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The beauty of Rochester, NY guitarist/singer Michael Staertow (aside from his outstanding musical talent) is that he is not the least bit interested trying to jump aboard the trendy bandwagon for the sake of commercial success. For Michael Staertow, success is measured by the fact that he has been an in-demand/working musician since the age of 15, dictating his own direction, blazing his own trail . . . his way.


Staertow cut his teeth on early ‘70s rock and pop, intently studying the styles of his guitar heroes like Ace Frehley, Edward Van Halen, Randy Rhoads and mentor Neal Schon. As his talent grew, so did his reputation and his penchant for working in a variety of diverse musical situations. Staertow has worked the tribute circuit like no other. His resume of tribute bands read like a Who’s Who of classic rock, from Alice Cooper and AC/DC to Journey and Foreigner. Growing tired of constantly doing covers, Staertow formed Shag and began to hone his signature songwriting skills. With Shag, Staertow & Co. released two albums that received considerable major label attention while also opening shows for heavyweights like Kiss, Def Leppard and Tesla. After the demise of Shag, Staertow worked with several original acts including The Nines and New York Fuzz, before ultimately deciding to showcase his songwriting skills as a solo artist.


Michael Staertow’s debut solo effort, Oxygen, not only showcases his outstanding musicianship and strong vocal chops, but also his ability to pen melodic, ‘70s-influenced rock tunes with a taste and maturity, both, of which are sorely lacking in today’s mainstream rock music.


I had the opportunity to speak with Michael about his musical past, his influences and his brilliant solo offering, Oxygen.



PopMatters:

As a youngster you played a variety of musical instruments, but not guitar. What led you to the instrument?



Michael Staertow:

My grandmother, who passed away in 1997, played guitar before she came to this country and had always encouraged me to be involved in music. She was a big Elvis fan and because of her I became a fan as well. She wanted me to learn to play guitar so that I could sing and play like Elvis, and travel around playing music. But I just wanted to do everything else…I wanted to play drums. Then in middle school they offered guitar as an elective and from then on it was like “here I am”. I haven’t put it down since.



PM:

Aside from the influence of your grandmother, was any other family member inclined towards music?



MS:

Actually my whole family is musical. My sister plays piano. I have two cousins that are very accomplished classical pianists. One of my cousins now does movie and films scores. My uncle, who is from Argentina, has cut three or four folk records in his native country, and he kind of inspired me as well.



PM:

Who were your biggest influences on guitar?



MS:

For me, it was Neal Schon from Journey. I loved his style, not to mention that I was a real big fan of the band. After I had discovered Journey, I went backwards and listened to what he had done before that. I was truly inspired with him being a virtuoso at the age of 14 or 15, playing with Derek and the Dominos, Elvin Bishop and Santana…it was just real inspiring. There was just something about his playing that really appealed to me.



PM:

I also read that you were heavily influenced by the playing of Edward Van Halen and Randy Rhoads.



MS:

Very much so. When “Eruption” came out on the first Van Halen record I remember where exactly I was. I was listening to music like the Grease Soundtrack, Donna Summer’s Bad Girls... albums that my parents had laying around. My neighbor came over and popped on Van Halen’s first record and hearing “Runnin’ With the Devil” with that big siren at the beginning and going into “Eruption” it was like “What is this guy doing?” It was so intriguing. That whole period—for guitar heroes—was so exciting. Then Randy Rhoads came around shortly after Van Halen and his classical influences within the Black Sabbath context was just mind-blowing to me.



PM:

Edward Van Halen changed the way guitarists approached the instrument with a style that seemed to open up endless possibilities. The release of early Van Halen records were like an event because of that excitement and anticipation of what this guy was going to do next.



MS:

Exactly! The first two Ozzy records with Randy Rhoads were the same way. It was amazing. I can remember calling the record store and asking, “Is it in yet?”. Now all you have to do is download it.



PM:

That trailblazing spirit doesn’t seem to exist among guitarists today like it did in the late ‘70s to the mid-‘80s. What can you attribute this to?



MS:

That’s a good question. I find that a lot of the younger players are bombarded with too much information. They have the internet and tablature…we’re kind of overexposed to a lot of stuff. With the way technology and the media were back in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, you waited for a record to come out, you didn’t have these phrase samplers to learn from. When I got my chops, it was through literally taking the needle of the record player and picking it up, moving backwards and forward on a vinyl record. You had to work really hard to learn that stuff. I didn’t just get on the internet and “bam” here is the tablature, because there was no internet. I tried to get inside the artist’s head. You sat there with this 12x12 album cover, you looked at it thought “this is so cool” and popped on the record and thought about what it may be like to be this guy, or “what’s this guy like”. Now you have them on T.V. and you’ve got streaming audio or video on the internet. With today’s technology, you don’t even have to be able to play an instrument, because you can cut and paste using pro tools. Kids today can cut and paste in their bedrooms with a computer and come out with a great sounding product, whereas a band like Van Halen would go into the studio and play together as a band. People don’t do that anymore.



PM:

Over the years, you’ve been involved in a number of tribute projects.



MS:

The first tribute that I did was the Alice Cooper Tribute band. I kind of fell into that situation by accident. I friend of mine was playing with them and their guitar player had quit, so he called me up to join the band. The next thing I knew I was tooling around the East Coast playing Alice Cooper stuff. I don’t remember too many tribute bands being as popular as they are today. Nowadays, there is a tribute for everything, there are even tribute bands for groups that have only been around for two years. When we went out, I didn’t realize how many people were still into Alice Cooper. But I realized that you can see a pretty good re-creation for about five or ten bucks verses paying $50 to $70 to see the real thing.


After the Cooper thing ended, I put together a Journey tribute band devoted to the Steve Perry years of the band. At this point Journey had broken up. Steve Perry had gone solo and Neal Schon was in Hardline. I decided that we would it until Journey got back together. While we were doing it, I got the opportunity to meet Neal Schon—who was a huge influence on me—when he was touring with Paul Rodgers. The Journey Tribute lasted a couple of years and then I did an AC/DC tribute. I was with a band called Shag that had released a couple of records and my guitar tech had an AC/DC Tribute band going on the side when he wasn’t working with me. So I did that, which was a lot of fun. Now I’m doing a Foreigner Tribute called Stranger. Lou Gramm, Foreigner’s lead vocalist was diagnosed with a brain tumor several years ago, and they did a benefit for him here in Rochester. Lou wanted to donate all the proceeds to the children’s foundation of Strong Memorial, which is a cancer hospital here. I was invited to participate in the event, so I put a band together just for that one show. At sound check on the afternoon of the event, Lou showed up and he liked us so much that gave us his full endorsement to take this as far as we could. It’s kind of snowballed from there.



PM:

You mentioned your band Shag. Was that your first attempt at putting your original music to the test?



MS:

Yes it was. After the Journey tribute, I was doing an acoustic duo with a friend of mine playing little juke joints a couple nights a week. I had gotten frustrated doing covers and I had been writing material and just wanted to see how it would fare. I got together with some other musicians who felt the same way about cover material. We did pretty well. We played all over the Northeast, put out a couple of records and as fate would have it, all good things come to an end.



PM:

Your latest album, Oxygen, is your first as a solo artist. Was it important to establish yourself from the previous projects you were involved in?



MS:

Yeah. I was a major songwriter in those bands anyway, but I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it on my own.



PM:

What kind of feedback are you getting from the record?



MS:

Actually it varies. I appreciate people’s honesty. If they like it that’s great, but if they don’t, I like to know why they don’t like it. I realize that everybody has an opinion and not everyone is going love everything. The things that people don’t like about it, I really do like to hear about it because, being an artist, I always want to improve. You take it for what it’s worth and you try to grow from there.



PM:

One of the most refreshing aspects of Oxygen is that it has absolutely nothing to do with what’s popular on the radio. The record has a definite ‘70s/early ‘80s rock vibe to it.



MS:

Well that’s pretty much where I came from. I’d have a hard time trying to do something that doesn’t feel right, or doesn’t feel genuine or honest.



PM:

Who were the other musicians that contributed to the record?



MS:

In addition to the guitar and vocal chores, I did some of the bass work on the album. I used a couple of different drummers—Michael Maenza and Rob Mount. I did use a couple of different bass players when I was looking for a certain feel that I wasn’t very proficient at. Aside from that, it was pretty much me.



PM:

What’s the significance of the title of the wonderful acoustic instrumental “0797”? Was that the date the composition was written?



MS:

That goes back to my grandmother. She was born in 1907, and 1997 was the year she passed away. She was such an influence on me, that I had written that song while she was alive and I wanted record it and to give it to her. There was actually a vocal line with it. I didn’t get to record that until after she passed. It is actually a dedication to her, kind of along the lines of Randy Rhoads’ “Dee”.



PM:

The only other acoustic tune on Oxygen is “Promise” which is an excellent song. It kind of reminded me a bit of Extreme’s “More Than Words” with its lively acoustic work and seamless harmonic interplay. Speaking of harmonies, impressive vocal harmonies are prevalent on most every cut on the album. What is the influence there?



MS:

I have to go back to Journey, the Eagles, all of the bands of that era that I grew up listening to. I couple of other people have mentioned the Extreme similarity. I didn’t listen to that much of Extreme. Of course everyone heard “More Than Words” when it came out. They were however, a great band and I totally respected them.



PM:

Your bread and butter are they straight-ahead rock numbers. Songs like “Call My Name”, “Love For You” and “River of Sin” immediately grab your attention, not to mention the fact that they are definitely radio-worthy tunes. What are your favorites on the record?


MS: I like “Promise”, and “River of Sin” was kind of neat to record. But it’s really hard to say. There are days when I really like certain cuts and other days when I wonder what I was thinking. It’s a love/hate relationship.



PM:

Please explain to me the origin of the album’s last track “I Love You Mama”.



MS:

That was me when I was about five or six years old, sitting in my room with a record player and tape recorder and doing my best impression of where I wanted to be in my life. That was just me as a kid, making up lyrics…kind of a precursor to what I’m doing now. I always knew what I wanted to do, but I never thought I would end up doing it.



PM:

Are you touring in support of Oxygen?



MS:

I’m doing some spot dates here and there. I’m opening up for national acts that come through town.



PM:

Where might one purchase Oxygen? MS: Right now they can buy the record at www.MichaelStaertow.com. I also have T-shirts and other merchandise.



PM:

What’s in the future for Michael Staertow?



MS:

I’m doing pre-production for my next CD. I have about 15 songs demoed, just trying to figure out the strongest cuts to put on the record. I played on two cuts on an album by a gentleman named Phil Naro who was the former vocalist of the band Talas, that also featured bassist Billy Sheehan. He’s also played with Peter Criss (Kiss). He’s getting ready to tour in support of his record and I’m going to play guitar for him. We’re supposed to do some dates in Europe and probably some dates here. I’m just trying to cram everything in.

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