By Jeb Wright
Michael Schenker is one of heavy rock’s most colorful characters. He plays a mean riff as well. His professional career began as a teenager as the lead guitarist of his brother, Rudolf’s band, the Scorpions. On tour, the Scorps opened for UFO, and before you knew it, Michael was snagged by that band. With Michael’s talents, the group released album after album of classic heavy metal. Then he was out of UFO and back in the Scorpions…then out…then back in, and finally out for good. He created the group MSG, and guitarists around the globe followed his every lick.
As time went on Schenker struggled with stage fright, drugs and bizarre behavior. He never totally faded away, but he went through dark times that many feared would put him six feet under the ground. He survived. And eventually he overcame his demons, even though he has had temptations and setbacks along the way.
Now, with his band Temple of Rock, Schenker has returned, and seemingly triumphed over his demons. The new album, Bridge the Gap, presents the guitarist teaming up with two of his former band members from his time in the Scorpions: drummer Herman Rarebell and bassist Francis Buchholz. The album has a fresh energy and has created much public interest in the release due to the reunion of the three men who recorded on the classic Scorpions album Lovedrive.
In the interview that follows, Michael speaks of how Temple of Rock is growing and how this has a chance of becoming a permanent band. He also discusses his days with the Scorpions, overcoming his dark days and his plans to celebrate this stage of both his career and life.
Jeb: The new album is very strong and I want to know why you called it Bridge the Gap?
Michael: Basically, it bridges the gap from the past to now. It has to do with Lovedrive and Herman and Francis, who we have only done one record together, which was Lovedrive, which was all of those years ago. One thing leads to another and Pete Way wasn’t doing well and I called Herman up and asked him to get ahold of Francis, as I thought doing a bunch of Scorpions stuff live would be great. Francis was more than happy to join.
I already knew the album title before I even wrote the album. Halfway through the first leg of the last tour, the European tour in 2012, I knew that would be the name of the next album. By October, we had to add so many shows and we had to organize a second leg of the European tour. There was a half a year in between and I had to ask everyone if they were ready to make an album. I said to Doogie, before he went to start writing, “Think Bridge the Gap and think melodic.” That was the inspiration. I started writing in October and I was done by the end of the year and I gave it to Doogie and told him to think melodic. I carried on in the studio and so on. We completed the whole thing by the 31st but that was only phase one. The album was basically finished, but we had to start touring on the fourth of April of 2013 in Russia. I didn’t want to do anything from the new album on the tour because it was not out yet. I decided not to play it for them because it wasn’t going to be released for another seven months or so. I had never been in that situation before, but the good thing about it that couldn’t have been planned better, was that when we finished the tour, we listened to the music with fresh ears.
Jeb: That makes sense. You were away from it for so long that you heard it from a different perspective.
Michael: Absolutely. So many artists, like myself, finish a record and then listen to it and go, “I wish I would have done this part differently.” We had the luxury to make those changes. It was not planned, but it worked out to our advantage.
Jeb: This band is Michael Schenker’s Temple of Rock. In the past, you’ve had bands that have had so many members come and go, but I think maybe this lineup might become an actual band?
Michael: Yeah, it kind of looks like it. It is working towards it, and it looks like we are using Michael Schenker as a platform. I am using my organization by design to create and make this be its own entity. I want it to stand by itself. I have a plan for the next album where we will do it all together and we will sit together and bounce ideas off each other and see what comes out of that. The chemistry we have is really good. That is the next move. We will use more of Wayne’s seven string guitar and we will construct a Temple of Rock identity.
Jeb: Will the next album just be a band called The Temple of Rock, as a band name.
Michael: Yeah, probably.
Jeb: Tell me how you got Doogie White in the band.
Michael: We had bumped into each other in the past a few times for years. I had him sing on the Temple of Rock album “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” and that basically was crying out for more. That is really how it ended up. He is a great vocalist. He is very professional and he has a great voice and he has worked with great musicians. To be honest, in the past I‘ve never really looked for great singers. I created MSG for my own timing and my own experimenting. I looked for Gary Barden. I heard a tape and I picked him. I also sang with Graham Bonnet.
There was a time where I withdrew from the machine. I wanted to develop as a musician. My career is like three sections or stages. The first one was developing as a great guitarist who focused on pure self-expression. The middle years was about experimenting and doing all sorts of different things I couldn’t have done with Scorpions, or Ozzy Osbourne, or Deep Purple, or any of the bands that asked me to join them. I couldn’t have fulfilled my own desires of experimenting and stuff like that. I couldn’t have been in an album and tour, an album and tour, type of machine. I withdrew very, very far away from the machine and the loop of rock and roll.
In 2007, or 2008, that’s when I kind of, all of a sudden, felt like something was happening. I developed an incredible liking for being on stage and I had no idea where that was coming from because I had never liked being onstage before. Since 2008, if I look back, I am back in the loop of rock and roll and my third phase is going to be celebration. I am celebrating my own life and my generation of rock.
Gary Moore has passed away and so have Ronnie James Dio and Alvin Lee, Lou Reed and Jon Lord. You know, sooner or later, this is just going to be a memory. I want to celebrate this era and this wave of this incredible era of rock music that, for my liking, started with Led Zeppelin. I am talking about an era of Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and Black Sabbath and they laid the foundation of this Temple of Rock.
In the ‘70s, the band made the pillars and then, the ‘80s was the bricks and the clay and the roofing. It is like building The Temple of Rock. It is a building that, at some point, the people who created that temple will not be here any longer. It is a wave just like Mozart and Shubert when the classical music came out. That was an incredible wave and so it this one, you know. That is what I have decided.
It seems like maybe I have been preserved for the finder. I was most focusing on the rock music and the loop in the beginning, and in the middle it was about developing and self-improvement.
Jeb: I did love Lovedrive.
Michael: The thing with Lovedrive…it was like my brother found out that I split from UFO and it was a perfect opportunity for them to ask if I would help out. Matthias [Jabs] had just joined and wasn’t ready. I was kind of in limbo land not knowing what my next step was going to be. When I did the Lovedrive album everyone was so impressed and they really persuaded me to join the band and they got rid of Matthias, basically. I did a little bit of the tour and I realized that I could not do this. I had done this, and I had been there, but there was something else that I needed to do but I couldn’t figure out yet what it was. I was invited to audition for Aerosmith and stuff like that. I kind of disappeared from the tour because I couldn’t talk to them as I knew they would try to persuade me to stay. I just couldn’t. Matthias freaked out and he left again and they asked me again and I said, “I can’t do this, honestly, I can’t do this.” They said, “Please, please, please.” I tried again but I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t stand on stage, night after night, copying other people’s lead breaks.
Eventually, in 1980, I understood what was happening. My brother’s vision was to make it all the way to the top with a band. It was his dream, but it wasn’t my dream. I am a lead guitarist who needs musical freedom. Matthias eventually joined for good and they found somebody who was pulling on the same string and that was important. I always tell my brother that he would have never been able to experience what he experienced because I would not have been pulling on the same string, as I have a totally different dream than he has. It would not have really matched, anyway.
Jeb: I am high on this album. “Where the Wild Winds Blow” is a great track. You’re playing on the album is very, very inspired.
Michael: The thing is that I am back for the finale and that is probably why. I stepped back in the ‘80s and I opened the door for my brother in the Scorpions. He stepped forward and I was able to sit back and relax. My brother called me and said, “Michael, you wouldn’t believe it, they are all playing your type of lead guitar playing.” If I look back today, I realize that maybe it looks a bit more like this…Maybe I had a fast start. I was developing incredibly fast and I left some type of style of music by the end of the ‘70s that many people copied. Maybe that is what I needed to do. I withdrew and worked on other things that would satisfy me and curious things to experiment like acoustics. I did all sorts of different things. I kept developing as a guitarist and also as a person and then eventually all of the ‘80s and ‘90s guitar playing was all done to the fullest. There was nothing new coming out anymore and it was basically used, and used to the point that people all of a sudden didn’t want to hear guitar anymore. It was cleansing time for fifteen years as there was nothing.
I play and discover on a regular basis. I am taking this thing to the next level and I want to give it another wave of new sparks. I have been, since seventeen years old, doing this. I stopped listening to music and I stopped copying people’s lead playing when I was seventeen as I knew I needed to focus on my own expression. When a person decides to express their own color, everyone has their own color and nobody sees that color until you decide to express it. When a person decides to express their own color, then they add a new unknown something to the world. In my case, it is a style and a sound. You keep doing this year after year, after year, and you ended up having expressed so many different types of colors that come out of yourself that you have your own style. I think that is what happened. I am kind of, over the last two or three years, I am starting to discover new combinations that I didn’t even know were possible.
I am having fun doing it and it is fascinating that after all of these years I can’t believe that there are new pictures of things appearing on my fretboard; it is incredible.
Jeb: What is the Trident guitar?
Michael: I remember being in the tour bus and I said like, “You know this would be great because Wayne Findley reminds me of a Neptune.” He is like the undersea God, especially when he comes out from under the water with his big beard and his crazy hair; he looks like Neptune coming out of the ocean. I was saying, “All that is missing is a trident and he would be perfect.” I decided that I wanted to, because he is also playing the seven string guitar, I wanted to design something unique to him and make him a character. I wrote a song on the new album called “Neptune” and so that is basically the introduction of Wayne’s character. That song has a heavy song like he is stepping out of the ocean. It is like two different worlds coming together on the same stage. Wayne has been developing very nicely on the seven string guitar since 2004.
I started realizing it is another Bridge the Gap thing, as I combine what I did with the past with the present, and I add the lower sound of the seven string and it makes it more heavy.
On the next album I am planning on going even further with it. Temple of Rock will be developing and each person will be a character. It is a unique situation for me. Everybody has a history of some sort.
Funny thing also is that Herman and Francis and I, all three of us disappeared from the loop of rock and roll for various different reasons, and we are, out of the blue, back together. It’s pretty incredible. I always say there is more than meets the eye. We have a few more years to live to figure it all out.
Jeb: Herman’s drums sound good on this record and his playing is great.
Michael: Well, you see, he has to keep up now and he is under pressure. He is rehearsing every day and he is keeping in shape with his drumming.
Jeb: Tell me about the touring plans.
Michael: The album came out on the seventh of January in the US. I didn’t want to miss that release date. The world tour for this lineup starts in Japan in March. I didn’t want to miss this US release date, so I decided to start off with Doogie and introduce him and promote the album and also promote the tour that we will be doing later in 2014 with the album lineup as part of the world tour.
Wayne and Doogie and myself will be playing a tour in the United States in January and February and then we will do the world tour starting in March with Francis and Herman.
Jeb: Will you be playing a lot of Scorpions tunes with Francis and Herman?
Michael: The program is basically a lot of everything. Michael Schenker’s Temple of Rock is my music from the past and now. It is my most popular stuff. It includes my MSG stuff, UFO, Scorpions and new. Here we are and this also is part of Bridge the Gap. It is a summit of what I’ve done in the past and what I am doing now. The situation of the whole world, right now, seems to have a lot of gap bridging required and we need to get it going on.
Jeb: You have talked about many aspects of your career but just ten or so years ago it was a very dark time in your life.
Michael: The middle part of my life was very important as I was developing and experimenting and experiencing things and self-improving. It was a battle ground.
I have two tattoos on my back. One says “Born to be Free” and one says “Born to Overcome.” I personally believe that I am born to overcome. The battle ground is part of my development and it is important. I live to develop, and to learn and to grow. Nobody is born on this planet perfect, far from it, and we all go through these things where we have to do some work in order to move forward. One way or another, in more extreme forms, or in less extreme forms, the middle years were there for me to experience. Crises are not a negative thing. Crises usually are teachers. You have a crisis and you have to figure out how to get through it, and that teaches lessons. People say that whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and that is exactly what is happening.
Jeb: Do you feel lucky that you survived?
Michael: I don’t have any expectation, to be honest. When I started playing music…for me music is not scoring. You don’t get special points for it. It is just an art and it is expression. It is nothing that is good, or bad, or right, or wrong. Art is a personal expression from spirit. I have never really been chasing any fame or anything like that. I have never wanted to play like everybody or be the best. I just simply enjoyed it.
When I saw the guitar that my brother got for his birthday and he was standing in the bedroom and he said I wasn’t allowed to touch it…when he went to work, I touched it. I tell you I was fascinated from the first moment that I hit the string. I hit another string with a different note, and right then I was fascinated. I developed into playing the guitar and that was already the reward. When I got awards later on and all the other stuff is basically icing on the cake. The journey, itself, is so much fun for itself. The hard times, the good times, the easier time and the harder times are all life. You have to have a challenge. You have to have a hurdle in front of you in order to jump it. If you have no hurdles then you don’t do a hurdle run then there is no challenge. For me, it is all good fun. When the bad times hit, it is not that easy and it is not supposed to be easy, otherwise we wouldn’t learn anything. It is something that I enjoy doing that is basically my passion. I have passion to go through life, and I am excited about incredible things that can happen that we have no clue about, and it keeps me all going.
Jeb: I spoke to Matthias last week, and he said he knew you before you were in UFO.
Michael: I remember seeing him in a rehearsal room way back then. I didn’t know him personally. I had seen him and I knew who he was, but I don’t think we had ever really spoken, as far as I remember.
Uli Roth I saw play when I was fourteen and he impressed me with his guitar playing. That gave me confidence to leave the Scorpions and to ask Uli to take my place.
Jeb: Last one: Rudolf and you have both told me that one day there will be a Schenker and Schenker album.
Michael: That is what we talked about but he’s always busy and I’m always busy. Who knows, maybe it is just something that never happens but, you know, it’s a possibility.