There is no shortage of guitar heroes within the worlds of hard rock and heavy metal. Plenty of different axemen have come and gone and left their marks on not only the music and the fans, but also on the musicians within the scene as well. Pretty much any guitarist you talk to will instantly tell you who it was that made them fall in love with the instrument and the music that it can make. For many, that first introduction to a guitar god was through the sounds of Michael Schenker.
To most heavy metal and hard rock fans, Schenker should need no introduction. In the pantheon of rock guitar, Schenker more than made his mark with two legendary groups before launching a successful solo career. Now, 50 years after the release of his first album, Schenker is still at it with a new record and a tour celebrating his milestone half-century in the world of rock. I was fortunate enough to catch up with Schenker via phone recently to talk about the new record and his storied career.
First off, how nice is it to be talking about planning a tour again?
Michael: It’s great. It’s the other side of the music thing. In the studio, make a record that has its aspects and then going out to promote a new album, meeting all the fans and the happy people out there singing along and all of that. It’s fantastic.
What was the recording/writing process like for the new record, Universal?
Michael: It’s always the same, how I do it. I write the music at home and then I go to the recording studio and my co-producer usually doesn’t know what the music that I have written is all about, so he hears it for the first time when we hit the recording button and I put it down my backing tracks and he gets to know the songs while I’m doing that. He creates lyrics and melodies for the vocals, by the way. Then we put down some guide bass, guide drums, guide keyboards. Then I usually go back to the hotel after I have put down two musical compositions, and then Michael Voss usually continues working on vocals and then the next morning he plays back to me what he created, lyrically and vocally, and then we figure out if it’s good enough or not and then we go from there. That’s really how we go, step-by-step. The only thing that’s really there when we come to the studio is my musical compositions and everything develops from that moment on when I put my backing tracks down and we, on a daily basis, brick by brick, are putting together more and more things, ideas, and combining ideas. We don’t actually know how the album ends up, any album. It’s always a surprise at the end. Of course we create what we believe in but it’s always a surprise. We don’t stop until something is satisfactory and sounds like we want it.
Is it ever hard for you to come up with ideas for new material after putting so much out already?
Michael: No, I just self-express, you know. I just do what I believe in doing, therefore that’s really not happened. I don’t get writer’s block either because I write from within. I don’t copy other people; I don’t copy a trend. I’m an artist. Self-expression, there’s nothing wrong. Either people like it or they don’t but there’s nothing right or wrong because it just is. [It’s] self-expression.
How did you come up with the idea for the Dio tribute on the new record (“Calling Baal” and “A King Has Gone”) and then what it was like to work with members of Rainbow (Bobby Rondinelli, Bob Daisley, and Tony Carey) on the tracks?
Michael: That’s part of the thing, we don’t know what [things] will develop into; we have no clue. I give you an example for “A King Has Gone.” Here I am back in the hotel, Michael Voss is in working on vocals, I come back into the studio the next morning and he says to me “Look, this is what I did last night. By the way it’s a tribute to Ronnie James Dio” and I go “Ah, my favorite rock singer. Let me hear it!” Then he plays it and I go, “Wow, this is fantastic, this is great!” Then Michael Voss would say “What would you think if I got the Rainbow guys [who were] playing with Ronnie James Dio in those days?” and I said that would be great if we can get them. He got them, so we had Bobby Rondinelli on drums, Bob Daisley on bass, and Tony Carey on keyboard. Markus Staiger from Nuclear Blast heard the song and said that he had a great singer for the song, Michael Kiske from Helloween, so I said let’s try it out. We tried it out and it sounded fantastic and that’s how that lineup was born, so it just goes like that with all the other songs.
I was also wondering how the cover came about. It’s a really memorable one. Who did it and how much direction did you give them?
Michael: I did an album, my first Temple of Rock album, I had William Shatner, Captain Kirk from Star Trek, he was talking on an intro on that album. While we were working with him, I was working on his album as a return favor so I was thinking about Star Trek. I thought maybe I should have an album cover like that but my record company wanted to use the temple thing and so on. I made a sketch of it but I put it away. When I was doing this album, I remembered that sketch and I showed it to my record company and they liked it and they changed it a bit so it became that album cover.
How do you decide what musicians to work with each time around?
Michael: It’s the same thing. As we get to the point where a song shapes up, for instance, “The Universe,” has a low voice. I always say to Michael Voss, anything with a low voice I want to get Gary Barden because he has got the best low voice…manly, bluesy, vibrato, really warm sounding. Coincidentally, Ronnie Romero is Gary’s favorite singer of the new generation. He texts him at some rehearsal and it’s kind of ironic that they ended up on the same song. It wasn’t planned, it just happened to be the best combination. “Emergency” has got these funny timings [so] that would be a great song for Simon Phillips to do drums on, so we just kind of go like that. My main band, of course, is Ronnie Romero on vocals, Bodo Schopf on drums, Barend Courbois on bass, and Steve Mann on keyboards, and then we have other certain songs where it feels like it would be great for Barry Sparks, who always likes to be a part of it and used to be a bass player in the ’90s for MSG. They are guests but they are not strangers. They all have been connected one way or another. Simon Philips played on my first Michael Schenker Group album, Brian Tichy played on the first Temple of Rock album on “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.” Ralf Scheepers was doing so well on the Immortal album that I said to Michael Voss, “Can you try to get him again for one song at least?” We got him and everything worked out.
Was the new album or the one before at all affected by COVID in terms of getting them made?
Michael: Both albums were made in the pandemic so we did Immortal not knowing how long the pandemic would last and then we had plans to tour but had to postpone and cancel those. Eventually it was time for a new record but we never promoted Immortal so now we have Universal out and it’s doing well and the doors are open for live shows for both albums.
I imagine the fan response to the album has to have been incredibly gratifying. How excited are you for how fans have been receiving it?
Michael: It’s great, absolutely fantastic. They turned out really, really good and both albums ended up high in the charts. It seems to be that people love it. I love it. The outcome is always a surprise [but] it’s a great surprise. Michael Voss has always been a great engineer. I can always count on him. He’s very good at programming drums and so on, so he understands what I’m looking for very easily because he’s an ’80s fan, an MSG fan, a Gary Barden fan, etc. We have been working together for 12 years so it works well.
I wanted to ask about the song “London Calling” since I’m also a big fan of Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, and those types of bands. How did that song come about?
Michael: Michael Voss was writing the lyrics and, like I said, he’s an ’80s fan so I think he goes into his fantasy world. He wanted to be part of the ’80s but he was born too late and he really has a hard time accepting it [laughs]! So he writes lyrics about it and fantasizes about it and expresses how it affected him. Maybe parts of it are about me but it’s Michael Voss, he’s responsible for the lyrics.
It was a great time, by the way. London in those days, when I came over in ’72 I was seventeen-and-a-half years old and it was fantastic. Kensington High Street where everybody was getting their clothes made or buying it, the fashion was amazing. There was the Marquee Club and all these different little clubs and all these bands developing there, and big bands coming from there like Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Black Sabbath. It was a fantastic time.
While we’re looking back, what got you into playing guitar in the first place?
Michael: I was always very into music and Rudolph (Schenker) had the whole room full of pictures of the Rolling Stones and Elvis Presley and he wanted to become a famous rock star, so we had all of these pictures on the wall and then, of course, we always had the radio on. There was always music on the radio like The Rolling Stones and The Beatles and all that. Of course that meant that seeing all these pictures with all these people holding guitars; the guitar became a favorite instrument. Once there was the first guitar in the house, I had to figure out what it was all about and I developed very, very quickly and I had a love to explore and I developed very quickly. I became my brother’s guitar teacher and had my first band when I was 11-years old, and a second band when I was 13, then when I was 14 teamed up with Klaus Meine from the Scorpions. When we joined the Scorpions, we did the first recording, Lonesome Crow.
What about playing that instrument and this type of music has kept you with it for decades?
Michael: It’s self-expression. I’m devoted to self-expression as pure as I can get it. When I heard Black Sabbath and the distortion, I realized that when the distortion was sustained, that was adding to the combination of how to express, so the guitar for me became the best instrument for self-expression. That’s when I decided to purely self-express. Actually, all the guitarists I liked from the late ’60s, early ’70s like Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Rory Gallagher, Eric Clapton, Johnny Winter, Leslie West, all those people had their own style and I was fascinated by that. I wanted to do something [like that] and create my own style and that’s how I got devoted to pure self-expression. I started doing that very early in life because of that. I’m an artist and pure self-expression…I’m having fun with that. I’ve kept myself away from the scene and the trends and created my own style, and that’s how I got the attention of Kirk Hammett and Dave Mustaine and Slash and all these people. They’d never heard anything like that before, as they explained to me, and I told them why. It was because I’ve been devoted to pure self-expression so it’s something that I expressed that no one else can because it’s locked in myself. If I open the doors, which anybody can do who is interested in self-expression, I automatically create something original and that’s how I did it and how I stuck with it.
With the Scorpions, UFO, and then the Michael Schenker Group, you’ve always been on that hard rock and metal spectrum. What about that style of music appeals to you?
Michael: It’s the distortion. It’s that style of music like I explained before. The guitar, for me, became the most important instrument for pure self-expression. All these first bands who wrote this, it was the first time I’d heard this kind of stuff, and it left a deep impression on me and I realized that I can take that whole setup with the guitar and sustain and all of that and take it a long way. You can do anything with a guitar with sustain and distortion. You can let a string ring, you can break it up, you can hit it twice, you can hit it five times, you can bend it, you can make it scream, you can make it cry. I was fascinated. I had so much fun experimenting with it and I developed like that. I developed my guitar style.
Going back to the early days with the Scorpions through now, how much different is it to record an album now as opposed to back then?
Michael: My first album I recorded when I was 15. That was in 1970. It was released in ’72 so the recording aspect was very important. My whole career has been a consistent development. It started off when I was nine years and first starting discovering how much fun I can have with a single string putting notes together and creating something. Then, with the Scorpions, with the Lonesome Crow album, I wrote my first song, “In Search of the Peace of Mind,” with a solo in it that I stand by today still. I was only 15 years old and on the rest of the album you can hear that I was developing.
Then with UFO, Phenomenon, Force It, No Heavy Petting, Lights Out, Obsession – every year I developed further and further and further. Then Strangers in the Night, then Lovedrive and helping the Scorpions to open the doors to America for them. Then I went my own way with my own band and doing things in my own timing. I was approached by different bands to join them but I couldn’t do it because it was time for me to stick with my pure self-expression as much as I could rather than join Ozzy Osbourne, for instance, and having to copy Randy Rhoads, who was a Michael Schenker fan by the way. It didn’t make any sense to me. I wanted to self-express so I didn’t have any time for copying things, which I didn’t like to do anyway.
I had the Michael Schenker Group and was able to do things at my own pace. Later I dropped out of the machine altogether and built my own recording studio in Arizona and stayed in America for 15 years, and did two or three albums a year sometimes, did experiments with acoustic instrumentals, electric instrumentals, doing albums going from riff to riff. You can make ten albums out of one album I’ve made. There’s so much information on it and crazy stuff like that, all stuff I couldn’t have done with a commercial, trendy band, so I dropped out of the scene completely. Many people don’t even know what I did in those days and how many albums I have out and so on. Slowly I came back in. In 2008, I did In the Midst of Beauty with Gary Barden. That was the beginning of getting back into it.
How up-to-date do you stay on what’s going on in the world of rock and metal?
Michael: I don’t listen to music for over 50 years. That was because I needed to protect myself being devoted to pure self-expression. I know that putting my nose too much into other people’s music would automatically influence me. The brain is like a sponge. You copy it if you like it or not, and I understood that very early in life and protected myself. I don’t have a record player or anything. I don’t listen to music at all, not in the car and not at home. It’s a protection thing. My life is for pure self-expression and that’s what I love to do and in order to to it good and proper and as pure as possible, I have to stop playing consumer and be just a creator and an artist.