Interview: the weird wisdom of Michael Schenker

Michael Schenker
(Image credit: Nuclear Blast)

It's the hottest day of the year outside, but Michael Schenker is still wearing his trademark fur hat. It's the kind of thing Turkmenistani cattlemen wear to keep the cruel winter at bay, but it looks equally at home atop the guitarist, even at the height of summer.   

We're talking to Schenker because he has a new album out, but he's not cooperating. We've asked him to talk about his favourite songs from his own back catalogue, but he's decided that this isn't a good idea. Instead, he just wants to talk.  

Schenker is extraordinarily charismatic. He leans forward, and he fixes you with his pale blue eyes, and he flashes a gleeful smile, and it feels like you're about to be let in on some kind of wondrous secret. And he talks.  

He talks about things without being asked. He talks in a way that suggests that, if you were to ask him the same questions tomorrow, you might get completely different answers. He talks in a way that doesn't always make sense. He often talks with giddy excitement. And he's absolutely fascinating.  

I can't give you a list of my best songs

"I went on Google and got inspired by the titles. And I could give you ten songs, but a fan would be like, 'What’s the matter with that guy? What about this song? What about that song? You know?' 

"I ended up with a top ten, and then I ended up with a top 20, and then I ended up with a top 65, and so on. So basically, honestly, I can’t give you ten songs as it would not be fair to me or to my past. There are so many songs! 

"I’ve made over sixty albums or something like that, apparently. Times ten or twelve and you see how many songs there are. And I don’t mess around, you know? It's like going treasure hunting and looking for gold. I enjoy the journey itself but when I find the gold, I take it and collect it."

You shouldn't compare eras

"If I look at my musical career I look at very different things. For me, it's one journey up until this point, and there’s lots of developments and changes, but I always stay Michael Schenker. 

"Every moment in time has different surroundings and external circumstances that make a difference. If you hear a song six hundred years from now it will sound completely different based on what is happening at that time. If you put a Jaguar in Germany the car comes across differently from if you put the car in Los Angeles. 

"The surroundings make a difference, and because my life as a person and a musician has been a consistent development, I can’t even compare a song from the eighties and a song from the seventies. They're completely different situations."

"I don’t follow trends, and because I don’t follow trends I'm not part of any category. I am more of a timeless writer. I am not part of the trends. 

"If anything, I develop trends. In the seventies I developed something that was used in the eighties, and then I withdrew and focused more on the school of life, and experimenting with music, and stuff like that. 

"Ozzy Osborne would never have made any money with me. He would have been very frustrated. She [Sharon Osbourne] would have shot me probably, but it all worked out for everybody, because the The Scorpions got what they wanted, Ozzy got what he wanted and I got what I wanted. I stayed true to myself."

I don't listen to music

"I just do what I love. I could never have a conversation about guitars, because I don't know the technical terms. I can't even have a conversation about music, because I don't communicate on that level. I just play.

"I know that every person is unique, so there's a lot inside each person that nobody knows. If you decide to share some of that, you're adding something into the world that hasn't been there before. 

"That's what I did with music. Right from the very beginning, when I was 17. I stopped listening to music, I stopped copying people. I just put out new colours. I'm up to 14 years of no music. No music. No radio. Nothing. It's pure self-expression." 

The lead guitar is pure

"I fell in love with heavy metal when I heard Led Zeppelin and and Black Sabbath, and I use that as a screen. Of course, I'm not playing what they did. I put my own screen together. It's not jazz, and it's not pop. It's metal.

"I use that screen to put my lead guitar on. Each note has to have a meaning. If you have three notes, what's going to be the fourth? The one that gives you goose pimples? 

"That's what I do when I wrote things like the intro to Holiday. Or Try Me. Or Doctor Doctor. My fascination is with the single string, and what you can do with it. There are endless combinations: Hit a string twice. Hit a string three times. Hit it twice. Leave a gap. Hit it again. Make vibrato. Don't make vibrato. Let it sustain. It goes on and on and on!"

"I still have a way of putting meaning behind notes, even if I play fast. Playing fast is usually very technical: there's no vibrato, no emotions. But if you consciously put those fast notes together, you can ensure that each note – if you play them in slow motion – comes from a really good place. And then, when you play them fast, it will still be effective." 

Don't regret anything

"I'm sitting here today, and I'm quite happy. You can't regret anything, because every choice and every move brings you to the next destination. If we make too many wrong choices we can end up towards the dark, and everything gets darker and darker. If we makes the right choices we end up towards the light. 

"In other words, you feel happier and more unhappy, based on the choices you make. If you take shortcuts, it will backfire later, and bring you trauma or unhappiness. But if you're true to yourself, the feedback is great. I'm happy."

Fraser Lewry

Online Editor at Louder/Classic Rock magazine since 2014. 38 years in music industry, online for 25. Also bylines for: Metal Hammer, Prog Magazine, The Word Magazine, The Guardian, The New Statesman, Saga, Music365. Former Head of Music at Xfm Radio, A&R at Fiction Records, early blogger, ex-roadie, published author. Once appeared in a Cure video dressed as a cowboy, and thinks any situation can be improved by the introduction of cats. Favourite Serbian trumpeter: Dejan Petrović.