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The Return of the Scorpion Kings: Shelly Harris talks Set-Lists and Staying-Power with Shredmeister Matthias Jabs

By Shelly Harris, Chicago Contributor
Tuesday, July 29, 2008 @ 10:54 PM

"Every day is a like new challenge, basically, not only that you are as good as you want to be as a musician, but you have to stand the test of time, the test of the audience, and the test of everything."

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Matthias Jabs has been the lead guitarist for Scorpions - the band that invented and evolved Euro shred (amongst other hard rock innovations) - for just over 30 years, but you sure wouldn’t know it to look at him, to hear him talk, or, especially to see him – or the band -live on stage.

Thus, one can logically conclude that a long, successful career as rock ‘n roll pioneers and pathfinders is as good for the mind and body as it is for the heart, soul, and wallet. (Indeed, the last time I’d seen any of the band, five years ago on the Scorps/Dio/Deep Purple triple bill, they were all spry and playful as teenagers – and hilariously sporting lederhosen and trenker hats – at a German Beer Garden party they put on to honor their crew.)

Of course, attitude is everything and Jabs’ intelligent savvy, positivism, competitive spirit, band camaraderie, and an ongoing, unabashed adoration for rock ‘n roll (traits he clearly shares with Scorpions other "lifers" Rudolf Schenker and Klaus Meine) is probably most responsible for this age-defying vitality.

And, make no mistake, the same can definitely be applied to the longevity of Scorpions as an entity, since anyone who’s seen or heard them in this new millennium knows that these revered purveyors and masters of Teutonic hard rock still have the power, the force, and the finesse to blow away all youthful contenders in their wake, whether it be on record (Exhibit A: the 2007 released studio opus Humanity Hour One) or in ongoing major world-wide tours (Exhibit B: http://www.the-Scorpions.com/english/tourdates.asp).

Moreover, when I talked to Jabs for KNAC.COM very recently, he was already in the States – San Francisco – in advance of the tour here to catch a few guitar shows on an expedition for wares for his second hobby-turned-career, his newly opened guitar store in Munich:

KNAC.COM: I’ve heard that you’ve done it in the past, but on the world tour this year you are letting the fans in the different countries vote on the set list, which means you have to quickly get ready to play different songs for each country’s leg of the tour. Do you already know which songs you’ll be playing on this American leg? [This mini-leg begins August 1 in Kelseyville, CA and ends August 10 in Chicago.]

JABS: I’ve seen the final result of the vote for the U.S. [the website vote ended on Sunday, July 27], and we always sit together the day of the show, in the afternoon, because we need to let the lighting designer know – you have to program the desk for the order of the songs – so the crew needs to be informed exactly, but we are much more flexible. And we have a different situation in the first three shows, because we are playing with Sammy Hagar as a package, and that means in California, because of the strict curfews, and the situation – there are three bands I think – we don’t play as long as we normally do. In Europe we play like two hours and twenty, and here it’s just like 90 minutes, so that automatically changes the set, because we have to leave quite a few songs out. So, we will talk about the set list when we all meet [before the first show] in a few days.

KNAC.COM: So, even though Scorpions obviously have a very long and extensive song list – at least a hundred – it’s like you’re ready to wing it and play whatever you have to play, really?

JABS: Yes, yes – there’s not one song that we don’t know. Some of them, like #89, those songs are not so popular, and with us they’re not so popular either. (laughs) And therefore we haven’t played those, and if we don’t have to play them, we won’t, but everything in the top 50 we know right away. Also, we keep changing the set around. You can imagine the votes, the results in Russia, are totally different from the ones in the U.S., or in Spain, they vote for different songs than in England or Japan.

KNAC.COM: I know your most recent album, Humanity Hour One, came out last year, and will you also be playing some of those songs? [ http://www.the-Scorpions.com/english/discography/records/humanity.asp]

JABS: A few but not too many – it has to be the right proportion. People don’t like it if you play too many new songs, but we play three or maybe four. They [Americans] want to hear the back catalogue – the "Rock You Like A Hurricane," "No One Like You," "Holiday," "The Zoo," and all that, and once you do that, the first hour is gone!

KNAC.COM: Well, the Humanity Hour One album is really such a great one; the time and care that was put into it was evident, and in a sense it’s a culmination of one side of what the Scorpions are about – taking on dark social commentary but with a positive spin, with rays of hope – and the music on it is simultaneously heavier and more ethereal than ever. But the music media these days is so hit or miss, many people, even ones coming to the shows here, may not even know that it came out at all.

JABS: That’s absolutely right – to some people the album just came out now. (laughs) Yeah … things have changed in the music business. The media really doesn’t cover the classic rock bands anymore, and really doesn’t play them anymore, and therefore some just don’t know unless they’re die hard fans.

KNAC.COM: And the younger ones – the newer generation here – only usually find out about things about the older, influential or classic rock bands through word of mouth.

JABS: The thing is, in recent years, when we play some European countries, and especially in Brazil or Mexico, the audiences get younger and younger on every tour. Of course, when there’s general admission, the young ones always rush to the front, and for the band it feels like it’s only young ones! (laughs) But I would say, percentage-wise, it’s like 20, 30 percent, which is a lot for a band that has been around for such a long time, and that has to do with marketing activities. So, obviously, if you don’t try to reach the younger audience, then you won’t reach them.

KNAC.COM: Is there a possibility that you will play in the South or the East Coast on this tour, because right now you only have West Coast and Midwest dates, which is unusual.

JABS: It’s only seven shows – because we have to go on, because we are booked worldwide the whole time [this year], but I wish we could play more extensively, that we could play more on the East Coast, because we go to Chicago and that’s it. I would like for us to play more shows throughout the whole nation, because we enjoy playing here, and we’re still working on it, but we finish up in Asia in the middle of December, so it can only be very early next year.

KNAC.COM: That brings to mind your upcoming dates in South America, where your Acoustica album was hugely successful, and so, in your shows there, I see you’re going to do a one half Acoustica set, and the other half your regular rock show, which is something Americans haven’t ever seen. [ http://www.the-Scorpions.com/english/discography/records/acoustica.asp]

JABS: Yeah, we have done that once before when Acoustica was released – which unfortunately isn’t even released in the States yet – even though it was a very successful album worldwide – which is like a shame. The album was recorded with acoustic instruments in Lisbon, the capital of Portugal, in an old monastery over three nights. We made a DVD and a CD out of it, of course, and it’s very, very nice. We had some extra musicians – 12 people all together – a keyboard player, and a guitar player, and a cellist, and percussion. And this time we’re doing it in Brazil, and we’ll have some Brazilian musicians playing with us, especially since they are famous for their percussion. And Andreas Kisser, the guitar player from Sepultura, is going to join us – he’s Brazilian – so it’s all acoustic guitars for the acoustic part. It’s starts off with a rock show, and then blends into the acoustic parts, which we very often do anyway, but we extend this part for 45 minutes or an hour. Then we go into a percussion part – which should be very interesting – and then we go back into the rock songs with everybody together. We did that in Asia in 2001 and it went down very well – something so new and interesting to people. And the dynamics are great, much more than in a regular rock show.

KNAC.COM: Well, I know you’ve been with the Scorpions since the Lovedrive album, and that’s been about 30 years now, right?

JABS: Yes, I just had my 30-year anniversary the 18th of June! … And I can’t believe it! It still feels fresh to me!

KNAC.COM: Well, it does show that you feel that way. I know that the Scorpions were around in earlier versions even longer than 30 years, and you are one of the few bands – maybe a handful – that have been truly and hugely internationally successful, and who’ve also continued on strong through all those 30-plus years with no real stops or major breakups. There’re a lot of factors that must play into that kind of extraordinary longevity – so, what do you think it is about the personality of the band that has enabled you to go on this long, at such a high level, and still be meeting new challenges?

JABS: Probably, first of all, the love for music … and everybody, individually, we are all very determined musicians. Everybody wanted to become a professional musician and a successful musician, and – especially from the point of view of a German musician – an internationally successful musician … which, for Americans, there’s probably a different view, since they think America’s the world to begin with. (laughs)

KNAC.COM: I’ve got to agree with you about that – many Americans are not aware that the rest of the world is much bigger than we are. (laughs) But for a German rock band, there was no choice but to look outward, everywhere to be really successful.

JABS: From the 50s and the 60s when the music [rock] business started, it was easier for English and American musicians to be successful, but for Germans – even until today – it is like a rarity. So, you needed a lot more determination in order to achieve this. And then the chemistry within the band is really good; we are friends. Even though there were a few changes throughout the decades, I must say, like the 70s – the 80s not much – but the 90s, we had changes in the bass players and drummers. But, since I joined we’ve actually been very successful internationally. Even though the band was successful in Germany a little bit, and in some places in Europe, and in Japan with one album in the 70s, we really made it big when we came to the States for the first time in ’79. And with albums like Blackout and Love At First Sting, we reached a headlining status, and it was always there from then on. So, success obviously glues you together – though for some bands it doesn’t work. But, as I said, the chemistry is extremely important, and a love for music. Then, after awhile, I think everybody realizes that playing music to an audience that is very excited … Well, when you are able to see the whole world like we do – we see Asia, we see South America, we go everywhere – it’s the best job in the world!

KNAC.COM: Yes, I don’t think many would argue about that, though I know all the extensive traveling can’t be getting any easier, and, when it’s a really heavy touring schedule like you have this year, it must be hard on the body, too…

JABS: I’m telling you, when I see the guys I finished school with, you know, the final exam – that’s like 1976, so we’re talking something like 34 years ago – when we meet, and I only know a few, they haven’t been touring and They Look OLD! (laughs) So, it’s actually quite good for your body that you run around so much, and are active and I think it’s helpful.

KNAC.COM: Yes, I understand what you mean there. (laughs) But what you have going for you may also be the psychological aspect – the positive effect on the body of always staying creative and continuing to have new challenges and goals in life and in your career.

JABS: Yes, yes, absolutely. Every day is a like new challenge, basically, not only that you are as good as you want to be as a musician, but that you stand the test of time, the test of the audience, and the test of everything. And you know each day you’ve got to wake up and you’ve got to learn, rather than sleep in or snore in your office. (laughs)

KNAC.COM: Speaking of keeping busy … tell me about the new guitar store you have in Munich – it looks like it actually just opened. [See http://www.mjguitars.de]

JABS: Yeah, it opened in March. I happened to run by this store exactly a year ago – last July – when we were playing in an area near Munich. A friend of mine told me that there was this place, and the people wanted to retire – they were there almost 30 years. And I looked at the store, and it looked like this neat little vintage guitar store, and I thought, Wow, this could be good. I have my own guitar [brand], I have somebody produce it, and I needed a place where people could actually see it, feel it, play it. Generally, I love guitars, and I love Munich – I think it is Germany’s most beautiful city. So, I bought the store in October, and then we renovated it and now it’s a nice, pretty place (laughs) – and I come in there all the time. I’m very busy with The Scorpions this year, but I was there a week ago, and then I went to this guitar show yesterday – that’s why I came in early [to the U.S] anyway; the rest of the guys are coming in later – and I wanted to see that show. And then next week there’s another show, in Costa Mesa, and in the afternoon I might have a chance to go to a guitar show there.

KNAC.COM: Are you keeping an eye out for guitars for your store everywhere you go?

JABS: Yes, I’ll buy a few for my own collection, and then some for the store – I love that! I’ve been trading instruments since the very beginning, since I started playing guitar at 13 or 14. The first guitar I had, I had to sell, in order to buy a new one, because I never had enough money to have two at the same time. Automatically it was leading me into a trading situation, because I always had to sell the one first to get a better one – the more expensive one. So, I have been doing this over the years … I have good friends here in the States, and a good friend of mine in Minneapolis/St. Paul – unfortunately, he died – and I bought a lot of guitars from him – and so did others – like Keith Richards, also went to his place. So, I’ve been doing this all my career – all my life more or less – and it’s something I like to do, and it’s something that just came together. Maybe 10 years from now, I’ll go, "Oh, I’m glad I have this guitar store as a second profession." (laughs)

KNAC.COM: Yes, you may be. (laughs) And you’ve also said that when you’re in the "music business" as long as you have been, you’re already really a businessman anyway, which is very true, or it should be.

JABS: Yeah, you have to be, you know? And any band that has been around for a long, long time has been cheated at some point, so after that experience, you tend to pay more attention to this side of the job.

KNAC.COM: Well, I know that you initially attended law school before you joined Scorpions, and you speak several languages – so, I guess that must help some with that?

JABS: Yes … It helps in understanding contracts, meanwhile in more than one language, so it is an advantage; it doesn’t really prevent anything, but it is helpful. You always have management, and accountants, and you have lawyers, and they seem to control your business. So, you start controlling the others – they are acting while you are on the road playing – and sometimes something unfortunate can happen. It happened to us, it happened to The Beatles, it happened to the Stones, and I’m sure it happened to Aerosmith and many others – and any other band.


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