It always takes many years until ZENO pleases rock and AOR fans with a new studio album. Thus why some might call him Europe's answer to Tom Scholz and the fact that they're using a similar appoach to guitar playing... well... especially soundwise. "Runway To The Gods" is Zeno Roth's (the younger brother of Uli Jon of Scorpions fame) first brand new album in eight years time and features Michael Bormann (ex-Jaded Heart) as the new vocalist. Check out what Mr.Roth had to say about the new album, the selftitled debut from 86 (considered to be one of the most expensive debut albums in hardrock history), and Jimi Hendrix? Read on!

U- Hallo Zeno, What do you say if I find, "Runway To The Gods", to be very much in the vein of Rainbow & Joe Lynn Turner at times? Would that be an insult or simply just not correct at all?

Zeno: Rainbow, well I don’t know. Although I liked them for a while, they – to me – come across as a bit "cold", if You know what I mean. (For example compared to Deep Purple). But yes, I listened to them quite a lot for some time (in the old days). Joe Lynn Turner is "plain wrong", sorry, as I never listened to any of his albums – although, if I remember rightly, we shook hands in a studio near New York once, as our keyboard player knew him quite well. However, Michael Bormann gets compared to JLT quite a lot, which is probably due to the sound of his voice.

My roots (in terms of Rock, as normally I only listen to classical music) are lying more in Led Zeppelin, maybe Deep Purple (see “I Feel – I Live”, which in a way is a humorous take on “Burn”), but on the other hand also more experimental bands like “Yes”, which took the “instrumental” side of things to a new level in my opinion. (I often have so-called “Yes-Parts” in my songs, see “Circles Of Dawn”, “Meet Me At The Rainbow”, “I Feel – I live” etc.). Originally (which means in really early terms) I was into Blues, and those are the first roots I grew up with in a musical sense – again, apart from classical music, which my brother and myself were constantly listening to from our teens.

U- The music isn't quite as 'bombastic' and over-the-top as in the past. Did you deliberate things and basically decided to tone down everything? Or is it merely just a sign of the times?

Zeno: Well, I would say the music (and therefore the new ZENO) is – to a degree – more “realistic”, which means less “playful” and more “down to the point”, with less ornaments but instead more “statement”, which I guess IS a sign of the times. We live in a world, as I feel, in which it is time to “wake up” to certain realities and not “play around” and fantasize so much anymore. I mean, it is great to be creative and be a “free” and independent artist, which I myself was fighting for from the very beginning. On the other hand I would say that in a sense the “time for dreaming” is over, as this world’s problems are becoming more obvious by the day – we should now turn to putting our dreams into action.

U- Yeah, and wouldn't it be plain naivete' to expect any artist to sound exactly the same as they did 20 years ago?

Zeno: Obviously it would be naive (and nearly impossible) to expect this, as artists – just as anyone else – go through stages and levels of development, with ups, downs, a certain “chemistry” with the present circumstances, atmospheres around them and so on, and to “sound the same” on each album year after year to me would not amount to being much of a compliment!

U- I must however admit that I sometimes miss the high-pitched vocals of Flexig. How come it didn't work out, and what made you chose Michael Bormann (ex-Jaded Heart) as the new lead singer?

Zeno: Michael Flexig is, I would say, more filigree, and obviously he sings most of the high parts in falsetto, which gives them a certain “cutting edge”, which some people liked and others found too “tiring”, when listening to a whole album. Michael Bormann is much more “down to earth” as a guy AND as a singer, but an incredible talent, in my view. He sings most of the high parts with a “natural” voice, which makes everything sound “smoother” and maybe for some people “less intense”, because “less over the top” - I am guessing here. He is not as “perfectionist” as Michael Flexig and myself, but always delivers very musical solutions, even if he changes lines a bit or so, as he has a great blues feel and technique.

To cut a long story short: These two Michaels are pretty much “worlds apart”. One is more “airy”, and the other one more “down to earth”, Michael Flexig sounds a bit more “ethereal”, whereas Michael (Bormann) sounds more “rocky” and steadfast, which did RUNWAY TO THE GODS, in my view, good. He always “stands up” against the guitars (and the band), which I think makes the whole affair more of a coherent and solid “statement”, whereas before in my view the sound picture was at times a bit too “democratic” in a sense. As to the second question. As far as I remember, I once had a “brain storm” phone conversation with Helge Engelke, who knows much more about the German music scene than myself, and gave me a list of German singers he remembered, and Michael Bormann was amongst them. I then listened to some of the samples on his website and said to myself: “This guy is world class”, so we contacted him, he said he had heard of ZENO, and soon after we had the first vocal session.

U- You do sing lead vocals on the track "Do You Feel The Time". But there's a lot of Bormann's work going on during the refrain, right? Do you not feel comfortable enough to perform all lead vocals yourself?

Zeno: It is much simpler on “Do You Feel The Time”: I sing the verses, and Michael Bormann sings the refrains. (Although some of my harmony voices might also be apparent). Of course I do not feel comfortable enough to sing all these incredibly high and technically difficult vocal parts. I am not a singer but an instrumentalist, which means I normally “sing” with my guitar. This is (and was) one of my “key concepts”, to create and uphold a certain sense of “coherence” throughout a song by steadily interweaving the “real” vocal lines with “my” vocal lines, which is obviously the guitar, trying to create a certain “interplay”, and therefore “friction”, and therefore excitement wherever possible. To illustrate this a bit further, and this has never changed from the first ZENO album to the present days: One will find that there a very few “show off” solos in my songs, which I find normally artificial and contrived, instead (in most cases) the guitar takes over from the vocals in the most natural (and yet hopefully enhancing) way, as part of the song and part of the composition, trying to uphold a sense of “unity” throughout a song, rather than just “patching” different parts onto each other. (It is a “mosaic”, rather than “patchwork” concept). There are also many other instances of such “interplay”, if less prominent, on different levels, for instance between guitar and bass guitar, guitar and drums, drums and bass etc etc.

U- Exactly what is a ,"Runway To The Gods", 'ala 2006 in your opinion. I guess it could be anything from a deeper and true meaning to the internet???

Zeno: Yes, it could be all this, and nothing of this at the same time. This title came from a kind of “joke” between the management in the eighties and ourselves as a band, fooling around about the so-called “Nazca lines” in the Peruvian desert, which some believe were made by or for “extraterrestrials”. (I like to “close circles” and have therefore employed many allusions to concepts of a former existence of ZENO and myself on my albums. For instance, the title LISTEN TO THE LIGHT obviously refers to the theme of the album cover for the 1st ZENO album, where a little boy holds a shell of light or something like that to his ear, “listening to light”. So with ZENO, as with everything else, everything remains the same, while constantly changing, as all goes in circles, until it comes to a conclusion, thus “coming home”).

To me, however, the “Runway” theme is just a “pick up point” for giving the album a certain dramatic curve, with (as usual in my albums) a “take off”, the actual “flight” and a “touch down” in the end (for instance, all last songs on my “official” three albums start with the word “Sunset”). This is very important to me, as I would like to tell a story and take the listener onto a journey through Time, Space and (hopefully) the things in between and beyond…

U- My absolute favourite track of the album is "Refugees (Longing For Paradise)". Could you take us through the complete story of the song (when, how, you wrote it, to lyrics and influences).

Zeno: This song was written quite late (in relative terms), I guess around 2001. It deals with the situation of the human soul within our “modern” world, which makes us “Refugees”, longing back to our TRUE home, which one might call “Paradise” or whatever one likes to call it. (Our yearning in a world, which will never be our true home, as it only harbours the physical part of our existence, being a constant theme in my Art). The guitar riff of that song is a bit of a “self-quote” from “Circles Of Dawn” (1st ZENO), but, as always when I “quote”, the song soon takes a life of its own, as I shape it in accordance to the musical and lyrical requirements I feel it needs to become an entity of its own.

Influences – and again, as always when I get inspirations from something, never in a “literal”, merely copying way: I think the song has quite a “Journey” (and this time the band Journey) feel to it, especially the vocals in the verses, but somehow (for me) also the organ solo at the end etc. (I always liked Journey, and especially Steve Perry, who was always one of my favourite singers, as he has such an “aesthetic” touch).

U- I'm told (I have a plain promo copy) that "Runway To The Gods", will not only be an audio, but also a visual experience with painted images and artwork in the booklet. They were all done by your ex bassist Ule W Ritgen (Fair Warning) and were originally illustrated to your poems?

Zeno: I find it a bit sad that You were not provided with a proper copy of the album, as the music and the artwork are supposed to complement each other. Ule Winsomie’s illustrations were taken from a set he had done for some of my poems, and – funnily enough – they were a perfect match for this album, as they capture pretty much what I am interested in where Art is concerned: The Beauty – and desolation – of Nature as a mirror of our souls. You can view some of the artwork (with comments) on the ZENO Journal.

U- Have you published any of your poems into book format?

Zeno: Not so much has been published (expect for the song lyrics), but that was exactly our plan, when Ule started these illustrations, to publish something like a calendar with my poems, illustrated by him. It is my (our) next project, apart from the music.

U- Your superb 1986 release was invested hugely by EMI and is considered to be one of the most expensive debut albums in the history of hard rock. Could you give us an idea and taste of exactly how much extravaganza you could spend and do with the budget.

Zeno: Oh well, much less extravaganza than people might think, as we were almost continuously working - however, and there it obviously verges on madness, in countless studios all over the world (of course including “Abbey Road”, EMI’s recording studios in London), jetting from one place to another, just to make a re-mix here or record some vocals or something like that there – what a waste, as it is no problem to record any good album in just one good studio… (which is exactly what we had done in case of the “legendary” demos, leading to the massive deal at the time – simply going into ONE studio, quickly laying down the backing tracks, doing the overdubs, mixing in one or two days and that was it).

U- Yet, somehow, it didn't nearly become as much of a best-seller as it should have been. I'm not sure if I buy the 'official' EMI version, they thought the music was "dated" and not really in touch with the modern days of 1986. What's your honest opinion about the matter?

Zeno: There WAS an element of “being late” from our side, as far as I remember, as we simply took too long with the album, and the “fashion train” had already started to move away from the “melodic” element in rock. I still remember, “Europe” were around and groups like that, we met Def Leppard (real nice guys) in Ireland, where – OBVIOUSLY – we also recorded (in the U2 studios), and that it became increasingly difficult for the melodic bands - the Bon Jovi’s (and after that the downright “ugly” forms of Rock, like Guns ‘n Roses etc.) were already knocking at the door. But all this I only remember in a hazy kind of way, as I never was a “market analyst”, and never will or want to become one.

U- However, the 1993 re-release of the album became a massive seller in Japan and ended up as #11 in the yearly Japanese chart for foreign music. I guess the A&R people at EMI didn't know how to promote a record?

Zeno: Well, this is a long chapter, which ALSO could fill a book, but it was (in the 80s) not only the record company’s fault, who were a bit “helpless” in dealing with us, but also ours and – especially – the management’s, who, for instance, hooked us up to tour with Black Sabbath (of all bands), THE antithesis to everything we stood for in terms of music and ideas. (Like “Love Will Live” etc.) One night we met Greg Lake in a hotel in London, who liked our album and offered us to tour with ELP (then Emerson, Lake and Powell, I believe), and we (or the management, can’t remember) turned them down, which was plain idiotic, as this would have given us the opportunity to perform on a common platform with a “classy” band - it was simply a never-ending series of missed opportunities, misjudgements, mismanagement, also certain tensions within the band, and and and…

U- What do you think about your un-official title of Germany's and Europe's answer to Tom Scholz. :-) Were you ever into Boston?

Zeno: Never heard about that one, although I am aware of the fact that I like to do “singing” two guitar parts, which he, I believe, is famous for. Of course I liked Boston, as most people in those days, and everybody was impressed by their stacking recording technique with just a TEAC 8 Track, I believe. Otherwise, as many inspirations in my life, I guess I picked up just a certain “vibe” and used it, where appropriate on a song. (As for instance the intro of “A Little More Love”, if I remember rightly). I also like to end solos with a “two part” solution, as for instance on “I Would Die For You” or many of the songs on the new album, which might come from the same vein of playing. (“Refugees” also has a two part solo).

U- You do know that Bormann's un-official title is Germany's answer to Jon Bon Jovi? :-)

Zeno: Yes, which obviously has to do with the colour of his voice, however, I think that Michael is technically speaking far more advanced than Bon Jovi.

U- Do you practice guitar every day and can you still find any new guitarists that inspire you to work harder?

Zeno: I never practice guitar since many years, but only play when I compose or record – which makes each recording session quite a “painful” experience at first, as the fingers are still soft (and kind of weak) and have to become tuned in with the instrument each time. On the other hand it means that each such session is a “new start” with a fresh spirit, as there is no “routine” one can fall back to if needed. It is every time a challenge – and therefore chance – to create something new and not something, “moulded” along a sort of template one is used to by playing all the time. On the other hand I was absolutely manically practicing, when I was younger, especially in the years when I also played violin. I recently found some old note books where I noted down my daily hours of spending time on the instrument(s), and those were quite “frightening” in terms of sheer quantity.

U- I guess that Jimi Hendrix is your main source of inspiration when it comes to actual guitar playing? Heck, you wrote a book about the man?

Zeno: No, Hendrix – although I deem him one of the greatest (if not THE greatest) guitarists of all times – was not my initial inspiration, as I – originally – came more from a blues orientation (e.g. Johnny Winter, Jeff Beck, Peter Green, I also like Django Reinhardt, who is more jazz, though). However, I learned a lot from him (Hendrix), who was one of the most expressive players ever around, and I have on almost each song a guitar part called “Hendrix”, which are mainly those lyrical, broken down rhythm parts with a nice and clean Strat sound over a Marshall amp. Not myself, but Monika Dannemann, my brother’s late partner in life and a good friend of mine, wrote this book, illustrated with her paintings, which I was part of as a co-author, improving and revising all of her thoughts on her former fiancée Jimi Hendrix and his ideas. (“The Inner World of Jimi Hendrix”).

U- Did or do you ever find it difficult to be the younger brother of Scorpions' Uli Jon? [and I'm merely talking about the music business aspect here :-)].

Zeno: No, at no point in time, as we are – musically speaking, or at least in terms of our “musical strategies” – very different, although there are also resemblances, which I always describe as “family induced”. In terms of “business” - an aspect of the music “business”, which I could well do without, he was initially our greatest supporter, as our first (above mentioned) contract with EMI UK was created by Uli’s then Manager, Dave Corke.

U- Thanks for everything, if there's anything you'd like to say, add, or promote, please do:

Zeno: Here is my message to all my fans (and others who might be interested in my work): Thank You all for Your patience on the way to this new album. May it survive the “test of time” and hopefully bring some harmony to a world, so full of discord and doubt.

Refugees (Longing For Paradise)
Strange ways rule our destiny
In a cold and windy night lost souls are looking for their way
True love is waiting for you and me
In the lonely – lonely – loneliness called "today"

So we're sitting here alone
At the gates of paradise
To be waiting for the one
Kissing open weary eyes

Refugees - longing for paradise
In the cold deserted face of winter
At the doorway to the night
Refugees - are looking for loving eyes
To redeem our starving souls and make arise Paradise...

Best regards
Zeno Roth

Interview by Urban "Wally" Wallstrom, (c) 2006