Yngwie Malmsteen: Words to Live By


By: Justin R. Beckner

Spurred on by an unrelenting pursuit of perfection and unquestionable talent, Yngwie Malmsteen made quite a splash in the rather dull musical waters of the early 1980’s. Yngwie then went on to compose and perform concerto performances with philharmonics around the world. Now, 30 years after his migration to the U.S. he has published a memoir recounting all the madness and panache of the preceding years. The book, Relentless, compellingly tells the story of his rise to fame from a humble beginning in Sweden. In the following interview, Yngwie talks about his book, his music, and unleashes the fucking fury on a variety of topics.

Justin: Let’s start off by talking about the book. You’re what, 50 now? What made you decide that this was the time to write a book?

Yngwie: Yes, I just turned 50 last month. It’s really funny because my life is very different from most peoples. I’m sure everyone feels that way about their own life. But I came from a different place and I dreamt of things and it happened and I’ve had the worst and the best things happen. Very early in my life I got where I wanted to go and I just went with it. Then I had some things that I had to do like compose a symphony for the orchestra and I did that. I came to a point about 8 years ago in 2005 where I decided that I was going to write a book. I started writing the book in 2006. This thing took a long time. But I’ve been in the press since I was a teenager and most people have a preconceived idea of what I’m all about. There have been a lot of things written about me but not BY me. So instead of having some biographer do it, I had to write this myself. Because nobody can write a book coming from my soul and my eyes and my experience, it cannot be done by anyone except from me. It was a lot of work but I’m very pleased and very proud of it. I was a pretty big decision because it includes a lot of stuff that I had to be honest about.

Justin: One thing I really liked about this book is that it doesn’t follow the pattern that most other rock memoirs seem to have set over the years. For example, it doesn’t really delve too heavily into the drinking, drugs, debauchery, and cycle of rehab-relapse that most people seem to glorify in their books.

Yngwie: Well, I never had a problem with drugs, ever. I did drink too much. There’s some of that in the book. According to most people’s opinion, alcohol is a drug and it’s a very fucking bad one, let me tell you. It’s a really bad one man. I’ve been sober for 10 years now and I feel great. I get up at 7 in the morning and I play tennis, I feel alive, I feel focused, and I feel beautiful, I have my beautiful family, I have everything I could ever want. I’ve got everything. But if I was drinking and sleeping all day, then I wouldn’t be able to enjoy any of that. What a dramatic difference stopping drinking made for me. I never got into drugs at all though. It must have been the European thing. The drinking and the groupies, I did that, back in the day of course. But in my book I wanted to talk about what it felt like to be seven years old walking through the fucking snow and wondering what I was doing there. I wanted to talk about how I discovered [Niccolò] Paganini and came to be infatuated and obsessed with playing the guitar because there was no carrot on the end of a stick for me. Nobody ever said if you do this you’re going to be something, especially in socialist Sweden where everyone is told that you’re a fucking nobody and should never even try. My whole mentality and who I am is and always has been very different from that. By the way, I want to point out that socialism is not a good thing because it does nothing to enhance anything. People are expected to just sit there in the shadows and do nothing then die. So I came to America after all those years in Sweden and within a week I was the hottest shit around. They say that America is the land of opportunity, let me tell you, it really is! Not only in music but if you want to start a business or anything, this is the place and I know that because I came from the other side. These are the things I wanted to talk about because these are the things I feel strongly about. There was a period in my life when I was a completely reckless rock star but I don’t want to glamorize that. The best time in my life is right now. One odd thing I noticed when I was writing the book is the feeling that I was writing the book about someone else. That’s how different I was then, I remember doing those things but I thought, god in heaven, did I really do that? 

Justin: Have you ever read anyone else’s autobiography?

Yngwie: You know the funny thing is, I haven’t. I was not sure if I should do that or not. I thought about it before I started writing, but I didn’t want to see how other people’s books were written, I wanted to write mine my way. It’s a lot like making music. I don’t really listen to music at all. I don’t get influenced by music. This book was the same way.

Justin: Do you think that by not reading books and not listening to music helps to create something that is uniquely yours?

Yngwie: Yeah, I think so. The thing is whether you like it or not, if you listen to music or if you read books, you’re going to be inspired by them and it will reflect in your own work. I love movies, I love Ferraris, I collect watches, and I play tennis all the time – that’s my thing. Then when I go to play a show, it’s so fresh because it’s different from what I do at home. I don’t derive from what other people do. I just do what comes out naturally and honestly. I would bolster to say that is the best way to write music or books because then the end product is what you are. I know that what I create is going to be around for a long time after I’m gone so I want to make sure that it means something. I never wanted to be the flavor of the day. There was a time in the 80’s where I kind of did that. But that was part of the scene back then.

Justin: I get the impression from the book that you seemed very comfortably isolated from the whole glam scene that was happening around the same time in LA.

Yngwie: Well, I was there before the glam scene. I did get pulled into that shit somewhat and that was one of the reasons I decided to leave. There were actually many reasons why I decided to leave but that was one of them. I started finding myself being one of them and that’s not me. I’m a very independent thinker and I’m not a flavor of the day bullshit guy. I don’t do that – it’s all real what I do…with the exception of maybe one or two songs.

Justin: Have you ever been burnt out on playing music?

Yngwie: I wouldn’t say I was burnt out ever but you can overdo it to where it becomes a routine and I’ve done that. I want to be excited when I’m on stage. I’ve been playing for so long that I don’t practice much anymore – I play guitar all the time but it’s not like I’m practicing songs. When I get inspired I go to the studio and when I’m on stage I’m inspired because of all the people. But I don’t go off stage on to the tour bus and listen to music. That intensity that I want to retain, I want it to be real because I can pull out the autopilot any day, but that’s not the real thing to me. I don’t like to do that. When I play I need it to be honest and in the moment. That goes for being on stage or in the studio. For instance, if I go in to a studio to record a solo or whatever and it doesn’t happen right away, I just say “Fuck it” and I’m out of there. I don’t keep on doing it. I won’t do another take. Either it happens or it won’t.

Justin: You’ve got some great quotes in your book, I don’t remember who you were quoting but I especially like the one that goes something like, “Improvisation is a genesis of composition”.

Yngwie: That quote is actually mine. I do have a quote by Mozart in there as well and that one in, “Music is melody and melody is music” so that excludes rap music then. Niccolò Paganini had a quote in the book too that was, “One must feel strongly to make others feel strongly”. I live by that and I know that’s why I’m still doing it after all these years. When I go on stage, I really fucking mean it and people can feel it. It’s not some fake shit. But the quote that you mentioned is actually my own composition.

Justin: I like it though, it coveys this image of capturing a moment.

Yngwie: Exactly, that’s how I do things as well. Not a lot of people know this but the original composers like Bach, Beethoven, and Tchaikovsky, all of them were improvisers. They just wrote down the piece they felt was the best. Beethoven was a great improviser. Nowadays classical musicians only play what is on the paper. When I play something live, I will sometimes never play that same way again.  It keeps it fresh too. I just did 29 cities in 30 day in the states. You can easily fall into a routine and forget about all the excitement if you don’t play differently. I will sometimes give the band a setlist and then play completely different songs without warning them. I like doing stuff like that because it keeps it fresh.Justin: The fans can tell when a band is telling the same joke they told the night before or if someone is turning on the autopilot.

Yngwie: Yeah, nowadays with things like youtube they can definitely tell.

Justin: Were the solos improvised in your concerto performances?

Yngwie: The solos were, yes.

Justin: Are there any plans to perform with symphonies again?

Yngwie: Absolutely, I will do that in the future. I already have a lot of great themes and stuff like that that I’ve been working on. Did you mean will I write another concerto or will I perform the same one again?

Justin: Both.

Yngwie: Yes on both accounts. I’m trying to do both of those things. There are a lot of great symphonies. Right now there have actually been talks about doing the performance that I had done previously in different parts of the world. Russia is one of the places that’s been talked about but I don’t know the exact dates or anything like that yet.

Justin: I really enjoyed that performance.

Yngwie: It’s very different because it’s not rock and roll. It doesn’t have the drums or anything like that.

Justin: Those strange collaborations are cool to me but do you ever get caught up in thinking about commercial appeal of what you’re writing or composing?

Yngwie: I did at one point when that actually existed. The radio format doesn’t exist, the singles don’t exist. The record label doesn’t exist. The record stores don’t exist. That whole entire thing is gone.

Justin: Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

Yngwie: Well first of all is very bizarre, especially for someone like me. When I started out, it was very much like the guy with the big cigar in a big office saying, “I’ll give you a record deal, boy”. You had tour support, tour busses, local A&R people, the whole nine yards, I did that but it’s all gone now.  It can be for better or worse because if you don’t have name recognition now, if you want to start out now, how the fuck do you do it? Back in the day Def Leppard said if they could get a few singles on MTV they’d be able to make it, and they did. That happened with a lot of bands who did that back then. Now we have YouTube but there are billions of videos and musicians on there and if nobody knows your name, nobody’s going to look you up. It’s a little bit weird but in that sense the music industry situation is really bad for whoever wants to start out now. The good part is that there is no longer this slavery to a certain format going on, where in the 80’s if you didn’t follow format, they wouldn’t give you the time of day. You had to conform to get a shot at a record deal. That’s gone now and it’s bizarre.

Justin: The internet changed a lot for the industry, piracy has certainly had a hand in changing the game. Do you think that piracy can be beneficial to some of those bands starting out? How has it affected you?

Yngwie: How could it possibly be positive? If you go into a store and you see a car that you like, you can’t just drive off with it. The cost and the blood and sweat and tears that go into making music is the same thing, it’s not free. Try telling the engineer and the producer that they have to work for free. It’s utterly bizarre, it’s like just going into a store and taking things off the shelves. It’s stealing. The reason there are no bands coming out now is that the money that was once there is not there anymore.  So what happened was, in essence, by pirating music, you kill the music industry. The music industry died because of the piracy and now all the fans will have no new music.  Isn’t that wonderful? It’s a direct consequence of that.

Justin: I think that, with piracy, we’ve lost the album art, the liner notes, the waiting in line to get the next record. It seems that there used to be this aura of awesomeness that used to surround a new record being released. Now it’s just a click away. One sad little click.

Yngwie: Yeah, that’s another aspect of it that I totally agree with what you’re saying. But I think that kind of got lost with the CD a little bit too. I think when the LP went, that’s when the art went. You know, when I was a little kid, I used to record cassette tapes for friends. So this music sharing thing has been going on for a long time and the internet just sped it up.

Justin: Let’s talk guitars. Why strats?

Yngwie: Is there another guitar?

Justin: It’s funny you mention that because I heard that Gibson made you a Stratocaster. Is that true?

Yngwie: They did. I am proud to say that before me there was nobody who got a free guitar from Fender. Hendrix and Blackmore, they had to buy their own guitar. I was the first guy who got a free guitar and I was the first guy to have his name on one, before Clapton. One of the reasons I think it happened that way was because when I came on the scene, Van Halen was all the rage. That almost resulted in the Stratocaster’s demise because in the late 70’s they weren’t being made very well. Also, they wanted to chop them up and put the humbuckers in them and stuff. Then my first album came out and the first thing you see on the cover is a Stratocaster. I was playing in California and the guys from Fender came to my show and said they wanted to make me a guitar. I thought they were joking because they never did that for anybody but they were actually serious. I sort of joked back with them and said, if they made me a guitar it has to be scalloped, knowing full well that making a scalloped neck in the factory would be super expensive. But I told them what I would want, sort of humoring them. They said they’d put my name on the guitar on top of the guitar – on the side of the body so that I could see it when I was playing. I told them no, that I wanted my name right on the fucking headstock next to the Stratocaster name. I was completely joking when I said that but they did it and that’s how all the signature models have been ever since.

My thing with the Stratocaster started when I was 6 or 7. That’s what I wanted because that’s what all the cool people used. My older brother had an electric guitar that looked like a strat but it was like a toy almost. That was the only guitar I ever really wanted. The design is timeless – I actually have one of the first 10 ever made. I have other guitars – Les Pauls, Flying V’s, 335s, I’ve got shitloads of basses. I’ve got guitars that friends have given me like Brian May and Steve Vai.

Justin: It seems to me that over the years, you’ve been portrayed as a musical dictator of sorts. Most bands talk about the glory of collaboration and all the great things that come out of that. I find it interesting that you feel differently.

Yngwie: It’s funny; I was just talking to someone about this the other day. Yeah you’ve got Mick Jagger and Keith Richards and you’ve got Van Halen who wrote as a team and that’s great for them and I love that. For me, I look at it in the way that I am an artist. An artiste. When you’re a writer, you write the whole book, when you’re a painter like De Vinci you don’t say to someone, hey come over here and help me with my painting. There are a few reasons why I work this way. First of all, I’m so full of creativity that I don’t need any other input. The other is that I feel so strongly about my work, it’s like a burning passion to create something that is uniquely me. This comes with the full realization that you may love it or you may hate it. But this is what I’m going to do and I’m not about to have any kind of discussion with anybody about how it should be done. I’m a very serious creative person. I don’t compromise because I don’t collaborate. I tried it and I hated it every time and I was never pleased with the end result. I’ve been doing this way too long to change how I do things now. I’m not doing things this way because of some egotistical dictator type of reason. Ask Rembrandt if he would have liked for someone to come and paint in his paining. That’s exactly how I approach it. I have to love what I do, if other people love it, I’m happy. If other people hate it, I’m still happy because I’m doing what I want to do. I’m a tennis player, I’m a boxer - I don’t play team sports. I’m not a team player, I never have been and I never will be. In tennis, if I win it’s because of my serve or my backhand. It’s a battle and is a challenge to myself. After it’s over I don’t want to say “Good job pal, I couldn’t have done it without you”.  I can’t live like that. It’s a lot of work to do things like that but that’s how it has to be.

Justin: Is there a new Yngwie Malmsteen album on the way?

Yngwie: I’m working on music every day. The whole cycle of album tour album tour is gone now. Basically what I do is, when I’m inspired, I go into the studio and record some stuff and when I think I have a lot of good stuff I make an album out of it.

Justin: You have a studio in your house I assume. 

Yngwie: Yeah, it’s great. It saves more than money. I remember the days very well when I would have a 16 track recorder that I would use in the practice space. Then I would go into the studio and do the bass and drums and then it would be time for a solo. By the time it’s on the record it’s been re-hashed a million times. Now, when I’m inspired, I go and record it and that is what ends up on the album. The money aspect is great. Back in the day the record label was putting up all this money and you had to record whether you were inspired or not. I like to capture the moment.

Justin: How close to a new album are you?

Yngwie: I’m not in any big hurry for a new album. I’ve been doing a lot of touring lately. I’ll tell you what will be coming next will be a live DVD from this last American Tour. That’s in its final stages right now.

Justin: I’ll be looking forward to that. Let’s talk live shows – let’s talk showmanship. Where does the intensity of your live performances come from?

Yngwie: I think it’s a combination of things. I got my first guitar when I was 5 years old but I didn’t really start playing until I saw Hendrix burn his guitar and smash it up on TV. The reason I wanted to play was so that I could burn and smash my guitar up. It’s really bizarre, I know, because my music is so much more serious now but that was when I was a seven year old kid. If you just want to hear a guy play guitar, you can just listen to a record. If you go see a show there has to be that other dimension to the experience. Some people do that with a light show or dancing dwarfs on stage. I like to just be the show myself and do the tricks and stuff like that. I get too excited on stage to just stand there anyways.

Justin: In the book, you wrote that you don’t listen to your old albums after they’re done.

Yngwie: That is correct. I don’t live in the past. The best show I’ve ever done is the one I’m going to do next. The best album will be the next one I do. I don’t look back, I look forward. It’s dangerous too, because if an album does well you might get stuck in that one sound for the next couple albums instead of having this evolution of your sound. I like to have the classical stuff on my records, and some blues. An album to me is supposed to be a snapshot of who you are at that time.  

Justin: People like to pin this guitar virtuoso label on you but I want to say that I think there is a heavy blues influence in your playing. When did you pick up the blues?

Yngwie: That was the first thing I picked up. Before I heard Deep Purple or anything like that I was playing the blues. My mother had John Mayall albums and BB King. I think it’s very important to have the blues. It’s not so much in the tonality of the notes but the approach. If it’s one note, it has to count. It’s good that you point that out. A lot of people misunderstand that – they think all I do is play fast but that’s not true. I make every note count. Every note has to have a value – that’s the importance of blues because there are not as many notes. Also, I like the acoustic as a contrast. I don’t think it’s as expressive but the contrast is important.

Justin: Are you comfortable with the “guitar virtuoso” label?

Yngwie: You know, I’m in a position right now where I’m as happy as can be that I’m still being interviewed and people still care what I’m doing after all this time. That label is fine with me. It’s a little bit limiting maybe but that’s ok, it will just shock them more when I do something different, like a bluesy thing. I came to this country with a guitar and a toothbrush so I have no complaints, god bless you all.