Hardradio.com Interview

ULRICH JON ROTH - Wails In Wales

by Martin Popoff

Few in the metal realm fit the tags "legend" or "artist" like Uli Jon Roth. Leaving Scorpions when all knew the filthy lucre was about to flow, Uli decided to follow his muse into an odd and still talked-about form of progressive, Hendrix-platformed rock that now, twenty years down the road has taken a decidedly classical turn.

Transcendental Sky Guitar (see http://yehao.com/UliJonRoth for more info) is a double CD that is seeing U.S. release, and the prospects of such have the man threatening to leave his 40 room manor house on a Welsh cliff to mount some sort of tour on these shores. These things are of course complicated, and first Uli has to finish a "rock" tour opening for UFO in Europe and then his next mammoth album. But backing up a bit, here's what the man had to say about the current axe-mad feast, beginning with a primer on the "sky guitar."

"Well, the title is a little bit tongue in cheek. I don't know how much you know about the sky guitar. It's my own trademark guitar which I designed in the early '80s. And it's basically an instrument that enables me to do all these things I've been doing recently on the guitar. As the album is guitar-based through and through, it is the leading instrument on this album. And I thought it would be a fitting tribute to have it reflected in the title. And the word transcendental, it's a very old word, and it means something like overcoming all obstacles, basically to the point where there are no obstacles, going beyond difficulty into a realm where that which should be difficult, or was once difficult, is easy and becomes second nature. I mean, I wasn't first to use this word in music. I think the first person was one of my mentors from the past, the great pianist and composer Franz Liszt, who is widely acclaimed to have given us no less than modern piano technique as we know it."

So of course, on this album, which is split into two parts, The Phoenix (Concert Pieces) and The Dragon (Encores & Improvisations), you will hear much classical and rock band use of this instrument, which Uli further describes as "a seven string guitar which started out as a six string. It was the first guitar that had a whole range of extra frets at the top. That was in the early '80s. Thus, it enabled me to play really high notes, notes that went way beyond the normal spectrum of say a Strat-type electric guitar. It gave me the possibility to basically play in the entire violin register. I wouldn't say comfortably so, because it is still extremely hard to play up there on the guitar. It's way harder than doing it on the violin. But it is this register that I always felt was missing from my spectrum of things before. That's really the most important thing about the sky guitar, but later on there were a whole range of other things. For instance, we developed our own pickup with a very enhanced tonal spectrum and all sorts of things that I couldn't do before. I guess that's really what's important in a nutshell."

What is the six to eight month plan? Have you recorded anything since this album came out?

"No, I haven't recorded anything. But I've been busy on some orchestra work. Actually, this is wrong. I did record! There was a live recording and I haven't looked at it yet. But the main thing that happened during the last few months is that we did a concert in Germany with an orchestra and this was a three hour concert, quite a large scale concert. We played almost the entire Transcendental Sky Guitar, Volume 1, The Phoenix, with the orchestra. And then after the intermission we played the entire Vivaldi's Four Seasons, on the sky guitar. So I played the violin part note for note, which again is a first in terms of guitar playing. I mean, some people maybe have certainly tackled it, but not in the right pitch or the right key. And I left the string parts largely as they were, although I did change some of the bass lines. And then I wrote a full percussion score with timpani and tubular bells for it, and wrote actually, to top it all off, a big credenza which appears at the end, at 10 minute piece called 'Vivaldi Paraphrase', which brings back a lot of themes from the Four Seasons, and kind of looks at them in, let's say a 21st century way."

Will this be your next SPV album?

"Yes, it will be actually. It's going to form the main string of Transcendental Sky Guitar Volume 3. So we have recorded it, and I guess I start work on it in early January. It will take me probably about two months. I have to do a few more orchestra overdubs but I don't think it will be a lot of work really."

But here are the immediate plans: "At the moment, the next thing is a tour with UFO in the U.K.. That starts on the 22nd, and it's going to be 10 shows. And then the next year, I think there will be at least four or five orchestra gigs, in various combinations with various different programs. I'll do a little bit more of Vivaldi, but there will be a performance of my Europe symphony and a few other things. And we're really hoping to come to the states in the new year, because it's high time, and Canada of course too. With UFO, we'll play for one hour, and we'll do some stuff from Transcendental Sky Guitar, but we'll also plays some stuff from the past because the UFO audience is a Scorpions-related audience. So I'll play a few things that I haven't played ever on stage, and also a few things reminiscent of Scorpions, maybe do a few of my old leads."

Will there be vocals, i.e. you or anybody else?

"I'll do a few songs, maybe two or three. I find that the problem is if I have a vocalist in this context, usually he stands around for most of the time and doesn't have much to do, which is not good for them. They come on stage and maybe sing three lines and then they have to leave again. And unfortunately, I'm not blessed with a good voice, but you know, I get by, particularly with my old stuff like 'Polar Nights'. I guess it's authentic, you know (laughs), let's put it that way. I mean, I've just got the kind of voice that a lot of people hate and some people like. I guess that's the best that can be said about it."

Will you actually do full Scorpions compositions from the old days?

"No, but just for old-time sake, because it is a UFO audience, and I actually haven't played with UFO since the early '80s, we'll probably do a little Scorpions medley, so they'll be a little touch of 'Polar Nights', 'Dark Lady', maybe I'll even play a few of my guitar leads like the 'Catch Your Train' one, 'Longing For Fire', string them together in a more or less tasty manner, just for memory's sake. Because some of that stuff can be quite exciting and I think I'll enjoy doing that. For the last 15 years I've played very, very little. There was a tour in '98 with the G3 in Europe, which I did enjoy. And I think that got me back into guitar playing also, because I had lost interest in the instrument to some degree because I was interested more in writing my symphonic stuff. But I kind of rediscovered the guitar and rediscovered completely new possibilities. And I guess that's where this latest album comes from. I wanted to make a new statement, a new departure, something that hadn't been done before on the electric guitar and push the boundaries forward."

How far back does your being able to read and transcribe classical level music go?

"I first started being in contact with classical music when I started learning the trumpet, and that was reading music, and then I learned classical guitar, and that was reading music. So I began to read music around the time of between 11 and 13 years old, I guess, which is very late. But ever since, I did use it to jot down ideas. And certainly in the days of the Scorpions, I was able to read and write what I played. For me, it's an invaluable help. In the early days, I didn't used to write down my leads, because I had a very good memory back then. But later on my memory started to get weaker, at least my long-term memory, and I started to write things down. I find it very helpful because I can learn something nowadays, just by looking at it in a flash."

Do you find a lot of people want to talk to you about Scorpions?

"It's a recurring question. It's normal because I haven't been around for so long, so a lot of the interviews I'm doing now, are kind of like first interviews. You know, people are catching up on the past. It's inevitable and I've got my standard answers but I do try to keep it alive (laughs) you know. Because there's only so much you can say about the same subject. But it's part of my past, and I'm proud of it, so I've got no problem with that, except for the album cover (laughs) (ed. we chatted about the notorious naked girl - and I do mean girl - cover art for the German issue of Virgin Killer). But that cover didn't come out in the States."

And oh yeah, in case you're wondering why Uli's English is so good, here's why: "I had the added advantage that my father started teaching me English when I was five years old. So by the time I made it to school, I was already pretty good at it."