Interview – Robin McAuley of Black Swan & Michael Schenker Fest

When thinking about powerhouse vocalists of ’80s Hard Rock/Metal era, chances are names like David Coverdale, Sebastian Bach, and Dee Snider may come to mind. Just a few of some leaders on the scene at that time, have you ever considered Robin McAuley a part of the upper echelon? Better yet, does the average Rock fan even recognize this unsung singer’s name? For those fortunate enough to have a broader knowledge of ’80s Rock, they more than likely recall McAuley from his time leading McAuley Schenker Group from 1986 to 1993. A band which saw McAuley team up with guitar legend Michael Schenker, his vocal performances soared on each recording they laid down together.

Beyond this period of time, the Irish singer has lent his talents to the likes of others over the years including Survivor, among others, but most recently he has paired with an all star cast for Black Swan. Featuring Reb Beach of Winger/Whitesnake, Jeff Pilson of Dokken/Foreigner, and Matt Starr, currently of Mr. Big, this lineup oozing with talent are more than names on paper.

In fact, Black Swan recently released their debut album Shake The World, and as the title implies, they have done just that peaking the interest of Rock fans the world over. Quite proud of the effort with Black Swan, McAuley recently took the time to chat his career, the work put into Shake The World, collaborating with others, plus more. 

Cryptic Rock – You have been involved in music professionally for over 40 years and have done a lot of really cool things. Perhaps one of the most under-appreciated vocalists in Hard Rock, how would you describe your career, thus far?

Robin McAuley – Oh good lord, I suppose it’s a career. Am I the name that pops off everybody’s lips and they go, “I know that guy?” There are a lot of people who don’t know who I am. I’m not in your Whitesnakes, Def Leppards or that category. Michael Schenker is revered as one of the greatest Rock guitar players. I’ve had the pleasure and honor of working alongside him, plus still continue to do so with Michael Schenker Fest.

I really enjoy making records and songwriting. I’ve had the added honor of working with a vast amount of really great musicians – from guitar players to keyboard players to drummers to bass players. I feel, from my very simple upbringing, born and raised in Ireland, I’ve had a chance to meet, talk, and perform with a lot of guys who are highly revered in the industry. I suppose that’s how I would describe it. It’s been a great blessing for me. There’s a lot more juice left in the battery – it ain’t over until the fat lady sings!

Capitol / EMI
Capitol / EMI

Cryptic Rock – You certainly have done a lot of great things. You mentioned working closely with Michael Schenker. Back in the ’80s, McAuley Schenker Group released three very strong albums where you two collaborated as songwriters. What was that time like for you?

Robin McAuley – We came fresh out of Germany. The management company and record label wanted us to make some sort of an entrance into the U.S. market. Michael had no experience in that arena so to speak, with the exception of the time in UFO, of course. It was at that time that if you didn’t have the song or sound, you probably didn’t get to MTV or VH-1; which were really necessary to getting on the back of a tour.

There was a lot expected. There was a particular type of format in writing that you needed to get in line with or you didn’t lineup with the other guys; from your Warrants to Ratts to Whitesnakes to Aereosmiths to Wingers. They needed to hear the big ballad or the sing-along Rock tune. We took in a bunch of songs and would be told, “I don’t hear the single.” You would go back to the drawing board to produce that sound, and if you were lucky enough to get to MTV, you had a good chance of getting on that tour.

We had three good records and they made somewhat of a dent. People knew who McAuley Schenker Group was – although it was a bit confusing from Michael Schenker Group to McAuley Schenker Group – it took a bit of juggling to get around that one, but we came through it. Some of those songs still stand up. Everybody has their fanbase, and we have ours out of that period.

I love it, the whole hair ’80s period. It was a fun time; the music was fun and the tours were great. Then, of course, Grunge and Alternative music came in and put a black cloud over everything. Anybody that had hair needed to have it cut thinking the haircut was going to make them different. (Laughs) It’s funny how the whole thing came full circle, because Classic Rock, per se, is very much alive and well all these years later. That’s kind of how I walked through that whole period – and we’re still here.

Cryptic Rock – Very interesting to hear. It has come full circle, which leads us to Black Swan. A new Hard Rock band consisting of yourself, Reb Beach of Winger/Whitesnake, Jeff Pilson of Dokken/Foreigner, and Matt Starr, currently of Mr. Big. An exceptional lineup, how did it come together?

Robin McAuley – I’ve known Jeff – we have a history that goes back 30 years, believe it or not. Jeff was also the best man at my wedding 27 years ago this October! I’ve know him a long time. Plus Jeff, together with James Kottak, who ended up drumming with Scorpions for many years, were on the last McAuley Schenker studio record. That’s the kind of history we have together.

A couple of years ago Frontiers Records approached me. Serafino Perugino called me directly and said, “We haven’t done anything with you. I’d really like to get you on the label, introduce you to some of the staff writers/producers and do something.” I also do five nights a week at a Vegas show called Raiding the Rock Vault, which is now going into its seventh year with almost 1,500 shows under our belt. That’s a Classic Rock show, although we do covers, but we’ve had a lot of big names in that show. I also had Schenker Fest going on at the time. Needless to say the timing just wasn’t good for me.

Then, about a year ago, Jeff Pilson was approached by Frontiers to put together another project called The End Machine with him and George Lynch. Jeff had just come off the road with Foreigner and Whitesnake. Because he had worked with Reb Beach on a previous Dokken record, and they liked working together, he immediately called him. Reb said, “If we can write songs, I’m in!”

Jeff said, “We absolutely can, but I’ll be producing; I won’t be playing bass on this one.” He called me, had the same conversation, and I said, “Well, I’m not really happy that you’re not playing bass.” He said, “I want to produce, maybe get involved with the songwriting, and step back from the project.” I told him as we go on Reb and I will together change your mind – that’s what we really did.

When we’d write together, it was Reb and Jeff writing the Black Swan music. They would send it over to me and I would start working on lyrics, melody, and go back into the studio (we worked at Jeff’s home studio). Reb lives in Pittsburgh, but Jeff, Matt, and myself live within a 40-minute driving radius of each other. When they first sent me a piece of music I started to see where it was going to go, I came to the studio, and then I started singing what became “Big Disaster.” Reb just cracked up and said, “For the first project we’ve worked on together you come in with a track called ‘Big Disaster,’ I’m not sure how everybody is going to perceive that.” (Laughs)

That was how we set the pace – we really didn’t have a discussion about what we were doing. Jeff said, “Frontiers Records wants a Classic Rock record.” We all said “Whatever.” We all individually know where we come from and what our strength and weaknesses are; I only write melodies that suite my range. Once they sent me the music we got on with it, came back with Jeff, did some pre-production, and I would step up to the mic to start recording the same day. Before we knew it, with scheduling, which was crazy with everybody being all over the place, we knocked out a dozen songs.

Jeff did an amazing job on the production. It’s very powerful yet it has a freshness to it that we all really like and the label loved it too. We needed a name and I heard recently that Kip Winger was responsible for suggesting the name to Reb. Things fell into place and you had Black Swan all of a sudden. There has been an amazing response from the reviews – it has taken us by surprised. We just went in, cut a bunch of tunes, and suddenly people are saying it’s the best thing they’ve heard in a long time. Wow! Who knew?

Cryptic Rock – It is true, it is a very solid Rock album – the songs, production, and the music are strong. Your voice sounds great, too. So, how do you keep it in shape?

Robin McAuley – Of course, over the years you find what you’re capable of doing and you add strength to that. You develop a technique and I’ve learned from a lot of people; in the beginning I took vocal lessons. At the end of the day you have to put it into practice, and I guess there’s no better practice than the live performance. Of course, seven years into the Vegas show, singing five nights a week, certainly, as we used to say, sorts out the sheep from the goats. You have to be on, take care of your instrument, and you have to know what you’re doing.

I have a habit of being very disciplined; it’s kind of easy for me. Sleep is a great health schedule to have. As a singer, if you have at least eight good hours of rest a night, you’re in good shape. I don’t drink, per se. I’ve never smoked in my life, so that suites my regiment – but it doesn’t suite everyone else perhaps. I’ve learned how to keep that power that works for me, it’s my style. I work hard at keeping it together; when the green light is on, I discipline myself to be ready to go. It’s just how I do things.

Frontiers Records

Cryptic Rock – It works well and your recordings are all quite exceptional. You mentioned that perhaps the average listener doesn’t know who you are, but you have been involved in some great recordings throughout the years. Working with Michael Schenker, Survivor, etc. Have you ever been approached to be a part of any other projects?

Robin McAuley – Not really, actually. I have my own close knit circle of people and they sometimes ask, “Do you want to do a session?” I think the only thing I ever remember, going back to the McAuley Schenker period, we were the opening act for Def Leppard on the Hysteria tour. I remember being approached by Gary Moore when we played an Amsterdam show with Leppard. They were in the same hotel, Neil Carter was there, and he said, “Gary wants to talk to you for a minute.” Gary is from the north of Ireland, I’m from the south; he had his thick accent and I had mine. He said, “You know, I was looking for you and then I saw you and Schenker on the cover of Kerrang.” I walked away thinking, “What? Did he just tell me I could have potentially been the singer with Gary Moore?” That was huge, because he’s just such an awesome guitar player. I had rode with that for a long time thinking, “What if?”

Outside of that, I can honestly say I’ve never really been approached by anybody – maybe side projects. I keep being approached to do a solo record, but truth be known, it would be different than Black Swan. I used to listen to a lot of Motown growing up and then I really go into stuff like the early Faces – that is kind of my bag. If I would do anything, that’s kind of where it would be. Something different for me, that’s what I would do.

Cryptic Rock – That would be very interesting to hear.

Robin McAuley – Yes, I do get approached to do records somewhat. Although as soon as I mention I want to do something different, they say, “Well, we’re thinking more of sticking to the Classic Rock.” You have to open the doors and let it be a little broader than that. I like that sort of sleazy, earthy, organic sound with mandolins, fiddles, and trashy drums; then it’s total Rock-n-Roll for me.

Cryptic Rock – You should go for it! It’s fun to hear different things. If you want to do it, you should.

Robin McAuley – Right. Another power ballad? What does that do? It doesn’t do enough for me as a performer. I want to do something a little more outside my realm, that to me is enticing.

Don’t get me wrong, though, I absolutely love Black Swan. I love how the record turned out. I tell a lot of people, for me, it’s probably the best record I’ve ever made sound, vocally, and production wise. It’s top of my list with the most fun I’ve had in years doing something. It’s really a powerful, kicking Rock-n-Roll record. I love it!

Nuclear Blast
Jukebox musical

Cryptic Rock – Totally! People need to check it out. At this point, live performances are on hold due to the pandemic. That in mind, once things settle down, can you see Black Swan going out on the road?

Robin McAuley – I would love to. It’s been the million dollar question since this record was released on Valentine’s Day. Our biggest challenge is the scheduling. For instance, March 6th I was supposed to fly out to Japan for sold out shows with Schenker Fest. At the same time Reb was supposed to be there with Whitesnake. Due to the virus the plug was pulled on both those tours and many others. Now they we will have to re-schedule.

That pushes things way down the line and makes it difficult for Black Swan to get back on schedule for free time we would have together. Ultimately, in our discussions, we really do want to take it on the road and bring the music live. I would hate for it to get stuck up on the shelf and collecting dust.

Cryptic Rock – Hopefully that will happen once we get back to a level of normalcy. Last question. If you are a fan of Horror movies, do you have any favorites?

Robin McAuley – I’m a huge vampire buff, I love those kind of movies. I’m a huge Dracula fan and anything to do with vampires. In fact, one of the tracks on the Black Swan album is completely about vampires – it’s called “Immortal Souls.” One of my sons and myself are the few Horror buffs in the family.

Some of my favorites go back to Nosferatu (1922). I’ve seen most of the Dracula movies, whether it be Christopher Lee or more recently with Luke Evans in Dracula Untold (2014). I also watched the CW series called The Originals. They started with Vampire Diaries and then it went off into The Originals, it was actually really good. I like all that sort of stuff, I don’t know why. (Laughs)

Universal Pictures
The CW

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