An Interview with YNGWIE MALMSTEEN

Interview by Ray Van Horn, Jr. - August 2005

    One of the enduring holdouts of the eighties metal scene is the neoclassical shredder Yngwie Malmsteen. His trademark baroque style of guitar playing, influenced by the searing violins of Paganini, has its own distinct vibe and you canít mistake it for being anyone other than Yngwie. Preconceived opinions have abounded about this man throughout his career and it is my pleasure to present a side Iím sure many people didnít know existed. I think youíll be surprised by his confident but humble responses. Yngwie has dropped a new album on us, "Unleash the Fury", and if you havenít heard it yet, give it a chance. Like this interview, the album is partially what youíre expecting and a refreshing dose of what youíre not.

Rough Edge: So, the new album "Unleash the Fury" just came to me and Iím enjoying it very much.

Yngwie Malmsteen: Thank you so much.

Rough Edge: Certainly. Not that youíve ever left the scene, but an Yngwie release this year seems well-timed with all of the neo-classicism going on in metal lately, in particularly Europe and Scandinavia. Do you feel any sort of pride seeing a return to the basics, as in classical music being so in-fashion in metal?

Yngwie Malmsteen: Hmm, I donít know how to respond to that. You see, from day one, Iíve always done what I do, you know? Iíve never fallen into trends or anything like that, so whatís been going on around me hasnít really had that much impact on me, if any at all, especially with my latest album. I definitely made a conscious effort not to make it in any sort of direction or anything like that, just completely make it natural, you know, whatever came out when I was jamming on it, so to speak.

Rough Edge: Right.

Yngwie Malmsteen: So it really has nothing to do with whatever else is going on. I have a slight idea of whatís going on, but I donít really, because I donít follow it much. I just came back from a long tour of Europe and I stayed almost two-and-a-half months there.

Rough Edge: Wow. How did that go?

Yngwie Malmsteen: Very, very well. Amongst other things, we did a lot of festivals with bands like Motley Crue and Iron Maiden, stuff like that. It was great to be out there. Europeís never stopped rocking, really! 

Rough Edge: (laughs) No, it hasnít, God love them!

Yngwie Malmsteen: And itís getting even more that way now, but I see a big upswing here in the States as well. I mean (laughs), just from walking around the streets here in America the last couple of weeks, Iíve been stopped everywhere, so somethingís going on! I donít know what it is.

Rough Edge: (laughs) Thereís definitely a revival over here.

Yngwie Malmsteen: Yeah! For sure, for sure!

Rough Edge: Now, with your "Young Personís Guide to the Classics Volumes 1 and 2", maybe we can extend the theme of classical music in metal. Tell me in your opinion why classical music lends itself to metal so well.

Yngwie Malmsteen: I donít think it does.

Rough Edge: No?

Yngwie Malmsteen: No, not at all. In fact, what has been going on since day one, is that heavy rock, metal, whatever you want to call it, has always been based on blues. Always. Even in my favorite bands like Deep Purple Ö actually, if you want to be really be technical about it and analyze it, it results from pentatonic scale, pentatonic modes, which is based on the blues scale. I wouldnít say itís basic, but itís based upon that, okay? Classical music, per se, depending on which era youíre talking about, and my favorite happens to be baroque Ö baroque classical music involves a lot more notes, a lot more involved chord structures, and the actual melodies are built upon scales, rather than modes. So, itís really not at all what Iíd call a standard Ö if you have a heavy metal band just off the cuff, they probably wouldnít have a classical baroque background in their style. 

Rough Edge: True.

Yngwie Malmsteen: Itís been done, sure. I believe what I did from almost day one was fusing the two in a very apparent manner, though itís been touched upon. Some people put some things in it, but the bulk of the music, letís say Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, which were the great beginners of this music form, there definitely wasnít classical music involved. (laughs) I think they could be related to classical music as such that Jon Lord wrote something for an orchestra in 1969, or that they had a little moment here and there where they played a piece of a classical composer, but thatís really what it is. 

Rough Edge: Yeah, and itís interesting the way itís turned out now. I know Metallica did their "S&M" thing, but there was Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Yes and bands like them beforehand implementing it, but the trend, especially in Europe, that I think will soon trickle over here into America, is to have a straightforward heavy metal band with a big orchestra behind it.

Yngwie Malmsteen: Yeah, I see what you mean, and that is a great thing, donít get me wrong. Thatís really great! But it doesnít make it classically-influenced, because if you play ďSmoke on the WaterĒ on the recorder or the flute or a violin, those notes are being played, do you know what Iím saying?

Rough Edge: Right.

Yngwie Malmsteen: But itís not classical music. Classical music, per se, like for instance, my favorite is Bach or Vivaldi, which is baroque, has counterpoints, inverted chords, diminished scales, you know, itís a myriad of things that is like a very detailed Rembrandt painting, rather than straightforward, simple Picasso, you know?

Rough Edge: That makes sense.

Yngwie Malmsteen: Cubism versus realism. Iím getting a little too involved on that, but the thing is, to use a classical orchestra inside of rock to add something, and I think the Scorpions did it too, a lot of people have done it Ö itís great, but itís not classical, you see? Thatís the difference.

Rough Edge: I understand totally. Before it becomes too much of a fad, I still like the marriage of the two, and you yourself, as youíve pointed out here, have implemented a baroque style of playing in a heavy metal environment, which I believe has always been unique.

Yngwie Malmsteen: Yeah. See, the thing is, since I was just a little kid, I was eight years old Ö on my eighth birthday, I got my first album ever, which was Deep Purpleís "Fireball" Ö

Rough Edge: Right on.

Yngwie Malmsteen: It starts with a double bass, you know, like dabba-dabba-dabba-dabba, which set the tone for the rest of my life from that point on, and next the week I got Deep Purple "In Rock," which was the album before it. These are really, really hard albums, I mean, theyíre super heavy for their time! I think even today you can put them on and theyíre great, and Iíve loved them for years and years and years, even now! Those are the ultimate of the ultimate. I just felt there was something else that could be done. You could really harness the energy, aggression and the hard sound of the Marshall stacks and the big drums and all that stuff, but actually play different kinds of notes, which the choice of notes would be more elaborate scales rather than the standard blues scale. Iím getting a little technical about it, but thatís where the classical influence comes in for me, as in a specific arrangement. For example, you put an F sharp or a D major instead of the D root note. Thatís really what I wanted to do, and another part of it was Paganini, who was a crazy violinist in the 19th Century Ö

Rough Edge: Exactly.

Yngwie Malmsteen: He influenced my guitar playing more than any guitar player did, so itís a really weird thing for me, you know, because thatís what Iíve always done. I still kind of dig it, you know? Iím really into that thing, and I guess thatís why they call it neo-classical. 

Rough Edge: Right, right. Youíve had an interesting journey through Steeler, Alcatrazz and your solo career with a supporting cast probably as diverse as what Prince has had over his career as well! (laughs) Would you say that thereís only so much life to live as an advanced musician such as yourself that it becomes necessary to connect with as many musicians as you can?

Yngwie Malmsteen: No, I wouldnít say that. I donít think itís a negative thing, I think itís actually really good. I donít think itís necessary; you can do it without doing that, but playing with a different array of musicians is always very good. Thereís nothing negative about that.

Rough Edge: I agree.

Yngwie Malmsteen: Yeah, thereís nothing bad about that at all, however I donít think itís something you should think to yourself, ĎOh, Iíve got to do that!í A lot of the times, I play with people because of necessity, a lot of times because I wanted to, so itís a mixture of both.

Rough Edge: Thatís cool. Give me your thoughts on the competitive eighties. What kinds of stakes did you put on yourself in a scene that was defined virtually by guitar gods?

Yngwie Malmsteen: Well, once again, I never really took part in that, you know? I was aware of it somewhat, I was, but I never really became competitive in any way, shape or form. I personally never did; Iím sure there are other people who would say otherwise, but I never personally did. I donít think itís healthy, I donít think itís good. It could be good in the fact maybe that you have to get better or something like that, but just pure competition per se, it isnít competition; itís art supposedly, you know? Music is an art form, itís not a sport.

Rough Edge: Absolutely. Obviously your first four albums are the most commonly referred-to in metal circles, and "Odyssey" is considered your commercial peak. I know you were kind forced into doing ďHeaven TonightĒ in order to compete in the eyes of your label. Your efforts since then have seemed intent on washing that era away. Does that period of your career still bother you, or are you at peace with it?

Yngwie Malmsteen: Iím completely at peace with it, because to be honest, everything Iíve done Iím at peace with, simply because even though it was a mistake, it was something I think had to be done, something to learn from. You have to learn from everything, and personally, I think it was an interesting period actually, during the mid-to-late eighties because there was a formula and if there was, youíd kind of have a sort of choice, you know? Do you want to get on-air? Do you want to have people listen to this, and the only bad thing about that was that you had to do it on those terms. 

Rough Edge: Right.

Yngwie Malmsteen: But there was a formula! Guess what? Nowadays, there isnít a formula! None! Thereís no sound, thereís no place that you have to be, or anything that says, ĎOkay, this is the sound,í blah blah blahÖand of course, it goes both ways, both good and bad. Itís good because it means you can do virtually anything and maybe itíll work, but itís bad because thereís no direction, and nobody really knows where to go. After the mid-nineties, I suppose, when the grunge thing happened, since then and after that, nothing has come forth to replace it. There was a very distinct sound and look, so to speak, for the eighties and maybe the very beginning of the nineties. Of course, there was the grunge thing and then after that, nothing has got a sound or look that we know, ĎOkay, thatís that,í you know? Do you agree with me?

Rough Edge: Yeah, Iíd say so, for the most part.

Yngwie Malmsteen: Right, so in the eighties, when I did do those songs, I think it was an interesting experiment. I mean, I wouldnít play them now, but at the time it was the right thing to do.

Rough Edge: I think the eighties is the last moment where everything was big, you know? Big fashion, big sound, big arenas, big look, big style Ö

Yngwie Malmsteen: Yeah, I guess so. At the same time I also have to add that although the eighties was good for most people, including myself, Iíve never really taken part in that sound anyway. There was a couple of songs that maybe you could say they were, but I never really was a part of that. I was sort of on the outside looking in, you know, a little bit. 

Rough Edge: Iíve always thought you had a lone wolf thing going on. 

Yngwie Malmsteen: Yeah, well, sometimes thatís good, sometimes thatís bad. 

Rough Edge: Itís not a bad thing, really. You had your thing, you know?

Yngwie Malmsteen: Yeah Ö yeah.

Rough Edge: "Unleash the Fury" is obviously your newest album. This may be a trite question, but what fury do you feel has been unleashed with this particular album?

Yngwie Malmsteen: A musical fury, of course. I mean, the title itself has a little bit of a joke involved with it, but the title also carries a description of what I feel the album is. The song itself has nothing to do with anything except it being thatís what it is, you know? I think it speaks for itself if you listen to it. Itís seriously heavy, high energy.

Rough Edge: Are you cool talking about what that joke is about the title?

Yngwie Malmsteen: Yeah, sure. What happened was, in 1988, a long, long time ago, we were all on a plane to Japan, the whole band. We were in first-class, actually, and everybody was behaving really badly Ö not only me, may I add!

Rough Edge: (laughs)

Yngwie Malmsteen: Everybody in the band, especially the keyboard player, just behaving really nasty, throwing things in peopleís food, screaming and being obnoxious. Itís a long flight to Japan, right?

Rough Edge: (laughs)

Yngwie Malmsteen: Anyway, we then fall asleep since it was a very long flight and I think the singer was next to me and I remember getting woken up by having a pitcher of ice water poured on us by a lady and she said ďCool downĒ or whatever, something like that. I became very, very angry of course, and someone decided to record that for a very strange reason! Weirdest thing. So someone records it and whatís even more bizarre is that it happened in January of 1988, and it just got released on the internet sometime in like, 2002. All people could think of was that it was something happening then, which it wasnít!

Rough Edge: (laughs) Naturally!

Yngwie Malmsteen: That, to me, was interesting and funny! I mean, I canít take everything very seriously because I know the real background to it. To me, itís all just a joke, the whole thing.

Rough Edge: (laughs) 

Yngwie Malmsteen: (laughs)

Rough Edge: Thatís funny, as always, the press will twist and distort things like that into their own little versions. Really interesting.

Yngwie Malmsteen: Yep.

Rough Edge: Now, to me, "Unleash the Fury" is an archetype Yngwie album like "Rising Force" and "Trilogy," but with a few new tricks thrown out there. Iíd have to say thereís a leaner, grittier sound behind your extensive components. Your thoughts on that?

Yngwie Malmsteen: Well, I happen to agree and Iíd also like to say thank you! Those are very nice remarks.

Rough Edge: No problem, my pleasure.

Yngwie Malmsteen: And the thing is, itís not deliberate, you know? Itís not like, ĎOkay, Iím going to do this now, Iím going to do that.í I decided on my terms on "Attack!" and this one that Iím not going in any one direction whatsoever. On these two albums, especially this one, I basically just let it flow, and whateverís on there, thatís what itís all about, thatís what Iím doing. Thatís a really refreshing way to do it, first of all, but itís also really great. The funny thing is that some people say ĎOh, youíve gone back to your roots!í Iím not really going back to anything; Iím just doing whatís natural to me. Iím not trying to emulate or not trying to go in any direction or deciding itís going to be this way or that way. Itís just really free, you know? And so it has, just like you said, the trademark sounds, but some newer ones as well.

Rough Edge: For sure. ďThe Bogeyman,Ē for example, is a huge standout for me, with the hollow, angry bass rhythm and the rocksteady feel to it. Itís not your typical Yngwie song; this one really jams.

Yngwie Malmsteen: Yeah, I wrote the song on the bass, actually, because I play all of the bass parts on the albums, and on that one, I got this riff on the bass and I was like, ĎOh yeah, letís do something around this!í It really turned out cool. 

Rough Edge: Definitely, itís raunchy-sounding.

Yngwie Malmsteen: Thank you.

Rough Edge: Sure. ďWinds of War (Invasion)Ē is something like your "War to End All Wars" album, almost like a good commentary on the dark times weíre living in. We used to worry about nuclear war in the eighties and I remember as a teenager feeling petrified by it, and metal back then had a lot of protest in it as a result. Itís interesting that nowadays we have more of a reality base in our culture, especially towards war. 

Yngwie Malmsteen: Yeah, yeah, yeah, I canít always write songs about what could happen and what is bad, but now itís all happening. Of course, I donít have any political stances. I donít really have any message to it; Iím just a bystander. 

Rough Edge: On a different note, youíve been a father for what, five years now?

Yngwie Malmsteen: Seven.

Rough Edge: Seven? Wow. How does fatherhood support you as a musician? Do you feel a necessity to leave a legacy for your son, Antonio at this point?

Yngwie Malmsteen: Well, no Ö well, I do, but still, the whole thing with the music is that it lives its own life, and Iím kind of just hanging on to the ride myself, you know?

Rough Edge: Right.

Yngwie Malmsteen: Sometimes I go ĎWow, what happened here?í I donít deliberately go in any direction; it is what it is. In fact, when I do a solo, if the solo is not exactly what I wanted to hearósince I improvise the solosóinstead of doing it a million times over, I just sort of do it another day when I feel more inspired. No, I donít think itís made a direct difference, no.

Rough Edge: Has fatherhood been everything you expected?

Yngwie Malmsteen: Oh yeah, and more, itís even better! Especially now, heís like my little buddy, you know? Today is the day, so itís great. 

Rough Edge: Does he seem at this point he might be willing to walk in his fatherís footsteps musically?

Yngwie Malmsteen: Itís possible, but Iím not pushing it. Heís only seven years old, so we just want to let him be a kid.

Rough Edge: Very cool.

Yngwie Malmsteen: Heís real smart; no matter what heís going to do, heís going to be very good at it.

Rough Edge: I read a very touching interview with your wife April, who came to your defense in answer against your detractors. You obviously have a wonderful partner at your side. I know you have to develop the fine art of shrugging off bad press and rumor mills, but Iím sure it has to take its toll eventually. Do you feel youíve been shafted by the press over the years?

Yngwie Malmsteen: To me, itís become something I canít take seriously, you know what I mean? 

Rough Edge: Right.

Yngwie Malmsteen: So itís like this: if I took everything I read very, very seriously, then Iíd be a very confused person! Plus, itís equally good as it is bad, because Iíve got so much good press as much as bad press (laughs), that in order to keep my distance and keep level, youíve got to keep a good, strong foothold on what you feel you really are. That what itís really all about, and Iíve never really had any worries about that, because I know what I can do and I know what I am and who I am and what Iím like. Just spend a few moments with me, most people would agree; everything they thought it would be is not. So that kind of press is not great, but then again, I canít allow it to get to me (laughs) because that would make things really difficult! 

Rough Edge: So the good press cancels out the other.

Yngwie Malmsteen: Yeah, I guess you could put it that way, yeah. Itís both good and bad, so I take it all with a grain of salt, all of it. 

Rough Edge: As long as youíre true to yourself in the end, thatís the most important thing.

Yngwie Malmsteen: Exactly.

Rough Edge: I imagine when youíre playing, your mind moves faster than your fingers, so if we could spend five minutes in your mind while youíre performing, what would we, as interloping people see?

Yngwie Malmsteen: Well, funny or not, youíd probably see something like wondering if the lighting is going to fall on my head and Ďwhenís the smoke machine going on?í

Rough Edge: (laughs)

Yngwie Malmsteen: Or, ĎOh, thereís the white lights, I hate white lights!í So itís more of the environment around me that I get worried about, like the wireless not working and stuff like that. Iím not worried about the playing; Iím never worried about that. I know that if I start slipping I can correct it, because I know what to do. The other things I have no control over, like the sound or lights or effects, shit like that, you know? Those are things I get really concerned with. Those are things I think about through it all. 

Rough Edge: Well, I totally appreciate you taking time with me, Yngwie.

Yngwie Malmsteen: No problem, man. Thank you.

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Copyright © 2005 by R. Scott Bolton. All rights reserved.
Revised: 31 Jul 2018 23:38:08 -0400