An Interview with Founder of Shrapnel Records Mike Varney

Feature image credit: Stoney Curtis


By Andrew Daly
andrew@vinylwriter.com

Image courtesy of Shrapnel Label Group Inc. Not to be used without explicit consent.

Guitar-driven music as we know it over the last forty-plus years simply doesn’t exist without Shrapnel Records founder, Mike Varney.

Varney’s journey began like many others, with roots deeply furrowed in The Beatles, and Jimi Hendrix, which eventually gave way to the punk stylings of the late 70s.

Though beginning his professional journey with punk outfit The Nuns, a group who shared stages with the likes of Blondie, and The Dictators, Varney’s zest for driving lead guitar drove him to pastures greater.

With nothing but hope and ambition, Varney spun his inherent nose for talent into Shrapnel Records, a label that would alter the guitar scene as we once knew it, never to be the same again through the birth of the “shred era”

Varney’s list of discoveries through his Guitar Player Magazine column, Spotlight, only served to further fuel the six-string-driven madness, and by the end of the 80s, Shrapnel Records could lay claim to the discovery of quite literally most of the decade’s finest players.

I recently sat down with Varney to discuss his long career in the music business, where among other things, we touch on his early punk leanings, the formation of Shrapnel Records, his transition to repping the blues in the 90s, and a whole lot more.

Andrew:
Mike, thank you for taking the time to dig in with us. From a young age, what was the moment which first sparked your interest in the guitar, and rock music in general?

Mike:
When I started writing the spotlight column in Guitar Player Magazine in 1982, I noticed that a lot of the submissions cited The Beatles‘ first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show as their inspiration to play guitar. I would say that it was probably my number one influence as well. I liked The Monkees early on, but the very first LP that I ever bought was The Sentinels’ Vegas Go Go: Live At The Teenbeat Club. That album featured a drum solo by John Barbara, who later would become the drummer for the Jefferson Starship. The first 45 RPM record I ever bought was The Animals’ “Club A-Go-Go.” In terms of lead guitar playing, I bought Axis Bold As Love by The Jimi Hendrix Experience when it first came out and I was really impressed with the guitar work. I also bought Blue Cheer and Quicksilver Messenger Service when I was about eleven years old, and those further piqued my interest in guitar playing.

Andrew:
In your early years, you were an integral part of The Nuns. How did you come to be a member of the band?

Mike:
I don’t know if I would say that I was an integral part, but I was playing in a cover band with Jesse Bradman and Jennifer Miro. Well, one day, Jennifer and I heard this racket coming from the studio behind us, and I think we saw a couple of the guys hanging out, and they were mostly wearing leather, and one of them had a pair of platform shoes on. They looked sort of like a cross between The Ramones and the New York Dolls. We were just playing music, but these guys had a concept. I went off to college in Iowa, and I wrote a letter to the guys from school but didn’t receive an answer. When I got back home on break, six months later, Jennifer was playing with The Nuns. Alejandro Escovedo, who has since had a very successful career as a solo artist, was the guitar player. Their bass player was just leaving the band, so I saw an opportunity, and agreed to play bass in the band. We played a lot of great shows and met a lot of the coolest artists in that scene. We played Winterland with The Ramones and The Dictators, and later on, we played there with Bryan Ferry, Mothers Finest, and U.K. band Widowmaker. We also opened for Blondie at two different clubs, and we played The Whiskey with The Dictators for eight shows. We also opened up for Television the first time they came to the West Coast. It was a lot of fun.

Andrew:
In your estimation, what was the rock music scene like in terms of evolution in the late 70s and into the early 80s? Did the shift from punk to a burgeoning thrash scene have an effect on your choice to gravitate toward heavy metal?

Mike:
I didn’t really see a burgeoning thrash scene at the time I started my label, which began in June 1980. I saw the Metal For Mutha’s compilation and thought it would be cool to do something like that with American heavy metal bands. I also wanted to focus on American metal bands with great guitar players, because at that time, Eddie Van Halen had inspired a whole new legion of guitar players, and after woodshedding for a couple of years, a lot of them were ready to be heard and were starting to emerge all through the states. I grew a little weary of the punk scene, as I had trained to be a guitar player, and I didn’t want to play bass anymore. The punk scene was very cool when it started out, as there were bands who became the voices of a generation. However, corporate interests wanted some of these bands to water down the aggression and defiant lyrics, and then we got left with what was known as “new wave music.” This sort of just devolved into – at the time – modern pop music.

Image credit: Bret Linford

Andrew:
Another prominent band you formed was Cinema. Walk me through the history of that band, which had a cult following and was known for some searing guitar solos and fantastic songwriting.

Mike:
An early version of cinema was me, with Jeff Pilson (pre-Dokken) and Mark Robertson (pre-Cairo). We had a variety of drummers, all of them very good. One version of cinema had Alexis T Angel formally of epic recording artists Ozz With pre-Lemans/cacophony Peter Marrino on bass and vocals. The final version was with me, Peter, Dan Meblin, Ed Michaels, and singer, Hari Kari. We recorded the song for US Metal 2 called “Rockin’ The US.” That band has an album’s worth of studio recordings out there somewhere, but I haven’t heard them or seen them in years. We had some record label interest, but ultimately, we went our separate ways in 1982.

Andrew:
You touched on this earlier, but at the age of twenty-two, you formed Shrapnel Records. I know this is going back, but if you can, walk me through the initial inception of the label. Where did the idea originate from?

Mike:
I was always a guitar fan and I was always trying to find the great undiscovered guitar players. As a huge record collector, I learned about Gary Moore and Allan Holdsworth from buying Gary Moore’s Skid Row records, and Allan’s Tempest records. I was getting a degree in business with an emphasis in marketing, and I wanted to start a record label, but I had limited funds. I liked the compilation album approach, which was doing well in Europe, and I thought the United States must be hiding some amazing bands and guitarists. So, rather than just wait for someone else to find them and make the records, I decided to try and find the artists, and make the records myself. I wanted to be the first dedicated heavy metal record label in the United States, which I became, but I also wanted to focus on great guitar playing.

Andrew:
Shrapnel quickly became a big hit as the 80s rolled on, and as you said, was the first label to focus exclusively on heavy metal music. Metal Blade Records, while important, often gets much of the credit in that regard, but in reality, Shrapnel was equally important. Was the decision to focus on metal a conscious one, or simply how things happened? 

Mike:
In college, I studied niche marketing and I realized that my penchant for heavy metal and great guitar playing would be well suited for niche marketing. Yes, Shrapnel was definitely the first heavy-metal niche label in America. Future Metal Blade owner Brian Slagel worked at a record store in the Woodland Hills area, and he was also the owner of a small fanzine for heavy metal. He was and is a true metal fan, and we got in touch as he was one of the first people in the underground heavy metal fanzine trade. Our first release came out in September 1981, and I believe that his first release came out within a year of mine. We both were really into the British scene, and his label also started with a compilation record which is what we both learned from the British labels. I have a lot of respect for Brian. He’s a visionary and a hard worker with an incredible body of work associated with him. I may have started a few months earlier, but his company is still going strong and has been a mega success.

Image credit: Guitar Player Magazine

Andrew:
Shrapnel was instrumental in the mid to late 80s guitar virtuoso boom having more or less brought the likes of Paul Gilbert, Vinnie Moore, Steve Vai, Marty Friedman, Greg Howe, Joe Satriani, and more. What enabled you to gain such insight into finding the hotbed of talent that you did?

Mike:
I was young and way into the underground heavy-metal scene and also being a guitar player, I was really up on who the great guitar players were who were making it onto vinyl, around the world. I had a good idea in putting together my first compilation, that many other guitar players and music fans would appreciate this guitar niche LP, inside of the heavy metal niche.  I called the editor of BAM Magazine and told him, “I’d like to find ten of the best guitar slingers in the heavy metal genre in the United States.” I asked for the editor‘s names and phone numbers of the music magazines that bordered California. I called them, and I told them, “I am looking to put out a record of ten of the best unknown heavy metal guitar bands in America.” As I went state by state, there wasn’t any state who didn’t feel like they had a guy who was worthy. Most all of them ran an article about my search, which was very well received, and resulted in me getting inundated by bands and guitarists sending me their promotional materials. One of the people who responded to me was Guitar Player Magazine editor Jas Obrecht. He said, “If you ever find any guitar players that were that good, keep me in the loop.” He then invited me down to headquarters for a Halloween party and jam. I brought Bob Gilles and Dan Meblin with me, and they shredded at the jam, while I hit up editors Jas Obrecht and Tom Wheeler with my column idea. It was an awesome time as I was sitting next to legendary Wrecking Crew bassist Carol Kaye through dinner, and had a nice conversation. I left there with a green light for my new column, provided that they liked my first submission, which they did.

Andrew;
How big of an impact did your Spotlight column for Guitar Player Magazine have on your ability to discover and cultivate new talent?

Mike:
We were already receiving a lot of packages, being the only game in town at the time, but the column in Guitar Player Magazine helped to multiply the number of submissions. It was definitely good for building credibility, and it enabled me to use my guitar sleuthing skills to find future guitar heroes.

Image credit: Guitar Player Magazine

Andrew:
Given your history as an ace guitarist yourself, what led to you focusing more on your label as opposed to joining the guitar party that the 80s proved to be?

Mike:
The week before the initial 5,000 unit pressing of US metal arrived in my parent’s garage, I got married. We are still happily married forty-one years later. I realized at that time that it didn’t make any sense for me to try and pursue a career as a guitar player because I really didn’t want to tour around the country. As an artist, I was having a hard time finding labels and people to work with, so it seemed like there were fewer people willing to jump in, make records, and help bands get known than there were bands. It was a natural evolution, based on my education and love of records, to focus on the record label. It felt like I had more uncertainty about being successful as an artist than I did being a business person. I really liked to produce records, and the transition to label owner and producer felt completely natural.

Andrew:
After a decade as a leader in the genre of metal, you shifted focus in the 90s to blues and then jazz with the formation of Blues Bureau International, and Tone Center. What led to the change in direction?

Mike:
When the grunge movement came in, all of a sudden, you weren’t cool if you played shred guitar solos, so guitar players going to auditions had to dumb down their skills. At the time, I realized that this must be one of the rare professions where the more accomplished you get at your job, the less employable you become. My own guitar playing is heavily blues-influenced by guitarists like Rory Gallagher, Johnny Winter, Pat Travers Leslie West, and Rick Derringer as they were my childhood guitar influences, along with Michael Schenker, Uli John Roth, etc. I had reached a certain status with the label where we could offer larger budgets and attract some of my guitar heroes, so I focused on artists like Rick Derringer, Pat Travers, and Leslie West, who were experiencing a little downturn in demand for their recording services. I tried to redirect them to their blues roots, and I started blues bureau international as a hard rock/guitar-oriented blues label. I produced eight or nine records with artist Eric Gales and I co-wrote fifty-plus songs with him. He has continued to climb upward, and he had the number one record on the blues chart on the Billboard this year with Mascot Records, which is a label I originally introduced him to years ago. It’s a great feeling to watch him ascend to a place he could’ve only reached with his hard work and God-given talent.

Andrew:
As you alluded to earlier, you’re well known for once having an extensive vinyl collection. To that end, why is physical media important to you? Do you personally believe vinyl has a better sound or is it more ritual-based for you?

Mike:
I had a large vinyl collection and I thought I would be the last guy to ever get rid of it. But there were so many things coming out on CD, and so many cool box sets coming out, that I got rid of the vinyl, and I got into compact discs exclusively about seven years ago. I still buy quite a bit of physical media every week. Vinyl can sound better at times but I think CDs sound just fine for me. 

Image courtesy of Mike Varney. Not to be used without explicit consent.

Andrew:
As a guitarist, what sort of guitars, gear, and amps are you using these days? In the past, you were a big proponent of the Gibson SG. Is that still the case?

Mike:
I played with Quicksilver Messenger Service guitar player John Cipollina in The Rocky Sullivan band in the late 70s. I always liked Gibson SG’s, but he customized his, and it looked look so cool that his guitar rig was once in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I also like Zal Cleminson from Tear Gas, the Alex Harvey Band, and later, Nazareth. He played Gibson SG’s, and of course, Angus Young is probably the most famous one, these days. Frank Zappa also played them at one point. I like old USA Epiphone solid body guitars a lot too. As far as amps go, I like Fender Deluxe Reverb Amps as well as Marshall JMP and JCM 800 series. It just depends on the amp and guitar combination. I have quite a bit of gear, and different things sound better depending on what sound you were looking for in the studio.

Andrew:
Looking back on the legacy of Shrapnel, what are your thoughts on the proving ground you created for young guitarists? If you could summarize your legacy in reference to the decade, how would you do so?

Mike:
It’s really hard to do that, but I would say that it ran for a few decades, and eventually the Shrapnel label group incorporated Tone Center and Blues Bureau. Steve Smith from Journey really helped with A&R, and produce many of the Tone Center records, and those recordings all have their own small legion of fans. The same thing is true with the Blues Bureau catalog. There are some classic records in there. I also was a partner with Pete Morticelli in Magna Carta Records, and that label broke some ground with some progressive supergroup sessions and band releases. I feel fortunate that I was able to make a career out of my passion for guitar playing and hard rock. I seem to have a knack for picking good guitar players, and I supplied band members to a variety of bands who went on to have great success. For a short while there, we were pretty much the only game in town for shred guitar playing, and I am grateful that we held that position for a few years. However, like any good business, we eventually had competition, but on the positive side, it served to legitimize the genre even more. The “Shrapnel School” Is the term that people use from time to time to describe a genre that captured the public’s attention, during a certain point in time, which became the foundation for the shred guitar genre.

Andrew:
Last one. What’s next for you in all lanes, Mike? Is anything exciting on your docket as we move forward?

Mike:
I’ve been working with a great guitar player/vocalist, Jason Walker, in Las Vegas who doesn’t have anything on the market yet representing his talent. We have a record almost done, and it’s coming out great. I think he will find a very receptive market. I’m also working on a new Stoney Curtis record, and we have some other things scheduled. I’m not releasing nearly as many records these days. I’m grateful for the five-hundred-plus records I have had some hand in releasing, and I still like producing and writing a lot, so there will always be something coming, just not with the frequency of the so-called “glory days.”

Image courtesy of Mike Varney. Not to be used without explicit consent.

Andrew Daly (@vwmusicrocks) is the Editor-in-Chief for www.vwmusicrocks.com and may be reached at andrew@vinylwriter.com

One thought on “An Interview with Founder of Shrapnel Records Mike Varney

  1. Great article. I remember being in high school and reading his interview in the Guitar Player magazine with Frampton on the cover. It had a major impact on my life. I looked forward to every Shrapnel release that came out. His impact on guitar driven music is tremendous and I am glad that some people recognize it.

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