Michael Sweet Of Stryper Talks About The Band’s New Album + Performing With Boston
2013 marks the 30th anniversary of Stryper’s formation as a group. After taking a break in the early ‘90s, the Christian hard rockers came roaring back into action in the early ‘00s and have remained extremely active both in the studio and on the road since that time.
Based on the title, No More Hell To Pay (which will be released on November 5th) could be mistakenly viewed as the end of a chapter, but nothing could be further from the truth. Instead, from the opening moments of “Revelation,” which leads off the album, it’s clear that Stryper is only just getting started. As Michael Sweet, frontman and creative mastermind for the group shares with us during a phone conversation about the album, he feels that this is a “very pivotal time” for the band, explaining that they are “recording, releasing and producing some of the best records of our lives.” And he sees no end in sight for Stryper, forecasting that there could be another 20 to 25 years left before they decide to put their instruments down.
The words which Sweet expresses about the band’s latest work are no hype — indeed, No More Hell To Pay fits quite comfortably into his definition as “the album we needed to make after To Hell With The Devil.” While it might be a bit late with its arrival time, it is far from anything that feels dusty and archaic. With No More Hell To Pay, Stryper deliver an album that features the melodic hard rock their fans have grown to love, bolstered with updated production that really helps to emphasize the heavy side of the group in a positive fashion.
In the following conversation, we discuss the new album, his work with classic rock legends Boston and how music can build a bridge in even the most unlikely situations.
You’ve called this new album “the record that we needed to make as the follow-up to To Hell With The Devil.” It might have taken a little while for that to happen, but it certainly seems like you went into this album with a pretty good idea of the kind of record you wanted to make.
Absolutely. The whole thing, “they spoke and we listened,” over the years fans have said “oh man, we want to hear this” and “we want more of that” and “do more of this” and “get back to this” and that. We really tried to listen to all of those comments without selling ourselves out — still being artistic and creative, but at the same time, giving the fans what they want and what they asked for. That’s what we did on this album. Basically, when I say it’s the album we should have followed To Hell With The Devil with, I mean that. It really is. In God We Trust was a good record, but it was slick, it was overproduced and it was way too polished. I’ll be the first to admit that. This album is not — this is a raw, in-your-face heavy record and I feel like if we had released this record back in 1988, we will never know, but I believe that it would have catapulted the band to new levels and history would have been changed. But that’s just my opinion.
What was the writing process like for this record?
It was very unique in the sense that I carried my iPhone 5 around wherever I went and whenever I got melody ideas or even guitar riff ideas, I would hum these ideas into my phone on my voice recorder and I got just a whole slew of ideas. When it came time to actually go down to my studio downstairs and write and arrange these ideas, I worked off of everything that I had on my phone. I just picked and chose and did away with the stuff that I didn’t really care for as much and I wound up with 11 songs. Then I arranged a version of “Jesus Is Just Alright” and we had a record!
Are you guys still in the same area? Are you still all able to work together in the studio when it comes to fleshing out material?
In terms of the songwriting itself, we don’t live in the same area. Typically, since day one, some people know this and some people don’t, I wrote most everything. If you really broke down everything, it would probably be like 97 or 98% of all of the music, I wrote. I did the same thing with this record — I wrote and arranged everything and then the guys came out to my house before we did the Monsters of Rock cruise and we spent about a week here at my house with me teaching the guys the songs and we would record each song live with the band. Everyone took home a disc of those live recordings and then when we got off the cruise, we went in the studio and we recorded the real deal.
Was that a lot of pressure early on in your career to shoulder the responsibilities as the main songwriter?
It wasn’t, no. There is pressure in the sense [with] like this new George Lynch record I’m going to be doing with George, I have to write a bunch of songs for [that] and we start recording in February. So there’s the pressure of “oh my gosh, I’ve got to do that.” But the pressure that comes from “oh my gosh, how am I going to do that” isn’t really there. Because I say this as humbly as I possibly can, I really do thank God, I have a song in my head and my heart like 24/7. So I wake up with melodies. My wife is talking to me about business and I’m thinking about a song. I’m very ADHD and I hyper-focus on music. It’s a blessing and a curse. Because it obviously distracts me from other things I need to focus on, but at the same time, it’s a blessing because I can really focus on the task at hand and music is the task. I don’t have a problem then going down and writing a song. It comes naturally and easily and I love it.
Has there been moments for you as a writer where the songs aren’t coming?
There have been. Occasionally when I go down to write a record — that’s the way it works — the label will call or I will look at the calendar and say “oh, crap! We’re supposed to start recording in a month!” So then I’ll get my cup of coffee and go down in my studio on a daily basis and then emerge two weeks later with 12 songs. It’s usually like a song a day if I focus, I go down and spend a day per song and they come after a couple of weeks and there it is. But occasionally there will be a song that is a bump in the road — it’s a hurdle that I can’t seem to get over. Whether it be the lyric or a section of the song that I just can’t write or figure out. That’s pretty rare. It’s not the way it is for every song.
This record sounds big.
Man, I tell you, I’m really happy with the production and I would be the first to tell you that I’m not happy with the production, trust me. I would tell you — I’m not going to sit here and blow smoke and lie to you. But man, I’m very pleased. I’m my own worst critic and the band’s worst critic. I’m so pleased — I pop it in my car or my computer or wherever I’m listening to it, it just sounds good to me. It’s a good balanced sound — it’s crisp, it’s punchy and it’s modern. It doesn’t sound like the production from 1988. It’s really cool, man. I couldn’t be pleased with how this record turned out.
That can be the struggle, delivering a record that hits the zone of what the fans or label or whoever wants, while staying true at the same time to yourself and getting that updated production or whatever it is, making sure those elements are in there too.
That’s not an easy thing to do. It’s really not. And you can overthink it to the point of literally….I’ll give you a perfect example — In God We Trust. We overthought that record — we just overthought it. We said “oh my gosh, To Hell With The Devil was so successful — this has to be as successful and in order to do that we have to follow the same format and the song flow and stick to this and stick to that.” We just overthought it and overproduced it and unfortunately, we kind of ruined a great thing. I think In God We Trust could have been our best record, but it didn’t wind up being our best record. So you’ve got to be real cautious of that — you want to stay creative and you want to listen to the folks and fans, but at the same time you want to do something fresh and new that’s going to have that energy and not put people to sleep. It’s going to wake them up and make them remember and know that “wow, these guys are back with a vengeance — they mean business!”
You mentioned the word “energy.” There’s an energy that you talk about, which in your words, hasn’t been there since the glory days. In your opinion, what were the important things that really contributed to this album turning out so well?
I think the first and most important thing is having good songs. If you don’t have the songs, then you’re spinning your wheels. After that, if you have the song, what’s even more important than getting great tracks, is having fun. If you go in studio and you’re not having fun, that’s going to come across in the tracks, it really is. If you’re having fun, that’s going to come across on the tracks. It almost raises the bar in terms of energy. When you’re in there tracking and smiling, you’re like “yeah, let’s do this” and it comes across with a little bit more fire behind it, versus if you’re rundown and tired and going “oh my God, I’m just not into doing this — that’s going to come across too.” What would follow after those two points would be getting great tracks and getting really cool solos and vocals and drum parts and bass parts and making sure that they’re just all rock solid.
The Against The Law period was a big departure for the band. What are your memories of that time? And how did the band come to work with Tom Werman?
It was a departure and that was mainly a departure because we were in a rebellious state. We had gotten sick and tired of being beat up by the church and we were just kind of burned out and that was a big F.U. to them. There’s no other way to really put it. That was a period when we were basically just saying “screw you — we don’t need you — we’re going to do what we want to do.” It was done in more of a rebellious way, which I’m not proud of and it almost wound up turning into a hypocritical way. What I mean by that is that we would go and perform and tell people “you don’t need drugs and alcohol” and then we’d go to the bar and get drunk with them after the show. So it was very hypocritical. That’s when I started to see and believe “this is wrong” and that’s part of what led me to leave the band eventually. I get into that in my book. But what led us to work with Tom Werman is that we just wanted to work with someone who knew what he was doing in terms of mainstream rock music at the time. There was no one more perfect than Tom at the time. We met with him and he had worked with Motley Crue and Poison and all of these bands and just made some amazing records and we thought “God, this guy would be perfect” and it worked out. He was available and wanted to work with us and we went and made a record together.
We spoke in the past about cover songs that people might not expect to hear your band do. The new album features a cover of “Jesus Is Just Alright,” but going further back, the cover of “Shining Star” by Earth, Wind & Fire on the Against The Law album surprised a lot of people at the time that it came out.
Exactly. That’s a perfect example of what I’m talking about. We, believe it or not, are big fans of Earth, Wind & Fire. Who would have guessed? Going to junior high and high school, I remember on a daily basis hearing Earth, Wind & Fire and the reason why is because I went to a predominantly Hispanic school and a lot of the kids and guys in the gangs that went to my school, they’d be blasting Earth, Wind & Fire on these boomboxes and stereos in the hallways. So I became a fan, because I recognized instantly the talent in that band. The vocal talent was just ridiculous. I started watching stuff and buying records [from them] and I was always a fan. So was Oz and we love Earth, Wind & Fire, so we thought “how cool would it be to cover an Earth, Wind & Fire song?” So that’s what we did.
When you’re referencing guys in gangs, I think that’s a cool example of how you can find common ground with pretty much anyone based on music.
Oh my gosh, yeah. My “finding common ground” story based on music would be back at the time, I was a minority. I was probably one of three white kids in the school. I weighed about 90 pounds soaking wet, you know? I remember walking the highways and going from class to class with my buddy Greg and all of these Cholos would be lined up — pretty hardcore gangbangers and the gang at the time, which probably still is around, was called Quiet Village. We walked the hallways and if you looked at them, they’d say “what are you looking at?” They’d want to jump you. So I just looked straight ahead and my buddy Greg would always look at them and he’d get the “what are you looking at?” line. What changed things for me was [my band] Firestorm — we performed for lunch and we played Hendrix and a bunch of different songs that they liked. Then when I’d walk down the hallways after performing, they’d be like “hey, what’s up man?” I was cool to them. And that was it — that changed my life!
You’ve had a lot of unbelievable experiences. One of them probably had to be being a part of Boston. What was that experience like for you?
It was amazing — definitely a pinch me moment in time and in my life. I was influenced heavily [by the band] as I’m sure many people were over the years, especially musicians. I heard that record for the first time in ‘76 and was floored and blown away. It inspired me to want to get a better guitar tone and I always loved that record. Then to fast forward to 2007, tragically through the circumstances of Brad Delp committing suicide, I was asked to be a part of what was supposed to be their last show on August 19th in Boston. It wound up turning out so well and there was such a great reaction that Tom [Scholz] came backstage and asked me, he said “look, we weren’t going to do anything more, but this went so well that we want to do more and we want you to be a part of it.” I was obviously just standing there with eyes wide open — what do you say? It’s like “What?”
I got the call not long after that. Stryper was overseas and I got the call from the booking agent saying “yeah, they’re going out on tour and you’re going.” I wound up doing the ‘08 tour with Boston, Styx was opening and I think it was 55 cities. From what I’ve been told and what I’ve understood, it was the most successful Boston tour that they’ve ever had in all areas, with the reviews and the sales [and things like that]. I think the reason why it was is because everybody was celebrating Brad’s life. Everyone. They were coming out to celebrate Brad’s life and that was just awesome. That was so incredible and for me to look back on that historically and say “wow, I was a part of that,” it really is truly, truly such a blessing to me. Just amazing.
How daunting was it to take the stage and sing those songs as kind of the “new guy” or one of the new guys in the band?
Very nerve-wracking. Because as we all know, Boston songs are not easy to sing. What really relieved a lot of pressure from me is when we were in rehearsals working on those songs, Tom allowed me for whatever reason, to kind of do my own thing. He was in the bathroom one time at rehearsals and I started playing a version of “Amanda” and he came out and said “Michael, I love that” and that’s the version we did — we changed it up a little bit. He just let me do my own thing. I got to change up the melodies a little bit on “More Than A Feeling” and stuff. Now Tommy DeCarlo, the other singer, Tom was harder on Tommy. He made Tommy stay true to the original melodies and I think it was because Tommy sounds more like Brad, you know? But he just let me do my own thing, so man, once he allowed me to do that the pressure was released from me. Instantly it was lifted.
I just spoke with Susanna Hoffs and she and Matthew Sweet have been doing these covers albums and one of the covers that they did which has not come out was a cover of “More Than A Feeling.” I was talking with her about that and she spoke about how they discovered how hard Boston songs are to sing. And she said “I don’t know how Brad sang that stuff!” She pointed out how difficult those songs are to sing.
It’s ridiculously difficult and the reason why is that the melodies are very diverse. There’s a lot going on with those melodies. And then the range is diverse — the range is all over the map — it goes from a lower range to a stratospheric range and it’s like, not many people can sing that stuff! It’s very difficult and Brad was one of the best singers of our time, without question.
Did you ever get to do any recording with Tom?
You know, I was going to and it wound up being a situation where I got really busy and things just didn’t work out schedule-wise and I departed. I left the band because I was getting so busy with Stryper that I didn’t want any conflictions or anything and I just felt like “you know what, I’ve got to step out.” I left in 2012 and I know a lot of people probably think I’m really nuts and crazy for leaving Boston, but Stryper is my band and really my life and that’s what I needed to devote my time to.
What else do you want folks to know about?
Well, I would like folks to know that we are all actually women.
No, I’m kidding, of course. I would like folks to know that we truly are blessed to be who we are and to have the fans that we have. I say this all of the time and I always mean it from the bottom of my heart. We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for all of the people out there who have supported us, prayed for us and been there since day one. We’re still going with the original lineup after 30 years, which is insane and there’s no signs of stopping. We plan on going, I mean gosh, we might have another 20-25 years left in us — we’ll see what happens. It’s an exciting time and a very pivotal time and a monumental time in a sense that I feel that we’re recording, releasing and producing some of the best records of our lives. So God bless everybody and thanks for your support and your love and for being there from day one. And thank you for your time, man, for talking to me.
Stryper images used with permission by Frontiers Records.