Michael Sweet Interview: Stryper Frontman Talks New Solo Music, Christianity and Steven Tyler
Image attributed to Michael Sweet
Stryper frontman Michael Sweet released his 7th solo studio album, One Sided War, on August 26, 2016. The record may just be his most intense solo release to date with plenty of hard rock and classic metal riffs from start to finish. Sweet surrounded himself in the studio with Whitesnake guitarist Joel Hoekstra, Evanescence drummer Will Hunt, bassist John O’Boyle and East Coast shred-master Ethan Brosh to create the album.
Formed in the early 1980s, Stryper has sold over 10 million records and is recognized as the first openly Christian heavy metal band to gain recognition in the mainstream music world. The band’s album, To Hell with the Devil, was their Grammy Award nominated third release in 1986 and was the first Christian metal album to achieve platinum status. Stryper’s sixteenth release, Fallen, was released October 16, 2015.
“Nothing against Steven [Tyler], but maybe that’s why his album didn’t do so well. Maybe it’s possible? Steven’s one of my all-time favorite rock and roll frontmen. Aerosmith is one of my all-time favorite rock bands. He’s a legend. He’s incredibly talented. There’s nobody like Steven and there never will be. But, I prefer Steven in his rock format versus in his country format. That’s all.”
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What was the idea behind One Sided War, Michael?
Michael Sweet: Well, with this album, there’s some very serious, profound lyrics to ensure my faith is getting out there as always. But, there’s also some fun to this album with songs like “Radio.” I wanted to lighten up a little bit and have a little fun. I feel like sometimes Stryper albums and Michael Sweet albums are just a little too serious, and it’s nice to loosen up a little bit. I wanted to do the same thing musically as well.
I brought in some other players, and we all cut loose a little bit more and went out of our way to do a little bit more for the song. The drummer would say, “Is this still too much?” I would say, “No. Absolutely not. Do it and do more.” It was that kind of mentality. I wanted the energy to be really high and for the fun everybody was having to be coming across and be portrayed with each track. I think we accomplished that.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What are the differences between One Sided War and your previous solo effort I’m Not Your Suicide?
Michael Sweet: Oh, gosh, there’s a big difference. On I’m Not Your Suicide, there were similarities with songs like “Taking on the World Tonight” and the up-tempo songs. The thing about I’m Not Your Suicide is there was a different side to that album that this one doesn’t have with songs like “Coming Home,” and I did a cover of “Heart of Gold.” It went in a different direction, so it had two or three sides to it.
This album pretty much is one-sided (no pun intended), but it is one-sided as it’s called One Sided War. It is a straight ahead rock record. There’s not anything that goes off course from that. The closest thing to that would be maybe the ballad, “Who Am I,” but it’s still rocking as well. It’s a guitar driven rock ballad.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): The song “Radio” pokes fun at rock stars who turn into country singers. I thought of Steven Tyler since he recently released a country album and has moved to Nashville. So, did you have anyone in mind while writing the song?
Michael Sweet: You know what? Here’s my take on that. Who am I to say anything about Steven Tyler? I mean, he’s a legend. I’m not even half the level or a third of the level that he is in terms of accomplishments. I’m not trying to be disrespectful to Steven Tyler or anyone else for that matter that’s gone down that country path or road. But, I just think it’s kind of ridiculous when rock guys try to go country.
To do a song that’s got a country flair to it like Bon Jovi’s done, I’m totally cool with that. I’ve done that. I grew up around country. My dad wrote a number one country song. I used to play on those country sessions when I was a kid. I grew up watching Hee Haw. Buck Owens is one of my favorite artists of all time. So, literally, I lived country. But, I’m a rock guy. I’m a metalhead. I would never try to throw on a cowboy hat and cowboy boots, and then all of a sudden say, “Hey, I’m country now.” It just doesn’t make any sense to me. That goes for any genre of music.
I said this to Eddie Trunk just recently, and he said, “I never really thought of that.” But, it’s true and valid. Imagine if country music all of a sudden became unpopular and rock, hard rock and metal became very popular and was the number one seller in music, and because of that, all the country guys started trying to become hard rock and metal guys. I think everyone would just be scratching their heads saying, “This is ridiculous.” That’s kind of how I view the flip side of that.
All these rock guys are all of a sudden country and we’re supposed to believe it? I just think it’s silly. It’s not real. Country is a way of life. You’re either the real deal or you’re not. If you’re living country and you grew up country, and you’re a country artist, then you’re the real deal, and people are going to see right through that. They’re going to know it. If you’re fake and you’re not the real deal, people are going to know that, too.
Nothing against Steven, but maybe that’s why his album didn’t do so well. Maybe it’s possible? Steven’s one of my all-time favorite rock and roll frontmen. Aerosmith is one of my all-time favorite rock bands. He’s a legend. He’s incredibly talented. There’s nobody like Steven and there never will be. But, I prefer Steven in his rock format versus in his country format. That’s all.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Why did you decide to record two versions of “Can’t Take This Life”?
Michael Sweet: I had the album pretty much set in terms of songs, and then after the fact, I decided that I really wanted to get Moriah Formica on the album. I had performed with her and she blew my mind. I’m so impressed with her. I wanted to get her on the album, and I felt like that song, lyrically and musically, was the perfect choice for her to sing. But, I also wanted to do a version of it as well because I had some things in mind vocally I wanted to do, and I love that style of song as well. So, that’s why I put two versions on it.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Moriah’s voice is quite amazing!
Michael Sweet: She hits it out of the park on that song. I call her “Mo.” I think the world’s going to hear a lot more about Mo in the future. She’s a very talented girl and only 15 years old. I think a lot of the press says she’s 16, but she’s actually only 15. She’s an incredibly powerful singer. That’s the thing. As a young singer, you can be taught all the chops and the parts and the tone, but you can’t be taught the power because that’s just a whole different thing that comes from within from the lungs. She’s got this real powerful, chesty voice, and she can hold her own against Ann Wilson and singers like that.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Is there a certain pressure and/or judgment from people because Stryper plays heavy metal and is labeled a Christian band?
Michael Sweet: Oh, yeah. But honestly, I don’t live my life by the comments of others. I’ll respond to them, but I don’t live my life by them. For example, there are some comments on the “Radio” song by some Christian people, supposed Christian people saying, “How is this Christian?” and “How can you call yourself a Christian when you’re doing a song like this?” I just laugh at comments like that. It really is hilarious to me.
I feel bad for those people to a degree because they’re so close-minded. So, over the years, we’ve taken our heat and heard everything you could think of directed at Stryper and directed at me when I do solo albums. But, I just rise above it, and I keep doing what I know I’m called to do with a smile on my face. I enjoy every minute of it. I love what I do and I’m different.
I’m not the kind of guy … we weren’t raised or brought up in the church. We were raised on the streets of LA, and then we became Christians. Because of that, we’re a different breed. We’re never going to fit into the contemporary Christian club, and we’re never going to fit into the secular mainstream clubs either. We’re hybrid. We lived that life before, then we became Christians, and here we are.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Did you have any hesitation joining the secular band, Boston, and replacing the late Brad Delp?
Michael Sweet: Replacing him is what I had a little fear of because those are impossible shoes to fill. Once I realized I was never going to fill them, nor did I want to try to fill them, I was able to have fun. All the fans accepted me. We were celebrating Brad’s life throughout the time that I was in the band. I didn’t have any hesitation joining the band in terms of my Christian point of view or my faith by any means. I knew I was supposed to join the band and I did.
I took a lot of heat for it, though, from the Christian side. Again, it’s the mentality, the shallow, small-minded, ignorant mentality of “How can you do that and call yourself a Christian?” I’m not sure what planet those people come from. I really don’t know. But, for them to say such stupid things is astonishing to me. Are these same people searching the yellow pages for a Christian plumber when their toilet’s overflowing? Because they better be. They better be if they’re making comments like that. It’s just silly to me.
It’s sad because, you know what? Here’s my view on it. We’re to separate ourselves from the world in terms of sin. In other words, I’m a Christian, so you’re not going to see me going out, running into a group of guys smoking a joint, grab the joint and start smoking it. Then, you’ll walk by and say, “You’re getting high?” I watch what I do. I’m careful about what I do. I definitely live a different life. I might be standing there while they’re smoking, but I don’t have a problem with it, and I’m not going to tell them to put it out.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Does it feel like it has been 30 years since Stryper’s release of To Hell with the Devil?
Michael Sweet: It does not. It feels almost half the time, maybe 15 to 20 years tops, but definitely not 30.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How have you evolved since that time?
Michael Sweet: I’ve learned a lot, obviously, through mistakes, and at times, just through life experience. I think I’ve come a long way. I’ve gone through a lot. I’m still here, Lord willing. I still have a passion about what I do. I think because of that it helps to drive and steer me in the direction that I’m going. I’m excited about the future. I feel like I’ve got a lot left in me and a lot of things to accomplish.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Tell me about the To Hell with the Devil 30th Anniversary Tour.
Michael Sweet: It starts September 29, and we are going to wear the same outfits we wore on that tour on that album. We’re going to do the album from start to finish, and we’re going to come out after we finish that and add several songs to the end of the set, so it’s a long set. Otherwise, it would only be about a 45-minute set. This is all in celebration of that album.
To Hell with the Devil came out in October of 1986, so 30 years ago. It’s our most acclaimed, our biggest album. It’s the album that took us to new levels, to new heights and the most successful album to date by far.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): The first Christian metal album to go platinum?
Michael Sweet: Platinum, yes. What happened was our label wound up closing their doors in 1991, so from that time on, we haven’t been able to get the certification on how many more albums it has sold. But, at that time, it was over double platinum. We’ve all done the math and numbers and tried to gather our information. It’s probably sitting in the five to six million area right now in terms of sales. It’s done quite well.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What about a solo tour on One Sided War?
Michael Sweet: I have to do that and I want to do it. I’m not going to be able to do the tour this year because Stryper’s going all the way to the end of the year, but next year, I’m definitely going to do some solo touring as well.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Is the excitement of performing still as fresh for you as it was 30 years ago?
Michael Sweet: Yes. I love to perform. I love to write, produce, arrange and record music. I would be a liar if I said I liked performing as much or more than recording. I think I enjoy being in the studio a little bit more because that’s the creative side. I get really excited about that. But, I do love to perform. The thing that gets a little grueling and taxing at times is the travel, always on a plane, in a bus and 5:00 a.m. lobby calls. That gets a little exhausting at times, but I still have the energy to do it.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): And will you continue on as long as the energy is there?
Michael Sweet: Absolutely. I hope that’s another 20 years at least. I’m 53 now, so maybe in my mid-70s, I might consider putting that part of what I do on hold. Maybe not. Who knows.
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