Bringing the riff, soul and blues back into Heavy Guitar Rock
Our exclusive interview with Joe Romagnola aka grOOveDaWg
Words: Todd K Smith
Rochester, NY holds a very special place for The Cutting Edge - after all that's where it all began as a four-page newsletter and a handful of people that believed. It's karma that after a number of years we connect with Rochester native Joe Romagnola whose sole goal in life is the spreading of “heavy guitar riffage” across the planet. Grooveyard Records, established in 1999, is owned and operated by Joe Romagnola who has been an avid collector and enthusiast since the Seventies. Based out of Rochester in upstate New York, the label's founder is passionate about his business model and is involved in every aspect including signing the artists, artwork and design, manufacturing, distribution, press and management.
The Grooveyard stable consists of such luminaries as Megadeth's Chris Poland, Craig Erickson (Trapeze, Glenn Hughes), Tony Spinner (Pat Travers, Paul Gilbert, Toto), Dallas blues/rock axeripper Lance Lopez, Texas guitar legend Bugs Henderson, Clas Yngstrom & Sky High (Swedish Hendrix), Plankton (amazing bluesy heavy guitar band from Sweden), Blindside Blues Band, Buddaheads, Hendrix tributarian Randy Hansen and many other amazing, world-class axemen that kick serious ass on the guitar.
“My whole concept for putting together this label revolved around my top three guitarists: Hendrix, Trower and Frank Marino,” says Romagnola over the phone. “Hendrix is forever, his music is timeless, the most influential guitar player that ever lived. Trower and Frank Marino did their own thing with it, being heavily inspired by Hendrix and creating their own awesome musical visions on the guitar." A self-confessed guitar addict, the grOOveDaWg claims it was the sound of the electric string and the hum of the amplifier that fueled his passion telling us, “The Grooveyard is on a Mission to keep REAL guitar music alive.”
“I'm a total addict when it comes to this kind of music,” says Romagnola. “I've been collecting my whole life. I'm 47 now and I'm still just as obsessed with heavy guitar music as I was when I first heard Robin Trower's classic Bridge of Sighs.” In the late '70s and early '80s, Romagnola did most of his collecting through Goldmine magazine. “I had a mail order company called Heavy Guitar Platters,” he says. “I would sell wax (vinyl) all over the world - I did that for many years. I've collected tons of rare, unreleased heavy guitar albums, audio, video and, of course, CDs. It’s an amazing collection of mind-blowing heavy guitar riffage. Out of collecting worldwide, I met many extremely cool people including Janne Stark (Locomotive Breath, Overdrive) which led to us working together years later on the Mountain of Power disc (Grooveyard’s tribute to killer obscure '70s heavy guitar rock). I could see the trend and direction of major labels turning their backs on real guitar music. Out of passion for what I consider REAL guitar music and in frustration over the type of mindless crap the major labels were trying to force feed us, led to me starting up Grooveyard Records.”
Joe points out that all the big guitar guys like Frank Marino, Robin Trower and Pat Travers had major deals back in the day and claims, “if they were to come around today, in 2008, there would be no major labels interested. They would have to come to an indie label like The Grooveyard that specializes in their kind of music.” Sensing the lack of blues-based guitar rock similar to Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Aerosmith, Foghat and ZZ Top, Joe was committed to promoting the music he loved. “I've worked in manufacturing all my life and survived a couple plant closings. I was a forklift operator on my last job and while I was working all day I would be daydreaming about The Grooveyard and how I'd put it together.”
“One night me and a buddy were looking up under-rated guitar players on the internet - cats we thought had their own original style and voice on the instrument. Megadeth's old guitar player, Chris Poland, popped up. We tracked down some demos and were blown away by them. We called him up and asked what he was doing with the tracks and told him that we wanted to start up a label and release them on a disc. He was totally down to earth and cool about it. Not a big rock star head. We worked it out and released the first Grooveyard disc called Chasing The Sun. Even though there is not a big market for instrumental guitar music there were still enough people out there who got it and The Grooveyard was able to start out of the gate with a legitimate musical statement.”
For years Joe worked his full-time job while building up The Grooveyard, releasing a handful of CDs a year. “It was balancing act between two full time gigs and I was overloaded beyond belief,” he says. “I would send stuff out in the mail before I went in to work and hit it again the minute I got home. My last job ended at the end of 2003 so I took the buyout and put everything I had into the label. Now I'm doing it full time. I work 15 hours a day but it's what I love and believe in.”
He continues, “I knew where I wanted to take the label from the start and networked with musicians that are known in certain circles - like Craig Erickson and some of Mike Varney's guys that had lost their deals. Many had a number of discs out and had built up an underground following. They were all phenomenal players and guitarists I was really into.” Being friends with Shrapnel Record president Mike Varney was another motivating factor. Around the time Varney started up his Blues Bureau International, Romagnola was one of the first called due to his extensive knowledge. Says Joe, “Mike knew me as a hardcore collector and if there was anything related to serious bluesy guitar rock - I knew about it!”
One of the biggest challenges that faced The Grooveyard was reaching a core customer base. “There's people out there that still dig heavy guitar music,” says Romagnola. “It's spread out worldwide. The Internet has given us a lot of different avenues. We are dabbling in digital downloads, however we are “old school” in our approach to collecting music. In my opinion, owning a physical disc is far more superior in every detail than faceless MP3s downloaded from the internet. We're a niche market and the people who dig what we do would actually prefer to have the real CD in hand. A lot of love and sweat goes into our discs right down to the covers, layout and designs for each disc which we take very seriously."
The Grooveyard has found its market to be primarily in Europe and mainly Germany. “They love guitar rock in Germany,” says Joe. “They know it - they get it - they're on the same page when it comes down to REAL guitar rock. There are many people in the States who still dig bluesy heavy guitar rock these days but it's a question of reaching them with our killer discs since most distributors in the States only promote/distribute Hip Hop and mindless music for the masses. Our customers spread the “good word” on The Grooveyard and we really appreciate their support and efforts. Another way we get the word out is through a local college radio show called Axecaliber on WITR (89.7) featuring our “musical brother” Geno Dezi who is one of the cool people out there who gets and understands The Grooveyard. The man is a walking/talking Rock Machine and we'd like thank him for his continued support through the years.”
The label has thrived because Romagnola only selects top-notch players that breath fire through their instruments. “In my opinion, there are two places in the world where there's a wealth of amazing guitar players,” he says. “I'm talking about the magic stuff where guys pull it from somewhere deep - and that is Texas and Sweden. There must be something in the water! The guitar becomes religion to these people. I've been fortunate to work with many amazing gifted players who have a LOT to say on the guitar. Whether it be blues/rock, heavy guitar rock or instrumental guitar music, each guitarist/band that we represent at The Grooveyard delivers the heavy guitar “goods” or OUTSTANDING TOTAL GUITAR music, as we like to put it."
“Grooveyard Records isn’t about the money,” he continues. “It’s about having a passion for the music I believe in. Music is a matter of opinion. We may not agree on every riff but we usually meet at the crossroads. Music is a part of your personality, your background, your whole foundation and structure. There are emotional and dramatic reasons we get into a certain kinds of music. People tune into The Grooveyard because the guitar is such a huge instrument. If you're not into an overdose of bluesy heavy guitar rock this might not be for you - but if you love bad-ass, killer serious heavy guitar music, you’ve definitely come to the right place!”
Long Live Heavy Guitar Rock!
Website: Grooveyard Records