Interview to Michael Schenker
by Shelly V. Harris

- Published in the Chicago Soundz April 1984 issue -

Added on 07/27/2002

Michael Schenker: The Agony and the Ecstasy

During the High Renaissance many believed artistic brilliance to be a super human power granted only to certain chosen individuals. Yet Michelangelo, for one, thought his own "gift" to be curse an often as it was a blessing. Since that time the notion of the tormented genius has a cast a powerful - and enduring - shadow that has swelled to encompass the dramatic, literary, and music arenas as well. So often, it would seem, the masters are made to pay a high price for their "divine" endowments. Ironically enough, the self-same qualities that distinguish them from other mere mortals are usually the sources of their pain.

There are exceptions to this theory, of course, but guitar maestro Michael Schenker wouldn't appear to be one of them. Even in the oft-eccentric world of rock 'n' roll few have fit the "Michelangelo Mold" better than he. Although Michael has been the beneficiary of exceptional talent, along with the inherent traits of hyper-sensitivity, perfectionism, and independent spirit, his career, like that of his namesake, has been nearly as controversial as it has been illustrious. (No easy feat.)

Rumours have run rampant in the rock world and amongst his fans since Schenker first turned professional at the age of sixteen. Second only to his virtuosity, some puzzling aspects of his behavior have made his name to gossips what honey is to bears. The press, especially, has been swift to detect the commotion and stir up the dust further. As he himself observes, "They never leave my name just 'Michael Schenker played the guitar'. There's always something on it...something over-the-top."

In all fairness, much of the hub-bub has been understandable, considering the circumstances. In many respects, Schenker has been like the wild stallion who is occasionally caught, but never really tamed or bridled. First he left the Scorpions to become a key member of the then fledgling UFO at the age of seventeen. Although he was highly responsible for the rising popularity of that band, there were "problems" and mysterious disappearances, and he ultimately would end up leaving the group at the height of their fame. At one point he rejoined the Scorpions but, in the end, the only viable solution was for him to march to his drummer and assemble his own band.

The Michael Schenker Group was formed in 1980 and has since released four albums (including the excellent "live" import, One Night At Budokan), but, due in part to inner turmoil and untimely line-up changes, the band hasn't appeared in America in four years. Last year's Assault Attack was virtually "wasted" because new vocalist Graham Bonnet had a falling out with the rest of MSG and departed shortly after the album was released in the UK. Original singer Gary Barden immediately rejoined the fold just in time for their headlining gig at the Reading Festival and to record the latest effort, Built To Destroy. Although the band toured Europe and Japan (where the LP went to #1), their statewide visit was delayed by a changeover to new management who needed time to familiarize themselves with "things that went wrong in the past".

While Schenker has always had hordes of loyal admirers in America, and Chicago in particular, the commercial success of MSG has been hindered by the aforementioned lack of touring support. As Michael observes, "I've been releasing albums without touring or anything like that, and the only people who have been buying the albums are people which play the's always the same number."

After his first Chicago show "The Mad Axeman" sat calmly enough in a suburban hotel room, bearing no resemblance to the "difficult" character I had been led to expect. If there are distinct extremes in his dark and light personality (which possibly have a role in the electrifying dynamics of his playing style), then on this occasion I was definitely a witness of the latter. Speaking softly in an unusual German/English accent, Schenker proved to be a conversationalist of startling honesty and directness - a guy who, by his own admission, likes to "put things very normal on the table."

With much experience and the wisdom of the years behind him, he seems able and willing to comment objectively on the turmoil that has plagued his past.

"When I was getting confused about touring was when I was taking drugs and drinking a lot...that's when it was hard to tour. Now I've found out, after touring 5 1/2 months absolutely straight, that it's nothing different's an hour and a half's a bit like having a soccer match, or something like that."

"When I was about fifteen, sixteen years old, I imagined things being about fifty million times faster. I would never have imagined that I'd be sitting here at twenty-nine years old and playing clubs in Chicago, I thought I was giving it up to when I'm eighteen. 'I am a star when I am eighteen years old,' that's what I said to myself. I thing that kind of energy you have got when you are young. That's why you learn so much; that's why you've got the fire. The most to learn is when you're that age."

I agree with Michael that youthful enthusiasm is great, but, unfortunately, that idealism doesn't always hold true.

"It's never true," he asserts, "unless you're lucky, but what's 'lucky' anyway? But you need that. I mean Def Leppard, they're young and they're (snap). Some other people have had that and that you need to see, some people around, for the young people to have the hope that it might happen."

Schenker himself was one of the "lucky" ones, a seventies prodigy who seemed to have it all. He had taken up the guitar at the age of nine and gave his first public appearance with the Scorpions less that two years later somewhere in a club near his hometown of Zarstedt in West Germany.

"I've got a picture of it," he remembers with a smile. "I played two numbers and I went down extremely well...I was eleven, maybe ten and a half, and the guitar was about as high as I was tall. But my brother always had the Scorpions and I used to jam with them. I used to sing onstage as well, This is the Evening of the Night. It' just a goodbye."

Although he has a basic knowledge of music ("I think I know how to read it, but I wouldn't be able to play with other people and just read it. No chance!"), hi comes from the school of the self-taught guitarists.

"There was no teacher, but I think the other people which influenced me were my teachers...I stopped buying albums which I was sixteen or seventeen, because by that time I had stole enough fro other people...I just do what I do; I don't thing there's any chance to analyze it. I don't pick up the guitar and go like, 'I'm going to play a chord now.'"

The unique style he developed, which combines both technical mastery and depth of feeling, has been, as they say, often imitated - seldom duplicated. But there is also an overwhelming melodic touch to Schenker's playing and writing, as well as classical overtones that form a compelling contrast to the intensity of the harder edges. He agrees that the classical influences are probably strongly related to his German upbringing and the fact that his parents were also musically inclined. Half joking he says, "They both had an instrument, but I don't think they could play. My mother was trying to play the piano; my dad the know what the violin sounds like if you can't play!"

Even though rock'n'roll wasn't exactly what you'd call popular in Germany at that time, the Schenker children always had the full backing of their parents, financially and otherwise. As Michael says, "That's all the support you need", but there were a few typical moments of doubt.

"They used to say to me when I was fifteen - like my mother and friends - 'When you come out of school, what are you going to do?" I'd say, 'I'm not talking about a hobby...'. But I was talking to my mother today and other people are out of work in Germany, but I've got a job - I play the guitar, so I chose the right one!"

Just at the time when people were beginning to take the guitar playing - and the Scorpions - seriously, Michael jumped at his opportunity to join the British group UFO, who'd already gained some notoriety in Europe.

"I went straight to England," he explains matter-of-factly. "I was waiting something like that to happen anyway. I was young and I was full of energy, and I knew there was the army...there were a lot of things that were making it very difficult for German people, or a person like me, being German, and having that big aim in front of me to become one of the best guitarists. Too depressing, it way, I needed some kind of hope and UFO was the best...even though they weren't as big as I thought they were when I joined them."

For Schenker the union with UFO was a period fraught with extreme ups and downs. The band reached its peak both artistically and in popularity while he was with them, but deep-seated problems were always boiling below the surface. There was a communication breakdown from the beginning (Michael spoke little or no English at the time: "All I could do was play"), and he began having personal difficulties coping with the increasing touring demands. As tumultuous as that time was, these days Schenker is able to reflect back on it with a stoic self-knowledge:

"I like to take all the dust...and go through every bad thing before I go to anything good, because I have to feel happy and glad when I have everything I would've had about ten years ago, whatever, like seven years ago. I have been throwing a lot away. I keep thinking kike, 'Oh, Def Leppard, they're lucky, aren't they?', but I keep forgetting, I was doing alright. How old was I when I did Lights Out? But I didn't use it, I couldn't use it; I was afraid."

"I remember me sitting in the car in England and looking at Billboard and seeing Lights Out up thirty and saying to myself, kike shaking and going, 'No chance! I can't go back to America and tour six months on the road. That means drinking every day, thirty nights a month times six. I can't do that! That's like 180 nights drinking in six months. I'm dead...I'm just packed my suitcase and sold everything and went. That's Lights Out. That's when everyone believed I joined the Moonies. I was just afraid, I was scared, I just went."

"But whatever happened in the past, I think I had to go through it whether it was good or bad. It's like part of life to experience the good things and the bad things. I'm not the kind of person that says, 'If I would have', and so on. It was necessary to happen, that's it. It's stupid to say now, "I could've done that different'. Would I still be sitting here? I don't know. But still sitting here, I feel better than ever because I've learned, and my body, whatever, something understands that I'm better off without alcohol and drugs, and I'm glad that I can actually do it without missing them. I think that's the best step in my life so far, really."

As Michael speaks, there is something about his pale blue eyes that is hard to ignore. They reflect both innocence and sage; like the windows of an old soul in a newborn child. Perhaps there's a lot of wisdom - for a lot of pain, but there is also optimism and, most especially, pride. On the rocky road he has traveled, Schenker has always maintained that intangible which cannot be bought, borrowed, or stolen: the respect and admiration of his peers. There's a bonafide blush on his face when I contend that it is the highest compliment a musician can be paid.

"I know what you mean," he says, nodding in agreement. "There are groups, I don't want to mention any particular one, but there are some around and they have been through the easier type of getting somewhere money-wise, you know. They have played commercial songs...and I've quite liked some of the numbers. The only problem was once the people had had enough of that because it was quick to see that there wasn't much going on - for everybody it was easy to see, so they lasted a few years and they had all their fans. Now they haven't got much respect from anyone else either. Now they are older and they are too old to do something to get respect from the people they respect. I mean they are kind of sad...they disappear..."

So, as he contemplates his current trail with MSG, it is clear that Schenker values his hard-won self-respect above all else.

"I personally don't like the cheap way of doing things," he firmly states. "It seems to be that if you go the cheap way, you can make it quicker. If you go the honest way it takes a long, long time."

But, I reckon, it lasts longer too. "Oh sure!", Michael enthuses, "It lasts the rest of your life."

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