Ask anyone these days what comes to mind when you say “The Scorpions,” and your average music fan is going to answer with something along the lines of “Rock You Like a Hurricane” or “No One Like You.” For a number of die-hard fans, they will say “Go back to 1973…you’ll hear something very different.”
Those were the days when The Scorpions were a young, eager rock band from Germany, with burgeoning hits like “Speedy’s Coming” and “Steamrock Fever.” At the center of it all was guitar wizard Uli Jon Roth, a Hendrix-inspired, new breed of rock guitarist. After leaving the Scorpions of his own accord in 1978 (an amicable split due to artistic differences), Uli has carved his own unique path on his musical journey from seamlessly fusing rock and classical together, to creating his own unique brand of guitar, all while honing his craft to a master level.
We caught up with Uli Jon Roth during his stop at Sully’s in Chantilly, VA in February and what followed was an enlightening conversation about music, technology, and a bit of rock history.
Tell us about the current tour, and what you’ve been up to lately.
I’ve been up to quite a few things. The current tour has got one main theme, and that is my 40th anniversary with the Scorpions, meaning that I joined that band in 1973. In fact, it was not a band anymore. We reformed the band, it was only Rudolf [Schenker] left.
Yeah, the band had broken apart, and Rudolph was left, but there was still a record contract in existence. Somehow, we joined bands. My band, which was Dawn Road, and Rudolph became the new Scorpions. Then a little while later, Klaus joined again, because Klaus had kind of retired, withdrawn from the business all together. He became a little disillusioned with it I guess, but he came to the rehearsals and he really liked it, so then we were the new Scorpions. It was 1973, it was 40 years ago.
How many times can a band be reborn?
Yeah! I mean, this is the first time I have done any such anniversary thing, I mean, 40 is a big number. For me, the Scorpions were a very important part of my life. Those 5 years were a very life-changing experience. I learned a lot during that time, and I progressed, experimented, changed, and it was a good time, you know? Now I am kind of revisiting that experience many years later, and I am finding it a very interesting experience. I am really enjoying it. I mean, some of the songs, I have been playing in my live sets on and off for the last few years, and now we’re trying a whole bunch. Some of them we’ve never even played.
Not since the album was recorded?
Some were not considered “live material.” We were a band with just two guitars, without keyboards, etc. and some of this stuff, when we played it, it just didn’t sound that great live, so we didn’t do it. We’re not shying away from these songs. I’ve got a superb band with me, and we’re doing these things justice. We’re making it sound very true to the original spirit of what it was. That’s really it, you know? You can never really reproduce them note for note, but we’re doing all the important stuff.
I think it is very truthful to the spirit of it. It feels young, fresh, enthusiastic and driving forward, and that’s very much what the Scorpions were about, you know, full of energy, full of melody, which most bands at that time, I think were a little bit devoid of that…the Scorpions had that. We were one of the most melodic bands in rock, and it was always like we were a strange mixture between this melodic, harmonic side, and rock spirit. So, very pleased with how it’s going.
I know your departure from the Scorpions was an amicable one.
Ever have any regrets?
I should have probably carried on doing the first American tour. I missed out on that because my mind was on other things. I’m glad I did the Japanese tour, but I didn’t want to do the American tour back then because I felt I really wanted to my own thing. Other than that, you know, they did their thing, I do my thing, it’s very, very different, and it’s a step I have never regretted, because it wasn’t for me. I was in it for different reasons, and I got out of it for different reasons.
Not many people would have the courage to do that.
Well, you see, for me, life is not just driven by material success. There was, of course, that with the Scorpions. I’m more interested in artistic success, and I had that with the Scorpions in the first few years, but then I felt that I wanted to go into a different direction, artistically. That was not possible because nobody would have understood that direction. It would not have fit.
Let’s talk about some of your various projects since then. In 2003, you released The Metamorphosis of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Do you have any plans to re-imagine any other classical suites in the future?
I’ve always had some ideas about doing some of these, but right now I’m not thinking along these lines. I will in the future, I will get back into the orchestra thing again, because it gave me the greatest thrill. It’s the biggest challenge, and there is so much mileage in it, so I can really push the envelope with that stuff. But I also see a lot of mileage in the exploration in rock. Even when we play these old Scorpions songs, for some reason I am seeing different possibilities in them which I didn’t see before. My vision has widened.
Kind of re-imagining the songs that you wrote 40 years ago?
We are basically leaving all the good stuff in it, but sometimes I may take it up a notch, which back then I wouldn’t have been able to do.
Under a Dark Sky is a unique work, and almost has the vibe of a stage production.
Is that what you were going for?
Yeah, it was supposed to sound like rock with a symphony orchestra, and partially that succeeded. I really like that album, but I wasn’t happy with the mix because I had too much time pressure and we had to go to New Zealand for Sky Academy and touring, and I couldn’t change that, and I was simply too late. It was one of these deadlines that I had no control over, and I had used up all my time before to produce the album, and I would have needed, like 3 or 4 weeks more for the mix to really make it the way I really wanted to.
I hope one day I can still do that, I would like to remix it. I’ve got another one in the making, though, which is a follow-up. It’s not quite as symphonic, it’s more rock-oriented. It’s written, it’s 13 pieces, and now I want to record them.
When do you think that process will begin?
I want to start sometime this year, but the first thing we need to get finished is this live album we are recording right now. We are recording every show at the moment, and at the end of the tour I want to have a double-live CD of my revisitation of this work. It will probably be called Scorpions Revisited, and it’s my selection of my personal best-of, some are songs I have written, but there are a couple of Rudolph/Klaus songs there as well, but I have had so much input into all of them, they all just feel like they are my songs. At least I feel like I am part of their genesis, and so they are part of my history.
It is also going to come out as a Blu-Ray disc with DVD and a big documentary. We are filming all the way. It will be a step-by-step account of this tour, the making of it, so to speak, and to cap it all off, there will be one hour of never-before-seen Super 8 footage that I personally took of all the Scorpions tours while I was there. All the backstage kind of stuff, when we are outside, and I think that footage is the only footage that exists from that time. It’s not concert footage.
Should Klaus and Rudolph worry about this?
No, no, they know, it’s all good.
No embarrassing moments?
No, there are none. Well, the most embarrassing is when Rudolph is walking on a rooftop in the city of Bern, Switzerland, and he’s shaving, he was just clowning around. I think he was in his underwear. That’s as embarrassing as it gets, but he was just doing it to make a crazy video moment. There was nothing…you see, with the Scorpions were almost a clean-cut band.
No destroying hotel rooms?
No, we did not when I was there. There were no televisions out of the window, no depraved kind of ongoings, very little drugs. I think one of our drummers liked to smoke the peace pipe a lot. We all hit the occasional bottle onstage. I did that myself for like a few years, then I stopped completely. I always played completely sober onstage, up to the present day.
That’s as far as it went, but the great thing about these videos is they really capture the vibe of what it was back then. They are color, and Super 8, and they are well shot, because I was trained by my dad in the art of photography when I was very young, so it looks like somebody knows what he’s doing. The only thing is I’m never in it! There are very few scenes where I am in it, because whenever I handed the camera to somebody else, you get the totally jerky kind of one-offs and I just couldn’t take that, so in the end I was just always the cameraman, so it looks like a four-piece band.
It’s the early Scorpions as seen through your eyes.
Absolutely. I even have the first television show that we did, extensive stuff in the daytime, or when we were walking the streets, sightseeing, a lot of Tokyo Tapes, and Hong Kong. I have always had that camera rolling. It’s nice historic footage.
What’s your take on the way music technology has progressed? For instance, someone who grew up in the days of vinyl as opposed to someone growing up today in the digital age?
Good question. I have mixed feelings. I embrace the digital technology, but I do see its weaknesses. In the beginning, compact discs were a huge novelty but they were 12-bit. Then they make them 16-bit. They are still 16-bit. So the stuff that we are producing in the studio sounds a lot better than what people are actually hearing. In fact, in recent years, thanks to Steve Jobs, and people like that, we’ve regressed to Mp3s, which sound pretty horrible most of the time, compared to what we are hearing in the studio.
Vinyl, of course, was a different animal altogether. There are certain sounds on vinyl that you just don’t get from any other medium, and I kind of do miss that sometimes. However, even vinyl had its shortcomings. I remember we were pressing these albums, and when you came to the center of the album you had to be careful with the levels, it started to distort. There were problems with phases, you had to be careful with the phases otherwise the needle would jump up. Then you had the half-hour scenario on each side, which we got kind of used to. We worked around that, that was kind of the format.
I would say some bands planned an album around that format.
Absolutely. I liked kind of the yin and yang aspect of the album, the A side and the B side, it was like light and shade, and it also gave people a respite. I think a compact disc in one go is actually almost too long, particularly like with my stuff, it’s so intense, people tend to be flattened after the first track.
It became sort of a ritual, when it was time to flip the record. Part of the listening experience.
Yeah, definitely. There’s pros and cons. One of the biggest features of the vinyl for me is the artwork, the covers. They are so tangible, you can really make a statement. Every night when we are signing, people are still coming with the Beyond the Astral Skies covers, that was a particularly good one. I love signing that! They are so easy and so big. Then they come with In Trance, they come with Tokyo Tapes, Earthquake/Fire Wind, whatever. It’s like you’re meeting old acquaintances when these albums are in front of you.
I remember buying my first album which I think was [Cream’s] Fresh Cream back in 1966. I still remember what it was like to buy these vinyl records, it was exciting! You don’t get the same level of excitement with a little compact disc. It’s just too nondescript.
What about going on iTunes to purchase music?
Oh, forget iTunes! To me, iTunes is a great idea to make money for the big corporations. It is not good for the musicians at all, it’s the kiss of death for art as we know it. What it does, it turns music into something…it completely devalues music in the sense that it is just too easy to get, and it turns people into music junkies.
There’s just nothing special about it anymore, because nothing is being celebrated. You know? When you actually put on the cassette tape, or when you put on the needle, it’s almost like some celebration. Ok, now we are making a dedicated effort and it’s like we are entering that room that only that album can present.
With iTunes, most of the kids have no relationship with any of the artists, it’s just “I like that song, I like that song.” It’s like going into a McDonald’s shop. Basically what it is, it’s inflation galore. Less is sometimes more. I’ve seen people in love and in tune with iTunes. Some people seem to know how to work it and they are really good with it. Some people are music junkies anyway. They listen to music all day long. For these people it’s great, however I’m not one of them. I listen to music rather rarely. When I do it’s always something special. I never have it going on in the background. It drives me nuts. I give it my full attention, otherwise it just drives me nuts. It asks for my full attention.
You mentioned Cream. What were some other early records that you remember that really helped either influence you or drive you into wanting to go into music?
Well, Cream was definitely at the forefront for me. Clapton, the whole vibe of Cream. Hendrix a little bit later. It was more complex.
What about earlier? Do you remember any early albums that made an impact?
Earlier, it was just Beatles. I was a Beatles fanatic. Before I touched the guitar for the first time, I knew all their songs backwards, by heart. I’m glad about that, because it gave me a very good grounding in the melody at its finest, in harmony at its finest. They were incomparable in the entire field of popular music, even to this day. Probably nowadays a lot of the kids are maybe finding it hard to see what we saw in the Beatles, because it does sound a little dated when you hear the sheer sound of it, at least to my ears.
Do you think it’s hard for them to grasp the incredible shift in music that was happening back then?
I don’t know. It’s always difficult for people to look back into history and to understand history, for all of us. Some people are good at it because they get in tune with the past, and they get into the timeframe as much as possible, and then they understand these things, although you will never completely understand what it was like at the time of Mozart, of Beethoven, Bach, and earlier artists.
It would be hard to grasp that it was “pop music” back in those days.
Exactly, but that [the Beatles] were 40, 50 years ago, and that already feels like an eternity in some respects. In other respects it feels like yesterday.
Tell us about your Sky Guitar. It’s a very unique guitar. I know that Dean Guitars did a limited run – are there any plans on doing another run of your guitar?
Yeah, this limited run is not yet finished. We are approaching the end. Yes, we are thinking about doing a more affordable consumer model. That was the idea from the beginning. The first edition is basically for collectors, and for people who can afford it. I wanted to build it as good as we possibly could, without looking at the monetary implications, and they are expensive. The pickup system alone is 1800 pounds, or $2,200. That’s just the pickups!
It’s fully plated with 24 karat gold, you have lights in the frets, I mean it’s singing and dancing, and the finest woods, each guitar is completely hand-built and numbered, and I give each guitar a personal name after I have checked it. It’s a work of art, and the beauty is I can pick up each of them, and I can play it at the show, and they work just like mine.
When we go to a consumer model, it will be considerably less expensive, and it will be a little bit less good. It will still be a Sky Guitar, and it will play like a Sky Guitar, you will be able to do the high notes. But a hand-built guitar is a hand-built guitar. If you have a master craftsman, in my mind, to me that is always superior to the guitar that is largely machine-crafted, which most guitars nowadays are. They call it CNC.
Who are you holding there? Which guitar is this?
This is Lionheart. The Lionheart Sky, named after my favorite cat, who died virtually a year ago while I was in Phoenix on a tour bus, just in the back like we are. My friend rang, and I just couldn’t believe it, because that was my baby for 17 years. I am still very attached to that cat, he was so perfect, so sweet. [points to another guitar] That one is Jeanie, Jeanie Bianca, that was his mom. She died the year before. The reason why they have these names is because this guitar, this Lionheart guitar, I got it and he built it in the month my cat died. I had it a few days before, and the fur reminded me of that, so to me it’s Lionheart.
That were both white cats, white birman cats, and this one, [points to Jeanie] it was the same story. I got this in 2010, a few months before the other one died and I remember I was on stage in Albania. We played with Over the Rainbow, Jürgen Blackmore’s band with Joe Lynn Turner singing, and I played that guitar, and I came off the stage and I had a phone call “your cat has just died.” I was very attached to them, you know, when you have pets for so long, it’s almost like they are total members of the family. I love animals, I love all animals, and I feel strongly about them. That’s the only reason why I am a vegetarian. I’ve been a vegetarian since the Scorpions days, only because of the animals. It’s not that I didn’t like the taste of meat, it’s just one day it clicked, and I thought that I didn’t want to go there.
Tell us about the Sky Academy.
The Sky Academy is a vast subject, really. It’s not something I can explain in a couple of sentences. First of all, it’s basically like a seminar that we started in Los Angeles 7 years ago. Since then we have done 7 more in Los Angeles, but gradually we are doing them in many different countries as well, like England, Germany, even New Zealand, France. It’s a seminar for people who really love music, and who are interested in getting a different kind of eye, and enhancing their point of view, and connecting to music in a different way.
Sounds like it’s way beyond your typical guitar workshop.
Way, way beyond a typical guitar workshop. Naturally, because I am the main protagonist there, there are mainly guitar players in the audience, but there are also keyboard players, bass players, drummer even, and several non-players. Just people who love music. Yes, I am teaching through the guitar, and I’m sometimes doing techniques, but this is by no means the only story. I’m also talking a lot about the metaphysics of music, about the colors of the notes, of the twelfth notes, about the different sensations and feelings, and how they all relate, and the spiritual aspects of playing. The mental aspects of being somebody who plays onstage, or who writes.
A lot of aspects that aren’t normally thought about.
Exactly! A lot of stuff that you don’t hear about in music school. It’s not a music school, it’s almost like the school of life, because I am then bridging the gap between music and life, which is pretty much the same for me. I see all these parallels, the same laws that govern music, govern the universe and govern life. The universe is music. Life is music. Once you understand that, you can learn an awful lot in the space of one octave of music. Two chords and their relationships. People are like chords. People work within rhythms or out of rhythms, and as a musician it’s very interesting to look at these things.
I have done this for many years and it’s given me a very enhanced kind of vision, I believe, and Sky Academy, what I am trying to do is transit some of that to others. It’s really working. Not everybody is getting it. Some need 2 or 3 Sky Academies before it really clicks. Some are getting it right away, and some may never get it. It really depends. You have to be ready for it. You have to be ready to think and hear and listen differently. Once you are ready for that, your playing level will also go up a couple of notches, that’s what I’ve found.
You have to, of course, spend some time [practicing], but it’s not all about practicing scales and all this. Although, that is necessary when one is young, in order to write, and to hard-wire your brain, so to speak. But that is by far not the whole story. Once you know how to do things in the right way, everything becomes kind of easy, and you are almost entering a zone of where anything is possible, and that’s really the zone that I like to be in. I know how to get there, and I’m usually in it, and I like to be there. I can show other people the way to get there.
You’re like a musical yogi!
Yes, but it’s not like something that you can just learn in a couple of seconds, of course not. In fact, it is life-changing, because you have to change in order to get there, that’s why my first question usually is “How serious are you?” It all depends on the level of dedication one brings to the table.There are many different levels, and I’m not turning anybody away. Everybody is on a different part of the journey. Some people are on this kind of level in some respects, and in some respects not quite as advanced. Nobody’s advanced in all the levels, so I’m not turning anybody away.
Sometimes we even have beginners, and I enjoy speaking to them just as much as talking to advanced people. We’re all in this together, that’s what I always feel. The good thing about Sky Academy, is it seems to bring friends together, and some friendships have been created , even spanning continents over the years. People really get into it. We did 2 days in Santa Monica, and some people had travelled even from France to get to it. One person travelled from Australia, because he’s been wanting to do that for a few years, he could never make it, but this year he did.
He couldn’t make it to the New Zealand Sky Academy, so he came to America?
Yeah! And he didn’t regret it. That’s really cool. It’s not like a cult, it’s not like a sect, it’s completely different from that. Everybody can do their own thing. I’m trying to help people to find their next level. I’m seeing myself more as a mediator, somebody who is steering the ship into maybe more potent waters. More fertile hunting grounds, metaphorically speaking. It’s hard to explain. That was my 2-minute answer.