Stryper: The Power of Words: An Interview with Michael Sweet
In 2005, Stryper came back on the radar after having taken a 15-year recording sabbatical. During those years Stryper vocalist, Michael Sweet was hardly in hiding having released three solo records of his own. Then last year a new Stryper album, aptly titled 'Reborn,' was declared one of the best albums of 2005 by MSNBC and lead off an exhilarating tour.
Now much to the glee of Stryper fans with the band back in the forefront of the Christian rock scene, which they pioneered, Michael Sweet is also releasing his fourth solo album. Entitled 'Him,' Sweet sails uncharted waters in this worship record by taking traditional hymnals and almost completely restructuring them musically.
"They're all cover songs," explains Sweet in a warmhearted conversation with UnRated Magazine. "There's one song that I recorded and we're going to be offering it as a free download through MichaelSweet.com and that's an original song. But all the other songs that are actually going to be on the disc itself are all remakes of old hymns."
"I redid most of them. A couple like, 'I Surrender All' is musically pretty close to the original but most of the songs are completely redone musically. You wouldn't even recognize them. Like 'Christ Our Lord Has Risen Today' is now called 'Alleluia' and you wouldn't recognize it at all. It's a different melody all together and the songs don't sound like hymns, they sound more like up-tempo, acoustic rock/worship songs; not at all traditional sounding. You know like when you go to a church and sing hymns it's nothing like that."
And just how did Sweet come up with the idea to recreate these timeless songs?
"When I was a kid we went to a Southern Baptist church and we sang a lot of hymns every Sunday; that's all we sang really. They didn't have a contemporary worship band or group or anything like that. I was somewhat familiar with some of the old hymns certainly ones like 'How Great Thou Art,' of course 'I Surrender All,' just some incredible, incredible hymns. For the last 30-35 years I've always thought it would be really great to do a record that consisted of hymns but I'm kind of the type of person that typically I don't like to do what everyone else has done. And there have been so many hymn records and worship records done over the years, and usually when a Christian artist or a person does a record that consists of hymns there's usually more of the traditional arrangement with big choirs or orchestration, and sticking to the similar melody and what-not. I wanted to do something that was really unique and really different that really had never been done before."
"I was leading worship at my church 5, 6 years ago and I had people coming up to me every Sunday requesting hymns and nine times out of 10 I didn't know the hymn that they were requesting. I thought, 'Gosh, I'd better familiarize myself with hymns.' So I bought a hymnal that sat on my desk in my studio. I was down there working on some material one night and I started going through the hymnal, just kind of reading the words not really knowing how the melody went. There was a song in particular called 'I'm Not Skilled To Understand' that is now called 'I Know' on this record, and I read these words and they were just so incredibly powerful and moving and they cut like a knife right into my heart, and I thought, 'Wow, these are amazing.' So I kept kind of flipping through the pages and I came across some other words that deeply moved me 'Take My Life And Let It Be' is another one, that's now called 'Take My Life' on this record, and the words are just amazing. So going off of just being moved by the words how powerful the words were I thought it would be really cool to rewrite the music. I didn't really know how the melodies went to most of these hymns so I just picked up a guitar and started putting melodies vocally to these words. And tried to work out arrangements, chord structures and whatnot to these incredibly powerful words and it all just started falling into place."
"Most of the songs on this record if you said, 'Hum me the original melody,' I couldn't do it. And that was the fun in it all; it was a project and certainly a challenge. But that makes for a better record, I like challenges, I like having to get in there and roll my sleeves up and go for it," comments Sweet.
With the new Michael Sweet record in addition to Stryper being back and stronger than ever, what exactly can fans expect in regards to a 2006 tour?
"At this point it's really starting to look like Stryper's going to continue to do some one-off shows," says Sweet, "We're doing three shows in Brazil and we did a festival in New Hampshire. And we're probably going to take a little time off as a band. We're not going our separate ways at all, we're going to remain together as a band, but I'm probably going to do some solo touring for this record. I've asked Oz [Fox, Stryper guitarist] to join me and he was really excited about that so it looks like he will be joining me. Although it's not official so I don't want to put the cart before the horse here, but we're talking to Kevin Max of dc Talk about he and I doing a co-headlining thing. We'd be doing clubs and churches, and everybody's really excited about it. It looks like that's going to take shape and happen some time in October."
With Michael Sweet being so musically prolific between Stryper and his solo projects, Sass asked how writing for his solo albums differs from writing for Stryper.
"I feel a little bit more freedom when I'm writing the solo stuff - and what I mean by that is I don't feel the pressure of the old fan-base wanting a particular style. I feel that when I write for the Stryper records because the fans that have been with us since day one and are still supporting us tend to want to hear the heavier style and the heavier sound. But when I do a Michael Sweet record, maybe it's not valid but I feel a little more freedom. I can experiment a little more. Like the record 'Real' which is an acoustic rock record I don't think that would go over too well under the Stryper name. For most of the people out there that are still following us, I don't know that they would appreciate that too much. So with the Stryper thing it tends to be a little bit more of the pressure to stick with the harder edged style which is fine, it's great. I have all different sides as a writer and I enjoy getting heavy, and then I enjoy getting light. It's different personalities, but I'm not a schizoid or anything," Sweet laughs, "I have different musical personalities and I enjoy showing those very much."
All musicians seem to handle the writing process differently. Some write constantly regardless of being on or off tour, and others simply go to work when prepping for a new album. Sweet is one of the few that's drastically changed techniques over the years.
"In the past I was writing all the time. Before we began in '81, '82 I literally was locked in a garage with my amp and guitar, a boom-box and keyboard writing non-stop. And I wrote two or three records that way. Lately the way I work, I don't write at all. I spend a lot of time with my family doing other things that I enjoy. I really enjoy working around the yard and house and that sort of thing. If I get a phone call from management or from the label saying 'We need this and we need it in two weeks,' I'll go down to my studio for two weeks and crank it out. That's the way I've worked for the last two solo albums and the last Stryper record."
"I came home from the '03 tour and started to pursue the new solo album; I started feeling the pressure from the label they wanted to hear stuff, so I went down and just locked myself down there basically. A cup of coffee and just started writing, programming on a drum machine, writing, writing, writing. And it was about a week-and-a-half, two-week process not lyrically, lyrics always come later, but all the music came together in that time period. Went into the studio not long after and started recording. And I enjoy it that way, it's kind of cool."
Sweet insists the songs feel fresher this way when going into record the album.
"They really do versus working on a song for six months or a year. I like the spontaneous: 'Hey, we've got to start on this record, let's go do it!' And you go do it and record it, it's really nice."
With Sweet's Christianity being linked so closely with both Stryper music and his solo songs, would he ever consider releasing a secular album as other Christian artists have done?
"Yeah, I have. I mean I would never release a secular record that had anything that would lead people in a direction that is the opposite of what we've always told people or encouraged people to head in which is staying away from all the things that destroy lives. So I would write secular songs that were still positive that gave people hope and gave them something to look forward to. I would never write about your typical sex, drugs and rock and roll. But I'm actually talking to the label, Big3 [Records], and I've had other labels approach me, about doing a record of me covering some from the past 70's, 80's, and 90's - I hate to use the word 'ballads,' but like a Journey song or a Foreigner song, that kind of thing. And I think that would be a thrill to do and so much fun. There are so many singers from those time periods that I admire, Steve Perry being one, Lou Graham being another. It would be really cool to actually sing some of their songs and show a different side of me as well. There's some great, great material some of the best songs ever written. That would be cool and I think that's something that people can expect in the next couple of years."
In addition to appreciating the music of the past, Sweet pays a great deal of attention to the current musical trends as well.
"I really try to keep up with all the latest music. I try not to be a dinosaur and live in the past listening to the music of the '80's only. My son is 19 and he's just really gifted as far as taste for music. It's amazing, he's one of those guys where he'll tell me, 'Hey, this band nobody knows about them but they're going to be huge.' And he's right almost every single time. He just blows my mind. So I've been turned on to a lot of bands through my son. He'll give me the disc and I'll listen to it and it'll really influence me in a lot of ways. And then about six months to a year later they're the biggest thing since sliced bread selling a million or two-million records, it's crazy."
So has Michael Sweet Jr. given his ole dad any advice on his music?
"He does. Not when I'm actually down there writing. It's not like he's sitting there saying, 'Don't do this,' or 'Do that.' But I'll put together something and come up and play it for him and he'll say, 'Uh, that drum groove is a little dated,' or 'You should try this,' or that sort of thing. And he's a musician himself, he's a guitarist and a drummer and is singing now as well. And he's real musical he should be an A&R guy for a major [label] and he would do quite well."
As the father of two teenagers, Sass asked Sweet how fatherhood has changed him.
"It's made me realize the importance of family, that's for sure. And it's helped me to get my priorities in check. Back when I was 18, 19, 20, 21, 22 years old my priorities were just so out of whack. I mean if I got a large check I'd go blow it. And I would do something that I shouldn't be doing and put aside something that I should be doing. But being married and having kids really helped me to get my priorities in order. And I try to devote the time needed to family because my family is so important to me. My relationship with God is extremely important, obviously, and my relationship with my family is very important. Those two things definitely come above the whole music/band thing, although that's very important too. But at one point that was the priority in my life and that consumed my every thought and every moment but it can't be that way."
In the beginning of Stryper's history, the band came under fire in many ways for being a 'Christian rock band,' something that a lot of people seemed to feel was an oxymoron.
"We heard a lot of the comments, and the stuff that really hurt and really took its toll and had an effect on us is when our peers and people that we really looked up to and admired came against us. Like for example, Robert [Sweet, Stryper's drummer and Michael's brother] and myself came to know the Lord through Jimmy Swaggart. And when we began as a group and started performing and putting out records the Jimmy Swaggart Ministry kind of turned against us. They would hold up our albums and tell people we're the devil and not to support us, and things like that at the time was just like, 'Ouch!' We couldn't understand it, it was just so surreal; like this can't be happening but it was. But along with that, with that hurt and that pain came forgiveness. And we don't hold any grudges against the people who have spoken out against us. That's the way of the world, people are going to speak their minds and give their opinions, and that's all they are opinions. And what matters to us, the only person that we have to please is God and that's it. That's what we strive to do."
"We never questioned whether or not it was right to go out with the abilities and the gifts that God had given us and tell people about God with our music. We never questioned that. But we did question our hearts and our motives at times because there were some rocky points through the years. Specifically '89, '90, '91, during that time period our hearts began to harden somewhat and turned to stone to some degree, and [we] took on a little bit more of a bitter attitude you could kind of hear that in our interviews, see it on our faces and hear it in our tones. But through the years we've all learned from that and it's made us though I've said this a billion times, it's so true it's made us who we are today and the men that we are today. I think that we're better off even then we were in the early days, we're stronger, we're more focused, and we really are determined to continue spreading the word and giving the message and doing what we do. I wouldn't go back and change anything at all absolutely not because it's just taught us so much. And I always speak freely about it when people want to talk about the past, the good and the bad, it's all a part of where we're at right now."
So just what was it that had such a negative impact on Stryper's band members at that time in their lives?
"We were hypocrites for a while. Total and complete hypocrites. We were for years telling people, 'Hey, you don't need alcohol, don't drink you don't need it.' And then for a period we're telling people that on stage and then going back, getting on the bus and drinking a 6-pack. It's always kind of a touchy subject when you talk about the dos and don'ts, what you should do as a Christian. That's between that person and God. But if there's a Christian out there that feels they can drink and handle that, that's whatever that's between them and God. But there's a big difference between standing on a stage in front of 5-, 10-, 15,000 people every night and telling them why they shouldn't drink and going back and doing just the opposite, that's hypocrisy and we were certainly committing that for a while. But that's the beauty of it all, it's a testimony; God pulled us out of that and taught us so much from that and through that, and we're able to share that with people. Hey look, this is where we were at and this is where we're at now, and only by the grace of God."
"We weren't out gangbanging or killing people or selling drugs, there were rumors crazy rumors at the time about us dealing drugs, silly stuff that's not true. But it was a period in our lives that was a difficult time but we got through it thank God, glory to God. We're here and we're still doing what we've always wanted to do which is sharing that incredible message with others."
With over two decades in the music business, what is one of the most prominent things that Sweet has learned about life thus far?
"I've learned so much about forgiveness. Being in a band is so much like a marriage and when that marriage or that band fails, things can get real bitter real fast, and it's very easy to live life in un-forgiveness. It's really difficult to forgive and really truly let go of the scars, the hurt, the pain and all the things that have happened. I've learned a lot about forgiveness and I think we all have Tim, Tracy, Robert, Oz, myself all five of us, we've learned about forgiving each other. Things that we've said to each other, things that we've done to each other, things that were rumored about things that we've supposedly said about each other; all kinds of stuff that builds up those walls. But those walls through forgiveness come crumbling down."
"That's probably one of the best things you can learn is how to forgive, and I'm still learning. We all are, but I know this 10, 11, 12, 13 years ago there wasn't as much forgiveness there in my heart. And I don't want to speak for the other guys but I think it would be safe to say that there quite possibly might not have been in their hearts either but now it's so different. Not to keep throwing clichés out there but we give all glory to God for that, certainly not within ourselves it's a God-given thing and we keep praying and asking for more of it. And not just forgiveness within the band, but for those who have spoken out against us and done things to the band, all kinds of stuff. The history is crazy, a lot of history there and we just have to keep moving forward and stay focused on our journey, put all that stuff behind us and know what our mission is and lean towards that."
Despite the new albums and tours, and a band completely revitalized, is there anything else that Stryper would like to achieve in the future?
"We would really like to do the infamous 'heaven and hell tour.' There was talk about that way back in the '80's with us and Motley Crue, or Stryper and WASP, Stryper and Slayer there are all these different possibilities and it never came to pass. But that would be really cool, something that we've never accomplished that we'd love to accomplish. It would be really cool to do something with a modern day band that's really cutting edge right now. Avenged Sevenfold or Slipknot, Marilyn Manson, something that's the extreme opposite of what we are. Our objective is to reach the people that support and follow a band just like those bands that I named. I mean those are the people that we tried to reach out to in the beginning and those are the people that we'll continue to reach out to in the end. So that's what we're all about going out into the world and into the bars and into the places most Christian bands don't dare to venture. We enjoy that; that excites us."
"When we went and did a festival recently with Iron Maiden, Lacuna Coil, and Dream Theater we were excited because it was an opportunity to stand on a stage in front of all those people who probably weren't Christians and share with them. And that's really what Stryper's about. It's a very unique ministry and a very unique band. Then we had another opportunity to go to Spain and in front of WASP fans, Gamma Ray some pretty hardcore bands and do it again. We just did a Christian festival and that was a blast. A lot of fans came out, people really had fun and it was an incredible time but it was different. It's different to go on stage in front of people who are following Iron Maiden or WASP and people who are following and supporting and praying for Third Day and all those kind of bands. Just a whole different thing. So we tend to like to go into the gates of hell and just kind of go for it. It's kind of scary at times, it really is. But we pray up and give it to God and ask that he walks with us and he's that fifth member, and we always come away and come home saying, 'God, you got us through that one.' It's pretty amazing. We've had some pretty scary moments over the years, but it's all good."
When asked what one of their scarier moments was over the years Sweet expounds:
"I've told this story many times but there were many like this we did a festival in Holland way back in the mid-80's. And as we pulled up in our van there's a sea of people and the majority are men, leather jackets and spiked wristbands. We see guys getting carried out on stretchers every five or ten minutes blood everywhere. They were just the kind of crowd that was beating the snot out of each other. So we get out of the van and go backstage and were hanging out, and after 45 minutes to an hour we're tuning up and preparing to go on an hour or so later. You can hear the crowd, in unison, 9-, 10,000 people chanting something. Oz, Robert, Tim and I were all looking at each other. You can hear it getting louder and louder, so we go out on the side of the stage so we can hear what they're saying. The whole crowd in unison is chanting, 'F.U.C.K. Stryper!' And they were in a frenzy, it was crazy, chaotic. They had this upside-down cross on fire with a poster of a woman in a bikini with Robert's head on it, and they were tearing it to shreds. We changed our set because we had 'Honestly' and 'First Love,' the ballads [in the set], we pulled those out and did all the heavy stuff 'Rock That Makes Me Roll,' 'Soldiers Under Command,' all the real heavy stuff. And for the first couple of songs we had everything thrown at us, fruit, vegetables, bottles, cans, rocks, spit, and we just kept praying and singing. About three songs, maybe four, the spirit moved and the whole crowd was won over. They were all head banging in unison to the band, going crazy, singing the words. And God won the crowd over."
"Some amazing stuff through the years story after story where we were just scared to death but we stepped out in faith. It's an incredible story and there are 23 years of stories like that; it's wild."