Currently the drummer with Wishbone Ash and having worked with such diverse figures as A-Ha, Asia and Noel Richards, MIKE STURGIS is a music biz veteran. He spoke to Mark Chatterton.
Mike Sturgis may not be a name that is well known in contemporary Christian music circles, but this American drummer, based in London, has played with Noel Richards and Matt Redman and also sat behind the kit with such well known names on the mainstream as Norwegian popsters A-Ha and '80s supergroup Asia. Mike is currently the drummer with Wishbone Ash, the '70s group famous for their twin lead guitar sound while his most recent hit is providing the drums for the Children In Need chart topper "Perfect Day". Mike was offered that particular session through a friend of his, Simon Hanhart, who had produced and engineered an album he had played on by the group Psycho Motel, led by former Iron Maiden guitarist Adrian Smith.
"Simon was doing the engineering and co-producing for 'Perfect Day'," said Mike, "and the drums and the bass were the last things to go on the recording. The guys who co-produced the record (Music Sculptors) said to Simon, 'Do you know anyone?' and he recommended me. Unfortunately, none of the musicians were credited for their part, which was a great shame, but that's the way these things go. I'm still very pleased that I've done the track and been a part of it. Although I've played on a couple of top 10 singles with A-Ha, this is the first time that I've had a number one record. It's a great feeling to turn on the radio or walk into a shop and hear yourself playing. The fact that all these famous personalities were involved was pretty amazing and the fact that it was for Children In Need meant that it was just a win/win opportunity all the way around."
Mike, originally from Onalaska in Wisconsin, has lived in London for just over 10 years now, having first arrived to take up the role of drummer in the A-Ha band in 1986. Prior to that he was at the University of Miami in Florida studying music, having moved there from Wisconsin, at the age of 21 with a wealth of experience from playing drums in several local bands. Mike said, "It was when I reached the age of 21 that I decided that I really wanted to study music. It had been my greatest passion since the age of 10. When I was a kid I grew up listening to a lot of early Beatles stuff, as well as Alice Cooper, Uriah Heep, Deep Purple and other groups like that. The first concert that I actually went to was Edgar Winter with Black Oak Arkansas. I started off playing drums then I took up a bit of piano for a while when I was younger, but I really didn't stick with it. It did give me a working knowledge of harmony and theory however. I went to a local university in my hometown first and played in a jazz band there. But there wasn't really much rock in my playing until the end of my course at Miami. The actual degree I took was a Bachelor of Arts in studio music and jazz. It's a great programme if you want to study music and very practical."
Mike's Christian faith has been a part of his life from an early age, but it wasn't until he was a student at the University of Miami that it really made a difference in his life. "Christianity has always been there in my family, but not in a way that was too serious. I remember as a 10-year-old watching Billy Graham and being really struck by him and I really felt at that point that I was a Christian. But as I went through my teens it was something that I just didn't take too seriously, so it wasn't until I got to Miami that I really re-introduced my faith into my life. By doing that it actually created a lot of problems for me in the environment I was in and with the people I was living with and working with at the time. It caused a lot of conflict, but thankfully even my friends who weren't Christians stood by me. There were a lot of things that I was trying to work through and I think that socially I became quite awkward in certain ways!"
Mike's musical career took off in a surprising way shortly before he completed his course in Miami. Said Mike, "I was two weeks away from graduating when I got a call from a friend who had been at the same university the year before. He told me that he'd just gotten the gig as the keyboard player with A-Ha and he'd convinced the guys to fly me over and give me an audition. I asked him when I needed to be there by. He said basically last week! This was on a Sunday and by Wednesday I was on a plane to London. Before that I actually had a discussion with my professors. They said this is what you've been training for over four years to do. It would be silly if you didn't take this. I just had to submit a couple of assignments and then they gave me the go-ahead to leave the course a couple of weeks early, passing me without any problems. There was literally no gap between me finishing university and being out on the road with A-Ha."
A-Ha by then had four top 10 hits, including the chart topping "Take On Me" and "The Sun Always Shines On TV", but they had not actually toured as a band. This had led to them having a massive teenage audience. Mike had quite a shock when he first met up with the band in London. "I flew into Gatwick and was driven straight to their hotel in central London where a press conference was taking place. There were hundreds of fans outside the hotel and MTV and all these press cameras were that and I thought, 'What the heck have I got myself into!'"
After nine months on the road with A-Ha, Mike was in the line up that recorded the theme song for the next James Bond film, The Living Daylights. A-Ha then did another three months touring before Mike decided to remain in London! This called for a strong belief in God's leading. "I felt this strong sense that basically this was where God wanted me. I would say that was the main reason why I stayed in London. I was someone who was not legally able to work, as I didn't have a work permit at the time, so it wasn't an obvious choice. Now as I look back, I can basically see all that God has done in my life from that point onwards and for that I'm very grateful."
One of the first things that Mike did was to find himself the support and fellowship from a caring church. "After I got off the A-Ha tour I was looking for a church," remembered Mike, "and I saw some people doing some open air evangelism in Holland Park. I asked them where they went to church and they said 'Holy Trinity, Brompton.' They gave me directions and being new to London it seemed kind of complicated, but then they said there was another church which they'd just started just round the corner from here called St Barnabas. As I lived by Holland Park it seemed the right church for me and 10 years later I'm still at St Barnabas. They've been a great support to me. There are several other musicians who attend there as well, including Bryn Haworth and Richard O'Connor."
By the autumn of 1987, after working on a musical project called 'Phenomena', Mike met up with John Wetton, then of Asia. (John had actually played bass on Larry Norman's 'Only Visiting This Planet' album back in 1973!) Said Mike, "John told me that he was putting the band back together and invited me to come down to play with them to see how it worked out. I went down and had a jam with them and it went pretty well and as a result I spent most of 1988 hanging around with them, writing and rehearsing, basically waiting for them to get a record deal. It was quite a complicated scenario. In the end as they hadn't signed a record deal I felt that I had to move on. After that I was kind of adrift, but I felt strongly that I should stay in London, even though with regard to work permits it was not very practical. I then hooked up with a band that were signed to Polydor called Summerhill, a very REM-style band, quite different to what I'd done before. The album got good reviews but never really sold that much, so after a year or so that kind of fizzled out."
Mike's next band was 21 Guns, a band put together by former Thin Lizzy guitarist, Scott Gorham. "I'd been in contact with Scott Gorham a little bit and he wanted to start up a new band called 21 Guns," explained Mike. "My friend Leif Johansen who had played bass with A-Ha started writing songs with Scott and after a showcase gig we signed a major deal with RCA in the autumn of 1990. Basically the next three years of my life were taken up with 21 Guns. By this time I had met and married my wife Lorna, so I was free to do what I wanted and I hit the session scene again. I got hooked up with Asia again for a second time and recorded the album 'Aria'. It was then through the recommendation of Mervin Spence who had worked on the 'Phenomena' project that I was put in contact with Andy Powell of Wishbone Ash and joined them. This seems to be the way my whole career has worked, knowing somebody and they give a good word for you and then you get a chance to prove yourself and on it goes. With Wishbone Ash it was a baptism by fire, as we had to learn about three and a half hours worth of material for the first gig. Then gradually they cut the set back to about two hours. It's been great. Another group I've been involved with in between my Wishbone Ash commitments has been Psycho Motel, a group which was formed by the former Iron Maiden guitar player, Adrian Smith."
On the Christian scene Mike has worked with several big names. "I did a tour in 1996 with Phil And John which was great fun and I've also recorded with Noel Richards ('Dangerous People') and Matt Redman (a couple of tracks on 'The Friendship And The Fear'). This has mainly been through the efforts of Les Moir who I had first met in 1988 when I went down to Kingsway Music and introduced myself. Nothing really came of it, but I was playing with a covers band, As Is, doing a gig in Bristol, and Les happened to be at this gig. He saw me play there and we got talking and renewed our acquaintance, so when the time came for Noel's album to be recorded he remembered me and got me involved. Then there's another guy called Andy Piercy (ex-After The Fire) who is a worship leader at Holy Trinity, Brompton. I got to know him through church. He was producing Matt's album, so when the time came for those tracks to be laid down he got in contact with me."
Just before Christmas Mike played at a charity concert for the charities War Child and Goal. War Child is musician-based and Goal is sports-based. "Basically, what they do is that they help victims of war and the two of them combined forces, so we had a night of tennis players and rock stars getting together having a big jam session at Cafe De Paris in Leicester Square. Again it was a great privilege to be part of that event. I did a set with Bruce Dickinson, Adrian Smith and the other guys from Psycho Motel plus Scott Gorham. That was a lot of fun and after us Plant And Page came on stage to do a set. Then lots of other people like Mica Paris, Arthur Brown, Pat Cash and Yannick Noah all came on stage to jam."
On the domestic side, Mike is married to Lorna whom he met through
church. They now have a daughter, Briony, who is 16 months old. "I
think the travelling side is always the hardest bit. Being apart from
Lorna and Briony is not easy. For instance I was away for three months
straight after we were first married. For Lorna it's even harder now
that Briony is around. We just take it one day at a time and consider
each offer of work as it comes up. Thankfully, I've not had to face
the dilemma of a major world tour, wondering whether I should take it
or not. The other difficult side that affects Lorna and I is that
being a musician is not a nine to five job, so you don't know where
the money is coming from. We see it as a tremendous faith opportunity
although we're not unaffected by worries. It's often Lorna who is more
convinced than me that the music business is the right place for me. I
really don't think I'd still be in the music business if it wasn't for
her. I guess we both see it as a calling for our marriage and family.
Without her support I couldn't do it."