A regular on eonmusic, Michael Schenker is celebrating fifty years in the music business with the release of new album ‘Universal’. The blond axeman from Sarstedt, Germany began his career in the early 1970s with the Scorpions, achieved worldwide fame after joining U.F.O., and now leads his own band which has gone through numerous guises over the years. Chatting the new album, his approach to solos, and touching on his earliest days, we sat down with the one and only Michael Schenker. In search of the peace of mind; Eamon O’Neill.
Hi Michael, how are you today?
Hello! I’m doing great.
How have you been over the last two years; did you find it hard to sit still during the pandemic?
It was difficult. I managed to make two albums, and I had to travel in the midst of all of it to Germany. It was quite tricky. I had to go via Holland, but it was possible on the ferry overnight. So, it was bad; cancelled, postponed, cancelled, postponed, on and on and on, big shows in Japan, and it was kind of really, really annoying.
Like you say, you were not idle, however.
‘Immortal’, we made, and now we have done ‘Universal’.
You have worked once again with producer Michael Voss for ‘Universal’; you’ve been working with him for quite a while, haven’t you?
Yeah, twelve or thirteen years. We always have the same working environment, but I always come up with fresh things because I work from the inside out. I don’t copy any themes or anything like that. You know, Michael Voss is a Michael Schenker fan and a [sometime MSG vocalist] Gary Barden fan, ‘80s fan; he’s the most suitable guy to do things with, and he’s very good. It’s very good teamwork. I write all the songs, and he doesn’t know when I get in the studio what I’m actually going to record, so he hears and he learns the song as I put them down, and while he’s listening to it, he’s already working on lyrics and melodies for the songs, and the next day he plays me what he has, and I say either; “oh that’s great!”, or; “not so good” and so on.
It sounds like a very collaborative process.
We sit together and we come up with ideas for singers and stuff like this. This time it’s Ronnie Romero who’s our main singer, but we have great guest singers and drummers and bass players on the album and it’s all fun and good stuff!
You seem to enjoy working with multiple contributors; does that follow on from the multi-singer approach in Michael Schenker Fest?
I don’t know, maybe we just do it just to give it a little bit of a different flavour. I don’t know, I like the idea to have some guests on the albums. It’s just something that I’ve got used to.
One of the standouts is ‘Under Attack’, which is a nice, mid-paced rocker.
Well, you know, I write the music always the same way; I come to the studio and then Michael Voss adds vocals and lyrics and melodies, and that’s how every song is born, and ‘Attack’ is one of them. I don’t really get involved in lyrics, so I don’t really know what it is about. I just focus on music, but I like the song itself, the vibe, and everything about that song is great. It’s actually going to be one of our singles. ‘Emergency’, the opening song off the album, was a single, and then we’re going to video shoot two more songs; ‘A King Has Gone’, and ‘Under Attack’. Those two additional singles are going to be released at some point.
‘A King Has Gone’ features Helloween’s Michael Kiske, so will he be appearing in the video?
Yes, they’re working on it, and it has to be Michael Kiske, because he’s singing the song. I’m looking forward to that!
What was it like working with Michael Kiske?
Well Michael, actually, he worked with Michael Voss, because I don’t really get involved in vocals, so you’d have to ask Michael Voss. But I think he did a great job, Michael. There were three Michaels! Michael Kiske did a really great job, and actually, the head of Nuclear Blast from Germany, he suggested Michael Kiske I think, because he’s a fan. But he was very suitable for that song.
It's a song about Ronnie James Dio; what memories do you have of him?
Ronnie was in Rainbow with Cozy Powell, and then Cozy Powell joined MSG, and we played in Los Angeles at the Country Club, and Ronnie came in and everybody was standing up and giving a standing ovation to Ronnie James Dio. Actually, Ronnie James Dio was my favourite singer, so I was glad when Michael first came up with the idea for the song, and also of having the Rainbow line up to contribute to it. We ended up with [Bobby] Rondinelli on drums, and on bass, Bob Daisley, and on keyboards Tony Carey who were the original musicians with Ronnie James Dio in those days. Michael Voss managed to get those guys to help us make a tribute to Ronnie James Dio. It's such an interesting song because you have Michael Kiske, and you’ve got all of these guys playing on it. It’s one of my favourite songs.
Another standout is ‘London Calling’, which contains lots of references to those early days at the Marquee club, etc; does that bring you back to those days?
Well, thank you for telling me, because I didn’t know what the songs were about, but I’m starting to get interested to find more out about lyrics! Yeah, I didn’t know it was about all of that, but now that you are saying it, yeah, it brings me back. I spent almost every night in the Marquee club. After I was writing and playing guitar for fourteen hours a day, I had to find a relief, and I went to the Marquee club and watched bands. I just went there, and it was like a routine. I loved being there, and I saw great musicians there. Yeah, it’s interesting to hear that that’s what Michael was writing about; that’s great!
I’m glad I could be the first to share that with you!
Ha ha, yeah!
As usual, there are some beautiful solos on the album, including the one on ‘Wrecking Ball’, which seems to just fall off your fingers.
It actually happens automatically because I'm keeping playing and discovering; that’s all it is. When I play the guitar, I don’t practice, I just play, and as I play, I develop. I develop and new stuff comes out; the fretboard creates different pictures, I come up with different combinations; it truly just constantly develops very, very finely, very slowly into a new kind of development that I can’t even see unless I listen to an album from two years ago, and then I listen to an album from now; then I can hear a little bit of a difference. But if I listen to something from ten years ago and listen to it now, I can hear a big difference, but not so big that I wouldn’t recognise what I’m doing! But, always a new fresh touch is coming every year to the foreground.
There track ‘Yesterday is Dead’ is a great example of that; the solo builds slowly, and it’s almost hypnotising.
Yeah, I agree. I don’t know, it just comes out!
On the other side of that, ‘Au Revoir’ has a fantastic hammer-on style riffing to it.
Yeah, I’m not very good at describing music technically. I don’t have the words that people use, but it’s kind of, yeah, rolling over the sings, muting the strings and rolling over, flying over the notes, and then creating this ‘bubbling’ sound!
So you’re not technically minded, and thinking of scales etc?
No, I have no names! I cannot communicate on that level!
When you’re Michael Schenker, you don’t need to!
Ha ha, thank you!
One of your most iconic solos is in UFO’s ‘Doctor Doctor’; do you remember creating that one?
Well, there are two instrumental parts. The intro is just open space with reverb. In the live version, I’ve actually stopped playing the intro; I go straight into the [sings the harmony bends intro solo] because it’s so many years that at some point I decided just to come in with the rocking stuff. So the opening of the original version is just very spacey and kind of melodic, improvised, and then it gets into the rocking. That harmony guitar, that was originally played in separate tracks, and then for live I had to come up with the harmony part but playing it in one go, so I had to figure out how to play harmony guitar as one person. I did, and then that became the live version; playing harmony guitar and bending it. It’s not that easy, but it has become easier over the years because I play it all the time.
Are you aware that Iron Maiden use the song as their intro for every show that they play live?
I have heard about it, but very late. Not necessarily recently, but I have known that for maybe two years now. I mean, there’s a lot of Michael Schenker fans in Iron Maiden, and actually Pete Way fans too. We have a lot of musician fans from the UFO days etc. I always joke about, 80% of the ‘80s guitarists were copying my style! They were actually overexposing my guitar style, but luckily I always developed into new areas, so it’s okay. I always say I have more platinum albums than any musician on this planet, because I hang on 80% of the ‘80s guitarists’ walls! I make this joke because so many people copied my guitar style. I found out in the ‘90s; it was unbelievable. I was shocked!
I’d go as far as to say that two of the most natural guitar players are you, and the late Gary Moore.
Yeah, actually, many musicians that I have met over the years, like, I did the Contraband, the all-star band, and many people they said the same thing; “Gary Moore and Michael Schenker”. There was a particular generation that made that comment.
How is your relationship with your brother Rudolph these days?
Well, Rudolph is a bully. I don’t trust him, so it’s best to stay away. I love him as a brother, but if I would open the doors to him, he would just start exactly where he finished. You cannot kill an old habit like that, you know? I’m six years younger than him, I’m his little brother, he can do with me whatever he wants, he thinks. I don’t like that, so I stay away.
On that note, it’s now an incredible fifty years since The Scorpions’ ‘Lonesome Crow’ was released.
Yeah, it is! I was 15 years old when I recorded that, and it was released in ’72, so I actually use not the release date, or when it was recorded; I combine it. When it was recorded is important; I was 15 years old, and when it was released is important too, so I make that a two year period.
Have you listened to it recently; do you recognise the kid who’s playing guitar?
Yeah, I mean, ‘In Search of the Piece of Mind’ is one of my favourite solos. It was the first song I ever wrote. The solo on it, it’s amazing; I don’t know how I got that! It’s really outstanding because the other solos, I can hear the vibrato is not developed etc, and I can hear I’m learning and so on, but ‘In Search of the Piece of Mind’, it was a perfect solo. It still stands out today.
Back to the current day, and you’re heading out on tour soon to promote ‘Universal’.
It’s fantastic! After all this cancelled, postponed, cancelled, postponed, we did four shows in the UK already, last October, and now we’re looking forward because we’re actually playing lots of countries. We start off in Finland, and then we go Sweden, Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, Germany, and after that we do all the festivals; Hellfest, Pink Pop, Stonedead and all of that, and then we go to America. We’re doing five shows with W.A.S.P., which are selling really well, and straight after that we go to Japan, and as we are touring, I think other tours will be added like South America and Australia etc.
Finally, what’s next for Michael Schenker?
Well, ‘Universal’ and the tours. I’m more like a ‘now’ person, so I put my energy into the now to get the best out of it. Once things come towards the end of the touring stuff, I guess then it’s time to go back home and start focusing on recording and writing a new album.
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MSG's 'Universal' is released on Friday 27th May 2022. Grab a limited vinyl copy of 'Immortal' here.