By Andrew Catania
I caught up with Mike to discuss what’s going on with Shrapnel Records, current and future projects.
How have you been? What have you been up to?
Well, you know I have some records coming out. I got a new record with a guy called Steve Conte. Steve was a guitarist who played with Chilly Band; he toured Asia; He either played on or one of the big hit songs that he played the solo on. He’s done a lot of stuff, and he’s got a bunch of records out on CDS and other jazz labels. He’s pretty well known, that’s one of our front and center labels. Then I’ve got a guy called Dario Lorino, Dario’s the guitar player for Black Label Society along with Zakk, he’s been in the band for years. Dario did Zakk’s Book of Shadows to RV; he’s had duo gigs with him, and Zakk, two unplugged, Dario plays keyboards, sings and plays guitar.
Dario just made an excellent record called Death Grip Tribulation and it’s great, it’s our record. It’s been up sections for eights. He’s got that bass player from John Deservio who toured with Vinnie Moore when he toured on his section album Time Odyssey. JD played with Vinnie Moore back then; the band was Vinnie Moore, JD, and another member.
Dan Conway is one of those drummers like when I, you know, like Deen Castronovo, when he was a young guy or Jeremy Colson. When I was introduced to Steve Vai. When Jeremy was 21 or 22, they’d be calling and trying to get him off the deck, Dan Conway is that kind of drummer, he’s a freak, and I found him some Dario stuff. He’s played on other records of mine since Dario’s first record; he’s on Dario’s second record. Just had him play on a new album by a guy called Indigenous. Then several records of Indigenous as the guitarist Mato Nanji, he’s been out. I think he’s front-runner with the Jimi Hendrix Experience and Rick’s tour, and he’s out there, and Zakk’s on the tour and (either passing Advi) or Johnson, I don’t know who is on the tour this year but I know that Zakk’s playing a part of it and this guy Mato has been, he’s been the most consistent guitar player I think in all the years they’ve been doing Experience Hendrix, I believe he’s been on more tours than any other guitarist. Anyway, I just finished recording with him and Indigenous, and there’s a band here call Count’s 77, the guitarist is a guy named Stoney Curtis, he’s been in about more albums I think on Bruce (Barrow). A lead singer is a man named Danny Koker, who’s the star of the TV show called Counting Cars on History. He’s been singing forever; they called him the Count, he’s also on Pawn Stars, he’s a car guy. Anyway, Danny’s got this great band called Count’s 77, it’s a classic 70’s style Rock band.
So I made a record, two records with them, the new ones coming out March 10th. Dario’s record was just released last week, Dario’s got a video to the title track that’s Tribulation to be released later this week, so that’s kind of what I’ve been doing here the last few months. I’ve got other stuff planned; I’ve got things in the works. Oh, I’ve got a new record coming out with Vinnie Colaiuta on drums, Jimmy Haslip on bass and Robin Ford on guitar, that’s called JNGCHI, kind of a Bluesish, like a Blues Fusion kind of a thing. So that’s that in the works, and I’m looking for some more stuff that, the biggest problem is that when you finance records, it costs money and the money that comes back in now is so little.
Streaming pays such a small percentage, compared to all the people who listen to the music and the sad thing is that I don’t think the industry, or even the consumers thought about it much and projected what will happen in the future. What they didn’t think through is that you’ve got artists, you know, I’ll use Robin Ford for example. I’ve done some records with him, but I don’t know him well, met him but don’t know him well. A guy like that has worked with the world’s best engineers and some fantastic records, but let’s just say that if Robin isn’t the man that wants to sit at home and to hear his records, (I’ve never heard that he did that, I guess he does that, this is all guesswork) but I’m just saying with the industry you know will not go out and purchase enough records to support a great artist.
Give an Example.
Just say a great artist. I don’t want to act like it’s a negative put down; I don’t mean it to be that way. If you have an artist that’s a niche ok, and that niche artist doesn’t sell a lot of records, you know, but the record still costs money to make. By people not buying music and thinking that they are doing great by the artist by streaming it, by them not buying it, they’re helping to bring about at some point, the end of guys recording career unless the guy has his studio, and can engineer it himself. Or unless the guy is some improvisational wizard and can go in and blow in one session and record in one day, like some jazz guys maybe. But you know, otherwise, if nobody is buying the records, then who is going to pay for them? You know, that’s the hardest thing. Not every artist is Richie Kotzen and has a home studio, or Paul Gilbert, that can record a lot of the album in their home studio. A lot of these guys are used to the only top line equipment; they have ears that tell them that no, that digitally is not, it sounds like it needs a console, through the pre-op roll, tape. Sure people get used to a certain standard, and the public is accepting so little, in general, as a stereotype.
The public, they are allowing a telephone as a medium of listening to music or communicating music or an MP3 Player, or through a port in their house. A lot of the public is not demanding. They will take a lower quality resolution download; you know what I mean? They’ll extract less, and a lot of artists will feel that they would rather not play than deliver less. So, there is still some CDs and vinyl being sold so, you can always sort of cut your budget down and work really hard with your fans, you can still sell enough records may be to break even, but if that keeps going the way it’s going, at some point in time the money won’t be coming back to the people. I even know an artist that’s in the band that started making a solo record, and he said that halfway through it, he realized that nobody was going to pay me anything for it. He’s going to put a bunch of his money into recording it but then, start talking to labels, and they are like, there are just not big budgets up like there used to be. He wasn’t willing to go out and become a salesman.
A friend of mine, he’s got twenty grand raised on a Kickstarter campaign which is making his record with one of my artists. He said, we’ve been together forever and I know it’s a weird question to ask you but, I think I should make my record on Kickstarter. And the artist said, there’s one thing about that, though, the people that buy my stuff they think of me as a guy that’s at a certain level, of a particular standard. It’s terrible I’m fucking begging them for money like I can’t get it somewhere else, I’ve got to go and ask them, it almost takes that feeling of this guy is unique, I revere this man. Like, a lot of people don’t realize that the artist that they love is living in worst standards than they are living. That’s when you can make money from selling records [starving artists], so the artist is like, I don’t know if I like the idea of how that looks, me getting money from my fans. I said well, there’s the other thing too if you want to, you know. Let’s say the record cost Thirty grand and you have to sell 3,000 records at ten bucks a piece or whatever up front, you take their money and say “I’ll give you a record, give me ten dollars” then you have to go deliver 3,000 records to your house, which looks like a lot more boxed up than you think it is. Then you have to open them all up, and if you’re signing them as part of the deal to get them to, then you have signed them all, you have to put them in packages, you have to go out and buy the packaging, you have to address them all, then you have to go the mailbox and mail them, I said as long as you’re willing to do that then it might be viable, if not forget it. I don’t want to do any of that. So that’s kind of what we’re looking at now, is that you have people that are forced to go their fans but sometimes the fans won’t give them what they need to make the records, and it’s embarrassing for them. Wow, I only made five grand here, I’ve got to go give it all back to the fans that revere me the most and gave me money. [Right] Now I have to go give the five grand back, I feel like an idiot, some of these guys are thinking. So it’s just sad that we’re in the state that we’re in.
I honestly think, that there has never been better guitar players on the planet than there are right now. I mean, it’s incredible what’s out there, and there are better guys out there now than there were in 1980 when I started my label looking for great guitar players. They’ve had YouTube, and better teachers and a much more of higher standards and the bars have been raised. Unfortunately whenever the bar has been raised, there are less people that can pass muster than there are that can achieve that level and at some point, it happens all the time, music gets to be so complicated, all the other people that are out there that want careers too but aren’t that good, they have to make it cool not to be good. Then good is not good; it’s like ‘aw man, that’s Pre-Madonna thing, that guy is over singing, that guy is overplaying. Ohhh that once Mariah Carey, look at all those extra notes that are all you know punk shoots coming back or grunge music or whatever, which, I like a lot of the grunge music and a lot of the punk music, but I mean those genres require less technical proficiency as most musicians in the band. Those styles keep coming back because we raised the standards to be so high that the average player will never get there. Back when we had Inga and Paul Gilbert, I mean guys out there at a certain point, rock musicians are like ‘Fuck that’ [yeah], I’m never going to be that, I’m going to do something else. So there is always more people with little talent than there are those few individuals with great talent, so that’s when they get together and they create a movement and just overturn things. So, we’ve been in an interesting place in music for years now where all this stuff can co-exist. It’s not like; disco takes over this, this takes over disco, you know what I mean, right now it’s an exciting time because all this stuff co-exist. Before you know, the metal fans were into grunge, and a lot of the fans were into this were into punk, and the punk fans were into this, you know what I mean, they kept mutating.
Seems like not there are so many genres out there and people swimming them that fans anchored down and they support their genres, but there is this. It used to be that everybody liked Led Zeppelin, or everybody liked Pink Floyd or that many years ago, everybody liked Van Halen or if you were young, should you like this, but now there are so many niches for people to listen to. Some guys are only into EDM, some kids are only into rap, some kids do like classic rock, so there are many that like other stuff. So I think we have better music than ever, the only problem is that it’s spread out over so many genres that it breaks up the fan bases, again with so little money coming back in, it just makes it difficult for artists to keep making records and keep recording. So, I’m going to make records still, but I don’t have, I’d be lying if I said I thought I was going to make a lot of money from it, it’s just what I do. I don’t know what else I would do, so and I love music, when I’m not making records in the studio or paying someone to make records in the studio, I’m buying music for my collection. I will buy CDs like a mad man; I can’t believe how much good stuff there is out there.
A few years back, I know you did a publishing deal with another company.
What happened was it got to be so many digital outlets out there and so many other revenue streams from streaming, all this stuff. I have so many records that I have made; it was getting difficult and costly too, a lot of times it cost more to render a statement than what the checks were for. We had an accountant for X amount of money; you only take X amount of time rendering accounts; it was just getting to cost prohibitive. That’s without having a zillion different money coming in from different places and having to figure it all out. So, I usually go to an aggregator, somebody that could make the music available in more places, I listed in Itunes for years. I believed that the way I felt, I felt people were kind of like me, if I want something I go to Amazon right up, I don’t need to worry about anybody else. The fact is all these little players, they all add up to something. I just didn’t want to think about it, because the idea of having all these other things, You follow what I’m saying, [yes] I had the best deal with Itunes, I didn’t need to go anywhere else, I had a direct deal with Itunes.
I didn’t want to have to worry about pennies trickling in from zillions of other sources because as I said, accounting for that would have been a nightmare. So rather than getting into streaming, or getting into other digital people other than Itunes, I made a deal with a company called Orchard which is one of the very first pre-Itunes digital companies and they are owned by Sony and me had other people come, wanting to acquire the catalogue but I wanted to leave it in the hands of somebody who really knew what they were doing, they were going to make the most amount of money for the artists; Because if I was going to hand it over, I wanted it to be a positive thing for everybody, not a negative [right]. So the Orchard stepped up, they are handling all the stuff, and they deal with it, and I now have a new deal with them for a new product, which I’m doing, and now I just don’t have to worry about hundreds of records, I only have to worry about a few it’s a lot easier [sure]. They are handling not only Itunes, but they are managing YouTube and Amazon, they are handling all the sources [Spotify and all them] Yeah they are doing all that stuff, and they have to all that because like I said all those other sources are slowly becoming The source.
I didn’t get this from the Orchard, but I heard it from somebody else, that within the next couple of years CDs are going to be pretty much non-existent you know, or very boutique. It’s like cars don’t even have CD players in them now, they are making most cars without them. So they are going to phase out that and so I’ve been doing this since 1980 and it has just felt like it was time to let somebody else, that was putting all the energy and money into all the infrastructure, money and time into building up such infrastructure to let them deal with it. They have it all figured out, how to track all that stuff, it’s a significant investment in software, you know [yeah]. You profit all that stuff, but as a small label it just, there was less & less money coming in and it would have been from more and more sources and would have to go along, it would have been tough to track all that stuff, so by working with them, they track it all, and it makes more sense. I think it’s a better situation for everybody. To have a warehouse and staff and to have records selling so few, it just didn’t make sense anymore.
How are you picking your guitarists?
Well, it’s funny. I met Dario when he was 15 or 16 and people would say ‘come out and see him, he’s amazing, ’.’ and I would say ‘no he’s not, he’s not amazing.’ I met Jason Becker at 16 and Paul Gilbert at 15 and (Stevie Ray) at 19, and now they are amazing. Over the years, Dario was touring with (Jenny Laid of Warrick) when he was 16, and then a few years later he got into Lizzie Borden and toured with them. So he’s been on the road for the last ten years. He’s 26 or so now. I don’t know his exact age, but he’s somewhere in that ballpark. He’s had quite a journey, with all the stuff he’s done with Black Label now with Zakk. So, I signed him, and he wasn’t with Black Label at all, and we put out the first record and within a few months of the record coming out, just as luck would have it, whether his talent met the right opportunity, Black Label hired him to be the second guitarist in the band. So, I have, to be honest, that was a determining factor for the next record because we had something to build on and I invested in the record with him because I thought he was the kind of guy that would go out there and do something. Personable, got a strong work ethic; he’s easy to get along with. He wakes up every morning and says what do I have to do get further up the ladder. He’s not a guy who is going to be lazy and lie around and wait for someone to do something for him. He’s extremely motivated, and he had that motivation, he had that thing that I could see in Richie Carson back in the day and a lot of those artists that were just not going to be denied, they are going to keep going until somebody takes notice. So I saw that in him and the Black Label thing sort of kind of proved that. I did a record with Jackie Vincent. Did you know about that record?
Sure do! Amazing record! Jacky’s very talented!
Well yeah, you know, there’s an example, I mean, he’s a great player. Jacky Vincent when he came to me, such a beautiful person, and Dario, just the nicest guys ever, both those guys. So you just get a sense that Jacky Vincent wasn’t going to be denied. The fact that he went out there, made his record, raised all that money, that just goes to show you that he had that quality, you know that I believed in when I signed him and Dario the same thing. So for me, I guess I’d be looking for younger people that are going bust ass. I mean like Richie Carson is one of the hardest working people I’ve ever known, and there’s not a year of his life since I met him, where he wasn’t productive. He’s probably made, I don’t even know how many solo albums, I think he’s made 20. I don’t even know; it’s some insane amount of solo albums. All the stuff with Mr. Big and Virtue and Winery Dogs, you know, Richie Carson sent me so many demos, it was like ‘oh it’s Monday, a Richie Carlson demo, oh Tuesday, two more songs.’ [Chuckle] I’m not kidding you, he was whipping those things out and sometimes I’d get two demos a week or demos within seven days or something like that. He was putting all his time into writing and trying to come up with better stuff so we could get signed. You don’t see many people like that, that are that motivated these days you know and I understand why, because of the returns when you think ‘well what am I going to get?’
There are guys making $75,000 a year teaching, and nobody knows whom they are and they are as good as anybody. But they realize, they have two kids, teaching is what they do, if they go away on tours, they may lose their children. I mean, not lose them, they are going to have to be away from their family. It’s not a lifestyle they want. There are guys here in Vegas that are amazing; they are getting their paycheck every week. It’s hard to tell somebody ‘hey go on the road with this metal band and live hand to mouth’ when they are making Fifty grand a yeah playing top 40, [chuckle] because they are giving up something solid for something maybe, and so that’s the hardest thing. That’s the kind of like when you were younger; you can afford to, you don’t have all those ties.
I’m impressed with Jacky Vincent, he’s got a son, and he’s got all this and been a great father from all appearances and done all this stuff. That is impressive, that’s one of the reasons why I was pulling for him too. When he came to me he had a young son; I was like ‘how old are you?’ He was like ‘23’, that’s a child. He was really about being there for that kid and taking care of him. The one point is, Jacky & Dario were two guys that impressed me as just motivated. They wanted to be the next generation of traveling guitarists. They wanted to work with me, and I wanted to work with them, and it was great.These YouTube phenomenon but they don’t play anywhere. If you don’t play anywhere, it’s hard to make any money.
Do you think YouTube has cheapened the guitar? It seems like nobody does traditional lessons anymore. Everyone is using YouTube now.
I’ve got a really good friend that, a lot of the world knows who he is, he’s a fantastic technician, I won’t say his name, but an amazing tech. He has a degree from Berkeley School of Music, he has to go out and teach at a store that charges $50 an hour for whatever, and then they take $25 or something and give him the rest or whatever or give him $30 and they take $20, it’s some crazy split. They do find the students, and they have overhead there, the building and stuff. He’s great! If he had come around back in 1988 or whatever I would have given him a record deal. Now he’s just another guy that’s got great chops, and he’s even actually thinking about maybe doing something else. That’s the sad thing that you were talking about. With a degree from Berkeley, being able to chart out the most difficult (chard)stuff you ever heard of and then play it back, sit there and play anything you can think of, play a Bach, a guy like that shouldn’t be having a hard time making a living. Like you said all these guys and YouTube lessons and the reality of guitar teaching, you only have to be one lesson ahead of your student. You don’t have to be as great as this guy is, so there are plenty of, or other guys that are a tenth the guitar player this guy is that is making the same money. It’s a little strange out there, but yeah if there was a guitar player that had something going on that wanted to do something that, I’m always looking for something.
What do you think 2017 is going to bring to you?
Well, I don’t know, I’ve got five records coming out right now, and I’ve got some more in the planning stages that I won’t mention but, it’s funny. It was always whatever kind of came down around the corner. You never know what is left at my post office box next, I could walk in there and listen to 20 terrific guitar players, I could listen to 2 great ones, 4 mediocre ones and 16 you know whatever, horrible or I can find 5 great guys in one batch and never for 3 months find anybody that sounded like anything. You never know what kind of the way it’s going to come. Oh, so the Japanese Young Guitar Magazine just did an all shrapnel 150 pages Special Edition, and it’s not only a magazine, it’s more like a book. It’s got a hard glossy cover; it’s got a corner of it like a book. It’s not like a magazine; it’s more like a book, 150 pages. It’s all the Shrapnel records that were ever done are in there, all the interviews with the top artists, it’s got sheet music.
Japan loves to shred.
Yeah, they like to shred, but they quit being willing to pay much money for it. If I came up with a guy that was the next big thing in my mind they might not even want to put it out. It’s very; they’d put it out if I gave it to them more than if it just came off the street maybe. It’s still, the perception that things are big in Japan, but it’s just a small segment of Japan. It’s a fetish; the average Japanese person doesn’t think about shred guitar. They have those fans there, but it’s a pocket of fans in Japan. They are way into their music indigenous to Japan; you know Japanese artists and whatnot. In America, people used to think like ‘aww Japanese family would believe that shred guitar is a fad for them’ no; it’s just that there was a following for it. You know what I’m trying to say.
Look at Yngwie; he releases all his records to Japan. Young Guitar did a huge spread on him.
Yngwie is in a class of his own pretty much. I don’t know any artists that consistently released music that didn’t change much, and that’s by design. Yngwie wanted to make sure that when people bought an album, they got everything they wanted on the album. It wasn’t like he was going to listen to EDM or something and try to incorporate or whatever, he wanted to give the fans that experience and I think that’s why he has kept the fanbase because they always know what to expect from him. A lot of times artists lose that fan base because when the fad takes a turn, they take a turn with the fad. Then they lose that focus, but Yngwie never did that. Would you say Yngwie stands in a class of his own?
Yngwie is in a class of his own!
Yeah Yeah, he is in a class of his own, I’m happy that I happen to be the guy that found him Luckily, I don’t think anything would have kept that guy down, so I just happen to be in the right place at the right time.
Here’s the thing, Yngwie from what I know is that, unless he’s been drinking too much or something, a lot of that stuff that he would say was deliberately meant to get people going mad. I say he called me up one day laughing, oh man I need a guitar player, are you in Guitar World. I told him I’d never heard of Jeff Spike, but he asked if I liked him, I told him never actually heard his music. Stuff like that, he would say stuff just to get people ‘Yow what the F’ to get them upset. That was his humor. One time I think he said ‘have you ever listen to Willy Raw?’ or something like that, I said nope, that was just him being of character. I think he like the idea of creating that persona. I think Black (Fork) kind of had that persona, kind of a dark persona, but Yngwie is a lot of humor. I mean he’s a hilarious guy, he loved Monty Python and can sit there and run down Monty Python skits, reenact them, but I don’t believe that most of the stuff that was said about him, when people go ‘what a jerk’, I think he knew exactly what he was saying and I think that’s why he said it. As far as him being, the stories of people who met him and he was mean or whatever; I never saw that side, he was always sweet and kind of that wise-ass streak. People had to know how to take him.