Interview: Yngwie Malmsteen on His New Album & Guitar
Yngwie talks about going old-school on Perpetual Flame and his new Fender Custom Shop "Play Loud" Strat
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I remember the first time I felt The Rising Force. The air was crisp and frigid that night in Chicago 1986. Though our faces were numb from the cold, the fury was screaming and heaven was falling. I felt it coming on strong. The Aragon Ball Room on Lawrence Avenue was packed with guitar disciples charged with eager anticipation and sweaty palms. Lucifer’s guitar player was in the neighborhood. Yngwie J. Malmsteen’s Marching Out tour was underway. Billy Sheehan’s band Talas was the opening act and little did we know that when we left, we would have an inferiority complex that would last a lifetime.
I first heard about The Viking in guitar magazines. In 1982, Mike Varney of Shrapnel Records heard a demo sent to him from Sweden by an ambitious 19-year-old guitar player. Varney must have liked it a whole lot because he flew him to the U.S. to record him. He joined the band Steeler to overdub guitar parts and later joined Alcatrazz. The album No Parole From Rock N’ Roll and the live recording Live Sentence, is a must own for anyone considering themselves Malmsteen freaks. If you’re a true disciple, you own the DVD of Alcatrazz Live in Japan and watch it while wearing your “Yngwie Who?” t-shirt. There is no disputing that this DVD has some of the greatest guitar playing in the history of mankind.
Malmsteen’s "Bach N’ Roll" compositional style, which had already been conceived as a 16-year-old, was the central focus of Alcatrazz. His approach was a fusion of heavy rock and baroque melodies extrapolated from J.S. Bach and Nicolo Paganini. Although Malmsteen is considered the father of neo-classical metal, one cannot dispute that he wouldn’t have arrived there without the influence of Ritchie Blackmore, Uli Jon Roth and Jimi Hendrix. Malmsteen played violinistic Bach melodies with the effortless speed of Paganini written for a Marshall and Stratocaster. It’s what it is! Love it or hate it, it’s what he does and he does it better than anybody else. Needless to say, Malmsteen puts on one hell of a show—he still uses smoke machines on stage.
By 1984 Malmsteen had moved on and released his first solo album, the mostly instrumental Rising Force. It was nominated for a Grammy for Best Rock Instrumental and went to #60 on the Billboard album charts. Yngwie Malmsteen continued to record and released Marching Out, Trilogy, Odyssey and Trial By Fire: Live in Lenningrad. This live record was the biggest concert ever attended by a western artist in the Soviet Union at that time.
With his changing band line up, Malmsteen continued to record numerous albums throughout the 1990s and into the turn of the century. Aside from his Concerto Suite For Electric Guitar and Orchestra recorded with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra in Prague, Malmsteen has continued to crank out the double bass kicking Bach N’ Roll fury he is famous for. While his critics are quick to joke about his fluctuating body weight and lack of musical evolution, genre consistent artist B.B. King has yet to be criticized for not producing a bluegrass opus or not joining the cast of The Biggest Loser.
In 1988, Malmsteen along with Eric Clapton were the first artists to be honored by Fender Musical Instruments with a signature Stratocaster. Fender’s current tribute to Malmsteen is a freakishly identical copy of his road beaten ’71 Fender Strat with all the dings and gashes. It’s called the Fender Yngwie Malmsteen “Play Loud” Custom Shop Stratocaster and it’s the coolest looking Strat I’ve seen in a long time.
I was lucky enough to catch Mr. Fury on the road touring behind his current release titled Perpetual Flame. Contrary to popular belief he is a nice guy. His live show with the addition of singer Tim “Ripper” Owens was energetically amazing and technically perfect. The show took me back to that chilly night in Chicago over twenty years ago when I experienced the Rising Force for the first time. It blew my mind. When I got outside the theater, he threw a sweaty towel outside of the third-story window of the theater and hit me in the face. I still have that sweaty towel and somehow I always knew we were destined to meet again.
How’s the tour going?
It’s very exciting for me to be here in the states because that’s where I always wanted to be. The scene has been changing so much lately. Ten years ago it was a totally different scene. Now the younger generation is getting into the guitar thing again. It’s fantastic and I’m really digging it.
Your LA show had a lot of kids. You have a whole new generation of fans.
Isn’t that great!
Yeah. I first saw you in 1986 and there were kids at your latest show who weren’t even born then. They know the words to all your songs.
I’m loving it. I’ve been doing this a long time and that’s why I call the new record Perpetual Flame. It just keeps on going. I’ve been doing this since the seventies. I remember seeing it come back and forth as well back then. I wasn’t at the same level, but I’ve been at it for a long time. I remember different trends coming back and forth. I just keep on going. I know what I’m here to do and I just do that. I know that if I stay with it, it’s always worthwhile. When you start changing around, then that’s the wrong thing to do because it’s not real. Even if you think it’s smart it’s not a good thing to do, so I don’t do that. I’m happy.
I respect you for sticking to your guns and not leaping around to please the market.
The main reason for that is because I’m very serious about what I do. I’m basically being honest. I don’t try to put something on that can be appealing at the time. I really mean it. This is my way of expressing myself and leaving something behind. It’s the real deal whether you like it or not. It’s what I do.
Do you ever think about dabbling in other kinds of music?
No, not at all. I’ve always been the kind of person where I put myself in the position where I was in charge of the music and the direction. I’ve been doing what I was meant to do. When I was in Steeler I did what I was told and that was it. I was professional in that particular situation but now I call the shots. What you see is what you get. What you hear is what I want to do. I don’t want to do anything else. If I wanted to, I would do it. The only thing that I’ve done that’s different from rock & roll is the symphonic stuff, which I really love to do. Right now I just want to rock.
On the Genesis CD it amazed me that even as a young teenager you had a distinctive vision for your music and style of guitar playing. Most artists evolve to discover their niche, but you knew early on what you wanted to create.
That’s cool that you heard that! I was sixteen or seventeen when I recorded that. For some reason that’s where I wanted to go. A lot of people look at the carrot at the end of the stick. “If I do this I’ll be the same as…,” whatever. When I came to the states everybody was saying, “You started playing to get laid, right?” I always thought that was a weird thing. I always said, “No, that’s not the reason I started playing!” (Laughing)
I thought about this a lot because I’m doing a lot of interviews and writing a book. I have no idea what made me do what I did. There was no end of the rainbow and there was no one telling me what kinds of songs to do. Basically everybody told me I wasn’t going to get anywhere playing like that.
Perpetual Flame is awesome. How did you get together with vocalist Tim “Ripper” Owens?
The record was a long process. I started writing songs for it more than a year ago. When I thought I had a lot of good stuff, I took a drummer into a studio where we recorded live drums. As the songs became what they were, I had to go on the road. So I went away and came back and the songs sounded a little different to me. Then I started adding guitar, bass and lyrics. More and more as the songs took shape, I realized the singer I had at the time couldn’t cut it. I write all the music, melodies and the lyrics. The songs were finished but I didn’t have someone to sing it. Tim has always been a great singer and I knew how great he was. I don’t know how it happened but he came down to Miami, sang a couple of songs and it was a no brainer.
Perpetual Flame has an old school Malmsteen feel. Was that on purpose?
It wasn’t intentional. The way I write, I just pick up the guitar, bass, keyboards, drums or whatever instrument I’m on. “You Don’t Remember, I’ll Never Forget,” I wrote on keyboards. I wrote “Black Star” on the drums. It doesn’t matter. I play an instrument, something happens and I become inspired. The thing takes shape and all of a sudden there’s a piece of music there. It takes on it’s own life and I follow it. I don’t decide if I’m going to go in this direction or that direction. In the past I’ve tried to do that and I found it wasn’t a very good thing to do. I just let it flow.
When you’re writing do you hear a riff first, or are you thinking about lyrics?
It’s never the same. For the song “Death Dealer” I had lyrics waiting around for that and I was just waiting for the song to fit. Most of the time there’s a melody or riff that starts the whole procedure. It becomes the inspiration to carry on with it. It doesn’t always happen the same way.