Electric guitar virtuoso Uli Jon Roth got his start with The Scorpions, playing on the band’s early studio albums including Fly to the Rainbow, In Trance, and Virgin Killer, and the live album Tokyo Tapes.
Eager to explore a more expansive direction, Roth left The Scorpions in 1978 to form Electric Sun, which released a trio of albums. His musical journey then took him in a more classical music direction, which continued until he returned to the rock format for the G3 guitar tour in 1998.
More recently, Roth has gone back to his hard rock beginnings with the release of Scorpions Revisited in 2015 and Tokyo Tapes Revisited: Live in Japan in 2016.
This interview was for a preview article for noozhawk.com for Uli’s concert at the Majestic Ventura Theater on 2/19/17. It was done by phone on 1/28/17.
Jeff Moehlis: Can you tell us a bit about the upcoming show, what we can look forward to?
Uli Jon Roth: Recently I played some shows in Japan, basically dedicated to my early Scorpions material. I was in the band for five years and wrote a lot of stuff at that time, and our most successful Scorpions album at that time was called Tokyo Tapes, which was recorded in Japan. So we went back there to the same hall and we recorded Tokyo Tapes Revisited. So this is what this is all about, where our show is mainly devoted to playing this early music of mine, and playing it as it should be – no holds barred. It’s just very enjoyable for all of us, and for the audience, too, when we do that.
So that’s the main thrust of the program, but I’m also playing some new music, and some other songs that I wrote. Actually, before the concert there’s a pre-show concert for people with VIP passes, where I’m going to play an acoustic concert before the show. I’ll play some acoustic pieces that I wrote, including an electric guitar piece by my friend Jason Becker, which I’m recording at the same time. So that’s pretty much what’s going on.
JM: The original concerts for the Tokyo Tapes were almost 40 years ago. What do you remember about those concert?
UJR: It came at the very tail-end of my involvement with The Scorpions back then. I had tendered my resignation, so to speak, because I wanted to do something different for my own band, which was then to become Electric Sun. So Tokyo Tapes was actually the very last time we played together, and we decided to make a live album from it.
What I remember is it was a special time, because it was our first time in Asia, and we had a great reception over there. Back then it was very rare for international bands to go to Japan, particularly a German band – we were the first German band to go there. And we struck a chord with them. We were also playing live pretty much at the top of our game at that point, and luckily it was captured on vinyl. So that’s what I remember. It was a special moment in my life.
UJR: Well, it was the very, very first time I had been to a professional studio, and I was still a rookie. I think I was 19 years old, or something like that, and it was a time of discovery. I mean, the album was done very quickly. It was all done in a week, which nowadays is pretty unheard of. But that’s what it took. And I think we got some inspiration on tape back then, but for me it was really the beginning of a journey of a life of recording. It was a very important album for me, and to this day, particularly in these present shows, we’re playing the title track “Fly to the Rainbow”. It’s included in our show, and it’s always one of the highlights.
JM: How did The Scorpions fit into the German music scene at that time? Were you kind of outliers?
UJR: At that time, yes, we were. As far as I remember, we were the only band that really was heavily influenced by English and American bands, to the point where we sounded much more international. We basically played melodic hard rock, whereas most of the German bands played what was generally called Krautrock at that time, which was different. Initially we were one of many bands in Germany, at the time of Fly to the Rainbow, but it didn’t take long for us to become the number one German band. I think by the third and fourth albums we were riding a wave of success over there, and that also spilled onto the other countries like England and France at first, and then to Japan and also America.
UJR: You know, that was one of the first ones I ever wrote. It wasn’t really supposed to be a serious kind of song. I think I wrote it more like a live track. It’s got a shuffle feel. And it came about very, very quickly, almost like a jam band type of thing. I didn’t have to spend any time on it – it was just there, I think. It just somehow emerged [laughs].
It’s not really one of my songs with a deeper kind of message. In fact, I don’t think it has a message [laughs]. It probably stands alone in my repertoire as a song without a message. But if there is a message, there’s a certain feel good factor, and every night we still play that before the encores, and every night we play it in a completely different way, particularly the middle section where we’re doing an extended jam. It’s usually the highlight of our show, to this day. But it didn’t start out like that. It started out just as a normal three-and-a-half-minute track. Nowadays it’s more like seven, eight minutes long.
JM: The Scorpions album covers were sometimes controversial at that time.
UJR: Yeah, for a good reason.
JM: To what extent was the band involved with designing those, and was the goal just to generate publicity?
UJR: Well, the story was different with each album. I think with Fly to the Rainbow the cover was actually designed by a design company, and when I first saw it I thought it was pretty awful. For the second one [In Trance], we were all present at the photoshoot. That was my white strat there on the floor, with the girl. I thought we wanted to be maybe a little outrageous, and that’s how that came about.
The third album cover [Virgin Killer], I think the idea came from the record company, and it was unfortunately “Virgin Killer” in the worst possible taste. With hindsight, I think it’s very embarrassing – it should’ve never happened. The track which I wrote, “Virgin Killer”, it has almost a misleading title, because the lyrics of the song are quite meaningful, the virgin killer being sort of the zeitgeist of our time, the inescapable truth that people, once they grow up in a society, inevitably get – I don’t want to say corrupted, but when we grow up a lot of things happen that kind of distort our soul. That’s what “Virgin Killer” is all about. It talks about people losing their innocence in more ways than one. It already talks about air pollution, although that was in the early 70’s. Things like that, environmentalist issues so to speak. An Al Gore kind of theme, virtually.
And then there was Tipper Gore of all people [laughs] who singled out the cover and brandished it. For good reason, because the cover was actually misleading – the lyrics had nothing to do with that, you know. And the provocative title came about because I was in the rehearsal room, and we had just done a tour with none other than Kiss, who on their very first European tour chose us as their support band in Germany. So we supported Kiss in Germany, and I saw the band a couple of times obviously. I kind of joked around in the rehearsal room, you know, with this line basically imitating like a line that could have been a Kiss line. And then Klaus Meine said, “Well, that’s pretty cool. Why don’t you do something with that?” Then I really was stuck, because then I had to find lyrics [laughs] that had a meaning for a title like that. I was quite proud of the song afterwards, when I finished the lyrics, although it wasn’t easy at first [laughs] to come up with the right kind of lyrics. So that’s the story for that cover.
I thought Scorpions always had awful covers. After I left it got even worse if that were possible. So there are no redeeming features [laughs]. You either laugh about it or you weep about it, I don’t know which to choose.
JM: You mentioned touring with Kiss. What was that like? Do you have any stories you can share?
UJR: We had no idea who Kiss were at that time, because if they were known, they were not known to an audience that was our audience. They already drew quite an audience in Germany, so they must’ve flown under certainly my radar. So we had no idea what to expect.
I remember vividly on the first show I was in the elevator getting to the stage, and suddenly there was Gene Simmons next to me. I was wearing moccasins, flat on the floor, and there was this monster standing right next to me looking down from these huge platform boots. So I went, “Oh, wow! What’s that gonna be?” Then, next thing I saw him spitting artificial blood onstage. It was all very tongue in cheek. I couldn’t really take it seriously, nor did they I suppose [laughs]. It’s just one of these things, you know? And then they became a really big band afterwards.
JM: After you left The Scorpions, you released the Earthquake album as Electric Sun. How did your approach to that music and that album differ from what you had been doing with The Scorpions? Obviously it sounds different…
UJR: It was very different, in more respects than just one. With The Scorpions, we had a self-imposed framework that was geared towards being successful, and more and more towards the end being very successful and very commercial, whatever that means. With Electric Sun, I wasn’t interested in any of those things. I felt like I’m a musical pathfinder. I wanted to explore music more deeply than I was able to within the framework of a “commercially oriented” rock band.
So I did everything differently with Electric Sun. My guitars were not as distorted, it wasn’t even as rock-oriented. It was much more free-flow, free-form, a strange mix of all sorts of things. A little like Hendrix meets Beethoven, in terms of influences.
Initially reaction to my first album was mixed, because a lot of people were expecting me to do something like Virgin Killer times ten after leaving The Scorpions, and I gave them exactly the opposite. But from the second Electric Sun album onwards, which was called Fire Wind, the reputation of the band grew and it became quite successful in it’s own right. We did a really big American tour in ’85.
So I did three albums, but eventually I felt that even that framework was too stifling for me. I started to write more classically oriented symphonic music. I effectively quit the whole music business in ’85 for something like thirteen years, where I just concentrated on finding new music. I only got back into touring and rock music in general through an offer to tour with G3, with Joe Satriani, in 1998. That’s when I started touring again.
UJR: Well, it was a certain period in my life when I was really trying to push the guitar to new heights, no holds barred melodic virtuoso guitar, and tackling pieces that hadn’t been done before including some Chopin pieces, Mussorgsky, etc. I felt that nobody had played any of these on the electric guitar, and I thought it would be interesting to do that. Of course, that was mixed with some of my own music like “Sky Overture” and other pieces. A lot of that album was actually improvised, but not all of it. It was basically a cross-section through my take of what I could do with a sky guitar.
JM: I know that Jimi Hendrix is a big influence on you. Did you ever get to see him perform live?
UJR: Yes, I saw him two times. Both were extremely memorable experiences for me, particularly the first time which was in January 1969, when I had just barely started to play guitar myself. I saw him play a fantastic concert in a hall in Hamburg that left a very deep impression on me.
And then a year and a half later, I saw him again at his very last ever performance, which was at the Isle of Fehmarn festival in Germany, literally twelve days before he died. I happened to be backstage because I had a journalist pass because my dad was a journalist. I took many photos, and I was right next to him, but I didn’t really dare to speak because I was too young and he was quite preoccupied. That was a very defining moment for me as well.
JM: What advice would you give to an aspiring musician?
UJR: You know, it’s very easy to give very generic advice, or to give wrong advice that is not very good advice. I have given a lot of master classes, and usually I refrain from giving generalized pieces of advice. I find that most people are at a different stage in their own journey in music, and it always depends on how serious somebody is about music and being a musician. And for what reason.
There are several people who are in it maybe for the reason to be a rock star, or to make a good living, like Gene Simmons for instance. And then there are people who are in it because they just love music and can’t be without it. Those are two completely different things. Sometimes these two happen to combine.
But the first thing is you need to find your motivation, and how serious you are about it. And then my advice would be tailored to that level of commitment [laughs]. If somebody is very serious about it, then don’t expect music to guarantee you a living, because nowadays it is very, very hard to make money through music. That should not be your main motivation. It may come to you, if you’re lucky, but it also may not. I know a lot of very gifted and excellent musicians who can barely pay the rent, unfortunately, which is a very, very disconcerting state of affairs, but it’s only all too true. So don’t expect music to give you a livelihood. It may, but it also may not.
But if you’re really serious, you want to become a great player or a really good musician, then connect with the music on the deepest level possible. Go deep into your heart, and use your ears to listen deeply and see what you can find there. Be critical of yourself. Don’t just be content with being able to play a few scales quickly and adeptly. That’s not really enough. As a musician, you need to understand music, and you need to be able to play music in such a way that it actually can speak to other people, and reach other people. Because if it doesn’t reach other people, then it’s not really much good. You know, music I think is there as a form of communication. It needs to communicate. So that’s where I’m coming from.
JM: What are your plans for the near future? What’s coming up after the American tour?
UJR: After that, we are touring Europe for two months, and then playing some festivals in the summer. I will try to start to get into the recording studio as quickly as possible, because I’ve got a lot of new music lined up. I’m looking forward to that.
JM: Also on the program in Ventura is Graham Bonnet and Frank DiMino. Any chance that they’ll join in with you for some songs?
UJR: It’s possible. I’ve jammed with Graham before in England, through our mutual friend Don Airey, and we get on very well, so it’s possible. I mean, we haven’t really scheduled anything, but why not, you know? I would be game for that.
I enjoy playing the Ventura Theater, let me say that. America is a huge country, and I play there almost every year. Now this tour is almost two months long, so I get to see a lot of places. I always have a fondness for old theaters, and that is like a classic storybook old theater, and one of the special ones. So I’m glad that Ventura Theater – the Majestic Ventura Theater as it’s called – I’m glad it’s there and that it keeps going. I just love coming back to that place. It’s one of the more special venues on our circuit, and I love coming back to it. We’ve played there quite a few times. The first time with Michael Schenker in 2004, and also last year. As far as I can tell we always have a great show there. It somehow brings out something good in me. I really hope that we can do the same this year.