Unlocking the Michael Schenker Festival

Sound pilgrim reveals the combination to his “whole story”

Ingenious, really, taking ALL your vocalists on tour. In this case, that’s nearly 40 years’ worth. Gary Barden, Graham Bonnet, Robin McAuley, and Doogie White all orbit a red-hot turbine at the center, German guitarist Michael Schenker, 64. Lightning rod to Seventies Scorpions and UFO, his supersonic melodies pause at Empire Control Room on Saturday.

Michael Schenker

Austin Chronicle: Michael Schenker Fest allows fans to experience a huge swath of your musical history all in one go.

Michael Schenker: Fantastic, yeah, that’s the idea. Michael Schenker’s Temple of Rock with Michael Voss and Doogie White, we came to the point after having toured five years and made two DVDs that we needed a break. That was the time I realized I hadn’t performed my most popular music with the original singers. That’s when I had the idea.

In 2016, we did our first show and it was all family: Gary Barden from Michael Schenker Group – the Eighties, that decade – Graham [Bonnet] from Assault Attack, which became a musician’s favorite, and Robin McAuley from McAuley Schenker Group. Then I invited Doogie White, so I had the current and past all combined together. All the spread energy over the years, I basically collected it all together, put it in the middle, and have one band now, so no energy’s been lost. It’s all there.

We started off in 2016 at Sweden Rock, and then from there we just went very slow, in baby steps, moving forward, not controlling it. This is a pretty difficult undertaking because everybody in the band is spread all over the planet. At the same time, it’s so effortless, because everybody wants to be there. I believe if things happen that smoothly at that level, if people want to be there, it’s something that’s meant to be. That’s the fantastic part, seeing it in one go, in one night – for the newcomer, for the hardcore fan, and for people like yourself who have never seen [me] – must be amazing.

AC: Looking back on the Eighties, how do you view that time in your life and career?

MS: My assignment in the Seventies was to create something for the Eighties. In the Eighties, Michael Schenker fans – and Deep Purple fans, Black Sabbath fans, whatever – they started using what the Seventies created and simplified it. They made it more accessible to the audience and commercialized it, so that rock music was easily understood and many people became musicians because of it. Those guys were not the perfect musicians. They simplified it so much that the audience thought, “Maybe I can do that too.” As a result of that, many people became musicians. I think there’s a place and a time for everybody to be part of a clockwork.

“Then [manager Peter Mensch] wanted to change Gary Barden and have David Coverdale in the band. He wanted to connect me. He wanted to do big business with me. I’d just left UFO, so I was in the big business, but I wanted to do small business.”

My time was the Seventies. I didn’t chase anything. I just had fun playing. Then, when I reached the end of my first step of development with [UFO’s] Strangers in the Night and [ Scorpions’] Lovedrive, all of a sudden people said, “Michael Schenker is God.” I didn’t know what to do. That’s when I decided to withdraw. I experienced fame and I was able to decide for myself if I wanted to continue in this money-making machine or if I wanted to carry on with my expression and experimental music, because I was overflowing with creativity. All sorts of stuff was going through my head, which didn’t go down well with Ozzy Osbourne, Aerosmith, Deep Purple – all these bands. They would have hated if I joined them.

In the middle years, the Eighties, that was the point where I left the spotlight. I found an unknown singer, Gary Barden, with a nice, bluesy voice, and we got on with it in order to do something experimental without being pressured to do big things. My manager Peter Mensch, from the other side of the planet, he had bigger ideas. The first step was the right direction: to put together my own group. So Peter Mensch put it together for me, with Cozy Powell on drums and [UFO’s] Paul Raymond.

Then he wanted to change Gary Barden and have David Coverdale in the band. He wanted to connect me. He wanted to do big business with me. I’d just left UFO, so I was in the big business, but I wanted to do small business. Peter Mensch was in big business, so I couldn’t just drop out that easily, but I carried on having my own band and that’s the eras of Gary Barden, Graham Bonnet, Robin McAuley, and then later Doogie White.

When I wrote “Into the Arena,” that was my time in the Eighties to be more involved in the second step of my life, the school of life. I had to learn to deal with things, to learn from life, to go with development on a personal level as well as experimenting with music. As a result of that, I got fulfillment from following my heart. When you’re true to yourself, everything else comes to you. That’s exactly what’s happening to me right now.

Basically, the Eighties were my most popular music. Of course UFO was the most popular music I created and the stuff with the Scorpions, Lovedrive, but [Scorpions singer] Klaus [Meine] and [UFO frontman] Phil [Mogg], that’s a different story. If that’s meant to be at some point [in the future], then that will happen too, but I decided to at least do the Eighties with the great singers I had. When I decided to do that, it was like they were all waiting for it. Everybody was happy to do that, and that was a great thing.

AC: So when and where did your love for guitar originate? Were your parents musical?

MS: I think my parents were very peculiar. They loved to play, but they couldn’t, really. They had the passion, but they never followed through being in control of an instrument. They loved to play, though. When my dad played violin, it didn’t sound like much, but his face lit up. He was happy. My mum the same way: She just did a few notes on the piano – there wasn’t much there – but the face lit up. So I think that’s where the passion comes from. It’s the true connection – a pure connection to music. Not necessarily being a master of it, but enjoy playing an instrument.

AC: Obviously they passed that passion off to you and your brother Rudolf.

MS: Yeah, my brother is more like my parents: He can’t really play, but he wants to be a musician. And I guess that was more true when he started, but by now it’s become something very peculiar and opposite, and I don’t really recognize him at this point.

AC: What was your first guitar and how did you come by it?

MS: Well, my first pair of underpants I probably got from my brother. The first pair of socks I probably got from my brother. The first pair of trousers I got from my brother. Everything I got was second hand, worn, and used by Rudolf, who was six and a half years older than me. Which was actually a very great thing for me, because it supported humbleness. You don’t have to be addicted to luxury or be desperate for luxury. You can live a simple life or a life of luxury. Neither had to be it, so as a result of it, I’m very flexible with being poor and being rich.

I have been very rich, and how I became very rich is a remarkable story in itself, but when I was rich, I was both happy and sad – so I knew it wasn’t the money. And when I was poor, which I’ve also always been, I was happy and sad. So I had the biggest questions answered early in life. Having the experience of being famous and knowing what it feels like and realizing it’s not a necessity, that made it easy for me to enter the school of life and do as much as I can to get as many answers about life in order to fulfill the very first song I wrote, the very first piece of music, “In Search of Peace of Mind” [from 1972 Scorpions debut Lonesome Crow].

There you have the whole story of Michael Schenker.

“Well, my first pair of underpants I probably got from my brother. The first pair of socks I probably got from my brother. The first pair of trousers I got from my brother. Everything I got was second hand, worn, and used by Rudolf.”

AC: So what would the 64-year-old Michael say to the 25-year-old Michael?

MS: I would have told him nothing. I would have told him, “Just go ahead and do everything the way you feel like doing it and the place you’re going will be great.”

AC: And that happened?

MS: When I made the decision to leave fame behind and follow my heart, that’s an inner thing. Going for commercial success is an outer thing. It’s materialistic. I couldn’t chase commercial success or stay with people who were reaching for commercial success. I call it icing. So I created self-fulfillment by following my heart and fulfilled my vision by building a foundation, a cake, an inner foundation, that now in the third part of my life yields a lot of icing that I can put on the cake. I have a complete cake now with the icing. If I had gone and carried on going for the icing, I would’ve never built the cake, and all I’d have on my hands was icing. Lots of sweet icing and that would be pretty miserable to eat it without the cake.

AC: About that cake: I was listening to “Rock Bottom” recently and wondered how much the blues makes up that foundation.

MS: I look at it this way, when I heard Leslie West or when I heard Jimmy Page; actually, I heard the Rolling Stones before them. I heard the Beatles before them. I heard the Beatles, and the Rolling Stones, and Hank Marvin before I heard Jimmy Page and Leslie West. So what I heard first was not necessarily blues. It was instrumental music.

By the way, when I was listening to music, I never listened to the lyrics. I grew up simply listening to sound and included voices as sound. Not what they were singing about, just the sound. So for me, all there was in music was sound. I still don’t know what my singers today sing about. I don’t listen to the meaning. The beauty of music is the music itself, the sound, not the language. Because it’s universal. The music itself speaks.

That’s one very important aspect of my development and beginning: focusing on music. When I joined UFO, not being able to speak English was very important for my life because I couldn’t quack all day and talk rubbish, which would’ve happened if I had spoken English when I was 17 and joined UFO. Instead, we had to play music, because I couldn’t understand what they were saying. Playing music was the only way we could enjoy ourselves.

And they were talking a lot of rubbish within themselves, which I was told by [drummer] Andy Parker: “Michael, if you could understand what they were talking about, you’d probably leave the band” [laughs]. I said, “Well, I don’t understand, so don’t worry about it.” It was all about music. So that’s what it is.

Some people say to me, “I hear a lot of classical music in your guitar playing. Were you influenced by classical music?” I have no idea. I can only answer by going deep within myself and asking, “Where does the classical music come from?” Maybe I was in my mother’s womb when my parents were dancing to waltz music, because I’ve written a lot of songs to waltz rhythms. Like “Lost Horizon” is one, two, three; one, two, three. “Try Me” is a one, two, three; one, two, three. There’s a lot of songs that have one, two, three. My mum and my dad loved the waltz, so maybe I picked up on that when I was not even born yet.

“It’s an endless way of expressing yourself. It’s the most perfect instrument to go into any emotion that exists, because the combination lock is so big – endless, infinite.”

For me, I never focused on one particular style of music. Of course I loved blues music, or whatever Eric Clapton was doing in those days, Jeff Beck and stuff like that. But there was a point in my life when I said, “Michael, you have to carry on doing it the way you feel it and see it though. You have to get away from all of this. As much as you like to listen to music, you have to create.” That’s when I got rid of everything and stopped listening to other people’s music.

I discovered music is like a combination lock. You have so many combinations of one single string. One single string, with one note: you can bend it, you can hit it once, you can hit it twice, you can just hit it without bending it. You can bend it and put vibrato in it. You can hit it once and wait a second, or two seconds, before you hit it again, but hit a different note. There are so many different ways [laughs] of dealing with just one note on a guitar.

It’s an endless way of expressing yourself. It’s the most perfect instrument to go into any emotion that exists, because the combination lock is so big – endless, infinite.

AC: You mentioned the Rolling Stones. Keith Richards once said that if he were in front of a firing squad and given one last request, he’s ask to play “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” one final time. What would you play?

[Laughs] Ahhh, it’s really, really hard, because my life is like a book, and my music career is like a book. There is no favorite. It’s the book itself. And it includes everything. It’s a puzzle. My music is not finished until I’m dead. I’m not completed. I’m completed in that I can do anything I want now, because I have done everything I wanted to do, but my life is not over. I’m not in a position at this time of knowing what’s left and around the corner, but I never view any particular solo as an individual piece.

I don’t look at the “Try Me” solo as a piece. I could never tell what I like the most because it’s a journey. It’s just impossible for me [laughs]. It’s really impossible for me, because it’s a book. It’s a completion for me. By the time I die, that’s the song of my life.

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