In 2017, singer Mike Stand was looking at a future where he was unable to sing. The circumstances would bring to him a voice from the past: his own.
Stand was known as the passionate lead singer of the Christian punk/alternative band the Altar Boys. Active from 1982 to 1992, Stand (vocals and guitar), Jeff Crandall (Drums and BGVs), Steve Pannier (guitar) and Ric Alba (bass, BGVs), who stepped down in 1990 and was replaced by Mark Robertson, paired the wild abandon of the American punk scene, typified by bands like The Ramones, with the convictions of their beliefs. What started as no-nonsense passion and vinegar matured very well. They released five studio albums. Stand also had several well-received solo albums. When the band dissolved in the early-90’s, Stand formed a new band, Clash of Symbols.
Between the last album, Forever Mercy (1989), and the first CoS album, Sunday is an Altogether Different Proposition (1994), work was done for a new Altar Boys album called No Substitute. Mark Robertson had joined the band as bassist, but things did not go as planned. The album remained a tantalizing “what might have been” pipe dream for fans.
The pipe dream is becoming real. Currently in the Kickstarter funding process, a completed No Substitute by Altar Boys could soon be in hand. Find out more at: http://kck.st/2u5OGuB However, the record was never a certainty, and it arrives after a considerable hardship for Stand, as you will learn in the following.
As a listener, I was thrilled to learn that the “lost” album was about to be found again, and even though I recommend Stand’s later efforts with the rockabilly cousin The Altar Billies, there is something particularly satisfying about the open-ended chapter of No Substitute coming to a close.
Stand is an engaging interviewee – so much so that I found my questions almost disruptive to the narrative he was providing. Here now are his responses to my questions, edited in large part to offer you Mike Stand, in his own words. You will understand why that is meaningful in just a few paragraphs.
Stand: Forever Mercy was released in 1989 and my solo album Simple Expression was released in the summer of 1990. I started writing No Substitute in late-1990/1991. Two things initiated it. Altar Boys tried some different things with Against The Grain (1987) and Forever Mercy. At the end of the day, I wanted to make a record that was closer to When You’re A Rebel (1985) and Gut Level Music (1986).
That’s when Mark Robertson (This Train, Rich Mullins’ Ragamuffin Band, Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers) joined the band. Our original bassist Ric Alba brought a great energy and artistic aspect, but Mark had a different twist on things. It was energizing. He brought something to the table – he does that, really, with every band he’s in.
That inspired me, and I began writing the record. The sessions began in July 1991, we took promo photos, had t-shirts made, and the artwork process began…then around late-August or September of that year, Mark decided to move to Nashville. Steve (Pannier) decided to move, too. That kind of took the wind out of our sails.
At the same time, we wanted to renegotiate our contract with our label, Frontline Records. We were finding that difficult. There were all sorts of roadblocks going up. At that point, we just decided to let it go. It just wasn’t meant to be. There was never a feeling of going back and completing it. It was…just never meant to be.
I moved over some of the songs to my next band, Clash of Symbols. We did “Surround Me” and “Give Our Hearts Back To God” on that first record, Sunday Is An Altogether Different Proposition (1993).
In 2015, we were going to be a part of a video, done with Chad Ashton of Kountryjoe Productions. He wanted to do something to document the band. With that, the Altar Boys would record two songs. He really liked the song “Rebel Rock” and, I think, “No Substitute” would have been the other. In the end, for various reasons, we decided to completely abandon this idea
One reason for the change of heart had to do with my current projects with the Altar Billies (a rockabilly band that initially presented Altar Boys songs in the rockabilly style, but evolved into its own thing). We’d just finished one record (Head’n Out West) and we were considering starting another (Long, Long Road), and it just didn’t feel right to me, going back to Altar Boys territory.
In 2016, Dawn and Beth at taketwoproductions did a Kickstarter campaign for the 2005 Broken Records label reunion concert to be released on DVD. The concert had performances from the label’s roster like Undercover, The Choir, Altar Boys, Crumbächer and 441. I was pretty involved with that, and that showed me there was still a real interest in this music and, also, what we did as a band. Unfortunately, it didn’t fund. In the meantime, Altar Billies did Long, Long Road (2016), and I did a solo, three-song e.p. for Thumper Punk Records. However, it just stuck in my mind that there was this interest (from fans) that was still there. I’m always thinking ahead about the next thing to do. Some Facebook friends were also talking about the album No Substitute, asking about its existence. I said, ‘yeah, it’s there,’ but I didn’t want to go back and re-sing it. I wasn’t in that place anymore and just felt I couldn’t pull it off vocally.
But the interest was still out there, so I wondered how I would be able to release it. I started floating the idea of having other bands record the songs that had been written for No Substitute. Shared that idea with some friends…and they said, ‘that’s a really stupid idea, Mike.’
We had a bunch of mixed demos from the project. I’d come across them once in a while and think, ‘oh, that’s too bad’ that we didn’t move forward with it. At the same time, I never felt like the project was really complete. It always felt like there was something missing from what we’d put down. I couldn’t put my finger on it.
It wasn’t until…Chad from Kountryjoe Productions and I were doing some production work for Altar Billies, and I shared my ideas about releasing No Substitute with him. He said, ‘you know, Mike, you’ve got these unreleased recordings. Why don’t you release them?’ I just was like, I don’t know. Chad insisted I take a look at what I had there already.
Now, there’s another dimension to this story going on that I haven’t mentioned yet. I got really sick, starting in March 2017. I had really severe vocal problems and I was suffering for a lot of months. I didn’t talk much about it, but it was really bad. I couldn’t sing, I couldn’t talk. We’d do a gig and I would be hoarse afterward to the point where I could hardly talk and my voice started to hurt. Here, I’m a (music) teacher, and I couldn’t sing. I did just about everything I could to get over it, and I just could not recover.
I went to my ENT specialist and he confirmed I had severe vocal nodules. I went through drastic voice rest, speech therapy. I tried everything. I took a month and a half off – total – from speaking. That was really hard. I couldn’t communicate with people. Finally, I was referred to Dr. Varma at UCI (a top notch ENT surgeon). He took a look down there and said, ‘you are a mess, you have hemorrhagic vocal lesions and have to have surgery.’
I didn’t want to do it. I have friends who have had vocal surgery, and they hardly have any voice left now. I thought it was the end, that I’d never sing again, that I should retire…I was convinced that my life, as I knew it, was over. I wasn’t worried as much about not singing again as I was that this was my job. I just didn’t know what to do. I prayed, ‘Lord, what do you want me to do? I don’t know what to do! Am I going to suffer like this for the rest of my life? Is this it?’ I was trying to do everything right. One day in early September during one of my daily three-mile walks, I just stopped in my tracks and looked up. I said, ‘Lord, you want me to have the operation. This is what it’s going to come down to, isn’t it?’
In late-September 2017, after many visits and waiting it out, the doctor said, ‘you have to let me do this. I can fix you.’ It wasn’t life threatening but I was terrified. It was really hard. I had the surgery on September 25. Dr. Varma removed all the growths from my vocal cords.
I was off for three weeks after that. Now, I don’t take sick days. I work through everything, but now I had nothing to do. I could talk, but very lightly, really soft, and it was hard to understand me. It was here when I went back and revisited the No Substitute tapes. They say that God gives you something when he takes something away from you. Through this time, I was able to re-engage with these recordings.
So on September 26, the day after my surgery, I spent ten hours repairing the tape machine – it was a basket-case. Fortunately, I was able to get it up and going and began listening to the original raw No Substitute tracks. I couldn’t believe it. I was just blown away. I brought my son Keith in to listen to what I had, and we went through it song-by-song. I couldn’t talk, so I just wrote down stuff and eventually asked him, ‘what do you think?’
He thought we could do something with it. That really began the process of looking at the album No Substitute seriously. We made a transfer from analog to digital, starting on September 29.
Our original “quick mix” from way back was not as good as what my son could do. Too much reverb, lousy vocal compression, and I couldn’t really hear what was actually happening there. My son did a a remix of it, and I could hear things clean, without all the effects and delays. I sent it to the guys in the Altar Boys– Mark, Jeff, and Steve, along with Chad Ashton, Rob Goraieb from Clash of Symbols, Adel at Frontline and just a few other friends. I simply asked, ‘what do you think?’
I then prayed about it, this is around late-October now. I talked to my son about what we should do as well. Thought about what was needed to complete the record and thought about guitar parts. We soon realized that the transfer we initially did was about a quarter-tone to a half-tone flat. We’d need to do another transfer.
My son works in Los Angeles and he’s out there for two weeks to a month at a time in various studios, mainly working with producer Warren “Oak” Felder. When he came back in November, we set to do another transfer. That took about six hours to do it properly. Then I started doing overdubs, really working on it and getting serious about it.
I’m grateful for there being a purpose, if you want to call it such, for my illness to cause this album to emerge. Now, if I had been given the choice of not being sick with the probability of the album not being completed, would I have chosen that path? To be really honest, yeah, I didn’t want to go through all that with the nodules on the vocal cords, and I would have been very happy to never have done so, even if No Substitute was the casualty because of it, but I have to be honest. It was a very scary time, very uncertain, and I had no idea what my life was going to be like during that period.
My health is better and I can share about the struggle now because it is in the past and winds up being a good ending to the story. When things happen with your health which are that traumatic, it affects you on so many different levels. I have this new awareness when people are going through things, how that affects them. I have a greater understanding and empathy of how suffering can change a person’s perspective, and overall mental and spiritual health.
The record is basically done, except for the bass tracks. Mark’s in Nashville, so he’ll send his bass tracks. Steve Pannier’s here in California, and he laid down his guitar parts in December 2017. Jeff (Crandall) did a lot of the background vocals and did what he could on drums, and my son finished up the rest.
This record, No Substitute, is really, really good. I think people are going to be surprised. I’m surprised! It’s good, it’s solid…I’ve put about 200 hours into it, in guitars, background vocals, and arranging. I’ve worked really hard on it.
What’s also surprising is how little of it I’d have changed – then from now – a few lines, but not very much. I’m actually amazed at the quality of the lyrics, the arrangements. There were a couple of the songs I was considering cutting to bring the album to an even ten tracks. One was a bit slower, a ballad…but Mark and the rest of the band really liked them. I said I was a little ambivalent, but they responded, ‘well, you sure sang it like you meant it!’ So, the songs stayed. The deeper I dug into the stuff we had, the more surprised I became. I’d hear this part that was so meticulous. How did we figure that out?
One of the songs, “Let Me See Your Hands” starts in the key of B flat, the verses and chorus are in C, and the song modulates between these two keys. “Light of Freedom” is just beautiful. This version of “Surround Me” is off the charts. “Give Our Hearts Back To God” – good stuff. “Outside In The Distance” is beautifully done, it’s nice! That one starts with the chorus as opposed to the standard verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus and out. I am my worst critic and still, I’m blown away by what we did on these songs.
Half the songs on this album are anthems. They’re all singable, and they’re all songs that could be done acoustically. I’m really thrilled by how it all sounds. I put a lot of thought and creativity into what I do, in whatever capacity it appears in – as a solo record, or Clash of Symbols, Altar Billies, and Altar Boys – but you never really know how you’re going to think about a project you did many years ago and are now focusing on again. I’m really glad that No Substitute is very likely going to be released, of course pending full funding on Kickstarter. All of the guys in the band believe in this project and acknowledge the obvious: ‘that with God all things are possible.’ It truly is a miracle!
No Substitute by Altar Boys is currently a Kickstarter campaign. Find out more at: http://kck.st/2u5OGuB