20th June 2016
Michael Schenker Fest
Q: How was Sweden?
SM: Fantastic! For me it’s been probably twenty-five years since I played with Michael so for me topportunity to get back on stage with him and play was fantastic and it was like I’d never left. (laughs) It was with Chris Glen and Ted McKenna which was a great experience for me and obviously and of course Robin (McAuley) was there too so it was great to see him again but it really was for me, like walking back out on stage and continuing the tour we were half way through twenty –five years ago.
Q: Where you surprised when you got the call?
SM: I was! I have to say it was the last thing I expected. Everything with Michael and Temple Of Rock seemed to be pretty nailed down with his line-up and I really wasn’t expecting to get that call. I have been in quite a few bands over they eras and I’ve always said if there was one band I could revisit it would have been MSG.
Q: The seed may have been sown for Michael may in Japan last year because he did some shows with The Graham Bonnet Band as special guests and Graham sang a couple of numbers with him.
SM: Maybe. I’ve been in touch with Robin for the last couple of years as well and he very enigmatically touched on the subject. We kind of said ‘Wouldn’t a McAuley-Schenker reunion be a great idea?’ and Robin always left these little comments like ‘Well…just wait and see what happens…’ and I thought maybe he knew something I didn’t but whether Michael had already spoken to him about it or not I don’t know. Even so, it was still a great surprise.
Q: Well for us, as fans, it’s so good to see you all back together for another hoorah.
SM: I think it’s great. This whole band reunion thing, it can be seen as being a bit cynical with a bit of money to be made there but I don’t think that is it always the case. We’ve all grown up a bit and we all used to be a bit drunk in those days and perhaps were not the kind of people we should have been but we are these days. Coming back together now, we are more mature, we’ve learned to deal with life in a slightly better way and the vibe on stage in the band is absolutely fantastic. It’s such a positive feel and I’m really enjoying it.
Q: Given the wealth and spread of material over Michael’s career, did you have to do a lot of revising and learning or had you kept yourself pretty much to speed with the material? Where the chops still there?
SM: It’s amazing; once you’ve learnt these chops, somehow it never goes away. The songs that we used to play live with McAuley-Schenker Group were back within two minutes. I put all the songs into my studio, got my guitar out and started playing and a lot of the songs came back straight away – one time through and then it was there. There were some new songs like the Graham stuff like Desert Song and Dancer that I didn’t know and they took a bit of learning and there was some keyboard programming involved as well but basically it all came back very quickly.
Q: I only discovered recently that you couldn’t come here with Michael in ’87.
SM: I didn’t. I was in the band from 1986 onwards but my father was very ill and I wanted to spend some time with him. I begrudgingly left the band and they understood why and they had Mitch Perry for a year. Then my father sadly died and I’d spent a year with him so job done and I wanted to get back into the band again so I rejoined in 1988. In the meantime they had toured Japan so no, I’ve never been to Japan.
SM: It’s the first time and I can’t wait! (laughs) I’ve heard so many great things about Japan.
Q: Are you staying on a bit longer to have a look around?
SM: I have to get back fairly quickly actually because we have some work in the studio booked but it’s three dates in a week so they’ll probably be a bit of time to take in the culture and some sightseeing which is always a good idea.
From the beginning….
Q: What was the catalyst that made you want to go into the business?
SM: I was a big fan of Eric Clapton. My brother had the Derek & the Dominoes album and the picture of the sunburst Fender Strat on the back of the album somehow fascinated me. I don’t know why but it did. Anyway, I went down to my local bargain centre in Southall near where I used to live and they had a sunburst guitar which I was 100% convinced was the guitar off the back of the Layla album - at fifteen years old, you think these things. (laughs) So I bought it, brought it back and compared it and of course, to my horror, it wasn’t but at that point, I fell in love with the electric guitar. I started practicing maybe eight hours a day, my school work unfortunately went right out the window – this is no recommendation by the way (laughs) you should do school work first and then practice – and probably after two or three months of doing that, I decided that this was what I wanted to do in life. I’ve never looked back since that point.
Q: The first time I saw you was on the UFO tour when you were in Liar. Leicester DeMontfort Hall 5th Febuary 1979. I remember it because I used to be one of those audience members who would watch the first two songs of a support band and if they didn’t impress me then I’d be off to the bar but I watched Liar’s entire set. Great band, great show but I felt Liar much better live than on record.
Q. Was that your first professional band?
SM: It was indeed. I used to get paid £40 a week which for me was ‘That’ll do nicely’. I was very much learning the ropes on that tour but it was great. You’re right about the band, they were mis-managed I think which was a real shame because there were three of guys in it who used to write fantastic songs which back in those days was what it was all about. If you had great songs, that was half the battle but the other half was to get those songs recorded and produced well and that didn’t really happen with Liar unfortunately. The basis of the band was Status Quo with Queen type harmonies and the vocals were very strong in the band and as you say, live it worked because we just played the songs the way we wanted to do it. Three or four really strong vocals in the band, the singer, Dave Burton, was fantastic but unfortunately it was one of those situations where you are playing live but promoting a product that you didn’t feel you had 100% faith in. Then we went through a whole rigmarole of signing with Bearsville in America which quickly fell apart. It’s a story that has happened many times in Rock ‘n’ Roll but it’s true that Liar were a fantastic band that never had the luck or the promotion it deserved.
Q: What did you do after that?
SM: I had a very brief spell with a guy called Stephen Swindells who used to be the keyboard player in Hawkwind. I was with him for about three months and then it was Lionheart
Q: I saw you at Reading Rock Festival in ’81 with Lionheart and then in ‘85 on ECT by which time the sound had changed drastically. Can you run us through the evolution and devolution of the band and what your thoughts of its existence are with hindsight?
SM: I got a call from Jess Cox who had just left the Tygers Of Pan Tang. He said he was putting something together with Dennis Stratton (Iron Maiden) and would I be interested and I thought it would be worth a try. The three of us got together and then we got Rocky Newton (Wildfire) and Frank Noon (Def Leppard) and we were billed in Sounds which was the big Rock newspaper at that time as the first NWOBHM Supergroup so we were very much a founding part of that whole NWOBHM movement and that was what we used to play. Obviously Dennis was inclined that way with his riffs and we all loved that movement anyway so our sound was very British Heavy Metal. We were looking for a record deal but we couldn’t find one and at the same time, we all liked AOR, bands like Journey, Kansa, Foreigner, Toto, etc. We found a manager called Nigel Thomas who used to manage Saxon and subsequently gone on to manage Yngwie Malmsteen and others – Nigel is sadly not with us any more – and his idea was to sell us in America. He said, Go in the studio, make some demos but make them AOR.’ So we were very much molded in this whole idea of going to America which is actually what happened. We ended up with a deal with CBS and made the Hot Tonight album with producer Kevin Beamish who had done REO Speedwagon. He was a very good producer but whether he was right for the band or not I don’t know and I think our desire to record and release a record was perhaps a little bit dominant in terms of the music we actually were doing and felt we should have been carrying on with. Torn between two sides really; on one side it was remember your roots, you’re British Heavy Metal and on the other side was this big carrot hanging up saying sign to CBS, come to L.A. make an album, video, etc and as we were four lads who were trying to put food on the table, we went with CBS. We liked the album but it wasn’t exactly what we planned on doing and that bit of disappointment took some of the edge away from what we were doing. We enjoyed playing British Metal and pulling as away from that, doing the AOR stuff and dressing us up in white suits for the album cover, caused a little bit of conflict within the band and I think that in the long run contributed to the break-up.
Q: During all that, somehow you got involved in Tytan who seemed to have it all Steve: how did that happen and in your opinion, why didn’t Tytan happen? You were credited rather mysteriously as Executive Consultant.
SM: (laughs) Yeah! There was somebody who knew somebody who knew somebody that linked me with Kev Riddles (Tytan bassist). You know what it was like with The Marquee and The Ship (the pub up the road from the Marquee), it was all one big happy family in those days. They were just going into the studio to record what would become the Rough Justice album when guitarist Gary Owens split from the band. I got a call saying that the two guys from Angelwitch had a new band going and would I be interested in helping them out so I said yes of course. I went to Ramport Studios in Battersea which was The Who’s studio and they played me the stuff and I fell in love with it. To this day, I still think it’s one of the best albums I’ve ever been involved with. I thought at the time and I still think that those songs were ahead of their time. The Gothic influence at the beginning of Blind Men and Fools pre-dates Gothic Metal by twenty years but any way, I said yes, I want to do this. I went into the whole project with my heart and very happily did my parts on the rhythm parts and solos and stuff. I’m not sure whether Gary’s solos were left on the album but there was also another guy that had also done some lead work and together it all worked very well for me. It was mixed well by Will Read Dick and I thought it came out absolutely great. All this was while I was still in Lionheart of course so at the end of it I wasn’t sure what to do but I managed to do both for a while. Tytan toured supporting the Tygers of Pan Tang and we had a lovely lady called Carmine who came on as a dancer every night which gave the whole thing a little bit of theatre. Then unfortunately, Kamaflage, which was the records label, folded before the album came out so it sat on the shelf for a few years. It actually all worked out very well for me because as Tytan came off the boil, Lionheart came back on the scene.
Q: You’re one of the survivors of the NWOBHM era. You have your own studio, produce, still play, etc whereas a lot of your contemporaries haven’t stayed the course.
SM: Yes, thank you. I could never live without doing music and in one form or another I have to be doing it. I have my own 24-track studio in Hannover which is why I ended up living here and if I wasn’t in a band or playing live for a while, I’d just go into the studio and do stuff. I was lucky enough to carve out a bit of a name as a producer during the ‘90s doing countless bands. Letter X from Stuttgart who were excellent and I also worked with Scorpions for a while as engineer on their demos for the Crazy World album (1990). I love every aspect of music and I don’t see myself as just a guitar player, more as a musician that gets involved at every level. I love exploring keyboard sounds, programming synths, working on guitar sounds, orchestral arrangements and everything. I listen to a lot of classical music – Bach is my favourite composer of all time – and all of this Symphonic Metal that is coming now, I love it! For me it’s the natural progression of what we went through in the ‘80s and ‘90s and I find music now as exciting as I did back in the ‘70s and ‘80s. I can listen to Within Temptation for hours on end. They have everything right with the songs and Sharon Del Adel has one of the best voices in Rock. She has this great way of expressing herself and the production is excellent. If I’m producing Metal stuff I always stick on Within Temptation as my reference.
Q: I have to ask you this being a massive fan. I interviewed Albert Lee a couple of years ago and he was so delightful and humble and I kind of got the feeling he didn’t realize how good and popular he was. You played on and produced album his Highwayman album. Tell me about it.
SM: I think you’re right and in some ways he’s little bit like Michael. He has his normal head when he is talking to everyone and living in the land of normality, very humble, gentle and genuinely doesn’t realize what kind of talent he’s got as you say and then his other head that he dips into when he starts playing the guitar. The humbleness is then replaced by his heart and it’s just fantastic to watch. He really set the standard in the ‘70s and ‘80s with his guitar playing on Shakin’ Stevens and many other recordings. People hear this great guitar in the background on those records and don’t give it much credence but a lot of the time it was Albert doing those guitars.
Q: Similar to Big Jim Sullivan in the ‘60s.
SM: Yes and Steve Lukather in the ‘80s.
Q: Getting back to you, how are you with all the new studio technology? Do you keep up with everything?
SM: I’m a techno-freak unfortunately and that is not necessarily a good thing. It’s very easy to get wrapped up in the technology behind doing things rather than what the focus should be which is the music so I’ve made a real conscious decision to put technology to one side and just go with what I’ve got. I will sometimes see certain plug-ins and think I have to have them so I’ll buy them. It might be a something like the East/West Symphony Orchestra which I just use the whole time because it’s absolutely mega but I do have to consciously restrain myself from hearing a plug-in and just buying it. (laughs) I have to say though that technology never gets the better of me: I’ve got one of those logical, technological minds that can somehow get around everything. I’m a manual reader which is very sad but when I buy a new piece of equipment, on the first day it stays in the box while I sit and read the manual. (laughs)
Q: Steve, thanks very much for this. Looking forward to seeing you here and hopefully catching up with a beer.
SM: Absolutely – yes!