One approaches an interview with Michael Schenker with both anticipation and trepidation. Anticipation, as Schenker is widely (and rightly) recognized as one of the greatest guitarists in hard rock, forged through his stints in UFO, the Scorpions and his solo projects. Trepidation, as Schenker and turmoil seem to follow each other—bands joined and quit, personality conflicts, erratic live shows. As the time of the interview approaches, one wonders what to expect when he calls—or even if he will call in at all.
At 12:30 pm Pacific Standard Time, exactly on schedule, a booming voice is heard. “Michael Schenker here!” And so the conversation begins.
It is soon very apparent that Schenker is neither “difficult,” nor reluctant to talk. He is in fact very intelligent, articulate, and extremely passionate about his creativity. He’s currently doing publicity for the latest album Bridge The Gap, which features his Temple of Rock band: Vocalist Doogie Wright, guitar/keyboard player Wayne Findlay, and ex-Scorpions band mates Francis Buchholz on bass and Herman Rarebell on drums. The record is a hard-hitting masterwork that has been getting rave reviews in Europe and Asia (it will be released in the U.S. on January 7), and when complimented on it, Schenker responds with a heartfelt “Thank you!” Asked if, at some point in the recording, mixing and mastering process he realized that something very special was in the making, Schenker says it was actually very different.
“I think a lot of people are surprised—and very happily surprised, and the way it all came together. Herman and Francis, the last album we recorded together was [Scorpions] Lovedrive. All those years we were disconnected from the loop of rock and roll for various reasons, and yet here we are again, making our second album together. It’s pretty incredible.”
“Everything happens step by step. I never knew what was going to happen next. When Francis joined us on tour, it was like we were kids, we were all happy to get together and play. The audiences were incredible, the band was getting stronger on a weekly basis. At the end of the first leg of the European tour, there was a window, a six-month period before the next part of the tour where I decided to ask everyone if they wanted to make a record. I started writing right away, collecting my pieces, and by the end of the year I gave Doogie my stuff and I told him ‘bridge the gap’ and ‘think melodic’ and he started writing his lyrics. I had no idea how it would turn out, other than we had a great lineup. I made arrangements for the studio while Doogie was working on his melody lines and arrangements. I had a special studio for the drums and then we did the bass and 7-string guitars and keyboards and then Doogie was ready to do his vocals. [Co-producer] Michael Voss [producer of Bridge The Gap] and Doogie and I were in the studio collecting the best ideas and on a daily basis we made progress. On the 31st of March, we were finished—we had to finish—because four days later, we had a show in Russia. It was a situation that I had never had before, where the album wasn’t going to be released for several months, and I kind of decided that even though the album was already mixed and mastered, I didn’t play it for the rest of the guys. They were actually really pissed about it! We were starting the second leg of our European tour, so we were in touring mode, not recording mode, and they would have heard it and said ‘we want to change this, we want to change that’ and that would have been destructive, so I had to be hard about that and put the album away. By the end of the tour, in August, I decided to have everybody listen to it, and the great thing was that we had a chance to make improvements, because our ears were fresh, we didn’t have the chance to wear the album out by listening to it over and over, so it was actually good. Many artists, they make a record, and two months after it’s released they say ‘Oh, I wish I had done this or that differently.’ So we had the unexpected luxury of going back with fresh ears to make corrections and improvements. We added additional things, remixed and remastered it, and it got that much better. So the end result was great.”
Fans of Schenker will get the treat of hearing not just material from the new album, but songs from all throughout his career with UFO, Scorpions, MSG as well as solo projects. “The program I’m doing is the most popular music from my past and present. We’ll be doing lots of Scorpions songs since Francis and Herman are part of the band. I want this lineup to develop its own identity, to stand its own ground. I’m using Michael Schenker as a platform to create this, and that platform is based on the music of my career. So, as we progress, we’ll be adding newer material to the set, but always with a healthy balance of the great older songs with the best of the current.”
Fans of Schenker who live in the United States will get an even greater treat: Seeing him play in small clubs. “The album is being released in America on the seventh of January, and I didn’t want to miss being there and promoting the album. We are not ready to tour with the album lineup—that starts in March, in Japan. We’ll be playing bigger venues later in 2014 in the States. But I want to set all that up, and I don’t want to do that immaturely with the album lineup. And I also don’t want to sit at home and do nothing, either, see the album released and not be able to promote it. So I made the decision to introduce Doogie and Wayne to audiences in the U.S., and promote the album, and promote the world tour that will happen later in the year. With the help of [former MSG members] Rev Jones on bass and drummer Pete Holmes, it’s a bit like…what do you call it in sports…preseason. So that people will be aware of the new album, they will be aware of Doogie White. When we come back later in 2014 it will be bigger venues, with Herman and Francis joining me. “
One thing about Michael Schenker that is almost impossible to believe also happens to be true: He does not listen to music other than his own. To a music fan, that would seem almost incomprehensible, to never venture outside a tightly closed musical box, but Schenker has his reasons. “I’ve been doing this since I was 17, and I knew instinctively that I shouldn’t listen to any music other than my own. I was like a monk, avoiding any external influences. So all these years what happens is that you are expressing colors that nobody has ever expressed before because they are coming from you. And until you decide to express that color, nobody will know it’s that color. So by doing that, bit by bit, it becomes its own unique painting. I have stayed away from consuming, because consuming is also draining. There are certain types of people who consume, and others that create. I enjoy creating, but I also know that consuming also consumes! Being able to stay fresh for as long as possible means being able to create something that no one has heard until you create it. That’s what I’ve been doing all these years.”
“For me it’s not about scoring points. It’s about art, it’s about creating. Art is not necessarily good or bad, it is what it is. I kind of put this thing together saying ‘Nothing is right, nothing is wrong, just do your thing and stay strong.’ Art is not a competition.”
The comment is made to him that contrary to stereotypes and expectations, he is not a difficult interview. In fact, he seems happy with who he is and where he is at this stage of his life. And he responds enthusiastically, almost with a religious fervor. “I know what I want, and I am a very focused person, and some people may not like it, who knows? My life, I see it in three stages: The first stage I was focused on becoming a great guitarist and developing self-expression, all the way up to [UFO’s] Strangers in the Night. The second part I created MSG to experiment, to do things in my way. To fulfill my own desires in making music, at my own pace, not just touring/album/touring/album. Or doing instrumental music, this kind of music, that kind of music, all the things I couldn’t have done if I had joined Ozzy Osbourne and Deep Purple and the Scorpions etc. So that was the middle part of my life, about experimenting and doing different things. And now I’m in the third stage of my life, where all of a sudden I’ve developed an incredible liking to being on stage! I never liked being on stage before, but somewhere around 2008 I developed, out of the blue, amazing feeling for being on stage. What does this all mean? Ronnie James Dio has already passed away, Gary Moore, Jon Lord, Alvin Lee, Lou Reed, sooner or later it’s all just going to be a memory. So I realized that maybe I’m back in the loop of rock and roll, celebrating that era of rock.”
“Every person goes through life with ups and downs, screw-ups, improvements, that’s what life is for. Everybody has their own journey. Every person has a different timeline, every person enjoys different things. There is not a particular way. The corners are unpredictable—anything can happen around the corner. The ‘now’ is the moment where you make choices based on the past, and what you have learned from the past. It’s great to know that you don’t know what’s going to happen next! It’s very colorful, this thing we call life, and it keeps me excited.”
Photo Credit: Bennett Robinson