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Interview: Michael Schenker on God, brotherhood, and being punched by your singer

Michael Schenker holding a Flying V
(Image credit: Stephanie Cabral)

For more than 50 years, Michael Schenker has forged a uniquely singular career path, either leaving bands before they'd achieved everything they could, or turning down the chance to join others who already had.   

You might think that a man who's apparently backed away from jobs with Ozzy Osbourne, Aerosmith, Deep Purple, Thin Lizzy, Ian Hunter, Motorhead and even The Rolling Stones would be work-shy, but one glance at his discography tells you otherwise. Schenker has continued to punt out albums at a wildly prodigious rate, with this year's Michael Schenker Group album Immortal being (count them!) the 28th album released this century with his surname on the cover. 

The configurations might change as he falls out with his fellow musicians, but Schenker carries on because it's what he does. "I never had any motivation to be famous," he says. "Playing guitar for me was always pure joy."

Michael Schenker's 50th Anniversary: Immortal tour kicks off later this month. Tickets are on sale now.  

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Follow your dreams

I always knew I had to go to England to fulfil my destiny. When Scorpions were touring Lonesome Crow in Germany the audience had no clue what I was doing, and I knew I had to go where this music came from. I said to my brother [Scorpions rhythm guitarist Rudolf Schenker] from the start “If an English band asks me to join I will do it immediately.” I didn’t join UFO because they were UFO, I joined them because they were English. I was like “Take me to England!” 


Success is the enemy of freedom

I left UFO after Phil Mogg punched me in the stomach, but truthfully I already wanted out. When Lights Out became a hit I got scared. I felt like “Oh shit, now it’s expected of me to come up with the goods.” That’s when the fun stopped. The end came when we were mixing [1979 live album] Strangers In The Night. We were picking the best performances from two different concerts, but when it came to Rock Bottom they chose the version I didn’t like, even though it was my song. 

At that point I thought “These people are in this for themselves, they don’t give a shit about me.” Then Phil punched me and it was time to go. I got off lightly: I’ve seen him smash people until there was blood coming out of their ears.


Fame is a fool’s game

I never had any motivation to be famous, playing guitar for me was always pure joy. Rudolf, however, always wanted to be rich and famous – he’s always been a businessman in musician’s clothing. The Universe orders things: I don’t think it’s a coincidence that once I stepped away from UFO and that rock star life, I wrote the Lovedrive album for Scorpions and sent him on his way down the path I had abandoned. I’m not sure he’s ever been truly happy since.


Be your own boss

After I played on Lovedrive album I had Rudolf on the telephone crying and begging me to stay in the band. But I had to get away and do my own thing. I couldn’t have fulfilled my own vision had I accepted that offer, or the invites from Ozzy Osbourne or Deep Purple or Whitesnake or Phil Lynott or any of the others who asked me to be with them. It was fun to be free. Those were my University of Life years. 


Ignore the rules of the game

With UFO I had it all, and then the Universe spoke and said ‘Okay Michael, now you know what it’s like to be up there, what now?’ I didn’t run for the money or the success or the fast lane, I chose freedom. I have a reputation for being difficult, but it’s just that the music industry doesn’t know what to do with people who won’t play their games.


Crisis can be a great teacher

I had a moment of clarity in the early ‘90s. I was in a limo and the driver said to me “Michael, do you know that you’re being ripped off left and right?” And he was right. So I disconnected from everybody. I wrote the Thank You album, which was acoustic instrumentals, to say thank you to my fans and my motivation was to sell enough so that I’d have a roof over my head, enough to eat and independence. 

I got on a Greyhound bus with two bags of clothes and two guitars, travelled all over the US, knocked on every radio station door and spoke to the DJs and they played my album on air. When I got home, I was a rich man. All I’d asked for was three sandwiches a day, but I ended up with three houses, land in Hawaii, a recording studio and my own label, just from that one album.


Don’t waste a single day

I realised in the early ‘90s that if I devote some time every day to the two things I value most, then I would move forward in a very consistent way. That made me progress on a daily basis. After that you can do whatever you want to do, because you’ve taken care of the important things. If you do that day after day, year after year, there is unbelievable power there.


Don’t compete, just enjoy

[Metallica guitarist] Kirk Hammett once asked me ‘How did you come up with all those ideas?’ and I said ‘I don’t know, I just had fun!’ When I was 17, I stopped listening to music: my interest was to create not consume. I never saw myself in competition with anyone. Yet I probably have more platinum albums than anyone, because my playing style is on so many other guitarist’s records!


Acknowledge your creator

I believe in a creator. I popped out on this planet and one day I’ll have to go, with that day probably not being of my choosing, so I always had the idea that there must be something beyond. I was nine years old when I saw my brother Rudolf’s guitar and discovered that I could make different sounds by putting my finger in different places. Is my talent God-given? Well, something compelled me to strum that guitar initially.


Live your own life

The first song I ever wrote, although it was credited to all the Scorpions, was In Search Of Peace Of Mind, and all these years later, I can see that that is what I finally found. As much as I can give advice, everyone has to find their own way in life. You can’t tell someone what salt tastes like unless you have tasted salt yourself.