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Interview conducted May 13 2018
Interview published May 19 2018

"I hate bands who use playbacks. With Axel everything is live."

With the new album Knights Call out, Axel Rudi Pell came to Stockholm for a sold out show and Metal Covenant were given some time with keyboard player Ferdy Doernberg. Ferdy has a pretty broad career and tells a little bit about playing all kinds of instruments, his musical background and what teaching young people is like today.

Tobbe: Knights Call definitely follows the path of Axel Rudi Pell and what does the plan really look like when you guys set out to record a new record?

Ferdy: Actually it's always the same. Axel writes the songs, writes the lyrics and then does some demo tracks and then, yeah, first the drums are recorded, then the keyboards, then the bass, then the guitars and then the vocals. It's always the same actually and the composition is done by Axel alone, so nobody else composes. So it's actually all done before we step in and then we can create our parts and if Axel likes it, it stays that way, and if he says "Ah, that's not what I had in mind", we'll look for something else. So in the end it's his work. The name of the band is Axel Rudi Pell, so it's his band.

Tobbe: I think that the melodies in the songs on the last couple of albums are sometimes kind of similar to each other and how do you look at the band's development?

Ferdy: I think it grew together, because when we did our first album together [Refers to the first album where 4 of today's 5 members were present. 1998's Oceans Of Time.] 20 years ago we didn't know each other that well, apart from Axel and Volker [Krawczak, bass], so of course everything develops. We play live a lot, so we've played many tours and we know each other as a person more, so yeah, of course it just grows together.

But I think the style is still the same and I think that's one of the reasons why Axel's success is so long-lasting. He doesn't do, like, a heavy metal album, then a grunge album, then a hiphop album and then another hard rock album, because fans don't follow that. So when there's Axel Rudi Pell on the cover there's Axel Rudi Pell in it. And he's original; he's really the biggest fan of this kind of music himself, so he's not some guy who does it for commercial reasons and this is really the music he likes and that's what I think is his secret.

Tobbe: How come you joined the band in the first place?

Ferdy: It's 20 years ago, so it's a while now… I started with a band called Rough Silk, a progressive light band from Germany, and we toured a lot in the beginning of the '90s with Helloween, Accept, Saxon and some other bands and we made some albums. Actually my 12th album, the new one [Progressive Oi!-Pop] just came out.

Yeah, I worked a lot as a studio musician as well and played on Roland Grapow's solo stuff, and Roland was a friend of Axel's, and then Axel was looking for a keyboard player, so Roland gave him my number and I talked with him on the phone. I didn't know him before and we talked a little bit and then the first time we really met in person was actually in the studio, and since then I'm onboard. [Laughs] I came together with Johnny [Gioeli, vocals] and Mike Terrana [drums 1999-2013] came one year later.

Tobbe: Can you tell me a little bit about all the bands you play with?

Ferdy: Yeah. I have 5 main bands and also I work as a studio musician. Of course Axel Rudi Pell since 20 years. And then I play with Rough Silk, my own first band and we split up for a while, but we reformed two years ago, played a lot of shows and now we did an album. It's actually going very well. We played 60 shows last year, which is a lot. But the old fashioned way; we drive with a trailer and build our stuff up ourselves. It's more punk rock, but it's cool, and we like it.

Also I've done 6 albums as a singer/songwriter and my last one Orexigenic Songs For Overfed People was out in 2015, and yeah, it's more singer/songwriter style. And I do a lot of shows alone, with an acoustic guitar, as well. And then I play in a German pop band, which has German language, and is very successful in Germany, Rotz & Wasser. And I play with a local German rock star, in German language, called Matt "Gonzo" Roehr, and we also play some festivals and stuff. And I work as a studio musician, so that's it.

Tobbe: So is it important to you personally that you have all these different types of music to play?

Ferdy: Yes, it is. I mean, some guys eat the same, whatever, marmalade and bread every morning and one day I like to eat fish and the next day I like to eat some sweet stuff, so I really like all facets of life. And it's the same way with music, with books, with everything. So yeah, when I do, like, a heavy metal tour I like to listen to jazz music and the other way around, so I'm really diverse.

Each band I work with has a different attitude and a different message and different instruments, because in other bands I don't play keyboards for example. With Rough Silk I'm more a slide guitar player and with Rotz & Wasser I play accordion and trumpet. So it's interesting for me to do different things, definitely.

Tobbe: So how many instruments can you play, more or less professionally?

Ferdy: Professionally maybe 10 or 12. Because of different string instruments. I mean, who can play mandolin also can play bouzouki and who can play keyboards also can play Hammond organ or can play accordion, if you work on it. [Laughs] But it has the same keys, you know. So, actually you can say I work on keys, I work on strings, and slides, and brass instruments, like trumpet, trombone and euphonium.

Tobbe: But no drums?

Ferdy: [Pause] Hobby-like, but not professionally. But I can play a little bit, yeah. I think every musician should play a little bit of drums, because you need to have an understanding for rhythm and also if you compose stuff you have an understanding of what a drummer can do, so you don't say [Makes drum-like noise.] and the drummer says "Hey! I have two hands and two feet. That's it.", you know. So you have to know how it works.

Tobbe: Do you ever feel that you have to adapt your playing style to different kinds of music?

Ferdy: No. Actually I do a lot of stuff and I've played on many albums. I've played on more than 300 albums until now. And it's always me, you know. I never did stuff where I really had to be a prostitute or something. Even when I played on David Hasselhoff's album, I played accordion on that, and I played and thought they would maybe say "No, no, no. Not like that.", but they said "Yeah! That's great! Perfect.". Maybe it's because I like many different kinds of music and it was a song about Paris, like a chanson song, and I played this French accordion the way I thought it should be and it was exactly what they wanted. So, no.

Tobbe: Did you do anything else when you were young than playing music?

Ferdy: Of course; sure. Even though when I graduated we already had a record contract and were on tour with Saxon. So I was already touring, but then I did my civil service, in a hospital, and stayed there and worked in the hospital besides being a musician. And later I became a musical therapist for people who had brain strokes and that kind of stuff. So it was a mixture of the medical and musical thing, but at some point it just didn't work because I didn't have the time to have, like, a steady day job and be on tour. It really wasn't working.

Tobbe: Where did you get your musical interest from in the first place?

Ferdy: My dad was a professional musician. He was a violin player in a symphonic orchestra in Brighton, I'm half English, and a classical composer as well. He composed more than 80 published pieces, like twelve-tone music, very avant-garde actually, more than my stuff. [Laughs] I think it's the first time ever that a 92 year old father of a rock musician says to his son "Play me some of your stuff." and you play it and he says "Yeah, it's okay. It's a bit boring.". You know, not like "Turn that satanic music down!" or something like that. But compared to his music my music was more boring for him. I've got classical training as a piano player, but I always wanted to be a rock musician.

Tobbe: What's the most important thing when learning to play an instrument, in your opinion? Is it all practice and practice and practice?

Ferdy: I teach as well, so you've got to have talent and you have to practice. Some people have talent, but never practice and they don't get anywhere and some people practice and practice, but they don't have the musical understanding or the feeling for music and they will never learn it. For young bands, or young people who want to become rock musicians I also think it's very important that they go out very early and go on stage.

Even though it's not perfect; it doesn't matter, but you have to learn that as well. Because many bands stay in the rehearsal room way too long. They're in the rehearsal room for, like, 8 years and then they have the first show and of course it's not good, because they don't have any experience, and then they split up. So I think it's very important that people go out and learn, yeah, the hard way, you know. Play everywhere. If there's an electric plug you've got to play there, you know.

Tobbe: In the beginning of your career, or when you started when you were young, let's say 17 or something, could you ever imagine doing this for your whole life?

Ferdy: No, actually not. But actually I think it's healthy, because nowadays the kids, through the internet, know way too much. You know, you have, like, a band of 11 year olds and they have in-ear monitoring and want to be rock stars. They want to be Robbie Williams or something. And we didn't have this information, you know. For example, at school, our teacher had a band and when we were 12 we went to the concerts in the local youth club and we said "Wow! I wanna do that." and then a few years later we played in that youth club.

Then we thought "Okay, we did that. What can we do now?" and "We wanna play in the big city!" and we played in the big city… So it was step by step and that's healthy. But if you're in, like, your rehearsal room and you say "I wanna become a pop star!", and of course that doesn't happen overnight and then one year later you're frustrated and split up and you'll never go anywhere. So I think it's way better to do things step by step and always look for the next goal, you know.

Tobbe: But how do you tell that to a kid today? Because they are so used to get the results really quick.

Ferdy: Yeah, that's actually the problem. It's the main problem. Also with my students. They wanna become a guitar player and they don't wanna practice. They wanna go from 0 to 10000 and it's not possible and then they stop playing guitar after half a year because they're not playing Yngwie Malmsteen suites or something. Yeah, that's what it is. That's the internet age and everything. That's maybe why people, like, YouTubers are the pop stars nowadays, because they actually don't do anything and they can just be there.

And the other problem is that people nowadays have too much information about how professional musicians work. For example, I had one student and he was like "I want to buy a new amplifier." and I said "Yeah. This and that company have made a tube amplifier. It's really cheap. It's €400." and like "No, no, no. My father is buying me, like, the most expensive thing." and then I said "And you need a guitar. Maybe this guitar? It's very cheap and very good." and "No, no, no. My father already bought me a Les Paul and a Stratocaster." and I was like "But you can play D and C. That's it! And you have more expensive guitars than any professional musician I know.". You know, that's the wrong way to do it. And some are like "Now we have a plexi wall around the drums so we don't hear the overtones of the cymbals so loud." and I'm like "You're 14. The cymbals must ring in your ears until you die.".

I mean, it's punk rock, you know. And they don't have that attitude anymore. They have the in-ears and it's stupid, you know. You have to learn it the hard way. And that's actually why many young bands give up before they even start. And when I started it was a way to get out. Nowadays people don't have to get out of their flat anymore to get entertained. They do everything on the internet. When they meet with people, they don't meet in real life, they meet online and do a network party with 3 computers. It's really stupid. But I think always if something goes one way, it goes back the other way as well. So, we'll see.

At some point maybe people will be fed up with internet and go back to real things, hopefully. So at the moment, I know this because I teach, we don't have many kids who want to be in a band anymore. 3 years ago everybody had a band, because they were Green Day fans and stuff like that. Now they want to be David Guetta and if you go to a concert, in the beginning it's "Play" and in the end it's "Stop". That's it. That's what he does. And in between he's wearing headphones and a not connected vinyl player and that's not what I call a concert myself. But okay, everybody has their opinion.

Tobbe: But you and I are used to hear live music, I guess.

Ferdy: Yeah. And that's why I hate playbacks. I hate bands who use playbacks. With Axel everything is live. Actually with every band I play everything is live, 'cause I really hate backing tracks and that kind of stuff. I don't tell names, but I've seen bands over the last years where guitar solos are coming from tape. And backing vocals, whatever, second guitars, lead vocals. [Laughs] We played on a festival, with Axel, and when our intro tape was running the monitor guy came running and said "Guys, guys, guys. I don't have your backing tracks." and we were like "We don't have any backing tracks." and "Really? That's cool!".

On that whole festival, with, like, 3 days of bands, it seems like we and Annihilator were the only two bands who didn't have backing tracks. Yeah, but I mean, is that rock 'n' roll? A friend of mine is a bass player of Jessica Simpson, the pop star, and you would imagine "Okay. That's with a lot of playback stuff.", but no, they play everything live and they sing the harmonies themselves and then you go to a heavy metal concert and you see the mini playback show… I think something's wrong, you know.

And we, with Axel, for example, we're an old hard rock band based in the '70s, so it's really no click track, no nothing, everything is live. Every wrong note you hear is live as well, but it's part of the game, you know. I mean, if you wanna listen to the album, buy the album. I think live should be something else. It's about emotions. That's what I think.

See also: review of the album Knights Call

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