Uli Jon Roth is a German guitarist who became famous as the Scorpions lead guitarist between 1973 and 1978. During that time, the band released studio albums FLY TO THE RAINBOW, IN TRANCE, VIRGIN KILLER, and TAKEN BY FORCE, followed by a live album TOKYO TAPES which was also the last Scorpions release featuring Roth. Next, he formed his own band called Electric Sun, which released three albums before retiring up in 1986. After Electric Sun, Roth entered a new creative work stage, composing several solo albums, four symphonies, and two concertos. Today, Roth is known as one of the first and most important inventors of the neo-classical metal genre. In February 2015, Roth released a 2-CD studio album, SCORPIONS REVISITED. The album includes re-recorded versions of his era Scorpions songs, and it became a great success. I met a good-humored Roth in Helsinki in October. We discussed, of course, the Scorpions but also other things such as Roth’s upcoming solo album and ongoing changes in the world of music. The story continues…
THE CURRENT TOUR
First of all, how have THE TOKYO TAPES REVISITED world tour gone so far?
Uli Jon Roth: We haven’t really started yet. We’ve done a few countries, but just a few shows, and all the ones we’ve done so far, were great. Everything was really good. We did four days in France, and that was really a lot of fun. Then we did Russia that was really exciting. Because it was my first time really touring there. Then we did Japan and Sweden, and now we are in Finland.
It took a very long time for you to come over to Finland, finally. Is there any particular reason why it took that long?
Uli Jon Roth: You never know? I’ve been to the airport a few times, but I’ve never been to Helsinki. I was looking forward to it. It’s one of the last European countries that I haven’t really played at all. Several times in the past, there were some invitations. It just never happened. Sometimes things get canceled, or something couldn’t work out. But Finland never happened. Now it’s happening. So, I’m glad it’s happening now, because… it’s about time. I know we’ve got quite a few fans here in Finland. Over the years, many people have told me this a great place, and so now is the time.
Tell me something about the band you have on this tour?
Uli Jon Roth: Yeah, I’ve got a great band, basically. Very, very glad that I’ve got such an abundance of talents on stage. The drummer is Italian, and all the others are Germans. Sometimes I also have some American musicians. It depends very much where I am playing and who is available. But most of these guys have been with me for a long time now.
THE SCORPIONS RE-VISITED THEME
This time the tour is built around the Scorpions theme. It’s been 40 years since you left the band. What made you decide to do make a tour like this after all these years?
Uli Jon Roth: That’s a good question. I think because I was ready now. Before, I had other things on my mind, and the Scorpions were for me like just a memory. But many people kept asking, “Why don’t you play more Scorpions, play more Scorpions?” Then a friend of mine had the idea to do a tour with only old Scorpions. At first, I thought that was a strange idea, but then I thought. Why not? Maybe I should do that, just to see what it feels like, and that’s how Scorpions Revisited started. It really worked; it was very interesting for me. I reconnect with the music that I had written so many years ago and with all the early Scorpions music. I learned quite a bit from it, and it was a journey of discovery, I would say.
So you toured under the Scorpions theme before the SCORPIONS REVISITED album was released?
Uli Jon Roth: Yeah. The idea was to do a live album right away, and we recorded everything. When the first tour, which was in America, was very good really. But I still wasn’t quite happy with the final result of the recording. So I thought, let’s give it some more time. So we did some more touring, and it got better and better. We really got into it, and we found for each track, we found the right solutions to play them live. So sometimes it takes a little bit of time. For instance, on the original Scorpions albums back then, it was fashionable to fade out certain tracks. That was just a fashion back then. Nowadays, people don’t do that anymore as much. But that means some of the songs never had a proper end, like “Yellow Raven” or actually several of them. These endings came to me really during the touring. I was thinking about it, and we found different ways of playing them live. So in some ways, we’ve got a better grip on some of the tracks now than we had with the Scorpions. Because with the Scorpions, our main limitation was that we only had two guitars, and on the records, I always had many guitars. I used to do overdubs with guitars. Sometimes three lead guitars, and with the Scorpions, I was always missing that. I was never quite happy with the way we played them. Of course, it was great to have Rudolf and Klaus and Francis there. But now I am actually more happy playing the songs because we have three-part harmony guitar leads. Which nobody does anymore, really? So it’s special. Whenever we do that, the audience is really enjoying it. You can see it every night. I can see their faces from the stage, and it makes me feel good. We’re doing something that gets through to the people. We’re touching their hearts and their emotions. Although the music is quite old, it was written 40-50 years ago or 45 years ago a lot of it. We’re playing a couple of Electric Sun songs also and a little bit of Jimi Hendrix. But it’s mainly the early Scorpions stuff we’re doing at the moment.
When you went through the old songs, was it difficult to learn them again, and did you re-find any songs you had completely forgotten?
Uli Jon Roth: I would say that with some of the tracks, I needed to find a certain re-connection because I had spent most of the middle years playing, not really hard rock music but more orchestral music. And the touch you need on the guitar is much more subtle, and it’s a different approach. The rock approach has a little bit more aggression, and it’s basically harder. So I found it when I reconnected with songs like “Polar Nights,” etc. That somehow, I needed to find my way back into it, and it took maybe a few shows to get to that sound and that feeling. Then eventually it was there, and yeah. So now it really feels like… When we’re playing certain songs, it feels like they’re being written like now, which is so important. Very often, when you hear some musicians play, like revisit their own past. Sometimes it’s not really very convincing what I hear because they’ve lost the connection. They’re not young anymore, and they don’t feel it like that anymore. There is definitely a danger that that could happen, and I want you to make sure that that didn’t happen. I wanted to give my full energy to this.
What songs are your personal favorites from that era?
Uli Jon Roth: All the ones that we’re playing on stage are like my favorites, and some nights, I prefer this song, and some nights, I prefer that song. There are certain, shall we say, classics that always feel right on stage. When we play “In Trance” or “Sails Of Charon” and “We’ll Burn the Sky.” It’s always like an event when we’re playing them, and I get into it night after night, and it’s like a different way. Because I need to keep them fresh, and that’s also what we used to do with the Scorpions, with the early Scorpions. We never really played the songs twice, quite the same. We did a lot of improvising on stage, and a lot of things got changed, the spirit of the moment, and that’s what kept the band fresh. So, when you hear something like TOKYO TAPES, it was really the Scorpions at the peak of their powers. Also playing freely every night and I enjoy that. So we made sure that we’re so truthful to the spirit of the songs.
THE EARLY DAYS WITH THE SCORPIONS
Going back to the year 1973, do you remember what kind of musical goals you had when you joined the Scorpions? Did you have a clear vision of what you wanted to do with the band at that point?
Uli Jon Roth: I did not really have such a clear vision. I was more like somebody… I had a clear vision of where I wanted to be musical, of what I wanted to be able to do. But I wanted to explore and be surprised. So if I have a clear vision, then it kind of takes away the element of surprise. I wanted to be open, to see what’s happening. So hooking up with Rudolf and Klaus was very, very interesting for me. Because they were so different. I think I learned something from them in those days, without ever talking about it. It was just when I was running; they could write simple melodies that were not primitive. But they were simple, and they went straight to the heart, and that’s an art form not many people have. Those two had that talent to do that, and I saw that. I thought, this is something that I want to be able to do, and I tuned into that, the melodic aspect. I’ve always been really into a melody. But I learned a lot, hooking up with these guys. I think we inspired each other.
How democratic of a band you were back in the day?
Uli Jon Roth: We were a very democratic band.
You became the band’s main composer very quickly. How did the other members of the band react to that matter?
Uli Jon Roth: It was very organic. We never had to argue about this, this is my song, or this is your song. That did not exist, that kind of thinking, which you have in a lot of bands. We brought the songs to the table, and when there was a good song, we would all say that’s what we’re going to do. It was very easy. Towards the end, there were a couple of songs that Klaus and Rudolf wrote, and I wasn’t so happy with them. Because the direction to me was a little bit too much commercialized, and I disagreed with that. But we never had a fight over it. It was just; basically, I don’t like those. But it was nothing personal. It was just a question of artistic disagreement. I wasn’t happy with some of the lyrics at the end. I certainly liked the lyrics that we had earlier because there was always a message to it. Later on, they came a few lyrics that didn’t have a message or just a message of sex, drugs, and Rock and Roll. To me, that’s too boring. I don’t want to be on the stage doing that kind of stuff. That was one of the reasons why I left.
You were in the band for five years, and during that time, the band released four studio albums and a live album. It was a really creative and productive time for the band. How important it was for you to keep things fresh and release a new album every year?
Uli Jon Roth: I don’t know. I never thought like that. It was just with itself like we have some time during the summer. Let’s make an album. Back then, it was very quick. The songwriting was very quick, the recording was very quick, and that’s what we did. I didn’t really think about it.
LEAVING THE SCORPIONS
You left the band after a highly successful Japan tour in 1978. You probably did not make a final decision due to any single cause or on a whim, but how difficult of a decision was it to leave the band in the end?
Uli Jon Roth: No. It was not difficult because my time had come. I felt I needed to move on. It was my destiny.
You had never had any regrets later on?
Uli Jon Roth: No. I have to do too many other things. I would have regretted staying in the band. Maybe I should have done one more tour in America. That may have been a strategic mistake. But it was time to move on. They had to do their thing, and I had to do my thing. My thing was not bound to be commercial, and my thing was completely different.
Germany did not have many rock/metal bands that had a successful international career in the 1970s. But the Scorpions was the exception. Was it certainly something that was your goal right from the beginning?
Uli Jon Roth: I don’t know. I never looked at the other bands. I knew there were a few like Eloy, but I think Scorpions were the only ones that really made it big outside, and we sounded so different. At the end of the day, most German bands were like “Deutschrock” or “Krautrock.” We were always looking towards England and America for our sounds and even singing in English. Somehow it didn’t feel right to play rock music singing in German. It works. I’m not saying it doesn’t work. But we wanted to speak to the international audience.
When you had left the Scorpions, were you asked to join other bands?
Uli Jon Roth: Yeah. I was not interested in joining other bands. I had some offers, but that was not my intention. I wanted complete freedom to explore the music in a different way. My motivation was not financial. If it had been financial, I would have stayed in the Scorpions. That was not in any way a motivating factor for me.
COVER ART DISCUSSION
One thing that always pops’s up in discussions about the early Scorpions are the controversial album covers. If you look back now, how those covers look in your eyes now?
Uli Jon Roth: The controversial ones were really VIRGIN KILLER, which was the record company’s idea. I guess IN TRANCE was a little bit border-line, and I think the IN TRANCE cover was pretty much my idea, for some strange reasons. Because we had the guitar and the girl. I don’t know what the original idea was. But somehow, I gave her that guitar. Rudolf can probably tell you the story better than I do, and she ended up doing that picture. It’s kind of like a classic picture. But the one that was really, really ugly was the VIRGIN KILLER one. I did like the original TAKEN BY FORCE cover. I thought that was good, but that didn’t get chosen. Then afterward, to me, most of the Scorpions covers were pretty awful after I left the band—the one with the chewing gum. I mean, give me a break!
You’re talking about LOVEDRIVE?
Uli Jon Roth: Yeah. Give me a break. I was like…yeah! “Laughs”
THE SCORPIONS AFTER ULI
The Scorpions never played many songs from your era after the departure. What might be the reason for that?
Uli Jon Roth: Yeah. Because I was gone. First of all, half of the songs were mine or almost half of the songs, and they were very personalized to me. Sure, they could have played “We’ll Burn the Sky” and “In Trance,” and they did. But then later on Rudolf started to write new songs and then they got better and better. He was really making a lot of progress as a songwriter at that time. So there was no more need to play the old songs, and the old chemistry with Klaus vocal and my guitar, of course, wasn’t there anymore because I wasn’t there. Matthias brought in something completely different into the band. So it was just natural… I would say it was just a natural progression for them as it was for me.
What do you generally think about the material of what the band is released after your departure? Is it, however, quite different from the old stuff?
Uli Jon Roth: They wrote some great stuff. I didn’t pay much attention, but I heard the stuff. I didn’t listen to their albums, really, but when I heard some of the stuff, I realized how much better Rudolf was getting as a songwriter. Stuff like “Send Me An Angel” was a masterpiece. But in the ’80s, my mind was somewhere else. I was no listening to any of what was going on. I was not interested in what was going on.
The Scorpions announced their “Farewell Tour” a few years ago, but they still do tours and new albums. Was it just a commercial trick intended exclusively from selling more tickets, or they really changed their minds during the tour? As they say, what do you think?
Uli Jon Roth: I think they started the farewell tour because it was the manager’s idea. Because the band felt they had toured enough, and they had said enough. Once they started the farewell tour, the reception they got from the audience exploded beyond anybody’s expectations. So something changed, and it felt like maybe it was the wrong decision to leave. Let’s see how long we can keep going. I don’t blame them because I think it was the right decision. As long as the band can play… It’s like a certain piece of culture that goes with a certain society, and the Scorpions represents something. Once the Scorpions are gone, then there will never be a second Scorpions. It’s unique. Like there will never be a second Deep Purple or a second Hendrix or Cream or Beatles. It’s a one-off. As long as they can sound the way they should sound, they should carry on playing, and I think they will.
RE-CONNECTING WITH THE SCORPIONS
In recent years you have appeared with the Scorpions now and then.
Uli Jon Roth: Yes. We have played a lot of shows together. We toured France; we toured England. We did some shows in Greece, yeah. And now we did Japan, like two weeks ago,
When and where the first “reunion” gig actually was?
Uli Jon Roth: The first time was 2005 in France. The French promoter had the idea to make a reunion show, and we all agreed, and it was a great event. It felt really good, and afterward, the Scorpions manager would call and say, “Hey. How about if we do a tour?” Like Sweden Rock which also was one of these things. Then afterward, in 2008, we did quite a few.
How did it feel about going back on stage with old friends after a 30-year break?
Uli Jon Roth: First time was one of my favorites because it was a special day. It was in a town called Colmar in France, and it was really good. First, I opened up with a Uli Jon Roth set, and we did like an hour. Then I joined the Scorpions on stage, and we did quite a few songs, and it really worked.
You have also played shows with Michael Schenker.
Uli Jon Roth: Yeah. I’ve played quite a few shows with Michael, yeah.
How do you like the current “war of words” between the brothers?
Uli Jon Roth: I don’t understand what’s in Michael’s head; to me, it’s very strange. Even if there are some things that he feels less than happy about. I don’t understand why he accuses his thoughts in public. Because I was in the band for five years and to me, Rudolf is a different person from the one Michael is describing. I’ve got nothing but good things to say about Rudolf. He’s a great guy, and I think it’s not fair to talk about your brother that in public. I don’t understand it at all.
But you are, however, on good terms with all of them?
Uli Jon Roth: Yeah, I’m on good terms with Michael as well. I’m on good terms with everybody. Yes, absolutely. All I can say is that Michael is describing is not the person I know, and I think I know Rudolf very well. We’ve been close for five years when I was in the Scorpions. Each time when we meet, it feels like it’s a family kind of occasion. Rudolf is a great guy, and he’s a very, very talented songwriter. More talented than most, and he does it in completely his own way. He doesn’t do it through flashy guitar playing. But he really understands the organics of writing a memorable melody, which stays in your head. To write a riff like “Rock You Like A Hurricane,” not many people can do. It’s rare, and it’s a rare gift, and you can never underestimate that, and that’s the reason why the Scorpions were so successful. It was not because of just great guitar playing. It was because of the songs and the voice of Klaus Meine. And of course all the other things, the personalities, etc. Everything else. But if you don’t have those songs, you’ve got very little.
Is it possible that you will continue cooperating with the Scorpions and maybe even do some recordings with them?
Uli Jon Roth: Not really. It’s always possible that something might happen. We were discussing it in 2008. It could have happened, but it didn’t. So now it’s a little late. We shall see.
THE SKY GUITAR AND NEW ULI JON ROTH ALBUM
Do you have any news regarding the Sky Guitars and stuff related to that?
Uli Jon Roth: Yeah. The Sky Guitar is so important for me because we’ve just finished the first limited edition with Dean Guitars, and I’ve got a new Sky Guitar now. Which I’m going to play tonight, which is an advanced version. We’re going to make another 50 edition; it’s called Sky Elite Guitar. Yeah. We are going to do a lot in the future. We will also try and produce a slightly more affordable model in America, which will be American custom-made. Because at the moment, they are all hand-built completely for Dean, by a German builder called Boris Dommenget. But we are thinking about putting out the US custom shop series. Other than that, I’m working towards a new album. I’ve written a lot of new music. In fact, I wrote a new song today in Helsinki in the hotel room. I think that’s going to be a good one. My main problem is that I’m on tour so much that I’ve actually got very little time to work. So I have to try and do some work in the hotel room.
Do you have recording equipment always with you to help you get good riffs and ideas collected when you’re on the road?
Uli Jon Roth: No, I don’t do demos like that. Most of it is in my mind, and I write it down, and then once I’ve got something written. In the end, I will write down the music in the score. So for my own memory, and then I record it.
Do you already have a timetable of when you start to make a new album?
Uli Jon Roth: I will try to start in December and January. I don’t have much time, because afterward, we will do two months of America. Then we will carry on doing a bigger European tour and maybe coming back to Sweden. Maybe even coming back to Finland because we could play up North Finland.
What style of the album are you going to create this time?
Uli Jon Roth: Every one of my albums has been different, and usually, I can only tell once the album is finished. How different it will be. This one will also be different. I will try to… It’s certainly going to be a lot more Rock-oriented than my recent albums. But there will still be a touch of the classic about it. I think it’s going to be a typical Uli album, whatever that means “Laughs.”
I’m hoping for a kind of “back to the roots” album instead of that massive sound you used for THE DARK CLOUDS album?
Uli Jon Roth: Yeah. I don’t think it’s going to be that massive, this one. But back to the roots is not really my thing. It needs to be somewhere in the middle.
THE CHANGES AND THE SECRET OF CONTINUITY
I have one question about aging and how time has changed. Many bands and players from your generation are slowing down and quitting one by one. How do you feel about it?
Uli Jon Roth: It is true, yes. I’ve seen quite a few who have died, unfortunately. I guess I’m one of the last remaining representatives of the ’60s, even because I started in the ’60s. My first show was in 1968, and that sound is in my ear and that I’m carrying, of course, something that will eventually go away. There are very few players who can still do that original, authentic ’70s guitar sound and ’60s guitar sound. Michael Schenker is one of them. They are getting less and less, and it’s the same with the singers. A new generation comes, lots of new generations have come, and some have already gone. I don’t want to make any future predictions. But I intend to stay in the game as long as I can. As long as I am healthy and fit to play, I will play because I’m still enjoying finding new music. I’m still enjoying connecting with the guitar, and yeah. In a way that I find exciting.
As you said, many new generations come and are already gone, but you are still here. And some bands started in the late ’60s like Purple, and they also keep ongoing as long as they can. But then it seems the bands which were formed like in the ’80s or ’90s won’t last. Do you see any particular reason for that?
Uli Jon Roth: That’s a very, very interesting question. It could be to do with the substance of the music. It’s kind of like the law of nature. When something happens for the first time, in the beginning, you find a lot of the most important stuff at the beginning. Some of it you find at the end, it’s like cycles. When I first started, things were very, very fresh for the electric guitar. It had not yet been explored. You had, like Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton, brought into a peak of that style. But then the style that I am playing now was not developed yet. When we developed that style of playing or that kind of playing in the ’70s. A lot of ’80s people used that style and then maybe straightened it out a little bit. But while they did it, some of them lost something. They lost that which was in the beginning, the meaning. They may be made more perfect, faster, or whatever. But the depth of the beginning, which is like a certain danger zone. Where the energy is still very, very fresh and… I don’t want to say raw, but very organic and exciting. Genuinely exciting, because it’s been done for the first time. That starts to go missing, and you find that process in every art group. You get something very exciting at the beginning and then in the middle; it becomes more perfect. Everybody can then do it. They all find the way to do it, but the innovation tends to come more at the beginning. Sometimes at the end of the cycle. I am interested in the next cycle. I want to hang around to re-invent the next cycle. In fact, it’s already happening.
Do you listen to any new bands or any of the newer music?
Uli Jon Roth: No, I’m not listening to anything. Sometimes I hear something that I find interesting. But I stopped listening really in the ’70s. I did because I didn’t have any more desire to listen. I found my own way in the music. As I say, sometimes we’re driving, and something comes on the radio, and I think, “Wow! That’s really nice.” And then yeah, and I enjoy listening to that. I’m not really going out buying DVDs or records or something like that. Maybe I should. But I don’t have a desire to do so because I like silence. I hear very, very little music, and I play it very little. To me, it’s always very special, almost secret. “Laughs”
I think that’s about it now. Thanks for your time Uli!
Uli Jon Roth: Thank you.