INTERVIEW: Uli jon roth - Scorpions, Musical Direction and Touring.
Just before an incredibly inspiring set at Evesham's popular 'The Iron Road' Bar, we had the pleasure of chatting to guitar virtuoso and all round gentleman, Uli Jon Roth.
Renowned for his part in the early days of Scorpions, Uli has advanced through a successful career, becoming a guitar legend, paving the way for generations of guitar players to come.
Here's what was said...
SCR: How are you? Other than the cold you’re sporting?
UJR: We’re doing fine, the whole band has this little cold that we can’t shake off! Ever since we did the mediterranean cruise. *band member sneezes* Oh, look at him! *laughs* We keep re-infecting each other, just this little cough that keeps reappearing. I felt it this morning, but other than that, no big deal. On with the show!
SCR: So, this is the second date of the UK tour?
UJR: Well, We’ve just been to Ireland. We did the Rory Gallagher festival and it was a nice thing to do because I love Rory and I’ve had the opportunity to have a few shows on the same stage. Not together, but yeah. We then did Northern Ireland and two more in the UK, so far, with two more to go. Tomorrow we'll be in South Shields, near Newcastle.
SCR: Was the festival set a homage to Rory, including covers? or mainly a focus on your own music?
UJR: Oh no, no, no. We were there to do our set. Most artists go there just to do their own thing. The festival is in the spirit of Rory and it’s to honour his memory as it’s in Ballyshannon, the town where he was born, though, apparently, he recorded most of his stuff down South in Cork. We did our own thing, but we did do one Rory Gallagher song. It was a very early Taste song, ‘Born on the wrong side of time’ and we really enjoyed doing it. In fact, I think we’re going to do it again, one day.
SCR: The scorpions revisited tour - Why only recently? From a fan’s view there seems to have always been a demand for Uli era Scorpions.
UJR: Yeah, that is a good question. I’ll tell you… Ten years ago, I wouldn’t have thought I was going to be doing that. My mind was always in different places and I had really disconnected from my own past, from my earlier past and for me it really was just the past. Every once in a while I’d play a couple of the old songs but it wasn’t really a full-on dedicated issue.But things have changed, y’know, and someone suggested to me to play a whole tour of these early Scorpions songs because nobody does, the Scorpions don’t this stuff anymore because they play the more recent stuff, mainly, and if I don’t do it, then nobody does it and I figured, “Yeah, that person has a point,” and then I started thinking about it more and thought “Okay, lets give it a go - step back into my own past” and that was really it and it was quite an experience and it was way more enjoyable than I would have thought because the music was quite different from the stuff I’ve been doing in recent years which has been more, umm, shall we say ‘eclectic’ or ‘adventurous’? Maybe a little more complex? But the early stuff has a lot going for it. It has strong melodies and it’s very pure, original 70s rock which not a lot of bands play anymore. Some of that stuff was… not at the very beginning, but kind of the second phase of rock right after Deep Purple, I would say.
SCR: Do you find that after your time with Scorpions they went to a more commercial sound? When you were with them, the albums seemed to be borderline Prog?
UJR: They were certainly more free flow. They were not really as calculated, but after I left their songwriting abilities kept improving and Rudolph and Klaus just wrote great songs so that had a lot to do with their success of getting bigger and bigger.
SCR: Scorps are now known for their catchy choruses and melodies, you can’t help but love it.
UJR: Exactly! Most people cannot do that, that’s a special gift. Scorpions have always been strong with melody. I think, more than anything, that has set that band apart. A lot of great rock bands are good on stage, with great riffs and the music is pleasing, but to me, Scorpions were very melodic in a slightly different way, the kind of melodies that just don’t stop going round and round in your head and I like that. I’m proud I was in that band in the formative years and we’re still on good terms.
SCR: Did you part ways from Scorpion to solely pursue your own sound?
UJR: Yes, absolutely. I mean, I was very happy while I was in the band but there was a time when I realised I wanted to be able to express myself even more freely, although I had pretty much all the freedom in the world in the band; but it was still a band within a certain self imposed framework which would have been wrong to compromise. So I started writing songs that didn’t fit that framework anymore. I wrote two different types of songs when I was with them at the end... like ‘Sails of Charon’ - that was suitable but then I wrote other stuff like my ‘Electric Sun’ stuff and that was totally not suitable for Scorpions which would have been like a deal breaker. Really I had no choice but to leave, it was a very natural progression. A lot of people thought I was crazy, but only if you see it just in terms of material success, which most people probably would do, but I was driven by a different kind of instinct.
SCR: Did you part ways when you saw the change in musical direction?
UJR: Yeah there was partially a direction that I wasn’t so happy with towards the end, but that was not the reason. The reason was the stuff I wanted to write didn’t fit. We were good friends, there was nothing else wrong other than the fact I really wanted to move on and five years was enough in that framework and I wanted to explore music in many different ways and wanted to take control of that. I saw myself as somebody who was exploring music rather than just selling albums. That’s not taking anything away from the Scorpions, they did what they wanted to do and they did it in a great way. It’s just a “horses for courses” sort of thing
SCR: During the time you left Scorpions, there was a dramatic shift in sound (as we've previously talked about) do you also think this was emphasised by the loss of your guitar playing stylings?
UJR: I’m sure it was both. The 80s were about to start - the 80s were a very different period from the 70s. Looking back, I remember it was a complete change, just like when the 70s started, they were totally different from the 60’s. I remember that feeling very clearly, something changed. It was almost like the 70s was a significant era and the 60’s were an era and then the 80s... well, that was so different and the Scorpions went very much with the time. They were a child of the 70’s but they became a part of the 80’s and they were involved in that wave. They co-created it and I was more of an outsider. I was not really dialling into the 80s thing. I was dialling into something completely different and certainly swimming against the mainstream.
SCR: Experimenting maybe?
UJR: Yeah, it worked. The ‘Electric Sun’ stuff was pretty successful here in the UK. It had a lot of fans back then. It just wasn’t commercial in a sense. It was more of a step away.
SCR: Would you say your style was drawn from any of these particular eras?
UJR: Well, I found my way relatively early. I started with The Beatles before I learned guitar. When I learned electric guitar I went into the blues, strating with Blues Breakers, Eric Clapton and Cream. I guess these were my most important influences and then with the Scorpions I found a way to express myself within this framework. Then came classical and flamenco music - I loved that also. You don’t hear that very often in Scorpions, you hear it a little, but more and more that comes to the forefront in the latter part of my career. I guess my roots are a mixture of various styles; even types of ethnic music. I used to listen to all sorts of things and then at some point I kind of stopped listening as I wasn’t so interested anymore. I found a way that I wanted to travel and I wanted to explore it for myself.
SCR: Are you listening to new music at the moment?
UJR: Not really. It’s not that I’m closing my ears, you know? I don’t even have a record player or CD player. It’s very rare that I hear something other than whats heard on tour from other bands, etc.
SCR: I suppose you have to be completely submerged in what you’re doing as an artist?
UJR: Not just that. Music is a huge part of my life in the sense that it takes a huge part of my subconscious, but I play very little music and I listen to very little music and there’s never any music in the background, it’s always silent. I just like to think. It’s not important about how much music I hear and make; It’s really about the quality. Each time I pick up the guitar it feels new and I’m excited about it. If I played it all the time I wouldn’t get that and I really don’t need to play it a lot. Sometimes I only play when I’m on stage. I’ve been playing this classical guitar lately *picks up guitar*. I played this style a lot when I was young and suddenly just didn’t do it anymore but this was given to me recently, so I like to play it on stage. Every night I’m improvising a piece and I like that.
SCR: Have you got any more projects or collaborations up your sleeve?
UJR: There has been several such suggestions and many things in the air but nothing 100% confirmed. There’s a lot I would like to do but there’s always a lot on and I’ve learned over the years that every project you start just builds up. I mean, two years ago I wrote a new album and I’m actually very pleased with that material but I’ve not been able to actually go to the studio and record it yet - and there’s something wrong with that picture, somehow! I’m beginning to think I’ve got so much stuff in my drawer that I really want to finish and record and so I need to find a way to do that somehow, you know? If I do projects, as in collaborations, as interesting as they probably would be, it pushes these things further back; so I don’t know. It’s certainly possible.
SCR: Back last year you played with Steve Vai and Steve Morse on a Hendrix based project. Can we talk about that and UJR future plans?
UJR: Yes. That is such a project, for instance. Steve Vai and I get on fabulously and we really understand one another when it comes to the artistic thing and I also really like him as a person and, yeah, we’re thinking about maybe doing some more shows like that as we really enjoyed it.
Steve Morse is always tied up, he plays so much and it’s really hard to plan these things in advance and Steve Vai is now saying just what I’ve been saying; he needs to record his new album and he’s taking a year off and playing very little this year. That’s not the only project like that. There are other project that could, and might, happen but to actually make it happen you need all the people to say “Okay, let’s do it now!” But usually most of the people that I know that are good or successful have very little time on the side because they’re constantly on the road. It’s not easy. There’s always possibility. Example: The G3 tour was the one that got me back on tour and made me realise I liked being back on the road. Other than the actual gig, I’ve always liked to play shows, but hanging around buses and airports just really got on my nerves. I felt like I was wasting my time. I wanted to do other things and on tour I wasn’t able to do that so much. Now I’ve found a way to work quite comfortably on tour with my laptop or whatever. It’s now easy on tour but, yeah, it was Joe Satriani that got me back to touring… Thanks Joe! *laughs*
SCR: A big thanks to Joe! Thank you for your time, Uli! It was a pleasure.
Part two: UJR sky guitar & gear chat - coming soon