When you’re a fairly unknown local act, it’s no secret there is more money playing cover songs instead of playing your own. Familiar tunes in a cover band or tribute act situation is an easier sell at a large venue like the House of Blues or the Granada.
For musicians who are songwriters at heart and want to make money from playing gigs, it can be a major compromise. It’s either play a show with your own songs to friends and family and hope some money comes in, or play someone else’s songs to a packed house and make a good payday at the end of the night.
Then there are exceptions, like what Mike Mroz and his bandmates have. They have found a way to play both ways. Doing double-duty as a guitarist in AC/DC tribute act Back in Black and playing originals in Stripwired, Mroz gets to play AC/DC classics as well as songs he has written with his band.
Both bands play all over town and recently played Texas Live in Arlington and the House of Blues here as well the Houston location. Only a few weeks ago, Stripwired released a new album called Another Shot. Paired with the single “Run,” the band has a lot of comparisons to AC/DC’s music but with some twists and turns AC/DC wouldn't do.
Lead vocalist Darren Caperna is a hometown hero. As someone who can sing like Bon Scott and Brian Johnson, Caperna auditioned for the vacated lead vocalist spot in AC/DC when longtime shrieker Johnson could no longer continue to tour with the band. Despite a great effort in the audition, the band chose to go with Axl Rose.
For Mroz and his longtime friend and bandmate, the roots of their partnership go way back.
“We’ve been doing this Back in Black band for 19 years, going on 20,” Mroz says. “We’ve built up this great fan base all over the U.S. Darren and I have been writing since 1990, and we wrote hundreds and hundreds of songs. We just had the itch to do something creative and doing an original record.”
Mroz and Caperna, along with drummer Ken Schiumo, bassist Sheldon Conrad and guitarist Ramiro Noriega, play almost two sets a night. They first come out as Stripwired, do a handful of original songs and then return with an all-AC/DC set. With the 11-song Another Shot available at shows on CD and vinyl, it’s an easy way to sell the merch. They sold out their copies of the album at the Houston House of Blues.
It’s a way to make money in a day and age when it’s even harder to make a living playing music. Mroz, who spent 20 years working in the video game industry, now devotes all his time to playing in Stripwired and Back in Black, as well as running his music school in Southlake, For Those About to Rock. The schedules balance out quite well.
“I do that during the week,” Mroz says. “I teach kids. Try to keep rock 'n' roll alive. And then on the weekends, we do Back In Black and Stripwired.”
Stripwired has made albums before, but they were made at home with a basic setup. For Another Shot, they decided to work with local Casey Di Iorio at his Valve Studios. The band and Di Iorio did not know one another, but after Mroz had a number of conversations with industry insiders, including the late Vinnie Paul, that led to a union with Di Iorio.
“He’s a sound Jedi,” Mroz says of Di Iorio. “He’s got such a great ear. He really impressed us.”
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Recording in a proper studio was big for Stripwired, as they had a chance to rerecord some older songs along with new ones for Another Shot.
“Being a musician, it’s always a lifetime goal to hear your stuff on vinyl,” Mroz says. “We just saw an opportunity, and we got something really unique here.”
Mroz’s two-sided band has had their fair share of issues, with personnel changes and addiction, but now, they’re in a much better place personally.
“All of a sudden, we got a little bit older and smarter,” Mroz says. “I’ve got five guys in the band that don’t drink, they don’t do drugs, they all want to work hard. And we are really boring on the road, but we want to work hard and life is great.”