MICHAEL SWEET (STRYPER) INTERVIEW:
March 12, 2013
In February of 2011, Christian rock act Stryper issued a cover album titled ‘The Covering’. Though the band tackled staples by rock and metal heavyweights, they managed to include a new studio track on the album called “God”. How do Stryper follow-up ‘The Covering?’ Not with an effort of studio material but with a disc of re-recorded classics from ‘The Yellow And Black Attack’ through ‘To Hell With The Devil’. Sleaze Roxx recently caught up with Stryper vocalist/guitarist Michael Sweet to talk all things Stryper, his upcoming book, a solo album, re-cutting the classics, T&N and his participation in a ‘super group’.
Sleaze Roxx: I actually didn’t discover Stryper until about a year after ‘Soldiers Under Command’ had been released. By the time you released your breakthrough album ‘To Hell With The Devil’ I had literally just discovered you a few months prior.
Michael Sweet: That’s awesome. That was a different time when record labels were geniuses. I remember Enigma Records used to release our records on every color vinyl obtainable. They were so smart — they did so many things that were cutting edge. These days it’s another story. Unfortunately a lot of record labels are folding because of the flipside of the coin which is not knowing what to do or knowing how to do it.
Sleaze Roxx: Stryper released the ‘The Covering’, collection of hard rock and metal covers, in 2011 and you closed out the album with an original cut called “God”. Usually when bands issue these types of albums the well has run dry or the band is mailing it in. I didn’t get that feeling with ‘The Covering’.
Michael Sweet: It was very important for us to put the original track “God” on there. I wrote that song with that record in mind and I knew we were going to get some negative feedback. We’re a Christian band doing an album of secular covers — ‘Whoa, how dare they?!’ I wanted to show, by ending the album with the song “God”, that we haven’t walked away from our beliefs and that we haven’t changed our faith one iota — that’s why that song is on there.
Sleaze Roxx: You have signed with Frontiers Records — earlier you were talking about Enigma who was great to work with. Enigma tried to new break bands while Frontiers have a reputation for signing established bands or legacy acts. Stryper fits their mode of operation, when someone buys a Stryper record you essentially know what you’re getting.
Michael Sweet: That’s exactly right. I can’t tell you the internals on Frontiers because I don’t know what they are, or how they are doing it, but they are able to successfully release record after record. Some of these other labels have signed the very same bands that are now signed to Frontiers and they’ve had little to no success at all. Frontiers are doing something right — they know what they are doing. They really do.
We were very excited to sign with Frontiers. We did this re-record, ‘Second Coming’, strictly to have the legal rights to our own songs for film and TV. We weren’t even going to release the album but it was turning out so well that we decided to release it for the fans. Then we started talking with labels about releasing the album and ultimately we signed with Frontiers.
‘Second Coming’ for us isn’t just another album of re-records, it was a chance for us to make things right. There were a lot of things on the early records that just weren’t right and that annoy us so much we can’t even listen to the records. Things like the cymbals being ‘gated’ on “To Hell With The Devil” — which was a mistake. That isn’t how cymbals are supposed to be recorded — it’s just so annoying. Also, my voice at times was so high — I wanted a go at them with my voice being itself and a little more ‘manly’ so to speak. The other thing that I don’t like is the lack of bass on the ‘Soldiers Under Command’ record. ‘The Yellow And Black Attack’ record was so low budget that everything on that needed to come up to par in my opinion. We felt that it was a good opportunity for us to do that. I think 9 times out of 10 we achieved that on this record. We’re really excited about this. We’ll let the public decide — we hope to make history in the sense that we recorded these songs and they’ll be considered just as good as or better than the originals.
Sleaze Roxx: I mentioned this in the review, that these collections of re-records are typically released as a bonus disc for an all original album. KISS have done that, as have Journey, with the intention of having possession of the rights to the new recordings for future licensing for TV or film. If you’re releasing it as a standalone product it’s got to be pretty darn good. I think you achieved that.
Michael Sweet: I think so, you’re never going to please everybody — ever. There are certainly going to be die-hards that aren’t going to like it. They like the originals and that’s fine, they have their personal reasons for that. There is a certain quality that was achieved in our youth. You know what, when you put up the original ‘The Yellow And Black Attack’ and you put the original recordings of “Loud And Clear” and “Loving You” next to the newly recorded versions from ‘Second Coming’, if you blindfolded someone who didn’t know who Stryper is and you asked which sounded better… I think they’d pick the re-records. They’d say, “that sounds much better.” It just does — sonically, and we also pulled off the energy too.
I’d have to agree. Let me back up a little bit, I saw you in 2011 after going a number of years between the ‘In God We Trust’ tour and ‘The Covering’ tour. Stryper still cuts it live, but having said that I feel that the re-records really do have a ‘live’ feel to them.
Michael Sweet: I agree, they have a very live feel to them which we haven’t been able to capture on record in the past — at least maybe not as much as I we did on this record. I think on ‘Second Coming’, out of all the records in our catalog, we achieved capturing that live energy. When you hear ‘Second Coming’ that’s as close as you’re going to get to hearing us live — it really is.
When we were in the studio rehearsing and planning out the songs there were times when the guys would say, ‘hey let’s try this or let’s make that half time here or let’s tune down a step here’. As the producer of the album I had to step in. I said to them, “Guys, no. No! We can’t do that. We have to stay as true to the originals as possible.” I was okay with little nuances here and there; on “First Love” we ended it a little different, instead of the keyboard on “Sing Along Song” we used guitar, which is what we do live. I really wanted us to stick the songs in their original state and that’s exactly what we did. I hope ‘Second Coming’ does well and we’re able to capture some new fans.
Sleaze Roxx: Going back to ‘To Hell With The Devil’, the way you sequenced that album was brilliant. In the live setting throughout the years you’ve played “Calling On You” and “Free” back to back like on the record. I don’t know how big of a ZZ Top fan you are but it’s similar to “Waiting For The Bus” and “Jesus Just Left Chicago”. They play those songs live back to back like that and it would be really strange to hear those songs played out of sequence in the live setting.
Michael Sweet: Exactly, we’ve done it that way for so many years if we didn’t do them that way people would probably throw food at us or something (laughs). We have got to keep it that way. I’m actually a big ZZ Top fan, sure I’m familiar with their discography. I don’t go to all their live shows and stuff but I’m familiar with their work. When we were making that record, ‘To Hell With The Devil’, we thought that “Calling on You” and “Free” have to go into each other like that. They’re just perfect for each other and from that moment on that how it’s remained.
Sleaze Roxx: What’s the story behind one of your biggest hits and fan favorites, “Honestly”, not making ‘Second Coming’? Was it recorded and it didn’t make the cut or what’s the reason behind it being excluded?
Michael Sweet: I’ll tell you exactly why. First and foremost it’s due to legal reasons. We re-recorded it with a company called Cleopatra Records not too long ago. When we signed that agreement with them we agreed that we’d wait to re-record that song for seven years. When it came time to re-record these songs we weren’t at the seven year mark yet. On the flipside of that, let’s say we were at that mark… I don’t know that we would have recorded that song. The reason being is that we’ve record that song so many times and have added it to so many compilations. I felt that we’d rock the fans from top to bottom on this record. We kept the ballad “First Love” on this album and I’m okay with that.
Sleaze Roxx: There’s nothing featured on ‘Second Coming’ from ‘Against The Law’.
Michael Sweet: Or anything from ‘In God We Trust’.
Sleaze Roxx: Right, “Always There For You” was a hit for you guys off that record.
Michael Sweet: Yeah, also “Keep The Fire Burning” and “I Believe In You”. The reason is a pretty simple answer and the true answer — we wanted to keep this at a single disc. You have a 74 minute limit on a disc, you can go up but things start to get overly compressed. We just made the mark at a little over 72 minutes. If we had added one more song we would have gone over and it would have then been a dual disc package. We were out of time and over budget at that point so we couldn’t have recorded anything else. In the future we do plan on doing another re-record. We’ll hit ‘In God We Trust’, ‘Against The Law’, and by that point we’ll be able to hit ‘Reborn’ and ‘Murder By Pride’.
Sleaze Roxx: What’s your thought on ‘Against The Law’? That album was a slight departure for Stryper.
Michael Sweet: There are things that I feel positive about and there are things that I feel negative about with that record. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s a good record. I’m aware that there are quite a few fans of that record, it’s just not my favorite Stryper record. Technically speaking that album features some of our best performances but the songs are a little less signature Stryper style. When I think of Stryper I think of “Soldiers Under Command”, I think of “To Hell With The Devil”, I think of “Free”, that melodic metal sound — ‘Against The Law’ just wasn’t that at all. That album was a little more ‘riffy’ and a little bit more ‘Van Haleny’. That’s not a bad thing, Van Halen is one of my favorite bands — it was a little less signature Stryper. Lyrically, it was way less signature Stryper, and visually we were different. I think we wanted to change so badly. We were just tired of the nay-sayers, specifically in the church. People would come to protest our shows and that album was our way of flipping them the finger, saying ‘screw you’ to them. That’s really what it was. Unfortunately that wasn’t the best thing to do, especially for a band like us (laughs).
Sleaze Roxx: Michael, run us through the two new tracks “Bleeding From The Inside” and “Blackened”.
Michael Sweet: I wanted to have a couple of new songs on the record and I wrote those specifically for ‘Second Coming’. We’ll start writing for the next record in a couple of days when they guys get up here. Anyway, there’s always that balance of trying to keep it signature Stryper. I don’t know that we achieved that with the two new songs but we tried. We tried to keep that Stryper sound without being a repeat of “Free” or “To Hell With The Devil” or “Soldiers Under Command”. We don’t want people saying stuff like, “Oh my God that sounds like To Hell With The Devil!” That’s what happens with a lot of bands, they’ll release a new album that’s great but it sounds like a record they would have released in 1988. As writer and producer I try hard not to do that but it’s not an easy task — it’s really not. You get pulled so many ways, you have the fans saying, “We Want To Hell With The Devil, we want that sound.” As an artist you think, ‘I’m an artist I want to be artistic and creative’ — I want to give you what you want but at the same time I want to keep it fresh. There’s a fine balance and it’s difficult to pull off.
I’m very proud of “Bleeding” and “Blackened”. I feel like if you were to take “God” and these two new songs and maybe some songs from ‘Murder By Pride’ that’s what you’re going to hear on the next record. I think it will give people what they want but at the same time give us what we want.
Sleaze Roxx: If you had to pick a Stryper record to perform from top to bottom what album would it be?
Michael Sweet: The smart move would be to do ‘To Hell With The Devil’. That’s our most successful record so start there — right now it’s sold 3 million copies. Next in line below that is ‘In God We Trust’, believe it or not, with 2 million sold, and next is ‘Soldiers Under Command’. If you can believe this, ‘Against The Law’ hasn’t sold as many copies as ‘The Yellow And Black Attack’. ‘Against The Law’ is our least selling record and I think that speaks volumes — there are reasons for that. Partially because the label wasn’t as aggressive in promoting the record, grunge came in and a lot of ’80s bands were wiped off the map. That record had a lot working against it, the departure from our signature sound, look, style and delivery, it was a tough pill for people to swallow. So, I’d say ‘To Hell With The Devil’, but if it were my choice and I was doing it for my own selfish reasons I’d say ‘Murder By Pride’. That record is one of my favorites — I’d put that up against ‘Soldiers Under Command’ which has always been my favorite album. I’d say that ‘Murder By Pride’ overrules ‘Soldiers’ these days, so I would vote for ‘Murder.’
Sleaze Roxx: A few weeks back the news leaked on the internet prematurely that you’d be touring with Jeff Pilson and George Lynch’s new project T&N this year. Can you tell us a little bit about how you got involved with that?
Michael Sweet: Yeah, it’s George Lynch, Jeff Pilson and Mick Brown — it’s the original Dokken guys minus Don Dokken. They asked me to do it. They were going to go out last year that didn’t work out so they are planning to go out this year. Right now the plan is to begin rehearsals in September and go out in October — things can change but that’s what we’re looking at right now. I did have a conversation with George, and then another with Jeff, about it and it’s a ‘go’. I think this is a good fit, they are a melodic hard rock band and those are my roots too, it’s what I cut my teeth on. They are great guys and I hope they feel the same. We have a good relationship and we like each other. It’s an exciting time to represent these songs, not only the Dokken songs but the T&N songs. The way I understand it Jeff will sing all the T&N songs and I will be singing most to all of the Dokken songs.
Sleaze Roxx: One of the projects that you’ve undertaken is a book. I don’t know if that is in the can or in the working stages, can you tell us more about that?
Michael Sweet: My book is in editing right now as we speak. It’s an autobiography and its close to 40,000 words and 40 chapters — there’s also a forward and a conclusion. It’s pretty crazy. I’m really excited about it. There’s a lot of stuff that people wouldn’t expect me to talk about, or expect me to talk about but might be shocked to hear about some of the stuff we went through and did. There’s nothing horrific, like no I didn’t die three times on heroin, no I didn’t sleep with 100,000 women! I always get a kick out of some of these autobiographies, don’t believe every word you read (laughs)! There are so many autobiographies that are over embellished and stretched out beyond belief or imagination. I didn’t do that in this book. Like it, hate it, call it boring — it’s my life.
Sleaze Roxx: Did Dave Mustaine of Megadeth write the forward for the book or was it just a blurb on the book?
Michael Sweet: I think what you read was a lengthy quote from Dave. I also have quotes from Jeordie White (Twiggy Ramirez) of from Marilyn Manson. I talk about a lot of stuff in the book, like being arrested multiple times as a kid to being in Boston to losing my wife to remarrying — there’s a lot of stuff in there man.
I also have a new record to come out with it as well. Like I mentioned, Stryper is working on a new album of all original material. We’ll be doing a live album where we’ll be recording our rehearsals in front of a live audience — that will be in November. Then I’ll be starting a new project next year. I can’t say with who, but I’m going to record and produce a new record with three all-star musicians. There’s just a ton of stuff going on right now.
Sleaze Roxx: I’ll admit I checked out after ‘Against The Law’ but I have gone back and rediscovered the ‘Reborn’ and ‘Murder By Pride’ albums. What’s the reason behind Robert Sweet not playing drums on those albums?
Michael Sweet: Robert played on ‘Reborn’ but it wasn’t up to par to what he can do — it was kind of stiff. He learned the parts of another drummer. ‘Reborn’ was actually going to be a solo record but I played it for the guys and they wanted it to be a Stryper record so we went in and signed the record deal and that became the first (reformed) Stryper record. Robert learned the drums that were on my demos played by Derek Kerswill — it’s kind of stiff and doesn’t really sound like Stryper but it is Robert.
On the ‘Murder By Pride’ album that isn’t Robert because Robert wasn’t ready. We wound up doing pre-production in Las Vegas and everyone went home with a CD. My wife became ill with cancer and the record was postponed for a number of months. When we were ready to resume working on the record I called everyone a few weeks ahead of time to make sure that everyone was learning the material. Everyone said yes, except for Robert — he had lost the CD. He didn’t know any of the material and we were going into the studio literally days later to start recording. Robert had done this before so I made the call as producer, good or bad, to bring in another drummer. I felt that judging on past history that he wouldn’t be ready. It would have been a nightmare trying to record those songs because he wasn’t ready. We didn’t have the time or the budget to wait for him. Instead of three days it would have taken us 7, 8, 9, or 10 days to record the drums. We couldn’t afford it — we couldn’t do it. I brought in a drummer who’s a professional and he’s played on hundreds of records, a guy by the name Kenny Aronoff, and he banged it out. It’s not Robert but it still sounds great. I think Robert learned a valuable lesson and everything’s good. Robert’s on ‘The Covering’, he’s on ‘Second Coming’, and he sounds great.