Michael Sturgis - 2001 interview with drummer extraordinaire

In The Spotlight - Michael Sturgis
Interview with Michael Sturgis
Written by: Luigi Cisaria (July 2001)

Whatever album you are listening to, it might just pay to check the musicians playing on it. Somewhere along the way you may just find the name Michael Sturgis appearing on it. Sturgis has had a wide and varied career thus far, and has acquired a reputation as a hard working individual capable of using his talent to fit the occasion.

With a love of both jazz and rock, Sturgis is from the multi-dimensional school drumming. An American by birth, but a current native of London UK, Mike is also a devout Christian, and with Glory Daze's Luigi Cisaria, shares some ramblings on both music and life.

Welcome Michael. To kick off, you've been described for the better part in the media as a 'Human Metronome'. That's a pretty impressive comparison for a human drummer! Who or what inspired you to take up drums in the first place?
The honest answer is that I'm not really sure! I come from a musical family where we were all encouraged to learn an instrument. I had to beg my Dad to let me take up the drums - he was a trumpet player and that was what he wanted me to be too! With regards to the 'human metronome' thing, it's a nice compliment but I really don't do anything different from anyone else. It probably came from doing loads of tours that were full of sequencers and tapes and having to play along with those. These days, nearly everyone has to do that to some extent.

You graduated from the University of Miami School Of Music. You've done some other tuition and more recently you've been involved with the Academy of Contemporary Music at Guildford in the UK. How important to you then, are the technical aspects of percussion and drumming, for anyone wanting to aspire to that higher level?
To quote a great drummer named Billy Ward (Joan Osborne) 'Drumming is not a track and field event.' I do think it's important to have enough technique on your instrument to develop your own style and sound. Where those boundaries fall is really up to the individual. You can become so obsessive about technique that you might begin to sacrifice musicality. Equally, you need to have enough of the fundamentals together to express what's in your head on to the drum kit. The time and energy you spend working on technique needs to be compatible with your musical goals - for example, if your goal is to play in Dream Theater, I recommend that you put in some serious hours on technique.

You've worked on many projects over the years including: A-Ha, Phenomena, Asia, 21 Guns, Psycho Motel, Wishbone Ash as well as smaller and not so well known artists. Obviously they saw something in your playing, but the styles are quite different, say between the pop side of A-Ha versus the heavier side of Psycho Motel. Did you have to make major adjustments to your style?
Not really. I've always made it a goal to try to be as authentic as possible in whatever genre I happen to be playing at the time. Amongst the bands you've mentioned, you'd be surprised at the similarities between them if you really broke it down. Production can sometimes create an illusion that one band is different from the next. Even though A-ha is known as a pop act, the overall feel was rock, and I played as hard with them as any of the so-called heavy bands I've worked with.

I come from a background of playing jazz and I feel like it prepared me well for playing lots of types of music. The key is to familiarize yourself with whatever style you want to play through lots of listening. If you can also keep good time and play with a wide range of dynamics, you've got most of the battle won.

I suppose for many, you came to prominence playing alongside Leif Johansen and the guys from A-Ha. You did the 86/87 worldwide tour with them, including an extensive run in the USA. Do you have any recollections of that tour?
Absolutely! I could bore you for a long time with stories from that tour. Maybe I could sum it up in two words: screaming girls! I'll never forget how hard we worked rehearsing for the tour and the management saying they'll never hear you anyway! Nothing could have prepared us for the first gig - it literally was a continual screamfest for the first three numbers of the show before any kind of a break came.We couldn't hear a thing of ourselves on stage - very freaky!

Anyway, that tour will always be very special to me as it was an incredibly exciting time - I count myself very fortunate to have been involved. A friend of mine from Miami named Dag Kolsrud was hired as the band MD and got myself and Leif Johansen an audition. Just hanging out in London as much as we did was a great experience. In fact, I liked London so much that I decided to stay (this turned out to be much more difficult than I thought it would be!).

The time spent with A-ha was a huge learning curve for me in many respects and a very valuable experience. Lots of fun, but I was quite ready to move on after 18 months on the road.

Also, most people reading this interview will recognise you from your work with 21 Guns. Scott Gorham and yourself played on the Phenomena II project. So, was this how the band came together?
Yes! I had known Leif for years but the two of us came to know Scott through the Phenomena project. Keith Murrell was our original choice for singer but he turned it down.

Tommy Laverdi was an interesting choice for your singer. We remember his work with 80's band A=440. His transition to 21 Guns was an awkward one at best?
Singers are tough to find! Leif and I had remembered Tommy from his work with A=440 as they briefly supported A-ha on the US leg of the tour. We knew he was a longshot, but Leif knew Matt Bissonette really well from college and just phoned him up to see what Tommy was up to. Scott flew out to LA to meet him and the rest is history. I really rate him as a vocalist and think his work on Salute is amazing.

What is Tommy up to now?
I'm not really sure - still based in Oslo, I think!

What was the situation with Solli (ex Sons Of Angels vocalist) coming in to do the vocals for the second album 'Nothings Real'?
That contact came through Leif as he was producing a band that Solli was in at the time. Tommy quit/got sacked (I can't remember which) from 21 Guns and we needed a vocalist. Solli fit the bill really well and gave the band a slightly different feel.

In 1994 you joined Asia for their 'Aria' album. Perhaps their most rockiest effort to date. Was it a challenge to work alongside someone like Geoff Downes?
If it had been my first time working with Geoff I would have been more uneasy but we go back to 1987 when we put together a line-up of Asia that had John Wetton and Scott Gorham. It was at this point that we recorded songs that would later go on Aqua ('Someday' and 'Who Will Stop The Rain') although I was never credited.

I think the biggest challenge about working with Geoff was that his production style was done with very little direction. This made me slightly edgy at first as I would have preferred more input. What I learned about him though was that he was always listening and knew what he wanted but wouldn't intervene unless it was necessary. If he was quiet, he was happy!

Working with him on the new CD (Aura) was great, especially with the addition of Simon Hanhart on the production team. He did the Psycho Motel 'Welcome To The World' CD and is fantastic to work with.

The 'Arena' album from 1995 took a different direction, yet the same year Psycho Motel came out. A bit of a contrast?
A lot of that was the influence of John Payne and Aziz Ibrahim - yes, a real mixture!

Lets have a look at Psycho Motel now. Very grunge oriented. I have to say 'State Of Mind' didn't do much for me, a bit too heavy and I found Solli's vocals didn't quite fit. What did the band think of the end product?
Well, it was something we were pleased with at the time and in all honesty there's still a couple of tracks on there I really like. I think we all wound up liking the second CD a lot more.

Were there any live performances to promote 'State Of Mind'? I know Solli departed not long after.
Not many - although we did support Iron Maiden once!

I haven't heard the whole of the second album 'Welcome To The World' only soundbytes. Would you agree though, that it feels much more of a band effort with Andy Makin's vocals fitting in nicely?
No doubt about it - although funnily enough the management felt just the opposite! They wanted it to sound like Maiden, anyway, Andy fit in great with the band and he and Adrian came up with some great tunes. A great vocalist and writer and a very nice guy!

In an interview Andy Makin said that Psycho Motel played a gig at Cafe De Paris doing original material and jamming with Scott Gorham on Thin Lizzy songs and with Bruce Dickinson on Wasted Years. It sounds like it was a great night. Do you have fond memories of that gig?
That really was a great night. Personally speaking, Dickinson is not my favourite type of singer but I have to say the guy is a real pro. He really made me play hard just through the sheer intensity of his vocal. Andy was great too, as was Scott and Adrian - amazing line-up! Page and Plant headlined that gig and I have to say they were awesome - legendary stuff. Michael Lee - wow! What a drummer!

You're more recent work has been with Wishbone Ash. They've been around for a while, and play a no nonsense no frills style of rock. Considering you're technical approach, did you find their material enough of a challenge for you?
In a word, yes! The music is more diverse than you think and there were tons of transitions and tempo changes along with the obligatory 10 minute drum solo! Andy Powell is great to work with - one of my all time favourites!

How do you feel about the current state of the music industry? Are you frustrated that bands such as 21 Guns, Asia, and Wishbone Ash no longer get the greater media recognition that they used to?
That was then, this is now! Things have to move on, and I welcome that. Its nice to have people around who are still into that music and appreciate it, but there's so many choices these days and so many great bands. I hope the manufactured pop thing will start to fade out soon and we'll see more bands in the charts.

Being based out of London gives you access to all sorts of musical projects. What have been some of your favourite gigs/sessions you've worked on?
I played drums on the remake of Lou Reed's Perfect Day, recorded for the Children in Need charity. It was amazing being on a track with all those people (Bono Bowie, Elton, etc). I've also been working with an amazing bassist named Stefan Redtenbacher on his upcoming solo album (check out www.stefanredtenbacher.com). Additionally, we've been working on an instruction book together (a play along) for drums, bass and guitar). All being well, that should be available soon.

I read also that you had worked with one of New Zealand's favourite musicians, Tim Finn. He's a bit of a musical icon down under, and obviously better known for his work with Crowded House. How did that come about and what did you work on?
It was on a Phil Manzanera solo album called Southern Cross, although I've never actually met Tim!

You're better known as a rock drummer, but you play a whole lot of different styles too. Tell us about some of those other non rock projects you've been involved with?
I've mentioned a couple already, but my background when I was first studying the instrument was in jazz, classical and concert bands. One of the better-known jazz musicians I've toured with is Bob James (keyboardist). That happened while I was studying at the University of Miami.

Being a drummer among drummers, who would you vote as your favourite? Sort of like football's player of the year voted by your peers!
All things considered, I would have to say the ultimate drummer is Vinnie Colaiuta. He is truly amazing, with virtuoso technique and wonderful feel in any style. However, there's just so many incredible players - how can you pick just one?

Would you like to make some comments about these top drummers: Neil Peart, Mike Portnoy, Billy Cobham, Buddy Rich, Cozy Powell, Narada Michael Walden, Rod Morgenstein
All are absolutely unbelievable players, but the greatest of all was Buddy Rich!

You are known as a committed Christian and you seem to have played mainly with secular bands. Have you ever encountered difficulties due to this or have your band mates respected your beliefs?
I'm sure they've all had plenty to talk about behind my back! To be honest, its usually fine - I know I've offended a few over the years but generally people respect what you believe. Some of my attempts to share the Gospel with colleagues have been truly appalling! I'm not vociferous abut my faith generally but I love it when you can get into a good conversation one on one.

If you could pick whoever you wanted to play with who/whom would it be?
There's so many! How about Sting, Michael Brecker, Weather Report, Soundgarden, Kings X, Eric Clapton and Tower of Power for starters?

Thanks very much to Michael for giving us his time during the English summer, and contributing to the Glory Daze Flashback segment.

All written content on this website belongs to GloryDazeMusic.com copyright. Duplication elsewhere on the Internet is strictly prohibited, unless specific permission is granted.

Sign In or Register to comment.