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Kerby’s Exclusive Interview With Guitarist Extraordinaire Yngwie Malmsteen

By Jeff Kerby, Contributor
Sunday, October 9, 2005 @ 6:38 AM

"...some people hold grudges.

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It’s obvious that Yngwie Malmsteen can play the guitar—that should never be an issue.

After all, the Swede’s technical skills have earned him the admiration of six string freaks all over the world while at the same time garnering him considerable criticism from others who charge that Malmsteen’s playing is merely a form of musical masturbation designed to bore the hell out of any poor soul with the sad misfortune of listening. The argument isn’t anything new, and really, it’s the same type of sniping that other axe wielding stalwarts such as Steve Vai, Joe Satriani and Tony MacAlpine have had to deal with throughout their entire careers. As the cliché goes, players of the instrument tend to appreciate his playing for the difficulty level involved while other music fans tend to find the length and style of the prolonged guitar solo to be an exercise in musical antiquity.

The truth though is that a person would be hard pressed to think of a guitar player from the 80’s who embodies the whole idea of the quintessential long-haired shredding axeman to quite the same extent that Yngwie has been linked this stereotype throughout his career. If one thinks about it, it really doesn’t matter which Malmsteen selection makes it on to the stereo, fans know that at some point Yngwie will be tearing it up during the song. Lead singers and band members may come and go, but the mastery Malmsteen has exhibited throughout his recording career regardless of the construct of the songs is undeniable. If a listener doesn’t enjoy the product of Yngwie’s work, that’s their prerogative, but proper homage must be given to the immense talent he possesses. The newest recorded example of his prowess is the recently released Unleash the Fury which contains two instrumental selections that are variations on material composed by Bach as well as a song called “Cherokee Warrior” which features Yngwie on vocals. Response to the record has been predictably positive among fans with some even considering the new record to be Malmsteen’s strongest work since Rising Force which was recently voted the number one shred album of all time by Guitar One magazine.

In all, it is a triumphant return for one of the most technically amazing guitarists in metal—one that plans on flying the flag of metal proudly and shredding without apology at a venue near you in coming months.

KNAC.COM: If you had to break down how much of your guitar acumen is based on natural ability versus how much is attributable to hard work, what would you place the percentages at?

YNGWIE:That’s an interesting question. I’ve been playing guitar for a long, long time--about thirty years or more, but I’ve also spent a lot of time on songwriting and things like that. Obviously some of it is some sort of gift, but I think that in the end it is mostly work. I’ve never thought about it in those terms before though. I think I’ve been doing this for so long that I have kind of forgotten what parts came natural and all.

KNAC.COM: I have heard different reports that at various times you were playing from between eight to ten hours a day. Is that an exaggeration?

YNGWIE:That is true. There was a time in my life where I was completely obsessed with it. I guess it did pay off in one way or another, but I did sacrifice a lot of other things. While all of my friends were out partying and all that, I had no part in that. I was just completely dedicated to the instrument.

KNAC.COM: Were you a happy person at that time?

YNGWIE:I don’t know. (laughs) I was probably miserable. I can’t remember…that was so long ago. It was rewarding at the same time too though when you would realize that you had gotten better and better and better. And all of the work you did just made you improve. Even before I came to the States, I would record myself all the time. Then, I would analyze the recordings. If there is one good tip I can give to anybody out there, it is that recording yourself can really make you buckle down and be more critical. When I would listen to something that I thought might not have been so good, I would then work on that. It did pay off at times, but it was frustrating too. I don’t know.

KNAC.COM: Could you see a really huge contrast between your work ethic and that of some of the L.A. musicians of the day who were more into partying?

YNGWIE:That’s a good question too because when I first came to the States, I came to Los Angeles in the very early 80’s, and it was bizarre because I had never thought of music that way. People would come up and go, “I’ll bet you play guitar to get laid, right?” I had never thought about that. Maybe if I would have, that would have been the reason. (laughs) I never knew that had anything to do with it, but I did pick up on that pretty quickly. Seriously though, I’m not saying everyone was like that, but there were certain groups. There were also some dedicated guys out there too. It was a good mix of people really. The whole L.A. thing in the early 80’s though was party, party, party, party.

KNAC.COM: Yet you managed to get through it without performing a bunch of songs about tits and ass.

YNGWIE:I was never really into that type of music.. (laughs) KNAC.COM: Between being so dedicated to your instrument as well as trying to deal with life in a new country, did you ever feel isolated?

YNGWIE:No, I found people very friendly. I mean, I was out of place in a way, but I always thought there was a nice, warm vibe going on…

KNAC.COM: So do you think the guitar opened some doors for you that made the transition a lot easier?

YNGWIE:Yeah, L.A. was a cool place to be, and those days are gone. There’s no place like that anymore. There’s no place where you can go now and know that is where it’s goin’ on, you know? Looking back, it was cool that I had the opportunity to be right there in the middle of that, but it’s not there anymore—there or anywhere else. I’m not saying that there isn’t any rock going on, but there just isn’t a center. There’s no epicenter where when you go there, you know it’s gonna happen. That was pretty cool that I caught that. Kids starting out now…where the fuck are they going to go?

KNAC.COM: Yeah, and you can’t even really say anything like, “all the rockers turned into punks or goths, and here is where they are.”

YNGWIE:That is true of any city now. It could be good though in a way—I guess it could be bad and good.

KNAC.COM: How hard was it for you personally when you started to see that scene going away?

YNGWIE:The first show I ever did in L.A. was with a band called Steeler, and it was in front of thirty people. Then, we opened up a show for another band, and a couple of days later we were playing the Roxy with people lined up down the block. Because then, all of a sudden, people started talking about this kid from Sweden. It was really amazing to see people find something whether it was another band or me and just come out to see it. After awhile though, when you get to the next level, you don’t have to play in the clubs to make noise anymore because now you have other mediums you can go through. Maybe that is why I never really grieved about the club thing. I did a couple of things with Steeler and a few things with Alcatrazz, and that was it.

KNAC.COM: So basically, the time from when you were a relative unknown until the time your career sort of blew up was a relatively short period of time.

YNGWIE:Yeah, it wasn’t long at all. It was really pretty amazing actually. I was just a kid too, really.

KNAC.COM: What was the coolest part of that whole ride up?

YNGWIE:It was surreal. It was surreal, not only because of the cultural change, but that I had worked so hard for so long and getting absolutely nowhere in Sweden. Within weeks of coming here, I was the talk of the town. It was just bizarre. It was surreal and bizarre. I will never forget it, and I have been thinking about writing a book soon, and I will talk a lot about that. It was like there was just all this pressure, and it just built up until it went to explode. It was really bizarre because of I had worked so hard in Sweden with my band Rising Force which was me and the bass player and drummer. We played all over the place in Sweden and recorded so many things, but no label would even give a toss. Then, I came to the United States and did two obscure gigs with a club band and it was like BANG! It was quite amazing.

KNAC.COM: Then you had the sunshine and the girls and the money…

YNGWIE:It could have been a lot worse. (laughs)

KNAC.COM: How hard was it for you to collaborate with other musicians? There is a belief in sports that great players like Micheal Jordan or whoever make really bad coaches because they can’t identify with players who are less gifted than they were. Do you believe you ever suffered from that?

YNGWIE:I wouldn’t say that I had a difficulty with it as much as I would say that I learned pretty early on in Sweden that I would change members like some people would change socks. When I came to the States at first there was even more change. There were some musicians though that would stay with me for years--you build up a rapport and all of that. There are a lot of other stupid things that creep in to it like money which I would hate because I never really dealt with that end of it, and it isn’t the reason I’m doing this anyway. There have been a lot of problems like that, and some people have ego problems. As far as the musical part, it is kinda obvious because they know what the deal is going in, “Malmsteen is gonna be like this.” They sort of know that, so it is a step that has already been taken. Most of the time it has been pretty cool though.

KNAC.COM: When you say, “they know Malmsteen is gonna be like this”--what does that mean to you?

YNGWIE:Just that musically it is a different avenue in that it isn’t the standard rock n’ roll. It just has more definite requirements is all. That is true whether you’re singing it or playing it.

KNAC.COM: So you don’t mean that from an ego standpoint then?

YNGWIE:Well, no I don’t think so because they wouldn’t even be there, would they?

KNAC.COM: I‘m not sure you could say that about all people. I think some musicians would definitely put up with someone they thought was difficult if they thought it meant a step up in their careers.

YNGWIE:I don’t think there has ever been an issue there. The bad part has always been when people decide to leave or were told to leave. It is the same in every situation though--I don’t think it’s just with mine. Of course, people don’t want to say nice things about people they don’t work with anymore. It turns into a pride thing, and some people hold grudges. I think I’m totally over that.

KNAC.COM: Did it take a long time for you not to take personnel issues personally though? It would seem like that would be a mindset that could only come with experience.

YNGWIE:Before I came to the States, I was always sort of the fearless leader of my groups. There was never any question then about who the boss was--ever. It was never a problem as long as that was understood. I don’t like conflict, and I don’t like friction. I have found that the easiest way to avoid that is instead of having five guys decide what to do, you have one person decide what to do. I’ll bet you anything that when you talk to other people, they would agree with that.

KNAC.COM: I think the biggest difference in this situation is that the majority of the time, the person who calls the shots and leads the band is the vocalist. You, on the other hand, tend to be the focal point even though you play guitar and share the stage with someone else who is singing the songs. I just think people have come to expect singers to be the most outspoken leaders.

YNGWIE: Yeah, but many people should know that not only do I play guitar but that I write the songs, the lyrics and produce the albums too. The singer to me is something that I shape. It could be like an actor who has a script. In order to carry out the script, the actor has to be good. That is true whether you are talking about Broadway or a movie or whatever. My situation will always be different considering that I do write the music and the lyrics and melodies and all that. That is why Doogie is such a great guy because he realizes all of that and just goes into the studio and does a really good job. He is live too.

KNAC.COM: At the same time you realize as well as anyone though that not just any vocalist could handle a situation where they are basically expected to defer most of the creative process, right?

YNGWIE:This is true. That I have found out the hard way.

KNAC.COM: I’ll bet.

YNGWIE:The thing I have figured out though was that any time I let them do the things I do now, I was never happy with it. It’s a bit of a catch-22. What are you going to do though? You have to work five times as hard because you have to write everything and produce everything, and you have to be there from beginning to end. It’s a lot of work. On my album Unleash The Fury, everything else was on hold, man. I was there from the beginning of the first note to the last of the mastering. Yeah, sure, I’m the guitar player, but you know, I do end up spending more time on the lyrics and songwriting than I do the guitar work because that just seems to come naturally.

KNAC.COM: Basically what you’re saying is that it is better for you to be 100% happy with what you are doing than trying to make a vocalist 75% satisfied or whatever.

YNGWIE:What it boils down to is that in the past partially as an experiment and partially because I was a little lazy, I let other people in on the production part, the playing part or even the lyric part, and I hate to say it, but every time I did it, I realized that I should have done things differently. That kind of thing may have allowed me to have more time to play pool or tennis or mess around with my cars, but at the same time, at the end of the day, this is what I do. I have to be more responsible with that. It is really a hard thing to try to explain to a normal person who isn’t familiar with the typical rock and roll situation. It is kind of a process of trial and error. Right now I have a band that is perfectly involved with that and understands what it is. I have nothing but good to say about them.

KNAC.COM: What do you think was the reason you were able to get happy and motivated and in the proper creative headspace to produce a record like Unleash The Fury?

YNGWIE:I found out that when I have a very stable base, I can concentrate on the music and the songs a little better. I’m married now and have a seven year old son. As a result of that, I have been able to focus more on the music, and it has made it even a bit more aggressive, actually. It seems like for me the more stable my life is, the more aggressive and energetic the music is. That is exactly the opposite from what most people would expect. It is just a case of where I can be more focused and not just out running around wondering what the next day was going to be like. Most of the…I don’t want to say “wimpy”--but some of the lighter stuff that I have done in my life has been created when my life was a complete mess. I’m talking about “Heaven Tonight.” During that time, I didn’t even have a place to live, so there you go.

KNAC.COM: Do you think fans have a pretty accurate vision of who you are as a person?

YNGWIE:No. I don’t think so.

KNAC.COM: What would you attribute that to? Do you think the press in particular has been fair throughout your career?

YNGWIE:I think it is a big combination of a lot of things. (laughs) Really though, I think I am very misunderstood by a lot of people. I don’t really mind though because I think that one of the most important things about a so called artist is the mystique. I would rather keep it that way and have people wonder about what I am really like instead of having it all on the table. I have been offered to do reality type shows myself and have turned them down. When I was younger, my hero was Ritchie Blackmore and back there was no cable TV or the Internet. There was just this one picture on the record that you could look at, and you heard the music. To me, that helps build a persona that is more powerful than, “hey, uh, is there more toilet paper. I ran out of toilet paper.”

KNAC.COM: What did you think when that tape of you getting upset on the plane started making the rounds on the Internet? Was that a positive part of your mystique in your view? (laughs)

YNGWIE:The real story behind that incident is that it actually occurred in 1988 on an airplane to Japan. It didn’t happen in 2002 or whenever that got released. What happened was that when our group was going to Japan, we were making a lot of noise and getting really out of hand. It wasn’t just me--it was all of us, and the keyboard player was the worst actually. I won’t even say what he was doing. Anyway, it was a long flight, and we had all kind of fallen asleep when someone dropped a pitcher of water on me. I started freaking out, and somebody recorded that. Well instead of going “f-you” which I probably did too, I said, “you have unleashed the fury!” Which I thought was kind of cool. It was a good choice of words, so I used that as a little joke for the title of this one. It is kind of a reference to that, but the album does actually unleash the fury, and the song has nothing to do with that at all. It is a multi-faceted type of thing. I like stuff like that.

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