Thursday, August 12, 2010

Matthias Jabs: Sultan of the Scorpions' Six-String Sting

Date of interview: Aug. 3, 2010

 Matthias Jabs on the "Eye II Eye" tour. (Doug Fox)

Guitar solos are like fingerprints. Every guitarist has some, but they are highly individualized, and mostly unique to each musician’s background and style.

Guitar heroes are all immediately recognized by their signature solos – Jimmy Page in “Stairway to Heaven,” Eric Clapton in “Layla,” “Brian May in “We Will Rock You,” David Gilmour in “Comfortably Numb” and Eddie Van Halen in “Eruption.” Jimi Hendrix made his biggest statement by saluting the “Star-Spangled Banner” in feedback and distortion.

Which is why I was caught completely unaware in 1982 when I first laid ears on the guitar solo in “No One Like You.” I had no idea who this band or lead guitarist was – but what I did know was their record would be joining my collection at the first available opportunity.

That was my introduction to the Scorpions and Explorer-wielder extraordinaire Matthias Jabs.

From its opening salvo featuring a staccato burst of pinched harmonics to its ultimate explosion of melodic jam culminating in a gut-punching A-string slide, Jabs’s 34-second solo in “No One Like You” has no doubt made millions of females weak in the knees and forced as many guys into fits of air guitar fury during concerts around the world over the years.

Whether flashy (think “Rock You Like a Hurricane”) or understated (see “Your Last Song” on “Humanity: Hour 1”), Jabs’s solos not only fit the song, but they also lift it – and actually take you someplace.

In our interview, Jabs (calling from a concert stop in Las Vegas, Nev.) talks about the Scorpions’ farewell tour in support of “Sting in the Tail,” his use of the talkbox to enhance the atmosphere of certain songs, the melodic nature of his playing, why he doesn’t have many songwriting credits with the Scorpions and what happened with his iconic black-and-yellow-striped stage outfit from the mid-1980s.

However, since my indelible introduction to the Scorpions came with Jabs’s solo in “No One Like You” – that seemed like a good place to start our discussion.

Doug Fox: I’ve been a Scorpions fan for nearly 30 years and I can trace that back to one specific event -- the very first time I heard the guitar solo in “No One Like You.”

Matthias Jabs: Yeah?

DF: It’s one of the few guitar solos that I can remember exactly where I was when I first heard it. After hearing that, I said, “I’ve got to go out and get this album from a band I haven’t heard of before.” That was one of the band’s breakout hits in the U.S., but, to me, your solo really makes the song.

Jabs: Yeah, that’s nice to know. Actually, I heard, like, radio commercials for our shows that just had the intro, and not even vocals in there. So obviously, that’s already good enough to promote the show, or that song, or that album or whatever. So, that’s nice. Yeah, 30 years later, here we are.

DF: I was wondering if you could tell me about the creation of that solo – was it something you worked a lot on to get everything just how you wanted or was it more spontaneous and in the moment?

Jabs: No, it was like ... you know, in a good song, there’s more than one melody and usually the better the song, the easier it is to find the right additional melodies for it, and somehow that melody is well hidden in the chorus melody of the vocal, and I just developed it. But I worked out one. And when I had the main melody with all the phrasing, then I worked on the harmonies, too. But it was inspiring to begin with, you know, when I heard the song the first time. It had a working title back then, I think it was “Talk About You” or something, you know, before it was called “No One Like You,” and already, I said instantly, “Guys, I think we’ve got something here,” and when you have that feeling, then you put extra effort in to find the right components. And so with this one I knew it’s worth working out the guitar parts like they are today until they are really convincing.

DF: I’ve got to say that from the first note to that nasty slide you do at the end -- it’s, like, pure perfection.

Jabs: Can you play it?

DF: No, I play a little bit -- but I would like to.

Jabs: Yeah.

DF: Well, you have been in the United States for several weeks now, how are the fans reacting to this, your final tour?

Jabs: Excellent. I mean, we started out on the East Coast in the middle of June, and, traditionally, we were always stronger in the Southwest, where we are now, or all of the West Coast and, like, up to Chicago, but this time, with a fantastic reaction and lots and lots of people in New Jersey and Philadelphia and wherever, New York even. So it’s been like this on the whole tour now, great reactions from the fans, great shows and lots of people. So we are very happy with this, especially when we hear, “Oh, there’s a crisis and many bands have to cancel” or, “Shows are not doing so well.” But with us, I’m sure it helps when we say it’s the farewell tour. But we are getting people convinced to come out and see us one last time. It works well. It’s great fun, and we don’t think about, like, that it’s the last time every night. We just enjoy it so much that it seems like it’s normal [just] the beginning of a long tour, which is actually true. But the thought which we were afraid we would have every night, “Oh, bye-bye [said in melodramatic voice],” you know, that doesn’t really fly at the moment. It’s too much fun.

DF: I’ve got to say, as far as your manager [Peter Amend], you know, I’ve read how he brought up the idea to retire with this album and tour to you guys -- I’m not quite sure if I should love this guy or hate him!

Jabs: I was never sure about that either [laughs] -- even before he came up with the idea. I mean, it makes sense. There’s a certain logic to it as well. He argued, like, “OK, you have a strong album,” when he heard, you know, not the final mixes, but it came up when we played the music to him at the record company over in Europe, and everybody was so excited, “Oh, great new album!” And he came back a couple days later and [said] “The album is great. If you now go on the road ... ” and the previous tour took us like two and a half years around the world. He said, “This will be the same, two and a half, maybe three years, but if you call it the last tour and the last album, it will be exciting. It will be hard to top anyway in three, four years from now.” He said, “Do the math. You know, Klaus and Rudolf are already 62 years old, so by the time we are done with this whole tour, they’re like close to 65. Then you take a break, you start writing songs, you go back to the studio, the old routine. By the time it comes out, they’re 67 or something. And by the time that this tour would be over, they would be, like, close to 70.” And you wonder if it makes so much sense to sing ‘Bad Boys Running Wild’ when you are close to 70. I mean, at the moment, I must say nobody looks 62. And we are well fit and in great shape. Touring is like a workout program anyway, so we are getting more and more in good shape. So at the moment, everything is fine. And the idea was, OK, let’s leave a last impression to the fans that the Scorpions were already a great live band and we don’t want to limp around one day being close to 70 and create some kind of an embarrassment. Because sometimes some bands, I must say without mentioning any names, but some bands, they should have stopped some time ago. You know what I mean?

DF: Yes. Well, I’ve got to give your manager credit, because as you mentioned in talking about your shows in the U.S. so far, I think it has created a lot of momentum for you guys in being able to get a lot of people interested in seeing the band again.

Jabs: Yes.

DF: There are so many good songs on the new album -- which ones are you having the most fun playing live?

Jabs: We play, at the moment, three or four. You know, we change the setlist around a little bit once in a while to keep it interesting. But the four songs we play live are the title track, “Sting in the Tail,” that’s the opening song and always will be for this leg, and we also play “Raised on Rock,” the first single on the album, which goes down very well. And we play sometimes “The Good Die Young,” which is [Track] No. 4, and sometimes we don’t. And then, what has surprised me, the last song, “The Best is Yet to Come,” which I assume if we have, let’s say, 10,000 people in the audience that maybe -- it’s my guess, what do I know? -- but maybe 500 to a thousand have bought the new album at the most. The others could come from, like, “Yeah, I’ve been coming to the Scorpions since ... ” but everybody is singing it. So I’m thinking, and nobody plays it on the radio, but it’s amazing how everybody is singing that song, “The Best is Yet to Come.” You will see. So we play those four new tracks and they blend in very well with, like, anything from the ’80s or ’90s, so that’s all very good.

DF: Now, “Raised on Rock,” that you mentioned, has some great talkbox on it that really adds to the song. I’ve really liked your use of the talkbox over the years, you kind of sprinkle it on songs here and there, but never to the point where it feels overused or kind of becomes a gimmick. But I’m wondering, where did your love of the talkbox come from?

Jabs: I played if for the first time in late 1979 when we recorded “Animal Magnetism” for the song “The Zoo.” Because “The Zoo,” it talks about that creepy 42nd Street in New York, back then, now they’ve cleaned it up. We don’t even recognize it anymore because we looked for it when we were in New York just a couple weeks ago. And so, this song had, like, this creepy atmosphere, and to enhance this, to add something to it, because it was all the drug dealers, and all that, you know, sleazy, creepy feel in clubs and
whatever. “What can I do,” was the thought, “to enhance this musically?” And so the talkbox came to my mind. It was the first time I ever played it. And so I added just touches to it. Later on in the live version of “The Zoo,” like on “World Wide Live” or the way we still play it today, it’s an extended solo, but back then it was just there to enhance this atmosphere. And then, meanwhile, I used it in a couple songs, you know, not every album, if we played that would be like, “Ewwwwww,” But wherever it’s right, and on the new album we’ve found, like, for two songs it’s right -- “Raised on Rock” and “Slave Me,” there’s also talkbox in there -- and I just play in “Slave Me,” like the chorus riff with a talkbox as well. It adds a certain atmosphere, which I always like.

DF: That’s interesting to me that you had never played it before you played it on “The Zoo.” I assumed that you had probably had a lot of experience with it before then.

Jabs: You know, the thing with the talkbox is you cannot just set it up at home and play with it. It works in a way ... I have different ways of doing it today, but basically you need an amp and you need a speaker cabinet or the talkbox, which is something like a speaker. Therefore, you need to set it up, and it’s very loud. Even without amplification, the talkbox is so loud that, you know, if you don’t live on a ranch by yourself in the desert, the neighbors will come [complain]. It’s nothing to really rehearse at home.

DF: All right, interesting. Now, when you joined the Scorpions, of course, they were already a somewhat established band, but to me, what you really brought was great melodicism as a lead guitarist. No matter how hard rocking the rhythm of a song may be, whether it’s like “Rock You Like a Hurricane” or “Dynamite” your lead playing is so melodic that it totally ties everything together and makes it really accessible. It’s no coincidence that the band’s biggest hits started after the time you joined. Where does the melodic nature of your playing come from?

Jabs: I had it already, like, in the local bands I played before the Scorpions. There’s even one recording on a 45 vinyl and what you hear is a melodic in harmony-played guitar melody. You know, I brought this style to the Scorpions, I had it already before. Wherever it comes from, I don’t know. It’s what I like. And as I mentioned before with “No One Like You,” for me, guitar playing is, OK, it’s fun to be a bit flashy once in a while, but mainly, guitar playing to me is making music. And therefore, I play, like, what I feel is the best for the song. And even in a guitar solo, I think the song should continue, and not just, like, “Here’s a break.” And how radio treats guitar solos many times, “Here, just cut it out” because it’s some guitar player playing something. But if the song continues because of the guitar playing, then it’s even much better. And that’s how I treat it.

DF: Yes, it really comes across. I think it’s part of the band’s signature sound that way.

Jabs: Yeah, I mean, when I joined, I think for the first time the Scorpions felt like we were a unit, you know, a real band. And before, they made interesting music, but it was always two different styles within one band. Because of the previous guitar player, Uli [Jon Roth], who was so Hendrix-oriented that you could tell, “Here’s an Uli song, and there’s a Klaus and Rudolf song. So, you know, everybody admits that was a difficult time and it was two different styles at once, and as soon as I joined we sounded, yeah, like a unit.

DF: It’s interesting you mention the Klaus and Rudolf songs, because here’s something I’ve wondered over the years. Obviously, there’s no question that your playing has made the band more of a unit and has developed that sound, but I look over the writing credits in the Scorpions’ catalog, I don’t see very many from you, especially as many as somebody might expect for somebody who has such an impact ...

Jabs: You know, it is about how the band, or the other writers see it. Unfortunately, I must say, within Scorpions, it’s like all the stuff I add, for example, they consider as arrangements -- while in other bands, I know that the people go, “OK, whoever contributes something gets a share as a writer.” So, like, Van Halen used to do that in the beginning. It was always like four guys, always equal. Because all four do whatever they do. And when I joined, which is a long time ago, it was already established that whoever has the main, basic idea is the songwriter, and everything else is arrangement. So, there’s nothing you can do.

DF: So, you’re definitely writing a lot, it’s just not showing up that way.

Jabs: Absolutely.

DF: Another thing I thought you brought to the Scorpions was one of rock’s iconic stage outfits -- the one with the matching yellow-and black-striped pants and arm bands.

Jabs: Yeah.

DF: It’s too bad Stryper had to copy that.

Jabs: Exactly! I mean, as soon as I saw the Stryper album cover, everything striped in yellow and black, I took the stuff off and never used it again [laughs]. How original can a band be [laughs]?

DF: I was wondering, where did that outfit end up?

Jabs: Actually, that’s a good question. I think I donated it to some charity, which we did a lot in the ’80s, and I wasn’t really thinking about stuff, like, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, where they’re asking for it. I donated -- not donated, I loaned -- the guitar, my first Explorer, the one I played “No One Like You” and “Rock You Like a Hurricane” ...

DF: The Explorer 90?

Jabs: No, the one before, the first one, which I played “No One Like You,” for example, or “Rock You Like a Hurricane” or “Still Loving You,” all the early ’80s stuff -- that’s one in the original size. Ninety stands for 90 percent of the size, which I came up with later. But it’s at the moment in Cleveland and they want to display it, but they also wanted to have the black-and-yellow-striped pants, and I went, “OK, I’m not at home so I don’t know where to look for it at the moment because I’m on tour.” But I’m afraid I’ve given it away already.

DF: Can you imagine the reaction if you broke those out on a few dates of this last tour?

Jabs: I know! But, secretly, I wear black pants with tiny little yellow thingies here and there. It’s a hint, a micro-hint thought of it, but not in the same way.

DF: One of my favorite songs has always been “When the Smoke is Going Down” ...

Jabs: Yeah.

DF: It’s got such great imagery to it, what’s captured in the lyrics. I’m wondering, now that the smoke is kind of going down on the history of the band, does that song take on any added meaning for you guys?

Jabs: Um, no, not in that sense. We used to play it in recent years, on the last tour, for example, we used to play it as an additional song, like, after the last encore. We came out one more time, like the lyrics in the song describe, but with the audience still in there. It’s about, you know, everybody has left the place and then the vibe and everything is still in the building, but we played it as the very last song. And usually the towel wrapped around the neck, like, you know, if you come back from the dressing room -- and that went down very well. It’s a nice song to play live. Yeah, you wonder. We are not playing it at the moment, and I don’t know if the smoke is already coming down, it still feels like we are at the beginning of the last adventure, but I know exactly what you mean.

DF: So the smoke is floating around waiting ...

Jabs: Yes, it’s still floating [laughs].

DF: Hey, do you have any specific memories of concerts that you’ve had in Utah?

Jabs: Yeah, I mean, I remember, I guess, almost all of the shows we’ve played in Salt Lake City. We’ve been there quite a few times, though, over the years -- but I don’t think we have played that amphitheater [USANA Amphitheatre] where we play this time.

DF: You have not, that’s correct.

Jabs: Is it new?

DF: It’s new for ...

Jabs: For the Olympics maybe?

DF: No, it came after the Olympics.

Jabs: OK.

DF: I’m trying to remember ... the last time you came here was on the “Unbreakable” tour, and you played at the E Center, which was made for the Olympics.

Jabs: Yes, OK.

DF: And this was built after that time.

Jabs: OK, is it a nice one?

DF: Yeah, yeah.

Jabs: Good. Great.

DF: As guitar players, you and Rudolf have really carved out the sound the Scorpions are known for. How do your styles of playing differ and how do they complement each other?

Matthias Jabs and Rudolf Schenker "Face the Heat" in 1994. (Robb Hicken)
Below, Schenker on the "Unbreakable" tour in 2004. (Doug Fox)

Jabs: We really are different as guitar players, which makes it easier to work together, because it’s basically decided up front who plays what. That makes it easier. Rudolf likes playing the rhythms, even though I play the rhythms as well, I can tell you for the last two albums, I laid down all the rhythm guitars first. So everybody knows exactly how it goes, how the groove is meant to be and how, in case somebody, like a producer, wants to edit something, then he has, like, an editing reference. So, like I said, it’s for a few years that I’ve even put down the rhythms first, but then we work on the overall guitar arrangement and sometimes, it’s, like, if you, on the new album, for example, go to “Lorelei,” it’s one of those ballads, if you listen carefully, there’s like so many different guitars that blend into each other. I used, I think, at least eight different guitars, including the acoustics, so stuff like that, it takes a little bit of time to work it all out and make it sound nice. That’s not the typical song where you go, OK, like in the title song, I put down the rhythm and 10 minutes later, “OK, guys, this is how we do it.” You know, that’s an easy one to play. But, you know, some of the songs, they really need an arrangement, a guitar arrangement. But to your question, basically Rudolf doesn’t play lead at all, I would say, lately. And he played it in a few songs, usually the
ballads, never in fast songs, so that’s why it’s, like, decided. Over the many years we know who has his strengths where and for what type of song, so it makes it easy. Different than, I guess, if we have a band where both guitar players are, like, equal in what they do, then they have to probably find out, “OK, your idea is better than mine, that’s why you play this.” So we don’t have that that much.

DF: Of all the interviews that you’ve done over the years and the thousands of questions that you’ve been asked, what’s the one question you wish you would’ve been asked -- but never have been?

Jabs: Oh ... I don’t think that exists! [laughs] If so, I couldn’t think of any -- or I would have thought about it much earlier. I don’t think there is a question which hasn’t been asked. Maybe you’ve surprised me now! [laughs]

DF: Maybe this is it?

Jabs: Yes, this is probably it.

DF: There’s not something you’ve always wanted to talk about, but nobody’s asked you about it?

Jabs: No, I mean, I could just start talking about it -- if I really had the desire to talk about something.

To read my post-concert post, including details of a backstage meetup with Jabs, click here.

Read the story based on this interview.

Like The Editing Room Floor on Facebook: CLICK HERE.

No comments:

Post a Comment