By Thomas S. Orwat Jr.
As the main songwriter, vocalist and co-lead guitarist of the multi-platinum selling Christian rock band, Stryper, Michael Sweet accomplished many feats that were previously unheard of in the non-secular music genre. Not only was Stryper uncomprising in their Christian beliefs, but they were musically competent as well. The band sold millions of records, had a top 40 hit in 1986 with “Honestly” and toured the world many times over. They amassed a devoted fan base that relentlessly supported the band. Stryper set the standard, and their accomplishments have yet to be repeated by any other hard rock Christian band.
In February of this year, Stryper released a CD called “The Covering.” This CD is unique, in that it features Stryper covering songs from bands such as Black Sabbath, Judas Priest and Ozzy. Not really something you would expect from a Christian rock band. But, Stryper has never played by the rules. And they made a great decision because the “The Covering” is receiving great reviews from fans and critics alike. In addition to the reworked cover songs, this CD also contains one original song entitled, “GOD,” which many are referring to as best Stryper song ever written.
Stryper is currently on tour in North America and will tour over in Europe starting in late May.
Recently, Michael Sweet contacted us here at RockMusicStar.com to discuss the recent happenings in the Stryper camp. Michael is one determined, focused, intense and passionate musician. He pulls no punches – with his music or discussing it. During this exclusive interview, Michael talks about the band’s decision to record the “The Covering” and much more.
RockMusicStar : I want to start by saying how much I really enjoy the new Stryper CD entitled, “The Covering.” You and the band sound amazing. However, it’s a bit intriguing that you decided to release a cover CD at this point, since your last two studio releases “Reborn” and “Murder by Pride” were brilliant. And one could argue that an artist only releases a cover CD when their creativity runs dry.
Michael Sweet: That’s a natural thing for people to think, but it’s not necessary true. I really don’t have any problems with ideas or with songs at all. I don’t write songs like right now because I’m not in the writing mode, I’m in the touring mode. When I get home, and I get a call from management that they want us in the studio, I’ll then go in writing mode, and go down into my studio and write 10, 11, 12 songs. That is how I’ve always done things. That’s the way “Murder by Pride” was written. All of those songs were written in less than a month. But there has never been an issue with writing. This album “Covering” was all about showing people were we came from, historically speaking and were we cut our teeth and got our chops from. And we did it for the sheer fun of it.
RMS: Did you bring in a large list of songs to choose from, or did you know what songs you were going to do right away?
MS: I wrote up the list and showed it to everyone and we all pretty much agreed. We made a few changes, but it really didn’t take much thought at all. These are all the bands that we grew up on during the early days. Prior to Stryper, we were in a band called Roxx Regime. Robert, Oz and I all went to school together, and we’ve known each other for a long time.
RMS: Did you have any difficulties as a musician trying to perform any of the songs?
MS: Vocally, I had a bit of difficultly with “The Trooper.” That one was a butt kicker. It’s so intense vocally. Bruce has such a unique voice. And for some reason, in my head, I thought that I had to sound just like Bruce. But when I realized that I didn’t, that’s when I was able to relax and sing it like Michael Sweet. Some of the solos were also a bit difficult. I like to work out solos, and try to come up with different ideas, and different licks and different structures. So it’s not just the same old thing rehashed. I spent quite a bit of time on that, working those out. For example, the solo on “The Trooper.” I did the first half of the solo, the second half was Oz. It took a lot of thought because I wanted it to stand out and be different.
RMS: Was part of the inspiration to do this CD due to the reaction the band received when you performed “Breaking the Law” by Judas Priest on your last tour?
MS: Yeah, that was one of the things that prompted us to do the album. We were playing “Breaking the Law” during the last two years, and whenever we would play the song, the reaction from the audience was just amazing. There may have been a couple people in the crowd that may have not been into it, but the majority of the people were like “Wow, what is this?” We did have people questioning it on-line, saying a Christian band playing a Judas Priest song, how can this be? They also were asking if we were still Christian because we were playing this song. And we are still getting that. But we just followed our hearts, and there is no denying that this is where we come from musically. If it wasn’t for these bands, Stryper wouldn’t be around, and I wouldn’t be on the phone with you. It’s certainly an interesting side to the band, and I think something that a lot of people wanted to hear and know about.
RMS: Have there been any repercussions from the Christian community in response to this CD? When you did a non-secular CD before, with “Against the Law,” it marked the beginning of the end for the band.
MS: No, that CD had nothing to do with the band coming to an end. It had more to do with that point in history when music was changing. Nirvana hit the scene and changed music. It was the decline of, not just Stryper, but every 80’s rock band that you could think of. That was the key player in it, and why we lost a lot of popularity. Also, “Against the Law” was a little more edgy, and had a little more rebellion to it, and angst. A lot of our fans were not ready for that. It was also a period of time when we were going through our own struggles, and that came through in the music, and photos and interviews. That period is what it is. We were going through some struggles then, and we pulled out of that, and we learned a lot since then. And by the grace of God, we are still here together again, and doing it.
But I think that “Against the Law’ was a really cool album. It’s not my favorite Stryper album by any means. But it’s a cool album, and a lot of fans really like that album. I’m very proud of our last album, “Murder by Pride.” We also plan on doing another all original album, and maybe a few more. We don’t have any plans to disband, or go our separate ways in the near future, that’s for sure.
RMS : That’s great because the one original new track, “God,” on your new CD, is a great song.
MS : We have had some great feedback on that song. I wrote that song very quickly. I thought up that song when I was in bed one night. I got up, and got my guitar, and put some chord to it, and then I called my home phone – from my cell phone, and recorded the idea on my answering machine. It was 2am in the morning, and I didn’t want to go down to my recording studio. So, I did that as a quick fix, so I would remember it. Then I woke up and played it for myself, and went down to the studio and started working on the arrangement. Once I got a rough arrangement, I went out and got a cup of coffee. I then sat at my kitchen table, and the words just came together very quickly. It was in a matter of a day that the song was written. I thought that it would be really, really fitting to close the album with that song. Just to solidify and show people that we are very seriously about our faith still, and it’s the most important part of what we do. And what better way to end the album of covers with one of the boldest songs that we have ever recorded. The reviews of that song have been through the roof. People love that song. Many people feel that is one of the best songs that we have ever written.
I think that it would be a smart move to make a record of all originals in that style of the song “God.” Simple, heavy and just real epic sounding with the high vocals and twin guitars solos – high energy style of music. And that’s what we plan on doing, and I’m really looking forward to it. I expect that people would really give it rave reviews, and hopefully it will be one of our best albums.
RMS: Well, like I said, your last two studio releases were incredible. In addition, they were stylistically different from your earlier releases. When you released “Reborn” in 2006, were you at all concerned with how your audience would react to the ‘new’ Stryper sound?
MS: Well the thing with “Reborn,” was that was recorded by myself, at my house. It was originally slated to be a Michael Sweet solo album. Around that time, Stryper reunited, and did a couple of shows. I played the album that I recorded for the guys, and they really liked it, and they thought it would be cool to make this a Stryper album. So we ended up making it a Stryper record. I got a lot of flak for that, and people were saying that it was just a Michael Sweet solo album. But the funny thing about that is if you say that about that release, you could very well say the same thing for every Stryper album, because I’ve written most of the stuff over the years. You can go down the list and say that they are all solo albums, which is ludicrous. That’s been the process from the very beginning. I write it, and everyone else puts in their own little flavor into it. And that adds the unique magic to it. It’s absolutely a band effort. But we are looking forward to the next album, and it’s going to be amazing.
RMS: Recently, I heard some rumors about Stryper playing some gigs with KISS. Is this something that you would ever consider?
MS: We would jump at the chance. Yeah, we would love to tour with KISS, or Bon Jovi, or any band like that. We would take that opportunity, so we could play to the masses. In order to get our music and message out there – to be heard by many more people who have never heard it. It would be a great opportunity to go out there and be a light in the dark.
RMS: While we are on the subject of KISS and Bon Jovi, I want to address the trend of bands charging ridiculous amounts of money for meet and greets. But, Stryper has one of the most affordable meet and greets available.
MS: Yeah, a lot of those bands do charge a ridiculous amount of money. Bon Jovi charges $1400, or something like that. The people get a lot, but some bands charge $200-$300, just for a handshake. We always feel a little funny charging people to meet us, or for anything like that. The bottom line is, we charge $100 and people can spend a half hour with us. We sign two or three items, and we take photos with each person. And we spend time with them. They come backstage and we have one on one conversations, it’s a real personal experience. The fact of the matter is, that the economy is in real bad shape, and in order for us to keep this tour on the road (we have to charge). It’s not a get rich thing at all. The band, really is not making any money on the road. All the money from the VIP’s is going towards road expenses, such as bus expenses – the fuel, the driver, the costs of the bus. On our last tour, we ended up in the red, losing money. But, it’s really difficult to make a tour happen for a band at our level of popularity and not see red. It’s very difficult, if not impossible. So we try ways to ease the blow. Bands like Bon Jovi and KISS are playing in front of 15,000 people and they have high guarantees every night. So it’s a lot easier for them to keep it going. We have to think of creative ways to keep it going. But, we certainly give our all to the fans, and our time to the fans, and that’s what it’s really about. We are there. If they are going through something, we are there to pray for them, or talk to them, and help them do whatever it is. It’s always a cool situation. We have always been like that, and we will continue to do that.
RMS: As a Christian, how do you feel about all the catastrophic eventsin the world today?
MS: It’s scary, difficult times that we live in. I mean it’s scary if you don’t know Christ. If you do, it’s still scary. Everything is changing politically, and all the disasters we are witnessing. The latest being the disaster in Japan. I believe it’s a time for people to really cling to the lord – through prayer and faith. And that’s all we have. It really is all we have. My prayer every night from stage has been to pray for the people of Japan. I can’t even imagine what they must be going through, being there in the middle of it. But it’s a sign of the end of times. There is no question about it in my mind. So many things line up with what is suppose to happen. We just have to do right, and set good examples of Christ, and focus on what is important – which isn’t the material things of this world. What’s important is to be an example of Christ for others. And be a light in the dark world in which we live in. The world needs a light, and we are here to bring that to the best of our abilities. We are trying our best, in the small way that we can. And we will keep doing that until we take our last breath. That’s what we are here to do.