Guitar virtuoso Michael Schenker has had quite the prolific musical career. Between his achievements as a member of the Scorpions, UFO, The Michael Schenker Group, McAuley-Schenker Group and his latest endeavors with the Temple of Rock, the guitarist has made quite the impact on the rock community, and yet hasn’t encountered any desire to retire. In fact, having only discovered a passion for performing within the past decade, Schenker is determined to keep progressing with the aid of his current supporting band.
The current Temple of Rock lineup is comprised of former Rainbow and Tank lead vocalist Doogie White, keyboardist and guitarist Wayne Findlay, and the guitarist’s former Scorpions bandmates Herman Rarebell on drums and Francis Buchholz on bass. Despite being surrounding by such an impressive arsenal of rock royalty, Schenker remains the center of attention throughout the band’s live performances and their upcoming studio album, ‘Spirit on a Mission.’
Music Enthusiast recently sat down with Michael Schenker to discuss his latest recording sessions, the challenges behind moving past the devastating studio theft from last September, his thoughts on the Temple of Rock’s upcoming tour of the United States and why he doesn’t listen to any music besides his own.
William Clark: ‘Spirit on a Mission’ is the second studio album to feature the current Temple of Rock supporting lineup, which includes members of the Scorpions and Rainbow fame. What was your mission when you started work on the new album?
Michael Schenker: Well, ‘Bridge the Gap’ was the first album that we put together with this lineup, especially with Francis and Herman who I hadn’t worked with since the ‘Lovedrive’ album with the Scorpions. So after all these years, we got together for the second album and after ‘Bridge the Gap’ I already knew what I wanted to do for the next album. ‘Spirit on a Mission’ takes that to the next level. Our chemistry was good on the ‘Bridge the Gap’ album, and I knew on this one that I wanted to involve Wayne Findlay more. His specialty is the orchestrations and the keyboards, so I asked him to provide those talents to the seven string.
I added my compositions to it and Doogie recorded his vocals, and I actually realized that Wayne had an additional chemistry that was good for some collaboration. That helped provide a kind of 70s sound with an added twist to it, so it’s kind of an unexpected outcome but also really neat and interesting. Together we came up with the idea of putting together a musical message, I came up with five songs that brought out a really energetic level, especially with the help of Herman and Francis. It’s like a train that never stops. It goes “Whoo!” and takes all the bits and pieces on top to create a picture.
There are some really good elements that come about, almost like we recovered an additional layer of sound, or a spectrum that adds a deeper, heavy sound to the energetic, melodic, kind of fast approach. There are a couple of songs that I try and play upwards, which reminds me of the era that I was in UFO. Somehow that ended up making a balance, you know? It’s like reading a book – you can start from the beginning and keeps your attention throughout the whole album, which I like to do. You don’t want to get bored, and I think we accomplished that with this album.
William: Was it difficult to move past the studio theft which momentarily interrupted the making of the album?
Michael: It was a slap in the face, you know? It was really annoying and was a really bad thing, but what are you going to do? You just have to deal with it and move on. It was a fall to have my guitars stolen and some music, but we just look at it like a pre-production and got back up. There actually was no composition, it was just the performance, so we got back to work and made it twice as good.
William: Musically speaking, how do you feel the rest of the Temple of Rock lineup performed on ‘Spirit of a Mission’? Has the chemistry between the members of the band strengthened?
Michael: Definitely. The chemistry has been great right from the beginning, to be honest. How this whole lineup came about was just sort of step by step. In a really, really weird way, Herman and Pete Way and myself were working on a touring project, and right about the same time I had to go into the demo studio to put down ideas I had for a new record.
I had just bumped into Michael Voss, the singer, and I asked him if he could help me out with the vocals. When he was here, I said, “Wow, you can really sing!” Then Herman and Pete Way heard the music and wanted to be the rhythm section, and we finished an album that ended up being the first Temple of Rock album.
But when it was time to tour, Michael Voss wasn’t available and I was left trying to figure out how I could go about doing this. So it was Doogie’s tour for Europe, and then Pete Way wasn’t doing well so I asked Herman to ask Francis if he was up to it, if he was interested in joining. We had played together before in the Scorpions, so Herman and Francis were rather happy and when he came in, that’s when it clicked, you know? It clicked that this was the unit, but I didn’t know at the time what would happen because we were touring. It was excellent and really fantastic to be onstage with those guys.
That’s when I decided to make a DVD in case something happens so we can have a memory of it, but after the DVD was made we got back on another European tour and it kept going until I said, “Let’s make a record together.” That became ‘Bridge the Gap,’ and then I already knew after ‘Bridge the Gap’ what I could do in order to go to the next level, which is now ‘Spirit on a Mission.’ It’s something that I never knew was going to happen, but right after 2011 it’s been step by step, nothing but coincidences leading up to this.
William: When you have a band that features such a formidable cast, there’s a wealth of experience that is introduced to the group, however do you feel that touring has improved the way that you create and perform new material?
Michael: I think everything helps, you know? Everything in life has an effect on everything. It’s all been just step by step by step, just the way that life goes day by day. Everything that I do contributes to a particular outcome.
William: Were there any particular members of the Temple of Rock lineup that you feel really stepped up to the plate as far as their songwriting contributions?
Michael: Yeah, because I invited some new elements, so that introduced a whole new spectrum of expression. Because Wayne is involved as another entity – he started really stepping in with his songwriting, that added an additional layer. Between Doogie, myself and Wanye, we have a particular writing form which is a much beneficial thing for the future. Considering how well Doogie and I as a songwriting team come across, we combine it all together and I personally think it’s a step forward, because Doogie did such an incredible job with some of the vocal parts that he did. That in itself alone, that’s a big improvement.
William: Would you say that the songwriting process for ‘Spirit of a Mission’ was more effortless because of the experience you’ve gathered from working with one another, or was it more challenging because of the studio theft?
Michael: No, it’s more effortless for the others than for me, because I write from within and it’s infinite. I stopped listening to music instinctively. I knew I had to stop listening to music when I was 18 and I stopped copying other people. I wanted to self express, and that’s what I am about, you know? If I looked back right now, I see my life in three stages. The first stage is based on the development on the guitar, the second is my musical contribution to the world during the 70s and 80s. Around that time the Scorpions were touring America with my brother, I withdrew to focus more on experimenting than what I could do with a commercial touring band.
I went through The School of Life; I was exploring, I was experimenting, I was tasting things, and then in 2008 I decided that it was time to get back into the loop of rock and roll and do more contributions. It appears as though I’ve been preserved for all of this now, because I’m writing from within and I’ve never really been part of writing because I had to accommodate a trend or something like that, which places another pressure. If you write freely, you can use whatever color you want. You can do whatever you want. That in itself is a reward: the freedom of expression. And that is incredible fun, you know?
If nothing else, being able to recover the love of the single string that I first discovered when I was nine years old, just picking up the guitar and strumming a note and going, “Ah! This is amazing.” From there on, I never stopped. Like I said, writing from within is infinite. If a person decides to open the soul and let the spirit do it’s talking, it’s a color that only you can open. Everyone has this ability, but not everybody chooses it. I have chosen it because that’s who I was, that’s what I wanted to do. But I tapped right into it right from the beginning: an ocean of creativity that’s endless, basically. That’s the place where I really am alive.
If you head into there, you also preserve yourself by not listening to music. Just like eating too much chocolate, you know? If you eat too much chocolate, you can’t really enjoy the chocolate too much anymore. Instinctively I knew to stay away from music and not consume what strains and takes energy, which is what helps me stay productive with my expression. I don’t always tap into that place, but when it’s time to make a record and because I play and discover on a regular basis, I always have pieces of five seconds available where I bump into little bits and pieces that I’ve captured. When it’s time to make a record I revisit those additional pieces, and that’s how it goes.
William: Turning back to an earlier point, where there any albums from your personal development that you turned back to during the making of the new record?
Michael: No, I don’t go back there because the thing is what I want to do is basically use everything that I have inside of me – personal feelings, emotions, everything that has accumulated is all stuff that has materialized which is already part of me that comes out in the now. It’s different from what came out then because then you were in a different place, and you keep going, you know? The now is what keeps you in the now at this point in time and place. I just take everything that I am and present that, basically. Fearlessly and just kind of knowing this is what I enjoy. I want this to sound like this, just really exciting.
William: Do you ever listen to other bands or albums, or do you just keep to yourself and what you are writing?
Michael: No. That’s what I said earlier, I don’t. Since I was 18 years old, I instinctively knew already that I should stay away from that if I wanted to enjoy music for a long time. There are consumers and there are creators. I focus on the work of creating, and that’s what I love to do. That’s where my passion is and there’s where I really love to be. So I already knew that consuming takes my passion and energy away from creating, so I’d rather stay away from consuming and create. That’s where I want to be.
William: Alright. Turning back to the new album, “Vigilante Man” is a choice track to serve as the lead single off the new record. It’s not exactly groundbreaking, but it’s the same style of guitar-oriented hard rock that you’re well known for. Is it safe to say you weren’t trying to reinvent the wheel with the new album?
Michael: Absolutely. I just do what I do. Of course you have other elements in the band who have their own approach, you know? And then you have a chemical reaction.
So I don’t know how Doogie – first of all, Doogie chose that song and that’s one of his favorite songs. He chose that for the single, and I said, “Alright, great.”
From his perspective, there was something about it that he really enjoys and connected with on a certain level with his lyrics and melodies and stuff like that.
He was really pleased with it, and so he was in his own little universe. It’s always who connects with what you come up with in the first place and what comes out of it. So it is what it is, you know? It’s based on everybody’s input.
William: Are there any songs from the upcoming release that will strike fans as showing Michael Schenker moving into a new direction?
Michael: Well, we added in more of the seven strings to it, and therefore there are additional elements available now. Michael Schenker’s Michael Schenker, no matter who I play with. You will always get my element as part of it.
William: If you had to decide, what songs from ‘Spirit of a Mission’ do you feel will resonate the most with dedicated listeners?
Michael: I would say straight away “Live and Let Live.” That’s my favorite song. It goes off and has great melodies and is energetic. It has a great melody and just goes. Usually I look at an album like a book, while trying to keep it interesting from beginning to end. It isn’t based on songs, but if I analyze it on the song level every song has this energy, especially with the vocal melodies. It’s all very compact, I don’t know! There’s no real Peking order! (laughs) There are highlights like “Something of the Night,” which has the technique that I developed years ago and the device which has that strange sound.
So that’s something new. I used it on the first Temple of Rock album on “Miss Claustrophobia.” It has the same technique but different melodies, so that kind of adds to the craziness that we were talking about. People may not realize that’s a guitar, but it is! They may think it’s a keyboard or something, but that’s all guitar. If people take the time to listen to the record, they may discover things that they missed the first time around. It may not be as noticeable because of all it’s input, but I like that song because it has a spooky element to it. “Rock City” is a great song for entertainment on the big stage, and “Savior Machine” is an epic with a really good riff that Wayne came up with. After adding my ideas to it and Doogie’s, it kind of became something that in the future could be a really good song live.
William: You’re currently preparing to embark on the first North American tour with the current Michael Schenker supporting lineup. What do you look forward to before you head back out on the road?
Michael: Well, this is the first time that Herman and Francis and myself are going to be playing together in America. That in itself is very exciting. Of course I’ve tried to be over there with this lineup last year after ‘Bridge the Gap,’ but the album was already going to be released and we couldn’t put it together so I did that without them. So it took until now to make it possible and maybe was good timing. We start things up around a month from now, and all throughout April and the beginning of May. It’s very exciting to finally be able to come over to the States with this lineup from the last two albums, ‘Bridge the Gap’ and ‘Spirit on a Mission.’ We’re really excited about that.
William: The upcoming run will show you sharing the bill with such names as Enuff Z’Nuff and Don Dokken. Personally speaking, are you fans of these artists?
Michael: Yeah! I don’t know if Don Dokken is showing up by himself or if he’s with a band. I have no idea, but Don Dokken and I have known each other for quite a while. We’ve also – he was actually on the ‘Bridge the Gap’ album on the bonus track, which was based on wanting to do something together, Don and myself. We bumped into each other quite a few times on festivals and stuff, and one morning I had an idea to say, “Hey! Do you want to do an acoustic thing? I have a little acoustic music. I can send you some and see what you come up with.”
So he worked on five songs and I put one of them on the ‘Bridge the Gap’ album as a bonus track. It’s something that can happen in the future if we both find the time to get together. For him actually being there at the show, I think it’s more like a local thing and the area where he lives, but I’m not sure about the manner in which he’ll be performing because apparently he has some need to do acoustic shows just by himself, so I’m not really sure yet.
William: Considering the challenges that you faced during the making of the new album, are you just ready to return to the touring lifestyle?
Michael: Absolutely! You know, since 2008 I hadn’t really enjoyed touring or playing onstage, to be honest. Period, and especially when I was younger. I suffered from stage freight and it was really hard from me, but I love music, you know? I love to play the guitar, so I ended up onstage but maybe there’s more than meets the eye. Having gone through my life of school, I guess I developed into someone who really enjoys it now. I’ve been touring for almost four years, and it’s great. I never knew it was going to be possible for me, but it has happened. It started in 2008 and it’s never stopped.
If it’s small places, big places, medium places; you win some, you lose some. I even like playing the smaller places because of the advantage of having very close contact with the audience, being under particular lighting and having the audience right in front of you. But you might have a better sound onstage because the place is a bit bigger and you don’t rely on the acoustic. Then when you play the festivals, the sound can really breathe and you have bigger speakers outside. There’s disadvantages and advantages, but I think that I’ve been prepared and trained and have developed my shows and really enjoy them.