German born Michael Schenker chats with Kevin Cooper about his stage fright, having no regrets turning down Ozzy Osbourne, his current European tour and his latest album, Bridge The Gap.
Michael Schenker is a German rock guitarist, and is best known for his tenure in UFO, and latterly for his solo band. He first rose to fame as an early member of the Scorpions, then achieved fame in the mid-1970s as the lead guitar player for UFO. Since leaving UFO in 1978, he has been leading the Michael Schenker Group in various incarnations. He has re-joined UFO three times, producing an album each time. He is the younger brother of Rudolf Schenker, who is still a guitarist with the Scorpions.
His career has had many ups and downs, partly due to a long history of alcoholism and personal problems, which he has now put firmly behind him. In 2011 Michael released a new album, Temple of Rock. It was supported with a tour of Europe, Japan and the USA. In Europe the line-up included Herman Rarebell on drums and Francis Buchholz on bass, both former members of The Scorpions (Herman also joined the band for the Japanese dates) and Doogie White, former singer for Rainbow and Yngwie Malmsteen.
Currently on the European leg of his tour to promote his latest album, Bridge The Gap, which was released in 2013, Kevin Cooper caught up with him in Spain and this is what he had to say.
Hi Michael how are you?
I’m fine thank you Kevin. I am actually in Spain right now. I am on my way to the Spanish bank, you know, the town that sounds like the bank, Santander or something (laughter). I am outside now and the sun is shining and it is pretty warm here; its 24 degrees. What’s the weather like over there in the UK?
Today it is very damp, very cold with lots of fog.
Fantastic, I had better bring a coat over with me (laughter).
How is life treating Michael Schenker?
Well Kevin life is very good. If I look back at my life today, I can see clearly the steps that I have been involved it. In the beginning my dream and my simple ambition was to become a great guitarist and that was it, full stop. Up until Strangers In The Night with UFO I didn’t really do anything other than be myself. I didn’t really have any plans of becoming famous or anything, I was just fascinated with the guitar playing. I suddenly felt like I had to pull back and do things on my own, at my own pace and make time for me to experiment. There were lots of different things musically which I wanted to get out of my system such as instrumentals and stuff like that.
At that time I was also heavily involved in personal development, so basically that seemed to be like the middle years of my life which seemed to be all about the school of life and me developing personally in all sorts of aspects and areas. When I did my tour, Michael Schenker and Friends in 2007, if I look back at that tour I feel that was my turning point when all of a sudden all kinds of weird things started to happen. All of a sudden I began to like being on stage; I started to feel more free, and things really did start to change in a positive way. What I went through in the middle years was like being in an arena; it felt like the battle of life, experiencing things and learning from it and so on.
And so somehow, it seems like the third part of my life now starting from the period back in 2007 is basically one big celebration. It’s like I’m celebrating my generation of rock which for me started with bands like Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, and I think that is the foundation of the whole thing that I am doing and basically celebrating being back in the loop of rock ‘n roll and bringing my generation of rock to the foreground. I want to especially celebrate the people who have already left the planet such as Gary Moore, Jon Lord, John Bonham and all of the great musicians. Sooner or later that era is just going to be a memory as the people who remember won’t be here anymore. So Kevin, I really do have a pretty clear picture of what has happened to me.
You are half way through your current tour now. How is it going and are you enjoying it?
Absolutely Kevin. We now have a band together which has slowly over the years become better and better, stronger and stronger and has finally taken this formation. I wanted to quickly make a DVD because if something happened at least I would have the memory of it (laughter). The audiences have been great and the chemistry within the band is good, so I suggested that we make an album together.
And that album was Bridge The Gap. Tell me a little about that?
The title, Bridge The Gap, relates to the fact that I have been out of the rock ‘n roll loop for so long in my own little world, and I am now back trying to bridge that gap. Also, this is the second album that I have now made with Francis (Buchholz) and Herman (Rarebell) and so that is also trying to bridge the gap as it is many years now since our first album together. For many years I had disappeared but now I am back so that is another reason why I am trying to bridge the gap.
We have also now added a seven string guitar to the album which has developed the sound of the past and the present combined, plus all of the emotions are there too. It seems like my filing system has gone back to the years when I was 16 years old, as I am now having the same ideas, the same emotions as I was having back then. It seems like I am now able to combine all of the feelings and emotions from the beginning right up to now and put them all onto an album, which is really good. Having lived for a while and being now a different person, and being able to see things more clearly, and understanding things more clearly; it is a very unique place to be in. It is incredibly interesting Kevin now what comes out of all of this.
I have to say that I think the album is great. Where did the inspiration for the album come from?
Well when I was 17 years old I stopped listening to other musicians Kevin, and I also stopped learning from them and copying things. I instinctively felt that it was time for me to create something by myself and to do things the way that I see it. That was natural for me and also for me to stay away from music so that I would not be consumed by it or become influenced by it of course. So my understanding was that this was what I needed to do. As a result of that I have always kept on getting things and ideas out of myself rather than just following trends and I have continued doing that for over forty years. And as a result of that of course I have created my own style as I have been playing from the inside out. If you stick with that for so many years then you have your own way of doing things and of playing and so on.
So that is where my inspiration comes from Kevin, it comes from within; it always has from 17 years old. It’s like a kaleidoscope, its infinite; basically every person will decide to do something from within, and it is an endless new creation which can come to the foreground just like a tropical ocean. There are so many fish each having its own different pattern, its endless and it never repeats. So you have your own style and you get recognised by it. But I am able to always sprinkle new sparks onto a new product which I come up with because I do that on a regular basis and as I do that I bump into new discoveries and then when it is time to make a new album they are going to be part of it. It is always good to bring something new to it mixed in with the typical Schenker.
How did it feel to be back recording and performing with Francis (Buchholz) and Herman (Rarebell)?
It is incredible because it does not feel like there was a gap. We all connect exactly; maybe it has something to do with the mystery of life, the time and how it all combines, it just seems like there was nothing in-between. It just seems to be the same thing. Somehow there is a certain chemistry going on also with Doogie (White). Wayne (Findlay) has now been with me for nine years and he has developed very nicely the 7 string guitar. We have already recorded a new album called Spirit On A Mission and I had already decided that the new album would include more of the 7 string guitar. It feels good having the character of both Francis and Herman on the new album; they are a solid rhythm section that I have made a great record with in the past.
It is something that you cannot plan Kevin. I don’t know why we are together, all that I know is that one thing led to another. You couldn’t really plan anything like this, it simply fell into place. As I always say, perhaps there is maybe more than meets the eye you know. I don’t know how the Universe works but I just do my part, and let the pieces appear you know. I just enjoy being here in the now.
Halfway through recording Bridge The Gap you had to go back out on the road on tour. Did that upset the recording process in anyway?
I have to tell you Kevin that was really weird. Again you know that I could not plan something like that. In the old days it used to be album, tour, album, tour, album, tour, but things have now changed a little bit. The way that I do things within my organisation is totally out of sync (laughter). It is completely disorganised and when I make a new album I am suddenly back out on the road on tour, it is totally upside down but that’s the way it is (laughter). I think that it happens to quite a few bands these days too because things are not like they used to be. Things change and so we change with them.
It was a very strange situation because the album was almost done and I was thinking when the offer of the tour came up, that the album was not due to be released for another seven months. So I decided to put the album to one side and not let it interfere with the touring. However Kevin, I have to tell you that when I put the album away everyone was pissed off about it (laughter). I did this because if I hadn’t put it away I knew that the album would have been the topic of the tour. I didn’t want us to be in the position where we simply talked about the album over and over and over. I also didn’t want us to be thinking of ways in which we could make the album better because we couldn’t as we were away on tour (laughter). I felt that it would just simply create a lot of stupid energy.
At the end of the tour I let everyone hear the album and at that point, everyone made their comments. Because of the situation we found ourselves in, we were allowed the luxury to make improvements to the album with fresh ears some five months after it had been recorded. It was incredible; it was just like we all had fresh ideas which could make the whole thing better. So that’s what we did. We put all of our new thoughts into it, mastered it again, and that’s how the album became much better. It’s like this; you go on the road after you have made an album, you make the album, you release it, and sometimes five months later you think that you wished that you had done something differently. We actually, somehow, got that luxury, unplanned, and we were able to do that. It was a very uncommon situation that we found ourselves in, but it worked.
How did it feel to have Michael Voss co-producing the album with you?
The thing is that Michael and I work really well together. I asked Doogie what he thought of the idea of working with Michael again and at first I thought that I wanted to do things differently from how we did them on the previous album which Michael had produced. Doogie had actually only sung one song on the first Michael Schenker and The Temple Of Rock album, and that is how Doogie got introduced to Michael Voss. And then when we had finished Bridge The Gap, Doogie was very impressed at just how well Michael and I work together and also just how well it had worked for Doogie. Doogie has lots of ideas and it is just a matter of selecting the ones which are suitable for using. So when it came down to recording the Spirit On A Mission album, it was Doogie who suggested that we work with Michael Voss again. At the moment it really does feel like a team.
Spirt On A Mission has been a very long recording process because we got robbed in the middle of it; some music got stolen along with five of my guitars. At the time we were already half way into the production so we had to redo a lot of stuff. It was a long, long journey. It was a very different kind of album making but we have finally caught up with it. We look at it as though the beginning of Spirit On A Mission was all pre-production and now we have to do the real recording. The result of it has been unbelievable Kevin. Doogie has sung so many great melody lines and great lyrics, it is really fantastic. There are five really fast songs on the album, and then there are two mid-tempo tracks similar in feeling to UFO tracks, and then another five heavy and deep sounding tracks. It is a really enjoyable album to listen to.
I have to say that listening to Bridge the Gap I think that Doogie has done you proud with the vocals. He sounds fantastic.
Yes you are right Kevin, Doogie has received a lot of compliments for his vocals on this album. Sometimes, like Glenn Hughes, Doogie is a great singer. I liked Glenn when Dave Coverdale was in Deep Purple with him. I was always very attracted to his voice. I have also heard Glenn being produced over in America and when people do things by themselves, or if somebody else selects what they feel is the strongest points of someone, it means that you maybe sometimes chose something that is not really suitable for them. An outside person can see it clearer so when Michael, Doogie and I sit down together Doogie has a lot of ideas but he maybe wouldn’t necessarily know which ones to select.
It is a unique situation where Michael and I can simply take the cream off of what Doogie comes up with. Of course I have an idea of what I want and so I select what fits with my idea. But yes, I have to agree with you Kevin, on Bridge The Gap, Doogie really took his vocals to the next level.
Is it true that you came up with the title of the album before you started writing?
Yes that’s right. I was so amazed that Herman, Francis and I had ended up together, that was immediately a bridge the gap moment. And then I looked at it and thought that it looked like we had all been out of the rock ‘n roll loop for almost the same period of time and maybe we had been preserved to be present at the end, at a celebration of our generation of rock. It’s kind of funny but I thought that another reason why the title would be suitable was because of being back in the loop after all of these years and bridging the gap with the past. And then being back together with Francis and Herman basically connecting to the loop of rock ‘n roll.
Having such a strong feeling about the title, did that influence your writing in any way?
I think that I have a filing system in my head and that things happen in cycles. Many people are coming out of the woodwork who, like me, have been involved with their families and bringing up children and stuff. The cycle is coming now to the point where their children have now grown up and they are asking themselves ‘what did I used to do to enjoy myself’ and the memory comes back of all of the musical experiences that they have had; watching their favourite bands, becoming a fan of a band, all of that kind of stuff and it seems as though we are all together closing that cycle, and we are all appearing again (laughter).
Do you ever regret not joining Ozzy Osbourne?
That simply would not have worked for me Kevin so that is a simple no. If I look back now then it is even simpler for me to say no. I was approached and asked to join Whitesnake, Deep Purple, Aerosmith, Phil Lynott, Ian Hunter, all of these people. It had to be a no because my assignment in the middle years was to simply do what I did. I can feel the structure and it makes sense based upon who I am, who I want to be etc. etc. It wouldn’t have worked any other way. I would have been lost in the universe if I had because I wouldn’t have gotten through that stuff that I needed to experience. It was impossible to do. When I left the Scorpions that was already a hard enough decision. I had to say no to all of these offers, and I re-joined UFO instead (laughter).
I believe that everything had to happen the way that it happened. For example, my brother could never have enjoyed what he enjoyed if I had been there and so I believe that my prophesy was to be a great guitarist and my brother’s was to be in a great band and have success on that level. Basically both of us went in our separate directions and we both became successful. Whatever happens to you in life, you need to fulfil your dreams.
I think that I know what the answer will be but do you still get that buzz out of touring?
It’s funny because people have a hard time understanding and believing this, but in a way it makes sense. When I was young I was very shy and somehow I was very fragile and extremely sensitive, so I had stage fright and because of that I couldn’t go out onto the stage without first having a few drinks. If you depend upon that to get you out onto the stage it can then turn into a vicious cycle. Of course I have known quite a few people who have been in the same situation, but for me that was the main thing. However since 2007 the stage fright has disappeared and it is almost as though I have been preserved for the finish. It is almost like my life structure has been in the beginning; focusing upon guitar playing, then in the middle I will work more on a personal level, and in the end I will celebrate all of this. This is what it seems like to me.
All of a sudden I can be on the stage and I don’t even feel nervous. I feel like it is my place up there whereas in the beginning I was thinking ‘what am I doing up here’ (laughter). I simply couldn’t understand why I was choosing to be on the stage if I was suffering from stage fright. It never made any sense to me. But today I can actually see a few answers as to why I have been involved in everything that I have been involved in over the years. It is kind of starting to make sense.
You are playing Rock City here in Nottingham later this year where you always appear to have a good time. Do you enjoy playing there?
Absolutely, it’s amazing Kevin. In fact playing in England in general is now going back to how it used to be for me. I really do have a lot of fun being able to enjoy all of this one more time. It’s fantastic.
What would you say has been the highlight of your career so far?
I am now looking at life differently Kevin, and it has to be the now, it always has to be the now as this is what I have developed in to. This is now my most important moment.
Has any one person inspired you musically?
Well Kevin I think that I was born as a musician. But I think that what happens is that the guitar inspired me. Standing there, putting one note together with the next; how incredible that feeling was. But then the main thing is when you hear something that rings a bell, and you know that has something to do with you (laughter). The first time that I heard Led Zeppelin on the radio for example, was a fantastic experience. All that it was doing was telling me ‘Michael, this is your path. This is who you are’. It is basically that style of music; the distortion with the amplifier, the amount of emotions that you can put in there, what you can express with those components. It is the perfect situation in which to express yourself. That’s basically what it is. You hear something and you identify yourself with it and you think ‘this is who I am’. It just wakes you up to who you are.
When you first played with The Scorpions at 15 years old could you ever imagine that you would still be in the business over forty years later?
I have never worked Kevin, I have always been a musician (laughter). I have never worried if I had much money or little money because I was happy as a musician. I was happy with the fascination of the six-string guitar. My mother and her friends would laugh at me and ask me what I was going to be when I grew up (laughter). I always replied that I was going to be a musician (laughter). That to me was as clear as anything because I wasn’t even thinking of making money, or being rich, or having something like a big house; I had no concept off that. There was only ever one thing for me.
I was walking down the road after I had heard Jeff Beck in concert and I was singing to myself. I was singing guitar licks but crazy ones that didn’t exist (laughter). In my head I could hear myself saying ‘this is what I am going to be doing’. I have always been fascinated with it; it is my place, period.
Do you have a single ambition that you are yet to achieve?
Basically, the universe is the driver and I am just in one part of the train. I do my part and basically I try to develop to understand more and more the now and the joy of the moment. That is my focus. I want to live on a day by day basis and reap the results of the past, which will reveal itself in certain ways which make you understand more. That is what I am enjoying.
After the tour what next for Michael Schenker?
Well we started the Bridge The Gap tour way back in January in America which although it didn’t start as I wanted it to, it gave me the opportunity to introduce Doogie. We had started the album line-up whilst we were over in Japan and now we are in Europe and then we move onto the UK. Then the Bridge The Gap tour will be finished. We will then release the Spirt On A Mission album which is how I see myself; I am a spirit on a mission. I am writing music from a place of pure self-expression. That’s basically who I am and that is what I see myself as.
The next step is going to be the release of the new album in March and then we will be putting together the world tour for that album. We will also be touring Australia this time and it will certainly be a much bigger tour than we have ever done in the past.
You will remember us here in the UK and come back to see us again?
Absolutely, the UK is always part of my tours. We are going to be touring the Spirit On A Mission all around the world next year.
Michael I hope that everything goes well for you.
Thank you very much Kevin.
Thank you for taking the time to speak to me.
Thanks very much Kevin. You take care, bye for now.
2014 Tour Dates
|Wed 10th December||Newcastle O2 Academy|
|Thurs 11th December||Glasgow O2 ABC|
|Fri 12th December||Nottingham Rock City|
|Sat 13th December||Manchester Ritz|
|Mon 15th December||Leeds O2 Academy|
|Tues 16th December||Bilston The Robin|
|Wed 17th December||Norwich Waterfront|
|Fri 19th December||Bristol O2 Academy|
|Sat 20th December||London O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire|
PLANET ROCKSTOCK PRESENTS MICHAEL SCHENKER ON SATURDAY 6th DECEMBER 2014