I struggled with these tapes, good recordings but didn’t get much. I wanted awards and shit like that! So anyway, I used to buy Sounds and Melody Maker and Guitar Player, so I sent in my tape.
I thought, what have I got to lose? So I thought a big chance! And, my god, within a week, I had a thousand phone calls, I had calls from KISS, I had a call from? I don’t remember all the people. But everyone was like, “Hey man! Dude, you fucking rock on the guitar, man.” I was like, you know, from Sweden! One of the funniest things was the first thing the KISS manager asked me was, “We really need a new hot guitar player, and you sure are a hot guitar player; everybody talks about you now. But we need to know something first. Are you 6 feet tall?” I was like, “I don’t know, because I’m 1.90 cm”, I’m tall, you know, I’m more than 1.91 cm or something, I’m tall, you know? I probably would have if I had told them I’m 6.3ft if I had known, so that was funny!
So what happened was, all these offers came in, and Mike Warren called me and said, “Dude, you have got to come over here. I’ve got this guy called Billy Sheenan. I want you to record an album with Billy Sheehan, a drummer called Leonard Haze from Y&T. You guy go and rip it up with you crazy shit as you do!” I was like, OK, whatever. And then, a week later or so, I got this call from this band called Steeler, but what I didn’t know was that there were a billion bands like Steeler in LA that played all the clubs, and they were nothing above the norm. But I thought this was good, so I decided very cleverly not to go out there and be like this virtuoso kid. I figured I could do that later.
No, let me get out on the circuit and play in a band, so I do. So February 3rd, 1983, I’m landing, one guitar and one extra pair of pants. I’m landing in LA! I’m coming from an environment in Sweden where I’ve been stonewalled everywhere, completely stonewalled. I couldn’t do anything more, and I really couldn’t. I mean, I had a life, I had an apartment, I had a girlfriend, I had a studio, I had a band, I had a cat. I had everything, and I said, “Fuck it, I’m off!” Everyone thought I was crazy, of course. I didn’t know what to expect because nobody went to America, everybody went to England, nobody went to America it wasn’t something somebody did. So I go, and I remember the first show I did, March 11th, I think, opening up for Glenn Hughes. He was in really bad shape at the time, not so good; he had some problems. I remember it very; clearly, there were 30 people there. I’d been in America for about a week, maybe a little more. I do a show for 30 people. Next weekend we play the Troubadour or the Roxy, and from this shitty little dressing room, you can see down to the street.
Back then, LA was a really hot jumping place which it isn’t anymore, but it was then, and I was looking out the window before the show and thought, wow, look at all these people. I wonder who is playing tonight? Somebody looked at me and said, “You are here! I didn’t realize it then, but one week, all the shit I had done all those years in Sweden, stonewalled, I had landed from another fucking planet. In LA, where people played three notes and what I did, they thought it was outer space. All of a sudden, I was the hottest thing around. I got offers from Phil Mogg to go out with UFO. Dio was at every fucking show I did, and I became good friends with Ronnie from day one. I still am. I got all these offers. Phil Mogg comes to one of the shows and says, “Hey, come over to my house tomorrow for a barbeque!” So I’m like, “OK, see you tomorrow!” The same morning I got a phone call. “Hi, can you come over and audition with Graham Bonnet?” I’m like: “Graham Bonnet?” Yeah, you know, Rainbow? Schenker? Yeah, I know who it is! So, later on, the same day, I went and played with Graham Bonnet. Then I went to see Phil Mogg, and I decided to go with Graham Bonnet because Graham Bonnet didn’t have a fucking clue about what he was going to do. So I took the chance. I didn’t know if I did this deliberately, but it was fucking smart. I just went to play the circuit in LA, and suddenly, I was the talk of the town. Then I can pick and choose instead of doing the solo thing with Billy Sheehan.
Anyway, I’m talking a lot here! So what happened was I came to Graham’s thing is ok. What’s the name of the band? “We don’t have a name. Do you have any songs?” No!. “Ok, do you know what you want to do?” “Something like Rainbow?” “Ok,” So I played it cool and said, “I’ll come back to you; I’ve gotta go see UFO” I’m like 19! “Yeah, I’ll talk to you later! I’ll call you, don’t worry! Don’t hold your fucking breath”, you know? So I go and see Phil, and he is a fucking mess. My girlfriend wanted to take a picture of me with Phil, but he is really short, so he had to stand on a load of phone books. He said, “I used to be tall” he’s a joker, like Mr. Monty Python! So I am going with Graham Bonnet what was brilliant for me as I came into this thing with Graham Bonnet that didn’t have a name. I had some great ideas for names like Excalibur or Century or something like that. No, they didn’t want dragons or anything like that. I figured I could live with that, so they called it Alcatrazz, which I thought was very naff. They had a drummer in that band, and I said, “I’ll take the gig, but you need to get another drummer. This one is shit; we have to get a good drummer. So I was calling the shots already. I’m the fucking punk calling the shots in Graham Bonnet’s band! So we fielded Clive Burr from Iron Maiden, We had Ainsley Dunbar, Bill Lorden from Robin Trower, all these drummers, then Jan Uvena came along I said: “Have him!” We did a record, and the first thing we did was go to Japan because, in Japan, anything that had anything to do with Blackmore had immediate success. So I came to Japan not even a year after I moved to America. This is less than a year, and all of a sudden, I’m in Japan playing Festival Hall or whatever it’s called in Japan. It was amazing. Not only did the record go gold in a week or something, but it was a very successful thing. The first thing they do to me when I get to Japan is to give me a solo deal! So now I’m given a solo deal. I’m recording with these guys (Graham Bonnet); everything is amazing. I don’t know if they took it as if I was their find or something, but they immediately adopted me as theirs. So from then on in Japan, I was theirs.
Maybe you were something they had not seen or heard before?
I think so too, but it was more like they felt like I started there, which I wasn’t really true, but in a way, kind of did because everything went from there. Another ironic thing is that my first solo record called “Rising Force” has always been considered the ultimate instrumental, whatever you know? I didn’t want to make an instrumental record, and they told me to make an instrumental record because it was a side thing from Alcatrazz. I think the Japanese thing was I came in all guns blazing, and it wasn’t on a small scale. It was on a big scale immediately. And it was new and big, and that’s why they said this kid is ours, you know. There was another concert released on laser disk in Japan only that has extra features, interviews, 20 years ago you were quite shy back then? Probably I was just jet-lagged!
Or maybe you were just not used to doing interviews?
Now, many years later, how do you like the “No Parole from Rock N Roll” album?
I think it has some really good moments. I love the fact that the keyboard player used the Mellotron because I was really into that. I told him to use it a lot. It’s funny looking back at it, I was just a little kid, and these guys had been around the block. But they didn’t have any direction, so I took the direction. I felt very good about that album. I thought it was very good. I still like it.
Do you think that the album was a good springboard for your solo career?
Absolutely, it was all steps for sure. The Steeler thing I didn’t have any love for at all was just banal crap, but it gave me that big solo spot, which was good for me. I was in the band for about two weeks, basically, maybe a little longer! The Alcatrazz thing was more of my way of playing and writing. I enjoyed playing those kinds of songs.
There are always a lot of rumors around, but is there any chance of an Alcatraz reunion at some point?
Well, I never rule anything out. They have been calling me quite a lot. So I’m not saying no to that, it may be fun, you know? So I’m not saying no. But there’s no immediate plan for it.
Say something about the G3 which you did with Steve Vai and Joe Satriani?
Oh yeah, that was cool. That was great. I had a good time with that. I, Steve, and Billy are like brothers; we have known each other for so long. Joe is a great guy; I don’t know him that well, but he’s great, a really great player. That was a lot of fun. I had a great time with it. Great for me, too, in the States that DVD went platinum. It’s all good. I had a really good time with it.
What kind of experience was the G3 tour?
I thought it was really cool. It took me a few gigs to get used to the idea that I had to go on and off pretty much the same time every day, which is completely alien to me. When I go on stage, for instance, we have this little ritual. We print out setlists, and everybody has the setlist, and I never play that setlist ever! Everybody is like, what’s he doing now? To me, that’s a part of the freedom of being my own man. So to play with the G3 thing, I had to confine myself to play these songs because that’s how long that set is. Everybody played the same, Joe, me and Steve played the same. Not one played longer than the other, which is cool, you know. Then we go out, and we jam. It was great. I have nothing but great things to say about that; it was a nice experience.
It is the Holy Trinity for us guitar guys because Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, and yourself are the few that really inspire, like you create something every time you play rather than play what’s already been written. If you want to do that, you may as well be in an orchestra… There’s nothing wrong with guys playing note for note everything, and they go out and do that. That’s great for them, and it works well for them; it’s more like Jukebox. I play a song, and I take liberties when I’m on stage. I do whatever the fuck I want, and I’m really spoiled that way because no one tells me, “What are you doing?” That’s why I have this thing about sound checks, I’ve got to go and soundcheck not to check my sound but to feel out the place and what’s my perimeters, where’s the end of the stage! The sound in the room changes the way I play. If it’s a really big boomy sound, then I like to chop out big chords and stuff, solos as well. But if it’s not so much an Arena, more like a theatre sound, then I do long elaborate stuff and maybe do an acoustic ten minutes. So it’s all different. I like to surprise myself; I don’t like to go out knowing exactly what’s going on; that’s a part of the challenge. It is exciting. Having said that, you take the risk of it going to shit as well. If something starts going in the wrong direction, you have to turn it around. It’s a bit of a mind game!
Well, if you don’t take significant risks, you don’t get the credit and rewards?
Exactly, but then again, if you gamble too much, you lose as well. Don’t rely on luck as much as inspiration and inspiration comes from the audience also. The funny thing is when I play, I find one person, it takes one or two songs, but I find one person and play the whole show for that person. It’s gotta be a person that gives me good feedback, not someone who is going “Urrrghhh!” Well, not necessarily one person, but you know what I mean. It’s not so much sing-along stuff, and if you start doing some weird shit and start elaborating on something, you have to check to see if it’s working. I don’t want to be completely isolated; I want to play with the people, more like a musical relation.
DEEP PURPLE AND BLACKMORE
You have mentioned in many interviews how important influence Deep Purple has been in your life and career. How do you like the music that Ritchie Blackmore is now doing with Blackmore’s Night?
When I was eight years old, my son is now eight years old, and he’s playing with Legos. Now, when I was eight years old, I had played guitar for a year already! My sister, God bless her, gave me Deep Purple “Fireball” for my eighth birthday. I put that record on, and the first thing I hear is a double bass drum and a fucking thrashing sound that fucked me up for life! Never any turning back because of that record. The next week or so, I went out and bought In Rock. Now that’s even heavier, and for the longest time, that was basically my whole existence, the impact that had on me. I can’t even describe it.
Apparently, I branched out and did my own thing and went way more in the classical ways, but the love for hard music, not classical but hard music, came from that. I always thought, the Marshall stacks, the double bass drum, how does Ian Paice do that with one bass drum? He did it with two! I didn’t know that then. By the time “Made in Japan” came out, I was like nine or ten, and it was just, I can’t even tell you! As we know, there was no Internet or magazines or TV shows, and it was the mystique, it was wow look at the pictures! It was a magical thing, so that’s Blackmore, for me, has a very special place. And I love the guy. I think he started in the later years to lose his vision by letting other people tell him what to do and playing some really poppy crap, but that’s just my opinion. So at the end of the day, he decided to do what he’s doing now. If you’re an artist and a creative person, you have to do what you want to do. You can’t do what the dollars tell you; you can’t do what people tell you; you have to do what’s right for you. If that’s what’s right for him, then God bless him.
Have you ever considered making an album with a lady singing the vocals by yourself?
I never had a plan of that, no. To me, it seems like I’ve had some women singing in my bands before! Do you know what I mean?
Well, how do you like the current Deep Purple guitarist Steve Morse?
I think he’s really good, but it’s not really Deep Purple, you see. I think Deep Purple without Blackmore is not right; even though Steve Morse is great, a great player, I just don’t think it’s right. They made great music. I bought the last Gillan album, his thing by himself, and I thought that was really good. So those guys are great, but it’s not the Purple I grew up on; it’s a personal thing. I’m not saying it’s bad at all. How do you like current Yngwie Malmsteen? I think it’s straight to the point, no bullshit, and there would be distractions on the side, negative things and positive things, but if you let them divert your ambition, you are in trouble. That’s happened to me a few times, but not anymore.
Do you know where the final goal is?
I have a laser sight on it! Locked and loaded, man!
WORKING WITH COZY POWELL
During the years, you have collaborated with many talented people. Drummer legend Cozy Powell was one of them. He did his last recordings ever for your “Facing the Animal” album. What kind of memories do you have about working with and how did you two meet in the first place?
I think that once again, the first show I went to was in the Royal Concert Hall in Sweden, Rainbow Rising! I was twelve years old. What a fucking first show, eh? Cozy, Ronnie, and Ritchie Blackmore were an angry-sounding band; they were fucking amazing. I will never forget that. Cozy Powell! “Fan-fucking-fantastic!” I’m a drummer myself, I actually play drums, and I double bass drum like crazy. I used to do drum solos on stage just for the fuck of it! So I’m fully aware of what drummers should and shouldn’t do, what’s good and bad, and so on.
Cozy, for me, wrote the textbook on how to play rock and roll drums. I did a tour here in Europe, and the last show was in London, and I was invited to do the 40th-anniversary thing for Fender with another band, and I say, “Who the fucks in the band? Oh, it’s Cozy Powell, Neil Murray!” Oh, Ok! So I go there and have one short rehearsal. Cozy and I hit it off really well, so good friends. We are both Ferrari fans, and all we talked about was cars! We played “Black Star” and some Hendrix numbers, just a short rehearsal, then we did Wembley Arena, there were a lot of bands playing but my little thing with Cozy, Neil Murray and the keyboard player from Brian May band, I do the singing, we did a set, and afterward I just shot out the question, “You know I’m going to Miami now, recording and writing an album, do you want to come round? “So he did, he came round, what I loved about him, legendary as he was, he was still really into the music he would come down to my studio and listen to my demos, he would suggest why don’t you put another ballad on? Two ballads? Yeah! That’s why there are two ballads on that album, two ballads?!!
Yeah, ok, for you, only for you! So that was great, we had a great time. I know he had a great time, too, because I was like bringing out a little bit of the old Cozy. I made him play all the big chops he used to play before. After we had done recording, sitting in my kitchen, I said, “Look, Cozy, I’m not asking you. I’m telling you to come on tour with me!” So it’s all set, and his tech and drum set comes down to the rehearsal room, we are all ready to go, and I get a phone call from Cozy, and he’s very upset, in tears. “I’m turning you down.” “Why what happened?” I have to go back.” He went back to England, he had some problems and the next thing I knew he crashed, it was really, really, really horrible but the beauty of it was I got to play with him. That was the last recording he did.
If you listen to the current metal scene, there is a lot of melodic metal that sounds similar to the stuff you did in the 1980s. Do you feel flattered by this, or do you think that you should get royalties or credit?
Well, if those kids are asked about their influences and mention my name, that’s good enough for me! The thing is that when I first came out, it was like a wave of guitar players came out, and they all copied me. It was blatant copying. I thought that that was a bit weird because they were asked who their influences are in their interviews, and they said Bach, Paganini, yeah, right! No, I don’t think so. It was frustrating in a way. I’ve not really heard these bands. What are their names?
I could mention a lot of bands, how about Stratovarius, which is Jens Johanssen’s current band.
I’ve heard some of their music. I can’t remember the names now, but I can see what you’re saying, but it’s okay. I can think of a lot worse influences! Recently you took part in the new Beatles tribute album called “Butchering The Beatles.” How was that for you? It was alright, you know, I do a thing like that, they like me to do something, you know. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t, but I was actually in rehearsal before going on tour. I just went to my studio, cut the solo, and left. It was very fast, and it didn’t take me very long. How long does it take? Five minutes? That’s how long it took. I don’t spend a lot of time on those things; solos on my records and other records are just one take, that’s it. Me and Steve (Vai) were talking about that, and he said, “Whoa, we have been playing like 30 shows, and you never play the same! Do you figure something new to play every day?” No, I don’t figure anything out. I just do it. That’s the way I’ve always played, and it’s not always great to play like that because if you’re not feeling good, it maybe won’t sound so good.
With your classical influences, traditional classical guitar, do you look at that as an influence?
That’s a good question. My playing style goes back to Purple again, and I was so fanatical as a kid, completely fanatical. By the time I was 10, I’m not saying this because I’m bragging. It’s just so fucking bizarre. By the time I was 10, I could play every fucking thing on the Purple records, note for note. My uncle was in the R+D department for Phillips; he was part of the team that invented CD technology, my Uncle! I love him to death. He used to get me all this stuff, some of the first cassette decks. I realized that “Made in Japan” was mixed with organ on one side and only guitar on the other. So what I would do is make the record and put it on cassette but take a mic from my amp and record everything exactly note for note, like the whole solo for “Child in Time,” everything. Then play it with my friends. “Hey, listen to this” Yeah, it’s Made in Japan” “No, it’s not!” Then I would explain it to them, that’s how fanatical I was about that, and I was ten years old when I was doing that shit. I started feeling even that early on; whoa, wait, there has gotta be something else I can do with this fucking thing. A couple of years later, I saw a Russian Violinist play Paganini on TV, and that was it. I decided that even though it’s impossible to play 3-octave violin arpeggios on guitar, you just don’t do that!
That’s interesting because I’ve borrowed that CD from my friends with the Concerto CD, and if I didn’t tell them that you played guitar, they would not know. They thought it was a solo violinist; sometimes, the distinctions blur. When you tell that story, I feel that you have achieved that…
Thank you very much. I heard something in my head, the fact that these Marshall stacks and loud sound, ill never go away from that. Some people ask me, why do you play classical? Well, that’s just classic! So I wanted to play the heavy sound, but the pentatonic and blues-based modes were becoming a bit confined for me. So once I realized the inverted chords and suspended and diminished, chromatics, arpeggios, linear scales and harmonic minors, Phrygians, and so forth, mainly classical music. All of a sudden, you get something going, and that started very early on, and I kind of just did it and did it. Then I started to feel, wow, this is it. I’ve been playing a long time, but I’m working on some new shit now.
What inspires you most nowadays?
Everything, just playing! I just picked up the guitar. It’s new. Improvisation is the genesis of composition. If you improvise all the time, something is going to come out. I sit in front of the TV and think I wonder what would happen if I do a 5-octave fucking six-string arpeggio; you understand that shit?
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