In Tranced Instrumentalist - The Return of Uli Jon Roth
Many rock guitarists have a secret passion for symphony orchestras, especially those playing more bombastic pieces such as Beethoven's "Fifth Symphony" or Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture" - stuff that wouldn't sound out of place at a congregation of diehard metal-heads. Of course there are those who incorporate classical riffs into their playing - Yngvie Malmsteen being the most obvious. But those who have truly blended rock and classical music in a masterful way are few and far between.
That's what makes the recently released Metamorphosis of Vivaldi's Four Seasons so spectacular. Former Scorpions guitarist Uli Jon Roth, who tore up many late-'70s albums with that well-known organization, has really perfected the merger of hard rock guitar and symphonic swagger with this incredible release. And did we say he's done it exceptionally well, too?
Roth, who left the Scorps after recording five albums with the group, and later toured the world through the mid-'80s in front of his own group, Electric Sun, has been semi-secretly becoming a towering figure in the merger of these vary disparate musical styles. Working quietly the past two decades on both his own orchestral compositions and his takes on beloved classical masterpieces, Roth now fronts a group called the Sky Orchestra, and plans to fly over to American shores later in 2004.
Guitar.com spoke with Uli on the phone from England, where he has lived since leaving his native Germany 20+ years ago, about getting the right mixture of electric guitar and chamber orchestra, rock 'n' roll energy and classical subtlety, and beastly 20th Century riffing with the beauty of melodies perfected hundreds of year ago. Read this great interview, then get yourself a copy of the CD or DVD of Metamorphosis of Vivaldi's Four Seasons just as fast as you can.
Guitar.com: Hi Uli, it's Adam with Guitar.com.
Uli Jon Roth: Good to meet you Adam.
Guitar.com: Your new Metamorphosis CD is really cool, and so is your website.
Roth: You had a look at it?
Guitar.com: Yes. What you're doing with Metamorphosis and the Sky Orchestra is really cool. I've been thinking about doing some similar things myself lately. I listen to a lot of classical, orchestral music, and I've been thinking about doing them on electric guitar. So I think this is really cool what you've got going on here.
Roth: So somebody did it for you.
Guitar.com: Yes! And better than I'd be able to do anyway.
Guitar.com: I know that you've actually written symphonies [Editor's Note: Metamorphosis is Roth's take on Vivaldi's bombastic Four Seasons symphony.]
Roth: Oh yes. I've actually written four, two of which are not scored. That means that they're there in structure and everything. But the two others are in full score, and one of them has been performed with a big orchestra. And the other is bits and pieces. I guess you're in the States aren't you?
Guitar.com: Yes, Chicago.
Roth: Ah, Chicago. I remember it well. But, you know, after my Electric Sun years, which - when was I in Chicago?...'85. I basically went into, I completely went away from the rock business, or literally anything public. And that's when I started writing this so-called "more serious music," starting with a guitar concerto - which was a one-and-a-half-hour piece. I did that in 1987. And then I developed from then on, and for about 13 years or so I barely played a handful of shows. So I didn't have much presence in the States. But I think that's going to change now. I started touring again in recent years, and I'm really enjoying it.
Guitar.com: I know you did the G3 tour in Europe
Roth: Yeah, I did G3. In fact that was probably the first thing that got me going again, in terms of touring, because I hadn't been on a tour since '85. It gave me a taste for the whole thing again. But there was a point where I really didn't enjoy touring so much anymore. The eternal being on the road and really not getting anything done during the day, other than having a performance at night. But now I'm enjoying it.
"I find electric guitar fascinating because it has a magical potential hidden within. But if you just go for the lowest common denominator, you will end up with something that sounds like a McDonald's society."
Guitar.com: Do you perform live with the Sky Orchestra occasionally?
Roth: Yeah. Occasionally: That's a good word for it, because whenever that happens, it is a special occasion. Typically, it's very expensive to do these things and you can only do it for special events. But because of the CD - and now the DVD - it certainly has opened so many doors. Now there are quite a number of promoters who really want to see this thing on stage in theaters. So I've been offered a tour for the U.K., Germany, potentially France and various places in Europe, playing theaters, playing Metamorphosis and the Four Seasons and certain other pieces. And that would be with the Sky Orchestra. And there is also some interest from the States in that regard. So I expect that we'll do a lot more of that in the second half of the year.
Guitar.com: How many people are in the Sky Orchestra?
Roth: It completely varies It depends on what we're doing. When we're recording, we're recording with small numbers - like around 10. Live it would be slightly more. It's basically a chamber orchestra. But in the studio we double track the sections, and we are going very much for a live sound, but a live studio sound. So it's a controlled atmosphere with natural ambience. And we're doing the same live. We're just miking it in a clever way and we're getting very monumental sound that way. And they're all top-class players anyway. They're all symphony orchestra players. They're from the best orchestras, these guys and girls.
Guitar.com: I notice there are a lot of girls - and some pretty good lookers, too.
Roth: Yeah. (laughs).
Guitar.com: Was that your plan? (laughs) It looks good.
Roth: I guess it was, because we wanted to do a video, so some of them played on the album. For instance, the double-bass player, Lucy Shaw, she's just phenomenal, and she just happens to really look good (laughs). And so we thought, it's a nice contrast to have girls in there, and they're wearing Renaissance dresses. The whole thing, on stage, looks pretty magical that way. When I go to a classical concert, I'm usually bored, just looking at people. I'm a visual animal [Editor's note: Roth is also an excellent painter - see the artwork on his website and in the liner notes to Metamorphosis.] and I want my eye challenged as well as my ear, and I'm not getting it, normally.
And so to me, what I did with the Vivaldi, I put it basically into a cinemascope frame. I made a movie out of it - a music movie - which, when you're listening to it, also stimulates your interior visual sense, not just your aural sense. And we're trying to kind of hint at that when we're playing live as well. And it really works. It's a lot more fun that way, and it's actually inspiring. It works much better with the music, also.
Guitar.com: Are you familiar with the Trans-Siberian Orchestra?
Roth: I'm not familiar with them, but I've heard a little bit about them because our record company suggested we should go on tour together. We happen to be on the same label.
Guitar.com: They kind of sprang up in the last few years, really. I don't really know the whole back story but I've met a couple of the players, such as guitarist Alex Skolnick and violinist Mark Wood. But I believe they got started by putting out a CD of Christmas music, but really like hard rock meets the orchestra Christmas music. As I understand, they tend to tour more around that time. But I think it would be a very fitting tour for the two of you together.
Roth: Well, that's what my record company suggested.
Guitar.com: They have some really good guitarists who have a past history in hard rock and heavy metal, but they're educated players. And combined with some very good classical string players. It's very interesting what they do. I haven't seen them, but I think they're
Roth: Yeah, they tour some pretty big places
Guitar.com: Yes they do, and I think they're doing pretty well. It would be a good way for you to be re-introduced to the States. And if you're on the same label, it's probably almost a done-deal, right?
Roth: I don't know. We're on the same label in Europe. I don't know where they are in the States. But you know there are a lot of things under discussion in the States at the moment, and some pretty big things. I'm pretty sure we'll make it out there.
Guitar.com: When was the last time you played the States?
Guitar.com: Wow! It's been that long?
Roth: Yeah! We played the Metro in Chicago in '85, and we did a whole American tour with Electric Sun.
Guitar.com: So there is a whole generation of kids out there that have never heard you play guitar.
Roth: There's a whole generation. And I really never wanted to go back to the States unless the conditions were right. I'd moved so far away from the rock thing at one point, and I was perfectly happy to just write music. Performance wasn't that interesting for me. But now, in this stage of my life, I like both. And with this album, we've had a tremendously good reaction from America. That's why we're going to give it a shot. And whether it's on a solo tour, or a support tour, or festivals. Anything is possible. There's been talk of a pretty big festival in San Antonio on Memorial weekend. I've been invited to be the musical director, and there I would perform one night with the San Antonio Symphony Orchestra, and another night would be a rock night.
Guitar.com: When you did the G3 tour with Satch and Michael Schenker in 1998, you did that playing rock music, right?
Roth: Not really. It was a mixture. We did the Mendelssohn concerto, we did a Vivaldi. We did a lot of the classical stuff, but we did it in a rock environment, with a band.
Guitar.com: Not with your string ensemble?
Roth: No. With a band, a five-piece band. So it was a mixture of my own stuff, plus some classical stuff.
Guitar.com: And when you did the Japan and European tours
Roth: That was a larger setting. We had a violin player and several singers. It was a bigger setting.
Guitar.com: But it says the Electric Sun Years on your website.
Roth: That's a DVD, not a list of concerts.
Guitar.com: Oh, sorry.
Roth: The Electric Sun years ended effectively in 1985. The last tour we ever did was in '85, and the last concert we ever did was the festival in Milwaukee, probably on Independence Day, because I remember the fireworks.
Guitar.com: That would be Milwaukee's Summerfest, one of the largest and coolest music festivals in North America.
Roth: That's what we played. That was the end of that period.
Guitar.com: So what took you toward classical music?
Roth: Musically, I grew up in those camps. My first instrument was trumpet, not guitar. I was taught by an orchestra player, and that's how I learned how to read music, at least initially. Then later I switched to the guitar. But from early on there was the rock side, actually starting with the Beatles. I was always inclined more toward melodic and harmonic things. Then it was rock and blues. And then at the same time, maybe just slightly later, I started to discover classical music in a big way - learning all these transcriptions - Bach and all these things. Almost the entire repertoire. And then the piano. And very early on I got turned on to violin concertos, and broader classical forms. And that kind of always reflected in my "so-called" rock playing. So I was never and out and out rock guitar player, there were always classical influences in there. And I guess the further I progressed, the more this classical side came out in my guitar playing. That's the story.
"Classical music represents the pinnacle of Western culture, whereas rock music represents the brutal and technical aspects of the previous century, particularly the second half of it."
Guitar.com: Have you paid attention to other groups' mergers of rock or metal and classical music? And by that I mean rock groups performing or recording together with actual symphony orchestras or symphonic players. Have you heard much of that.
Roth: Not really. I know various people have done various things. When I did the first thing, which for me was the first big thing with a classical orchestra - I did that in '93 - and not many people had done it by then. There had been Deep Purple with In Rock or whatever, but there hadn't been anyone who had really merged symphony and concerto into one thing with rock singers and classical choir and with an orchestra. Most of the bands that did the so-called cross-over type thing, really didn't utilize the symphony orchestra in the sense that it was written for the symphony orchestra. It was more like a band being accompanied by the symphony orchestra, which is a totally different thing.
Guitar.com: That's what I was going to say
Roth: They were basically just using the sound canvas or the framework of the orchestra, but I wouldn't call that symphonic, as such.
Guitar.com: Right. I was going to say that, in the States, in recent years - and for a younger generation - probably the most well-known example of that is Metallica playing with the San Francisco Symphony. And yet, to me, I was very disappointed because they didn't use the symphony, they just had a slight pad of strings in the background under their music. They didn't interact with the symphony. And certainly Metallica could have done it. They could have gone (makes heavy musical sound) bam-bam-bam-bam-bam, and then the symphony could have repeated that. But they didn't do that. They pretty much just had some strings in the background of their own rock album. That disappointed me. I don't call that an interaction.
Roth: But to be able to do what you wanted to hear, you have to be able to think like an orchestra, and think like a classical musician. And in rock, there are only a handful of people that I know who can do that. Usually most rock players don't read music, and they don't understand classical music. They just see it as an outsider, which means they leave the work of orchestration to a trained arranger or composer - who usually doesn't understand rock!
And the result is that you end up with something that is usually OK, or sounds OK, but it's usually falls way short of the mark that could have been achieved had one approached this thing from the inside angle. Rather than just taking the elements and juxtaposing them together in a more or less obvious fashion. If you treat the combination of rock and symphonic orchestra in a superficial fashion, you will certainly get results that will sound impressive to some people, but you're not going to get something that will hold up for a very long time.
It's way too intricate a world for this, and the possibilities are endless, but you have to really know what you're doing and you have to go very deep inside the possibilities in order to fathom what's possible and what's not possible. For me it was a very long road in order to be really satisfied with the blend that I was getting between the rock element and the symphonic element, to the point where you don't know where one ends and the other begins. That was always my aim: to make an organic and kind of magical marriage out of two elements which are almost diametrically opposed in certain respects. And that was a very big challenge, because the symphony orchestra, to me, in all its glorious and splendid beauty, it represents like 300 to 400 years of culture from the past - the pinnacle of Western culture. Whereas, rock music represents a lot of the brutal and technical aspects of the previous century, particularly the second half of it.
Guitar.com: Are you saying the Decline of Western Civilization?
Roth: Well whatever. You could say that, maybe. Not in a derogatory way, it's just image. It's an image of society, and it's actually pretty accurate. It's almost like a mirror. It's almost like you're looking at the Beauty and the Beast. Now every society, every culture needs to look at itself in the mirror. And when I look at the electric guitar, I find it fascinating because that instrument is actually very much - it has the magical potential which is hidden within, but it also, if you just give into it, if you just go for the lowest common denominator, yes you will end up with something that sounds like a McDonald's society kind of approach.
Some people might find that derogatory, but that's the way I think about these things. And so what I was trying to do was find the marriage between the Beauty and the Beast, and manage to make the beast beautiful.
Guitar.com: Well Uli, you've done it! Thanks so much for your time.
Roth: Thank you Adam.