Q&A With Yngwie Malmsteen, Performing Tonight at Culture Room
Once upon a time – the mid- to late Eighties, to be precise – heavy metal ruled the rock landscape. On the pop side, of course, there were the infamous hair bands. But on another, more underground but no less popular side, were a number of faster genre offshoots, presided over by a pantheon of guitar gods. And near the top of this Olympus was the flamboyant Yngwie Malmsteen, a Swedish-born sensation whose technical skill and bombastic power on the axe were nearly unmatched. Single-handedly, he developed a much-copied symphonic, lightning-fast, arpeggio-laden style of playing that launched him, for a brief period in the late Eighties, into bona fide mainstream success.
Just how revered was Yngwie during this period? Well, for one thing, he was the first ever musician to get his own name-brand guitar model made by Fender, in 1986. And from 1984 to 1988, Malmsteen scored an album a year in the Billboard top 100.
We all know what happened next – grunge became the next mainstream big rock thing, and metal was driven back underground. Still, Malmsteen survived, buoyed by a less visible, but still very, very large global audience of shred enthusiasts.
As grunge waned and hip-hop took over in his adopted United States, Malmsteen rode out the lull abroad, continuing to play arenas in Europe and Japan. He experimented further with neoclassical styles, even writing his Concerto Suite For Electric Guitar and Orchestra, which he recorded with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra in Prague.
And now, in the late 2000s, in the United States, Malmsteen seems to be experiencing the beginnings of revival, a fact he says correlates to the popularity of video games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band. And just think: Where would the now-uber-popular Dragonforce be without the trail first blazed by Yngwie?
Just two weeks ago, he released his first studio album in three years, Perpetual Flame, on his new record label, Rising Force Records. Considered by many Malmsteen enthusiasts to be one of his more aggressive records in recent years, it’s charged by the replacement of former singer Doogie White with Tim “Ripper” Owens, best known for his stints with Judas Priest and Iced Earth. While the lyrics, in Malmsteen tradition, tend towards the dark – song titles include “Death Dealer” and “Priest of the Unholy” – there are moments of light as well. The last track, in fact, is dedicated to Miami – it’s called “Magic City,” dedicated to the place Malmsteen has quietly called home for the past couple of decades.
New Times caught up with Malmsteen by phone this week to discuss his latest album and the upswing in Americans’ interest in guitar. He performs a rare local show tonight at Culture Room.
Yngwie Malmsteen performs tonight, Friday, October 31 at Culture Room, 3045 N. Federal Hwy., Ft. Lauderdale. Doors open at 8 p.m., and tickets cost $24.99. Call 954-564-1074, or visit www.cultureroom.net.
Where are you right now?
I've just rolled into Nashville. I've been touring the States for a couple months now. I've been waking up in the morning in a different city, and it's a really cool thing. It's like the old days. The American scene is different in the last few years, and now it's finally picking back up. I'm really pleased about that.
What do you mean by that? What's changing?
Well, in the Nineties, when you played heavy rock music, you might as well just forget about it. It was history. Basically, America, I've been playing and touring here for 26 years. Before that I was in Sweden, and I was working with all the young musicians here. I was a teenager when I got here.
I came right on the Eighties wave, so then the Eighties rock and roll thing happened, and then the Nineties rolled around, and they decided that this scene wasn't gonna be the same any more. So they killed it off. So the past 12 or 13 years or so I spent in Europe and Japan -- well, I didn’t spend it there but I played mostly in that market.
Then I went on tour with a couple of my friends, Joe Satriani and Steve Vai. And when I did that tour in America, about five years ago, I realized that, well, Americans have always loved guitar anyways, but now it's back with a vengeance. And this is crazy now! Every little kid wants to be a guitar hero now! And it's back to where it was! I'm really digging it! It's good for me, because they are kind of discovering me like it's the firs time.
It's funny that you used the phrase "guitar hero," because of course on Guitar Hero 2, there's that "Yngwie Malmsteen Award" for getting 100 notes right in a row.
The funny thing with these video games is that at first, I would definitely think -- I have a 10-year-old son by the way. He has different interests too, and he plays the real guitar. What I'm trying to say is, kids, you would think -- I don't know how to explain it. It's definitely worked out that some of them are getting into these Rock Band and Guitar Hero games. And It's coming back in such a force, that eight, nine, 10 years ago would have never happened. In Japan it would have worked but not here. For me, this is brilliant.
Have you ever played Guitar Hero?
I have never even looked upon the game. But it's a gateway kind of thing, then they're gonna go to Guitar Center and find a real guitar. Another thing is that a real guitar, a good one, is kind of cheap now. When I was a kid, that wasn't the case.
Your latest album, Perpetual Flame, just came out, but the last album before that, Unleash the Fury, came out in 2005. That's the longest gap between albums in your entire career. What happened in that time?
I toured on the Unleash the Fury album for a long time. I went everywhere. It actually has happened that the traditional cycle of recording and touring is not the same any more, where you do an album, you tour on it, etc. So what happened was, I started writing songs as I was on tour, and I'd come home and record some demos or whatever, and I had a lot of shit happen.
I have two studios in Miami that I work in. It came to a point where I had so many good ideas and good songs, I said to my drummer, Let's go into the live room and record some drums. That was a year and a half ago. And as soon as the drums were recorded, I went on tour again. When I came back home, I heard the songs a little different. Then I went on tour again to places like Moscow and Istanbul, and I got different influences.
What I'm saying is that I didn’t do what you usually do -- write, record, mix, and go on the road. I'd mix on the road. I am the songwriter, I am the lyricist, I am the producer, I am the arranger, I am everything. So when you do everything, you can lose sight of what you're going for. When you take breaks like that and come back, it's very, very good. You hear it a little different and you weigh things a little differently.
I don't know if people think I've done nothing, because that's not at all what's happened. Also, the album came out on our own label. And that had to be put together in a proper way, as well.
What made you decide to start your own label to release the album?
My wife is also my manager, and we both agreed that in order to survive with the way things are nowadays, the labels are becoming less and less important, in the sense that they are taking the backseat to all the downloading. It's a bad thing, really, as far as the music industry goes. So we decided to do it on our own and have great distribution through Koch, and in Asia and Europe it's Pinnacle, and Universal. It's a very good thing. The whole thing is complicated. I'm not as involved as my wife is. I'm on the artistic side of it.
Have you adjusted your label's business model, though, to deal with the fact that people download so much?
Yes and no. There are still a lot of people who would rather have the CD than a download. There are a number of reasons for this. One reason is that to have the actual thing in your hand is so much cooler.
Let me make this very clear to everybody out there -- a CD sounds about a thousand times better, just so you guys know. Don't lose sight of this -- all these downloads and MP3s have all this digital compression, like a very low-pixel version of a very great picture. Don’t fool yourself and think it's the same, because it's not. A CD sounds very bombastic and very powerful. The download is not going to sound as good.
But surely you've still got a digital release of your album.
As far as I know, yes. Honestly, I've been on the road and the actual release was during the time I was on the road. The 14th of October was the official release date.
How did you decide to work with Tim Owens for Perpetual Flame?
Okay, this was because as I said earlier on, I write songs. I never decide, Okay, I’m gonna do this or that, I let it happen naturally. But I had all these ideas, and went into the studio with the drummer. We put down the live tracks for twentysomething songs. And then I went back on the tour, and every time I came back, the songs grew a little more. I wrote lyrics, I listened to them in the car.
The songs started taking shape, like "Death Dealer" and "Live to Fight (Another Day)." These songs, the lyrics that I write for these songs are very -- some people might say dark. But there's a song dedicated to Miami on there, by the way. I realized the singer I had -- it's a little bit like casting for a movie. If you need a role that calls for Pacino or De Niro, you can't have Pee Wee Herman.
So the songs were completely done by the time Tim Owens came in; all he had to do was sing them, basically?
Yeah.Yeah. All of them, including the drummer and the keyboardist, they all come in and it's all finished for them. .
Why did you decide to also handle both the production and engineering of the album yourself?
I've always produced. Sometimes I've co-produced, but 99 percent of the time it's me. And I've always been involved in engineering, because I always loved the whole craft of actually mike-ing and cuing and compressing and tuning the drums, choosing the position of the microphone, and all that stuff. And it just ended up being me this time around. I had enough knowledge to do it.
It was quite a lot of work, and a lot of burden on myself, dong everything on the album. But at the end fo the day when it's finished, it was very satisfying. You go, Wow, I picked the right AKG C414 for the cymbal mikes, and I feel good about that. Because sometimes on the albums I say, Oh shit, there's not enough compression on the snare drum. I'm very technical about it.
What made you decide to contribute vocals for the song “Magic City?"
I sing a bit here and there anyways. The last few albums I've been singing, and I do all the backing vocals. The thing is that, I lived in L.A., I lived in New York, I lived in London, I grew up in Stockholm. I've been everywhere. I always thought it was weird when people said, Why do you live in Miami? Because it's the best place in the world. There's no place that's better!I used to get in arguments with people!
I really honestly, and I mean really, love Miami. To me it's like nothing in the world. And I’m from Sweden which is a very, very cold place. So obviously I don't like cold weather. I remember when I first landed here when I was 19 years old. I came off a Japanese tour, I landed in Honolulu, and that was the first time I saw tropical water. Something happened to me that day, and I knew that’s where I wanted to be. But you can't live in Hawaii because it's halfway to Japan. So in Miami I'm two hours from New York and live in the same tropical climate. And I love to drive with the top down and all that.
Do you still have the same Ferrari?
Yeah, yeah. I have a song about that one too. And I love to play tennis, I just love it.
That's funny, because that all sounds so positive and, like you said, a lot of your songs have dark themes.
I used to make jokes about it, because I've been in Miami for 20 years now, and I would write songs like "Prophet of Doom" and stuff like this, "Death Dealer,." And then I look outside and I've got palm trees and blue sky. People would be like, What the hell's wrong with you? It works because it all comes down to imagination, anyways. You don’t have to live in a hell place to write about hell.
On the inside of the booklet for Perpetual Flame, there are lyrics printed for a song called “Tied of Desire,” but it actually doesn’t appear on the album. Was this intentional?
That was like a typo. That song was supposed to be on another recording and the printer screwed up. It's a really embarrassing thing. They made a mistake. They'll fix it on the next pressing.
Oh. There's been some speculation about that being on purpose for whatever reason, because the lyrics mention something about a perpetual flame, like your album title.
That song is a little bit about myself, my own thing. But that's a song for another time. I saw that and said, Oh my god.
Do you have plans to release that song on a different album?
Yeah. There's a lot more to come. We've got all sorts of things. We've got a box set, and different compilations, and we've got to do all sorts of things, shoot some live stuff, and there's a lot of things coming. But right now the focus on this album.
Tell me about the reconstruction Fender is doing of your Stratocaster. Is this an update of your custom model, or something else?
This is mind-blowing, really. I came to the States a long time ago. I was just a little kid, a teenager. I had one guitar with me, and an extra pair of pants, and a toothbrush and my guitar case. I didn't know if I was going to be sent home the next day or whatever. It was a very crazy thing to do. And that guitar was my favorite guitar, it was an Olympic white Fender Stratocaster. That was also the one on the cover of the first Rising Force album. I had that guitar for many years, and it got really beat up and everything. That guitar became very well known throughout the years; people knew that guitar by name. But I stopped using it quite a long time ago, even though it is a beautiful guitar.
When I first came to America, Fender had never even given a guitar for free to anybody. Everyone had to buy the guitar. I'm the first guy to ever get a free guitar from Fender, a), and b), I’m the first to ever get a name on it. That was back in '86. So they've had my custom for many years. They updated it about a year and half ago, which was amazing, by the way.
This one that you're talking about, though, is a tribute guitar. They did one for Stevie Ray Vaughan, and they did one for Clapton. So they take one guitar, and they replicate every scratch, every rust particle. It's scary. It's frightening. They only made 100 of them. It comes out November 28. I have one with me.
What about your other guitars on this tour?
I'm using mainly my model. I've got eight or nine guitars on this tour; I had one specially made in red, for the song "Red Devil." The rest are all cream white. I have 25 Marshall Amps and 18 cabinets. I have more Marshalls than any sane person should bring. That's a little passion of mine. And I've got Ovation acoustics.
Are you playing any acoustic pieces on this tour?
I do two acoustic pieces. They're kind of like things I play myself. It's not so much with the band.
Are there any plans to reissue your YJM308 overdrive pedal?
I've heard sometimes about that....
The venue you're playing in Ft. Lauderdale, Culture Room, is pretty small. Do you prefer to play smaller venues on this tour?
I'm a little bit surprised that we went there. They're all nice people there and everything, but it's a little bit too small. I think it was something with availability. It's gonna be a good show anyways. And we will do another one in Port St. Lucie.
Do you prefer those big arenas like you play in Europe, then?
No, no, no. I prefer theaters. Theaters with 1500, 2000 seats. That's my favorite gig because they sound the best, and you have all the room you need onstage. And you get to interact with the people as well. You play the Budokan, and you don’t even see the people. It's bizarre, and it also sounds terrible. I don't like too small, I don’t like too big.
How much longer is this tour, and what are your plans after it?
I think it's another couple of weeks or so, I'm not really sure, exactly. Then I'm gonna have more press to do. Then it's gonna be Christmas, and then we go to all the countries in the beginning of the year, I think, South America and things like this. And we have to do more American places, we just have to.