I've been getting some great feedback on these "vault" interviews. I was out of town last week so this interview will serve as the interview for last week and there will be another one released for this week!
One of the most underrated guitar duos in rock/metal, Michael Sweet and Oz Fox of Stryper, are currently touring in support of, "No More Hell To Pay", their new album full of original material.
This interview with Michael was conducted in March of 2012. Again, everything was left as is (dates, etc).
EA: Greetings Mr. Michael Sweet! Thank you for taking the time to do this interview. I've been into Stryper since the 80's - having seen you on the Soldiers Tour (at the Paramount here in Seattle, WA w/Bloodgood opening) and the To Hell Tour (also at the Paramount where you filmed the "Free" video, with Hurricane opening).
MS: Thank you Mark. That’s cool you were at the Free video shoot!
MS: I’m living on the East Coast, Cape Cod to be exact. The winters are a bit rough, but I love it out here.
EA: There's so much to talk about. Let's start with your new solo CD. What can you tell me about it?
MS: I’m really proud of this record. I’m proud of all the recordings I or Stryper release, but this one is very special to me. It’s been a long time since I’ve had the ability to pour my heart and soul into a solo album – probably since Truth was the last major solo-project release. I’ve got some incredible special guests on this album including Kevin Max (former DC Talk, current Audio Adreneline) and Tony Harnell (former singer for TNT). I wrote a song for my wife Lisa and sung it at our small wedding ceremony a couple of years ago. I recorded that song and it’s on the album as well. I’ve also been going to Nashville a lot writing for other artists, and one of the songs I co-wrote with Blair Daly (“Smile” for Uncle Kracker and “Stand” for Rascal Flatts) is on this album. I can’t wait to get it out. We’re shooting for an August release but no date has been set.
EA: I also understand you're doing acoustic shows at churches, playing your solo material, Stryper tunes, and worship songs. How did this come about and how have the shows gone so far?
MS: As we talk, I’m actually in an airport heading to a solo show in Portland. They are going great. I used to lead the music in worship services a few years back for my church and have always enjoyed playing acoustically in churches. It’s cool because I play a pretty wide variety of stuff at these shows from Stryper classics, to my solo material, to some notable praise and worship songs. I have a lot of different sides to me as an artist. These story-tellers type acoustic shows are a side that I really enjoy.
EA: I also saw recently that you will be traveling to Israel, and fans can purchase tickets to come along, is that correct? What more can you tell me about this unique travel experience?
MS: That’s correct. I’ll be going on a tour of The Holy Land in January of 2013. I’ve never been but always wanted to. I think it’s limited to only 50 tickets. I’m looking forward to touring Israel with some of our closest friends and fans. People can find out more about it at http://www.israelthemetours.com/
EA: And if that weren't enough, you also have your autobiography in the works? Goodness when do you have time for anything else? (laughs) How long have you been working on the book? When will it be coming out? What prompted you to write an autobiography?
MS: When you put it like that, yeah, I have been pretty busy indeed. I like keeping busy though. It’s just the way I am. I’ve always got something I’m working on. Ideally we are hoping to release this book simultaneously with my solo album. We’re working fast and furious on it now. Doug Van Pelt of HM Magazine is co-authoring it with me. It’s a very honest book that basically chronicles my life and all that we’ve been through as a band, and me personally as well. I think there will be some real eye-opening moments for the Stryper fans in this book, but I hope it’s a book that extends far beyond the Stryper fan base as well. It’s really a human interest story of music, love, loss, and victory. I’ve always wanted to tell my story and the timing just felt right for me to do this. Bill Edwards at Big3 Records has always been hugely supportive of my career, both with Stryper and as a solo artist. Big3 is releasing both the album and the book.
EA: Switching gears a bit, ever since I've been into Stryper, which dates back to the "Soldiers Under Command" album, you've always been the main writer in the band. Did that just happen naturally in the early days - you had the most material written so your songs ended up being on the albums? I know Oz has written a few songs over the span of the band and Robert has contributed as well but nowhere near what you've written.
MS: It happened very naturally. I am a songwriter. That’s what I do. It’s a talent that God has blessed me with and I’m incredibly thankful for it. I love writing songs and I don’t say this boastfully but it comes very naturally for me. I can lock myself away in my home studio and write an entire record in a week or two. Some writers write all the time, but I tend to write in spurts. I write a lot, but it’s very focused. When I get in writing mode, that’s what I do – write, write, and write. And then other times I’m in touring mode, or business mode. But when it comes time to do an album, writing songs for that album has always come very naturally to me – which is why I think I’ve enjoyed the process of writing with some of the best writers in Nashville. I just love the process of songwriting.
EA: Do you tend to write your songs on the piano or guitar or both?
EA: Do you play any other instruments?
MS: I play a mean kazoo. You should hear me wail on a version of “When the Saints Come Marching Home” on the kazoo. (laughing). Yeah, I play other instruments than just guitar. I do play piano and even some bass and drums, but I don’t pretend to be a virtuoso at those. Guitar is my main instrument of course.
EA: In the early days of Stryper, what were your goals as a band? Did you achieve them?
MS: We achieved them, and some. We just wanted to share with the world our beliefs through music. We wanted to take a stand for our beliefs, all the while never compromising the music. We never set out to say “We want to sell X millions of records”. No, we just wanted to make great music with an inspirational message and share it with as many people as possible. It was really that simple. It’s what we wanted to do then, and it’s what we do now. We feel very blessed every time we get to go out and perform these songs for an audience and are incredibly thankful for the loyal legion of fans that have stuck by us through all these years.
EA: I know when I was growing up, during the metal boom of the early 80's and beyond, Stryper was always in a tough position. Being a Christian rock/metal band, you were an easy target for the naysayers - who tended to be people of the Faith more so than metal fans. Were there ever times when the band thought, you know, this is just too much criticism, we should consider changing the message of the band?
MS: I don’t pay a lot of attention to the naysayers. There will always be skeptics – and you’re right – they tend to be particularly prominent within the church, which has always seemed odd to me. Back in the day we would have churches protesting outside our concerts. It was crazy. But we’d always go out and politely invite them to come to the show. Surprisingly most of them had never seen a Stryper show and occasionally when we would get some of them to come in and see the show, they would realize how God was working with this band and lives were being changed. But yes, generally speaking, I ignore the naysayers. As long as I continue to follow the Lord and seek His wisdom, that’s who I answer to.
EA: With "The Yellow and Black Attack", "Soldiers Under Command", and "To Hell With The Devil", the line up was solid it seemed. But then prior to "To Hell With The Devil" being released, Timothy Gaines was out of the band for, what seemed, like only a few months. I remember a promo ad for the album showed Tim's replacement. Can you elaborate on that period of time - what exactly happened? I remember talking to one of my friends back then who was just shocked that Tim was gone.
MS: Read my book when it comes out. (laughing). It is a long story, but generally speaking, yes, Tim was out of the band for a very brief moment during that time. And it just didn’t work out. We were happy to have Tim back in the band.
EA: Something I always wondered about as a fan was the switch of the original "To Hell With The Devil" cover - with the angels to the plain cover. Even back then in the mid 80's, there were covers FAR more offensive than something like that I thought. Was it your record label's idea to cave in and change it? It's such a strong album cover that I never understood why it was changed.
MS: There were certain stores that were refusing to carry the original artwork. So yeah, the label decided to do an alternative cover so that it could be distributed more widely. I agree though, compared to a lot of album covers, that “angel” cover was quite tame. We could have put a half-naked girl on the cover and it would have been just fine, but an album cover showing the conflicts between good and evil was somehow too much for certain retailers to handle.
EA: Looking back, how much pressure did you feel to follow up "To Hell With the Devil"? Was the record label on you guys to produce something similar? It seemed to me that "In God We Trust" was almost purposefully produced to get more airplay, more plays on MTV, etc. Is that accurate or no?
MS: I’m not sure it was pressure from the label or pressure we put on ourselves, or a combination of both. But you have to remember, this was a time when radio and MTV literally could make or break your career. It’s not like today where the fans get to chose what they want to hear through YouTube, Spotify, iTunes, etc. In the late 80’s radio and MTV determined which bands got heard and which ones didn’t, so if you wanted to be heard you were forced to produce albums that were appealing to those formats.
EA: The next album, "Against The Law", received a fair amount of criticism and confusion from many long time fans. I remember people saying that the band had abandoned their Christian message and roots which I thought was ridiculous. Being a Christian isn't like a piece of clothing you put on and take off, it is who you are as a person. Period. It never changes. To me, back then and today, I thought the band was just toning the message down but you certainly didn't abandon it. What are you thoughts on that album and time period?
MS: Not to sound like a broken record, but I will talk a lot about this period in my book. I admit to it being a rough time for us personally and professionally. And yes, we had taken a beating for so long from “the church” that it began to wear on us. We didn’t abandon our faith nearly as much as we were removing ourselves from the “church” scene. We’re only human, and you can only take so much beating before you finally say “Look. We don’t live by your rules. We answer to God, and only God.” Yeah, we had a bit of a chip on our shoulders at that time, but it wasn’t with God. All of that combined with the fact that the industry was changing. Our style of music was fading nationwide. We had gone from playing arenas to clubs. It was rough times, no doubt. And that probably came across in the music.
EA: Now, here in 2012, what can you say about your departure from the band back after "Can't Stop The Rock" compilation came out? What led up to it?
MS: I get asked this question a lot. All I can really say is that it felt like the right time to depart. We had a good run and did some great things, and it was time for me to take a step away from it all. But I’m a songwriter, so it wasn’t as if I wanted to stop music all together. I did a couple of solo albums. My first solo record had 5 radio hits on Christian radio and was received very well. It sold a quarter of a million copies, which for a Christian album at the time was incredible numbers. There was no one moment or something that happened where I said “That’s it. I’m out of here.” It was a process. I felt my interest fading and I just knew it was time for me to step away for a while.
EA: I know Robert, Oz, and Tim continued on as three piece briefly before calling it a day. Then the band went into a lengthy hibernation. What were you specifically doing during that time? Is it true you were working as a park ranger for a time?
MS: It is true. Like I mentioned, I released a string of solo albums during that time as well. But yes, my wife at the time had a family business and I worked as a park ranger there. It was a cool job, but I never stopped writing.
EA: I bought a copy of the Limited Edition "To Hell…." back in 2000 that has the original artwork restored as well as your cover of "Winter Wonderland" as a bonus track. I believe you were selling these directly to the fans, correct? How did that reissue come about back then?
MS: Wow, I had almost forgotten all about that re-issue. It was licensed by another company who did a limited re-pressing that we sold through our website.
EA: When the band reunited at the first Stryper Expo back in 2000, was that the start of the second chapter so to speak?
MS: That was a lot of fun. And yes, was helpful in getting us playing together again. It really ignited when about a year later I did a solo show in Puerto Rico and Sin Dizzy (with Tim and Oz) were on that bill as well. We got together and did some songs that night and the place was packed. It was several moments like that which lead us to wanting to do more shows together.
EA: Jumping to "The Covering" album - how was the response to it? I personally liked a lot of the cover versions - some more than others. But I thought it was a fun record that showed the bands roots.
MS: Thanks. It was intended to be a fun album, so I’m glad you got that out of it. These are bands that shaped our musical roots, and we wanted to do our best to pay homage to those acts. The response to the album has been generally positive. To your earlier point, there are the “naysayers” who like to criticize anything we do that is outside of their realm of comfort, but the naysayers were fewer than expected on this album. I think by now, most people understand us. We’re a rock band, with rock roots, and we didn’t become who we are by listening to the contemporary Christian music of the time.
EA: One quick question about "Shout It Out Loud" (originally by KISS) on the record - was there ever any thought or discussion about having Oz do the Gene vocal parts - to trade off with you like they do on the original? Just a fan question I have as I thought it would of made the song even cooler.
MS: No, that wasn’t really something we discussed. Oz is a great singer, no doubt, but we work best when harmonizing together.
EA: Stryper played Seattle twice in the past few years (at El Corazon), both of which I couldn't make for various reasons that I was completely bummed about. But, I know you're coming back in June. What can the fans expect from this current crop of shows?
MS: We play a lot of the Stryper classics along with some of the newer stuff, including some songs off The Covering. The band is sounding as tight as ever. We’re really happy with how we’ve found our groove.
EA: Michael, it's been such a pleasure interviewing you. Is there anything you'd like to end the interview with?
MS: I just want to thank all of your readers and our fans for their continued prayers and support of myself and Stryper. We are all greatly appreciative of those who come to the shows, listen to our music, and hopefully share that music with others. See ya on the road!