Yngwie Malmsteen interview
As a mere seven-year-old, Yngwie Malmsteen picked up his first guitar on the same day that Jimi Hendrix died – 18th September, 1970. Jointly inspired by Ritchie Blackmore and the classical strains of Bach, Beethoven, Vivaldi and Mozart, the Swede perfected a super-fast picking technique, traversing the bands Steeler and Alkatrazz after relocating to the States, then going solo in 1984. Equally renowned for brash opinions and brandishing the axe upon the 40-odd backing musicians he’s used so far, Malmsteen’s new album, Perpetual Fame, features ex-Judas Priest/Iced Earth singer Tim ‘Ripper’ Owens and is the first for his own label, Rising Force Records.
INTERVIEW: DAVE LING
The gap between the announcement of Doogie White’s departure and the appointment of ‘Ripper’ Owens’ was miniscule enough to suggest you’d been plotting the switch?
[Brusquely]: I don’t know when those pieces of information came out.
Within a few days of one another, quite literally.
Here’s what happened. I made two albums with Doogie and he did a great job. But when I started writing the new one, the songs went in a much more powerful direction. The vocal melody almost had to carry the song. I needed someone to do that for me. I’d met Tim on a few occasions, and at Christmastime he came to see me in Miami and sang on a couple [of songs] that I had ready.
Tim would’ve only just been sacked by Iced Earth?
Yeah. All we were doing was thinking about [working together]. We sat down and discussed it and I carried on with the album. Then later on we decided to do it for real.
So he had the voice you needed?
Yeah, but it wasn’t just about that. We had to get along. The way I work [pauses momentarily], it’s almost like a director and an actor. ‘I want this, I want this’.
Coming in at such a late stage, did Owens get to contribute to the songs?
No. His contribution is his voice.
Not even tweak anything that was written?
Well, he must know about what he was getting himself into – band members come and go.
Like all the others, I’d like to have a more longstanding relationship than that. But you know [looks exasperated]: Every fucking interview I do, I have to explain to people how I work. Keith Richards comes up with the riff and Mick Jagger sings; Robert Plant sings over Page’s stuff; Blackmore and Coverdale worked together. I just don’t do that. I’m like the composer of an orchestra. I compose for the cello, the woodwind, the violins… everything. I guess it’s a very un-rock ‘n’ roll way to do things, but it’s how I’ve always worked. I mean, I had Cozy Powell in my band [during the mid-1990s] and I showed him the drum-licks; Cozy play this [starts tapping out a rhythm on a saucer].
Have you tried working more democratically?
In other eras, when I was a little confused due to other things – alcohol, maybe. But I always said, ‘No, that didn’t work. I won’t do that again’.
On your 2002 album, Attack!!, you were credited as producer, plus lead guitars, rhythm guitars, acoustic guitars, bass, fretless bass, synthesizer guitars, sitar, cello, keyboards and backing vocals, and lead vocals on the song Freedom. Doesn’t leave much for anyone else, does it?
Not really, no.
So what do musicians and singers get out of being in a band with you?
I dunno. You’d have to ask them.
So let us inside your songwriting process?
I sit and watch TV, playing guitar. Often I watch political programmes and they make me really angry. Sometimes it gives me a lyrical idea. There are notepads everywhere. If I come up with a riff then I run upstairs to my studio and record it. It’s almost a daily event. I wrote something like 39 songs for this album. I write the lyrics and melodies; I produce them; I arrange them, they are like my babies.
Of those 39, how many did you actually record?
The full 39, though quite a few don’t have drums or vocals.
One of the most interesting songs is the epic Eleventh Hour, which features a string section.
I’m so proud of that song, it’s like Stargazer [by Rainbow] for 2008. I happened to be in Istanbul and we used some local string guys. I had the backing tracks for the song on my laptop, and we used ProTools to record them.
After several albums with SPV it’s coming out via your own company, Rising Force Records.
Yeah. It was becoming an uphill battle to deal with labels. Not only money-wise, more of a general struggle.
Do you mean they tried to meddle in an artistic sense?
[Sounding shocked]: No. I would never allow that to happen. But something needed to change. The label was the idea of my wife [April, who Yngwie’s manager].
During the past couple of years you must’ve noticed a resurgence of real musicianship and songs?
It’s been quite remarkable, especially in the States. In the 1990s, America was a desert. My kind of music was over.
Did you feel like you stood out like a sore thumb?
Absolutely. I’d switch on the radio… ‘What is this shit?’, y’know? I have a theory that these things are cyclical, that’s all it is. When punk came in back in 1976, it was horrible but now it’s almost charming – even though musicianship went right out the window. The same thing happened at the beginning of the 1990s.
Rising Force now owns the rights to all your solo records except for the first five, and will be re-issuing them?
That’s correct. Absolutely. They will be re-mastered and re-mixed. There will be boxed sets. I have a multitude of extremely good live recordings, which I will be putting out.
Am I right in thinking you are sober these days?
Oh, a hundred per cent.
Did something happen that made you think, ‘I must change this lifestyle’?
Basically, I hit a wall.
What, in a car?
[Laughing]: No, not this time. I realised that partying was not a good thing anymore. So, fuck it, I stopped. That was four years ago.
How bad did it get?
Well, beer was my thing back then. I drank a lot of beer – a lot. But I also gave up smoking and it was really refreshing. Now when I get up in the morning, I’m clear and focussed. I can get shit done. I highly recommend it.
Do you look back on some of the things you did and said and think, ‘Christ, I was an ass’?
[Nodding slowly]: Of course. And all of that stuff will be in the book. I’m writing an autobiography right now. It will be truthful and very in-depth.
What do you think of perception that because you worked so hard to master a speed-based technique, it has less artistic value than somebody that plays slower and with more feel?
I don’t hear that so much these days. Only somebody that’s musically unintelligent would say it. My music lacks passion? That’s bullshit. It takes passion to expand ones vocabulary. It’s a thing I’ve taken – humbly – from my heroes Niccolò Paganini and Franz Liszt, whose whole thing was to be a virtuoso almost to the point of showing off.
So you admit you’re an exhibitionist?
Yes. I love it. It’s excellent. And it’s been going on in rock ‘n’ roll for a long time. Do you think Jimmy Page played with a bow because he was making some deep artistic statement? Don’t be so stupid, he was showing off.