Michael Schenker is nothing short of a true guitar genius. Bursting to fame with UFO in the 1970s, and coming in and out of the Scorpions along the way, the Germanic ‘Mad Axe Man’ is gearing up to celebrate 50 years as a recording artist. “It’s a miracle, it really is”, he affirms as we sit down for a chat. Looking back over the successes of the last few years with the Michael Schenker Fest, Michael talks new album ‘Immortal’, the passing of Pete Way and Ted McKenna, and his brief reunion with UFO at the turn of the millennium. Contraband; Eamon O’Neill.
Hi Michael, how are you today?
Yeah, considering the circumstances with the virus, and all the ups and downs and confusion, I’m doing okay.
Are you at home in Brighton, currently?
Yes. I tell you, Brighton is full of surprises! Every five minutes, something else happens!
Firstly, it’s a great pleasure to welcome you back to eonmusic; you were the first interview published on the site back in January 2016.
Oh! Well thank you so much for me being the first one!
Back then you were doing Temple of Rock; since then however, you moved on to Michael Schenker Fest.
The time had come when I realised that after Temple of Rock - the band I formed with the former Scorpions [drummer Herman Rarebell and bassist Francis Buchholz], and Doogie White [vocals] from Rainbow - we toured for four or five years, we did two dvds and two studio albums, and we toured the same cities over and over. I said; “it’s time to get a little freshness, and leave a little gap”. We’d just released a live dvd recorded in Spain [On A Mission: Live In Madrid, 2016], and so I said to everybody; “you know what? We need a break so that people get excited again to see us later. We can’t just keep going and going”.
So how did the Michael Schenker Fest format come about?
All of a sudden I realised that the ‘80s singers [that I’d worked with] singing to my new, original compositions, would be something I hadn’t done. I’d had all these different singers singing everybody else [earlier material they hadn’t recorded], so I got excited about that, but I thought; “oh, I’m not sure if that’s going to be possible, but let’s see.” So we called up Robin [McAuley] and everybody one by one, and already, it was as if they were waiting for it! Basically, it felt like that would be something to do next, and by everybody being very invested in it, we did the dvd [‘Live: Tokyo International Forum Hall A’, 2017] to show the world the potential of the Michael Schenker Fest with three singers from the ‘80s.
You did, however, retain Doogie White as well.
Doogie kept calling me up; “Michael! When are we going to carry on with Temple of Rock?!” He called me up so many times that eventually I said to him; “you know Doogie, I have an idea; you are current, and the other three are from the past, so if we put you into the Michael Schenker Fest, we have current and past together”. And he understood, and joined, and that became the ultimate Michael Schenker Fest doing the ‘Resurrection’ , and the ‘Revelation’  albums.
How was it getting all those egos to work together?!
No. Problems. At. All!
You suffered the loss of drummer Ted McKenna when he died suddenly in January 2019, which must have been a huge shock for you.
Who wouldn’t be, you know? I mean, in general, a person walking into a hospital and never comes out again; it’s unbelievable, and I tell you, and him being so close to me, I was in tears. I mean, I’ve got him here [a picture] on my desk ,with a heart on it. What a sad way to go, because he walked in just for a simple operation that many, many people had, and he never came out. He had to fight to fight for his life, and I mean, I tell you; I’m so sorry.
Your new album ‘Immortal’ sees you resurrecting the MSG moniker; why was the timing right for you to do that now?
You know, everything starts with Michael Schenker Group, number one. From the moment after I helped the Scorpions out with the ‘Lovedrive’ album , I went my own way. Peter Mensch [manager] found out, and he wanted to do the business, and he sent me straight to Aerosmith - “what am I doing with Aerosmith!” - and UFO would probably have been one of the biggest bands in the world if I had stayed with them, but for me, it was time to carry on with my own vision.
And so The Michael Schenker Group was born.
I started the Michael Schenker Group, and it was with Gary Barden [vocals] and Mo Foster [bass] of Jeff Beck’s rhythm section; and then it went to MSG , Cozy Powell, Paul Raymond etc, and so, if you go on, then here was the McAuley Schenker Group [1986 - 1993], but it was still the Michael Schenker Group! Then I had my middle years, doing acoustic instrumentals, electric instrumentals, and collaborating with so many great musicians as an artist to fulfill my vision and to be complete. I was complete, and something in my brain ticked, and I became sixteen years old again; so I’m an Ozzy fan, I’m Zeppelin, I’m Deep Purple, Johnny Winter, and you name it! And so, I carried on, which was the most important thing, because otherwise I wouldn’t be as happy as I am today because I got everything out of my system. And so, I started to get back to my roots.
A large part of your roots must surely be embedded in UFO?
There was a very unique chemistry between what Phil Mogg’s voice did, what I did, and then what Pete Way did, and what the drummer, Andy Parker did, and then Paul Raymond [keyboards / guitars], eventually. So for me it was the chemistry that you cannot buy a book about. It was such a perfect chemistry, but I was not ever chasing fame, or success or anything like that; it was not something that I wanted to continue doing; that’s why I left in the first place.
So that’s what you moved onto your own projects?
I had to be Michael Schenker. I discovered early in life, the infinite spring of creativity where all creations come from, and it’s endless. I never have a mental writing block; I always fish in the depths of myself and come up with stuff. So everything was always Michael Schenker Group, even Temple of Rock. With all the musicians, people get confused with Michael Schenker Group and MSG et cetera, but it’s all Michael Schenker Group.
‘Immortal’ sees you celebrate your 50th anniversary as a recording artist.
Basically, the whole story of how the whole album developed was at the end of 2019, I realised that 2020 was the first time I’d put a note on a recording, at the age of 15, and it was also my first musical composition on the ‘Lonesome Crow’ [Scorpions, 1972] album. On the original credits it was complete misinformation; it should have said; “Michael Schenker - music”, and whoever wrote did lyrics.
You’re talking about the track ‘In Search of the Peace of Mind’, and you’ve actually re-recorded it for this album.
You know, I was so shocked, and I’m still shocked today listening to back to the original solo on ‘In Search of the Peace of Mind’ on ‘Lonesome Crow’. I don’t understand where that perfect solo came from, as a fifteen year old. I mean, you can hear on the rest of the album I’m only fifteen years old, I’m an amateur, I’m developing, I’m making my way forward; but why was that solo so perfect? I would never change a note in a thousand years! So, you know, I copied that solo for the version on the fiftieth anniversary, because it’s a miracle, it really is. It’s so ironical that the song was called ‘In Search of the Peace of Mind’, which was the theme of my life; looking for contentment, peace, and freedom and fulfilment etc. And being the first composition I ever recorded, and with a solo like that, you know, it just had to become the fiftieth anniversary celebration song.
Did you have to sit down and listen to the track again to learn it?
I had to relearn everything! I used to be very good at copying, but I haven’t been listening to music for fifty years, so I lost the ability to copy. I’m the worst at copying myself, because the way I play, it’s so hard, but what I usually do is just keep the basic melodies and structures, and do something similar. It’s good to hear something flowing free, especially what I do live in ‘Rock Bottom’; that is a highlight, and people don’t know what to expect, and neither do I! Sometimes it goes great; sometimes it goes not so great, but when it goes great, you can hear the people go “woah!”, it’s fantastic! So you have to take a bit of risk.
Another track on the album, the ballad ‘After the Rain’ features a fantastic performance from Michael Voss.
Yeah, he did the same with ‘Warrior’, one of the best songs. Michael Voss, co-producer, he always writes a b-plan for vocalists in case we get stuck or need some help with melodies or lyrics, so one morning I came back and he said; “Michael, this is what I’ve did to your power ballad!” I don’t know where that power ballad came from either; it just shows up in my compositions, but it was there, and he did something to it, and I said to him; “Michael, this is so beautiful. Only you can sing this song”. So I gave it to him, and that was it.
In terms of equipment, what did you use to record; have you go-to gear that you like to use?
It’s always different. There used to be a time when I used all my, like, fifty guitars lying in the studio, picking one after the other for a different solo or something! But for this album, I decided to use my ‘Rock Bottom’ guitar. That’s the actual first Dean guitar I got in 2004, and it will always be a very special guitar, and I fell in love with it. So, [live], I’ve ended up playing ‘Rock Bottom’ on that guitar, on an adventure to improvise, so this time - and that’s what I do - I said, out of nowhere; “Okay Michael, I’ll do it this way this time”. So I decided I’d only use one guitar - go the extreme opposite!
What about amps and pedals?
I bring my wah-wah pedal, and I go into the back of the JCM800 amplifier, through the Marshall, and Michael Voss has got the speaker setup in a different room. And sometimes I’ll forget and switch the delay on, and he’ll go; “Michael, what are you doing?!”, because you don’t want anything [effects], because you want to do it in the mix. And so, basically it’s very, very straightforward.
Moving on, and I wanted to ask about your reaction to the passing of Pete Way; that must have been sad, but not entirely shocking for you.
Absolutely shocking. Pete was the nicest guy I know. It was such a loss. I mean, maybe not surprising, as you say, because at some point he lost control and went down the hill. But Pete Way, the born star, was something else. He was an inspiration for the world. I had his doctor’s number over the years, to help him to get his feet on the ground, but it seems like, for him, there was no way back. In my mind, I would think some days; “well, I wonder how Pete is?”, and one day; bang, and I was absolutely shocked.
The last time you worked together was in the mid-’90s to the early 2000’s, which was an unstable period for UFO, and for yourself as well, wasn’t it?
It was very unstable for only one person, and that was Phil Mogg. He came to Los Angeles in ‘93, begging me to refuel UFO because he completely had destroyed it. He was paranoia; he was running away from people. He came to Los Angeles with his manager, and in the same month, I got an offer for Deep Purple as their number one choice, and I got a call from Rudolph [Schenker] to help the Scorpions in Europe and Japan to sell tickets, but of course Rudolph is a trickster, and I ended up only playing acoustic guitar. He wanted to make it look like it was a Scorpions reunion, but he doesn’t want to give any credit to me for the Scorpions - he wants to own it all!
So you had plenty going on without having to consider an offer to reform UFO?
Yes. And just before they showed up, I had an incredible offer from Japan, for a record from MSG, and I accepted it.
So how did your rejoining come about?
Well, Phil asked me; “Michael, can you refuel?!”, and I said I have a few conditions; one is, you have to give me 50% of the UFO name so you don’t destroy it again, especially if I put my energy into it. The other one was that we sell it ourselves on the road, because I had a big success with the ‘Thank You’ album, where I was earning all the money that all the managers and the business people wouldn’t have offered. I became rich, so I wanted UFO to experience the same, and then I said; “it can only happen with the original line-up. There is no way that I will do it any other way”. It had to include; Paul Raymond, Andy Parker, Pete Way, myself, and Phil.
So the 1993 MSG record was clearly not going to happen, in that case.
When Phil Mogg shows up, I called up the record company and said; “I have a situation here”. I mean, I hadn’t sent a signature yet, but I said; “I will accept this MSG offer if you give me the same record deal for UFO”, and they agreed. So I swapped it around; I made UFO my number one priority, put MSG on hold, and said to Phil; “okay, I have a deal, we are ready to go”. So I put all my compositions together, and I tell you, when I saw Phil the next time when we started recording, he looked like an one hundred and eighty degree different person. He was happy, healthy; he was unbelievably fit!
How was the recording session for what became ‘Walk on Water’ ?
Everybody in the studio had a great time. I mean, ‘Walk on Water’ was a blessing after seventeen years. It was such a beautiful record that famously carried on from ‘Strangers in the Night’ . And then of course we went on the road, and then Phil lost it, and wanted control again and destroyed everything. I always said to him; “never do a reunion with UFO unless it’s the original set up, including the producer”. Because if you take one piece out, the chemistry is finished.
What followed was another unstable time.
Mike Varney, from America, he asked me to do something with him [‘Adventures of the Imagination’, 2000], but then he approached UFO as well, and I said to Phil; “don’t do this. It will backfire. It will not succeed”, and it did not. It became ‘Sharks’ , and even though we had Aynsley Dunbar on drums - a fantastic drummer! - the chemistry was destroyed. The natural flow of the chemistry, with ‘Covenant’  and ‘Sharks’, was destroyed, and basically, we were just limping towards the end. I’d had enough of UFO at that point, and in 2002, Phil Mogg asked me; “Michael, I need the name UFO back”. I said to Phil; “you know what? God bless you. I’ll give you the name back for free. Enjoy your life”. And then, that was it. That was the end of it.
Most people know that you were approached by Ozzy Osbourne and a host of others over the years, but are there any others that people don’t know about?
I have; Ian Hunter, Phil Lynott, Motorhead, Deep Purple, Whitesnake... it’s endless! I had to decline everybody, even though I am the biggest Ozzy Osbourne fan.
So you were approached to join Thin Lizzy?!
Yep. It was actually Phil Lynott, and Ian Hunter, who approached me both at the same time. I had just moved into a new house in Watlington, outside London here in the UK, and I got these two offers, and I said; “I’m sorry, I can’t do it”. You have to imagine; if you actually feel so strong to decline, there must be something going on within yourself that is much more important.
Looking forward, and what does the future hold for Michael Schenker?
You know, am I going to be waking up tomorrow morning? I don’t know, so I take things in the now. Everything I do really, is based on circumstances, on a daily basis. I always go by what today shows, and I get inspired by that. That’s how I live. I don’t know what happens tomorrow, you know?
Finally, despite the current situation with the pandemic, have you any live shows provisionally planned to support ‘Immortal’?
Of course. We have a tour set up for the cancelled / postponed tours, and we also have France and Hellfest, and the Graspop festival. In 2020 they had to postpone, but we are still on the list for June. My agent has worked very hard on figuring out how we can go forward, and eventually - knock on wood - if everything goes well with the vaccine and everything goes back to normal, we’re going to go out with the current MSG, with special guest Doro Pesch. We’ve got four shows in the UK, and we have five sows in Europe. Also, Australia has been begging me for interviews by the dozen! It’s unbelievable! I’ve never been to Australia, and all of a sudden it’s just like coming like crazy! It looks like the older I get, the more I have to do! When I was sixty, I started a three-hour show for the first time; why now?! But I was happy doing it, and I’m really having fun. So, when all of this is over, hopefully, it probably will become the longest tour that I’ve ever done in my life. It keeps me on my toes, you know?
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MSG's 'Immortal' is released on Friday 29th January 2021, via Nuclear Blast.