by Michael McCarthy
Yes, it may be hard to believe, but this is my fourth interview with Stryper frontman/co-lead guitarist Michael Sweet already. What can I say, he keeps putting out fantastic albums and I love to ask him questions about them.
Between making records with Stryper, his solo projects and Sweet & Lynch, Michael is always working. Not to mention the fact that he’s always performing live with Stryper and solo. He’s like the unstoppable Energizer bunny of heavy metal frontmen. He’s also much more humble than your average rock star and he’s brutally honest, too. And did I mention that he’s never made a bad album in the 30 or so years that I’ve been a fan? Sure, I could name favorites, but I’ve always enjoyed everything he’s done. There aren’t many artists that I can say that about. Yet he’s always looking forward and trying new things, never making the same album twice. I find that much more interesting than when bands just keep trying to re-create their most popular album.
The primary topic of this interview is Stryper’s powerful new album, God Damn Evil, which is one of their most eclectic albums to date. Yet the songs all fit together perfectly somehow. I highly recommend that you check out the singles below and buy the record when it comes out on April 20th via Frontiers Records.
MM: Can you believe this is the fourth time we speak already?
MS: [Laughs] Well, you’re busy and I’m busy. You put the two together and we’re going to be speaking a lot. I’m assuming a lot more over the next ten years or so.
MM: I was just admiring the God Damn Evil album cover. There’s just so much detail. Was it done by the same gentleman who did the last couple?
MS: It was. His name is Stan Decker. Stanis Decker. Everyone calls him Stan. He did the last album cover of ours, Fallen, and he also did No More Hell to Pay. And he does a lot of other album covers. He’s one of those brilliant graphic designers and he’s got a great eye. A really talented guy.
MM: Is it Time’s Square that he’s depicted on the new cover or does it just look like it?
MS: I think it just looks similar to Time’s Square. I don’t think it’s supposed to be Time’s Square. But, obviously, you’ve got all of the imagery. Money. The love of money. Food and pornography and all this stuff. The whole point of the album is it’s a prayer request from us and from many people asking God to damn evil. To help this world that seems to be overflowing with evil, especially these days. And that’s all it is. The imagery shows God coming down with angels from Heaven, basically throwing a staff down, saying I’ve had enough.
MM: “Take It to the Cross” has some death metal growls from Matt from Shadows Fall. How did you connect with him?
MS: When the song was written I started thinking about someone to come in and do that growl, that deep type of thing, to take that song in a different direction. We started listening to some people and asking around and his name got brought up. And I listened to some of the stuff that he did and I thought, this is perfect. And he’s local. He only lives like fifteen minutes from the studio. So, it just made perfect sense. We had him come in and he banged it out in fifteen minutes and did a fantastic job. And then later [we] wound up adding the higher voice, which is funny because that’s the thing – the people that don’t seem to like the chorus – a lot of people do, but the people who don’t seem to have a problem with the high thing that I layered over that and apparently those people either aren’t fans of that type of thing or they haven’t heard Judas Priest. [Laughs] I’m not sure what to say about that. I’ve never seen such a – I don’t even know what the right word for it is to use – people so up in arms over a chorus of a song. I’ve never heard of this.
MM: I tried singing the high part of the chorus fast and I found it to be something of a tongue twister. Do you think you’ll be able to pull it off live?
MS: Yeah, I think I’ll be able to pull it off live. Granted, I’m not sure how good it will sound, but it’s really interesting with that song, man. It’s a love and hate thing. You’ll literally go and read the comments and one person will say I love it, that song’s my new favorite Stryper song. And then the next comment will go, I absolutely hate it, it sucks, I’ll never listen to this song again. It’s unbelievable. I think it really separates the fan base in terms of you’ve got the people who really like heavy and want it even heavier and people who hate heavy and want it much lighter.
MM: Has it proven to be more controversial than the album title then?
MS: You know, it wasn’t planned that way. We didn’t sit down – nor do we ever – sit down at a board table and say, what can we do to be controversial? People think we do that. They have these pre-conceived ideas that we sit around wasting our time trying to think of ways to be controversial and just have shock value. We just released the song because we dug it. We thought, this will be a really great opener, let’s do it. It’s as simple as that. And they say, what label allowed this to happen? One guy said that, or what producer, and that would be the band. Take it up with the band. If you don’t like it, then why are you here? I don’t know what else to say. It’s crazy. The good thing is that for all the people who don’t like it, since we’ve been together with the band and released videos, it’s been the most-viewed of any video in the shortest amount of time and it’s received countless downloads. It’s done really, really well.
MM: It’s always nice when it works out that way.
MS: Yeah. And there’s the old saying, if they’re not talking about you, they’re not talking about you. People are talking about it so it’s a good thing. Good or bad, they’re talking. The album title, they’re talking. We’re making people think. Then we’re going to hit them with a song called “Sorry” and that’ll definitely allow everybody to catch their breath.
MM: I think it’s going to be one of my favorite Stryper albums because every time I listen to it, my favorite song changes and that’s what always happens with albums that end up becoming one of my all-time favorites.
MS: I’m excited, too. It is my favorite Stryper album for so many reasons. None of those pertaining to the fact that it’s the newest and latest album. I love how it sounds. I love the separation. I love the clarity. It’s punchy. It’s meaty. We didn’t go for the loud wars and over-master and compress it. We wanted to keep the dynamics. And then every song is different, but every song works with one another. And I like that. You’ve got “Take it to The Cross” then you’ve got “Can’t Live Without Your Love.” They’re from different worlds. But they work. So, I’m just really pleased with this album and I can’t wait for everybody to hear it in its entirety.
MM: Did you write all of the songs on this one by yourself or did any of the other guys collaborate on any of them this time?
MS: Oz collaborated on a few and Robert collaborated on a few as well. Robert came up with the title God Damn Evil. So, that song and the title and the hook, if you will, was Robert’s idea. And then I wrote the music and lyrics based off that. For the most part, I wrote most of the album. I just kind of lock myself in my studio and just start going. And nobody sees me for seven days. Until I emerge dirty and stinky.
MM: Your new bass player is Perry Richardson, formerly of Firehouse. How did you connect with him?
MS: Our co-manager, Dave Rhodes, brought his name up and we hadn’t thought of Perry. We were thinking about a few other guys. And Perry, to be honest, was off the radar because Perry was off the radar. He hadn’t been in Firehouse for a long time so when Dave brought it up we all sat and thought about it and were like, yeah, of course. And we flew him out and met with him and fell in love with him as a person. I don’t know if you’ve ever met Perry?
MM: I have a couple of times. He’s a great guy.
MS: He’s a wonderful human being and someone who brings a lot to the table in this band. In terms of joy and peace and harmony and just being a great person. And then you hear him play and sing and it’s like, OK, this guy’s got the goods.
MM: I knew he was a great singer. Did he do backing vocals on the album?
MS: He did not. Perry, unfortunately, was not on the new album and the reason being is when we brought him out to my house and studio we were in pre-production for the album and he was not yet an official member of the band and he had other obligations to fulfill with Craig Morgan. So, the timing didn’t align on that. On the album, it’s Oz and I doing vocals and then a gentleman by the name of John O’Boyle playing bass, who also played on my last solo album as well.
MM: I especially love the bass playing on the track “God Damn Evil.” I also really liked the bass on “Beautiful.”
MS: Oh, good, man. John’s a really exceptional bass player. Our first choice was to, of course, have Perry on our album. That didn’t work out, but it will next time. But John, thank God, was able to step in. He’s a local guy. We knew what to expect because I’ve used him before and he’s done a great job and, man, he just came in and killed it. He’s very quick and very musical and he comes up with these amazing bass lines. He doesn’t just play do, do, do, do, do. He adds a lot to it and brought a lot to the table. Unlike any other Stryper album, if you want my opinion. Most of the Stryper albums have been kind of straight ahead, eighth note kind of stuff, for the most part, but he really did a lot more on this album than we’ve ever really had in terms of bass playing.
MM: I think it’s refreshing.
MS: It really is. It brings in a whole different feel and vibe and I think anyone that hears it is going to pick up on that. I’ve always said, Stryper got their groove back. It has this groove to it that we haven’t ever had before.
MM: What are your plans to tour behind the new album?
MS: Oh, man, we’ve got a ton of shows on the books now and then a lot that are going to be added. I feel like we’ll be touring all year. And I’m never going to be home. Which is OK. But we’ve got a lot of stuff going on this year. We’re in the middle of making a documentary.
MM: Oh, cool.
MS: It won’t come out for a few years, but it’s going to be amazing. I feel like we’re surging ahead, man. We’ve got so much stuff to do. And stuff to say. And we feel like we’re in our prime. We really do.
MM: I saw several U.S. dates on your website. Do you have any scheduled outside of the country?
MS: We do. We have a few fly dates right now. Scheduled. But there’s going to be more festivals and some other things that are going to take place outside of the country. But the most of it, as we speak, will be in the U.S.
MM: I know you’ll be headlining one night at the Frontiers Festival. Have you played that one before?
MS: We did. We did that festival it was either four or five years ago and we performed there and it was really great. Frontiers is, as everybody knows, our label. And they started doing a Frontiers Festival of all the bands on their label. We go over to Italy and perform and they do it right. It’s really legit festival that people love.
MM: Are you excited about headlining?
MS: We are headlining. It’s interesting because Stryper has been a band that probably 95 percent of our shows if you look at our history, have always been headlined. Occasionally, we’ll open for somebody or we’ll go out and be an opener at a festival, but for the most part we’ve always headlined, whether it’s clubs or arenas. So, yeah, we are. We’re headlining that one.
MM: Do you find that your audience is growing again now that you have so many contemporary albums and so forth? Are you playing larger venues now than, say, five years ago?
MS: You know what, it varies. I do find that the audience is building. Five years ago we played to 400 to 500 people in a club, now we might be up to 8 – 900 or a thousand. For example, Gas Monkey in Texas, we sold that out and that’s over 2000 capacity. It just depends on the market. Certain markets are much stronger for us than others. Like Texas is really strong. East Coast is really strong. West Coast is very strong. So, yes, to answer your question, I believe that our following has absolutely grown and it’s as strong as it’s ever been. On a different level, but it’s really strong. People are excited to hear us and we’re blessed to still be doing it.
This video is from the album No More Hell To Pay (2013):
MM: Do you find that you’re able to do more newer material now, as opposed to everyone wanting to hear all of the classics?
MS: Well, yes. We still hit the classics. But we try to mix in new material as well, but not too much new material. As sad as it sounds to say, most people don’t want to hear new material. They want to hear “Calling On You” and “Free.” When I played with Boston, I’ll never forget. We would do “Rock ‘N’ Roll Band” or “More Than A Feeling” or “Smoking” or whatever people would go nuts and it’d stay packed. But whenever we would do something, say, from Corporate America literally half of the venue would empty out and go get beer or pee. They don’t want to hear it.
MM: It’s like you have two different fan bases. You’ve got fans that are constantly thirsty for new music then you’ve got the others who are the exact opposite.
MS: And the reason for that is that’s the industry we live in. CD sales are down, as everybody knows, but more importantly, there’s no radio for bands like Stryper. We don’t get radio airplay. Back in the day, we would. So, people could hear “Calling On You” and recognize it and come to the show and want to hear it. Now, nobody knows what are new songs are. A few people do, thank God for those people and the stations that still play them, but for the most part if you ask somebody about our song “Take it to The Cross,” for example, half the crowd would probably say I’ve never heard of that song.
MM: That’s unfortunate.
MS: It really is. “Well, what song have you heard?” “Oh, ‘To Hell With the Devil, baby!” “Yeah, we’ll play that one right now for you.”
MM: Last time we spoke you were hoping to do a Stryper and Lynch Mob tour so that you and George could do double duty and do some Sweet & Lynch, too. Is that something that could potentially happen down the road?
MS: I’m not going to keep begging for it or pushing for it. I’m a busy man and I’ve got a lot to do. I’ve talked to George and I’ve thrown it out there and it’s never transpired so I’m not going to keep beating on that door.
MM: How has the new Sweet & Lynch done compared to the first one?
MS: As far as I know, comparable. The first one might’ve done a little bit better at least the first week or two out. Long-term, it’s a good question. I haven’t looked in it in a while. It’s kind of hard to have a truly successful album when you don’t even tour on it. You’ve gotta tour. And you should want to tour. And, sadly, we didn’t tour on either album. That’s part of the reason why I’m doing solo albums and other Stryper albums. I’ve got other projects planned because I do like to go out and support the album. As you can see online. I really get behind anything that I do. I don’t like to throw stuff out there and then move onto the next project a week later.
This gem is from the 2015 album Fallen:
MM: You did a To Hell With the Devil anniversary tour. Will there be an anniversary tour for In God We Trust?
MS: Oh, gosh, I don’t think so. Because that is this year. And we’re touring all year long on our new album. I mean, To Hell With the Devil is and was our biggest selling album by the mile. So, that made sense to do that, but I don’t know if it’d make sense to do that with In God We Trust. Someday we plan to do another re-record, a Second Coming 2, if you will, including songs from In God We Trust and Against the Law and maybe we’ll tour on that.
MM: Are you taking a break from writing right now or are you writing another solo album while all of this is happening?
MS: You know what, the way it works for me is that I don’t write on downtime. When I write an album, I write a week or two before we get started and then once it’s done I won’t write until it’s time to do the next album. So, say Frontiers comes to me and says Michael we want to do another Stryper album in a year in March of 2019 then I would start writing that in February of ’19.
MM: If I was looking at your contract rider, what would I be surprised to find there?
MS: Oh, man, good question. You probably wouldn’t be too surprised. When you say rider, are you talking about a food rider?
MM: Yeah, that type of thing.
MS: You’d find Peanut M&Ms, you’d find Lays Potato Chips, you’d find Throat Coat Tea. On occasion, you might be surprised to see a small bottle of Jack Daniels’ Honey Whiskey. Because what I do with that on occasion when my throat feels a little funky is I gargle with that and it seems to kind of open my throat up. I don’t drink it until after the fact. I don’t drink it before the show. And that helps me a little bit. If I’m sick or feeling weird. And then you might find, what else? Batteries, tissues, the rider is pretty bare bones.
MM: What’s a fake name you’ve used when checking into hotels?
MS: [Laughs] I’ve used Fred Flintstone, but I think everybody has. I go by Gipper. Gipper is a nickname. So, I’ve used that before. But, see, now I can’t use those anymore.
MM: You’ll have to be creative and come up with a new one then.
MS: I’ll have to come up with a new one. As of today.
MM: Are you currently binge-watching anything?
MS: We usually binge-watch. Like we did that for Game of Thrones. We did that with another show called The Knick with a K.
MM: I’ve heard of that one.
MS: It’s an amazing show. It’s about the Knickerbocker Hospital, turn of the century medicine. Amazing. Outlander, we’ll binge-watch. And then we like silly shows, too. My wife loves Supernatural so we’ll sit and watch three or four episodes of that. What else? We’re into This is Us, like everybody. We have our shows that we like and we record. There you go.
MM: What albums are you most looking forward to this year?
MS: I’m looking forward to the new Priest album.
MM: That should be good.
MS: Judas Priest, man. Because they’re a classic, legendary band. One of my favorites and a big influence. And I really respect those guys. I think they’ve done some amazing things and there’s no stopping them.
MM: Last question. Are there any up and coming artists you’d like to point out?
MS: Oh, man, gosh, I always talk about Joel Hoekstra. I always talk about Ethan Brosh. I guess they’ve been around for a while now, but they’re also up and coming as well. And they’re still making a lot of noise and they’re going to make a lot more noise. There are so many young guys coming up that are old school. And I think it’s really cool to see that. And there’s a lot of old-timers, too. That are still teaching the young-timers how to do it.
MM: I’m sure you’re an inspiration for plenty of up and comers.
MS: I don’t know, man. If I am, that’s pretty amazing and humbling. So, it’s very cool. Hopefully, I am an inspiration to some.
Special thanks to Michael for taking the time to chat with us and to Brian Mayes at Nashville Publicity for setting it up.