INTERVIEW WITH MICHAEL SWEET OF STRYPER
Date: April 13, 2016
Photos: Rob Ellis (1st and 3rd photos), Isaac (2nd and 4th photos)
IF THERE IS ONE PERSON THAT DOES NOT SIT ON HIS LAURELS FROM THE GLORY DAYS OF THE ’80S, IT HAS TO BE STRYPER’S FRONTMAN AND LEADER, MICHAEL SWEET. IN THE LAST THREE YEARS, STRYPER HAVE ARGUABLY RELEASED TWO OF THEIR STRONGEST ALBUMS EVER (‘NO MORE HELL TO PAY’ AND ‘FALLEN’) AND A LIVE ALBUM (‘LIVE AT THE WHISKY’) WHILE SWEET HAS RELEASED HIS VERY PERSONAL AND REVEALING AUTOBIOGRAPHY ‘HONESTLY’ AS WELL AS A SOLO ALBUM (‘I’M NOT YOUR SUICIDE’). SWEET CONTINUES PRODUCING QUALITY MUSIC AT AN IMPRESSIVE PACE AND HE IS SCHEDULED TO RELEASE ANOTHER SOLO ALBUM LATER THIS YEAR AS WELL AS AN ACOUSTIC ALBUM WITH STRYPER IN THE FUTURE. SLEAZE ROXX IS ALWAYS HAPPY TO BE ABLE TO CATCH UP WITH THE PERSONABLE MICHAEL SWEET.
Sleaze Roxx: Off the top, is there anything you want the fans to know about Michael Sweet… What are you doing now, what’s coming up, and your visions for the future. Tell us everything. This is your chance to let it all out.
Michael Sweet: Yes, I want the fans to know — I am not Ted Cruz [laughs]. Boy, that little moment in social media history was a lesson in “You never know what’s going to go viral.”
Right now, I’m out touring with Stryper in support of our latest album Fallen, which I’m really excited about. It was released to both critical and fan acclaim. I think we charted on something like nine different Billboard charts the week it was released. It’s so humbling and I’m incredibly thankful to be able to continue to make the music I enjoy making, and that the fans still want to hear it. Ticket sales for the upcoming tour are strong — and we’re heading back to Japan on this tour, which is nice.
I have a solo album coming out later this year that I can’t wait for everyone to hear. I know everyone says this, but I do feel like it’s some of my best songwriting to date. I’ve got a few songs on that record that will throw people for a loop — even a song about country music — not a country song, but a song about country music. We pushed the envelope a little with this solo record.
I’m also working on some collaborations. And this year is the 30th Anniversary of To Hell With The Devil so we’ll be doing some special touring around that. It’s going to be a busy 2016. I look forward to seeing everyone on the road.
Sleaze Roxx: How has your songwriting changed over the years… It sounds to me like when Stryper got back together, the two albums (“Reborn” and “Murder By Pride”) were not received too well by the fans… noting particularly the lack of fun guitar stuff which is one of the hallmarks of classic Stryper music. For me, the last two have been met with great acclaim and have seen perhaps more guitar and up tempo songs than ever before. In fact, Sleaze Roxx readers ranked ‘Fallen’ as number 3 in 2015 and ‘No More Hell To Pay’ as #1 in 2013. How do you respond to that?
Michael Sweet: Thank you [to the Sleaze Roxx readers] for the high ranking on those albums. I’m really proud of both of those. I think it’s a fair statement to say that around the time of ‘Reborn’ and ‘Murder By Pride’, we were getting back in our groove as a band. ‘Reborn’ was our first studio album in 15 years. That said, ‘Murder By Pride’ actually charted higher on the Billboard album charts than ‘Soldiers Under Command’ did, so I can’t really say it wasn’t well received by the fans.
But yes, ‘Reborn’ started out as a solo album. There were no real plans to reunite Stryper at the time I wrote that album. But we did a few shows together as a band and it felt good. The guys liked the songs so we all got into the studio and put the Stryper touch to the songs. We found a label to put it out and well, now we’ve been back together longer than we were together the first go-round.
I’m really proud of both ‘Reborn’ and ‘Murder By Pride’ but I do think we’ve come a long way since then. So in that sense, yes, I agree, with ‘No More Hell To Pay’ and ‘Fallen’, we’re doing some of our best work yet. Thank you for recognizing those records on Sleaze Roxx.
Sleaze Roxx: Any memories of your earlier tours with non-Christian based bands that you’d like to share? In fact, do you even care about that distinction?
Michael Sweet: We almost exclusively toured with mainstream bands, both back in the day and still today. I really enjoyed our tours with TNT, Hurricane, and Loudness.
You are correct though. I’ve never really cared about the distinction. I’m not even really sure where the term “Christian rock band” came from. We are indeed a band made of up Christians. But then again, U2 is a band made up of Catholics or at least to the best of my knowledge. I don’t personally know them or their faith. But assuming the guys in U2 are indeed Catholics, are they a Catholic rock band?
We are very open about our faith. We just don’t love the “Christian rock band” label. For that matter, I don’t even like the label “Non-Christian rock band.” You’re either a rock band, or you’re a jazz band, or you’re a country band, or whatever. Sometimes those bands contain members who are Christians. And sometimes those bands contain songwriters who want to put their faith into words.
I get it. The music industry, and we as music fans, like to compartmentalize our music, if for no other reason than for the ease of conversation. It’s an easy description to say “Christian rock band.” I understand it. I just don’t like it.
Sleaze Roxx: Along the same lines, how was Stryper treated in the club scene, since you had a very different angle on the whole thing?
Michael Sweet: We certainly had our share of skeptics, but generally speaking we were treated well. I don’t say this pretentiously but I think it had a lot to do with… I know it had a lot to do with the fact that we were — and still — play well as a band. We practiced. We did everything we could to get to the top of our game musically. We took it very seriously, and we still do. Many of the skeptics from the club scene very quickly changed their tune once they heard us perform live.
Sleaze Roxx: How do you determine, as a songwriter, which creations are best kept for your own solo recordings, and which are ready for Stryper?
Michael Sweet: I have two fishbowls sitting on my countertop. One says Stryper and one says Michael Sweet. When I write a song, I jot down the lyrics, roll them up in a ball, close my eyes, and toss at the fishbowls. If it lands in the Stryper bowl, it’s a Stryper song [laughs].
I’ve been the songwriter, singer, and guitarist of Stryper since the beginning, so I can understand that to the masses there may not be much of a difference. But how I determine which songs go where really boils down to where I feel the song may go when it’s recorded. I tend to experiment more with my solo material. Stryper, as you’ve pointed out, has a very distinct sound. I try to stay true to that sound when writing and recording Stryper material. When I write something that may lean a little to the left or right of that sound, I save it for a solo project.
Sleaze Roxx: Any update on the talked about acoustic album you mentioned a few weeks back? And what about some of the covers you have done in your smaller intimate solo shows? The idea seems to have been met with much enthusiasm.
Michael Sweet: We are excited about an acoustic album. We are going to record high quality acoustic versions of the fan favorites. No release date is set for that but we’re committed to making it happen. Over the years, we’ve received a lot of positive feedback on acoustic versions of our songs. I play a lot of solo acoustic shows as well and at those shows, I typically play several of our bigger hits and I enjoy hearing these songs in a different light. Hopefully, the fans will too.
Sleaze Roxx: What are a few of your songwriting influences as you’ve grown up?
Michael Sweet: Van Halen, Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, Sweet, Scorpions. Pretty much you could listen to our album ‘The Covering’, and get a good sense of my influences both as a songwriter and as a guitarist and vocalist. That album is made up of artists that shaped us as musicians, and me as a songwriter.
Sleaze Roxx: Any thoughts on other bands from that time in the ’80s? Either those playing Christian rock like Rage Of Angels, Guardian, or Barren Cross compared to secular music such as Ratt and Poison?
Michael Sweet: I talk quite a bit about this in my book ‘Honestly.’ The truth is, it would have been nice to see more bands who were sharing their faith in the ’80s cross over to mainstream success. I would have loved nothing more than the charts topped with acts rooted in Christian faith. But unfortunately, it just didn’t happen. I can only speculate as to why, but I believe it partially had something to do with the audience many of those bands such as Barren Cross, Guardian, etc. were playing to.
Stryper never has played churches. Our audience was the brutally unforgiving rock fans of the sunset strip. We didn’t have to be better than Barren Cross or the Rez Band or whoever. We had to try to compete with Poison, Ratt, Bon Jovi, etc. The bar was set higher.
An audience of Christians are a little more forgiving. They politely clap even if you’re mediocre. And I’m not saying that bands like Barren Cross or Guardian were mediocre — they weren’t. It’s just that they weren’t as held to quite the judgmental standards as we were held to with a sunset strip audience. There are some great players in those bands. And I’m still friends with several of them. But they weren’t really cutting their teeth on the sunset strip like we were.
We were playing to people who, just the night before, saw Ratt or Bon Jovi, or even a few years before saw Van Halen — playing the same clubs we were playing. We had to be on our A game or we got booed off the stage — which thankfully never happened. But we saw it happen with other bands, and we didn’t want it happening to us. So we worked hard, if for no other reason, out of fear of rejection. That fear of rejection doesn’t exist quite as strongly when your audience is the church.
Sleaze Roxx: There has been much press about Faster Pussycat’s comments on you and Stryper in general. You have issued a statement, to which Faster Pussycat has responded. Is the matter dead or would you like to comment further?
Michael Sweet: It’s dead. They made some comments they shouldn’t have. We took the high road as we always try to do. And we’ve left it at that. We have no ill-will toward Faster Pussycat or anyone for that matter. They are free to say their thoughts about Stryper, or anything, and they did just that. I’ll let the music fans decipher through it all and form their own opinions. We, Stryper, just don’t get involved in mudslinging or name calling. It’s just not our style.
Thank you to the Nashville Publicity Group for facilitating the interview!