Michael Schenker is one of the legendary characters in the history of guitar playing. The German virtuoso began his professional musician career at the age of fifteen, first with the Scorpions, with whom Schenker released his first album LONESOME CROW in 1972. Next, he joined the English band UFO, which became a huge success. In the 70s, the band released several classic albums, including FORCE IT, LIGHT’S OUT, and PHENOMENON. Schenker left the band in 1978, and the following year he founded the Michael Schenker Group (MSG). Schenker worked briefly with the Scorpions during the following years and rejoined the UFO several times in the 1990s and 2000s. He also released several solo albums and fronted the band McAuley Schenker Group with vocalist Robin Mcauley in the late 80s. For the past ten years, Schenker has worked primarily with the band’s Temple of Rock and Michael Schenker Fest, but last summer, he announced that the upcoming IMMORTAL album would be released under Michael Schenker Group -name. So now was a good time to pick up the phone and ask Mr. Schenker himself for the latest news, twists, and turns.
I can guess that when you first started playing guitar as a teenager, you had no idea that you would still be doing this more than fifty years later. You’ve had an amazingly great career. So, what’s your secret?
I was never really focusing on the moment. I was fascinated with a single string. I was fascinated with finding one note, getting the next, and then finding a third one that would create magic and so on. Then, of course, I copied whatever was on the hit parade as a jump-start, you know? The more I was copying, the more I was learning, so I was copying. I started a band when I was 11, and we had to copy because we weren’t writing songs ourselves at that point. We performed, and we had to play something that somebody else did to entertain people at live performances. And on the way, up to when I was fourteen, it was all more or less a hit parade music that I was playing. But then, something happened when I was thirteen. Black Sabbath came out with Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple, and so on. I discovered that distortion was making all the difference. What was important was coming out and recognizing that the single string is an endless combination. You can hit it once, twice, you can bend it, you can leave a gap in between. It’s endless. And so that’s basically what I started. You can break it up. You can hear it twice. I mean, it became the perfect instrument for me for pure self-expression, which I started when I was fifteen but more when I was sixteen, seventeen, eighteen. And then, when I was eighteen, I stopped listening to music altogether because I had an idea now what I wanted to do. And I was always the kid in the sandbox and, in some, no competition, no comparison, just recreation, and no scoring. I just was happy to be like a kid but with a sandbox, playing. That was it. And so, I never had any expectations. I never wanted to be famous or successful or any of those privileges you have when you’re a star. So, I was never focusing on that. I was more focusing on the music itself.
You are, in fact, one of the most creative and productive artists of the moment. You’ve released six studio albums and three live albums during the last ten years, if I calculated correctly. Where does all this inspiration and creativity come from?
Well, I’m the kid in the sandbox, and I don’t put myself into that situation. I just play and discover. You have to imagine a kid in a sandbox. You’re just having fun. You’re not expecting anything, and you’re not looking for anything. You’re not following a trend; you don’t do something that needs to be similar to something else. It is actually from within yourself, which is endless. At some point, I wanted to express how I felt. Then, when I say how I feel, it means I have to go deep within myself. And I have to use it, the spring of infinite creativity; it’s never-ending. It’s like a kaleidoscope. You shake it, and you have many new ways of doing things. I think this happens only to people who expect something, want something, chase something or are trying to write something that sells or whatever. If you don’t look at all of these aspects, it doesn’t happen if you’re just having fun with notes.
If a person wants to be part of a trend, trying to get a piece of the pie and get a piece of all the girls and the fame and the money and then everything that comes through the glorious life of being a star If you focus on that, you just kind of keep sticking close to trend to be up to date. But I’m a trend maker. I mean, I created something from within myself. I had the courage to believe in what I was thinking about or what I wanted to do. And so, I was very confident, not even wondering if people would like what I do or not. That’s the main thing. It’s very important. After all, they don’t have the courage because they think what they have to say doesn’t count or is worthless. And so, if you are in the right place and you want to share new colors with the world. You have to go inside. You have to go deep inside, and that’s what– anybody can do it. It’s just a personal choice of if you want to go that way or that way.
This new MSG album, IMMORTAL, sounds fresh and energetic from start to finish. So, was there anything special in your mind when you were writing the songs for this album?
Well, it’s like this. I mean, as I said earlier, if you create from the infinite spring, it’s endless. So, you can make a record anytime. That is number one. And people always ask me that question, too, because many people, who are part of a trend, don’t have that ability to– they get stuck because they exhaust a trend. And in a trend, if anybody creates from that trend, it will get stagnant. It will always be the same, more or less. Anybody will do, more or less, the same, but that’s not what I want. I know what I like and what I want and what I want to express. My focus is pure satisfaction and the fascination with a single string and create goose pimples and create something that hasn’t been around yet, and versus that, if somebody is doing something great, which many people have done, why should I do the same thing? It’s already done. I see no point there. And so, I might as well dig inside myself and open up and release new fresh colors. And I think that has helped. And I’m a trend-maker. I developed to a certain point in the ’70s, and I just wanted to experiment from then on. And in the ’80s, I continued to do new things. And so, even though what I did in the ’70s, people used for the ’80s and overexposed my guitar style, and just killed it. But because I keep going infinite, I always have a new way of expressing myself. It still sounds like Michael Schenker, but something else is there.
It’s exactly like you said. A perfect example of this is the album’s opening track, “Drilled to Kill.” It’s a great song, and at the same time, it’s one of the heaviest songs you’ve ever recorded. It’s a heavy song, but it still sounds MSG. It’s just something new from you.
Yeah. The thing is, I’m back to 16, 18, 20 when I fell in love with Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, and Black Sabbath, and my brain and my filing system have gone back to square one. When I did the first Temple of Rock album, I started growing a unique writing style, combining my past experiences. And I just found something, and especially with the energy of a mind of a 16-, 18-, 20-year-old, putting this together with the experience that I have, it becomes very, very unique even for myself. And because of the virus complication, I actually– it was a bittersweet experience. A lot of bad stuff happened. Bad stuff meant inconvenient stuff because of the virus, and many things went out of nowhere. I had to start improvising because I originally wanted to do something different.
Originally, that’s what I had planned in 2019, to make an album- the 50th Anniversary of Michael Schenker with guest musicians, the past MSG members, etc. But it was dragging on. Then, I realized that I missed the timing because first, I thought that I put out the LONESOME CROW album with the Scorpions in 1970. Then, I thought I lost the timing because it was very complicated to get musicians from all over the world together. Then, my fiancee told me, “Michael, LONESOME CROW came out in 1972,” so I thought, “Ah! So, I’ve got two years to celebrate this and get this together.” So, I hoped again, and I decided to make it less complicated and put together a compact band. I already had a Ronnie Romero who sang on the RESURRECTION album. We had the Voice, and he sounded fantastic, and I asked him if he wanted to be the singer on this album. Then, Barry Sparks, bass player, kept e-mailing me, “Michael, I want to be your bass player,” and he got the job. So, then with Steve Mann and Bodo Schopf, I had a compact band together. That’s how I had confidence again to continue putting together the 50th Anniversary.
When the recordings started, I had to make my journey to the studio. But I couldn’t travel the way I always used to do before. I always used the Eurotunnel. I always used that route, and now I had to find a new way to go there. So, my team found a new route to go to the studio via Holland, so it was an unknown experience. I was a bit kind of– the unknown. Nobody likes the unknown, but I had to do it; otherwise, the album would not happen. So, we found a way of going from Brighton to Harwich, then switching on a boat. It was eight hours overnight and then carried on from Rotterdam to Munster, where the studio is, and I had to do this four times. Every time I came back, I had to go on quarantine for 14 days except for one time. So, it was a total of 42 days I spent in quarantine. It was unbelievable. The first 14 days were okay. I have a beautiful home. I have a beautiful property. I rediscovered my garden, and I repaired a lot of things. I designed things, etc. The second time, it became a bit more boring, plus my partner was then in Japan looking after her sick mother, so I was all by myself. And that makes it even more terrible. Then the third time, I would never recommend it to anyone. But I survived it, and if I hadn’t done it– somebody has to do the dodgy work, and it’s my band.
However, when I had put my compositions down, and it was time for Ronnie to sing, he said, “Michael! I’m sorry, but I can’t, you know. I don’t want to go on 14 days quarantine. I can’t afford this.” I said, “Don’t worry about it.” So, we tried to think of a solution, and then I said to my partner (Ami), who’s in Japan now. She has very good taste in music and– because I don’t listen to music, I don’t know what’s out there. I said to her, “Do you know a great singer who can help us out here?” and she said, “Ralph Scheepers.” I said, “Okay, I trust you, but I said to Michael Voss first, “Ralph? Do you know Ralph?” “Yes, I know Ralph. He is fantastic,” and the next day, we were recording. When I heard the result, it became “Drilled to Kill,” and I was blown away. I never even knew that there was a voice like Ralf Scheepers. That song ended up straight in the face and beyond my expectation. I was like “this is crazy!”. I ended up with Ralf on two songs. So, I started to think. What I initially thought was making an album with guests and friends celebrating the 50th Anniversary, which I gave up on, and then, suddenly, started to come to life all by itself.
Brian Tichy calls up and says, “I want to make a tribute to Michael Schenker’s 50th Anniversary. I’ve had him play on six songs. And he’s great. He’s one of the best drummers in the world. He has played with Whitesnake, Ozzy, and whatever. And, I mean, that wasn’t enough. The next morning I got a phone call from Brian Tichy again. “A buddy of mine is also a Michael Schenker fan, and he wants to contribute too. He is a keyboard player, and his name is Derek Sherinian”. I was like,” What am I going to do with him?” I mean, I have Steve Mann. Steve is doing all the coloring on the album. I purposely put down all the guitars myself this time and just asked Steve to do some coloring, where he is very good, so it doesn’t stick out too much as a keyboard thing. So, if you didn’t know, Steve Mann is an engineer and a producer himself. He is delicious like Paul Raymond was in coloring, so it just adds a bit of sweetener to the last notes and so on. So, what am I going to do with Derek? “Well, you might want to do a jam with him,” said Brian, “Like a guitar – keyboard jam.” I said “What? I’ve never done that before, how can that work?”, “Well, like Ritchie Blackmore and Jon Lord…” “Ahh…” And I thought that it was a good idea for the 50th Anniversary to do something fresh, that I’ve never done before, and it turned out amazing.
And so that virus took me in an– and it was bittersweet. Whatever I had planned got destroyed, and everything took a completely different turn. Simon Philips came in and played drums on a couple of tracks. And then Michael Voss, he had written the lyrics for the song “Warrior.” I still remember when I came back to the studio from the hotel, and I put down my music. He said, “Yeah, I’ve got some lyrics and some vocals for Michael Schenker Fest album RESURRECTION.” It was “Warrior,” and it was amazing. I said, “Michael, you must be joking. This was unbelievable.” It became one of the best songs in my life. It was unbelievable. And he did the same thing now. I came back to the studio from the hotel the next morning, and he said, “Michael, I’ve got some lyrics and some vocals for you. Do you want to have a listen?” He put it on, and I said, “Michael, you must be joking. This is so beautiful. Only you can sing this song.” It was coming from his heart, it was sung so perfectly, and that song was “After The Rain.” And then I gave him the other song, which was kind of very different. It was “The Queen of Thorns and Roses,” and he, because it’s such an unusual song, and Michael just kind of… It was a very personal message, personal lyrics that he was writing. So, I gave him that song, too. I couldn’t imagine anybody else doing that song, and so anything shaped up so unbelievable, and then I picked up the phone again. “Hey, Ronnie, are you ready now?”. “I’m sorry. I still can’t come over there. Everything’s still locked. I’m so sorry. And I still have to do certain things before I can come over”. I said, “Don’t worry. We’ll figure something out.” And then I said to Michael Voss, “What are we going to do now?” He said, “What do you think of Joe Lynn Turner?” I said, “You must be joking.” He is one of my favorite singers, and we are old friends. And the next day, they were recording. I couldn’t believe it. It’s unbelievable. And so, it went on and on like that.
IN SEARCH OF PEACE OF MIND
How did you come up with an idea to re-record “In Search of Peace of Mind,” which was released originally on your first official album, LONESOME CROW, by the Scorpions?
”In Search Of Peace Of Mind” is an emotional song because it was the first written piece of music I ever wrote. I wrote it in my mother’s kitchen, and nobody else was there. That guitar solo was played when I was fifteen years old, and there’s nothing wrong with it. It’s still one of my favorite solos. The other solos on the album are underdeveloped, but that particular one, for some reason, came out of nowhere, and still today, it’s just perfect the way it was arranged. ”In Search Of Peace Of Mind” was my very first song, but it was credited to all the Scorpions because I was six and a half years younger than them, and they took advantage of me. Klaus Meine actually sent me the original credits of LONESOME CROW. It says Michael Schenker music and lyrics, Rudolph Schenker.
How could we have written the lyrics when we had zero knowledge of English? I was being taken advantage of already. They credited themselves for writing the whole LONESOME CROW album with me when they never wrote any music because they did not know how to write. So, I did all the work, and they took all the credit. It is complete misinformation. I never found it out until just recently because I never looked back. If something was right or wrong, whatever. I’m just the kid in the sandbox. I love playing, and that’s all that matters to me. So, I guess I was always a victim because I’m a musician and never watched for money or anything.
So, I had this idea to record a new version of “In Search of Peace of Mind,” and I thought I wanted that song to be epic. I wanted Gary Barden to sing the opening chord. I said, “Gary, would you do this for me?” He said, “Absolutely.” I mean, his wonderful midrange clean voice, emotion, and vibrato, and everything. And he sounds like ”a man,” Laughs,” you know? And then Ronnie eventually was available, and he took over the next part when it got higher. I then asked Robin (McAuley)and Doogie (White) if they would like to contribute to the high screams. And they said, “Of course, Michael.” And they did. So, I had the Michael Schenker Fest on the record too. And then I put all those little things on end, making it sound completely special. It’s so ironic because” In Search of The Peace of Mind” is the theme of my life. And then solo within yourself, shall I do it? Shall I not? What shall I do? You can hear a conversation going on within the solo. It’s unbelievable. So, everything is– I don’t know. But I tell you, it’s incredible what you can do if you keep digging in situations when everything seems to be impossible, but there is a way out.
THE STATE OF MICHAEL SCHENKER FEST?
Because the new album, IMMORTAL, is released under the name Michael Schenker Group (MSG), does it mean that Michael Schenker Fest doesn’t exist anymore?
Michael Schenker Fest will always be there. It’s just very expensive [laughter]. The guys live all over the world, you know? And it’s very, very hard. We had plans to do the biggest Japanese tour we ever had for March. And it was a five-hour program. ANB said it was going to be two nights at The Forum, 5,000 each night. It would’ve been the same as the Budokan. It was going to be Bodo Schopf on drums with Simon Phillips filling some drums. It was such a big undertaking. It took me a whole year to prepare for that. And then, we had to cancel it. And it was a blow. It was such an incredible blow, I mean, but like I was told, once, when I was young, no energy gets lost in the universe. So, all of that hard work, it’s in back to myself. And It makes me more prepared for the future. And because I play hundreds of solos, hundreds of leads, hundreds of notes, and it’s a five-hour show. It’s so hard. And we learn, I mean, you don’t do everything exactly the same way, but you have to do it the whole band.
Everybody needs to learn when to stop, when to start, and what the arrangements are. It’s so complicated, and we had to cancel it. And then we had the U.K and Europe scheduled for April. Then Graham Bonnet needed to have an operation on his shoulder so that he couldn’t tour. So, we got Ronnie in. Then we had to postpone the tour to December. And then, now, we have to postpone the tour again to the next year, October, and we don’t know what’s happening next year. And we even had to– we even had to postpone even the big festivals, Grasspop, and Hellfest, which had to be postponed to 2021.
And so, nobody knows what’s going to happen next. And we have to keep things as compact as possible. So, I decided to go back to a compact band with Ronnie, Barry, Bodo, and Steve, and meanwhile, the least amount of orders to make things work. And so, you have to figure out how after the pandemic is over, what could happen, what cannot, and what has happened. And so, you have to use the past in order to create and kind of be in a more controllable situation so that you can go out there again. But Michael Schenker Fest is always available. Whenever people want Michael Schenker Fest, we are there.
REMEMBERING PETE WAY AND CONNECTING WITH PEOPLE
In 2020, the world again lost several great musicians, and one of them is your longtime friend and colleague, Pete Way. You have a very long history together. How would you briefly describe him as a person?
He was an extremely charming nice person. And I never saw him angry [laughter]. He had so much charisma. I mean, he was such an entertainer on the stage. And his warm bass playing combined with my more kind of smooth guitar playing made such an incredible combination; it created a fantastic kind of sound. Pete can never be replaced. He has got so many, I mean, he had the offers I had to join Rolling Stones, join Ozzy Osbourne, and he’s been on stage with Chilli Peppers and Iron Maiden. All those big bands were all fans of his. And Pete Way’s stage presence was one of a kind. It was one of a kind [laughter]. It’s impossible to replace that. Pete and I, we knew each other for over 50 years. We met, on and off. I helped him when needed, and he helped me back. It was like that all the way. He moved to Arizona when I was in Arizona. I helped him there in my recording studio, and we ended up together in Brighton. I helped him then to be part of a project, which became Temple of Rock. I was always there for Pete. I even was in touch with his doctor, who was a singer. It’s unbelievable. And it’s just I was always there for Pete. But Pete, for some reason, lost control step by step, and unfortunately, he passed away last summer.
Let’s go back for a moment to 2006. That year, you released the album TALES OF ROCK ‘N ROLL, which celebrated the 25th-anniversary of MSG. During the album recordings, you buried the hatchet with many former MSG musicians, which later led to many good things. What kind of memories do you have from that period?
It’s always based on circumstances. I never plan anything. I started writing that album in Arizona, in my studio. And every day, I put a little piece of riffs down. My idea was, it was a crazy time and experimental days, but I wanted to make a record that goes from one list to another consistently because I had so many riffs. I could have written 20 albums. I could have made 20 albums– no, not 20 [laughter], maybe ten albums off of that because there are so many riffs there. It never stops. And that was my idea because, I mean, I always had another roof in my head. And so I thought like, “I could just put down something that goes from one list to another to another to another to another and never stops.” And so I called it a concept album, and it was supposed to be instrumental at the beginning. It then developed step by step. Actually, the recording got lost, but then it showed up again. Then, Pete Way moved to Arizona, and it was just because he ended up being the bass player on it.
And then it was always something that as I was putting down riffs, there was a period of time over a few months– things happen while you do things and things change. And so eventually, it came to the point that I felt like, “Man, maybe I could put some vocals on it instead of making it instrumental.” And then I found that singer, Jari Tiura, and I thought, “He would be fantastic for this.” So we teamed up together, and we went on. And that’s it. That’s how it ended up. And then, of course, we had little gaps when I thought like, “Oh, maybe that would be good, maybe Robin McAuley can sing something, or maybe Gary Barden would sing this one.” So it’s just like ideas popped up as you do things. So that’s how it happens.
And that kind of led you to the next thing, which was Temple of Rock?
Yeah. Temple of Rock was the beginning of 2007, or 2008. Then, I kind of developed it, and I was ready to make a record. I remembered Michael Voss first and asked if he was available for making a demo, and he said yes. So, I put him some music, and I said, “Hey Michael, can you help me out with some guide vocals? I need a good singer, but I didn’t know he was able to sing that well. But I asked him whether he could help me with some vocal lines. So, when he was singing, I went like, ”Wow, you’re a singer. Why don’t you sing this record?” And so, we ended up with him singing quite a few, but again we got different drummers in, different people. It was just like–, and then I got a phone—then Michael Voss had this intro, and I said like,” Wow! If we could get a famous actor speaking those words, then that would be fantastic.” I’ll tell you what. A few days later, I got a phone call from William Shatner, Captain Kirk, agent. Michael said,” Captain Kirk wants you to play a solo on his album.” I said,” you must be joking. Can you ask him, please, if he can speak our words for our album?. I will play on his album if he can do this for us?” And so he spoke on our album, and I played solo on his solo album. It was unbelievable. It was like you wish for something, and then it’s there [laughter]. And then I had Captain Kirk, William Shatner, on my album.” Laughs.” It was fantastic. It’s a development. All of a sudden, there was Robin in one song. There was Gary in one song. There was Graham Bonnet in one song. That was before Temple of Rock. Then all of a sudden, there was Michael Voss. It’s a development. You keep on meeting the same people and additional people. You want to make it bigger, and it becomes bigger. It’s part of your aura. It’s part of your environment, and you create like building a house, and subconsciously you keep using the same people. People always stick with similar people or people they used to have worked with in the past. They always go with people they know, but they start building on top of it. And with new people, that’s exactly what I’m doing. It’s like building a block. It’s a step-by-step, and it kind of somehow happens. We don’t know what the result will be, but I’m looking forward to it.