In-depth Interview With Uli Jon Roth

By Andrew Bansal

Widely known for his celebrated career spanning over four decades and comprising of the early Scorpions era, followed by Electric Sun and a successful solo stint, legendary guitar icon Uli Jon Roth has just announced a North American tour to celebrate the 40th anniversary of his joining the Scorpions in 1973. The tour begins on January 25th in LA, and besides the Scorpions songs, he’ll be presenting various other things including his solo material. Earlier today, I had the immense pleasure of speaking in detail with the man himself, and we talked about a variety of things. Enjoy the detailed conversation below, and visit the official Uli Jon Roth website, facebook and twitter for tour dates and more info.

I believe you’re currently on a run of dates in England. How is everything going?

Everything is running really smoothly over here, reconnecting with the audiences in England. It’s always enjoyable to play in England!

Are these part of the Sky Academy gigs, or just normal shows?

No no, we’re doing just normal gigs. In America we’re doing the tour which has a lot of Sky Academy seminars attached to it, but we’re not really doing any Sky Academy shows. A Sky Academy show is always something dedicated, something special with a special purpose, and we’re not really doing any at the moment.

That’s fine, but I was just curious to know, just for the sake of people who haven’t been to a Sky Academy show, what is it like? Do you give a teaching session and then play a concert?

Usually, these shows are connected with Sky Academy seminars which go for several days at a given time. In the past, these were frequently held in Los Angeles. But what we’re doing now during the upcoming North American tour is, I’m doing a whole bunch of introductory seminars, meaning they’re like 3-hour teaching sessions at the venues before the shows, where I’m giving out basically an overview of what Sky Academy is all about and doing a lot of hands-on teaching. That’s not just related to guitar playing, but also to give a wider perspective to things, to help people connect with music on a deeper level and to help them find different or new angles. Usually, that stuff really works. It seems to be very successful in helping quite a few of those who attend.

That’s very interesting. Talking of this North American tour, you’re doing a 40th anniversary celebration of the time when you joined the Scorpions. Is that something you’ve had in mind for a while, or did it just come up?

I did not have that in mind at all. It’s a combination of things that made it happen. First of all, sometime ago I had the idea to do a series of live albums which would be representative of the various steps of my musical journey, and I think at least from the public point of view, there are probably three major periods of my career, the one with Scorpions, then with Electric Sun, and my solo career. So I wanted to start off the first live album dedicating it exclusively to the material, or some of the material that I played during the Scorpions days. So basically, those were five years and five albums, each of which was important for my personal development. So I’m going to pick my favorites from those albums and we’re going to play them live, and record every show. And then we’ll end up with a double live album coupled with a DVD, and a few other goodies. So it’s going to be a major release for me, and as I said, it’s the first of the planned trilogy of live albums. So that was one thing. I wanted to record a ‘Scorpions revisited’ live album. Then the other thing was that my friend Warren Demartini, the guitar player from Ratt, we had a gig together in January in Southern California. He put the idea to me to do a dedicated Scorpions set, just play the music from that era, something similar to what we did on ‘Tokyo Tapes’. He said that a lot of people would be very happy about that. And so I let that idea sink in, and I guess that gave me another bit of the information that I needed. And the third thing was the realization that yes, it has actually been 40 years. In 1973 we formed the Scorpions, me with Rudolf, Francis, Klaus and the others. So it’s been 40 years, and that’s a pretty good reason to do this.

Absolutely! But it must be a long time since you played those Scorpions songs live, may be some of which you have never played before.

Yes and no. Some of these songs have been with me all along, even during Electric Sun. There were certain ones that I kept revisiting over the years. Not many though, just a handful. But in recent years, since I started touring again in the rock circuit, more and more kept creeping in due to popular demand. I realized that I enjoyed playing them again, which wasn’t necessarily the case 20 years ago. So I found a new lease of life, and a new key to unlocking these songs and additionally to that, yes there will be quite a few of the several songs that we have never performed live, and that I am going to pick from these albums because I think they deserve to be played live. Some of them we didn’t play live because may be they were too complex to perform back then. We really only had two guitarists and on the studio albums we used overdubs, etc etc. But I will be able to justice to all that because we’re going out with three guitarists, two singers and a keyboard player. So we’ll be able to cover the entire gamut of what’s required, and I’m really looking forward to it.

You said you’ll be recording this tour live for a double album. Does that mean every single show is going to be recorded and then you’ll pick the best songs?

I’m recording every show on a 48-track, because you never know which are the good ones. I’ve sometimes had some of my best shows in small places, on terrible stages, and sometimes on the good stages. You can never tell. Sometimes you play a great show when the conditions aren’t so good, and vice versa. I would find it really regrettable if we come up with some great renditions one night when the recording isn’t on. For me it’s particularly important to record all the shows because we’re doing the songs so differently every night. Certain songs are very much close to the original blueprint and they’re not being changed a lot, but there are quite a few of them where there’s a lot of improvising going on, which is also something we did on ‘Tokyo Tapes’, and this improvisation means that every night is very different and has its own distinct quality to it. We do go out on the occasional whim, and it would be a shame if we can’t capture it because I want to end up with something that’s pretty definitive for that. And then we’re also going to mix it on 5.1 surround sound, because I’m not a big fan of stereo. Not that many people have 5.1 (laughs), but at least it’ll be there. And of course there will also be a stereo mix available.

Right, I agree with the idea of recording the whole tour, because when bands record just one show on the tour, somehow that show is different, and I feel that the people who paid for the other shows should also be getting to see the same show.

Yeah, you see, if you have a one-off show at a festival and everything is fine, then yes it’s sometimes great to have that one dedicated evening. But when I do a live album, to me it doesn’t matter whether one song is recorded in Chicago and the next in Toronto. I just want the best possible rendition, because to me that’s much more important than having one evening exactly reproduced. There is no thing as a definitive evening for us. Every evening is different. I’m playing different set lists every night. One evening we might be playing some tracks, and the next evening it might be completely different. So where do you start? Therefore, it’s better to just do a cross-section of what’s going on, and that’s exactly what I’m going to do.

Also, I’m a little bit of a burnt child when it comes to this, as we say in England, meaning basically I’ve had an experience. When we did record the album ‘Tokyo Tapes’, we played in Tokyo for three nights, and because of budgetary reasons the first night was not recorded. And guess what? For me, that was exactly the absolute definitive show that I ever played with the Scorpions. It was my favorite one, and I remember it to this day. The other two were still very good, but the first one had more magic. And it’s not on the album. So the album was constituted or drawn from the two other days. So there you go, I don’t want to make that mistake. That’s why I keep these tapes, or these hard discs rolling (laughs).

These North American shows are also going to feature some solo material. So it’s almost like a double show every night.

Yeah, we’ll be playing very long sets. Depending on audience reaction, very often we play a lot of encores and they are sometimes like mini-sets in themselves. We might be even playing two sets with an intermission in certain places. Yes, it’s not only going to be Scorpions material. There will be some of my recent stuff, also a little bit of ‘Sky of Avalon’ stuff, and some Electric Sun. But the main thrust of it will be the Scorpions material and we’ll try and make that as exciting as possible. I’ve got an amazing band with me. Every one of them is really superb and I’m really looking forward to this tour so that we can make this happen.

As far as the solo material is concerned, have you written new stuff lately or have you just not found the time to do so?

I have written a whole album’s worth at the beginning of this year, and so far I haven’t been able to record it yet because it’s been a busy year with a lot of things going on. That’s on the timeline next. I want to do it next yea. As soon as we get the live album done, I’m going to record this album because it’s going to be an important album for me. I haven’t had a full-on release since June 2008, which was ‘Under A Dark Sky’. It’s a must. I really want to get that stuff out there. I’m very happy with what I’ve written and it shouldn’t just be stuck in some drawer forever and not be heard. That’s what happened to a lot of my other material in the past (laughs).

Yeah, I was about to say! A lot of the material you’ve written is still unreleased.

I’m the worst when it comes to that, actually. But this time I’m going to make it happen. It has to happen, because it’s really pushing me. It’s almost like a child that’s saying, “Can you please give birth to me?” It’s kind of urgent. It’s overdue, and I’m looking forward to making it happen.

Talking of the teaching part that you’ve been doing, how has that felt to you? Have you learnt new things about your own musicianship through teaching, things that you might not have practiced or used while making albums?

Every time I teach, I’m learning something new! It’s a two-way thing. I’m not talking to thin air, I’m talking to real flesh-and-blood people who’ve got a spirit, soul and mind. It’s just a two-way resonance. I’m getting something out of it. I’m teaching without a script, so I’m always improvising and going by the spur of the moment, so sometimes these ideas come to me while I’m talking and I may say things that I didn’t actually know before, things that I’m just realizing. It may sound odd, but it sometimes happens. In general, as soon as I started teaching to a wider group of people, it meant that I had to reconnect with what I had learnt and somehow find a way to transmit it to others. Because it’s one thing knowing it yourself, it’s a totally different thing to be able to find a way to make it digestible or understandable for others. So for these things I had to take a very hard look at it and visualize it in my mind, more so than if I had just used the knowledge for myself, when it’s purely intuitive and you don’t really have to spell it out. So yes, I’ve always learnt a lot from teaching and it’s one of my favorite things mainly because of that reason, you know. First of all, I love to share knowledge of things that I believe in, and I do believe in the things that I’m sharing with the students. That kind of knowledge is basically the essence of the stuff that I found during the last 40 years or so, and it’s very much responsible for making me the musician or the artist that I am today. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing, certainly it helped me and it still helps me to widen my horizons to certain type of thinking, a certain mindset and a way of connecting with music. It’s very difficult to put into a few words, but at Sky Academy we have enough time for the participants to get a good idea of what it’s all about, and to hopefully take some inspiration home with them.

Coming back to the Scorpions, I think they’re somewhat of a unique band, in terms of keeping good relations with all of the ex-members. Well, almost all of them anyway. How’s your relationship been with them over the years?

You know, I’ve never thought about it that way! Actually, to answer your question in a slightly different way, there’s one member they’re not really getting along with (laughs).

Yeah, and I think we both know who that is.

Yes, but he’s still my friend. I’ve never had any problem with him. There was a rift in the band at that time, but I guess you’re right. As for my relationship with them, it’s definitely been good. We don’t have any bad vibes. On the contrary, we always have positive vibes, and whenever we meet, it feels like a family reunion. When you spend that much time that closely with a bunch of people, and have had a strong bond, usually that doesn’t go away, does it? It’s like an old married couple or something like that. That’s what it always feel like to me.

I have just one more question for you. You’ve had a pretty special custom guitar for a while now. Do you plan to bring out any new custom guitars in the near future?

Not a new one, because for me the Sky guitar is my infinitive favorite for what I want to do, and we have the Sky guitar in the market as a limited edition with Dean Guitars, and that’s all fine. Those are the ones I play. Now, there is incidentally one thing on the horizon which may well happen, and it’s to do with this upcoming tour. Our guitar builder Boris Dommenget has actually suggested to me to do an anniversary Stratocaster for this tour, an ‘Uli Strat’. Of course, during the Scorpions years I played the strat exclusively and even during Electric Sun, except at the tail end of Electric Sun I brought in the Sky guitar. So what we may well do is do an anniversary strat which would be based on my white Stratocaster with the big tremolo bar, the whammy bar from ‘In Trance’. May be I will play a few songs on that guitar during the tour. That would be nice actually. I could see myself doing that. Then it would be more authentic.

It was a pleasure talking to you! Thanks for calling me all the way here in India. All the best for the tour and everything else.

Always good to talk to India! (laughs) The weather is a little too hot for me, but I always feel close to India for some reason. I’ve always felt a connection, and hopefully one day we’ll get to play there. Actually, we almost had Sky Academy in India already two times and it didn’t happen eventually. The same with touring, but who knows. May be we’ll manage in the near future.

Yeah, I hope it happens because I’m pretty sure it will be as successful as anywhere else in the world because it’s for guitar students. They don’t even have to be rock fans or anything, right?

Yeah, absolutely! Well, thanks very much and I wish you all the best with everything you do for your magazine!