Shrapnel Records president Mike Varney’s interview
Written by Kevin Tanza on December 30, 2021
Author’s note: the thumbnail was made by graphic designer Carlo Vera and you can check out his content in his Instagram account.
Mike Varney is probably one of the most important, influential and underrated figure of 80s Heavy Metal. Founder of the record label Shrapnel Records at just 22 years old, this was the first company focused on the Metal genre and specifically in promoting the best and most technical guitar players of that generation.
Some bands like Steeler, Cacophony, Chastain, Vicious Rumors, Fifth Angel and many others had their first releases through Shrapnel Records and they were discovered by Mike himself, helping to kick start the careers of a lot of musicians, including the likes of Yngwie Malmsteen, guitarist Marty Friedman (Megadeth), guitarist Jason Becker (David Lee Roth), drummer Scott Travis (Judas Priest), drummer Ken Mary (Alice Cooper, Accept, among others), guitarist Richie Kotzen (Poison and The Winery Dogs), David T. Chastain (Chastain), Vinnie Moore (UFO) and many, many more.
As a longtime fan of many of those bands and artists, it was an absolute delight to be able to do an interview with Mike and we had a lengthy discussion about his career, the origins of Shrapnel, how he discovered many of these bands and musicians and a lot of many different stories you won’t find anywhere else on the internet. Hopefully you will enjoy it.
The title track from Vinnie Moore’s 1986 debut solo album, Mind’s Eye, released by Shrapnel Records.
First and foremost, thank you for taking the time to do this interview, Mike. How are things going with you?
They are going well. Thank you for asking.
How are your businesses coming back after this pandemic?
I’m pretty much retired with the exception of a few projects that I’m working on at the moment. I am producing a Las Vegas band called Gravity Amplifiers. The lead singer is also the lead guitarist and he is great at both. The guitar playing has lots of feel but he’s got that fifth gear there when he needs it. It’s heavy rock with strong vocals.
The songs all tie together with a theme running through them and I think he’s done an impressive job covering the material within the context of some great hard rock songs. I suppose it could be classified as a Rock Opera in some respects. Anyway, I’m not supposed to talk about it but I think it’s pretty cool.
I’m also working with The Stoney Curtis band and we are getting his new record underway. He always comes up with some great riffs and we work well together and have a good time doing it. The other artist is an artist who had a number one song on the Billboard charts back in the 80s. He’s an old friend and we are planning on doing something together where I get to play guitar. That’s always fun, for me, anyway.
The fourth artist is a guitar player and he wanted to make a hard record and agreed to use some of the best guys I’ve used in the studio. It sounded like fun so I agreed to do it. It’s been bumped a few times so I can’t say anything more about it at the moment.
I’m for the most part working on projects with friends which are fun to do. The fifth record would be one where I write the songs and go in with some friends and record it. I did a couple of sessions at a local studio as the guitar player and the Producer offered to produce and advance the studio costs of a record with me and a mutual friend of ours on bass. It sounded like fun, so I pulled a good bunch of guys together. Hopefully that will happen sometime in the next six months. There are some other things too but nothing I want to discuss at the moment.
How did you get into music when you were younger?
When I was about six years old I heard the Beatles for the first time on the Sullivan show. From what I have gathered through the years, that first appearance inspired more people to pick up musical instruments and form bands than any other TV show in the history of Rock ‘N’ Eoll. I started collecting records at that time and I think the first record I bought was the Animals 45 on MGM records called Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood. Because I was just in second grade or so, I couldn’t put my hands on much money so 45’s were what I originally bought. The Beatles, The Monkees, etc. My brother, Mark, who founded Legato records and worked with guitarists such as Alan Holdsworth, Shawn Lane and Frank Gambale, was just as crazy about music as I was and he was six years older. I have to attribute a lot of things to him in terms of turning me onto bands and getting me excited about listening to music and buying records.
The title track from Keel’s 1984 debut album, Lay Down the Law, released by Shrapnel Records.
Then, in about 1966, I asked for a guitar for my birthday and began taking guitar lessons. The next year, I heard the Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service and Jimi Hendrix and I started getting into some more edgy, psychedelic music as initially I was really attracted to bands who could sing well together.
Jimi Hendrix really blew me away. Back then I also liked Love and The Doors and then we got into the Woodstock generation. My brother went off to college in 1969. Luckily, I had two friends who were as nuts about rock ‘n’ roll as I was, Paul Mendelsohn and Kevin Hellwig.
We got into all these really obscure bands. I bought the first Skid Row record with Gary Moore when it came out. I think all of us bought the Tempest record with Allan Holdsworth when it came out and I remember getting Igginbottom’s Wrench as a gift from my brother when I was in eighth grade and it had Alan Holdsworth on it playing violin and guitar, as did Tempest. We discovered guitar virtuoso Ollie Halsall from buying the first Patto record when it came out. We all liked heavy rock and progressive rock. Between the three of us, we were buying most everything we could get our hands on. Over the years I have gone very far down the rabbit hole with largely unknown bands from the 60s and 70s, including a lot of bands who just made records on their own labels and pressed a few hundred.
My cousin, Danny Holiday, was a popular Northwest DJ out of the Seattle area for 40 years or so. When I was a kid he had piles and piles of vinyl records in his garage that he didn’t want. He would always send us things that he thought we might like. When I went up to visit, he let me pick out 100 records or so to take home and I got Wishbone Ash, Sir Lord Baltimore, James Gang, Humble Pie, etc. from him. It was an amazing opportunity at that age and he was quite an inspiration to me as well. When I was 14 years old, he took me to see Frank Zappa in 1971 on the tour during which the Live At The Fillmore record was recorded. Aynsley Dunbar was the drummer and I grew up to be in a couple of blues bands with him and had the good fortune to have him play drums on many of my records by artists such as UFO, Pat Travers, Leslie West, Jake E. Lee, Michael Schenker, etc.
All through high school it was about going out on weekends with my friends and going to record stores all over the Bay Area. Record collecting and playing guitar, getting good deals on equipment and eventually girls occupied most of my spare time while going to high school and college.
Who were the artists and bands that influenced you the most?
Jimi Hendrix, Lee Pickins and Bloodrock Alan Holdsworth, Gary Moore, Michael Bloomfield, Blue Cheer, The Who, Queen, Mountain and Leslie West, Steve Marriott, Peter Frampton, Humble pie, Todd Rundgren , Wishbone Ash, Uriah Heep, Trapeze, Y&T, UFO, Early Scorpions, Budgie, Michael Schenker, Zal Cleminson with Tear Gas and Sensational Alex Harvey Band, early Neal Schon, Three Man Army, King Crimson, Leaf Hound, Montrose, Pat Travers, Van Halen and lots of more obscure music, actually.
We always liked to be the first people to find out about new bands and just about the time everybody else was getting into something, we’d be onto something else.
The title track of Exciter’s 1983 debut, Heavy Metal Maniac, which was also one of the first Shrapnel Records albums to be released.
I know you started out as a musician from a young age, but I’m curious to know how you turned to working with your own label. Since you started Shrapnel Records at age 22, if I’m not mistaken.
I was quite lucky as it seemed like I was able to set goals at a young age and I had the determination and drive to reach most of them. When I was about 18, a band called The Nuns were rehearsing behind us. They were into the New York sound happening in 1975. They were inspired by Johnny Thunders, the Ramones etc. before there was a real Punk Scene on the West Coast. Jennifer Miro was in a cover band with me and she was the first of us to join The Nuns. I joined six months later or so and the next thing you know we were opening for many of the bigger bands coming into the Bay Area.
At the time Blondie came through for the first time we were already able to headline the club she was playing so they put us on the bill as “co-headliners”, whatever that meant as we still played last. We also played The Old Waldorf with Blondie. We played Winterland, opening for The Dictators and The Ramones. The opening act was called widowmaker which had Bob Daisley on bass and Luther Grosvenor on guitar, a/k/a Ariel Bender Who had been in spooky Tooth before joining Mott The Hoople in their heyday. I was embarrassed because they were opening for us and I was such a fan of those guys from different bands they were in.
We played at Winterland again with Brian ferry and mothers finest. We opened for New York band “television” in San Francisco and we went to LA to play the Starwood and island recording artists “Milk N’ Cookies” opened for us. Then we went back to L.A. and played shows with The Dictators at the Whiskey. I was persuaded by my friend Brian Marnell to quit the Nuns and join his group. The musicians were great. I got to switch from playing bass in The Nuns to playing guitar with this band. After a short while Brian and the bass player made a record with Tony Williams which was a punk fusion record which Columbia records refused to put out. Brian then went on to form a band called SVT with Jefferson Airplane bassist Jack Casady. Their recordings were reissued by Ryko in the 2000s.
The three remaining members Johnny Colla, Bill Gibson and Mario Cipollina joined up with Huey Lewis as “The New” and within the year they were off and running.
At this time I formed a band with a New York singer called Rocky Sullivan. I suggested we try and recruit John Cipollina as the other guitar player as I was a fan of his from Quicksilver and Copperhead. He agreed to join the band and we played a lot of places with this group including eight shows opening for Budgie at the whiskey in 1978. I was a huge Budgie fan since their first album, so this was quite an exciting time for me.
We were playing at Bill Graham‘s old Waldorf in San Francisco opening up for Rubicon, which had Jack Blades and Brad Gillis (pre-Night Ranger) in the band. Marty Balin, Lead singer of the Jefferson Airplane and later, the Jefferson Starship, came to see his girlfriend sing with us in the Rocky Sullivan band and he asked his songwriting partner, and sometimes attorney, Bob Heyman to recruit me to play some guitar on a musical he and Bob Heyman were working on called “Rock Justice”. I started playing some guitar solos on the studio tracks and at 20 years old, I confidently told them that I thought I could write better music to their lyrics so they told me to go ahead and show them what I had in mind. I started writing songs and they pretty much liked them all so I became a joint owner of a musical. It went on to play at Bill Graham’s old Waldorf, which often featured bands like U2, The Cars and AC/DC in that era.
I helped put together a cast of musicians which included Leonard Haze and Phil Kennemore from Y&T, Bill Spooner from The Tubes, Jon Rubin from The Rubinoos, my childhood friend Jesse Bradman, who played the rockstar, and quite a few others to round out the cast. Jesse went on to play keys and sing back-ups in the early Eddie Money Band, Aldo Nova, Night Ranger and Poison for one tour with Richie Kotzen.
Rock Justice sold out the old Waldorf and we were brought back numerous times. We had write ups in Rolling Stone, LA Times, New York Times. EMI signed the musical to be the first rock opera recorded for the emerging home video market. I recruited Jeff Pilson (who I later introduced to Dokken) to sing. One of our live shows was recorded, overdubbed in the studio with some new tracks added, and released by EMI records.
The title track from Tony MacAlpine’s first solo album, 1986’s Edge of Sanity, released by Shrapnel Records.
EMI took out a color ad on the cover of billboard featuring a photo of me live playing my 64 Pelham Blue SG. The LP got some good reviews and it helped get me a nomination in the Guitar Player magazine reader’s poll for guitarist of the year, which sounds pretty ridiculous now but it was nice at the time.
The record flopped, partially due to the fact that the whole video market was slower getting started than anticipated and the soundtrack record didn’t make a lot of sense without the video.
In 1980 at the age of 22, I realized that I wasn’t going to make any real money from Rock Justice and I was just graduating from College with a degree in business. Huey Lewis and the news had put out their first record and it wasn’t the huge success I expected it to be and my friends in Night Ranger had a record which went gold which was great but it did not sell as much as I thought it would sell. I did not consider myself to be as good as either of those bands and realized that I could be chasing a dream for the next 10 years. Both of those bands went on to have huge selling records and I was thrilled for them.
I was engaged to be married in 1981 and it didn’t make any sense for me to put all my eggs in the basket of a music career. Having made a record for EMI and believing the record company business model could be viable for me, I decided I would build a record company at the age of 22.
What was the original goal and concept of Shrapnel Records in the early 80s?
My original goal was to be a niche label. I got my degree in business with an emphasis in marketing. I knew it would be sheer folly to try and compete with major labels.
I was a Heavy Rock fan and I loved guitar playing. I believed that there was an intersection of Heavy Metal and great guitar-playing that was being under-served by the major labels. I realized that in the 60s Jimi Hendrix was pretty much the undisputed guitar hero of the United States and in the 70s Edward Van Halen was the main man. We had many other great guitarists in the states but I would say that they were the main game changers in those decades.
It was 1980, the beginning of a new decade and I asked myself, who is going to be the next guitar hero of this decade? Disco music and new wave music were popular. Heavy Metal had a cult audience and since I was young and in the scene I figured that I could not only start the first dedicated Heavy Metal record label in the United States but I would put the emphasis on guitarists of extraordinary ability.
One of the defining traits of your company was that you guys gave a lot of underground American Metal bands their first break. How would you describe the underground Metal scene at the time?
As a record collector, the big labels in America seemed to be focused more on new wave and disco music. I had somebody in the record business, who is a legend now, tell me that I would fail because Heavy Metal was dinosaur music. Another friend of mine who worked for a big label told my then-fiancé that he was afraid I would be eating those records someday. None of this seemed to deter me whatsoever. Luckily they were both wrong.
I couldn’t see all of the barriers to success which were ahead of me and because I could not see them, in some cases I just walked right through them. I was excited about the Heavy Metal scene as it had all of the markings of a trend that was not going to go away soon. I was buying all kinds of imports from England like Diamond Head, Budgie, Tygers Of Pan Tang, Raven and also the compilation albums like Metal For Mutha’s, Heavy Metal Heroes, etc.
The title track from Vicious Rumors’ 1988 album, Digital Dictator, released by Shrapnel Records.
There were fanzines sprouting up everywhere and that told me that the grassroots scene was growing. It was an exciting time and nobody had claimed the title of the first US Heavy Metal record label and I saw my opening. I did a compilation album first because I didn’t have a bunch of money to spend. It was called US Metal Unsung Guitar Heroes. It featured ten relatively unknown new Heavy Metal bands. It was counter attack from the USA showing Europe that we had some great Heavy Metal guitar power too.
There were so many cool records starting to come out between the time I decided to start the label and when I released the first album in 1981. I was right on top of the curve. I wasn’t ahead of it. I wasn’t behind it. I was right there at the right time. I think a lot of luck was involved and I am very thankful for the way things worked out.
You also tended to focus heavily on publicizing and exposing the talents of highly technical guitar players, such as Yngwie, David T. Chastain, Richie Kotzen, Vinnie Moore, Marty Friedman, among many others. Was that by design or was something that happened naturally?
It was pretty much by design. Jas Obrecht, legendary writer/editor of Guitar Player magazine, invited me to come down to a party at the magazine and bring some great young guitarists with me. I accepted the invitation and brought Bob Gilles and Dan Meblin with me, who were on U.S. Metal 1. They had a jam and a bunch of food at the magazine and we had a lot of fun. I had an idea that I had been developing and when I met editor Tom Wheeler at the Guitar Player magazine party: I pitched him my idea to have my own column every month about three great, unknown guitar players who were poised for success.
As I recall, I expressed that the average reader did not have a Ferrari or a mansion and that reading about Rock Stars all the time was fun but that the human interest angle of writing about guys who were unknown and often from virtually nowhere would give the average guitar player/working stiff a goal to shoot for as it was much more realizable than having a platinum album.
Through that column I have been told that I was the first person with an international magazine audience to write about Billy Sheehan, Yngwie Malmsteen, Paul Gilbert, Tony Macalpine, Vinnie Moore, etc. I knew that if I could get that column in the magazine that it would put me at the epicenter of advanced guitar talent in America, if not the world.
It was one of those “be careful what you wish for” things because I had so many postal bins full of packages coming all the time that it was almost out of control. I listened to thousands and thousands of demos.
What do you think makes shredders such an appealing niche in Heavy Metal?
I was just looking to hit the next level, the next plateau of advanced guitar playing. I wanted to hear what guys would sound like if they started with guitarists such as Van Halen or Al Dimeola and then took it to another place. I just watched the evolution of guitar pre-1980 and I felt that the 80s were going to be an important decade for guitar playing and I wanted to be a part of the evolutionary chain. It was that simple. Shredders are appealing because they fell right in line historically as the next logical step. The Scorpions, UFO Gary Moore, Montrose, Van Halen were all powered by innovative guitar players. I just wanted to hear more of them. I helped to further a trend that was already in motion.
Fighting to Stay Alive by Chastain from their 1986 album, Ruler of the Wasteland, released by Shrapnel Records.
I would like us to cover some of the talents you discovered throughout the years. One band that I’m particularly fond of, and who we had here on MusikHolics, was Chastain. How did you meet David?
David Chastain sent me some demos and I liked the way he structured songs and the way he played guitar.
Peter Marrino saw this great female singer who went by the name of Leather. He told me about her and I went to see her band and everything Pete said about her was true. She was simply fantastic. She also was very, very nice and sensible, which always helps. I told David that I thought I had a great singer for his music and he agreed. Fred Coury was a great young drummer who I wanted to work with so I set David up with him as well. Peter Marrino produced the record and, among other things, encouraged Fred Coury to approach some of his drumming differently and being a singer, was able to help to get some great performances from Leather.
If Chastain had developed organically out of one town where everybody could get together and rehearse a few times a week and go play gigs, I think David was such a strong band leader that something could’ve happened bigger for them. I always seem to want to put people together who result in making the best music, but unfortunately some of these people geographically were spread too far apart and it wasn’t feasible to try and develop a band.
Based on my research and what David himself told me, you thought that vocalist Leather Leone was going to be a good fit with his guitar playing and songwriting. Why did you think that at the time?
David’s music lent itself to having a “Dio-esque” vocalist. I don’t think either of us expected that we’d end up choosing a female for the job but she was just so awesome and fit what he was doing so well, there really was no other choice for us to make. She was a huge Dio fan too and I don’t think neither Leather nor I knew anybody in San Francisco who was writing the style of music like David Chastain was writing who could play guitar like that, who needed a singer. It was a really great match and was a good move for both of them.
You were co-producer of what I consider the band’s magnum opus, Ruler of the Wasteland. Considering that the album was celebrating 35 years in 2021, what memories do you have of that record?
I have to give David a lot of credit. He really planned the record out and knew pretty much what he wanted to do and where he wanted to do it. I remember being excited that he agreed to take Ken Mary as he was a very bright guy and an amazing drummer. We had become friends because he was the drummer in Fifth Angel.
Once I realized his capabilities, I had him in mind in the event something came up in terms of a project which would be a good fit. David was such a visionary with music and lyrics with a firm direction that it probably worked out better for him in some ways that we had people come in and make the records and pretty much help him to achieve his vision. When you have a band and you spend months and months preparing for something there is a natural inclination for everyone to want to get their vision in there as well but in David’s case, he was mature and knew what he wanted. These players complemented him very well.
Fifth Angel’s 1986 debut, released by Shrapnel Records.
Another band that was quite interesting was Fifth Angel. How did you discover that band and what can you tell us about their debut album, which we also covered here?
I had nothing to do with that record so maybe that’s why it sounds so good (laughs).
That record came to me finished and it sounded like it belonged on a major label and eventually it was purchased by CBS from Shrapnel. James Byrd is a fantastic guitar player and really puts a stamp on that record. Ken is an amazing drummer. Ted Pilot was a great singer.
If Ted didn’t have another professional path to follow and the band had stayed together a little longer, it’s possible that they might’ve eventually broken through into something big but one never knows for certain. I can’t blame him for going back to school. I have no doubt that was the most sensible option at the time. The uncertainty of the music business is not for everyone. I quit being a professional musician at a very young age as I just felt there were so many people who wanted that kind of life more than I did. It was pretty much that simple and I know that’s a decision that a lot of musicians make eventually. I’m just glad I decided to do it at a young age.
You developed a friendship with Fifth Angel drummer Ken Mary, who went on to have a notorious career in multiple bands. What can you tell us about Ken?
Ken is a very bright guy and very driven. I could tell he was motivated when I first talked to him. He worked really hard to achieve a high technical level of proficiency on his instrument and he wanted to be sure that he made the right moves so that he could have a career in the music business. That’s what he loved to do and he knew he was good enough to do it.
We used to have some very long talks and he really was much more sophisticated than a lot of musicians in terms of setting goals and understanding how the business works. I remember he called me from the road with Alice Cooper and he said something like, “Mike I’ve got a guy on the phone that you don’t know but you’re going to want to know him. His name is Kip Winger”. We all talked together on the phone and I could tell Kip was a cool guy and I knew if Ken was speaking highly of him, that he was the real deal. Luckily, years later I was able to license their live album and fourth album for release in the United States and release them on Shrapnel.
Ken introduced me to Kip and we are still friends to this day as are Ken and I. Ken, Kip, Fred Coury and David Chastain have been on touch with me in the last few weeks. That’s pretty cool when you think that we first got to know each other 35 years ago or so.
By the admission of both Ken and David, you recommended the former for the Ruler of the Wasteland recording. What did you think he was going to be a good fit for that project?
Ken was an absolute professional. You could just hear it in the tracks. He also looked like he was born to be a rockstar. Obviously I wasn’t the only one to see it because he’s always been able to play as much as he wants to play. I’m really happy that he went on to have a label and a studio and that he continues to tour and record to this day. Fred Coury and David continue to make music too. Fred has had a huge career as composer and producer in addition to his drumming career.
A lot of musicians from the 80’s are doing something completely different today. One of the things I really feel good about is my judge of character in looking for people who were really driven, who wanted to make the music business their career. There are many people who just thought it would be really easy and they would go out and get a record deal and be huge. When they found out how tough it can be, they got discouraged and ended up doing something completely different. A good percentage of the artists I have signed are still out there making music their careers today and that says a lot for them.
Ride (Into the Sun) by Vicious Rumors from their 1985 debut, Soldiers of the Night, featuring guitarist Vinnie Moore and released by Shrapnel Records.
Your label helped release Vicious Rumors’ debut, 1985’s Soldiers of the Night. According to my research, you recommended guitarist Vinnie Moore to the band. How that came to be?
I wanted to work with Vinnie and I was trying to figure out what vehicle would be best for him. He hadn’t yet written all of the cool songs for Mind’s Eye at that time but I could tell he was a great guitar player from what he had sent me.
How did you know Vinnie and why did you think he was going to be a good fit in the band?
Vinnie sent me a tape for my Spotlight column in Guitar Player Magazine if I remember correctly. I had put Vinnie together with Fred Coury to try and start a band but that didn’t pan out. However, Fred told me that he was very good. They didn’t live very close to each other which made things difficult too.
I was looking for something else to do with Vinnie and Vicious Rumors wanted a second lead guitar player. Founding guitarist Geoff Thorpe has been the driving force in that band for about 40 years. His dedication and musicianship are impressive.
The big difference between Vicious Rumors and many of the other bands on the label was that they were a BAND. They were not just looking for someone to come in and make one record and then leave. When I brought Vinnie out, the intention wasn’t for him to make one record and leave. Unlike a lot of artists who can’t wait to get out of their hometown and come to California, I think Vinnie was very comfortable in Delaware and he had a girlfriend there who would later on become his wife. I think Vinnie came out to California with the idea that he was joining a band.
However, the reality of living in California after he had been out there for a while, away from his family, sunk in and I think that’s when he went back home and started writing more instrumentals. He had been a fan of Al Dimeola’s and other technical guitarists and he saw what was happening with Tony Macalpine on the label and he felt like he could make a good contribution to the instrumental guitar market, which he did.
Doing my research for this interview, I have noticed that you recommended musicians to some of the bands on your label from time to time. How did you know that a certain musician could be a good fit for a specific band?
Well, somehow I’ve had the knack of getting a good feel for someone’s personality and playing style and figuring out where they might best contribute their talents in the business. I always made mental notes of what people played like and what they were like personally and occasionally there were unions which just made sense so I would connect people.
I was driving around Hollywood with George Lynch and Don Dokken. We had just come from the Country Club in Reseda and I had just met them and they offered to drop me back at my hotel in Hollywood. They told me they needed a bass player and I immediately thought of Jeff Pilson and I recommended him for the gig and he got it. Things like this happened quite a few times throughout the years.
A young Jason Becker.
Marty Friedman was looking forward to making his first solo album. I’m sure he had no thoughts of taking on a 17 year old partner. However, I had been talking to Jason and I had a vision in my mind as to what these guys might sound like playing together.
I got Marty to agree to go meet with Jason and check out his playing. My idea was for them to form an awesome double guitar band. Racer X were doing fairly well and Marty and Jason were coming at the double guitar attack from a different angle. They met each other and got along very well in all respects and the rest is history. I also recommended Jason to the David Lee Roth Band.
Gregg Bissonette got David and producer Bob Ezrin to call me and I played them a really low-fi cassette Jason made on his cassette 4 track. I knew if I sent the tape down there that other people’s studio quality masters would eclipse Jason’s recording quality but I also knew if I could get Dave to listen to it over the phone, that Jason’s playing would sell itself and it worked.
You mentioned the band Racer X and guitarist Paul Gilbert was playing there, obviously. What do you remember about Paul?
I started communicating with Paul Gilbert when he was 15 and we talked for several years before he went down to LA and met Juan Alderete and Harry. They were looking for a singer and I had two suggestions: Mark Slaughter and Jeff Martin.
Mark recorded a great demo with them but when Jeff Martin got in the room there was a chemistry there that lead to long friendships between Jeff and all the guys, not to mention some amazing music.
Squeeze Play by Richie Kotzen from his 1989 self-titled debut, released by Shrapnel Records. Kotzen would go on to play in Poison’s 1993 album, Native Tongue.
An interesting case was guitarist Richie Kotzen, who started out in your label with his own solo album in 1989. What can you tell us about Richie?
Richie is a great example of someone who is very talented and again, very driven. You can make it having only one of those skills but he had both of them. It got to the point where I was getting several new songs sent to me every week or so by Richie. I knew if I put him in a position to have a chance to do something that he would deliver and he certainly did. He has one of the best business minds of any of the artists I have worked with and always seems to analyze things and make decisions that are the right ones.
After the first record, he was opening for Steve Vai at the Namm Show in Chicago. Richie had such charisma and was such a performer that after the show, I suggested that the next record needed to be a vocal one and that he was going to be the singer. He said that up until then he really had only sung background vocals. I said we will figure out what you can do and what you can’t do and we will cultivate some kind of voice and we will make it work. He was up for the challenge.
It turned out he was a lot better than he knew. Early on, maybe four months into his singing I asked him to do a cover of the Free song called Fire And Water. I played it for singer Eric Martin, right around the time that I introduced Eric to Billy Sheehan and Paul Gilbert. Eric didn’t know Richie but he said something like “That guy sounds too much like Paul Rogers”. For a singer on Eric’s level to say that about Richie, who had been only singing a few months, was pretty incredible. No one knew at that time that Eric and Richie would one day play together in Mr. Big.
Were you surprised when he got the Poison gig? It didn’t seem like a good fit, all things considered.
The problem was that I had turned my contract over to Interscope so that Richie could have a solo deal there which seemed like a good business deal for both of as they were prepared to do more than Shrapnel could do for Richie. Tom at Interscope was the nicest guy but he and Richie were not seeing eye to eye in terms of Richie’s musical direction.
Richie asked me what I thought about the Poison offer. I told him that if he did the Poison gig he would probably do pretty well. I told him that if he stayed at Interscope he might not ever get to make the record he wanted to make. I think he already made up his mind that he should play with Poison but he asked me anyway, which was nice of him. Even though it wasn’t the best musical fit, it seemed like a positive step for Poison musically and it got Richie out into the limelight more than he had previously been.
You must be tired of getting this question all the time, but how did you find Yngwie Malmsteen and how was the process of getting him to America to record with Steeler?
Yngwie gave a tape to someone in Sweden of his band, which might’ve been made at a home studio. At the time, Bill Burkhard at the Record Exchange in Walnut Creek had one of the epicenters for Heavy Metal imports in the United States. I bought stuff there all of the time.
When I was in there one day in 1982, he played me a demo and said that some Swedish exchange student had left it there. The name on the demo was Yngwie Malmsteen. I was interested but it seemed like a daunting task to get him over here. I was really young and it seemed like a lot of responsibility. However, I kept thinking about him and one day, a few months later, he sent me a tape for consideration of being included in my Spotlight column. It came with a spoken word intro of him introducing himself and giving his bio and then the demo played.
I thought it was great but I didn’t like the singing too much. I was thinking maybe it would be cool to get him on a record with Leonard Haze and Billy Sheehan. He liked the idea so we were discussing that and then Ron Keel came up from LA in the winter of 1982 and wanted to listen to guitar players I had received, to see if there might be someone for Steeler. I played him a few different guitarists and he said he wanted Yngwie.
I contacted Yngwie and told him about the opportunity. I’m sure he knew he was going to come to the United States eventually so this probably seemed like a good time to make a move.
He came out to L.A. and seeing that band live together was really something else. They were fantastic. As soon as people saw Yngwie play, they started trying to figure out how they could get him into their band. There was a lot of interest in Yngwie. I had hoped that he would stay with the band longer but unfortunately for Steeler he had a whole musical direction in mind and he wanted do something closer in direction to his band in Sweden. Steeler would have been signed to a major label had he remained in the band. Ron formed Keel later and kept his career moving forward.
Much has been said throughout the years about Yngwie and his personality. Based on your own experience, how was he?
He was great. He was very confident, which some find off-putting. I think we only really ever had one slight argument. I thought he was very funny. He has a great sense of humor but it’s his own. He would deliberately say things in interviews which he knew would get people talking.
He called me once on the phone and he told me that Guitar World magazine, I think it was, had asked him what he thought of Jeff Beck. As I recall Yngwie said that he had never heard him. Of course he had heard him, but he knew it would get people stirred up and thought it was funny. It actually was funny but most people just thought it was an example of him being arrogant. He created that kind of persona but I’ve always really enjoyed our conversations, although it has been a long time.
Hot on your Heels by Steeler from their 1983 self-titled debut, featuring guitarist Yngwie Malmsteen and released by Shrapnel Records.
Steeler’s 1983 debut was actually one of Shrapnel’s best-selling records, right? What do you remember about that album when it came out?
It was great because LA was a hotbed of new talent and Steeler was one of the hottest bands in Los Angeles. They were there at the right time with the right music and the right look. I think that first record is fantastic. Ron Keel was very young at the time as was Yngwie. When you consider that Ron moved from Tennessee to LA and had to hustle to be able to get all those guys together, and stay alive while waiting for a big break, it bears testimony to how motivated Ron was. He still is highly motivated and there’s so much going on in his career nearly 40 years later. He’s really an inspiration.
One album that I think is not mentioned enough when discussing Shrapnel’s contributions to the Metal genre is Exciter’s debut, 1983’s Heavy Metal Maniac. What was the story of signing that band?
John Ricci was a super nice guy and a very hard worker and the band was really gung-ho. It wasn’t really the kind of music I wanted to do at the time but I knew that they were good and that there was an audience. The record was finished and I could tell it was strong in its genre. It was only a one record deal so they were able to parlay that into a deal with Megaforce records at the time Metallica was coming out, which was a great move and it helped them to push their name and music to a larger audience.
Another big discovery of yours were guitarists Marty Friedman and Jason Becker and of course their project Cacophony. As co-producer, how 1987’s Speed Metal Symphony came to be?
After introducing Marty and Jason, they worked together for some time putting ideas together for a record. It got to the point where Marty and Jason were ready to consider adding a vocalist.
Peter Marrino, formally of Shrapnel and later CBS recording artists’ Le Mans, was a great singer and luckily he lived in the Bay Area too. When he was suggested as the singer, Marty and Jason liked the idea and Peter was added to the line-up. Peter had found drummer Atma Anur and had worked with him in his own band and I had used Atma on some other records previously such as Tony MacAlpine’s Maximum Security. Atma had attended Berklee School of Music and had a lot of jazz fusion influence. Marty and Jason really appreciated Atma’s technical skill and at times there are places on the albums where I think his influence is really felt.
The title track from Cacophony’s 1987 debut, Speed Metal Symphony, released by Shrapnel Records and featuring future Megadeth guitarist Marty Friedman and future David Lee Roth guitarist Jason Becker.
Speed Metal Symphony is an interesting case because it features two highly technical guitar players. Was it difficult to get the two of them to work together?
It wasn’t difficult at all. I didn’t know if they were going to like each other but I asked Marty and Jason to give it a try and they both put in the effort and came up with something great. I can’t take credit for anything those guys did other than having the idea of them meeting and forming a band. They worked out all of the guitar parts. I don’t remember having much to say about them because they were simply great and was nothing really that I could improve in their guitar interplay.
What do you remember about Paul Gilbert?
Paul was extremely nice and hard-working and a monster guitar player. He was only 15 when we started talking. Originally he contacted me with a letter and a tape and it was after Randy Rhoads died.
Paul asked if I could get this tape to the right people for an audition. I called him up and I asked him a series of questions to which he replied no to all of them. The questions were:
Are you old?
Are you fat?
Are you short?
Are you bald?
Do you have short hair?
Then I asked him how old he was and he said he was 15. A few years ago he reminded me that I played him Yngwie and Shawn Lane on the phone that day. He said, sort of jokingly, that they terrified him. Paul has a great sense of humor. It’s been a pleasure watching him grow up and achieve all of the great things he has achieved. He definitely deserves it. He sent me demos for over three years and when he finally moved out to California to attend G.I.T., we started talking about recording more seriously.
There are many cases of Shrapnel artists that went on to have great careers in Rock and Metal. Looking back on your career, what do you think in terms of your legacy in the genre and the impact you had developing these musicians?
I talked about it earlier and I don’t know if I have much else to add to that. The fact is that I got so many thousands of demos that I started to develop a good sense of what kind of people I wanted to work with. A good percentage of the musicians with whom I worked are still playing today.
I chose the guys who I thought encompassed the traits of great musicianship, a good image, and guys who I felt would make the touchdown if I handed them the ball. I didn’t just want people to make records. I needed them to go out and be self-promoters to some extent.
Sacrifice by Racer X from their 1987 album, Second Heat, featuring the likes of current Judas Priest drummer Scott Travis, guitar virtuoso Paul Gilbert and vocalist Jeff Martin.
The eighties have been wide regarded as the golden age of Heavy Metal. Why do you think there were so many bands and musicians out there that were so prolific?
I really don’t know if I could say that the 80s were any more prolific than the 60s. Most of the decades have their own sense of fashion and to some extent, the music which is released during each decade is a little bit different from the others. I think when music fans turned on MTV and saw people up there singing and playing guitar, they thought to themselves “This looks like fun. I’d like to be up there on the TV screen.”
In the 80s, MTV was probably the single most important factor in creating such an interest in music, from not only at the consumer level but also at the artist level.
Out of the 80s Shrapnel releases, do you have a personal favorite? And if so, why?
I really don’t have a personal favorite. There are a lot of cool records and I would disrespect anyone if I said that I have a favorite. I have discovered that every record has its following even if it’s only a small amount of people. There are some people that will say that a certain one of my records is the best one I ever released or that it’s their favorite record of all time. I think most of these releases deserve to be somebody’s favorite record. Some sound better than others to different people but I think there are components in most of the records that make them compelling to someone.
There are many other great artists I admire, with whom I have worked, but you did not ask me about them so I will save that for another day.
I have noticed that there isn’t a lot of information out there about 1990s releases. What happened during those years?
I’m not sure what you mean. Starting in the 90s I moved a lot of the projects to my labels Blues Bureau International and Tone center, the jazz fusion Label. These labels saw at least half or more of the releases I had during those years. My partner Peter Morticelli and I were also building Magna Carta.
When the Grunge Rock era hit, guitar solos started becoming less in fashion so I needed to indulge some of my other areas of interest and put out records in other genres that I liked. There were less shred records, I suppose for me, because I was working with these three other labels doing different kinds of music but on these other labels exist some of my favorite records of my career.
Ultimately, what do you think Shrapnel Records’ legacy is?
I am probably not the one to judge. I look at the Shrapnel Label Group as a whole because those Blues Rock records and those jazz fusion records are very important to me also. Shrapnel Records helped to raise the bar in technical guitar playing and had some unique combinations of musicians who came together and created great musical, once in a lifetime collaborations. I am a fan of music first and foremost and I always wanted to create the kind of records which I would be interested in buying. I feel like I accomplished that goal.
Thank you for taking the time to do this, Mike. It was pleasure. Any last words for our readers? Where can we follow you on social media?
Thank you! I don’t really go in much for social media so I don’t post things for people to look at all the time.
Laurie Monk has a website called Truth And Shredding and he is involved with some Facebook groups who are really into this music and they know many artists and records beyond the Shrapnel catalog.
If I wanted to learn more about the genre, I would probably go to his site.