All I Wanna Do, Is Find The Place Where I Melt Into You
Photos courtesy of Mike Stand
The Altar Billies (L to R): Johhny X, Mike Stand, and Chris “Cowbell” Cummings.
Mike Stand really needs no introduction here. The lead singer / front man for The Altar Boys is steeped in history within this music scene, and will still be around for a long time to come. I was excited about getting an interview with Mike for a couple of reasons. I love The Altar Boys and I still spin their records (yes, vinyl) routinely at my house. I also appreciate Mike’s solo output. His first solo record Do I Stand Alone was a musical milestone in my life. It was one of those albums that – when I first heard it as a teenager – made me feel okay to be me… or it made me feel a little more okay to be me. I felt that it was okay to question, to be honest and to speak up. It’s a great record. The Altar Boys were revolutionary in the Christian music scene. When they started there were very few bands making this kind of music. There was The Lifesavers, Undercover, Martus and maybe a couple of others. They were one of the first to be sure, and they left a mark upon this music scene that still holds up well.
Mike was kind of like a ghost for a long time. I tried adding The Altar Boys to my MySpace friends list but that didn’t work, I tried FaceBooking him but that didn’t work either. Obviously Stand isn’t really his last name and I had no clue what it was. I had just about given up on finding him when Beth Jahnsen from Take Two Productions came through and hooked me up. I want to say thanks to Beth and to Mike for this interview, it was a joy to do. Mike first contributed to our last issue dedicated to Gene Eugene, and that is up at our website so check that out if you haven’t already. Mike had some great answers to the questions – there’s history here and what he’s up to now which is very cool. This is just straight question/answer stuff to make it an easier read – enjoy!!!
When / how did you first get into the industry?
The Altar Boys first recording was in 1983 with Dan Willard on the MRC label. We recorded “Where’s It Gonna Lead You” for a compilation with Undercover and other bands, it was called What’s Shak’n. We put out the first Altar Boys recording in March of 1984 followed by 4 more recordings.
Can you give a little back story on the Altar Boys and how that came to fruition?
In 1980 I committed my life to Jesus Christ and began working on my salvation with “fear and trembling”. I began playing in a Christian rock group called “Image” with my cousins Jeff and Bill Crandall and a guy named Armand Barocio. We were not really that good, but it was a start. The band lasted for about two years.
Anyway, Bill and Armand kind of dropped out of Image after about a year and we got a different bass player along with Ken Tamplin from Shout but that really didn’t work either. Jeff and I decided to form a different band – the Altar Boys name came later. Ironically, we auditioned lead singers, and someone who could be a front man. I had no intention of being the main songwriter, singer or front man – it wasn’t even on my radar. As you might guess we couldn’t find anyone who fit the bill, so at some point I decided just to do it – I suppose it worked out in the end and was meant to be.
I remember in 1981 I went to see my brother’s band “The Lifesavors” play and became inspired. I became good friends with the guys in Undercover and began writing songs with a more punk feel to them. I kind of felt that I was just writing Beatles music that was sped up. We did experiment with ska and light pop, but I think we did the “power punk” (or whatever you want to call it) the best. Hence, you see the results of what I was really going for on Gut Level Music, When You’re a Rebel had hints of it as did Against the Grain. By the time we recorded Forever Mercy we had kind of strayed from our original sound – bad move.
Our first bass player came as a recommendation from Undercover, he stayed with us for about 2 years until Ric joined the band – that change improved the band greatly. Steve auditioned for the group in May of 1982 – he was a real good fit.
We played our first gig at First Baptist church in Fullerton in July of 1983. I have some great photos from that gig. We were well received. After that first performance the band sort of took off and we played anywhere and everywhere, about 10 times a month… I suppose the rest is history (With a small h).
Out of curiosity, how did you become a believer?
In 1980 I decided that I needed a Savior. I was never a drug addict or alcoholic or into stuff like that. I definitely had my issues, and still do, but I just came to a point where I knew there was a God and that it would be better if I started working out my faith “in fear and trembling.” I know, not as exciting as some people’s testimony but I bet mine is more the norm. I think we often give more credence to those that came from the gutter, rather than rejoicing in the fact that any conversion really is a miracle.
Why was straying from the ‘original sound’ a bad move in your opinion? Do you think that you lost fans, etc.?
Growing up I always enjoyed those bands that tried new things or altered their sound a bit – the best example is the Beatles. But the Altar Boys are not even close to the Beatles, but we sought to be a little more melodic on Mercy. But our fan base loved the hard driving stuff. With that said, the Mercy project was just so different, it had its good moments but everyone wanted to hear Gut Level Music. In the end, the music did not “work” very well in the live setting. Hence we pulled mostly from our older material – even at our reunion concerts the only song we did from Mercy was “Forever Mercy.” Ric and I have often talked about Mercy and what were trying to do, and kind of where we went wrong. Yet, some people love Mercy and it is their favorite recording – so what do I know? We were hoping to do a 6th record called No Substitute that really was basically more in line with Gut Level Music, but we just could not seem to get back into the studio. Some of those songs were used on the Clash of Symbol’s first recording while others are not going anywhere.
Being one of the forerunners in the scene, what type of obstacles did you encounter and have to overcome as a band?
We really did not have a huge amount of obstacles. Most people were very gracious to us. I think one thing that did bother us a bit was the fact that some churches would host our band and used our popularity to bring in kids to their church – not a bad thing – but we would play for 20 minutes while they gave a 30 minute sermon. That wasn’t every church mind you, but I kind of felt like that was a little deceitful. In essence the kids didn’t get a concert by The Altar Boys, but were duped into coming to hear a Bible study that we happened to played at – and it was not advertised that way. Bible Studies are great, but I always felt that if a person took their time out – and maybe paid money – to hear us, then we should make it worth their effort. All in all, that really irritated me and the guys, and try as we may, it was difficult to communicate that to our hosts. Again, I am all for communicating the Good News of Christ, but let’s not do it in such a way that the message is hindered by our actions, and let’s do it in a way that it shows respect and love to others. Some of these churches even admitted that we were simply bait, at first I was okay with that, but gradually I realized that this type of attitude really wasn’t an accurate or a fair assessment of our ministry. Again, this did not occur at every church we played at and some bands have no problem with this type of arrangement, but it did happen from time to time and I just am of the opinion that we can all do a bit better when it comes to the way we evangelize.
When you look back on the years of The Altar Boys, what is it that comes to mind? How do you think that your band marked/impacted the scene?
When I look back, I always tell people that I wished I would have done two things differently: Enjoyed it more and trusted God during the difficult times. Without going into detail, I think I let some things really “get to me.” Sometimes the pressure on us really was overwhelming. We put ourselves into a position that required so much effort, planning and energy. We had very little tour support and most of the details were really left to us to figure out – most of the time the responsibility was on me to workout the details… to the point that it often distracted me from focusing on what I was really supposed to do (play music and do ministry). At one point the guys even came to me and said “Man, you just seem to be so scatter brained.” They were just concerned, but I already I knew that I wasn’t on top of things. I was just so distracted by all that I had to do to keep this “machine” going. That isn’t to say that Ric, and particularly Jeff, didn’t do “their” part, it just kind of wound up that a lot of things were on my shoulders. We did go through a number of managers, and we sought help, but there was still a lot gaps that had to be filled in and I had to do it. Be that as it may, God was faithful even when I wasn’t, and His hand was always on us… always! I am not sure what impact we had, I suppose we were pioneers in some ways, but in all fairness I think guys like Undercover and The Lifesavors really were the catalyst that got us going. Without them I do not Think Altar Boys would have happened like it did.
How did the decision come about to do your solo albums?
In 1987 and 1988 I had written a number of songs that I knew would not fit on an Altar Boys record. I approached Frontline about doing a solo project, and they agreed to sign me up – it was a nice outlet, and it also put more coins into their pocket. Nevertheless, I put together a great band – Tim Chandler / bass, Dave Raven / Drums, and Rob Watson produced it – everything really fell into place, it was really an enjoyable record and I think it came out well. In 1990 I decided to do another recording – again, I did not consider these songs to be in the vein of the Altar Boys. We were going to hire Rob again but Rick Elias kind of worked his way in and won me over. Not as enjoyable of a record. Rick did a good job on many things, so I am not dissing his production ability, but there was some tension during the project that was non existent on the Stand Alone record. We used “his” band for the project and while they were very good, and rose to the occasion, it was obvious that they were “Rick’s band.” In the end I do believe Simple Expression came out equally as well as Do I Stand Alone and it was the last project I did with Frontline. Both solo projects were very different, but I look back at them fondly…. I think in many ways maybe Simple Expression might be just a little better…. but Stand Alone has some stronger moments if that makes any sense.
Are there any future plans for the Altar Boys?
Funny you should ask that question. I’ve just started up a rockabilly version of the Altar Boys called The Altar Billies. It really wasn’t my idea, for the past 7 years I have been hanging with this guy named Johnny X. Johnny plays drums, guitar, and upright. At one point he mentioned to me that he thought a lot of my music could be done in the rockabilly style and format. He even did a demo of Against The Grain and won me over. However, for the past few years I have been working on a master’s degree and second teaching credentials so I have been basically been “dead in the water.” To make a long story short, the Altar Billies is up and going and it is wonderful…. the guys are great and more importantly I get to play the songs again and my “ole Tele.” Since we are all dads, have families and careers, I am not sure about touring and the like, we’ll just take it as it comes. In the mean time, it is great to do ministry in this format
What do you think about the digital revolution when it comes to music in this day and age?
I think the digital revolution is great. I mean now bands do not have to go though record companies to get their songs out there. With MySpace and you tube one can get access to the entire world. Also, it is now possible to record a great demo or entire project right at home on your computer. The Altar Billies did an incredible demo on Garage Band. That program is kind of considered low budget by most people, but our demo sounds great. So no longer do you have to go into a studio to get a good product. If one takes their time they can do something really great that is close to, or equally as good in quality as, almost any studio.
Any plans to record with the Altar Billies, or any music that will be released for sale?
Anything really is possible and I think we will do some recording. I plan to get a Pro Tools set up (just LE). That first demo I did on Garage Band and I think it sounds pretty good actually! Tonebox Records distributes most of the Altar Boys music on the net (iTunes etc…..). So, any Altar Billies project will most likely be made available for download through them. It could possible include the three songs that one can hear on The Altar Billies MySpace page (“Against the Grain,” “Listen Up,” and “Live”). I have several unreleased Altar Boys recordings and other material that may finally see the light of day including a favorite instrumental I wrote in 1989 called “Altar Boys Go Skating.” We have renamed it “Hayride Billies”, sped it up to a fast bluegrass pace and put a twang to it, and it’s a good’n! There are many other songs as well, the sky really is the limit with these guys. Johnny X and Chris “Cowbell” are excited about the “Billies” and are looking forward to putting as much time as they can into this project (balanced with family, job, and church commitments).
What would you say to any new bands starting out?
Funny you should ask that, I have made mention of this very thing in several of my blogs and in my dealing with different Christian artists I have met – including one that just came though our church today. But in short I would encourage them to protect their hearts, and to “enjoy” it. The evil one will do everything he can to bring you down, I think he especially targets Christians who are musicians because he was once “in charge” of leading the angels in worship before the Lord God. So I suppose he really has it out for those of us that are engaged in this act of worship, because he cannot stand to see all of the praise, honor and glory go to the Lord.
Do you still merchandise for sale?
We still have a number of When Your a Rebel, Full Circle, Simple Expression, and Sunday Is An All Together Different Proposition CD’s. The thing is that most of the Altar Boys, Clash of Symbols, and my solo material is available for download through iTunes and other sites. However it looks like CD’s will become obsolete very soon, who would have thought? So, what technology will they come up with that will dethrone iTunes and Napster? It really is an unbelievable time that we are living in, so many great opportunities for musicians, but there was a charm about the old days when the album covers were as important as the music. Then again that was then and I suppose that now it all has charm of its own. As a matter of fact, my son insists on having a “cover flow” for every song on his iPod. He seems to get it… I guess he’s a lot like his old man!
Thanks again to Mike for taking the time to do this interview with me! I’m sure you readers are wondering what the other members of the Altar Boys are up to now, so below is a little update section!
“Currently, I am the Worship Pastor at High Desert Church in Victorville, CA. Jenny and I now have three children, Ben 8 years old, Ryan 4 and Sam 2. I graduated from the International School of Theology in 1994 with a Masters of Pastoral Studies Certificate.
God has taught me a lot since The Boys stopped playing together. I’ve learned a great deal about marriage and relationships. Over the years, my worship and musical experience in Christ has literally been transformed. I’ve learned so many new things that unfortunately the limited space in this newsletter does not allow me to elaborate. Once again, I want to thank you for all the support you gave us throughout the years. Many of you have continually prayed for us, and encouraged us in so many ways. Always remember that ‘You Are Loved.’”
“Hello everyone! A lot of changes have happened in my life since I stopped playing with the Altar Boys. My family and I lived in Nashville and Oregon for a season before settling right back here in sunny Southern California. Perhaps the biggest change of all has been the addition of my now 8 year old son Sean and 3 year old Hailey. They are the ‘apple’ of my eye.
Since coming back to California I’ve been blessed with a very successful landscape business. It’s great to be working outdoors as a landscaper. Love the Lord and remember, there’s no substitute for volume.”
“I first saw the Boys in about ’84 or ‘85. I had only been a Christian for a couple years and was excited to find that you could be a believer and still play good music! I remember a friend telling me ‘These guys are great, you should start a band like this.’ I said, ‘No, I should be in this band!’ I became an Altar Boy in August 1990 and stayed ‘til August 1991. It was a year that I will always remember as one of the major highlights of my career.
I felt strongly that God was leading me away from Southern Cal, so I packed up and moved to Chicago. I briefly joined a band called The Stand, then took over bass duties for Rick Elias. I also sing for my own band This Train, which is now signed and taking up most of my time. I also began producing records. I’ve produced about 15 or so by now, which is a whole lot of fun. I also had the great privilege of playing for 4 years with Rich Mullins, who became a close friend and mentor to me. He taught me a lot about music, got me involved in Native American missions, and helped me become a stronger Christian.
Perhaps the greatest happening is my recent marriage to Janel. The only way to describe her is: what a woman. She’s all I’ve ever wanted and more.”
After recording his Holes in the Floor of Heaven album, Ric has been dedicated to finishing school. He is working on his degree in social work and spends most of his time working with organizations in the fight against AIDS. He also has a side project called ‘Chef’s Hat Boxing’, but because of his current schedule the band only gigs once a month.