Soldier Under Command: My conversation With Michael Sweet of Stryper

In early October, I received a download link for Stryper’s then-forthcoming album “Fallen”, released October 16th.  To say I was impressed with what I heard is an understatement, and while I don’t do many interviews anymore, when I was told Michael Sweet of the band might be available, I just couldn’t pass up the opportunity.  That conversation took place on November 10th of this year…

You and your brother, he’s the drummer in the band- did you grow up in a musical household?

We did.  We grew up around music, my parents are performers and songwriters, singers, we’ve just always been around that.  I remember when we were little kids, they were hiring babysitters to watch us while they’d go out and perform.  They were managed by Mike Curb, and my dad wrote a #1 country song in ’78…

Mike Curb, that’s a name I know…

Yeah!  Mike Curb managed my parents.  So it was interesting… I grew up around music and around the business from the time I was born.  So it’s all I know for the most part, and I don’t know that I really had any other choice!  Not that I would necessarily want one, but I was just raised and grew up in this music world, and I love it!

Growing up in a musical world, did you have your own rock & roll heroes or musical heroes?

Oh I did, I mean early on I had heroes like Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, you know ‘cuz my dad listened to all those bands and those artists, and I loved it.  I remember air guitaring to Chuck Berry albums on my bed when I was 5 years old, 6 years old.  And then as I got older I got into bands like Creedence Clearwater Revival and Bread, and then started getting into the heavier stuff like Aerosmith and Kiss.  And then once Van Halen came on the scene I got into bands like Judas Priest, Van Haen, then just started getting a little heavier.  I never really got into the real hardcore heavy stuff, it’s just not my style.  I like singers that sing and have range and melody, and guitars.

Can I ask how old you are, Mike?

I’m 52.

Okay- I’m 57, but it sounds like you’re describing sort of my musical development too and the bands I grew up appreciating, although I was a Beatles guy ‘cuz I’m the youngest of 4.

I am too!  I’m a Beatles guy big-time, and every now and then that comes out in some of the songs that I write in terms of harmonies and whatnot, especially the solo stuff.  But yeah, I love The Beatles.

Oh exactly.  Now going back to the beginning of Sryper, you guys formed as Roxx Regime, and then you changed to Stryper when you decided to, have a more spiritual bent, reflecting your Christian beliefs in your lyrics.

Well, when I was 12 the entire family became Christians.  We started going to church, and believe or not, through Jimmy Swaggart. 

Really!

Oddly enough Jimmy Swaggart, later on in life, with Stryper, spoke out against us and actually held our records up on television a couple of times and said “these guys are wolves in sheep’s clothing”.  He used to send his people out in the bible belt at our shows in protest. 

Well when you’re pointing your finger at somebody, remember there are 3 more pointing back at you.

I know, and the world knows that we see that on a daily basis. And while Jimmy was judging us, probably at that very same time as he was speaking those words, he was going through his… fighting his own demons, and we all know what that was.  You just gotta be real careful about that, because we all have problems. 

Of course- we’re only human, right?

Yeah.  We’re only human and we all have issues and problems, and we’re all sinners, you know?  So, that being said, that’s when I became a Christian, then I got out of it for awhile.  It sounds so funny hearing me say ‘I got out of it’, (chuckles) but when I was 13 to the age of 20. 

Okay…

‘Cuz I started playing all the Hollywood clubs at a very early age- I looked older.  And with that, by the time I was 15-16 I was drinkin’ and smokin’ and doing all that typical ‘sex, drugs and rock & roll’ stuff.  I decided at the age of 20, along with the other guys, that I wanted to turn my life around, and I did that.  And from that point on it’s been Stryper, and a very clear vision of what I’m to do and where I’m going.

Now when you as a musician and Stryper as a band decided to follow this path… I’m sure there are some people, and I will admit when I first heard of your band I thought this was a gimmick too, but this was from the heart, wasn’t it?

It really was, and is.  I mean, really, if you just break it down and use common sense… I mean, here we are, a band that was very popular on the LA scene.  You know, we could’ve got signed as just a regular rock band, not Christian, and probably… I’m not even gonna say ‘probably’ I’m gonna say I’m pretty certain of the fact that we would’ve made a lot more money.  We would’ve been on a bigger scale, and we would’ve done bigger and better things.  That’s just my opinion, but the music speaks for itself.

Exactly.  I was going to say you guys were musically as good as those other bands that were out there.  The Christian faith is what set you apart and some people think, and myself included again, didn’t know how to deal with that.

Exactly.  And that’s kind of my point so often, is why would we become a Christian band and use that as a gimmick just to see the numbers drop?  I mean that’s just on a business level because we’re business guys too, we have to be, we do this for a living as well, it just doesn’t make any sense whatsoever.  I always get a bit of a chuckle out of it when I hear people say we use it as a gimmick.  And then the other thing about the band is we go on stage and sing about what we sing about, and when you come back stage you’re gonna see the same thing.  Now 95% of other bands out there, you’re not.

Yeah.

When you see guys with pentagrams and spewing blood on stage, you go backstage and they’re getting the family ready to go to church Sunday morning. 

Yeah, exactly- to them, that’s the gimmick. 

And it IS a gimmick, you know.  I mean, not everyone, but a lot of bands.

If you talk to Gene Simmons from Kiss, I’m sure he’d readily admit that a lot of what he does is just a gimmick for the show. 

But with Stryper we mean what we sing and it’s always been that way, I mean we live it.  Are we perfect? No…. but you get what you get onstage and off-stage.

Right.  Now, “To Hell With The Devil” came out in, what, ’86 I think?

Yep, ’86.

Now that was your big album for the 80’s- was that a really crazy time for you guys?

It was crazy.  What felt like, it seemed like an overnight explosion of success, and it wasn’t because we’d worked so hard for so long, but we went with that one album from clubs and theatres to arenas.

You guys were all over MTV and stuff too…

We were all over MTV, and we went from just under gold status, we hadn’t had a gold album, to multi-platinum status.  It was about a year period, but I look back on those times and think oh my gosh, the band just really exploded and took off.  It was quite an accomplishment considering the fact that we were the underdogs, we were the band that everyone expected to fail. 

Yeah, and I’m sure there were people pulling for exactly that to happen.

And they still are.  It’s funny- maybe it’s the rebel in me but I still get a kick out of that, when people say “this album stinks, it’s gonna fail, it’s not gonna do anything” and then we chart and do more than most bands from our genre are doing, it leaves people scratching their heads.

Well, I read this somewhere and I firmly believe this, this is how I feel… I would consider myself I guess a secular person, but a lot of people that buy your records aren’t necessarily Christian- they buy them for the music.

Yeah.  And I mean, if you even go to the extreme opposite in that statement, we have many, many atheists and Satanists that love our band. 

Wow! That’s interesting…

It’s really odd.  (John laughs)  But it’s true!  I mean I’ve met them, I’ve done interviews with them.  There was a show on VH-1, I don’t know, maybe 15 years ago, that was quite popular.  They used to play videos from one band, and then videos from another band, and they would get extreme opposite opinions from the parents and then from the kids.  Do you remember that show?

Yeah I do, actually.

I just can’t remember the name of it.  Anyway, we were on there and they played a Marilyn Manson video, a Madonna video and they played a Stryper video, and they were getting opinions from priests and rabbis and pastors….

Right…

And then opinions from the opposite side, which was Satanists. 

(chuckling) okay…

Okay?  And it was very interesting.  I’m sitting there watching this thing and I go “Oh my gosh, this is crazy!” And they played “Soldiers Under Command”.  Well the priest, pastors and rabbis didn’t know who we were.  And they were actually saying “Oh this is… hmmm… I don’t know about this, this is Christian?  Wow, I really don’t know.”  Then they asked the Satanists.  All the Satanists knew who we were.  In unison they all said “This is Stryper!”  And the head guy, who was the head Satanist for the New York chapter or whatever, said “Yeah, I love Stryper, I’ve listened to them my whole life.”

Interesting…

I think it is!  (both chuckle)

Now you guys, the band broke up around ’92.  What led the band to that place?

Well I got to a point in my life where I just felt like I had to leave because of the hypocrisy going on in the band.  We were telling people we were one thing… as we were talking about a gimmick and living a dual life, that’s what Stryper was doing during that period, from ’90 to ’92.  And I didn’t like it.  I didn’t like it at all, I didn’t like how I felt, I felt really uncomfortable and shameful, and I decided after I got up the guts to do so, I decided to leave.  And I did… I took a little time off from music, and then stepped back in 1994 with my first solo release. 

Cool- how did it feel to be out on your own?

It felt really good, because I got my heart and my mind together, and my family together which was most important.  I mean my family was falling apart, all of our families were falling apart. 

Rock & roll will do that, won’t it…

Yeah.  Unfortunately some of the other guys’ families didn’t survive, you know, they went through a couple of divorces and I almost did (too).  But it was more important to me to put my family above the band.  So I left, and it really wasn’t a big deal to me., pretty easy once I made the decision.  And I stepped out on my own, and things really blossomed.  I had an album in the Christian market that did really well, about 250,000 and about 5 #1 singles, and I did a tour and it was really successful.

That’s great!

Yeah!  And here I am, still doing solo stuff.  I’m working on a solo album, I start recording in one week…

Cool!

Rat Pack Records will be releasing it, probably in May or June…

Awesome, I’m gonna look forward to that.

Yeah, it’ll be good!

Now stepping away from Stryper for just a second… I read this on the Boston website, the band Boston, around… correct me if I’m wrong, but it was around 2007 when Brad Delp decided to take his own life… what was your involvement with the band at that point?

Well after Brad had tragically taken his own life as you say, I wrote something about what he meant to me as a singer. He is and always will be one of my favourite singers. 

Oh absolutely….

Just a phenomenal singer and person.  So I wrote something, and apparently Kimberly and Tom Scholz read it, reached out to my management, and invited me out to sing at what was supposed to be their last show. 

Right, the memorial show for Brad…

Right. Yes.  I was going to go out there and sing “Higher Power”, a song I really wasn’t that familiar with but was willing to sing.  I think they put that one on me because they felt it matched me in terms of my faith, I don’t know… (chuckles)

Yeah, I can see that, I can see the connection.

Yeah.  And I was fine with that, I thought ‘okay I get to go perform with Boston, that’s fantastic’.  Well it wound up turning into a situation where Tom went out and purchased some Stryper albums and was blown away, called me on the phone personally and said “I’m blown away, I love your voice, I love your writing, I want you to come and sing more than “Higher Power”.  So I wound up not even singing “Higher Power”, and I wound up singing “More Than A Feeling”, Peace of Mind”, “Rock & Roll Band”…

The classic stuff…

Yeah, in front of a huge crowd, and because it went so well… I learned all the guitar parts, Tom loved that.  He said they were going to do a tour and wanted me to join the band, and I did. 

How long did you go out for?

Only just one tour.  I went out in the summer of ’08, 55 cities with Styx opening, and I was the co-lead vocalist and guitar player, it was amazing.

Interesting you should mention Styx too, only because I was listening to some of your older stuff- I bought a compilation of the older tunes on I-Tunes last week because I didn’t want to be completely ignorant about your music… and I found, in a lot of places, you sound like Dennis DeYoung (original Styx singer) to me, and take that as the high compliment I intend it.

Well you know what, Dennis is a great singer.  It’s funny, I’ve had many people tell me that over the years, so many times I can’t even recall! 

Yeah- you’ve got that kind of range and drama in your voice and it’s really, really cool.

Well that’s awesome!  When I was talking to the guys in Styx backstage, I was talking to JY, and he told me that when Dennis left and they were auditioning singers, I was on the list! 

Wow- did you ever hear from them?

I never did.  He told me they found a guy, obviously, but he said I was on that list, and they were thinking about me and had me in mind, and gosh, I had no clue! (both laugh)

Isn’t that the way it goes sometimes?

It is!

Now one more thing before we get to the new stuff, another album I bought on I-Tunes because I love your cover of “Heaven & Hell” (Black Sabbath) is an album called “The Covering”.  Now just real quick, what was the process like picking songs for that?  Because there are songs like “Heaven & Hell” that seem like an obvious choice, but maybe Scorpions’ “Blackout” not so much.  Were some of these choices just purely musical?

Purely musical.  I mean we chose the songs for that album, as we will again when we do a “Covering 2” based on what we listened to growing up. 

Right.

So we listened to Scorpions all the time.  We listened to UFO all the time. 

That really shows in Stryper’s music, by the way.

Yeah.  I mean Oz (guitarist) and I were cranking UFO, Scorpions, Van Halen, Judas Priest, all this stuff.  I would have to say Tim (the bass player)… the songs on “The Covering” are probably more influential in Robert’s (drummer), Oz’s and my life.  If we did an album of covers based on Tim, it would probably be more like Three Dog Night, Elton John and The Partridge Family.  (John laughs)

So what you’re saying then is brings something different to the band!

He brings something totally different to the band, absolutely.  But his musical tastes, for whatever reason, aren’t so much involved in hard rock/ metal.

Yeah.  Well that’s the music I grew up on in the 70’s… I’m a Kiss guy, a Sabbath guy, a Deep Purple guy…

Right, me too…

But on the other hand, my favorite singer of all time is Nat King Cole. 

Hey, I’m the same way.  I love Bread, I love The Bee Gees…

Oh me too!

I love Tony Bennett, I love Jerry Lee Lewis.  My musical range is SO crazy, and I love everything.  If it’s a good song , a good voice, I’m there! 

Yeah.  I had a friend once, when we were talking about music and I was talking about all the different stuff that I like, she called me a “musical slut”.  I started laughing and I said “Fine, I’ll take that!”  (both laugh)

Exactly!  ‘Cuz I think it shows that you’re open minded.  So many people are close minded, it’s like “metal or die!”  I don’t understand that, they’re missing out on so much good music!

I was maybe like that when I was younger, but I find that as I get older and I go through life, I don’t say “Okay I liked this music for awhile but now I’m gonna stop liking it and move on to something else”, I just kind of collect everything.

Exactly.  I mean I love The Bee Gees, I love Ambrosia, there’s so many bands.  I love Bad Company, I listened to everything growing up.

That’s as it should be, I think.

Yeah. 

Now Stryper is really, really back, especially with these last couple of albums…. But what led to you signing with the new label, Frontiers- did you go looking for them, or did they come looking for you?

Believe it or not… they might give you a different side of the story, but they were actually approaching us for a long time, and I kept saying “no, no, no, no, no.”  And we kept talking and talking, then we started rehashing that conversation again around 2012, and we wound up singing a deal with them, a three album deal.  We released “Second Coming”, we released “No More Hell To Pay”, we released “Live At The Whiskey”.  And that was it, we were free, free agents going out and doing whatever we wanted to do, and they wanted to do another album, and we wound up doing another album with them, which wound up being “Fallen”(the new record).    So we’re free again. 

Wow.

What’s interesting is we’ve got labels knocking on our door right now, and that just always kinda blows my mind.  Here we are in our 50’s, over 30 years later, and we still have label interest, it’s pretty amazing to me.  So who knows what we’re gonna do next, and with who?  We’ll see- it may be Frontiers it may not be Frontiers, it just depends on… you know, Frontiers has done a lot for us and they’re good people and a good label, but it depends on who we feel has the most passion for what we’re doing. 

That seems fair enough.

Yeah.

Now as I sort of indicated earlier in our conversation, I was aware of you guys in the 80’s, not particularly a fan, but I will say I DID become a fan when I heard “No More Hell To Pay”.  I got that in 2013, Frontiers sends me album downloads to write up…

Sure, yeah…

I’ve been writing album reviews for about 25 years now, and I put the album on and went “Wow, THIS is Stryper?”  It really left no doubt in my mind that you guys were absolutely back.  Did it feel like you guys were running on all cylinders and back in the fight again?

It really did, and it was funny- I don’t think the band at that time agreed with that.  I know Tim and Robert did, I don’t think Oz did.  I don’t think Oz is a huge fan of “No More Hell To Pay”, and if he were on the phone with you now he’d probably tell you the same thing.

Right…

…because I don’t think he was as involved as he wanted to be.  But that being said, on the outside, I feel that, at that time, it was our best album to date.

Uh-huh.

And I believe that.  I also believed that the fans and the critics were gonna back that up.  And they did.  When it came out, I don’t think that there’s anything negative that’s been said about that album, everybody agreed that “Wow, this is a really good album”.  It was really cool to see that.  And then you fast forward to “Fallen”, and I think that we… if we haven’t surpassed “No More Hell To Pay” I think that we’ve certainly… it’s comparable.  It’s certainly on the same playing field.  And maybe we DID surpass it.  I personally think we did- it’s a little meatier, I enjoy listening to it a little bit more sonically. 

Yeah, I absolutely agree with you there.  I don’t know if… Dustin from the record label said that he was going to forward my review to you guys so you could see it, but I’ve read reviews where some guys are saying “We like the album but we don’t think it’s quite as good as No More Hell To Pay”, and I have to disagree with them.  As good as “No More Hell To Pay” is and as much as I like that album, I like “Fallen” even better.

I do too, I really do, and I think 2 reasons; it’s show a little different side of Stryper, and it really goes back to our roots when we were teenagers in terms of heaviness.  And sonically it just a little… it’s a step up sonically, a little more enjoyable for me to listen to, so… I think we DID surpass” No More Hell To Pay” but by a landslide?  No.  But as long as we’re not going backwards I’m thrilled.  And now we gotta surpass “Fallen” next time around and that might not be so easy, that might be difficult.

That’s gonna be quite a trick ‘cuz this is a really good album.

Yeah it is, but I think it’s all about being in the zone and enjoying what we’re doing, and that’s gonna translate over to the tracks.

Yeah, and you can’t jump the gun either, go in and try to crank out an album for you guys are really ready and before you’re feeling it.

Exactly.  And the funny thing about “No More Hell To Pay” and “Fallen” is that they were both basically thrown out very quickly.  “No More Hell To Pay” was written in 2 weeks and “Fallen” was written in almost ten days. 

Wow.  How long were you in the studio for each of those?

Not long.  I mean, literally, “Fallen”, almost ten days spent on it.  I went away for a few days to celebrate my anniversary with my wife.  The day we came back, the next day the guys were here at my house.  I taught them all the songs, we spent about 8 days rehearsing, then we went into the studio and we were there for 2 weeks, tracked everything, I came home and did the vocals, went back a month or so later and we mixed.

Wow, that IS quick…

It was VERY quick.  The part that takes the longest is the vocals ‘cuz I work at my own leisure.  I’ll go down and sing a chorus, and then I’ll go to the post office you, and run errands.  Then I’ll come back and sing a verse, that’s kinda how I do vocals- there’s no pressure that way. 

Yeah exactly, not pushing yourself too hard.  Now before we get off of this album, can we talk about a few tracks specifically?

Sure.

Okay, the lead-in track, “Jaweh”- great song, it’s got that big, epic feel to it.  Was that kind of a mission statement, I guess?

It is, musically and lyrically.  I got a riff from Clint Lowery of Sevendust and I ran with it.  I love (sings the opening riff) you know, the opening riff, and I took that and turned it into this 6 & ½ epic song.  Then the music, once it was in place, the power of it, I felt the lyric had to match it so the first thing I thought of was the crucifixion of Christ. I don’t know why but I did, and I wound up using that as the story. 

“Big Screen Lies”, one of my favourite tracks on the album, is just a big, nasty, grinding piece of rock & roll- please tell me about that song.

That song yeah, I agree, musically it’s one of my favorites.  Lyrically, I just wanted to write a song, kind of in my own way, exposing the film industry.  It’s kind of a joke the way they, 9 times out of 10, portray Christians as idiots. 

Yeah.

I just shake my head laugh, and think “Wow, go ahead, keep putting your spin on it” because all of the Christians I know, I don’t know anyone that’s like that, that acts like the characters I see in movies or on television.

I know exactly what you’re saying without trying to summarize it up.  I can see these people in these roles.

Right.  They portray ‘em like all Christians are a part of the cults, and the wacky churches that go out and protest Ronnie James Dio’s funeral and things like that.  Yeah there’s… you’re gonna find nut-jobs in every place of life…

There are extremists in every faith.

Exactly.  All the people I know, my friends and my family that are Christians, they’re just normal, smart, respected people.

Fair enough.

There you go- there’s “Big Screen Lies”.

Just 2 more songs here before we wrap it up- “Love You Like I Do”, LOVE that song, please tell me about it.

That is a song, that’s a riff we used to play at sound check, and we’ve been playing that riff for I don’t even know how long- for a long time!  Basically Ozz would start it, I’d come in, Tim would come, Robert would come in, we’d do that groove for 2 or 3 minutes while the sound guy would mix us, nothing to it.  Well Oz sent me that and I said “Hey this is the riff we’ve been playing” and then I took it and made it a song. Added all the melody changes and the verses and the chord changes, completed it and made it happen as a song, ‘cuz it was never a song.  It was just a riff idea- so that’s how that came to be, but it’s been around for a long time.

Very cool to know.  Now the last song that I’m going to ask you about and you probably saw this coming, is your cover of Black Sabbath’s “After Forever”.  Black Sabbath, by the way, my favourite band musically speaking…. Now was that chosen purely because of the lyrics, or is there some kind of musical connection to that too?

Musical connection in the sense that we grew up on Black Sabbath.  We used to play Black Sabbath songs, I covered “Paranoid” and all these songs when I was a kid.  Oz got his name from sounding like Ozzy Osbourne.

(surprised)  really?  I didn’t know that!

Yeah, he used to sing Black Sabbath when he had a band years ago, and he was into Sabbath, and everyone started calling him Ozzy because he sounded like Ozzy Osbourne. 

Wow!

So now he’s ‘Oz’.  Sabbath runs deep in terms of our musical history, but the song moreso was chosen for its lyrics.

Right.

Because I read the lyrics, heard the song and liked it.  It’s not my favourite Sabbath song musically, but then I heard the lyrics and thought “Wow, this is perfect for “Fallen”…” 

I don’t known if you’ve heard this (but) if you’re a Sabbath fan maybe you have- but apparently Geezer Butler has said that if wasn’t for music, he probably would have gone into the priesthood.

Yeah, which is incredible.  You can tell by a lot of their lyrics, and what’s really interesting about Black Sabbath is so many people think they’re this dark, evil band, (but) when you dive into their lyrics you realize they’re not at all.

Yeah, and I have that discussion with so many people, almost feels like I’m trying to defend the band, but if you look at it their songs aren’t “Oh lets take lots of drugs and be Satanists”, they’re warning about the dangers of drugs and they’re warning about dabbling with spiritual forces you don’t understand. 

Exactly.  And it’s funny because it’s a stereotype and a box that they’ve been put into, although the box didn’t affect their success whatsoever, but they’ve been put in this box and it’s very similar to Stryper, just based on lack of education. 

Yeah, kinda flip side of the same coin, almost.

It really is.  People are like “Ah those guys must suck because they’re Christian” or they’re this or they’re that, and then you come see us play and you gotta eat your words.

Yeah, exactly.  You hear one Christian album that you think is sucky, and therefore by association you think ALL Christian albums must be sucky.

Exactly.

But there are sucky metal albums out there, there are sucky folk albums, there are sucky rock albums, it all depends on what you listen to.

You know, Stryper… we’re a really interesting band, I don’t think there’s ever been anther band like us nor will there ever be.  We do things our own way and have stuck to that for 32 years despite being low in the polls (chuckles), you know, we keep doing what we’re doing. 

Well that’s the rock & roll attitude isn’t it, you guys do what you do because it feels right, and screw what anyone else thinks.

Yeah, and it’s funny-  I said that in an interview recently, and I think metal and rock & roll is all about rebellion.  People have said that’s why Stryper’s not cool because what’s so rebellious about Christianity or this and that?  And I’m thinking to myself “It’s much more rebellious than you think, pal!” (both chuckle)

Amen to that!

Because I mean we’ve swam against the tide and the current, while everyone else is swimming with the current , from day one.  I don’t know what’s more rebellious than that, you know? 

Exactly.  Now just before we wrap it up, you mentioned that you’re going in next week for your solo album, which is coming out next year…

Yup.

Any plans to tour behind the Stryper album?  Any plans coming down the pipe?

Oh yeah, yeah.  We basically took this year off for the most part.  We did a few shows, I did a lot of acoustic solo shows, which is really fun by the way… but Stryper is planning an extensive tour from April of ’16 to November.  So a lot of touring, all over the world hopefully, and once those dates are confirmed we’ll put ‘em up on www.stryper.com and the facebook pages and twitter pages and all that good stuff.

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