By Jeb Wright
Michael Sweet made it big on MTV when he wore the famous yellow and black spandex outfit, helped to destroy the Ozone Layer by using so much hairspray, and told the Devil himself, to go to hell. Stryper were Christians who played guitars and for a while, the band was on top of the world.
It didn’t take long for the media to turn on these God loving darlings and make fun of them…not that the band did not ask for it by looking like preacher bees on our television screens. I bet they thanked God when Beavis and Butthead’s wimpy neighbor showed up with Winger on his t-shirt instead of Stryper! Still, it’s kind of a shame the band is more known for their beliefs than their musicianship. Love or hate the songs, the looks, and the lyrics, no one can deny that the band had excellent lead guitarists among their faithful ranks.
Michael Sweet is the leader of Stryper, returning them back from the ashes with the release of their new album No More Hell to Pay. This is one of the most balls-to-the-wall and in your face albums that Stryper has ever created. It may just be their best.
Sweet has had a few twists and turns in his journey, however, including a stint in the band Boston. Many were looking forward to hearing his input on that bands latest offering, but before it was recorded, Sweet and Boston parted ways. Sweet left Boston after losing his wife, Kyle to cancer in 2009.
Now, remarried and reunited with the original members of Stryper, the future is looking bright once again. In the interview that follows, Sweet talks about just how sweet it is, as the band take their best album on the road. After many years of putting up with stigmas, overcoming the odds and being seated in the Christians Only section, Sweet is looking forward to his new life, which not only includes Stryper but also a new project with George Lynch, a solo album, and a book.
Jeb: The new Stryper is not just a good Christian Metal album; it is a good Metal album.
Michael: I came around full circle on this album and it is very easy for an artistic person to say they want to do something new with their creativity and to experiment. When you do that you lose sight of what your fans want. What put you here in the first place can be lost. I did that on our Reborn record and, to a certain degree, on our last record Murder by Pride. After doing The Covering and getting back to our roots, musically, and then re-recording our old songs, it made me realize that we need to stay on this road and that is what we did on the last album.
Jeb: I am not going to blow smoke up your ass. I didn’t know what to expect from this album because the last album you re-recorded your own music and I assume that is so you have commercial rights to the songs…but I had no idea if you were going to change directions or what. Instead, you blew me away with one of your heaviest albums you have ever done.
Michael: We walk that fine line on the sense of really trying to stay true to who we are in terms of guitar solos, harmonies, high screams and big background vocals, and keeping it fresh. I think the freshness comes from having fun in the studio. If you are not having fun, then it isn’t going to be fresh.
Jeb: You were great live with Boston. That period of time, however, was a time away from Stryper… what made you want to revisit Stryper?
Michael: I never officially ever left Stryper. Doing the Boston gig, I was on hiatus from the Stryper gig. What made me want to focus on Stryper one hundred percent and give it my all really was just me doing some shows and getting one-on-one with the fans. It helped me and made me fall in love with everything that I loved in the first place with the band. The guy’s hearts are all in the band and there is a certain camaraderie and respect for each other. We butt heads and we have differences and we fight with each but also really respect each other. When we get in a room after we have not seen each other for three months we kind of smirk at each other as if to say, “Here we are…the four of us together again.”
Jeb: It is rare to have the classic lineup intact in this day and age.
Michael: You can count bands on maybe two hands, if you’re lucky, one hand more likely, that are still together with the original members. It is great to be together and you realize the specialness and uniqueness of it, but it is also kind of going through the motions at times and a bit of burnout. It is like a marriage. If you work on it to keep it fresh…you know, the honeymoon is over and if you don’t have date night and you don’t work on it then you’re going to fall out of love and distance yourself from one another. That can, and does, happen in our band. It is really important that we communicate and keep our relationships open.
Jeb: So a band really is like a marriage…that is not just a cliché?
Michael: If really is. If you don’t communicate and talk things out then you’re going to stop talking and you’re going to start hating and then the band is over.
Jeb: Did you know this album was this strong, or did you look to the other guys in the band for feedback to see if your feeling was correct?
Michael: I don’t look to them for that and that is no disrespect to the guys. It is easier for me to just go and do it and the reason why is because we’ve tried, on just a few songs mind you, to write them as a band with the four of us, and it just doesn’t work. We all have different ideas in a negative way and we are going in four different directions and we don’t come together in terms of guitar parts or drums grooves; we don’t write well together. Rob [Sweet] wants to turn the drum beats around ten times in a song and I am like, “Dude, let’s keep it straight ahead. There is something about AC\DC that rules and we should remember that.”
The way I write these days is that I hum a guitar riff in my head and then hum it into my phone. On this record I had over forty ideas. I went into my studio for just under two weeks and I took an idea a day and wrote a song out of it. The guys then came out to my house for six days and I taught the guys the songs and we recorded them live. After that everyone took a CD with them and we went and did the Monsters of Rock Cruise, and then when we got back we started recording them.
Jeb: Are these all new songs?
Michael: All are new songs, except for two. One is a cover of “Jesus is Just Alright” and the other, “Marching into Battle” I wrote when I was sixteen years old.
Jeb: Tell me about that.
Michael: It is a song that we always wanted to do but it has a really odd riff and melody and it never fit onto any other record. Rob would say, “Marching would be cool to pull out.” We would all say yeah but that it would not fit and we would put it back on the shelf. This time it fit perfectly with the record and all of the other songs on the record. I get a kick out it. It is kind of our new anthem. The lyrics are scary; they are right out of the Book of Revelations.
I have been watching that show Sleepy Hollow and they are quoting the lyrics to that song, without meaning too. They talk about the white horse and all of that. It is the same theme which is kind of cool. When I heard that the hairs on my arms stood on end.
Jeb: This is a tough question. I think we’ve done interviews enough that you know I am not being disrespectful…
Michael: Are you going to ask if I am secretly a woman?
Jeb: No, no, no…we all know that’s true.
Michael: [laughter] Okay then, what have you got?
Jeb: This album, to me, I don’t look at this as Stryper the Christian Metal band. I look at that this as a great album.
Michael: That is amazing to hear you say. It is really sad that you have to say that. The reason why I am saying that is that for some reason we’ve been put in a box. I don’t know that we’ll ever break out of that box as that label has been wrapped around us tightly and I don’t think we will ever lose it. That’s okay, but we are known as a Christian band. Yes, we are Christians in a rock band but we are not a Christian band. We’re a rock band. We grew up on the Sunset Strip playing with Motley Crue and Ratt before we were Christians.
Jeb: I’ve heard some stories about you…I’ve heard pre-Stryper Michael Sweet was not so pious.
Michael: Listen, I got my share of drugs and women and alcohol and all of that stuff into my system, year’s back, if you can imagine. I had that start at a very early age. I started playing backyard parties when I was 13 years old and I started playing clubs before I was 16. I played the Whisky when I was just about 16 and Kevin DuBrow got mad at us for using so much Aqua Net. He kicked in the dressing room door and said, “What the ‘f’ is wrong with you guys? You’re choking me out here.” He really went off on us.
I go way back, and that was a time when I was with a different girl every night and doing that whole scene. At the age of 19 I decided that this sucks and that it was leading me nowhere. My brother and I would go get drunk and I didn’t like the feeling. I saw where some of our friends were going and I didn’t like that. When I was 20, we decided to dedicate the band and our lives to God and we’ve been doing it ever since, and that was 30 years ago.
Jeb: You’re aware of the stigma of Stryper but you’ve had to live with that in the Metal community. You don’t want to come off as silly, but you can’t be all God-Squad all the time. If you say that the new album is not Christian, then the Christian people will bash you, but if you go overboard on it, then detractors will say you’re just milking it.
Michael: The key to it for us concerning all things for us is to just be real. When we go out to dinner with someone who is not a Christian and I order a beer or a glass of wine then you hear them gasp and they say, “WHAT? YOU’RE CHRISTIAN?” I am, but I love beer and I love wine. I love a good cigar every now and then. I am free, man. That is not what being a Christian is about. It is not about having all of these rules and convictions that you have to apply. Some people have to apply them because they are former alcoholics or whatever, but I think it is just about us being real, and that is what we do. We try to be real in our music and we try to be real in our example and we exemplify God and Christ in our lyrics and our lifestyle. We try to do the right thing.
Jeb: When Stryper came out, and by accident the Christian Metal thing worked, and you got really popular, did you ever have the opposite problem of record companies wanting you to push the image to the hilt?
Michael: Oh yeah. Our record company, Enigma, when we signed with them, they came and saw us and we were sold out and it was so loud that they really couldn’t make out what we were singing about. When we submitted the lyrics after they signed us, they wanted to drop us. They said, “Wait a second here…you guys are singing about Jesus? What is this?” Then they realized how popular we were. When we played the Troubadour, we had a line of people all the way from Santa Monica Boulevard up to Haney and almost to Sunset. When they saw that, they said, “Okay, we’re cool with this. We are cool with the lyrics.” We started exploding on the L.A. scene at the time.
Jeb: l was interviewing Phil Ehart of Kansas one time and they had to deal with Christianity infiltrating rock music as well when Kerry Livgren became ‘Born Again’. I told him “Phil, many bands have broken up due to the influence of the devil, but Kansas broke up because of God.”
Michael: That is actually a pretty interesting way of looking at it. I have to tell you this, and I am not just telling you this because you are a Kansas friend and fan, but they are one of the best classic rock bands of all time. On our covers record we remade “Carry On Wayward Son.” I learned what a tough song that is to sing when I went into the studio. Oddly enough, it was not the powerhouse vocals that were tough, it was the verses, they kicked my butt. There is such a dynamic to that vocal. He goes really soft and intimate and then into those powerhouse vocals. It really showcases what Steve Walsh could do as a singer beautifully. Another song similar to that was Boston’s “More Than a Feeling.” It has a soft, beautiful feeling in the verses and then it went all over the map in terms of range. It is one of the most difficult songs to sing in rock music, well, so is “Carry On Wayward Son.” We had fun making it and adding a little Metal to that. It was awesome.
Jeb: Speaking of cover songs, how in the hell did it take you until 2013 to figure out that Stryper should remake “Jesus is Just Alright”?
Michael: Well, we figured that out years ago. It is funny because we’ve got some people up in arms about that. They are saying that the original meaning of those lyrics was that Jesus was just alright and not great and therefore you don’t have to follow him. I am thinking, “You’ve got to be kidding me?” That is not how I sing it. I even threw in that he is my best friend. We always wanted to cover that song, but this was the time that it fit in.
We threw in a kind of Black Sabbath type section at the midpoint of the song. It is a bit of a rollercoaster ride. It takes off and it then it slows down, but this one came out pretty cool.
Jeb: I loved the Doobie Brothers version but I was surprised when you did it how well that riff sounded with all of the distortion on it.
Michael: Absolutely, that riff is so heavy.
Jeb: Many of your peers, I won’t say the name… Vince Neal, okay…I said it. He didn’t take care of his voice and it has caused him problems. You sound as strong as you did 30 years ago. You’re like the Paul Rodgers of Metal on this album.
Michael: That is humbling to hear you say, but I have to tell you, first of all, that I’ve lost a lot of my voice but I have some secrets I can share with you. I don’t have the voice I had in the ‘80s and I don’t think that is necessarily a bad thing. I think in the ‘80s I sounded a lot more feminine and my voice was higher and thinner. I think it is a little ballsier now. I think it has worked in my favor that my voice has come down a little bit and gotten a little grittier. One thing I learned in recording this record was to go down to my studio in my house, with my cup of tea and I start warming up my vocals. Instead of singing the song for two hours and then trying to hit the high note at the end, I hit all the high notes first and I get them out of the way. Once I’ve got the high notes, then I go back to the beginning and I sing the song. It really helped me to get the high notes out the way I wanted to hear me. That is one little secret that I did on this record. The other secret is that I really try hard to sing from the heart and to take care of my voice. I am not a big smoker and drinker…yeah, I smoke an occasional cigar and I drink an occasional beer or glass of wine but I don’t over indulge. As we get old, for guys like Steve and me, the voice, nine times out of ten, the vocal chords start to stiffen even if you don’t have nodes. It is just the aging process and your voice as you get older, for everyone, changes. It is just part of life. For singers, it makes it a little bit more difficult because, obviously, these kids, like in that band Hansen, their voices changed a year after their hit. It happened to Michael Jackson too, as he has hits as a kid. Vocals change and that is just the way it goes.
Jeb: I am a guitar guy, so for vocals to jump out at me is rare. It is not a kinder and gentle sound coming out of you on this album.
Michael: No, it’s not. I think love it or hate it, that is one of the things that some people complained about with Stryper back in the day. I think these days I have a more universal voice.
Jeb: I like the fact that the new album is a classic Metal album and not a classic Metal band attempting to be relevant with current Metal. I don’t mind a little new with a band but don’t forget who you are. Nothing is worse than when a band abandons who they are.
Michael: I know. I agree. I totally agree with you. You know what, we are guilty of that. We did it on Reborn really bad. The funny thing is, and not a lot of people know this, it was supposed to be a solo record, so we have to get a little less flack due to that. It really wasn’t meant to be a Stryper album. I was shopping that and I had a deal in place as a solo artist with that record. I played it for the guys and they liked it and we decided that we should make it a Stryper album. We re-recorded the drums and we added a few guitars and that is all we did. My biggest regret with that record is that there were not enough guitars as we only did two or three solos on that album. We put away solos on that album and you just don’t do that if you’re a guitar band. It was a big mistake.
Jeb: You have plenty of classic solos and riffs on this album. Just listen to the title track.
Michael: It is classic hard rock, and it is reminiscent of the stuff you would hear in the ‘80s. It has the riff and the vocal melody and the high pitch scream and all of that. As the producer of this record I tried to make the songs classic and retro in the arrangement sense, but in the production sense I wanted to make them now. Don’t make a record that sonically sounds like 1986. In my opinion that would be bad. I wanted to make a record that sonically could stand up against what Alter Bridge is doing, but do it with music that is true to Stryper. If you can merge the two…you can’t go and make a record that sounds dated, sonically, in a bad way, because people will wonder why the drums sound like that. You don’t want to sound like ‘80s bad. You’ve got to be careful about that.
Jeb: When you came out and I saw what I call the bees outfits, I thought, “What the fuck is this?” But, eventually, I went beyond the lyrics and the hairspray and discovered you guys are very proficient guitarists. Do you still have to fight for your right to be who you are?
Michael: We’ve gotten so many labels that are just not accurate. The Christian Metal label we try to run from. We are not ashamed of our faith but being labeled as just a Christian Metal band has hurt us over the years. The Hair Metal and Glam Metal tag has hurt us. I was on the Eddie Trunk show and he said that we were possibly even more Glam than Poison. I just thought, “What? Are you serious?” It was because of the yellow and black thing and the big hair. I get that. But our music was not more Glam than Poison. No way. It was funny, because as we went along we got more and more Glam looking until we got to Against the Law and then the Glam came off. The Aqua Net got put in the closet and the makeup got less and the clothes got toned down, and we were more rock and roll looking. The production was even more in your face and raw.
Jeb: Talk about the cover art.
Michael: I emailed the artist. His name is Stan Decker. I said, “Here is what I want to do. I want to play off the To Hell with the Devil artwork. Just do one guy, one character.” He sent that over a few weeks later and I opened up that file on my computer and I didn’t say a word for about two minutes as I couldn’t believe what I was looking at. He hit it out of the park with that artwork.
Jeb: I wish it was vinyl as it needs to be bigger.
Michael: We’ve got it on vinyl. It is available through www.stryper.com on vinyl and it is pretty cool. I think the artwork is every bit as good as the music.
Jeb: One of my all-time favorite album covers is Sad Wings of Destiny by Judas Priest and this has that vibe.
Michael: It does have a very similar vibe to that. I am being straight up honest with you: we didn’t play off that album at all. Someone said that after the fact and I was like, “Yeah, you’re right.”
The album cover had the triangle on it too, the three points that is the Trinity. Some people think that we’re Illuminati and in a weird cultish religion thing and others even think we are secretly Satanists. You would be amazed at what we have heard. We have been compared to Aleister Crowley because he used sevens and we have sevens. It is really unbelievable.
Jeb: You know what they say…any publicity is good publicity.
Michael: I think that is true most of the time, but sometimes that is not true. It can bite you and there is some publicity that can really be very bad for you and bring you down. That kind of stuff? For us? No, it’s not bad. Anything scandalous would be bad for us.
Jeb: You went through a very emotional time before this album. You lost your wife. Is this the first album of original music since she died?
Michael: This is the first full length album with the original lineup since that time.
Jeb: How did that change you?
Michael: It was hard, man. The two year period that we went through I was Kyle’s caretaker and we literally went through hell on earth; it was a nightmare.
I had two choices and I thought about both of them. One choice was to sell all of my gear and just start a new life. I thought about that after hiding out in my bedroom for a year with the shades drawn. It was really tough and I was going down that dark road where I didn’t think I could go on. I chose to go the exact opposite way and that was to immediately dive head first into the deep end of the swimming pool. I called my agent and may management and told them that I wanted to go tour. We started working on the tour literally days after my wife passed.
Jeb: Were you surprised that you found someone so quickly after she passed?
Michael: Once I started moving then I had to keep moving. I kept telling myself that if I stopped moving I was going to stop altogether. I kept moving and things started progressing. We went out and toured and we came back and by that time I was dating Lisa and we got married in January, which was not quite a year after my wife had passed.
Life just kept moving and here I am. I am thankful that I did that because I had to be there for my kids and I had to be there for myself and for my friends and for my band. I had to be a leader. I had to keep moving.
Jeb: I am weaker than you, man, as losing my wife would really fuck with my faith.
Michael: Well, it did. In the deepest dark corners of my mind and my heart…it did. I thank God and that with God’s help I rose above and was able to come out of that storm. It was the darkest and biggest storm of my life.
I want people to know that I am out of the darkness now. I have to say that I wouldn’t be here without Lisa, my wife. I would not be here without her. She has been a Godsend. If it wasn’t for Lisa I would be a thriving mess. She keeps me organized and on top of everything, and she steers the ship.
Jeb: Let’s end on a positive note. What is the plan for Michael Sweet and Stryper for 2014?
Michael: My heart and stomach is in knots because I am waiting for those first week sales at this point as the album has just been released as I am talking to you. It is not about numbers, but rather it is about if we are still relevant. It is tough.
Jeb: Don’t you wish there was a way you could track how many people stole the album? I mean, it is not good for money, but at least you would know you are in demand.
Michael: It is all over the Internet for free already and it just came out. When you see albums like Dream Theater come out and they hit #7 on the album charts and they did that with sales of 34,000 albums then that is just sad. I mean it is great for them that they charted that high, but back in the day you had to sell 340,000 units to chart that high. It is insane. Record sales are so low. It makes me wonder what things will be like in ten years. It’s frightening. At the same time we are artists and we are going to continue to make art.
We are going to tour extensively. We are going to go back to The Whiskey and we are going to do a live album and a DVD. I am also co-writing and producing an album with George Lynch. We are making a record together that will come out in 2014. I also have a book and a solo album coming out. I try to stay busy, I really do. I am excited about the future. No More Hell to Pay is out, and let’s see if everyone else agrees with you and I that this is one of our better records.
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