Having just released Stryper´s 12th album, “Even The Devil Believes”, bandleader, singer, guitarist and main songwriter Michael Sweet is in good spirits when Stargazed Magazines reporter calls him up on a cold october evening. Find out his regiment when it comes to writing music, how he views himself and finding out just what the hell “Fredagsmys” is.
Hi Michael! Thank you so much for taking your time and talking to me!
– Hi Marty! Of course! It´s a pleasure!
When you guys started off way back in the early 80s as Roxx Regime and later as Stryper, you were caught in a catch 22 kind of situation. The christians denounced you for playing what they thought was the devils music and the secular hard rock scene didn´t love the overtly christian image and lyrical content. And somehow you still made it. What was it like, being in that situation?
– We just stuck to our guns. We were willing to take the heat and all the critisism and not let it affect us or bring us down. Or slow us down, for that matter. We just stayed on path. Kept doing what we are made to do and that still hasn´t changed from 1983 to 2020. We take a lot of heat, a lot of critisism. People say a lot of nasty things about the band. For what reason I don´t know. Maybe for the fact that we are christians, I don´t know. But the music speaks for itself and our success speaks for itself.
In Sweden black- and death metal is still quite popular and I have friends from those genres that actually love Stryper that usually go: “They rock! To Hell With The Devil!”, hahaha!
– Hahaha! That´s awesome! You know, we are a band that are the brunt of most jokes and people like to single Stryper out and kinda make us the life of the party in the wrong way. But at the same time, many of the same people are closet Stryper fans, they might not like to admit to that publicly but they´re listening to Stryper in private. And some of them admit it publicly, some of these guys in black metal bands, satanists and atheists… and they love the band, you know? And I say this very humbly, what´s not to love? We work hard, we´ve crafted our sound, we have a very unique guitar tone and style and vocal style, so why wouldn´t they like it? The only thing I can think of why people wouldn´t like it is because of the lyrical content and the message behind the music. But on the other hand, there are a lot of christians, friends and family that listen to Slayer and love Slayer, they just don´t like the lyrics. So I think it is possible to appreciate the music no matter what the lyrics are saying.
That is a really cool thing, that music is, indeed, unifying.
– It is, it really is! You feel music, it is not so much about wether you believe the lyric or not. It´s just… when you hear that first riff and that drum groove and your foot starts tapping, you´re hooked, before you even hear the lyrics.
Exactly! Oh, totally out of the blue, you guys have played Sweden Rock Festival, right?
– Yes, we´ve played Sweden Rock a bunch of times but it has been a couple of years. I´m not sure why we´re not asked back every year, I think Stryper should become a stable at Sweden Rock, hahaha!
A couple of years ago I saw this photograph from Sweden Rock of two guys standing together, holding hands and singing along to Journey. One in full on black metal gear, leather, chains, spikes and corpse paint and the other in hair metalregalia with pink and purple hair. They musically come from opposite sides of the playing field but their love for Journey was unifying.
– Exactly, a good song is a good song, simple as that. Just enjoy the music, man!
Now about your new album, “Even The Devil Believes”. The production on this is really chunky and heavy and I especially like the guitar sound.
– Oh, good! That´s great to hear!
And I also find your vocal approach a bit more aggressive this time around. It sounds a bit like you just got tired of everyone´s bulls**t or am I reading to much into it?
– No, no. I´ve been trying to find my voice in 2020, you know, my style. I don´t wanna sing like I did in 1987 even if I could, which I can´t.
You sound a lot, excuse the term, more grown up than previously. You really sound like a metal singer this time around, man.
– Good, bro! That´s great to hear! My voice was much higher back then, much clearer and I had a totally different tone in my voice. I can still, kind of, pull that off to a degree. Obviously a song like “Imitation Only” shows off that aspect of my singing. But for the most part, I love the heavier, grittier style. I´ve been showcasing that on my solo material as well. And there are some fans that hate it, they post comments on YouTube and stuff like that: “I don´t like your vocal approach” and that´s fine, you´re never gonna please everybody. I´m glad you like the guitar tone, again, it´s alove it or hate it thing. But regardless of what you think of it, the minute you hear it you know that it is Stryper.
Another things about your vocals, as you still can hit those insane highs… A couple of years ago you said that you weren´t a total stranger to taking on another singer the day that you no longer can do that. How are your feelings about that today?
– What I meant by that was that if my voice fails me to the point where I no longer can… Where I feel like I´m compromising the integrity of the band, then I´ll bring in another guy. I don´t have so much pride that I would not consider that. I think it would be fun! If my voice goes to that point, in say five years where I´m really struggling then we´ll bring in some young kid who can and I´ll just jump around the stage playing guitar and still be an active member of the band. When I say stuff like that people get up in arms: “Oh, man, no one can replace you!” but the thing they have to remember is that everybody is replaceble! I mean, there´s always someone out there that´s better than you, you know?!
Tell me, do you consider yourself as a singer first and foremost that happen to play guitar or a guitar player that also sings?
– I have always considered myself to be a guitarist first because that´s how I started out. I started playing when I was five years old, mostly acoustic and started to get into electric guitar around nine. I didn´t start singing until I was 12 when I joined my brother´s band. We played backyard parties and stuff like that. But I always considered myself a guitarist first and as a singer second. I enjoy playing guitar more than I do singing. I love singing but I really love playing the guitar, man!
Featured on the last few records and in particuilar “Even The Devil Believes” are some truly bad ass, ripping and still melodic guitar solos. I´ve grown up listening to Yngwie J Malmsteen, Marty Friedman and Jason Becker in Cacophony, Vinnie Moore and Tony MacAlpine, all those shredders. But these solos strike such a beautiful balance between melody, technique and that great tone that is so important.
– Well, gosh that´s really amazing to hear you say, man! Let me tell you, buddy, I have worked so hard, maybe even harder on my guitar playing and my sound and my style over the years that it is frustrating for me, and it´s fine, I´ve kinda learned to accept it, that most people think that Oz Fox is the lead guitar player of Stryper. I mean he is but so am I! And we have literally, over the years from the first album to this one, each played half of the solos.
People don´t hear that? I think your styles are so distinct, like Smith/Murray in Iron Maiden, Tipton/Downing in Judas Priest…
– Right!? You know what it is that has kept me from being recognised as a player? It´s because I´m a singer as well. And people just asume that because I´m the singer… To this day, people come up to me after almost every show and they say to me: “Gosh, I had no idea you played guitar?!”
– I´m serious! Hahahaha! And they say “I´m a big fan! but I have never seen you guys play so I didn´t know that you play guitar”. And I look at them like a deer in a headlight ´cos I don´t know what to say, you know? I don´t know if I have a response for that. I think to myself, how is this possible? In our first videos, “Free” for instance… how can you not know that I play guitar? It´s mind boggling to me, hahahah! All that aside, I work really hard, man, as a guitar player, I´m not a Yngwie-clone, I´m not Marty, I´ll never be at that level. I always try to write solos that are memorable and melodic.
And that´s the thing. My favorite guitar player is John Petrucci from Dream Theater..
– Oh, yeah, I love John, he is awesome!
And his best solos are the one that you basically can hum along to, the melodic ones. I have been listening to your new record on a loop for a couple of days and, if we step away from the guitar thing for a moment, I had this epiphany the other day and discovered this incredible part in the song “How To Fly”, the bridge just before that great guitar solo, roughly 2,15 in. That part, man, is so inspired, so much Queen influences, beautiful!
– That makes me so happy to hear! Thanks buddy! I´m a big fan of… as much as I´m a fan of Iron Maiden and Judas Priest, I´m also a fan of Journey, The Bee Gees and ELO and I love how these bands constructed their melodies and harmonies so that comes out in our music sometimes. And that solo, for “How To Fly”, when I wrote that I wanted to write a solo that fit the song and it is something that I always strive to do. And that solo is very simple, it kinda cries out, almost like a vocal melody and it fits the music.
You´re the main writer in Stryper, what is your mindset going in writing a Stryper album, what is your process like?
– You know, I really don´t give it much thought. The way I approach every album, Stryper, solo album, Sweet/Lynch (Michaels collaboration with -ex Dokken guitarrist George Lynch) and so on, I just start writing. I sit down with my computer with my drum software and my Ipad with my Jam Up Amp simulator and I start out by working out a riff first and then I find a drum loop that fits the riff and once I have that, it feels good and I´m tapping my foot, I start building the song and arranging it. And that takes about two hours and when I have the complete, arranged song, that´s when I start writing the lyrics so it is about a four to five hour process per song for me.
Hahahaha, that is amazing! I can work for months on end on one single song!
– Well, you know… Look, I´ve gotten hung up on songs as well, “Imitation Only” for example. That was a song that was written in 1989 and we recorded it for “Against The Law” but I could not finish the melody and the lyrics to save my life so that has happened to me. But lately it doesn´t. I follow the formula; one song a day. If there is eleven songs: eleven days, if there´s twelve it will take twelve days and that´s it. That´s the way the last two solo albums have been written, the last four Stryper albums, both Sweet/Lynch albums, all of them.
That is pretty much a unique approach to song writing. What is really cool with the new album is that it does not feel constructed, every song has its place and flows beautifully.
– What I really wanted to do with this album was to take people on a ride and a ride isn´t just going a 100 miles an hour, it has got curves throughout, you slow down, you speed up, accelerate, you gun it, you know? And that was what I wanted this record to feel like.
One of my favorite tracks is “This I Pray”.
– That´s a ballad, man. It is more of a throwback kinda ballad but it also have this, almost southern gospel meets Bon Jovi-vibe to it. And that is different for Stryper because usually our ballads are, I don´t wanna say on the surupy side but a little sweeter and this one is a little edgier.
I´m gonna play that song for my wife tonight as she is a long time fan of yours, way back to the 80s. She loves “Wanted Dead or Alive” (Jon Bon Jovi) and I told her “they actually have a song that rivals “Wanted…” and she was like, “No way!?”.
– Yeah, it has got that vibe to it so if she loves “…Dead or Alive” I think she might like “This I Pray”. Or she might tell you to “Shut that rubbish off”, hahahaha!
Hahahaha! No, I think she´ll love it!
– How long have you guys been together?
We´re high school sweethearts, we´ve been a couple for 32 years now. She is my everything.
– Wow, good for you! That is awesome, man!
She´s the best. She´s my rock.
– I understand that, I get it. That is very honourable that you say and feel that way, man. I bet you would be lost without her and it is the same for me and my wife, Lisa.
She´s in the living room with our dog at the moment. In Sweden we have something called “Fredagsmys”, which roughly translates as Cosy Friday.
– That sounds great, man!
Everyone hurries home after work, have dinner, maybe have a drink and watch a movie, just huddle up and especially now here up north we are getting close to winter, it looks like Halloween out there at the moment. And its a great season to spend time with your loved ones indoors.
– Is it starting to get a lot colder?
Yeah. I love this season so we´re gonna huddle up and watch some great horror movie later tonight.
– I love it, man! I love this season too and I´ll have a drink in honour of you a little later today, once it gets five o´clock, ok?
Dude, that is awesome! What time is it over there (in Sweden it was around 19.00)?
– Right now it is 12.53 in the early afternoon.
And how many interviews have you got left today?
– I´ve only done a couple of intervies earlier and I have two more after this to a total of five today.
So that´s a pretty good schedule for you?
– Yeah! And then later I´m recording vocals for the new Sunbomb album that I´m doing with Traci Guns from L.A Guns.
Cool! You mentioned Sweet/Lynch earlier, is there coming more music from that collaboration?
– Sweet/Lynch will be happening next year, another solo album next year, an album with Joel Hoekstra (Whitesnake) which is gonna be more of a Whitesnake throwback. I´m blessed to be busy and to still be doing what I want to do, I´m a very blessed and fortunate man, I´ll tell you that. I just love to stay busy, man. And I love what I do and hopefully that shows.
We´re gonna be wrapping this up soon. A reflection I made while going through your more recent albums is summed up in a single word: consistency. Somehow, after all these years and although you´re a heavier band now, you guys still sound like Stryper.
– Well, you know what, man? I think we somehow have been able to figure out a way to make it work in 2020 and still retain the past but also bring in the present and merge the two.
That´s a great answer! Michael, thank you so much for taking your time and talking to me and on behalf of Stargazed Magazine I hope to see you in Sweden soon!
– Thank you, brother! You have a wonderful night, enjoy the movie and the drinks and tell your wife I said hello and let me know what she thinks about “This I Pray”, ok?
She is gonna squee loudly when she hears this!
– Hahahaha, I love it!
Thank you so much, man!
– Ok, buddy, I hope to shake your hand some day! See you, bye!
And there you have it. Stay up to date with Mr Sweet´s different collaborations by subscribing to Stargazed Magazine. Be safe, keep your distance and rock on!