Uli Jon Roth: "Tapping into the Music"|
By Vinaya Saksena | May 20, 2015
If you know the history of metal guitar, you don't have to be told who Uli Jon Roth is. First coming to the world's attention as a member of Germany's Scorpions in the 1970's, he was among the first guitar players to incorporate the influence of Classical music into a heavy rock context. In the 80's, he began taking this fusion further, first with the band Electric Sun (which also bore a distinct Jimi Hendrix influence he had begun to show in the Scorpions), and then with other projects that included several orchestral works. After increasingly leaving the rock world behind for a time, Roth has seemed to come to terms with his proto-metal past. It began with a handful of onstage appearances with the Scorpions, and has now culminated in Scorpions Revisited, a studio album featuring inspired new interpretations of songs he originally recorded with the band in the ‘70's (plus a tour featuring a set list that draws heavily from that era). Roth recently spoke to Maximum Metal's Vinaya Saksena about his past, present and future, plus his thoughts on technology, society and the future of music in general. What follows is a slightly edited version of that interview.
Uli Jon Roth
VS: How did you learn to play? Are you mostly self-taught, or did you have any kind of lessons?
Roth: It's a mixture. In the very beginning, before I learned to play anything, I was a real Beatles fan. And I knew all the stuff by heart, you know? That was kind of like an imprint into my musical soul. Then, the first instrument that I learned was [as] an orchestra player. I took trumpet lessons. And that's how I learned to read music. That was the first thing. Then, the electric guitar, I'm self-taught meaning I learned the instrument by listening to other people's records, you know, such as Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix and basically copying their runs and the way they did things, and this is how I learned.
At the same time, I learned the classical guitar, at first on my own, and then I had a teacher for about a year who taught me various interesting things, because he was a pupil of a pupil of Andres Segovia, who was one of the greats [of] classical guitar. Then, I had some piano lessons, I had some violin lessons, conducting, even classical vocal lessons. That was after Electric Sun. And other than that, I've done a whole lot of studying myself by learning how to sight read [for] piano, and you know, just studying the old masters, studying their scores and understanding how to work with an orchestra, how to write for an orchestra technically, you know? That's about my musical training. So I didn't go to a conservatory or nothing. But yeah, I'm pretty much at home with a lot of things in music and I've got a broad spectrum of knowledge, you know, including musicology, which used to interest me at one point.
VS: Before the Scorpions, I know you had a band called Dawn Road. Was that the first band of yours that did anything major?
Roth: Yeah. I mean, I can't really say we did anything major, because we were essentially a college band, you know? We were all in college at that time. The band was not famous. But we did play our own material, and some classical pieces were integrated, like Rachmaninov's Piano Preludes. We integrated that into the music. But it was very different from Scorpions. It was a little bit more complex and a little bit more experimental, I would say.
VS: More of a progressive rock sort of band?
Roth: Yeah, that would probably best describe it. Whatever that word means.
VS: So you were incorporating some classical influences in a rock context even then.
Roth: Oh yeah. Oh yes. Oh yes.
VS: I'm guessing that's probably not something that a lot of people were doing back then…
Uli Jon Roth: Dawn Road
Roth: Well, you see, we were looking up to bands like Emerson Lake and Palmer, later on bands like Yes and so forth. So there were some people who were doing that sort of thing. Not so many of them in combination between the keyboards and the guitar, however, like that, like the way we did it with intense guitar. So, I guess that was maybe a little unusual.
VS: Did Dawn Road make any recordings?
Roth: Yeah, we did make a couple of demos. And they're still around. People have asked when they should be released and I always tell them they were not good enough. I always felt that we were not yet fit to be an album band.
VS: When you joined the Scorpions, it's my understanding that you basically merged Rudolph and Klaus into Dawn Road in a way.
Roth: Yeah, that's true. And it the beginning, it was only Rudolph, actually, because the old Scorpions had completely disbanded. They had broken up, effectively. And Rudolph came to our rehearsal and he liked what he heard. And somehow, then, we formed a new band with all four of the Dawn Road members and Rudolph. And then, I felt strongly that we needed a real singer. That's why I asked Rudolph to ask Klaus to come into the fold, you know? And that's how that happened.
VS: So you had been doing the vocals before that, in Dawn Road?
Roth: Yeah, in Dawn Road, we had two. It was Achim [Kirschning], the keyboard player and myself.
VS: Were there any Dawn Road songs that ended up being used by the Scorpions as a result?
Roth: There was one piece which was a direct forerunner to "Fly to the Rainbow." And its name was "Turn the Time." It had a very, how should I say… an otherworldly kind of quality with some magical chords, and there was a speaking, talking voice going over it, and it ended in a cataclysm, just like "Fly to the Rainbow." So, I used that song as a blueprint for "Fly to the Rainbow." And I thought it was actually every bit as strong, but it didn't end up in the Scorpions.
VS: So, I guess you could say that was a transitional period.
Roth: It was very much an exploratory and transitional period. Absolutely. This was 1972 to 1973.
VS: The album where the Scorpions sound- at least as it was when you were in the band- really starts to come out is "In Trance." Can you tell us about the making of that album?
Roth: Well, we had, by that time, been touring already for one and a half years. And during the touring, new songs started to be written, and the songs became better and more advanced, I felt. And "In Trance" was also transitional, because we were constantly redefining ourselves, trying to become better as songwriters and as musicians. "In Trance" was the first album we did in Dieter Dirks' studio, who became the longtime producer of the Scorpions. The first one, "Fly to the Rainbow," was done in Munich, and it was a very short, brief affair. We did everything in seven days. "In Trance" was longer.
Dieter Dirks was a real producer, and he came up with the idea to make a demo first. So we went to his place, we demoed the songs, and that was a good idea. Because we took the demos home and we were able to finish the songs better, because that was a crystallization process. And the album, I think, took fourteen days. I was not really that happy, because I remember we spent a long time just doing bass, drums and rhythm guitars. And the rest was vocals. And then I only had like two days to do all the lead guitar, which I was very unhappy about, because those were the complicated things, the complex things, and I wanted to spend a little more time on it. So, I had to rush through it, and most songs came out okay, but there were a couple that I was not so happy about, you know? Other than that, I think the material was strong, and it set us up for the next one, for "Virgin Killer."
VS: I'd imagine it was much the same at that point, but perhaps more polished?
"I have my own experience when I listen to something, and it usually tends to be quite different from other peoples' experience for some strange reason." --UJR
Roth: Yeah, [everybody] was much more prepared. We got to spend a little more time in the studio. It was similar in that I felt we spent too much time with the backing tracks and not enough time on the emotional stuff that's on top, meaning voice and lead guitars. Other than that, I was quite happy with "Virgin Killer" during that time.
VS: I guess it was in the couple of years after that that you started to drift away from the band in a creative sense?
Roth: Yeah, that happened in 1977. It was a process that went on for a few months. I gradually realized that I wanted to write different music, and I started writing the Electric Sun stuff, like "Earthquake." And that music did not fit into the framework of the Scorpions at all.
VS: Both musically and lyrically, it seems like you were coming from a completely different place than a lot of what was on "Taken By Force."
Roth: Yes. I didn't think I had a choice. For me, it was a natural decision. And I took the decision before we started work on "Taken By Force" But I stayed in the band, you know, because they kept booking more and more shows and I did not want to leave them in the lurch. But I handed in my resignation like a year before and said, "Look, go look for another guitar player." But that never happened. They didn't do that. So in the end, they booked more and more tours. They were booking an American tour and a Japanese tour. And I said, "no, I really want to do my own [album]. I need to leave." And then Klaus and Rudolph talked me into doing the first Japan tour. And Klaus said we should do a live album to basically sign off that era that I was involved with, you know, as the final farewell kind of thing. And I'm glad he [Klaus] talked me into it, because it was the right thing to do, and I'm glad we did it. "Tokyo Tapes" came as a result of that.
VS: I know there's a studio version of "Suspender Love" (on the Japanese CD release of "Taken By Force"), but was there ever a studio recording made of "All Night Long," the other "new" song on "Tokyo Tapes"?
Roth: No, there wasn't. I remember coming up with that riff during rehearsal in Hannover, essentially in the same hall that we used to rehearse in. It was a theater- the same place where we recorded my latest album in, "Scorpions Revisited." It just came out in once piece, and Klaus then wrote some lyrics for it, and the vocal. And because it was good opener, we tended to use it as the opening song for much of that era. That's how it ended up on "Tokyo Tapes." But I never considered it strong enough as a studio song. And as far as I remember, it was written after "Taken By Force." I'm not quite sure, but I think it was written after. I'm not quite sure when it first saw the light of day. I remember the moment when we were on that stage and I just played that riff, but I don't remember exactly when that was. But it's a good opening song, and now on my "Scorpions Revisited" tour, I'm using it quite frequently as the first song, and it was also very suitable for "Tokyo Tapes," to open that album.
VS: Since you are now releasing "Scorpions Revisited," I imagine your current live sets are also made up mostly of that material?
Roth: It's got a lot, but not all. I'm on this Extreme Guitar tour now, and we're also playing stuff like "Sky Overture." And then I play a part where I'm playing flamenco guitar in the middle. It's colorful.
VS: In an interview with Guitar World magazine in the ‘90's, I remember you expressing concern about the often superficial nature of popular music and culture in general. Is that still a concern of yours?
Roth: I don't remember that interview, but yeah, I would still subscribe to that notion. In fact, I think it's gotten way worse. [laughs.] Those were only the beginning stages, you know? You ain't seen nothing yet. I think we live in kind of a McDonalds society. Most things are so superficial and fast. It's not a good thing for the soul of man. Not good at all. There are some positive things on the horizon, if you know where to look for them. But a lot of developments are not so cool, I think. But then again, I am pretty much an optimist by nature, so I make a point of not letting these things wear me down. But it is kind of discouraging to watch the news sometimes, or to read the news- I don't really watch the news- and to see what's going on. We will see how the new generations develop. It's kind of difficult to see where this journey is heading towards. [laughs.] Shrouded the future is.
VS: As far as the future of music goes, what do you think would have to happen for it to improve?
Roth: Oh, lots of things. I think it's all screwed up. There is a big chasm between the haves and the have nots, in more ways than one in music- not just talking about the finance or the ability to make a living with music, which nowadays for most musicians is one of the hardest things. You know, musicians have to live too, and a lot of them are resigned to scraping the barrel just in order to eat and to be able to do music. They have to do all sorts of sacrifices and that's not good for the music itself, because music should be free from all these things. So that is one aspect.
As far as the music itself, I'm not really enamored with the whole instant gratification-like download mentality. You know, the iTunes thing means that it's just like McDonalds. You can get any piece of music instantly, and they're disconnected. My music for instance, I always tried to write like an album of pieces that are connected. And then of course you can listen to them on their own, but I feel it's not quite the same. I tend to think in broader artistic frameworks. And I'm not the only artist, you know. Kate Bush thinks like that, and so do several others. That's one thing.
"The train of mankind is running at a different frequency now, and that frequency is not necessarily very much in tune with what would be healthy for the human mind." --UJR
I feel that the young generation, because everything is downloaded in seconds, there is no more physical aspect to it, and they don't seem to bond with the artists. But the artist needs a bond with the audience, a deeper understanding, which goes both ways, you know? Both sides are missing out if that's not happening, because the music benefits from that, the quality of the music benefits from that kind of bonding, which is a mutual understanding and a mutual kind of respect for one another- the audience for the artist and the artist for the audience. That reflects in the music and also the quality of the music, I think. So that's a little deplorable.
Where the journey is heading, I have no idea, because I'm not really trying to be a prophet along these lines. You know, I just go with the flow on that. At the moment, the flow doesn't seem to be that great. At least that's what I'm seeing or watching, you know? As for myself, I try not to be affected by it, or not to be too affected, although it does affect everyone to some degree. And I'm also not a nostalgic person who says "oh yeah, everything was great in the ‘50's and ‘60's." It wasn't. There were other problems.
But since you asked about the trends in music, etcetera, I think music has lost a lot of the social standing that it used to have. In the ‘60's, artists like Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles, these people actually still had a lot to say, and when they spoke up it did create a lot of waves and energy in the material world. Politicians had to listen to that. They couldn't just wipe that off the table. But nowadays, artists- most of them I wouldn't even call artists. Basically they're entertainers. And entertainment is something completely different from art. Very rarely do the two go hand in hand. It's possible, but I wouldn't take that for granted. Entertainers usually don't change the world in a good way. They have the power to change the world to some degree. But usually there is not much wisdom reflected in that.
Now, real artists have more of this kind of power to change the world if their art is connected with wisdom. But nowadays, it's almost impossible for real artists to get even a platform that's noticed by the mainstream. That's a little deplorable, because both in the classical field and in any field, almost, [there are] a lot of worthwhile voices of people who really have something to contribute and they just go completely fall by the wayside and are just being ignored, you know?
You find that in visual arts, you find that in music or just about any genre. So it's a sign of our times. That's why I call it the McDonalds society. It's all mental fast food. Fast food of the mind is the name of the game. That's what rules the planet. You know, it's fast information, shallow information, cheap information. Anything instant, but very little of that goes down way deep. That's just the time we live in, and it takes some period of transformation inside of us to come to grips with this kind of speed, you know?
"I feel that the young generation, because everything is downloaded in seconds, there is no more physical aspect to it, and they don’t seem to bond with the artists. But the artist needs a bond with the audience, a deeper understanding, which goes both ways, you know? Both sides are missing out if that’s not happening, because the music benefits from that, the quality of the music benefits from that kind of bonding, which is a mutual understanding and a mutual kind of respect for one another- the audience for the artist and the artist for the audience." --UJR
Everything is much faster now than it used to be. The train of mankind is running at a different frequency now, and that frequency is not necessarily very much in tune with what would be healthy for the human mind. There's a certain kind of spectrum of plus and minus of a healthy speed which is conducive to real progress of the human mind and spirit. But if you go beyond that, if the speed is too high, it's like you could easily have the whole train derailed, you know? And then the learning is not facilitated by that, because the speed is just too quick for that which we are naturally equipped with.
Maybe the next generation will adapt to that kind of speed, but I know very few people who have so far. Most people are just kind of coasting along , but maybe they don't even really notice, but when you really analyze what's going on, I don't really know anybody who's really on top of it now, even if they appear to be on top of it. A lot of precious things fall by the wayside. And I don't mean that financially. I mean spiritually precious, mentally precious, you know? A lot of good things fall by the wayside. They get crushed by this incredibly fast train.
VS: Yeah. As a society, I think we tend to jump on things like that before we've figured out how best to handle them.
Roth: Yeah. Absolutely.
VS: That being said, I was wondering: are there any current bands or guitar players on the scene who impress you or inspire you?
Roth: Maybe there are, but I don't normally get to hear them because I don't even have a CD player at home. I just don't really listen to anything, and I haven't for many, many years. I never have the desire to do that. So, if there's somebody out there, then, you know, I would need to find it. It's not that I'm completely blind to what's going on. If I come to a hotel room and the television is blaring in the background, I see what's going on. I don't need to listen to [it] a long time to understand what's going on, because the frequency is loud and clear. It only takes a couple of seconds to figure it out.
Sometimes I hear bands when we're on tour, you know, or at a festival, or somebody plays me something. So I know roughly what's going on, but I'm certainly not an expert on any of that. I have my own experience when I listen to something, and it usually tends to be quite different from other people's experience for some strange reason.
VS: If you don't listen to CD's or anything like that much, where do you draw inspiration from?
Roth: I don't draw it from other music. I don't need to. I am in a zone where I can tap directly into the music. That's much better, because the music is already there. It's there in the skies, in the earth and everywhere. It's in you, it's in me, and it's in every atom. That's what I'm tapping into, and that's very easy for me. I've learned how to do that.
Thirty or forty years ago, it was more difficult. You know? I wasn't as freely inspired as I am now. For the last twenty years or so, I'm constantly in the zone where I can just dial it in, so to speak. It's almost like I'm taking a memo or whatever. That's also what I teach at Sky Academy. It's not an easy thing to teach, and not everybody's getting it, but it's what works for me. Some people are getting it, and when you get it, if and when you get it, it's extremely effective. It'll make you a better musician and a better artist, if you want to be that way.
VS: So it's partly about drawing inspiration from within, rather than from outside?
Roth: I suppose I am drawing it from outside as well, but I'm not necessarily drawing it from other musicians. I used to. I studied Classical music, I told you about that. Romantic, Classical. I love a lot of that stuff. I still love to play Classical music on the piano. But that's as far as it goes, you know? But I don't listen to the radio if I can avoid it, or television. I don't even have a television. I haven't had it for ten or twelve years.
I couldn't control the social media, by the way. I just check out the news on the internet, so I can pick and choose, you know? So that's how I stay in touch. It may be a little sobering to hear me talk like that, because most people, if they love music, they're surrounded by it. They've got their headphones and their iTunes. I'm just not like that. I have no desire to be like that, because it would disturb my train of thought. And I love to think. I'm constantly thinking or zoning out about either this or that.
And when I think about music, I can't think about anything else. It's so intense. It's like real hard work, because I've got all systems going when I listen to people's music. I'm taking it in like 100 percent. It's actually hard work, you know? So I think twice before I listen to them. [laughs] It keeps me very fresh when I go on stage. It's always like a new encounter, and it's an interesting journey, because I don't sit around practicing, because that makes it less fresh. I used to practice a lot when I was a kid, but I haven't done that for years now, because I don't need to. Every once in awhile, I freshen up with a few things, particularly when I have to learn a new, very complicated piece or something like that.
VS: You have this new album of Scorpions material "Scorpions Revisited," coming out now. Any thoughts on what you might do next?
Roth: Yeah, I've written a new album, and I want to record it.
VS: Oh, already?
Roth: Yes. I've written a new album a year ago, but I've never gotten around to start recording it, and I'm kind of itching to start the recording process.
VS: Can you give us any idea what that will be like?
Roth: Well, in some ways, it's a continuation of "Under A Dark Sky," but it's more rock-orientated, slightly simpler, but it's strongly melodic and I like the lyrics as well. So I'm looking forward to recording that one.
VS: You have played some pretty unique guitars over the years, starting with your first Sky Guitar and now your Dean signature models. Can you tell us about the guitars you are playing live on this tour?
Roth: Yeah, they're Dean. It's a limited edition, fifty pieces of hand built guitars. They're all hand built by a top builder in Germany for Dean. So it's a Dean guitar. They are selling them, distributing them, overseeing the process. But they are all hand built, and they are extremely expensive because of that. And almost all fifty are gone. And they are fabulous. I love them, and I couldn't think of a more perfect guitar. They're like Formula One guitars with all the creature comforts added. You know, they've got lights, they've got everything, even self-tuning. I [have] an electronic tuning system on all of my guitars. I don't want to do without it. I hate tuning. So I always get in tune on stage in split seconds. It's great.
VS: One last question: Is there anything you'd like to say to your fans, and any advice for guitar players?
Roth: I can't really give random advice. Each person is different. And most of them need different advice. So I can't really give them a carte blanche piece of advice. Maybe I could. But right now, nothing comes to mind.
VS: And anything you'd like to say to the fans?
Roth: It's the same thing. I've got fans from all different genres, you know? I don't know the ones from your magazine. I think you asked some interesting questions, and I hope that there's a little bit in there for everyone who is interested in these things, you know? I'm hoping to see as many of you as possible there [on tour]. I'm enjoying the live concerts tremendously night after night. For me, it's an important part of communicating with our audience.