DATE OF INTERVIEW:
MICHAEL SCHENKER FEST
23rd October 2017
Introspective and unfalteringly effervescent, the virtuosic and seminal guitarist Michael Schenker is freely and joyously living within what he’s identified and categorised as the third stage of his life - one of self-awareness and celebration. And an unexpected twist in his illustrious career as a musician has seen the spirit on a mission continue to spread “the joy of music from a place of pure self-expression” within the context of his eponymously named Michael Schenker Fest. With his successful Temple or Rock venture taking a backseat, he’s assembled a new band featuring former collaborators from his self-proclaimed middle years, that’s seen MSG become MSF. Cue the return of key, former MSG members: vocalists Gary Barden, Graham Bonnet and Robin McAuley, along with guitarist/keyboardist Steve Mann, bassist Chris Glen and drummer Ted McKenna.
Ahead of four UK shows, Metal Discovery spoke with Michael on the phone for a rather pleasant half hour natter. Bursting with affable enthusiasm and infectious optimism more than ever, the legendary guitarist explains, at length, how the Michael Schenker Fest came to be; reveals details about the reunited troupe’s forthcoming album; as well as sharing a number of interesting anecdotes from over the years and the reason why he decided to write, abandon and then destroy a planned autobiography…
METAL DISCOVERY: Hey Michael, it’s Mark here from Metal Discovery, how you doing?
MICHAEL: Hey! How are you?
(Michael Schenker on reuniting with his ex-MSG bandmates for Michael Schenker Fest)
"...if it flows, it’s something that’s meant to be. If it’s a struggle then it’s not really the right thing to do. And so, this is flowing and it’s flowing very nicely!"
Michael Schenker - live shot, 2016
Photograph copyright © 2016 - Frank C. Duennhaupt
Interview by Mark Holmes
MD: I’m doing very well, thank you. How you doing?
MICHAEL: Yeah, great.
MD: Excellent. So, Michael Schenker Fest started as a few shows in the Far East, but has now escalated into a touring band…
MICHAEL: Well, it started off in Sweden. Sweden Rock was our first performance. But, the way it got to Sweden Rock was the promoter asked us… you know, Temple of Rock was playing in Japan and if we wanted to have Graham Bonnet open the show and sing a song with us. And that’s when it clicked in my head… and it was time for Temple of Rock to take a break, anyway, after two albums and two DVDs and four years of touring. So, I announced the break and everybody kind of agreed… we needed some space; you can’t just keep on going around, around, around.
So, I thought, it’s kind of weird that I’ve been playing all these years with other singers… you know, not the original singers, but other singers singing my stuff; the most popular music. And so, I thought, because I’ve had more than one singer, I kind of had to approach the whole thing… I had to figure out which period of my life would be possible to do that. And, of course, it was the MSG period with Gary, Graham and Robin. So, we contacted them and they were more than happy to do that. Then, I had to put a band together and the first thing that came to mind was Chris Glen and Ted McKenna, who was the original drummer after Cozy Powell. They were the rhythm section for ‘Assault Attack’, when Graham was singing. And then a unique little idea popped up, which was Steve Mann, who had a connection to the McAuley Schenker Group.
And, so, it was a really unique thing; I couldn’t have really planned anything like that, but everybody was actually happy to do it. And I was never even thinking… like, you know, Steve Mann was doing an interview and said, “well, this could’ve gone really wrong.” I wasn’t even thinking like that; I was thinking, let’s play music with the original singers, and that was it. And it all came together.
And, you know, it’s so much fun to watch how they get on with each other. They’re just naturally hanging out… like, I don’t know, it’s kind of really weird. And so, of course, it’s a bit tough getting everybody to one place… one in Bangkok; two in Scotland; two in Los Angeles… and stuff like that…
MD: Yeah, and with their own schedules, as well.
MICHAEL: Yeah. It’s kind of more work, but it’s worth it, you know. It’s a lot of fun. Well, of course, for the singers it’s less work, because they don’t have to sing as much!
MD: You’ve been quoted as saying it’s “a miracle that, after all these years, a tour like this will take place with the original band members of MSG”, so does it feel good, from your point of view, to get back on stages around the world with those guys?
MICHAEL: Yeah, and we’re gonna carry on. By the way, we’re doing four shows in the UK and it’s the first time Michael Schenker Fest is going to be there and it’s also going to be the last time in that formation, because we actually just finished a CD. In the studio, Michael Schenker Fest was the original working title, but it is now called ‘Resurrection’, and it will be out at the beginning of March. I’ll do a promotion tour in December for that, and we added Doogie to it, so the whole program will change. We’ll start with the US tour, and that will be the beginning of our new program around the world. And so, basically, it has extended so I can now even perform Temple of Rock stuff, because Doogie is the original singer of that. So, it’s really unique. I can combine everything in one.
It’s kind of strange that I never really performed any ‘Assault Attack’ material, except for ‘Assault Attack’, and the McAuley Schenker stuff I haven’t played for over thirty years. It’s all been in a deep freezer, you know, sitting there!
So, step by step, it went forward. We did a show in Sweden, and then we did something else… Rock of Ages… that was actually a headline show with Graham, with Temple of Rock. Then, we did Bang Your Head… you know, just like here and there a little bit. But, it took a long time to put a tour together because you have to plan well ahead of time. So, we had a lot of time where we were doing little bits and pieces here and there, and waiting for this tour. And, of course, once we started to book a tour, and then booked the next tour and so on… once you’re rolling, you’re rolling, and then you can start booking ahead; like, a year ahead, and stuff like that.
And now, with a new CD and a new program starting in March in the United States, that will go to the next level. The CD we just made… like, Doogie sings three songs and Gary sings three songs… there’s like three or four songs they actually sung together. You know, one sings a verse, and Gary sings the bridge, and Robin sings the chorus and whatever… it’s really unique to hear these different voices singing the same lines. And we have a song which immediately was ready to become the promo song that will introduce the album. You know, when I’m on my promotion tour, I think that will be the song that will be played. And there’s some footage when we were recording in Stuttgart and it was really fun watching those guys with how they get on with each other.
It’s kind of strange because it’s such good timing, too, for this to happen, because this is my celebration time; the third part of my life. In my middle years, I got rid of all the stuff I wanted to get rid of out of my system and I’m kind of, basically, free now. I can just enjoy what I’m doing. Especially in 2008 when, all of a sudden, there was this urge… I want to be onstage. That was an unknown feeling because I was always afraid of the stage and, all of a sudden, I wanted to be onstage. And, of course, that was the beginning of the whole thing. That’s already almost ten years ago now.
So, it took all this time to get to this point, but it’s interesting to see through what one goes to get from one thing to the next. And you can’t really plan these things. When you’re a schoolkid, you can put a band together with schoolmates… “Hey, come over and play something”… you can do that but, you know, putting a whole thing together like this, with three different singers. And it was so easy, too, and it’s a bit like, if it flows, it’s something that’s meant to be. If it’s a struggle then it’s not really the right thing to do. And so, this is flowing and it’s flowing very nicely! [Laughs]
MD: Yeah, and it’s a major thing to happen, in the world of rock and metal, for the fans, I guess, too.
MICHAEL: Yeah, and we just headlined the third largest arena in the world…
MD: Ah, the Saitama Super Arena… for the Loud Park festival, wasn’t it?
MICHAEL: Yeah, it was unbelievable.
MD: I looked that up and it has something like a 36,000 capacity.
MICHAEL: Yeah, and we had Gene Simmons supporting us!
MD: How was the Loud Park experience, playing in front of that many people?
MICHAEL: Incredible. It’s just amazing. And then, the next night, we played Osaka, which was great, too. I actually lost my voice. Somehow, at rehearsal, I started to develop… I can’t speak. I started to tell the record company to get a doctor for the singers, to make sure they don’t get sick, you know, and so they all got some vitamins and stuff like that. But I was supposed to be doing an interview for ‘Burrn!’ magazine with Michael Amott and I was asked if we should cancel it because I couldn’t speak; I could only write things down. And, I said, “Let’s wait until it gets close to it.” And, all of a sudden, I must’ve started talking and not realising and, before I knew, I was sitting in this room with Michael Amott and making a whole forty minute interview. And I was actually able to speak onstage and everything… you know, it was a bit of a funny voice but it worked!
MD: You got through it, then!
MICHAEL: Yeah. We started recording the CD in June and I’ve actually just got the master sent to me to approve. And we have a new record label, Nuclear Blast, who are fantastic. They’re very well connected around the world.
MD: They’re such a well-respected label, and have been for many years. There’s a quote from Markus Staiger, the MD, of course, where he called you “the ultimate guitar god”. That must be very flattering…
MICHAEL: You know, the thing is this… I was always happy to do little things. That’s why I started MSG - I could get away from the big stuff and have my peace and experiment with music. That’s why I started MSG with an unknown singer, to just comfortably do my thing and enjoy myself, you know. And inakustik was the same thing… a cable company, but they also sold some CDs and stuff, and that was fine. But, all of a sudden, I got approached by three different record labels, and I actually didn’t want to do it! [Laughs] I said, “No, no, no,” and then Michael called me up and said, “Michael, you have to do this!” And I said, “Whaaaat, let me… I’m working on it.” Eventually, my lawyer is always the one who gives me the blessing if I should go for something… [Laughs]… and said, “Michael, you can go for it.” So, I had him behind me, and that was important.
So, it’s a bigger thing, you know. It’s a bigger thing. I’m gonna be flying around for two weeks, you know, doing promotion. I haven’t done that for years.
MD: Wow. That’s going to be tiring and good fun, I guess!
MICHAEL: [Laughs] Yes! It’s like everything is a re-experience for me. Like, there was the beginning, the middle years and, now, re-experiencing everything that happened in the first part of my life, but I didn’t know what I was doing in the first part of my life. I didn’t even know I was creating such a big musical impact on the rest of the world. I had no idea; I was just having fun playing guitar. I only found out in the late eighties and nineties what actually happened. But, it’s just kind of interesting that, without doing anything big, I have been able to enjoy myself and have my hardcore fanbase and stuff like that. Especially Japan. They’ve followed me over the years… in the middle years, when I left the scene. They were always there. They always understood what I was doing; they liked what I was doing.
But, you know, Michael Schenker Fest is such a bigger thing, with three singers and stuff like this, from all over the place, and it’s my celebration time, and I thought, you know, I’m not the Michael Schenker, anymore, I used to be. I had the middle years and I learnt a lot about life in my middle years and, all of a sudden, I wanted to be onstage. That wasn’t Michael Schenker! [Laughs] The old Michael Schenker was afraid of going onstage, so things have changed and that means, in other words, I can take on things now that, maybe, I wasn’t able to do a long time ago. But, at the same time, I got everything out of my system and so I did everything. I did electric instrumentals; acoustic instrumentals; I played with Tim Bogert and Aynsley Dunbar; cover versions; just playing solo… I did so many crazy things, musically, that having done all that, there’s actually nothing left! [Laughs] You know, it’s all completed; it’s all done. So, basically, now I can just do anything. It’s all enjoyable, and especially because it’s with the original singers and it’s the Michael Schenker Fest and it’s a celebration time. It all fits together. It’s fantastic.
MD: Effectively, you’re revisiting your middle years with the MSG stuff, but from a different perspective, and being able to relax about it and celebrate it.
MICHAEL: Yeah, exactly.
MD: So, how have you gone about putting together a setlist because, obviously, there’s so much material from you career? It must’ve been quite difficult.
MICHAEL: Yeah but, you know, I’ve been touring with Doogie and we’ve played quite a lot of my stuff, as well. Now, of course, it’s the original singers. But I always keep my setlist and I’ll make sure it’s well-balanced; that we play certain songs. And there are always people who say, “why don’t you play this and why don’t you play that?” There are so many songs we have that people wanna hear… eventually, if we keep touring, everybody will have heard everything!
MD: I’ve read in one recent interview that you want to record your next live album in England, so will this happen during the four upcoming UK dates, perhaps?
MICHAEL: Yeah, yeah, that’s something I definitely want to do; that’s definitely the next place where… but that won’t happen until when we do the new program, because we don’t want to do the same thing again. We have just released a DVD. By having Doogie in the show, and it’s a longer show, that’s going to be worth it. Especially with a CD coming out and doing a world tour. And I want to do it in the UK. It has to be done in the UK, eventually.
MD: You’ve only ever had one live album release from the UK… a Hammersmith show from the eighties?
MICHAEL: Yeah, but I didn’t want that. I mean, I wanted a live album in the UK, but the performance was so bad that I didn’t want that to be released, but they did it anyway. So, that album doesn’t exist in my head!
MD: So this will be the first UK live album that you actually want to do!
MICHAEL: Yes, what I want to release will be the first one!