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Interview with Axel Rudi Pell

AXEL RUDI PELL


First coming to prominence with German band Steeler from 1984-1988 (not to be confused with the American band of the same name that once featured Yngwie Malmsteen), Axel Rudi Pell went solo in 1989, and in these past 23 years has released 15 album, the latest being the wonderful ‘Circle of the Oath’. Like fellow virtuoso Malmsteen, Pell has a knack for sourcing some of rocks greatest vocalists for his albums, having had Rob Rock and Jeff Scott Soto fronting the band previously before settling on Hardline’s Johnny Gioeli some 14 years ago. On the opening day of his latest European tour in Hannover, Julia Braun caught up with Axel exclusively for Rocktopia.

First of all I’d like to thank you a lot that you took some time for me even before your show today. I hope you’re not too stressed now…

Well, the first day of a tour is always a little crazy. We arrived late, As I was completely forgotten to be picked up and so it was quite a mess today. I was just freaking out on stage a bit during the sound check [laughs].

Sounds like an awesome start then, haha. With what kind of feeling do you actually begin with for this year’s tour?

We’re all pretty nervous today, most of all because it’s our first show with the new program. Usually if we weren’t playing together for a while and going back on stage it wasn’t that bad because we all knew the songs and at least most of the transitions. But this time it’s technically completely different: of course we still play a lot of the old stuff too but some of them were re-arranged or put into medleys with some new parts and so it’s a bit confusing sometimes. Too much information...
So especially before the first show one’s nervous and asking oneself if everything will be working out.
But most bands I know also say that the first two or three shows on a tour are more like half-public rehearsals. But I hope the audience won’t see it that way [laughs]. Let’s see if they throw flowers on the stage together with the flowerpot tonight!

How often did you rehearse before this tour then?

Let me think. Today’s Friday … we were rehearsing Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday this week. Johnny and I are planning the set list before, of course, because he has to decide in which order he’s able to perform the songs – especially three days in a row. But concerning the rehearsals it was a bit chaotic. On Tuesday we wanted to start rehearsing at 2pm but actually we didn’t manage to begin before 5pm... and finished it one hour earlier as well. It was an absolute catastrophe! We all couldn’t quite remember anything. The next day was better and Thursday was only 30% terrible [laughs]. But it has always been like this.

Concerning your new album: ‘Circle of the Oath’ managed to reach #16 in the German Charts – which is quite phenomenal for a rock album these days in Germany, I think.

This is amazing, I absolutely agree. But in some way I would have even expected this to happen as our label told us before that the aim with this record would be a Top 20 ranking. With our last studio album we reached #22 so we definitely wanted to break that Top 20 mark. That it actually happened… none of us would have thought so. This is the best ranking we’ve ever managed to reach. Our first record entering the Charts was ‘Between the Walls’ as #94 in 1994 – a little difference, huh?

To be honest personally I think that ‘Circle of the Oath’ is absolutely amazing and the majority of the reviews about it say the same – it is even declared as one of your masterpieces.

Oh thanks a lot. Well, I like it a lot too. Some old records I can’t stand anymore today. After having produced a new album I listen to old records in a different way. Even if I once liked them I mostly think that we now did a lot better. A good example is ‘Tales of the Crown’ which I don’t like at all anymore. ‘The Crest’ is still one of my favorites.

Where do you get it from?

It might be a genius’ ability of composing that keeps on developing [laughs]. No, no to be serious I can already somehow feel it while composing if a record will be come out as a great one or not. There must be songs or parts that knock your socks off. When writing ‘Tales of the Crown’ we tried to add new rhythms and sound patterns but it was a rather shuffling process and it didn’t feel like us. But now we wanted to go back to the roots while adding mellow compositions and deeper influences such as Led Zeppelin on the title track.

What was the actual inspiration for this new record?

Nothing. Seriously, I’m always composing. Well, not during the time on tour because it’s too busy and messy then but usually I do it wherever I go and whatever time it is. But it’s not like writing a whole song, rather like collecting ideas. Even when I go to the supermarket it happens to me very often that an idea comes into my mind and I have to keep it somehow. So I take out my voice recorder and just sing the melody or the lyrics. It’s a bit strange when the lady behind the meat counter asks me, “It’s a bit over, is that okay?” and I just answer “Oh wait a second, I first have to record something immediately – lalalala.” My wife’s usually fleeing from me, haha.

And how do you actually get the idea for a whole song then?

Most of the times it happens maybe 4 or 5 months before we want to go to the studio again that I listen again to everything I’ve recorded - either vocals, guitars, lyrics – and make a list from idea #1 to maybe idea #250. Then I put together all the patterns that sound either happy, epic, dark or whatever and also strike out and delete all the bullshit. So if idea #38 fits with idea #176 I try to create a whole song from this. Having that process finished I mostly have more songs written than I could ever actually record.

So let’s take a view on todays’s music business: most of the songs sound the same: 3.5 minutes, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, ending and there are only very few bands … actually, it’s more the single musicians that become famous. What do you think about all this?

Music business today is an even bigger tank full of sharks than it was maybe 20 or 30 years ago. But more bands are able to survive in it because everything is really fast moving. In earlier days it was rather like this: a label buys 10 bands, throws them all against a wall but only one sticks to it. This one band reached gold and platinum and stayed in the business for many years. Today it’s impossible for the labels to actually choose bands. They’re not able to support newcomers anymore because the only target is making money. Most labels in Germany are subordinated to proprietary companies in the USA and can’t decide whether to support a band or not, they need to sell and make money.

How could this go on in your opinion?

I really think the music industry has to develop a new medium which will replace the CD completely and at least save money this way. But any file of this medium would need to be safe from downloading it illegally or copying it, highly qualitative and maybe strictly connected to a unique ID. So wherever it would be uploaded or downloaded illegally you could make sure to find the one who’s responsible.

Thinking back to how you first started, if you could turn back the time would you change anything you’ve ever done?

I’d never sign SPV again [laughs– the tour manager of SPV is sitting next to us]. No, just kidding. With the knowledge I’ve earned until today I would have made tapping popular before Eddie Van Halen did or play rock music even faster than Yngwie Malmsteen ever did. But to be honest I wouldn’t change much. Of course the first years were tough: with Steeler we were playing in any toilet-like location that had a connection for a power supply. Any musician should go through this as you can learn a lot during that. As a musician you can’t just sit down in a stretch limousine when you’re just starting to become famous and think you’re a hero. It’s real hard work!

What kind of advice would you give a young and motivated musician today then?

To find your own style! In the beginning you have to copy just to find out what people like and what you can actually play well. Find your very unique style for everything. For me as a guitarist it’s not worth a dime if even at 3am I could play 10 times faster than Malmsteen, Vai and so on together if my way to play didn’t have any recognition value. You must be able to tell which guitarist or band is playing right after the third tone - just like Slash or Zakk Wylde! ARP has found their very own style as well – no one can play that wrong and off-key as we do! [laughs]. And by the time a band has found their style: DON’T CHANGE IT! When Grunge became a big topic in the music business in the 90s a lot of bands made the mistake to change their style as well. What had happened was that they lost a lot of their former fans and when trying to get back to the roots again the band had to realise they had lost them forever. So as a musician: find you own style and stick to it!

Concerning “own style” I have to ask you something about your show and the way you guys are acting on stage. You convey true joy, fun and authenticity. What gives you the right drive for that?

I think because still we really enjoy being together after all this time. We don’t see each other too often, only during a tour and the rehearsals. Even being in the studio together means seeing Johnny only via Skype most of the time. When we are on stage again we just love playing the songs together and I actually think that the joy we feel conveys to the audience as well. Of course sometimes it’s just not possible to connect with them. Johnny usually says “there are some dead fish in the audience tonight.” When the first four rows only consist of people with bored and sometimes even angry faces we kind of switch to a power-saving mode. Then we even get cold on stage and hope it’s over soon. That kind of people maybe think they would have went to a folk music or comedy show… but luckily this happens only very rarely. During the last 14 years with ARP this happened maybe three times.

But most people love to see you play. In Bochum – your hometown – you are playing three shows in a row this time. All sold out…

Amazing, isn’t it? We already said that until next time we will be playing there we want to take the venue’s roof off and set up some grandstands… [laughs]

Not a bad idea though! All my respect for that, Axel! As a final question I have something special for you. Please give me a short association for every of the following words:

1. Luck:
Today it’s even more important than 20 years ago. Looked at this in a musical way you have to be very lucky... or go to a casting show. But luck in general is really important in life I think.

2. Friendship:
Is very important as well! Without friendship life’s worthless. You must be able to rely on people and vice versa.

3. Politics:
Not quite my cup of tea. Especially concerning music I’m rather ambivalent. Somebody just asked what I’d think about Christian Metal and I had to say that this is almost some kind of extremism in my opinion. Somebody’s trying to convince somebody else of his opinion. Same thing with Black Metal! I think politics have to be handled very carefully…

4. Fashion:
Oh fashion is very important! It’s almost the same as concerning music: stick to your own style. If you’ve once found it, keep it! But I have to admit that I wouldn’t wear anything that is totally unfashionable today though.

5. Fanaticism:
[thinks] Fanaticism is too extreme for me! That almost sounds like opportunism.

6. Dreams:
Are truly important as long as it’s not “Nightmare on Elm Street”. But nice dreams are always good to have.

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