The Scorpions' Matthias Jabs and Rudolf Schenker Discuss New 'MTV Unplugged' Album
On a bright, frigid afternoon in early December, Guitar World is standing in front of the Romexpo arena in Bucharest, Romania, hoping the Scorpions will arrive soon. We’ve traveled nearly 5,000 miles to meet the German band on its Farewell World Tour, and we’re eager to catch up with guitarists Rudolf Schenker and Matthias Jabs and chat before they hang up their guitars for good. But for the time being, it’s just us and the local Romanian crew, who are huddled together, chain-smoking cigarettes and flashing us suspicious looks.
The Scorpions are not only one of the world’s best-selling hard rock acts, but since their formation in 1965 they have exemplifed the unifying and transformative power of rock and roll, especially for fans in places like Romania, which was under strict communist rule in the not-too-distant past. In that spirit, we sidle up to the crew and introduce ourselves. The guys instantly warm up and start flashing peace signs and devil horns for our photographer.
Tonight’s concert marks the 20th anniversary of the Scorpions’ first show in Bucharest, and back then the vibe was considerably different. The country was early into the process of rebuilding itself after decades of communist oppression under which the media and arts were stringently controlled. As we learn when we eventually sit down with Schenker and Jabs, simply listening to rock music back then was a very risky endevour.
“I remember in the mid Nineties, we met a Romanian couple that came to our show in Los Angeles,” Jabs says. “They said they were jailed for listening to Scorpions’ music. And they weren’t the only ones! It was tough times like you couldn’t even imagine. We played here early enough to see some of it. We first played behind the so-called Iron Curtain in Hungary in 1986, and went to communist Soviet Union in early 1988.”
“And one year after that we were back for the [Moscow] Music Peace Festival,” Schenker adds. “To play with all the crazy guys—like Mötley Crüe, Bon Jovi, Cinderella and Ozzy Osbourne—in front of 110,000 people was fantastic. That’s why we composed the song ‘Wind of Change,’ because of the feeling that there was something new coming. I still have a big collection of army caps, because [the Russian soldiers in attendance] were so excited they kept throwing them into the air!”
“A lot of time’s passed since then,” Jabs continues. “But it is still different playing countries like Romania. They just might be a bit hungrier in these countries. It’s still a big event.”
While political revolution isn’t brewing during the Scorpions’ current visit, there is a distinct air of excitement surrounding today’s proceedings, both from inside and outside their camp. This stop marks another date of the band’s ongoing Farewell World Tour, and before its conclusion the Scorpions plan to hit every country in which they’ve played, in addition to a few new markets such as China and Australia. They’ve been rolling along for the better part of the past three years and have performed in nearly 40 countries.
“It’s not like we want to finish,” Jabs says. “But we decided in 2010, when we announced the final tour, that this was a good point to do it. My colleagues are 65 years old now, and we wanted to finish in a state of full energy and professionalism.”
The Scorpions’ enduring passion, skill and vitality are on full display later that night when the guys hit the stage. Founding vocalist Klaus Meine’s iconic vocals soar through the drafty expanses of the old, Cold War–era arena. Schenker and Jabs run and jump around the stage like it’s still 1984 and possess a level of fretboard acumen greater than many musicians half their age, while bassist Pawel Maciwoda and drummer James Kottak expertly hold down the rhythm section. The 8,500-plus crowd that fills the Romexpo arena is an eclectic mixture of ages and looks—everything from ecstatic teenagers in flashy contemporary rock outfits to austere middle-aged men and women tucked into drab-colored winter coats. Despite the generational (and sartorial) gaps, they all exult in the Scorpions’ over-the-top set, full of mega-hits such as “Rock You Like a Hurricane,” “No One Like You,” “Big City Nights,” “Still Loving You” and “Wind of Change.”
The Scorpions have a few more treats in store for fans before they eventually call it quits. In between live dates, the guys have been quietly working on a final studio album, which will reportedly contain never-before-heard cuts from during their prolific early Eighties days, when they recorded two of their biggest successes, Blackout and Love at First Sting. They’ve also managed to find time to perform and record a full double album of acoustic songs for MTV’s Unplugged series. Culled from two sets at the open-air Lycabettus Theatre in Athens, Scorpions MTV Unplugged: In Athens is available as a deluxe CD/DVD and Blu-ray package, which contains a staggering 25 songs (15 on the CD), all rearranged and reimagined in an acoustic style. The release contains all the expected fan favorites as well as some new and never-performed live tracks.
“I listened and looked at MTV Unplugged performances from the Eighties and Nineties to check what other bands were doing,” Jabs says of how he first approached reworking the Scorpions’ classic electric guitar–driven material. “I like the Eric Clapton performance very much. But many bands—without mentioning names—just played what they played on the original electric version on acoustic guitar. Everything stayed the same. We had a different approach. Our main focus was on the acoustic guitar, which has to be treated completely differently in order to sound good. I think I played in seven different tunings and had a guitar change for almost every song in the set. It was also a very busy night for the guitar techs!”
In the following exclusive interview from Romania, Schenker and Jabs walk us through how they pulled off their ambitious MTV Unplugged performance and explain why, nearly 50 years into their career, their audiences are younger than ever.
You guys have been going full tilt on your Farewell Tour for the past few years. Why did you decide to tape an MTV Unplugged in the middle of all that?
Matthias Jabs: We were asked by MTV and Sony in January of 2013 if we could do an MTV Unplugged. We had just played our last show on December 17 in Munich. You know what it’s like in life: just when you think you’re safe, they come around the corner! [laughs] Well, we knew we couldn’t say no. It might not be as popular as it was in the Eighties and early Nineties, but we wanted to do it anyway, because we were asked at some point in the Eighties but we were too busy to do it then. But I knew right away that we had to do something different from what we did on our 2001 [live] record, Acoustica.
What did you want to do differently?
Jabs: First of all, we wanted to not do “Wind of Change,” “Rock You Like a Hurricane”…the typical ones. We have so many arrangements of those. But the fans love those, and the record company wanted it, so in the end we included those as well. I got together with our producers, Mikael [Nord Andersson] and Martin [Hansen] in Sweden, with whom we worked on our last two records, and we picked songs from every decade. We had the more well-known ones and then put the focus on ones we’ve never played live, as well as five new songs. We ended up having 25 songs. It was a lot of work.
What did the process of reworking the songs entail?
Jabs: First, I went to Stockholm for a week at the end of February and we arranged eight songs. Klaus and Rudolf weren’t part of the arrangements, but they both listened to the arrangements and said, This is the way to go; this is the way not to go.
Rudolf Schenker: Because I composed most of the songs, I said, “You know, I’m too close to them.” Because the Swedish Rock Mafia, as we call our producers, have an understanding of what Scorpions are all about, I thought I’d let them work on it. I trust Mikael very much, and he’s also a very good acoustic guitarist. He knows the Scorpions’ history and has a good feeling to not make it too poppy and always work with a little edge. And he introduced us to open tunings, like Jimmy Page used. When we talked about MTV Unplugged, we knew we wanted to do something outstanding to make five guitars sound like a cluster. We used different tunings to make the sound bigger.
Twenty-five songs is a pretty long set. Were there specific choices you made with the arrangements to keep things musically interesting?
Jabs: To keep it interesting as acoustic songs we had to have more than just two guitars. I planned on four. In the end, it turned out we had five guitars for most of the songs, six on some, plus mandolin, harp and accordion. We also had a string arranger. We were thinking of having an octet for just a few songs, being inspired by the Beatles, who always used octets because it sounds more rocking than a quartet. But it turned out we ended up with 18 string arrangements! [laughs] The arranger, Hans [Gardemar], is also a great piano player. He also plays accordion and brought it in the first week. I wasn’t sure if it was the right idea until we jammed “Still Loving You” as a tango with two guitars and accordion. It sounded amazing! We were overwhelmed by our own performance. So we started out not knowing exactly what we were going to do, but as it went on it got more interesting and I felt freer to give the full monty, so to speak.
You mentioned you tried out some Scorpions songs that you’ve never played live. Did the added personnel help in that effort?
Jabs: Absolutely. We had another Swedish guitarist named Ola [Hjelm]. He’s one of those guys I call “Swiss Army knives” because they have at least five functions. [laughs] He sings, too, as do Mikael and [producer] Martin [Hansen], which was very important. So finally we could perform songs like “Passion Rules the Game,” from a late-Eighties album, Savage Amusement. We could never do it live because the lead vocals are overlapping within the chorus.
Even with the help, 24 songs is a lot for Klaus to tackle. Did he voice any concerns?
Schenker: Klaus was moaning a few times, because he didn’t know how he was gonna do all this stuff! So he said there needed to be a few instrumentals too. I had already been working on an instrumental during one of our tours through Russia on the Trans-Siberian express. On the train I wrote a song called “Love Is the Answer.” So when this album came around, I thought about how I could work on that instrumental and maybe even sing on it, because I was a singer in the early Scorpions days. So I made a demo and presented it to the guys. And Klaus was jealous! He said, “I have one song too, and I want to play it on my own with guitar.” That was “Follow Your Heart.” So we didn’t always have a set plan, but we were freely creating. That spirit is at the heart of the Scorpions’ MTV Unplugged.
Rudolf, when the Swedish Rock Mafia and Matthias presented you with their initial arrangements, were there any tracks that were particularly surprising?
Schenker: Most of them! They weren’t easy to do. I had to relearn my own songs! There were open tunings, lower tunings and string arrangements. The songs all had a new flavor.
Did either of you ever write any of the classic Scorpions material on acoustics?
Schenker: I wrote “Holiday” on an acoustic. But in the early days I only had one guitar, my black-and-white [Gibson] Flying V. There’s such a special feeling between me and that guitar. It’s a really good guitar for composing. You can compose eight hours a day, if you have the time, because its body creates this very healthy position when you’re holding it and sitting down. I think “When the Smoke Is Going Down,” from Blackout, and “The Riot of Your Time,” from Taken by Force, were also composed with acoustic guitars. There were a few exceptions like that.
Jabs:I’ve written more than half of my songs on acoustic. When you’re writing on electric guitar the riff might be too flashy to begin with. But on acoustic it’s a different approach, and it’s better to have simplicity. It makes you more like a songwriter. I wrote the intro to “Bad Boys Running Wild,” if you remember that one, on an acoustic. It was my first Ovation I ever had, from 1975.
Rudolf, one unexpected moment on the Unplugged performance is when you break out the sitar for “When You Came Into My Life.” How did that come about?
Schenker: Klaus and me were invited to a songwriter session in 1994. The idea was that about 30 guitar players from America and Europe would compose with Asian people. Jack Blades was there, Tommy [Shaw] from Styx was there, and a lot of country guys. Then, on the other hand, there were the people from Asia. So our names were put into a tumbler and picked out at random. So they announced, “Klaus Meine and Rudolf Schenker are writing with…Titiek Puspa and James Sundah from Indonesia.” So we got a room and started writing. We wrote the song “When You Came Into My Life.” This song has a very Asian flavor. At first I was going to use a 12-string; then I realized that it had to be a sitar to give it the right sound and vibe. Then I just had to figure out how to play it! Sitar playing is very difficult. You could play your whole life and still not be doing it right. But I found a way to play it the best I could.
A song like “No One Like You” has a great harmonized lead opening section. Was that difficult to translate onto acoustics?
Jabs: Yeah. Obviously, you focus mostly on the riff, and I couldn’t play the fills or the solo like I could on the electric. There isn’t even a solo. It’s like a part of a solo but more of a melodic thing. We worked that out with the mandolin, and I played the acoustic guitar.
On the original studio recording of that song, did you compose the solo ahead of time?
Jabs: In songs like “No One Like You,” it’s a composed melody and harmony. The solo comes to me because I start with the vocal melody. I go with the song, because there’s no point in writing a completely different instrumental part in the middle, which some people call the solo. For me, it’s all about continuing the song but, if possible, turning it into a highlight. Same with “Rock You Like a Hurricane.” It’s also rhythmic, but if you listen carefully it’s also part of the melody, which is just transformed into a guitar part. You can follow it, but it’s still complicated enough that guitar players can enjoy it. It’s a fine line: not too simple, but not too complicated that it becomes, well, bleh.
Rudolf, you’re known primarily for your riffs and rhythm work. But you do play lead on some of the band’s most memorable tracks, like “Wind of Change” and “Holiday.” How do you approach your leads?
Schenker: When I play the solo on songs, it forces me to try new things. When I would write a song and have an idea for a solo, I would convince the band not by talking about it but by playing it for them, even in the days when [former Scorpions guitarist] Uli [Jon Roth] was playing lead. I remember in the early days I played a lead on one song—I forget which one—and he said, “Oh, Rudolf, that’s great! Why don’t you play that!” With Matthias, very often I was the lead player for more of the slower songs, like “Holiday,” “Lady Starlight,” “Still Loving You,” “Wind of Change,” “Big City Nights” and some stuff on “China White.” Actually, Uli gave me some very good advice in the Seventies when I was trying to learn lead guitar. He said, “Rudolf, you know it’s much better to be a great rhythm guitar player than an average lead guitar player.” So I really spent more time forcing myself to make riffs that had a special flavor.
Your last studio album was 2010’s Sting in the Tail. I heard a rumor that Scorpions might be working on an album with some material that was written around the time of Blackout and Love at First Sting.
Jabs: Yes, we started already. We have 12 songs. We found songs mainly from the early Eighties Blackout and Love at First Sting days, when many people consider our most creative and best time. The leftover tracks sound good, but they were never finished. They don’t have lyrics or vocals, and they’re not recorded to a click. So we have to do everything new. But it sounds quite good so far.
Schenker: Two of the new songs on Unplugged, “Dancing with the Moonlight” and “Rock & Roll Band,” we had saved for bonus tracks. So we have those two songs, which are great, and we’ll put them out as an electric version. I think we have a total of 15 songs from the Seventies and Eighties that we want to release. I think in 2014 we’ll finish the places we haven’t played yet on the farewell tour, and then get back to the record after that.
What are your main guitars for this farewell tour?
Jabs: I’m playing my Dommenget electrics tonight, as well as an acoustic Dommenget Explorer. Its neck is much closer to an electric. Because we’re playing electrics all night, it’s hard to switch to a fatter neck for just two acoustic songs. I have many different makes and models of guitars, but for Unplugged I used only Martin guitars. The 000-42 plays really well, and the intonation is good even when you tune down. We also had big help from Taylor guitars, but I passed them along to the other players. We had 56 guitars onstage, and there were no spares. Rudolf had so many guitars, Explorers and 12-strings, mostly made by Dommenget. I also played a fantastic Martin guitar, the D-180. And you know what? It also smells so good! You open the case in the studio and it smells like vanilla and other things. Even my wife came in and said the studio smelled nice! [laughs]
Schenker: Tonight I’m using my Dommenget customs, Gibson Flying Vs and Gibson [Chet Atkins SST] 12-string. Gibson is also finally making me a Flying V acoustic, which I will present at the Frankfurt music show.
What are your amp setups?
Jabs: My Mastertone [Matthias Jabs Signature amp], the orange glowing thingy. Unfortunately, the guy who made them died this year. They’re great amps, and I fortunately have enough to last the whole rest of my career. You know these people that all they do is work all night and smoke too much and drink too much coffee? He had a heart failure and passed away at four in the morning after coming out of his workshop. Too bad.
Schenker: I’ve played so many amps! I started actually with Vox, then Marshall, then Boogie, into Hiwatt, then Diezel, then Engl, Soldano. Then I found this Danish guy who makes the Skrdstrup R&D [Triple Drive 50]. It’s an amazing amp. It allows such an exact attack and just enough distortion. Tonight I’ve got that, the Engl [Savage 120] and a Rivera [TBR Series rackmount stereo tube amplifier].
Do you have a clear plan of the amount of countries you want to hit before the Farewell World Tour concludes?
Jabs: We basically wanted to play again in every country we’ve played before, plus China and Australia, because we had never played there before. We’ve played pretty much everywhere in the world, except the middle zone of Africa, where nobody wants rock and roll. And we don’t want to play a shitty show; we want to say goodbye to people with our full, big production. So far it’s good and all selling out.
Schenker: During all these shows, we realized we have so many young people coming out to see us. You know, I just found out we have four million Facebook fans and their average age is between 17 and 24.
Jabs: We do have a lot of young people in the front of the stage, and I think it’s due to the new media, like Facebook and YouTube. I don’t think we’ve had this many young fans ever. Even in the Eighties, most of the fans were our age. Now they’re under 20. And we were never that young in the Scorpions!
Do you think it’s because there aren’t that many new huge rock bands coming up and people are looking back to the classics?
Jabs: I know! Who’s filling stadiums? Bruce Springsteen, U2, Bon Jovi, the Rolling Stones, and sometimes Scorpions, Iron Maiden and Metallica. It’s still the same ones! There’s not a new band doing that.
Unless it’s Kanye West.
Jabs: Yeah, okay. [waves hand dismissively] I don’t want to know! [laughs]
Photo: Jimmy Hubbard