By Craig Osborn
Few bands in today's music scene can claim the world-wide attention and enthusiasm that followed the German band Scorpions throughout the 1980s. They became idols of the hard-rock genre, with ever-increasing album sales, concert receipts and radio airplay. Having broken into the international big time with 1979's Lovedrive and Animal Magnetism , they became known for the bone-crushing guitar and bass lines that were the staple of the heavy metal scene — but with a unique sound nonetheless, due mostly to the voice of lead singer Klaus Meine, and lyrics which occasionally revealed plainly the fact that English was not their native tongue.
The early and mid-’80s saw the peak of the Scorpions craze, with albums such as Blackout and Love at First Sting even crossing over into mainstream pop charts with singles such as “No One Like You” and “Rock You Like a Hurricane.” As with many of the heavy metal bands of the day, they even managed to sneak in the occasional ballad. Francis Buchholz, bassist for most of the big years, laid down the groove with drummer Herman Rarebell to support the guitar work of Rudolf Schenker and Matthias Jabs.
But suddenly now it's the mid-'90s, the music scene has evolved, both the bassist and drummer have left, but the Scorpions are still producing and selling albums. Ralph Rieckermann, also a native German, was picked up in 1992 to replace Francis Buchholz. Without missing a beat, Rieckermann stepped in and recorded Face the Heat, and has since recorded their latest album Pure Instinct, as well as travelling the globe on both of the associated tours. I was fortunate enough to catch the show (which really showed they've still got the stuff!), and the next afternoon met up with Ralph in the luxurious lobby of the Four Seasons Hotel. Looking quite the Californian, he sported a dark tan, sunglasses, a Venice Beach t-shirt, and his long, wavy hair.
How long have you been playing bass?
Since I was 8. My father took me to a kind of like a school party, and that was the first time I saw a live band in my life. I was really impressed by the deep vibration of one of the guitars, I didn't really know the difference, I was like 6 or 7. And then I just started mumbling around at home, that I want to make like boom boom I wanted to make this sound, I wanted to like make these vibrations happening. After talking about it for a few years, like one or two years, no one really took me serious, and then finally for my 8th birthday, by accident I got a bass. Because my parents didn't really know the difference either, they just called a music store, ordered a cheap guitar, or whatever, and they had a bass left I think, and so they got me one. Then I started blowing all the radios in the house, everybody got really *****ed at me. That's how I started.
It looked like you were just using the same bass for the whole concert last night, just that one black 5-string bass.
Yeah, I'm trying to make it easy on my technician. It's really the truth, because Rudolf's and my technicians, they have a lot of stuff to do. They're playing a few keyboard parts, as you probably heard. We have a few keyboards flown in. They have to play that, and then they fly in samples and stuff. And for them, it's a lot easier if I try to play everything. I would prefer to play some of the songs on a 4-string, but I don't really mind so I play the whole show on one bass.
Do you record on just one bass too?
No, I try to use the right bass for the right song. It depends on what's good for what.
Do you have a brand of guitars you like best? Do you endorse any particular brands?
Yes, right now I'm with Warwick and Spector, which is actually kind of a funny mixture because I think Warwick copied Spector. I like them both. On the last album, all the songs I played on a Spector bass. Warwick built me my own bass, they put in EMG pickups in there, which I like, Hamburger EMG pickups, and also they used a special wood, and the neck is through, it's not bolt-on like on lots of Warwick basses.
What strings do you use?
I used to use Richard Kopel on the last tour and in the studio, now I might change to Dean Markley. I have to talk to them actually today, so nothing is really for sure yet, but I kind of like them, they play very well, they sound good.
So how did you get to be with Scorpions?
I was living in Los Angeles, actually, for like four years. How long is it ago now, 8 years ago I left Germany, because I wanted, you know, to break out of the borders because in Germany, if you make it as a musician there, you're stuck in these borders. It's really hard to get out there... So I left Germany, went to LA, did a few things there, and then the guy, the drummer from Bonfire, a German rock band, he called me up and told me the bass player from Scorpions is gone, they're looking for a new guy. So I call up Herman in Monaco, the old drummer. He was making a solo album at that time. [So you knew Herman already?] No I didn't, I didn't know anybody. But this guy did, the drummer that called me up, he had the number from Herman, so I called him up. He said that he needed a bass player for a solo album that he was doing at that time. So I said fine, I'll fly out, I'll play for you, and that's what I did. He liked me very much, and he called the rest of the guys and then they met me, two weeks later in Germany, very briefly. I played like seven songs, we talked for like twenty minutes, half an hour and they sent me back home with no notice. Nothing. They didn't even want my phone number. I was like all right.... So then a month later I was in the studio with Kingdom Come (but I didn't play bass on that album, I programmed drums and keyboards). I was in the studio with them, and there was a message so I called back to Monaco, and it was Herman's wife. She saidWell they want you to play on the new single, you have to be here in three days, the ticket's already waiting for you." I came back and then the manager Doc McGhee, the old manager came over and talked to me at the bar. He saidLooks like you're going to be the new bass player," so that's how it happened.
Did you know much about the Scorpions and their music before that?
Yeah, I did know a few things. Because actually, I heard more about them in the States than I did in Germany, because by the time when I left Germany they weren't really that big in Europe. They were a lot bigger here, it was the ’80s, so when I went to LA they were huge there, because that's when they just had Winds of Change and the Crazy World tour which was one of the biggest tours, one of the biggest successes in their career. A friend of mine actually did an interview with them, I briefly met them, I saw them kind of like from a distance. Once I partied with Rudolf actually in Los Angeles, for like a few hours, we went to some after-hours thing, we got to be introduced. He thought I looked a lot like Francis, by that time I had like shorter hair — a lot of time people thought that I was actually one of the Scorpions. When they saw me they were like "Yeah, Scorpions!" I was like no, I had nothing to do with them. It was kind of a funny coincidence that it actually happened
Did you find it hard joining a band that was already world-famous, then trying to live up to those expectations that Francis had, or other people had of you as a Scorpion?
Well with this band it was not very hard, I mean of course there was times when you have to adjust. But I never really found it that hard because they're very nice guys, they're very down to earth nice people. For them I think it's friendship and "familyship." That's very important to them, just as important as it is for me, because of our German background, probably. We have the same kind of roots or something. I found it actually very easy to adjust to them, it was a very quick procedure for me. And for them, I think that's probably the main reason why they took me. Because they never tried out anybody else. I was the first and only one they ever tried out, even if they said they wanted to try out a lot of other people, because they had so many offers. It's because when I came into the room that day, for some reason I wasn't scared. I was not nervous or anything, I was just myself. It felt like I was meeting friends that I have known for a long time for some reason. That's how it felt from the beginning, so there was a very natural chemistry, a kind of vibe and that was probably the reason for them to never try out anybody else. And it was very easy for me to adjust.
When you play the songs that they recorded before you joined, do you pretty much follow along the groove that Francis recorded before, or do you improvise yourself?
Yeah, I pretty much follow the stuff the song needs, that is already there, and then I try to add my little things, you know. I mean I never really play the same stuff every show anyway. I like to improvise a lot, so you know I always play little fills, but when I play fills, I don't really play the same fills, I play the fills just how I feel 'em. One day I play 'em like this, one day I don't play them at all, and then some days, you know... I'm a spontaneous kind of guy.
Did you ever get to know much about why Francis left the band? There was really nothing that comes out into public about that.
Well, they had a businessperson, Dieter Winkler, who I never met in my life, and I never really met Francis either. I met him once very briefly, when he was still with the Scorps in LA. They were kind of partners I think, because Francis was handling the business side of the band. There was some kind of funky screw-up, something happened that was not right, so they fired their business manager, and I think Francis decided to stay with the business manager for some reason. They were trying for like one year or something to convince him, I still think it's a very strange thing, and it's not very cool for such a tight family to actually make the decision to stay on the business side, rather than choose the music, the family of the band. I still don't really understand that. But you know that's his decision, you never know, I never really talked to him. I don't know his background, I don't know his side, but that's what I heard. But as you know Herman is out of the band now.
Yes, tell me about that. I noticed you have a different drummer on the album than on tour.
That's a German studio drummer Curt Cress he's doing a lot of German studio stuff. The thing is that Herman decided after all these years to open up a record company in Monaco, because he's been living there 7 or 8 years I think. He's doing this with Prince Albert. Prince Albert has pretty much just given his name, I think. It's the first and only record company in Monaco, Monaco Records. So he decided to become a record company president, to get his own record company. That's what he's doing now, so he's so tied up in it. He's so busy doing that, that he doesn't have time to tour with the band, and so he decided to just quit.
Sounds like that was more of a decision based on his time commitment. So is he still friendly with the band then?
Very. Yeah, there's no problems or anything. I'm very close friends with him, because I really like him. So does the band, they're always good friends. [He did the last tour with you together right?] Yeah. He's a very good person.
As a bass player, a big part of your job is to lay down the groove with the drummer, you kind of have to kind of work together to set that groove in. Do you find it difficult to go from playing with Herman to playing with Curt to playing with James, the tour drummer?
Not at all, because I'm used to these situations, because that's how I grew up. When I made music, I never really played just with one band, I played with lots of musicians all the time. I did a lot of jam sessions, I did a lot of different studio sessions. When I work by myself, I write a lot of music, that's what I do when I'm at home. So when I do that I work a lot with computers. I use a lot of drum machine things for my own demo material or whatever. I work a lot with computers, you know hard-disk recording, and sequencer, I've done that a long time. Actually I was the third person in Germany to order a music computer when they came out, a long time ago. So I'm very familiar with these things. Whenever I play something in the studio, you know, you play to click track anyways. So that's not a problem, working in the studio. Especially when you work with a studio drummer, that's usually right on the click, it's either playing a little bit laid back or a little bit up front, things that you have to adjust to. Other than that, I can adjust to anybody really quick. It just takes me a few minutes to figure out his style and then I can adjust. Because I've been playing with so many different people that's not a problem for me at all. I actually enjoy it, you know if someone new comes in they give me new ideas, and they play different fills, so I can fool around with that. I really like playing with different people more than playing with the same people all the time. I like the variety.
You said you did some programming for drums and stuff for Kingdom Come, and you've continued doing that recently. Are you intending to do some of that for Scorpions, or do you leave that as a hobby?
I usually do. On this album too, we did a few things with the hard-disk recorder, in the pre-productions, just to fool around with the song structure and stuff. When we do things like that I'm usually the one in the studio who sits on the computer and does all the programming. We lay down some drum tracks in the studio, like click tracks, or like drum parts, just to figure out the song, or what's the best groove or whatever. So I'm always the one working the computer when it comes to that situation with Scorpions. But people don't know about it because in the end we don't really use any computers in the studio with the Scorpions. We play everything live. But you know these days you can't get around it, sometimes it's so much easier, so much faster, for the song structure. You just record a quick song structure and then with the hard disk recording system, you just cut it there, cut it here, and add it here, and it takes a few seconds, it's even a lot faster than playing it through. [So you like doing that.] Well you know it's not a matter of liking or not liking, you know, I'm just so fast and so familiar with these systems that it just takes me a few split seconds to edit the song into whatever you want it to. So I don't even think about it, I'm just sitting there. It's just that I'm so familiar with it that it's for me a very very easy thing to do.
You mentioned you do some music writing in your spare time. Are you going to be writing some music for Scorpions?
You never know, I mean it always depends on the song, whoever comes up with the best song for the momentary album. I did write one song for this album that didn't make it on the album. We had you know like 20 songs or something. Well, there was, I don't know how many, 13 or 15 were recorded and actually mixed. But only so many made in on the album because of the flow, and how it all comes together and stuff. You never know, maybe next time.
So what do you think of being on the road all the time?
I really like it very much. Because I'm a stage person. I really like stages, you know it's my natural kind of thing, I like lots of attention. [Laughs.] I like traveling. For me it's a coincidence in life. When I'm at home, when I'm not on the road, that's what I do, I'm pretty much home all the time, I spend at least 6 to 10 hours every day in the studio, almost every day, writing songs... I did a little rock opera last year, which was a 1-1/2 hour piece. [Is that out? Is that available?] No it's not available. You see when the tour is over I will be moving back to Los Angeles. The last two years I lived in Hamburg. I will try to continue a little bit there, where I stopped when the band found me, because I want to do a little bit of film music. That's a big passion of mine, because I also work a lot with keyboards and sound effects, and atmospheres and stuff like that. And then also I'm working on kind of like a solo thing, you know like my own band. I've always had my own band. This time I might even be singing, I don't know yet for sure. So far with that project, I'm doing pretty much everything by myself. But in order to do that, to put something out like that, I feel that I have to go to the States, because it's the kind of music that's easier to sell here than it is in Germany, because it's kind of like rock, pop, alternative kind of thing, with English lyrics. And this kind of music is not very easy to sell in Germany right now, because what they're interested in is more like dance chart hits, techno, very commercial electronical stuff. [I noticed that when I was in Germany too. It was all real glitzy, glittery...] That's not really my style, so that's why I decided to come back here and work on a few different things because sometimes we have such long breaks. They all have families, and children that they have to spend time with. If they're on tour they don't really get to see or spend much time with their families, then when we're off the road sometimes there's a few months where there's not very much happening, which is fantastic for me because then I can work on other things. In order to do that I will be moving back to LA after the tour is over.
Will you still be working with Scorpions?
Oh absolutely, yes, yes. Scorpions is my priority. But like I said there's so much time in between, where there's so much space and time to do other things if you want to. I will use that time to do things that I always wanted to do.
Do you have any favorite stories from on tour? Incidents or funny things that happened?
Funny things, well, usually there's something funny or crazy going on almost every day. [Laughs] If you're on a tour, you're on the road, you're in a different city, you're in a different hotel, different environment, different people... Usually there's so much happening. I don't know one story offhand that I would prefer. Some of the stories are a little bit too private.
James was fantastic in concert last night. He just did an excellent job. [Yeah, he's a very good drummer.] Do you suppose there's a chance he might become the new permanent drummer or is he just for the tour?
I don't know, that's a question that you would have to ask to the whole band, because you know we just started this tour a few weeks ago. We'll just have to see how things are going. It depends on James too, you know. I think he's involved in a few different things, he has his own band. I think it looks like the lights are green, so all the signs are going in that direction that he will be the man. But for now, everything went so fast before the tour and stuff, that nobody really thinks that far yet. For now it's just going very good. We'll see where the direction is going, and then you know we'll see how it feels.
Pure Instinct was recorded in Germany, whereas the prior album was in Vancouver, Canada. Do you like recording in Germany better?
No. Because Germany to me is not really a rock & roll country. Like I said, the music industry right now is very electronic, techno-orientated, when you listen to the radio for example, you hear this kind of music, you know. When you drive around here in America or Canada and listen to the radio, or go out in the evening in a club, you get a different vibe, you get kind of a rock vibe. That's what the people are all about, that's the American culture, that's what I like, that's my culture, that's what I grew up with. In Germany for me it's too conservative. Also, whenever I record I like to get out of the environment, I like to be in a different environment, the more unknown the better. Because the more unknown, the more inspiration I get. If all of a sudden I'm in Jamaica or something where I've never been before, I like that personally, that's my personal opinion. The band might think different about it, because they have their families there for them, it's very comfortable, they can work at home, they don't have to leave their families — which can be very inspiring as well. But for me, I don't have a family. I work all the time at home. They do too, but I'm really craving to get out all the time. Whenever I have the chance to go to a different studio that I've never seen before, I'll take it. I really, really like recording in Canada. Vancouver's a great city to record in, because it's a fantastic city, great people there, I had a very good time there.
The studio where we recorded is pretty much in the middle of nowhere, it's a little village. It's very quiet. For me, for my personal taste it's too quiet. When I'm there too long I just feel like -- wow, gimme some people! But then on the other hand, there's no distraction there either, so whenever you're there, all you have is the music, which is a good thing. But it's like I said it's a mixture, the band, Rudolf, Klaus and Matthias are very close. They have their families, everybody has their studio at home. It was very constructive because everybody could work at different times in different studios. You don't really have the big time clock running all the time, so you had more time. Klaus was doing some vocals at home, Rudolf was recording in his studio at home, I was recording in the main studio, some bass tracks or whatever. Sometimes there were three people working in three different studios. And that's a good thing you know, but like I said I'd rather have the whole band in one big studio somewhere outside the country. You know just different people, different environment, and playing with the whole band in one room, that's more my taste. But you know everybody thinks differently about that.
What other bass players do you admire, or what bass players influenced you as you were coming up through the ranks?
I always liked bass players that play a little more than just the bass, and are like soloing and stuff... I liked Chris Squire when I was like 10, 12. And then later, well. first of all I started liking bands like Pink Floyd, Yes, Genesis when they were with Peter Gabriel. Back then I didn't really listen too much to bass playing except when they were soloing. I was really hooked on good lyrics, vocals, and good songs. And then later I started studying classical music like upright bass, and piano, for 3 and a half years, Beethoven, Mozart, all that stuff. Later I started listening to people like Stanley Clarke, and Al DiMeola, Lenny White, Chico Real, these people. After a while, one of my biggest influences I thing was Jaco Pastorius. He's the guy. I think he's one of the greatest bass players that ever lived. What impressed me with him, I tried to figure out the techniques when I listen to people like Stanley Clarke. Who I like a lot was John Capatucci, and Percy Jones, and the guy that plays with Pat Metheny. Jaco was probably my biggest influence because I always liked fretless, I play a lot of fretless bass, too. I never get to in this band because it doesn't really fit, but I love soloing, I love playing fretless bass, I always have. There was I time when that's all I had was fretless basses, at least four years when I never really touched basses with frets. That was a long time ago, that was my time when I played fusion and jazz and stuff like that. I went through all kinds of times, once it was like fusion and jazz, and then I played lots of funk you know like slapping. Marcus Miller's a great bass player too. But Jaco was for me the most musical one of all, the most musical genius. He was not only a bass player, he was not as fast as Stanley Clarke, or he didn't have the greatest technique, even though I think he probably had one of the greatest techniques, because to me he had the greatest tone. His tone was just blowing me away, every time he played just one single note I was blown away. And sometimes he made so much music with so few notes. He would play like three notes or something, and it would be so musically, harmonically great. I was so impressed by the way he sounded, and how he played, not how fast, how many notes or whatever. He really made my hair stand, um, ...back. [gestures]
That's a lot of hair to stand on end, too. What advice would you give to young bass players, who are maybe reading the magazine, looking up to you and other bass players for inspiration?
First of all I would say stick with your dreams. That's what I always did. I was always a dreamer, with my mouth a little bit ahead of my actions. Yeah, I was, but I think if you stick with your dreams, you can be ahead with your mouth, it's not a problem as long as you work towards it. It means you really have to take yourself serious, but don't take yourself too serious. Try always to have fun. Because that's the most important thing in music: Don't lose the fun! Because that's what the people actually get. It doesn't really matter how you play, as long as you have fun doing it, it comes across. So if you have dreams, stick with them. Try to have as much fun with it as you can, because that's what music is all about. Not always, but the kind of music scene that we're in.
And then you have to make sure that you work towards it. For example if you're in a small city... I have friends that were much better than I was, technically, knowledge-wise and all kinds of ****. And they were always saying "Yeah, one of these days I'm going to be playing with Weather Report," or whatever. But they never made it. One of them, who was actually my teacher once, he's driving pizzas now. It's really sad whenever I come to his city. Because one very, very important step in my life was that I actually did the moves, for example go to Los Angeles. Because if you want to make it in the music business, you have to be at the right place at the right time. You never know where it is, but you gotta search for it. You gotta go look for it, because nobody's going to look out for you. There's too many good people out there.
So if you have a dream that you want to come true, you have to follow it. You not only have to play good and have fun doing what you do, but you also have to try to be at the right places at the right times. So if you think that for example New Orleans, because that's the kind of scene that would be the right city, and you sit in your little village and dream about itYeah, one of these days I'm gonna go, one of these days I'm gonna go," there has to be a day when you say "Today I'm going to go!" and then you just do that step. And even if you won't make it, and you come back to your little hometown, you have so much more knowledge about life — and you can use this knowledge about life in your music, and you grow. That was the ticket to my success, I think, that I said "One of these days (in Germany) I want to be a musician that's going to be traveling all over the world. I want to make my living with the music that I like, and I want to be successful, not only in one country." So I said to myself, where's the biggest music scene in the world? Back then it was Los Angeles, so I said that's where I'm gonna go. I didn't know anybody, I went all by myself, with just two suitcases and two basses. I sold everything that I owned within one week, and I stayed there. It started off great. After two years it started being hell, because I had no money, and it was just very, very difficult. And then all of a sudden — boom! You gotta hold on. You gotta be patient, you gotta be hard-working, you gotta never lose your fun doing it. And go there where you think that you should go, don't let anybody tell you it's not the right thing to do, because it's always the right thing to do.
Do you guys really have your own airplane? In the picture it had Scorpions painted on the side.
No. We had our own airplane on the last tour in Europe, but it was not our own, it was rented. Nobody really buys an airplane these days. It's the same one that one Bon Jovi had, and before it said Bon Jovi on there. For a whole bunch of years it was actually Elvis Presley's private plane. Same plane. People just rent it and then they spray paint it.
So it could only carry Elvis and nobody else, because he was the whole maximum weight for the plane.
No, I think that was before he got fat. There was a picture in there and he looked pretty good.