SARATOV, Russia — A once-flourishing Soviet scientific hub, this decayed-but-reviving city perched on a wide stretch of the Volga River is an unlikely battleground for the future of rock and roll.
But battleground it has become, one electrifying rock guitarists — from the greats to the greenhorns — from around the world.
Leading the charge on one side is a 64-year-old bluesman turned businessman, Mike Matthews, the American creator of some of rock and roll’s most famous sound effects. On the other side is the sometimes shadowy world of Russian business.
The prize battle is a vacuum tube factory called ExpoPUL, located on a corner of a disused former military-industrial complex in Saratov.
For musicians, ExpoPUL represents the raw, reverberating sound of true rock and roll guitar.
For the Russian company targeting ExpoPUL for a takeover, the factory and its production capabilities constitute a prime piece of real estate.
“They picked a fight with the wrong group,” said Matthews, speaking by phone from his office in New York. “We’re going to fight, and we’re going to win.”
Rock and roll legend
The story begins with the solid state semiconductor (aka the transistor).
Many music companies, along with TV and radio manufacturers, long ago replaced tubes with the more reliable transistors. And though guitarists, who covet the broad range and “warmth” of tube amplifiers, were horrified by the new sound coming through their speakers, there was little they could do little to keep the vacuum tube industry from collapsing.
That's where the Bronx-born Matthews came in. Sensing business opportunity and a way to save classic rock and roll sounds from extinction, he bought ExpoPUL in 1999.
“All the companies that made vacuum tubes in the West had closed,” Matthews said. “It’s an archaic business. It’s a niche business.”
In seven years, Matthews quadrupled production and more than doubled the workforce at ExpoPUL. Today the factory supplies more than two-thirds of the world’s tubes used for music, sold to music giants like Fender, Peavey and Korg. Matthews’ $500,000 investment has paid off handsomely, with ExpoPUL selling $600,000 a month in tubes.
Guru for guitar greats
Before buying ExpoPUL, Matthews was already a legend among rock musicians. The inventor of the “Big Muff” guitar pedal, he has been recognized by guitar greats like Jimi Hendrix and Carlos Santana.
“Almost every rock star has used one of our pedals somewhere along the way,” said Matthews, a keyboard player and one-time promoter of Hendrix.
So the rock and roll world joined in a chorus of protest last fall when a Saratov company called Russian Business Estates, or R.B.E., made an unsolicited attempt to buy ExpoPUL for $400,000. “That’s less than I invested when I bought the factory,” Matthews said. “I wrote them a polite letter saying no.”
That’s when the trouble started.
“They’ve used jackhammers to stir up dust in the facility,” Matthews said. “They shut down the elevator where we remove toxic waste. And they illegally turned off the electricity.”
Attempts to get R.B.E.'s side of the story proved difficult. One company director, Vitaly Borin, ordered security guards to remove an NBC News team from an R.B.E. office in Saratov. Another representative, Alexander Bandarov, said by phone that the fire department, not R.B.E. turned off ExpoPUL’s electricity, citing safety problems. “We have no problem with ExpoPUL,” Bandarov said.
ExpoPUL’s director, Vladimir Chinchikov, says the tactics are typical of some Russian businesses, which pay off government officials and judges to help them “steal” companies by employing heavy-handed methods.
“It’s corruption, plain and simple,” Chinchikov said. “They want us to vacate the building. We hear they want to build some kind of entertainment complex. They are not interested in the production line.”
Rock and roll livelihoods
Though few of ExpoPUL’s 930 workers have ever met Mike Matthews, they are keenly aware that the survival of what was a dying industry — and their jobs — depend on a graying American rocker’s ability to fight off what he calls “racketeers.”
“We know Mike will fight for us,” said Svetlana Shlyatsin, who has assembled tubes for 36 years at ExpoPUL.
Matthews is preparing for battle. He has ordered a $100,000 transformer and an independent natural gas supply to prevent further interference from Russian raiders. And he has rallied his music industry friends and clients to turn up the volume of protests. Fender, Peavey and Korg have written to the Russian government while U.S. Ambassador to Russia William Burns and Saratov’s governor have pledged their help.
“Now these racketeers are going to face the music,” Matthews said.
Peter Stroud, who plays guitar for singer Sheryl Crow’s band, said in an interview from Atlanta that the music industry sees Matthews as “a very unique, eccentric genius. If this tube plant closes in Russia, tubes will become very, very scarce.”
Russian rockers are also voicing their support for Matthews.
“The tubes are a real, actual Russian product that many companies in the world use,” said Vitaly Dubinin, bass guitarist for heavy metal band Aria. “It’s nice for Russia that we don’t sell only oil and gas,”