Rock Ready: An exclusive interview with UFO guitarist Vinnie Moore
By Ryan Sparks
The British band UFO has been responsible for creating some of the finest melodic hard rock ever since their inception in 1969. The arrival of German guitarist Michael Schenker in time for 1974’s Phenomenon album meant they could leave the Eddie Cochran, Bo Diddley covers, and twenty six minute side long compositions behind for good. With Schenker on board UFO was transformed into a well oiled machine almost overnight and the band churned out one classic album after another. The records Force It (1975), No Heavy Petting (1976), Lights Out (1977) and Obsession (1978) effectively sealed the bands place in the annals of rock history. Schenker departed after the Obsession tour but not before some of those performances could be captured in time forever on Strangers In The Night (1979), arguably one of the best live albums of all time.
The only constant throughout the bands forty year history has been vocalist Phil Mogg. He soldiered on with various different lineups throughout the 80’s and 90’s as band members came and went, some more than once. Schenker came back to the fold a few times with mixed results, as personality clashes and unstable behavior caused him to leave for good (or so one would assume, although with UFO nothing is ever etched in stone) after the Sharks album in 2002.
After a few years off Mogg, bassist Pete Way (another original member) and keyboardist / guitarist Paul Raymond regrouped with drummer Jason Bonham and American guitarist Vinnie Moore. A fresh new chapter in the bands storied and often complex history began with 2004’s You Are Here album. Bonham would leave for seemingly greener pastures not long afterwards, eventually clearing the way for the return of Andy Parker, another original member. This lineup has proved to be one of the most stable in recent years having now recorded two albums together, with the second one The Visitor getting set to drop next month.
Vinnie Moore stepped up to the plate and delivered in spades once again. If you only know Vinnie from his mind boggling, lightning fast neo-classical shred fests from the 80’s well you are in for a big surprise. His youthful energy has been a real shot in the arm for the band and from day one he has been Phil’s main song writing collaborator.
I recently caught up with “The Duke Of Delaware” to get the lowdown on the forthcoming new album, the bands tour plans for later this year as well as an update on the health of Way, who is currently undergoing treatment for liver disease and was unfortunately unable to participate in the recording sessions for The Visitor.
Ryan: This is your third album now with the band. How would you describe the evolution process within the band from You Are Here to The Visitor?
Vinnie: I think we’ve gotten closer because we’ve been on the road so much. We’ve toured and done so many shows together that we’ve gotten to know one another just from hanging out. By doing that you become more familiar with people and the writing gets easier. You become more aware of what people respond to creatively, and you just get better at working together.
Ryan: I think one of the most apparent things as far as the three studio albums are concerned is that The Visitor sounds more confident. All of the classic elements of UFO are displayed throughout the album but the band sounds like it’s really starting to gel and taking it that next level.
Vinnie: That also might be because we’ve played so much together live and we’ve become better friends, so our rapport is kind of building up.
Ryan: Over the course of the past three albums the band has been able to take this material and move forward and I think it shows the band is establishing its own identity without having to rely on just the name UFO would you agree?
Vinnie: Yeah I think Phil’s voice is the common thread that makes it UFO. Also when I write songs for the band, I happen to be a big fan of the band and I have been since I was a kid, so I kind of write knowing it’s a rock band that I’m writing for. I write songs that are in the ballpark of what the band does stylistically. Whereas with my solo stuff I might be more adventurous and I can throw in all kinds of crazy stuff musically, but I realize that when I’m writing for UFO that it’s a rock band, so it has to be in a certain direction and it has to rock.
Ryan: You have certain parameters that you have to sort of stick to.
Vinnie: That’s true. I also present Phil with like fifteen ideas and the ones he selects as a vocalist and lyricist, also kind of makes it more UFO as well. But yeah I think the fact that I write a lot and do a lot of different styles of music and current stuff kind of keeps things fresh. When we play together, even with Andy’s drumming it becomes UFO. There’s a certain identity and style there.
Ryan: Right from the onset you assumed an important role in the songwriting department. Was it an easy adjustment for you, did you have any difficulties or challenges adapting to their sound?
Vinnie: Not much because like I said I was into them as I was growing up. I actually used to learn their songs and do a lot of them, so stylistically I don’t think it was much of a stretch for me to fit in, where theoretically there could be other gigs that I would be interested in where I might not have fit in so easily, and I’d have to work a little harder to fit in. With this thing it was easy, right up my alley.
Ryan: No one would dispute your technical abilities as a guitarist but did you feel any trepidation from the fans being a guitar player primarily known for your instrumental work and coming into a classic rock band like UFO?
Vinnie: I think probably with the true hard-core fans definitely. In fact I did an interview with Eddie Trunk the other night, he is a huge fan of the band and he told me that when he first heard that I was joining the band he was a little worried. Being the huge UFO fan that he is he wanted to make sure they had the right guy. So yeah there was some of that from the fans, but I personally don’t think about stuff like that and it’s not something I should really be concerned with. I just need to do what I do which is play and write and do my job.
Ryan: The band had over thirty tracks written for The Visitor, is it difficult to whittle it down to ten or twelve songs?
Vinnie: It is difficult to whittle it down, but where the number thirty five or whatever it is came from I have no idea because I seriously doubt we had that many. That sounds like a bit of an invented thing there. We probably had about twenty. Yeah it does take time to whittle it down and part of that is getting together and rehearsing and just seeing what works when you play together. Certain songs are obviously strong and they need to be on the record and with others there’s a few good ones where you think hmm… “Which one do we choose or which one’s right stylistically?” It’s just a matter of getting together and playing and seeing what feels best.
Ryan: You’re based in the States and the other guys are over in the UK is that right?
Vinnie: Actually our drummer Andy lives in Texas near Dallas. I’m near Philadelphia and Phil and Paul are close to London.
Ryan: I mean it must be difficult logistically for you to get together to play and rehearse. How does that work?
Vinnie: If we’re doing a tour, as far as Europe is concerned we’ve made Hanover Germany our home base because that’s where our manager is from and that’s where all our European gear is. So if we’re touring we all just meet there, rehearse for maybe two or three days depending on how much we’ve played together, and we get on the bus and we go out and tour. If we’re doing shows in America then our base is here in my area near Philadelphia. We have a rehearsal studio that we use and our American gear is here in storage. So we’ll get together and rehearse near my house and then get on the bus and travel from here. If we’re doing an album we’ll meet for usually a week in Hanover and start recording from there.
Ryan: You’ve been doing your last few albums there at Area 51.
Vinnie: Yeah in Celle which is about an hour from Hanover. That’s where we do the basics and the vocals. I actually do the guitars at home in my studio.
Ryan: So you can exchange ideas back and forth.
Vinnie: Yeah its really cool man to use the technology, its pretty amazing. For this record we had done rehearsals, Andy was in the studio laying down the drums and we were totally in the process of doing the record and I was sitting around watching The Simpsons one night playing guitar and I came up with this riff. I thought this sounds cool for UFO so I started working on it and in like ten minutes I had a whole song structure. I thought that it really sounded like UFO and that we didn’t really have anything on the new record like this. I went in my studio and laid down a demo real quick and I e-mailed it to everybody and uploaded the file of the song to a server. The next morning I got a call at like 10 am, it was like six hours ahead in Germany, they loved the track and had already finished recording the drums for it. That track ended up on the record and it’s called “Hell Driver”.
Ryan: Great track that one.
Vinnie: Yeah it was just a totally last minute spur of the moment type of thing. Even though you get together to rehearse and plan this stuff out, sometimes there’s these little accidental things that kind of happen as well.
Ryan: It’s like you said with the technology being what it is today you would not have been able to do this back in the day. Now everybody can work in their home studios with Pro Tools or whatever they need.
Vinnie: I think everybody has their own environment that is more conducive for them to be creative. For some people that might be getting together with the whole band and for others like myself, its locking myself away privately, because that’s where I thrive the most. The technology is great because it allows everyone to do it his or her own way now.
Ryan: I know Phil is quite fond of the old blues men. It seems like there is more of that kind of blues influence in songs like “Saving Me” and “Rock Ready” which has that real swampy blues feel to them.
Vinne: [laughs] Those are both my tunes and I’m a blues guy that was definitely influenced by blues growing up. Those were two of the last songs that I wrote for this record and it was really kind of an adjustment on my part. As we were working I saw what kind of things Phil was responding to. I know he’s really into the blues and at some point it became a conscious thing on my part to say “Ok this is what he’s really responding to, I’m going to give him a couple of things in that direction”, so I wrote those two songs. Immediately after he heard them he said “These are the best, this is great” and in fact he was joking with me in an e-mail “These two new tracks are unbelievable, are you doing drugs now?”
Ryan: [laughing] I guess that’s a compliment right?
Vinnie: Yeah that was his way of complimenting me.
Ryan: On the topic of lyrics, Phil has always been a great lyricist and known for spinning tall tales that are full of imagery. For your part in the songwriting process what methods do you use or how do you go about setting these colorful images to music through your guitar playing?
Vinnie: Well actually his lyrics come after. He’s the kind of guy who does it all last minute. I think he works great under pressure. When we get together to rehearse he doesn’t even sing most of the time. It’s insane because we have no idea what he’s going to sing on a lot of the songs and there’s no way we know any of the lyrics. He just sits at rehearsals and kind of observes and feeds on the vibe to get the creative juices flowing for him I guess. I just play and he does his thing after the fact.
Ryan: You’ve described a bit of the writing process, but would you say it’s a collaborative effort between yourself and Phil or does everyone get involved?
Vinnie: I have six songs on the new record, Paul has maybe three or four and Andy contributed one. With regards to my stuff, I write and record a lot so I present finished ideas. I’m never a guy that presents like two riffs to make a song out of. I’m too much of type A personality for that. I usually present totally finished ideas, so it’s more of a collaborative effort between Phil and I.
Ryan: The last two tracks on the album are excellent, “Villains and Thieves” and “Stranger In Town”.
Vinnie: “Stranger In Town” is the one that Andy wrote with Bobby Barth from Blackfoot. They wrote the music and then Phil wrote his lyrics and melodies over top of that. “Villains and Thieves” is one of Paul’s songs.
Ryan: I don’t have any of the credits on the copy that I have, it’s just the bare bones version.
Vinnie: I’ve noticed that because a couple of people have mentioned the same thing.
Ryan: In the live arena with regards to playing the older material, specifically when it comes to interpreting Michael’s solos, I guess you have to strike a balance with playing what the audience is kind of familiar with but also at the same time you need to put your own stamp on it as well. There’s lots of room to improvise is what I’m getting at.
Vinnie: I’ve kind of approached it the way I approach my songs if I were playing live. Some sections are a very important part of the song, whether it’s the melody or whatever and these parts need to be played because they’re part of the song. Then there’s other parts that I just improvise because that’s what I did when I recorded it anyway, and sometimes in the middle of a solo if there’s a key melody or trademark melody that stands out I’ll try to hit that. It’s a combination of both.
Ryan: With three albums under your belts now how you go about selecting a set list? You still have to play the older material naturally, but how do you decide which of the newer songs to include?
Vinnie: We play like and hour and forty five minutes and it’s really difficult to choose a set list. There’s so many songs that the fans expect to hear, and we want to do stuff from the new record and maybe something from Monkey Puzzle or You Are Here. Then there are certain fans that want to hear something from the Chapman era or from a particular record. There’s just not enough time in the evening to do all the songs, and you always get flak for it from the fans after the show. We try to choose what’s best and just go for it.
Ryan: What songs can fans expect to hear from The Visitor?
Vinnie: I think we’re going to be doing “Saving Me”, “Hell Driver” and maybe “Living Proof”. Those are probably the three that we’re going to do.
Ryan: I’m sure everyone would like to know the latest on Pete and how he’s doing.
Vinnie: I haven’t talked to him in a few weeks. The last time I spoke to him he was ok. He’s hanging in there but he’s really depressed that he can’t come out with us and it’s kind of a sad situation. I really like Pete, he’s such a big part of the band and it’s just sad that he can’t come out and do it.
Ryan: Is there a chance he’ll hook up with the band at some point during the summer and fall tour, has that idea been thrown around at all?
Vinnie: At this point there are no plans. We have Barry Sparks playing with us on the upcoming shows in Europe and beyond that I don’t know what’s going to happen.
Ryan: Last question or just a comment really. I have to say that you’ve certainly come a long way from Vicious Rumors.
Ryan: From that band to how you’ve evolved as a player throughout your solo career, to the point where you’re at today with your most recent solo effort To The Core and now with The Visitor both out at the same time. It just highlights the balance and diversity that you’ve been known for throughout your career.
Vinnie: Thanks man. I’ve been really busy you know. Two records coming out within one week is pretty crazy and I didn’t really plan on that but it’s a pretty cool thing. Sometimes I forget what I’m supposed to be doing. Earlier today I was doing an interview and I didn’t know if the guy who was interviewing me was interviewing me for UFO or for my solo album. He was referring to the record being really good and that he thought this about the record and I was just kind of listening and waiting for him to give it away what he was talking about.
Ryan Sparks - Classic Rock Revisited - copyright 2009