Latest Album: Ten (Frontiers)Website: www.michaelsweet.com
American metal institution Stryper have endured setbacks and barbs from image obsessed critics over the years, to succeed where others of their era have faltered. Their perseverance in a music industry climate that makes it difficult for veteran artists to retain an active career, let alone those with a lyrical focus on evangelising traditional Christianity, is remarkable yet deservedly rewarding. Since their unplanned reunion, well over a decade ago, their recorded output and touring schedule has increased with both frequency and quality. Band leader Michael Sweet has harnessed the Stryper’s new creative drive and also reinvigorated his own solo career.
His tenth solo album, aptly titled Ten, combines not just his own song writing prowess with his powerful vocal abilities but also is bolstered by a vast array of guest musicians whose talents shine through on the album’s various tracks. Now, returning to Australia with a solo, acoustic mode venture, Sweet is following up on Stryper’s unexpected trio version visit last year with a show that covers material from Stryper, his solo material, collaborative projects [Sweet & Lynch], other artists and spiced up with some anecdotes for good measure.
Hello sir, it would appear you’re returning to Australia but in solo acoustic mode. Is that a potentially daunting experience and how does it alter your song arrangements?
Yeah, it is different to be going out solo and just with an acoustic guitar, for sure. There is nothing to hide behind so you feel naked. I will change some songs a little bit whilst some of the songs will be similar to the original arrangements. Most of them are not because I try to arrange them somehow so that they translate well and then work well in an acoustic setting. Sometimes I will throw in heavier songs like Soldiers Under Command and To Hell with the Devil, which people might not expect to work acoustically. They actually do work though, believe it or not.
I suppose that makes sense given some of the songs would have invariably initially been written on acoustic guitar or on a piano.
You know what most of the songs that I have written over the years have actually started out on an acoustic guitar so that is true. The ballads usually get written on a piano or keyboard.
Do you find that people get used to the studio versions of songs so that it gets etched into their brains, so to speak?
It is like that, absolutely. But I have to say that there is something really cool about hearing the songs in such a bare bones state and basically, how they started out being and in the original way that they came to be. That’s not a sales pitch, the songs came from picking up an acoustic guitar and writing with four of five chords to get these songs started. There is something to be said for that. It is really cool and I enjoy doing it. The only time I don’t enjoy doing it is if I am under the weather and I have to go out and perform. I remember performing acoustically in South America a few years ago. For my first show in Rio, I went out but I wasn’t feeling too well and my voice wasn’t in top form. But sitting right in front of me, at a table with his wife, drinking wine, was Geoff Tate [Queensrÿche]. So that really brought on a little extra stress. But other than that, if I am feeling well, I love doing these acoustic shows because it is more personable and it is like being in someone’s living room and we’re all just hanging out.
In this solo scenario, how do you deal with the absence of vocal harmonies?
Well, obviously that is a hurdle to get over. We have so many harmonies in our music and the structure of those harmonies are big, huge and spread into four parts, with octaves and just a lot going on. So it means that I have to be a little bit creative and even with Stryper, we have to be creative and that is even for having two other voices in Perry [Richardson – bass] and Oz [Fox – lead guitar] singing those harmonies with me, where we have three parts going on live, it is still not like the album or not like the originals. In these acoustic shows I therefore have to do things like change a little melody here and there or sometimes I will sing the melody and then go down to the third [interval] below or to the fifth above to change it to make it work.
Is this a similar predicament to deal with for covering Boston’s classic material?
Oh yeah and I do some Boston songs in the acoustic set. It is the same thing [as Stryper], they have massive production with the guitars and the vocals so when you’re up there with just an acoustic guitar, you’d better make it work. It gets tricky, from time to time. I try not to bore people during the set. You know, when you hear a guy plonking on an acoustic guitar and singing the same melodies and tempos for an hour and a half, well, it can get old, fast. I try to make it interesting. I might do a song that is in a lower key and at a slower pace and then I will steps things up by doing something with a drum box that has a higher tempo and so it more rocking. Then I will bring in back so that I try to cover all bases.
It is amazing what can be done with an acoustic guitar. Some of the instrumental acoustic guitarists come up with incredible techniques. Do you ever explore those styles?
Oh yeah, a lot the set consists of me strumming and just letting the chords, melodies and the lyrics to speak for themselves. But, I do get into some looping. I have a looper that I travel with and there are three or four songs where I will build up a rhythm loop and then I will play over that. Then I will do some instrumental solo stuff over the rhythm loop that is going. Again, it is trying to make it interesting and I want to show people that I am a guitar player as well as being a singer. I do not go and just strum chords and I didn’t learn how to play guitar just to go and do these acoustic sets. I was a guitar player first and then I became a singer second.
Indeed. Some acoustic guitars do not lend themselves to soloing. Does that create another challenge for you in the acoustic environment?
It is on some songs. For example, if I am doing a song like Loud ‘N’ Clear, which Oz and I have done acoustically together, you know, that is tough to do with Oz and I trying to do the harmonies so we have to improvise and change things around. We don’t do the exact some solos. You definitely want to have an acoustic guitar that has nice action, sounds really good and has access to the upper frets so that you can get up there and play some solos. The guitars I use do but I do not solo a lot, you know, maybe out of sixteen or seventeen songs, I might do it on four or five songs. That is because what happens is that I am somewhat limited because of the songs that I am doing. Sometimes I’ll ask the crowd if they have any song requests and they’ll yell out Yahweh and I will have to say to them that I don’t think that song will work on an acoustic guitar. There are limitations, for sure.
From your latest solo album, a good example for soloing in acoustic mode might be Let It Be Love which is an existing acoustic arrangement with an electric guitar solo in it.
Exactly and the tricky part is that when I am building the loop to have underneath that solo. I know that I could certainly go out with tracks [backing tracks] and I do know of acoustic artists that do that, they have full on tracks and they are out there playing to the tracks. I am not using any tracks in this acoustic set. If I did, I could solo a lot more. As I said earlier, it is really all about the bare bones aspect of it to me. It is important for me to just kind of strip the songs down and give the people a very simple and original state of what these songs sound like and to represent them that way. That is really important to me and there is something be said for that. People seem to enjoy it and all of the acoustic shows that I have done over the past five or six years have really gone over well and I have had a lot of fun doing them.
Do you ever venture into using a nylon stringed guitar?
I do have a few nylon stringed guitars but I don’t use them for this set. That is because with the acoustic-electric guitar I use which gets plugged in for some effects and equalisation and what not, it just makes for a little bit more of a rocking sound. It kind of just energises the set but I do love nylon string guitars. I have used them on a few recordings such as the projects with George Lynch [Sweet & Lynch] and we did a remix of a song where he used a nylon string. I do love the sound of it as it is a very warm sound.
Your latest album Ten has been received very well and of course, you’re clearly very proud of it. The amount of work that goes into it must be staggering especially given you’ve also got Stryper happening.
It is man, I know most people don’t think of that and it is understandable because that is just the way it is but man, we go in, we work hard, like gangbusters working around the clock for the first three weeks. We’ll be tracking the basic tracks, building the bed and then one I have all of that done, with everything but the lead vocals and the guitar solos, I go home and I will spend another month working at my own pace on the lead vocals and solos. Then we will go back in and we’ll mix for a couple of weeks. So, it is a lot of work and not only physically but mentally as well. I am one of those guys who does not like to throw things together. A lot of bands just throw albums out. I’ll ask them how long it took them and they might say it took them two or three weeks to finish the album. I will just think to myself, ‘Man, I cannot do it that way’, you know, I’ve got to take my time because I do not want to cut any corners or to compromise the quality.
True but where do you draw the line? There comes a point when you have to finish a project.
Well, if I have budget and that budget could be fifty thousand to a hundred thousand dollars. Whatever it may be, that is going to determine how long I will work on the album. For a lower budget album, I am not going to work as long on that album for a higher budget one but at the same time, I always want to be frugal and I want to be smart with the money. I don’t blow the money. It is not like I’ll say, ‘Oh wow, a hundred grand, let’s book the studio for six months’, you know, I have learned from the past and from my mistakes not to go down that road. It is nice to have some extra money to take a little more time to get things right or to add a little bit more to the project. But I have really got a system in place where I am able to do what I need to do without compromise and to then turn it in and everyone is pleased and that includes the label, the band, management and more importantly the fans.
The latest album is heavier than God Damn Evil in parts. Is there a progression going on here?
Well, it is weird man, I don’t know what is going on, what vitamins I am taking or what is happening but as I get older and at least in the last five or six years, certainly, I am on a heavier trend. I do not know why and there is no rhyme or reason. I am not sitting here listening to metal albums all the time, like, ‘Bleurgh!’, it is not like that but I think that we tried to come back to our roots with No More Hell to Pay and ever since that album, we have been on that path and on those tracks in pursuing the heavier side of Stryper and of my own music. We won’t be on this path forever. I am already thinking that my next solo album should be different and I might get back to more of an arena rock, like the first album, commercial sounding side or I might go in an entirely different direction. I do not know what that is going to be. Stryper has to have a little bit of heavy material going on because we always have. We might try to experiment with some other things as well on the next Stryper album. I would like to do that on two or three songs that makes people say, ‘okay, I didn’t see that coming’.
Speaking of that, Ten is packed full of guest guitar solos. Is there a particular solo on the album that caught you by surprise?
This is going to be the cliché answer but it is the truth, I am so happy with every solo. I feel that every artist and every solo really played for the song. Their solos fit that particular song perfectly so I am very pleased. I really love Better Part of Me and the solo work by Jeff Loomis [Arch Enemy]. I also really like Son of Man with Andy James soloing on it; that is one of my favourites. Shine is also one of my favourite songs and Ethan Brosh’s solo on that track is amazing. Everybody did such a killer job. Lay It Down with Marzi Montazeri’s solo just nailed it and he has a unique style. It is a very unorthodox style but I love it. Then there is Joel Hoekstra [Night Ranger] who is on two tracks. You do not get any better than Joel. He can play any style and play it incredibly well, he is so gifted.
Agreed. There are also contributing guitarists on the album whose profiles are not yet well known however the quality of what they’ve submitted is substantial.
A perfect example of that would be Mike Kerr who is on the track With You Till the End which also includes the singer [Ian Raposa] from his band, Firstbourne. Ian sings the bridge and pre-chorus sections and he is awesome. I did an acoustic show with them locally and I was blown away by those guys. I thought, ‘wow, these guys are really talented, I’d like to have them on my album’, but yeah, Mike has got a little lower profile but I don’t think he will in the next ten years. He is a really incredible player and Ian is a great singer. I think a lot more people are going to hear from those guys.
Does that inspire you as a guitarist and also, stop you becoming complacent?
It really does and I mean, I love having all of these guys on the album. I have gone so far as to say that I am like a proud Dad, you know, as if these are my kids going up to bat and I’m going, ‘yeah man, they just hit a home run’, so I am very proud of these guys, they are really incredible. The only solo that I don’t like, the only guy that is a shlock on the album is on track number seven, the ballad.
Ah yeah, very funny, that’d be you on that solo for Let It Be Love. I knew that was coming.
Yeah, ha ha. No man, but you know, the funny thing is that I am the one playing that solo and I am trying to be funny but not. Anyway, I purposely brought in all of these different players to try to keep the album in a non Stryper direction or in less of a Stryper direction. That was important to me because when I play a solo, it instantly has more of a Stryper sound to it, good or bad.
For the song, When Love Is Hated, you cannot miss the Led Zeppelin references in the song.
Oh yeah [sings riff], exactly, it has got that Zep vibe going on but you know what, believe it or not and even though I don’t show it that often, I grew up on Zeppelin as did Joel. We are both big fans. I think that shows in both the songs of When Love Is Hated and Never Alone. It shows to anyone who hears those songs that Joel and I can do as a team and we are going to make a full length album as some time very soon, in the near future for sure.
That leads into asking if there might potentially be another covers album from Stryper?
There will be, I mean, if the good Lord lets me live that long and I’m here on this earth taking breath, I want to do another covers album and do another Second Coming styled album but tackling In God We Trust and Against the Law songs plus other songs. At least three or four, maybe even five more Stryper studio albums, three to five more solo albums and then two or three project albums with different folks; one of those being with Joel Hoekstra, maybe another Sweet & Lynch. I am doing some work with Tracii Guns [L.A. Guns]. There is a lot left in me before I call it quits.
Finally, I believe that the van that was used on the album cover for Soldiers Under Command was sourced from the A-Team television show. Can you confirm that?
Oh, it was certainly, you know, something close to that. It was definitely in a movie and it was built for that movie and that thing was solid, man. It had a fifty calibre [.50] machine gun on the top and the back lowered as a ramp. It was funny because when Robert [Sweet – Stryper drummer] first got that, it was given to him by Daryn Hinton [early manager] who invested a bunch of money onto the band back in the early days and when she gave him that, he had it painted. Now, imagine this; we get into that van and go to the supermarket. We would drop the back gate and come out of the back and back in 1986 and 1987, there was a machine gun on the top of the thing. So, just imagine that going down in 2019, we’d be in gaol right now. Ha ha.
No, you couldn’t do that. Anyway, we will see you here again very soon.
Hey buddy, I just want to mention that I’m doing meet and greets for every show so anybody that is interested, can go to the website and do that. I hope that people do come out and check out the show. I am really excited to be coming back on my own and I am thrilled to be coming back to Australia. I love Australia so much and I cannot begin to describe how thrilled I am.