Considering the four-plus decades of metal Germany has unleashed upon the world (Scorpions, Accept, Helloween, Michael Schenker, Doro Pesch to name a few), guitarist Axel Rudi Pell plays in relative obscurity when it comes to the minds of American metal fans.
But 15 solo studio albums didn’t spring out of thin air overnight. Pell’s solo debut Wild Obsession, after all, was released in 1989.
Pell originally forged his niche from 1984-88 in a band called Steeler, but even that fell on deaf ears in America. That’s because another Steeler featured guitar virtuoso Yngwie Malmsteen and vocalist Ron Keel, only to disband around the time Pell formed his group.
Of course, Pell’s lack of American notoriety, at least when compared to his German predecessors, might have something to do with the fact he’s never toured the U.S. But that doesn’t mean it’ll never happen. And it doesn’t mean you can’t access his recordings in the meantime.
That includes 15th solo album Circle of the Oath (see slideshow, left), which will be released March 27 (March 23 in Europe). It is filled with Pell’s diversified guitar work and the high-powered voice of American (gasp!) Johnny Gioeli — Pell’s vocalist since 1997. The record blends rockers and heavy offerings with acoustic mixes and ballads. Pell and Gioeli are joined by Volker Krawczak (on bass since 1989), American (double gasp!) Mike Terrana on drums (1998) and Ferdy Doernberg on keyboards (1997) — a lineup more stable than many bands around today.
Pell, 51, phoned me from his German homeland over the weekend:
Q: How was the writing and recording process different on Circle of the Oath from previous records?
A: I think there wasn’t any difference. Normally when a record is finished, I collect snippets for the next record. When I go to a grocery story, for example, a melody comes to mind, and I record it with my cell phone. I collected snippets over several months. And then 4-5 months before I go into the studio, I sit there with notes and pen. I put things together, see what’s an F# minor and so forth, and make songs out of it. That’s what I do with each record. In the studio, we don’t record with the band together, we record each part separate. I have to explain every song to the engineer and the band, and that’s how we do it.
Q: The album has several rockers such as “Ghost in the Black” and “Before I Die,” plus the lengthy title track that meshes acoustic with rock, and the ballads such as “Lived Our Lives Before.” Which is your favorite?
A: At the moment, it’s definitely the title track. It’s a little uncommon for us. We have our own ARP style, but this song in particular is influenced by Led Zeppelin. We haven’t had a song like it on the previous records, and I’m quite proud of it (laughs).
Q: Was it always important to have an American singer, whether it was Jeff Scott Soto or Johnny, or is that just how it worked out?
A: It’s just how things worked out. When I look for a new singer, I make a list, and 99 percent of what I’m looking for are American. There are German singers that don’t have the voice that suits what I need. I think Johnny is one of the top three vocalists in the world and a perfect fit for my band. This lineup has been together 13 or 14 years, and you know, we don’t see each other that often. Johnny lives in the States, Mike travels around the world. It can get boring when you see each other often, but on the other hand, it’s fun when we get together. Everyone’s enjoying each other. Mike Terrana, the drummer, for example, is so funny. He’s always telling jokes, the muscles in my face hurt from laughing so much.
Q: With all the renowned artists that have come out of Germany, are you happy with your place in the rock and heavy metal world and what you have achieved?
A: You know, I’m quite happy, sure, but I would love to get more out of it. It would be nice to be playing in front of more than 150, 200 people in certain places. But on the other side, I’m quite satisfied with my output in Europe. It’s a great feeling. Of course I would love to have a gold record one day. Maybe sometime in the future. You know, I’m not that old (laughs)!
Q: Which guitarists influenced you?
A: Definitely Ritchie Blackmore. When I first saw Ritchie, I was like, “Whoa, what’s this guy doing smashing his guitar around?” And I thought maybe one day I could do like he’s doing — play my guitar, get more chicks (laughs). Guys like Michael Schenker influenced me when he used to be in UFO. And other players like Jimmy Hendrix and Jimmy Page of course.
Q: How often does your version of Steeler get mistaken for the Steeler with Yngwie and Ron Keel?
A: Actually, it happened when we were close to entering the studio, and we had the name. Some guy who worked in a record store brought an album cover to us and said, “Look, there’s another band called Steeler.” And I was like, “Oh no!” I didn’t know anything about Yngwie or Ron Keel at the time, but then it turned out that Steeler split, and we kept the name. And you know, the original name of our Steeler was Sinner, and there was another band called Sinner as well (laughs).
Q: I just returned last month from the 70000 Tons of Metal cruise (see links below), where there were just as many German passengers as Americans. Were you invited to perform last year or this year and if so, why didn’t you?
A: I wouldn’t do that, to be honest, because I get seasick. I’m not joking. That’s the truth. I can’t be on a ship for more than one or two hours. I think my agent told me the year before (that his band had been invited), but I couldn’t do it.
Q: Grave Digger was one of the bands on the ship last month. You and Chris Boltendahl guested on Doro Pesch’s “25 Years in Rock” DVD performing (1987 Warlock song) “East Meets West.” In the documentary, Doro said she had a lot of respect for you going solo.
A: Oh, that’s great!
Q: How was that experience for you?
A: Yeah of course, when I was in Steeler, at the same time, Doro was in Warlock. They were based not far from here, maybe a one-hour drive. We ran into each other and had the same record company in those days. We would say, “Hey, how are you?” I think the guy producing the first Steeler record was also producing Warlock’s first record. Sometimes, in the old days as I said, every band was jealous of the other. One band would have three guitarists on stage, and the others would say, “Oh, we’ve got to have more than you.” You always have to get more and more. But I always followed Doro’s career and when she split from Warlock, I thought it was great that she was going solo. It was great to be part of the anniversary show. I found she was still a nice lady like she used to be. I don’t know if Doro told you (see interview link below), but I actually fell. After I played, I waved to the crowd, and I fell on stage on a monitor. They thought my leg was broken. They took me to a hospital, and my leg was getting bigger and bigger. The party was over for me (laughs).
Q: When was the last time you played San Antonio or the States, for that matter?
A: Oh, last week (laughs). Unfortunately, we’ve never played the States. We’re always trying to organize something, but we would definitely lose so many bucks over there. We can’t play in a club in front of 120, 150 people. Probably at one point it’s possible to play, I suppose.
Q: Can we expect a U.S. tour for Circle of the Oath at some point?
A: I’m not looking at it at the moment. Probably start looking the first part of next year. We’re doing a European first leg and the summer festivals, then a second European leg.
Well, Axel, thank you so much for calling and taking the time to talk. I wish you the best of luck with the album and tour and hope to see you in San Antonio sometime.
Oh, thank you very much! My pleasure. Take care.
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