Interview: Stryper’s Michael Sweet
Interview: Stryper’s Michael Sweet…
I recently spoke to Stryper’s Michael Sweet for a second time during the band’s historic 30th Anniversary tour of their best-selling To Hell With The Devil album.
Michael discussed what it was like during Stryper’s meteoric rise back in 1986, life on the road and off, the upcoming Stryper hiatus and the future of the band, bands touring without original members today, the possibility of playing with Boston again, the ministry of Stryper, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and a musical hero he’d like to interview…
Lots of intriguing conversation… read on:
Tom Leu: Hello again, Michael. I feel especially honored to be talking with you these days, because thirty years ago this month, the seminal Stryper album, To Hell With The Devil was released. How does it feel?
Michael Sweet: It’s pretty amazing. It doesn’t feel like thirty years. It feels like maybe ten if that. It’s really amazing to be celebrating 30 years of this amazing album.
When Stryper released this album thirty years ago today, did you guys know or suspect it was going to be your big breakthrough, or weren’t you sure? What was the thinking back then?
We had a feeling at the time when we were recording it because it did feel so special. It had something unique going on in the process of recording the songs, and everything coming together. We had a feeling but we really didn’t know it was going to be as successful as it was, but when it was, it was very surprising in a great way.
In your book, Honestly, you talked a lot about that period in your career, and you guys just kind of went Bang Zoom from there. Stryper was already doing great with the Soldiers Under Command album prior, but the To Hell With The Devil album took you to a whole other level of course.
Oh yeah. Completely. No doubt about it. Soldiers went to over Gold status and this one went to over Platinum status. We went from [playing] theaters to arenas literally on the To Hell With The Devil tour.
As a musician myself, but never playing at the arena level, what was the transition like for you and the band as musicians to go from playing clubs and theaters on the Soldiers tour, to playing arenas in support of To Hell With The Devil?
To be honest, we never really thought about it. We were so young and wide-eyed and bushy-tailed, whatever cliché you want to use, deer-in-the-headlights, we didn’t have time to think about it. The thoughts didn’t cross our mind. We just took it in, and enjoyed every moment of it. We went out and played and performed and just thought wow, we have this opportunity… this is incredible! But it’s not like we sat around or talked about the success or how to achieve more, or let’s make the next album bigger, and how do we do that. We never thought that way, ever.
I can only imagine that it’s just a complete whirlwind. Is the cliché true that at some points on tour you can’t remember exactly where you are?
Oh yeah. Absolutely. It becomes a blur. There are many times when you don’t know what city you’re in. It happens to me now. It happened to me then. You get into a routine. You play and you go to sleep. You wake up and you play and you go to sleep and many times unless someone is telling us, we don’t know where we are.
When you’re off tour do you ever go back and want to watch videos from your shows?
We occasionally watch videos, but it’s not like I race home and pull out all the videos and start watching them. If someone puts one in, or they find something and they want to share it, I’ll say, oh wow let me check it out. That sort of thing. I’m not a big fan personally of listening to our own music or watching our own videos. I’m one of those guys that kind of shies away from that to some degree.
Is that because sometimes you hear little things you don’t like, or is it just a matter of I was already there? Been there, done that sort of thing?
It’s just a matter of, I don’t know, I feel as though, I don’t want to say I have two personalities but I have two lifestyles. My lifestyle at home and my lifestyle out here on the road. When I’m at home I like to disassociate myself from the road lifestyle. I don’t listen to our music. I don’t watch our videos. I don’t live the “rockstar life” at all. I walk my dog and clean my cat box and just do regular things.
You’re a regular guy like everyone else…
Oh, yeah. Absolutely.
You’re in the middle of the historic To Hell With The Devil 30th Anniversary tour now. The tour goes to the end of November. I’ve been able to cover and shoot two different shows on this tour: one at the Ace of Spades in Sacramento, CA and another at the House of Blues in Chicago. The show kicks off with a retrospective video outlining the band’s history and beginnings. It’s very well done! And you’re doing the album in sequence, of course…
We are. We do it in sequence and then we leave for a few minutes, come back and we do a whole other set as well.
Which I thought was great. You’ve got the “Battle Hymn” from Soldiers Under Command playing between the sets, which really helps keep the continuity and flow of the show going. You said “we’re going to go change our shirts” and then came back out to do, what I’d call, some of Stryper’s Greatest Hits from your other albums.
Exactly. We do some new material. We do classics like “Soldiers,” and “In God We Trust.” Of course, we try to get some of those old classics in there as well.
At the Sacramento, CA show, you threw in the Van Halen song, “Aint Talking ‘bout Love” from their first album. You mentioned they were a big influence. Was that a whim thing, or is that every show?
You know it’s been every show for a week or so, but there are times when we don’t do it or we’ll do another cover like “Shout It Out Loud” or we’ll do “On Fire” by Van Halen or Kansas’ “Carry On My Wayward Son.” We’ll throw in something totally different, and out of the blue just to change it up a little bit.
Yes, you’re looking over at Oz. We’re going to do “Ain’t Talking ‘bout Love” and then he kicks it off. I was up in the balcony at that point shooting, and I wondered if those guys knew that was coming, or if that was one of those times the singer throws in whatever he feels like doing at the moment-type thing.
(laughing) Yeah, sometimes they don’t know it’s coming.
That keeps them on their toes, right?
You guys had come out recently and posted that after this tour concludes the band is going to take a hiatus. When you and I talked previously about your latest solo album, One Sided War, it was before you guys had made this announcement. At that time, you said a new Stryper record was planned for February. Is there a Stryper record still planned for February or is that on hold as well?
That’s on hold as well. I was going to do a Stryper album then a Sweet & Lynch album, and now we’ve reversed that.
I’m going to do the Sweet & Lynch album first. And this is all… this isn’t a Michael Sweet thing. This is a mutual decision between Oz, Rob, and myself. We all agree and feel good about taking a break so we can recollect our thoughts and figure out how to move forward. And when to move forward, and who to move forward with.
You had mentioned that this decision involves stuff regarding Tim [Gaines, Stryper’s bassist], and whatever personal things are going on with him. Is that accurate?
It is. Whenever you start talking about personal issues people take offense and think, hey that’s his deal. The thing is when you’re in a band it’s everybody’s business.
It is. It has to be.
It affects the band when you make personal choices in things that are really misrepresentative of the band and what the band is all about. You have to step back and say, gosh what are we going to do? How are we going to handle this? That’s where we’re at. Tim’s moving on and made some choices. And you know when I say moving on, I don’t mean from the band, I mean in his personal life. We wish him well and as far as I know he’s still going to be a part of the band. It’s not like we’re booting him or won’t work with Tim anymore. It’s just that we don’t know quite how to get through this situation right now. The tour was booked and that’s why we’re doing the tour. We even talked about maybe putting the tour on hold.
You did actually consider and talk about that?
We did talk about it, but we didn’t want to let down the fans. We really didn’t and we felt if we did that it would be letting down the fans. It’s just not fair to the fans. I wish I could just kind of say hey, here’s what happened…
Sure, I understand.
I would say anybody that wants to know more about what happened, it’s probably a wise decision for them to talk to Tim about it, you know?
Gotcha. Can I just ask this much at least, regarding Tim and this subject?
It’s a fact that Stryper is obviously a ministry and has been a ministry as much as it is a rock band. Is this situation pertaining to Tim, and the fact that you said he’s moving on… does it have to do with his faith, spiritual things, and lifestyle choices, or something along those lines?
Yeah, I mean it definitely pertains to the ministry side of the band and representing that properly. We take that very seriously. Even though we all blow it, and we all do things that are wrong. We’re all sinners. We’re all healing. It’s not about pointing the finger at Tim or judging Tim at all. It’s just that this is a very serious situation with the band, and we are not just a rock band, but we are a ministry. And because of that, we’ve got to step back and figure out how to proceed properly. That’s all.
Makes sense. That’s what I ascertained from what I had read. Like I said I don’t want to delve too personally, but people do want to know the deal, and I respect that. Maybe I’ll get an opportunity to talk to Tim one day.
Let me ask you this question: Is there a possibility, is there a scenario where Stryper continues without all four original members at some point in the future?
I would prefer not but you know what, if something happens where someone is removed out of our control and the other two or three guys feel led to continue on, I would say that yes, the answer would be yes to that.
It wouldn’t be the first time in the band’s history that this has happened of course.
No, it wouldn’t be. Preferably I’d like it to be the original line up.
Yes, for sure. From a fan’s perspective it’s been great to get out and see the band with the original lineup of course. You’ve also been pretty vocal in other interviews about a lot of the bands that are out there today, and there’s many of them, particularly some of the bands from the ‘80s that have one, or two, or three or more versions out there.
I mean members. I’ve seen bands where there’s not one original member on stage. I don’t really understand that.
That’s not your cup of tea?
It shouldn’t be anybody’s cup of tea. To me that’s just not right. If you’ve got a guy like Tom Scholz, who’s the founding member of Boston, obviously still with Boston, so it works. When you go see some bands and there’s literally not one original guy… I’m just left scratching my head thinking, why are they doing this?
Yeah or there’s the situation where there’s just one original guy left, but it’s the drummer for example… I won’t name any names but you know… it’s kinda goofy.
Yeah, the drummer and not even the original drummer if you want to go way back in the history of the band.
I’m thinking, gosh this is just weird. And I’m not the only one thinking it. I think most of the fans are thinking that too.
Agreed, and that’s what’s so cool about you guys, especially right now. You’re out on this 30th Anniversary tour of To Hell With The Devil, and it is all four original members.
You know, you mentioned Tom Scholz and the band Boston. Of course, everyone who follows you knows you played in Boston for a few years, several years back. But that was a different situation because the original lead singer [Brad Delp] isn’t with us anymore unfortunately, so that’s a totally different scenario.
Exactly. That was a really great opportunity, and I’m honored to have been asked to do that.
Is there any possibility that you’ll do that again with Tom and the band Boston, or is that not something that’s on the docket?
You know you never say never. I have no idea. He hasn’t called but I’ve heard he has talked about calling. But I don’t know if that’s true or not.
And if he did?
I don’t know. It would depend on where I am in life and with Stryper. Stryper is my priority for sure.
You know what Michael, from seeing you guys on this tour twice now, you all seem like you’re having a good time. The band is firing on all cylinders, and playing very well. The songs are coming alive. And from a fan’s perspective, the transitions from the up-tempo songs on To Hell With The Devil, and then into the ballads hasn’t seemed abrupt at all because we know the record and we’re used to hearing it in that order. You had mentioned being concerned about that when we last spoke before this tour started. Is that something that you’ve had to adjust to playing live? To put on the breaks and then to pick it up again?
Believe it or not, no. It seems to just work. Again because of the album, as iconic as it is, as big as it is, it’s just a natural thing. It really is. We’ve always done ballads anyway.
One other question going back to the ministry of the band. Aside from Stryper’s trademark of tossing bibles out to the audience which you’ve done at all the shows I’ve seen, there’s been a minimal evangelical tone from the stage to my ears. I’m just wondering if that’s been a deliberate decision on your or the band’s part?
Well no, not really. We’ve always been a band to take that approach. We’ve never brought bibles out and sat on a stool and started to preaching to people. It’s just not our way of doing things. It’s more about a rock show but the lyrics speak for themselves. The bibles being thrown speak for themselves. Then you know I will say little things here and there, but it’s never been about going out and preaching and pushing anything on people that they don’t want to hear.
That’s what was appealing about you guys from the beginning is that you would go into places that some of the other “Christian” bands wouldn’t go.
A Stryper crowd is an interesting crowd as you well know. It’s a mix, especially these days, of young and old. There are all types of the folks that are there; some drinking water and pop, and then there’s another group that are partying it up having a good old time. What’s your take on that when you interact with fans in bars and clubs?
Again, we love them all. We’re all sinners and we’re called to this place and into this world to go out and reach out to all people of all types and that’s what we do.
And you do it very well. I appreciate that.
Last question for you Michael, if you had the opportunity to interview any of your musical heroes who would that be and what would you ask them?
I’d probably interview Steve Perry [of Journey]. He’s a big hero of mine vocally and I’d ask him why he’s been in the private background for so long and why he stopped what seemed to be so suddenly. I hear he’s making a comeback or going to, but there’s been a lot of years off where he hasn’t done anything.
I wonder if his voice is still there?
I don’t know. He’s a hero of mine vocally, and one of my all-time favorite singers, and from what I understand a great guy too.
Journey is a nominee, and on the ballot for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year. Do you have any predictions there? Are they going to go in?
Oh man, I don’t even keep tabs on that to be honest with you. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is just such… It’s all right. Some of the decisions they make and things they do is just, what are you thinking?
I think they should rename it to the “Music Hall of Fame” or something to that effect. Something more general.
I think so.
It’s nothing against any of the other genres represented, but when there’s hip hop and stuff like that in there on the ballot, I don’t understand how that can be called “Rock and Roll.”
Maybe we’re getting hung up on semantics, but what are your thoughts on that?
I agree. I totally agree. Absolutely.
Michael, I appreciate your time. The To Hell With The Devil 30th Anniversary tour underway now. It’s a great show! Thank you so much for the time. I appreciate it. Be safe out there. We’ll talk to you again soon.
Okay, my friend. Thanks for your time today.
Michael Sweet: www.michaelsweet.com
This piece was originally published in AntiHero Magazine, November 2016