The Altar Billies

posted in: Articles, February 2015 | 0

The Altar Billies are one of the most solid and entertaining bands out there in the rockabilly genre. As diverse as the scene is and as different as many of the acts sound, Mike Stand has found his niche along with Johnny X on upright bass and Chuck Cummings on drums. They just released their second album, but it is the first full length from the group. The interesting thing about this style of music is how diverse each song can be musically, but with all the varied influences in place, the sound is best defined by the term “punktry” which I read on their Facebook page.

When you consider all the bands Mike Stand has been a part of, you realize each different element and sound has existed in some capacity in his other work. You can hear the progression of his playing from Altar Boys and his solo work, on down to Clash of Symbols and now Altar Billes. The new album Head’n Out West is exceptionally solid. Johnny X attacks the standup in a precise manner, the bass pounds out the rhythm and really sets the pace. Stand’s guitar work shimmers all over each song, the pluckin’, strummin’ and jangly punch of fast paced good ol’ rock n roll. Rounding out the band is Chuck Cummings on drums (can’t believe we’ve never interviewed him before). Chuck Cummings has played in so many notable bands that it would be difficult to remember them all. I first remember seeing him in Uthanda, but he has left a mark on just about every other band you can think of including the original line-up of Aunt Bettys. The drumming on here is the heart of this band, and it’s great to see Chuck Cummings in a rockabilly outfit, it fits really well.

Okay, so below is an interview I did with Michael W. Stand. It was fun to do because I love how Mike elaborates on his musical influences and it is a definite trip through rock n roll history!

Steve: First question is that I am really curious about music that inspires you in the Rockabilly genre?

Mike Stand: Good question.

First of all, the genre is pretty broad and the lines often blur between rockabilly, country, rock, bluegrass and gospel. People often ask me: “What is rockabilly?” I tell them it is rock, bluegrass and country mixed together with a dash of hiccups! This answer either leaves them with a puzzled look, or a smile on their face.

With that said, I am enamored with the pioneers of rockabilly that really had no template or guidelines when they started this genre. They just fused together all their different influences and more-or-less made it up as they went along. Also note, that many of the early rockabilly tunes were older rhythm and blues songs just given a whole different treatment: for example “That’s Alright Mama” by Elvis (often referred to as the first official rockabilly song ever recorded in 1954) was written by Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup.

With that background in mind my inspiration varies, but I’m looking to guys like Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent, Johnny Cash, pre-army Elvis, Buddy Holly, Johnny Burnette and the Collins kids. Guitarists: Scotty Moore, Joe Mathis, and Grady Martin.   There were a ton of other acts that kind of slid under the radar including: Conway Twitty, Charlie Feathers, some even include much of what Creedence Clearwater did as rockabilly.  And there are today’s artists: Reverend Horton Heat, Brian Setzer, Junior Brown, The Knitters, Moonlight Howlers, Buzz Campbell (who is a really great player and nice guy by the way), and Lee Rocker to start.

I’m also a huge fan of the Dirt Daubers (the kinder gentler side of the Legendary Shack Shakers). Mark Robertson who played bass with Altar Boys for a number of years plays upright in both groups. Recently I discovered a great new rockabilly artist out of Australia named Pat Cappacci.

There is also a great online rockabilly radio channel that I listen to a lot called “Rock’n Therapy Radio” (RockabillyWorldWide.com). It is quite eclectic and boy do they play some crazy, great, weird, and off-the-wall-rockabilly – I love this station! It features both old and new rockabilly bands and artists. And not the usual guys, but a lot of underground acts

You know most of modern day Rockabilly really is on the musical fringe (except for maybe Brian Setzer), it will always have a cult following, but I doubt will ever be hugely popular.  That’s ok because it keeps it on the cutting edge and less trendy.

This is the first “proper” release for you guys (in a sense), what was the recording process like for the band?

In late November 2013 we went into NRG studio in LA with the idea of recording 14 basic drum and upright tracks. Mike Eckes, a good friend from church, works at NRG so he was able to block out a whole day and evening for us.  My son Keith went along to help and to learn how the recording process works in a professional studio. In 12 hours time we finished all 14 basic tracks.  Both Chuck and Johnny’s playing was tight and nearly flawless.  I laid down scratch vocal guitar and guitar tracks – which were less then stellar, but again – they were scratch tracks.

So once we had the basics finished, it was my turn, and this was when it really got fun! Over the years I have “massed” a few good mics, pres, and the like, so I have some decent gear – not great – but good enough. My church was gracious enough to give me a room to setup and work in, so I started chipping a way at guitar overdubs.  I worked my sessions around my job, family, and everything else that was going on.  On many a Friday night, I would leave to work on the project at 9 pm, work until 2 am, go back home catch a few hours sleep, then be back down to the studio by 7 am and work until noon or so – sometimes longer.  I rarely did recording on a work night – I really need to be on my game at my day “gig” as a music teacher. Yet, because I am a music teacher, I get a sizeable break over Christmas and Easter. So I just kept this disciplined schedule and was able to get my kids where they needed to be while simultaneously working on this project.

I kept a detailed log of every session I did, jotting down settings, what I worked on etc.  Everything I did for guitar and vocal overdubs is outlined in this little book, it is very messy mind you, but it does articulate the process I went through to record and edit this project.  I finished most of the guitars on March 1. Then I started chipping away at the vocals. Some of the vocals I did at church, and a number of them I did at home on our “Blue Dragon Fly” mic.  As I am looking at the book right now, it appears we finished tracking on May 12. I made stems of all the tracks and handed the over to Keith Rogers at Project K studios – who did a superb job mixing the project.  He went above and beyond the call of duty! We recorded 14 songs and chose 12 of the 14 to finish.

It was decided that both “I’m Still Stand’n” and “Ballad of the Big Boy” would fit nicely on this project and since they were already finished products, it was a slam-dunk.  “The Ballad of the Boy” reprise was mostly my doing and is basically an added 4th verse with a historical narrative about this incredible locomotive that I pulled off youtube (public domain). All told I spent somewhere between 300 and 400 hours on Head’n Out West.  It was a lot of work and doable as long as I stuck to a strict schedule. The last month before we released it got kind of crazy, I spent a few long nights finishing up the mixes and working on the mastering with Rich Renken.  With my son’s graduation from High School and all the activities going on in the family at the end of the school year, it got kind of, well, a little sticky at home (we’ll just leave it at that), but somehow we managed to “get ‘er done.”

This band is a really solid project, it seems like this music is a fitting place to land for your artistic journey. I feel like there are influences and elements of the rockabilly sound in Altar Boys and your solo projects, and Head’n Out West seems like the culmination of that. Agree or disagree?

I totally agree with you.  And what you are describing is what Johnny X brought to light so many years ago when we started hanging out together and playing music.  This whole idea of undiscovered rockabilly influences in some of my songs was the genesis of this group.  Johnny went though a number of my songs on Full Circle, and a few other songs and pointed out the rockabilly influences and “leanings.” The very first demo he gave me was a rockabilly version of “Against the Grain.”  It was all there, I just needed someone to help me connect the dots, and Johnny was that guy.

It’s funny though, because before I bought the infamous “GLM Tele” in Altar Boys I had an old Gretsch in my hands that I was ready to plunk down a whopping 250.00 dollars for.  But a “friend” of mine wanted to just “play it” for a few days. Oh yeah he played it for a few days and then bought it out from underneath me.  With that said, it could have easily gone the other way, but history shows that the path I traveled down is the way it all supposed to be – destiny you might say. But things could have just as easily turned out differently.  But better late than never, as what I am doing musically now really fits.  A good example of being drawn to a new style of music can be seen when George Harrison discovered Indian Music, of course him going all “Indian” was at the expense of his “rockabilly” roots.  So I am not sure whether that was a good trade off or not? HA! I do say that tongue in cheek as eventually he came back around in his later years and had numerous jams with the likes of Carl Perkins and other rockabilly artists. In my case, it has given me a new lease on making music, which I thought would never happen again.

What would you say has been one of your “go to” albums as a favorite from your entire output?

As of late, probably both Full Circle and the second Clash of Symbols record, Begging at the Temple Gate Called Beautiful. Bobby Harty was great to work with on Full Circle. He really “made” that record, and is a fantastic engineer, guitarist and producer.  Bobby has found his niche writing music for a number of TV shows. But to be honest I really don’t like listening a lot to “my” music – it is just hard for me to be objective and enjoy it – I think most artists are like that.

For your history of music from The Altar Boys to the solo albums and then Clash of Symbols, I think this might well be my favorite… this music is so well rounded and puts the kick in with the standup bass and Chuck Cummings drum wizardry. How did you guys end up coming together, the band has really got a diverse output with various projects in the past, but the varied talent really becomes something special on this record. How did you connect with Chuck and Johnny and how long did it take you guys to get the album together?

Well, we are glad you like the new project! Your favorite! Wow considering how long I’ve been doing this, I will take that as a huge compliment! Thank you!

First, the history behind Johnny and I meeting is quite interesting and worth noting. I remember seeing this guy walking through the church parking lot one day wearing a “Ramones” t-shirt.  And I thought to myself “There is someone I should get to know.” It was of course Johnny, and much to my surprise his wife and my wife were already friends. To top it off he had a son that was entering kinder at the same school we planned to send my son. So it was only a matter of time before our paths crossed, and became friends. Him and I connected rather quickly.

Sometime in 2006 I invited him to play guitar with me at a Wednesday night Bible study. We got to know each other on a musical level and I found out quickly that he was very talented.  He just had a good musical sense about him. One evening he showed me that demo of the first rockabilly version of “Against the Grain” that I told you about earlier. We started talking rockabilly and he made me a CD with a number of rockabilly groups on it and as I was listening to it I thought: ”wow, where have I been? This is great!!.”

One day we had a conversation about putting something together with him on upright bass, and me on guitar (of course), but I was still in the middle of my masters program and didn’t have a lot of time on my hands to start a new project. But as soon as I finished that degree, along with a second teaching credential I dove right in.  At first, the idea was to just pick and choose a number of songs from Altar Boys, Clash of Symbols and my solo material.  We recruited a drummer from church named Chris Cummings, and he played most of the drums on the first Altar Billies project. After about a year, Chris decided this just wasn’t the music for him. We needed a drummer and I instantaneously thought of Chuck. So, I gave him a phone call and we met for lunch.  He decided to give it a try. When he came on board we really took a huge step forward. Chuck brings so much to the table.  Like Johnny, he is good people. Down the Line really needs to do a feature on Chuck, he has soooooo many stories, and as you know he has played with everyone!!

So with Chuck on board, we released our first little project in 2010 featuring tracks with both Chuck and Chris on drums. We were still trying to figure it out.  Some of the songs came out pretty good, but it was a first effort, and the idea was to just get something out there. We are all especially fond of “The One,” particularly the instrumental version, which is an unreleased song by the Altar Boys by the way.

Again the original idea behind Altar Billies was to just pick and choose songs from my catalog, give them the rockabilly treatment, and go out and play a few churches in the area. Then a funny thing happened in early 2011.  I began writing songs again.  I’m not sure how or why it happened, I just sat down one evening when no one was around and gave it a shot and started writing a simple song called “Heaven Came Down To You” – a slower country ballad that I’m still undecided on what to do with it.  Then I decided we needed something fast and crazy, and within a few minutes I penned “Hold On.” The guys loved it! So I thought well maybe I can write a few more.  By the end of the year I had penned about 6 songs including “I’m Still Stand’n.”  It was a complete surprise to me, as I had not really sat down and done any serious songwriting in years.  You see, songwriting is like a muscle, if you don’t work it, then atrophy sets in.  I was sure I would never be able write a song at the same level, when I was at the top of my game.  It just goes to show you, ”that with God all things are possible.”

So I just kept writing songs, particularly in the summer months. I would bring songs to the band that I felt we needed, and then we would just arrange them accordingly.  None of the tunes are really difficult, it was just a matter of making sure we knew them well enough before we went out and played them live. Particularly my parts, I am sort of the weak link in this group when it comes to that: making sure I have all the lyrics memorized, guitar parts figured out, ya know things that used to be easy for me when life was simple, but is a little more difficult these days.

None of the tracks for Head’n Out West were easy to write, they all took me a while and I am fond of each song.  I suppose if I had to go with a favorite track it might be “Ballad of the Big Boy.” I am such a huge train enthusiast (I drive Johnny and Chuck crazy with my fine knowledge of trains that they could care less about). So when I came across the news that Union Pacific was going to restore Big Boy steam locomotive 4014 back to running condition I was like “yeah! How cool!” I always thought it was a pity to see this steam giant sitting idle in a train museum (but beautifully kept in great condition by the folks at “Rail Giants,” I might add); permanently kept from doing what it was intended to do – fly down the rails at full throttle. It is no surprise then that those in the railroad community wildly celebrated the news about the future restoration of Big Boy 4014!

For yucks I did a search to find out if anyone had written a song dedicated to “The Titans of the Wasatch.” After all, there was plenty of great songs written about other trains: “Orange Blossom Special,” “Wabash Cannonball,” “Casey Jones,” and “Mystery Train,” to name a few.  I reasoned that someone must have penned a song about the world’s most powerful steam locomotive. I was dumfounded to discover that not a single song was dedicated to this monumental piece of railroad history. I thought to myself: “What? This isn’t right.” I decided to have a go at it and see I could write a song that would honor and capture the essence of this locomotive. I researched the specs and information about The Big Boy, and used it as a resource to help form the lyrics of the song. Within 2 weeks time I had composed the “Titans of the Wasatch (Ballad of the Big Boy).”

So that is the story behind that song, but each tune on Head’n Out West really does have a story of its own, and an important reason why I wrote it. I will end this by saying it is an amazing experience working with Johnny and Chuck, there is no way I could even come close to doing this without them. Altar Billies is by no means “Michael W and band, ”we are very much a group. Sure, I might write all of the songs, but without their input and honesty there is no way it would work.  I’ll never forget Chuck’s comment when he first heard my demo of Head’n Out West, it was something to the affect of “yeah, you might want to keep work’n a little more on that one.” If they tell me a part or a song is not quite right, I believe them and fix it, especially when they both agree on something then I know I am had. That’s what makes this endeavor work, is that we collaborate with the idea of lets make the song work, and that is such an important factor for any group to function properly.

Altar Billies has also been playing a good bit live, are there more plans to keep playing live and any chance of branching out and hitting the trail on a tour?

Yes, we play about 2 times a month. Speaking of which, I had mentioned earlier that when we started the Altar Billies figured we would be playing for local churches in the area.  Winds up that we rarely play churches, it isn’t for lack of trying, it just kind of wound up being something different than we first envisioned.  We have been performing at a lot of street fairs, clubs and other events and it looks like we are going to be regulars at a wonderful facility called the Anaheim Packinghouse District (an upscale indoor food mall with an amazing atmosphere and setup).  In most situations, we do about half covers and half our own material. As of this writing we just booked a gig at the Anaheim House of Blues on September 11.  What we really want to do is continue to be a light in the rockabilly community in Southern California.  We are hoping to be included on more “bills” with local rockabilly bands; I am convinced that is somewhere we need to be. I mean we have been going that route to some extent, but we are trying to make this occur on a regular basis. With that said, there is plenty of work to do here. We may do “one off” festival (fly in date) or something, but with work and family it is sometimes just enough to do what we do locally.  I will say there are plans to do an online/internet performance late in fall, as well as a new video for the song “Aim’n High” off Head’n Out West.

Let me close by saying thank you for supporting us veteran musicians that have been doing this for a while.  Also, Chuck and I (Johnny is quite a bit younger than us) are living proof that you are never too old to try something new or take on new challenges.  There is no reason to let age or the past hold you back. We look in the Bible at so many that were called in their later years, like Abraham. This notion that when you reach a certain age you have to spend your time on the golf course is nonsense. It might not be your thing to want to start another band, but there is plenty of work to be done for the kingdom “the harvest is ripe and the workers are few.” I am grateful that God has given me another chance to play and write, it was unexpected, but it has not been without a price.  I don’t know how long it will last, but even if I were to stop now, this was a huge success and good investment of my time, treasure and talent.






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