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Say Hello to the Andy Kaufman of Heavy Metal

By Brett Hoag Photography: Claudia Hoag

If you are unfamiliar with the native New Jersian heavy metal guitarist, Sergio Michel, don't feel bad. I had no idea who he was either until he was invited to perform at the Metal Hall of Fame Induction of Armored Saint at the Whisky A Go Go last July 13th by Metal Hall of Fame founder and CEO, Pat Gesualdo. Sadly, I only caught a smidge of his set as he was on last and I was hurrying out the door to try to catch some Armored Saint guys for a selfie (yes, I am a fan first!). However, the beautiful, discordant melodies that somehow worked cascading from the stage gave me pause to check him out. I'm glad I did and I hope you do as well.

I am sitting at Hoag Studio in Santa Monica, CA with guitarist Sergio Michel who divides his time between Los Angeles (since 2015) and Jupiter, Florida. Let me begin by thanking you for taking the time out of your schedule to talk with me today.

My pleasure, Brett.

How did you get the Metal Hall of Fame gig?

So, Pat [Gesualdo] is one of my friends and he actually came out and saw my set with Soulfy in 2020. Right before the pandemic, I did a national tour with Soulfy and Toxic Holocaust and when we hit the New York area Pat came down and since then we've been hanging out every time he comes out here. We were talking, I believe last year, and I told him, "Hey, why don't you do a Metal Hall of Fame induction here in Los Angeles?" He asked me to check with the Whisky A Go Go and get back to him about it and I left it at that. A few months ago Pat announced he was coming back and doing induction at the Whisky and asked me to be on the card. It turned out to be pretty good. It was a good event, totally worth it.

I agree. It was a fantastic event. I saw you have a few albums out on Amazon Prime and you have a band on those albums, but you were solo at the Whisky. Do you currently have a band?

On the last album, Tropical Depression, that was Rob Tucker from Jason Newstead and the Chophouse Band on drums. Unless it's that where there is an organic drummer, it's basically myself doing everything on the album.

So you're writing everything, playing all the instruments, and doing main and background vocals?

Right and then I learned from Yngwie [Malmsteen], you know it's like, just hire great guys to support you. My format for a long time was to get hired guns from big bands or signed bands that I know. I've had Bjorn Englen from Yngwie on bass, Leanne Bowes from Demi Lovato's touring band on bass, Sozo Diamond from Billy Gibbons' solo output on drums, and Steve Bolognese from Ross the Boss' band on drums. These are a lot of people that I know from bigger acts and when they have some downtime, I'm like, "Hey! Do you want to sit in for a couple of months? I've got such and such block of gigs lined up" and then when they are back with their real band, I ask other friends and I change them out."

Sergio playing yellow Stratocaster
Sergio shredding his yellow Strat

That's really cool, so how old were you when you first picked up a guitar?

Boy, I started very, very late. I decided at 4 years old, when I saw the Van Halen video for Jump on MTV, back when we had 16 channels and huge TVs made out of wood LOL I saw [David Lee] Roth jump and do his spink kick thing and I thought that would be a great thing to do. So I jumped off the couch and broke my elbow on the table LOL and that day I decided I wanted to be a mash-up of David Lee Roth and Eddie Van Halen. However, my mom didn't let me play. When I was about 16 years old I still wanted to play and she still wouldn't let me. Then right before I turned 17 I got my own guitar and like the minute I picked it up I ran notes like a Ritchie Blackmoore type of thing and it was like OK you were meant to do this. Since I was a little kid I wanted to play, but for some reason, it was withheld from me, but the minute I finally picked it up I took off running. Then around 18-20, I had a local band that went through the roof. Right after that, my first band was signed to Universal Interscope. After that, I figured out that now that we have and all kinds of internet music sites, Myspace was still around so you can publish your own music. I already owned my own copywrites, and I've dealt with the personal issues of being a band leader so I was like, maybe I can just do this by myself. So far, it's worked. then I branched out into acting. Around 2015 I decided that what I really like to do is play guitar and I figured out the hack you know, how to do this on a large level. I just need me, a little bit of money and band members to support me live and I've been doing that ever since primarily.

Sergio Michel and white Stratocaster
Sergio on his white Strat

I am a retired English teacher and as such, I always do my homework. To that end, I have been listening to your music in preparation for today. I am not blowing smoke up your behind as I don't do that, but you are a phenomenal guitar player. (Thank you!) I'm not just giving you a compliment here, I do have a question. Why aren't you a hired gun? I mean, you should be on everyone's freaking album.

It's by design. As I said, one thing I learned from Yngwie Malmsteen and watching Eddie Van Halen is that if you want to do something at an exclusive level, YOU have to be exclusive. So, for example, and I am not going to name names, but there is a very big 80s proto-thrash band where one of the members came from this other kind of big band from the 80s, Metallica and that's all I'm going to give you LOL But, I was approached last year and was told, "Look some of these guys are going to retire and they want to make the brand pop again. They want to make it a big band again. We like your stuff. You can be the principal songwriter and you will own a quarter of the band." My response was, "Well if I can give you your "Painkiller" if you let me do this if you let me bring your brand up to today. It still sounds like it was, but just a little heavier, a little faster so it sounds good today. I'll do it. But, if you just want me to be the guy that owns the same repertoire and we are going to go out there and pantomime. I'm very much against that. I don't want to see it. I don't want to be a part of it. Good day." Then that same year, there was another band, a big post-grunge band where the singer is my friend and their guitar player went kaput. He called me up and was like we can bring you in on tour. Then the day before the tour I had to resign over the internal drama of their stuff. I'm just not going to be a part of that, especially as a hired gun on tour. So, I've just always kept it in the back of my mind that if I want to do guitar at the level of those guys [Yngwie and Eddie], you just can't be available to everyone. With that always in mind, I've stayed clear of session work. Now, if a huge band that fits my genre calls me and says, "Hey, we're going to do this and let you run wild." OK. But if it's not the perfect situation, I'm not going to do it.

So, in other words, you're not in it for the money.

Right. I'm in it for the legacy. I don't care what people are saying about me today, what I care about is what are they going to say when my repertoire is complete and my era has passed. I'm working on history books, not today. I get that ethic from my Grandfather.

Oh, wow. Right on. Tell me about your Grandfather. Who was he?

His name is Sergio Michel as well. He is 94 years old. He was the winningest Triathlon athlete there was in his time, this was back in the '60s and he had to get a visa to participate in the Olympics. The Olympic Committee wanted him to switch his passport so he could compete as he was from an unsanctioned country (a country without an Olympic team at the time). He didn't want to do that so he told them to go fly a kite and he was banned from the Olympic team for life. So his whole life, even until today, he still runs a little in his age category, when he is not winning all the gold, he is winning the silver and bronze medals at world events and qualifying for the Olympic team every year and he never got it. This guy is considered by everyone famous, you know the major US Decathlon athlete at the time was huge, and the rest of that era looked at him as the best. You've heard the expression, "he's a musician's, musician? Well, he's a runner's runner." To this day he lives a quaint little life with my Grandma, but his living room? His living room is just ALL gold, silver and bronze. The house is modest, but that guy must be loaded. LOL We don't ask. What it taught me was that the collective doesn't matter. He's the best whether he ran in the Olympics or not. The guys that mattered, the guys that were actually being called the best were like, "No, no, no. That guy's the man." So it taught me that I don't need to be accepted by the masses. At the end of the day, I'm a national headliner, I headline the Whisky, I played the Metal Hall of Fame show, I tour the country with Live Nation acts, and I'm on national TV acting in soap operas that have over 1.5 million viewers. Those are accomplishments in themselves. I think that accomplishments are better than notoriety. I make music for the legacy, not the money.

Sergio Michel with both Stratocasters
Sergio and the two loves of his life

That's very noble to be sure, but it begs the question. How do you pay rent?

LOL Ooo. That is a tricky one. I have actually been able to make a living through various business ventures, legally but in an anonymous way.

You mentioned that you were acting in some soap operas. Where can people tune in to see you?

One in England is Fearless Heart, and a famous one from Mexico is called Marido En Arguiler as well as Dama y Obrero.

What would you say to someone who wants to be a musician today?

So, a lot of people say they want to be a musician, right? If you want to be happy just playing music, you can do covers at a local dive bar and that's good. However, if you want to be the guy on the cover of Guitar Player Magazine you can do that, but you better be ready for starvation and trouble such as backstabbing, lying, cheating and girls that want to be with you because you're famous and then leave you as soon as you don't have any more money. All of these horrible things come with being a musician on a high level or an actor or whatever you seek to do that is different there are going to be hangers-on and people with bad intentions.

Speaking of music, let's get into your last album, a double masterpiece entitled Tropical Depression. The music is fantastic. Your riffs, solos, transitions, etc. all weave a spell musically and it is just freaking unreal. Your guitar is literally soaring at points and then you have these deep, muddied death metal-style vocals. How would you describe your style of music?

So, it's intentional. There is a lot of dissonance in my music. It's not sour notes, it's all in key. But I like to mess with the modes. So where your ear wants to hear da da da daaaa (up an octave), I go da da da doooo (lower octave). And it's like, "What the hell?" I do that with my vocal too. Instead of singing the same straight melody, I'll drop where your ear wants me to go high or I'll say this should be sung in a more traditional hard rock style, but I'll growl it out for the hell of it. Just to be a troll. It's not for everybody. But my natural vocal style is like that of Tom Araya.

You mentioned in a text prior to sitting down today that you are aware that your music is a niche. People either get it and love it or don't and don't. Can you speak more about that?

I don't want to sound pretentious, but there aren't many people that can play the way I do. It's like a test pilot versus a commercial or fighter pilot. You know there are many skilled commercial pilots and many skilled fighter pilots, but then there is that crazy son of a bitch that's wearing a space suit flying some experimental plane into the atmosphere not knowing whether it's going to blow up or not. That's me. I'm doing crazy stuff on purpose, live and seeing where it goes. Kind of like a Ritchie Blackmoore type of attitude. Ritchie Blakcmoore said that he likes to hear guitar players that are reaching for something. That's why he liked Jimi Hendrix. Hendrix was improvising and he didn't know what he was going to play next and this creates a weird tension. It's like watching a guy on a tightrope, "Oh, he's going to slip! Oh, no he didn't." That's my attitude toward making music. You can say everything is familiar, but it's something else.

Who are your musical influences?

I listen to Weezer, The Misfits, Yngview Malmsteen, Eric Johnson, Depeche Mode, Frankie Avalon, and Elvis. I came from the CBGB hardcore generation, I was a teenager in the 90s and we all dressed like Jerry Only from The Misfits, but I listen to all these bands that don't really go together. However, I grew up on the Jersey Shore and those two environments, CBGB and the Shore are mutually exclusive. But somehow they come together when I make music. It's like Punk music about Art Deco! You can say everything I do is familiar, but it's something else.

To wrap this up, Tropical Depression came out in 2021. What do you have on the horizon?

I'm putting out my next album next January or February. And October 31st in Hollywood, CA and January 23rd at the Metal Hall of Fame Gala in Anaheim. Between those two dates, I have a very big tour coming up that I can't mention until they do LOL

It sounds like you are going to be very busy. Thank you so much for your time and your candor in answering all my questions.

No problem, Brett. Thank you and see you at the next Metal Hall of Fame show!


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08 août 2023
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Super cool, Sergio!

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