DATE OF INTERVIEW:
MICHAEL SCHENKER'S TEMPLE OF ROCK
20th February 2015
Onetime guitarist for Scorpions and UFO, prolific German musician Michael Schenker has enjoyed a long and illustrious career under the MSG moniker for three decades (with dual incarnations as the long running Michael Schenker Group and the more ephemeral McAuley Schenker Group). However, the second decade of the twenty first century has seen him practice his art within a new context, namely Michael Schenker's Temple of Rock. Alongside the Scorpions former rhythm section (drummer Herman Rarebell and bassist Francis Bucholz), guitarist/keyboardist Wayne Findlay, and ex-Rainbow/ex-Malmsteen vocalist Doogie White, this proficiently eminent rock/metal quintet are about to release their latest studio offering, 'Spirit on a Mission'. A well-balanced effort, it successfully blends rock flavours of yore with a more modern metal dynamic; it's rooted in the here and now as much as it is in retro revelry. Introspectively humble and buoyantly optimistic throughout a half hour chat on the phone, the virtuoso axeman explained to Metal Discovery what engendered the old/new synthesis as well as exactly why he considers himself a 'Spirit on a Mission'...
METAL DISCOVERY: How you doing?
(Michael Schenker on the introspective significance of his new album's title, 'Spirit on a Mission')
"...I feel like a spirit on a mission, spreading the joy of music from a place of pure self-expression."
Michael Schenker - promo shot
Photograph copyright © 2013 Diana Fabbricatore
Interview by Mark Holmes
MICHAEL: Good. How are you?
MD: I’m doing very well, thank you. I have to say, a great new album…
MICHAEL: Thank you.
MD: Did you have any particular goals with this one?
MICHAEL: Well, I knew after ‘Bridge the Gap’ what I was gonna do for the next album to get to the next level and that, basically, was to add more seven-string to get more of that kind of a sound, combined with the typical Schenker stuff. And, in general, I wanted to get it well balanced; like reading a book that keeps you entertained from beginning to end. And I also wanted to make sure there was a lot of energy coming across, a lot of melody and heart, and heavy with the seven-strings. And here and there, in the leads, a few new elements and sprinkles that may be new and stuff like that. And great vocal melodies - you know, I’m really happy with Doogie’s stuff; he came up with great melodies. And, so, that’s what we called it, ‘Spirit on a Mission’… [Laughs]
MD: Indeed! There’s a very classic rock vibe about this new one, but mixed up with a more modern metal dynamic, I would say…
MICHAEL: Yeah, the funny thing is, the riffs that Wayne came up with kind of remind me of the seventies, so it’s kind of seventies with a twist; with a modern twist to it. It’s kind of a weird combination. And then, also, with Doogie’s vocals on top of it, and then my own thing that I added to the seven-strings, gave it an additional, interesting chemistry that we haven’t really done before. And so, that’s something for the future to be used as well.
MD: It works really well, I think. It’s like mixing up the old with the new and I think one good example of that on the album is ‘Something of the Night’. There are some very interesting guitar leads on there; I gather you used your ‘Howler’ technique on that one?
MICHAEL: Yeah, it’s the ‘Howler’. I left it out on ‘Bridge the Gap’… I was asked in Japan: “What happened to the ‘Howler’?” I said: “Oh, sure, I forgot!” [Laughs] So I remembered and made an effort to put it on this album and I came up with a spooky melody line and that worked really well.
MD: Yeah, it sounds amazing. I gather the album title’s almost like an epitaph of how you want to be remembered. Have you always regarded yourself as a ‘spirit on a mission’, or has there been a realisation of such later in your career?
MICHAEL: Yeah, actually, a gradual realisation. As I get to this point in my life I also can see, very clearly, three different stages of my life and career. As I live and keep living, I start to realise quite a few things and that’s all based on day by day living; you start understanding a little bit more and a little bit more. When I was asked that question, how I want to be remembered… it’s interesting because, all these questions, they make you think and kind of ask yourself, who are you anyway? So, eventually… I wouldn’t have come up with that thirty years ago but, all based on everyday living all these years, I’m kind of looking back at what I’ve been doing, so I feel like a spirit on a mission, spreading the joy of music from a place of pure self-expression. You know, that sums it up for me.
MD: Good words. That’s a good phrase as well, and a good album title.
MICHAEL: Thank you.
MD: Going back to the seven-string stuff - obviously, you got Wayne Findlay more involved in the creative process this time around and he contributed to five of the songs?
MD: And I gather you asked him what he could come up with on the seven-string, but did you write some seven-string stuff yourself, as well?
MICHAEL: On ‘Bridge the Gap’, I made a slow introduction of the seven-string and I also wrote a song that was titled ‘Neptune Rising’. I actually played a seven-string many years ago that Dean made me. I asked them to build me one; I was curious and interested, but I played it four months and then decided it sidetracks me and I want to stick with what I do. So I asked Wayne to develop it so he, over the years, developed it and so, when we did ‘Bridge the Gap’, I started to introduce a bit of it. And, also, Wayne has been with me since 1999 and because with this Temple of Rock, everybody is kind of a character, and I looked at Wayne and he reminded me of a Neptune when he comes out of the ocean. He loves the ocean and he loves to dive and play with dolphins and stuff. With his beard, when he comes out of the ocean, he looks like a Neptune. I asked Dean to build him a trident guitar. So I’m building him the way I see him, as an ocean god, and so I wrote this song, ‘Neptune Rising’, on ‘Bridge the Gap’, which basically means he is coming. And so, on this album, he knew that I was gonna have more of his seven-string and so I asked him to come up with a few riffs and he did, and then I added my parts to it, a bridge and a chorus, and then Doogie did his part and that’s how we got those five seven-string compositions going.
MD: So Wayne is like a guitar god from the sea!
MD: Introducing more seven-string playing into the songs, obviously with that low-end sound, it could quite easily take over the song, so were you careful that it contributed to the overall emotions of the music without dominating the songs?
MICHAEL: Yeah. The seven-string, as you said, creates that depth, and I like a bit of the depth but, also, like I said earlier, I wanted to make a balanced album. So the focus point is on the energy and also on heaviness, but not all mixed up. I wanted the faster energy songs but, because they’re faster, they need to be on a higher frequency that the seven-string may not fit. It does not kind of catch up with the frequencies; it doesn’t come across. And so, to get it hard and snappy, it’s better without. For the slower songs, and more riffy-based songs on a mid-tempo level, the seven-strings are very good for that. So I like a balance between fast and mid-tempo heavy, and then sprinkle things around it. So, yes, I was making sure… I wouldn’t do a whole album with seven-strings. You know, that would not be possible because I love that high-energy, fast stuff and seven-strings, as far as I’m concerned, are not that suited for that. But, as a balanced kind of a thing between the seven and the fast songs, to weigh that in a way so that there’s not too much of one thing or the other.
MD: Doogie’s vocals are, as always, amazing, and the combination of his vocals and your playing sounds so harmonious and perfectly matched. Has there always been a natural musical chemistry between the two of you?
MICHAEL: Yeah, Doogie… [Laughs]… I agree, the chemistry is great, and Doogie is just great, and he’s a great singer, and he’s very professional. But, you know, there was the thing – a few years ago, I realised something about the Chinese horoscope, that I’m a horse. And I checked into Phil [Mogg] and Klaus [Meine] and other people, and Klaus is a rat in the Chinese horoscope and so is Phil Mogg. So these two main singers in my career, they’re both rats… and my brother is a rat too, by the way. But talking about singers, I told this to Doogie the other day and he said, “Michael, you wouldn’t believe it, I’m a rat as well!” I said, “I don’t believe this!”
MICHAEL: This explains a lot because the rat is the exact opposite of the horse in the Chinese horoscope… the exact opposite pole, so what the horse has very little of, the rat has a lot of; and what the rat has a little of, the horse has a lot of. And so, it’s very complementary, especially in the creative sense. We cover a big spectrum of all sorts of stuff. It’s kind of an interesting thing. You know, I don’t know how much that really has to do with anything but it just happens to be that those three singers are rats! [Laughs]
MD: Interesting! You’re attracted to rats, obviously!
MD: You have the old Scorpions rhythm section in Temple of Rock, Herman and Francis, who you hadn’t played with since 1979 when you recorded ‘Bridge the Gap’…
MICHAEL: Yeah, that’s the only time I played with them.
MD: Of course, on the one album. Was the old magic there right from the start or did it take a fair few jams to start gelling once again?
MICHAEL: It’s more like this – they have been in the business longer than us and I have played with the greatest drummers, etc, etc. It comes more down to they know what they’re doing and I had a concept of what I wanted to do, so I just lay down my concept and they make their contribution to it. And you can rely on them because they’re professional musicians and, so, that’s basically how it comes together. If you know what you want, all the rest of it comes together automatically. If you don’t know what you want, you’re fishing and you don’t know what’s going on.