interview by Michael McCarthy
What can I say about the great Michael Sweet that I haven’t already said? This is Love is Pop’s sixth interview with the extremely talented, super busy Stryper frontman/songwriter/co-lead guitarist and solo artist. We love the guy here at Love is Pop HQ and he’s always such a joy to interview. And knowing how much our fellow fans of his work appreciate our interviews with him makes the experience even more rewarding.
Although we touched on several different subjects, the focal point for this interview is his exquisite new solo album, Ten, which will be released in North America on October 11th via Rat Pak Records and will also be available in Europe via Frontiers Music SRL. The album is called Ten because it’s his 10th solo album and also because there is a song on the album about the 10 Commandments, which is also called “Ten.” And while the album contains 12 tracks, the first ten are considered the album itself, the final two tracks referred to as bonus tracks, although I have to say that they’re as crucial to the album as the tracks they follow. In fact, one of the bonus tracks, “Son Of Man,” is among my favorite songs on the album.
Aside from one track – the ballad, “Let it Be Love,” – every song on Ten features a different lead guitarist soloing them. On “Son Of Man,” for example, we have the accomplished heavy metal guitarist Andy James, but there’s also another thing that makes it special; it’s a duet with Todd La Torre of Queensryche. (Todd is an atheist who’s frequently spoken about his feelings on the subject, but he respects Michael and his music, and he understands that many people do believe. So, he gave the track his all in spite of the subject matter and it turned out beautifully.) Another one of my favorites is “Now or Never” featuring Gus G of Firewind, whose soloing on the track is remarkable. It’s a very Ozzy-esque song, too, so it made perfect sense to get Gus on it. What also makes it special is that it features lots of angelic backing vocals that are almost ominous, like they’re warning the listener to shape up while there’s still time.
I really can’t say enough good things about Ten. Each track has its own flavor with the different guitarists guesting, but it’s also very cohesive and flows perfectly. Michael really allowed his different influences to shine through on these songs and it makes for one of his best albums ever, solo or with Stryper. To give you a couple of examples, the opening track, “Better Part of Me,” calls to mind Iron Maiden’s “The Trooper” at times then “Lay it Down” follows in the vein of Soldiers Under Command era Stryper, so he clearly hasn’t abandoned his roots while doing these collaborations. In fact, of all of his solo albums, I would have to say that Ten is the one that most closely resembles a Stryper album, which certainly isn’t a bad thing. Check it out when it comes out on October 11th and I suspect it’ll be love at first listen.
MM: I know you usually hide out in your studio and write an album, but with Ten, I was wondering if it was at all different where you were collaborating with the different guys?
MS: It wasn’t. Because I still wrote the songs. The collaboration was with the actual performances. So, I wrote the songs. Except for two songs that were co-written by Joel Hoekstra and myself, which is “Never Alone” and “When Love is Hated.” Those two songs were co-writes. All the other songs were written by myself and we’d go in and we’d record the parts then we would send the basic tracks off to Andy James and Jeff Loomis and all the guys that played the solos. And they would track at their own leisure and send them back to us. We got most of the tracks on schedule. A few of the tracks we got literally the day we were mixing that song. So, it became a little stressful, but we got everything. And everything was cohesive and flowed and worked beautifully.
MM: Were there any people who were supposed to collaborate who sent backtracks that weren’t good enough?
MS: There were not. The only guy that I’ve been trying to work with for a few years is Nuno. Nuno Bettencourt. He was originally was supposed to track the solo for the song “Forgive, Forget.” And it’s got a little bit more of a funky vibe to it, so he was the first guy that I thought of because Extreme has that funky flavor. I thought, OK, Nuno would be perfect for this track. So, I reached out to him. He said, “Yeah, you’re getting a lot of buzz. Let me hear the track.” I sent him the track and I think it was difficult for him to figure out what to do because I sent all the tracks to all the guitar players without vocals. Without lead vocals. And I just basically said, do your thing. Here’s where you’re gonna track. You’re gonna track from 0:34 to 0:45 and 1:36 to 1:54, that kind of thing. I gave them time markers. And they did their thing. But Nuno was the only guy who sent back a message saying, “I don’t know what to do.” So, I wound up sending the track to Howie Simon, who has stepped in for Oz and played with Stryper and everybody knows Howie’s work and what he’s done – he’s a brilliant guitar player – and he just knocked it out of the park. Without any question. I sent him the music. He nailed it and sent it back and I’m like, dude, that’s perfect.
MM: Ten is coming out on Rat Pak Records here in the States and Frontiers in Europe. Why two labels?
MS: Well, the reason being is that every album that comes out is licensed. So, if it’s an American label, they license it out to labels throughout the world to distribute it throughout the world. So, it might be Napalm or Frontiers or King in Japan. Or this label in Canada. So, those labels will distribute it and release it properly in those territories. So, Frontiers licensed the album for Europe.
MM: Is it coming out in Japan and will there be bonus tracks, if so?
MS: There is a bonus track. It’s basically a remix of the song – the ballad – what’s the name of the ballad? [Both laugh] Whatever the ballad is.
MM: I’ve listened to the album about 20 times but I’m stumped as well this morning.
MS: “Let it Be Love” or whatever the name of the ballad is. But, anyway, [Laughs] This is terrible. [Both laugh] It’s too early, man. I’m having my first cup of coffee. I apologize. But that is a remix for Japan. It’s basically a scaled-down, acoustic version of that song. I’m not really sure why that happens. People get frustrated about that. That there are only bonus tracks on albums that are released in Japan or in Korea or different parts of the world. They don’t get those bonus tracks here. That’s always a request when you do a licensing deal with those companies in Japan. They always say we want a bonus track. So, it’s just a given.
MM: I understand you’re actually putting out a cassette release of Ten. How many of those are you making?
MS: You know, I don’t know. That would be a question for Joe at Rat Pak. I would assume no more than a thousand. But I could be wrong. We just thought it would be cool. A little bit of a throwback to offer people cassettes. Are people gonna actually play those or listen to those? I don’t know. But it’s really cool to have as a collectible. It’s just a little throwback to the past. “Oh, wow, cassettes, wow!” That kind of thing.
MM: Do you think people will ever feel that way about CDs again?
MS: Oh, yeah. I do. I think that CDs are gonna be obsolete before we know it. They’re already becoming obsolete. In the next year, two, three, four, nobody’s gonna carry CDs anymore and it’s gonna get to the point where nobody will manufacture them for a while probably. And then at some point, they’ll become a collectible as well and a neat little throwback like a cassette or an 8 track player. We’re heading in that direction – if we’re not already there – where it’s just strictly based on streaming and downloads. Even downloads are gonna become obsolete.
MM: It’s really odd. As someone who grew up wanting to be able to hold the music in my hands, it baffles me that some people don’t care about that.
MS: It is odd. It is. It’s just the way technology is advancing. The sad part is, and everybody already knows this, but for the musicians and the guys in the band, they rely on hardcopy sales. They get a royalty rate on every sale. When you sell a copy of a CD or an album, each guy in the band gets a percentage. It’s small, mind you, but it’s a percentage. But with streaming, they make a little money from that. But right now, the way it’s mathematically worked out, is the label gets most of the money. So, there’s very little money coming in. But when I get my checks from streaming, it’s pretty laughable. Sometimes it’s literally a couple of dollars.
MM: It’s terrible.
MS: It’s interesting.
MM: Will you be doing many live dates behind Ten?
MS: You know, I’d like to. I’ve been talking about this for a while. The tricky part is, with Stryper being the priority, and they’re constantly touring, it’s difficult to make that work. But the goal right now is to next year do select city live dates with the full band. Get a really killer band and go out and play songs from Ten, One Sided War and Truth. All the solo albums. And focus on those. Maybe do a few Stryper songs, but focus on the solo stuff. And get out there and just hopefully blow people away and make it really fun.
MM: I’d assume you’d do a Massachusetts date, right?
MS: Oh, man, I hope so. I would think so because I live here. It would make sense. Of course, L.A., maybe Chicago, Texas, Massachusetts, New York, Florida. Oh, gosh. The West Coast, the East Coast and then maybe a few sprinkled throughout in between.
MM: How did you create the kind of eerie but angelic background vocals on “Now or Never”?
MS: Oh, well, you know, it’s funny because as I started reaching out to all of these guitar players and once I confirmed Gus G on that track I felt like, man, let’s kind of push this in a little bit of an Ozzy direction and how cool will it be to get those Ozzy Osbourne type eerie, choir, chanting background vocals. That’s what I went for on that song. I basically brought in a few buddies of mine. There were five or six of us and we just multi-tracked. As soon as we sang the part once, again, again, again and again, and do the next part, again, again, again and again. We just kept building it up. There’s probably the equivalent to a couple hundred voices on that track. And we wanted to create that schoolboy choir kind of sound. I think we achieved it, man. It’s pretty realistic sounding to me.
MM: It reminds me of Ozzy’s song “Journey to the Center of Eternity.” That one has a lot of those type of vocals.
MS: Well, good, man. Is that one of your favorites?
MM: Yeah, definitely. I love every song on Ten, though.
MS: Gus G is just a brilliant guitar player and he’s just tearing it up. It’s amazing. I can’t wait for people to hear the whole album, which is just a few weeks from now. So, we’re getting there.
MM: Last time we talked you were anticipating working on another Stryper record late this year for a release early 2020. Is that still the plan?
MS: Yeah, basically. The plan is that I’ll start writing it in November and December and we’ll start recording it in January. So, it just got pushed back a little bit. The reason for that is that we were kind of stepping back and looking at trying some different things with some different people and we wound up figuring out how we were gonna do it and who we were gonna do it with. And once that was decided, it took a little longer getting to that point. But we’re gonna make an album in January. I’m guessing it will be turned in by April or May and it’ll come out probably in September or October of 2020. So, it’s definitely getting released in 2020 for sure.
MM: Cool. Is there anything about it you can tell us that you haven’t told anyone else yet?
MS: Unfortunately, no, because it hasn’t been written yet. When I’m writing the songs, I’m really going to be digging deep and trying to think outside the box a little bit more. At least a few tracks. And just stretching out and trying some different things where people will go, that’s cool, that’s different. And then I want to really focus on trying to write songs that take people back to the good old days but without sounding recycled. So, people keep saying they miss the old songs, they miss the old songs. Well, I’m gonna try to give them that, but yet still retain some sort of 2020 influence.
MM: I think you did a perfect balance of that on God Damn Evil.
MS: Well, man, we really try. We try hard. We try really hard to do that. To give people the past and the present. And it’s not an easy thing to do. I think what we’ve been able to achieve is writing songs that have a little bit of the past sewn into them but at the same time in the production sense it’s a little bit modern. We don’t want to go back to the reverbs and EQs of the ’80s because then it starts sounding like cheese whiz. You’ve gotta be really careful with that. As a band from that era. We try to combine the two without overstepping our boundaries on either side.
MM: On the History Tour you did quite a few covers that you haven’t released so far. Any chance there will be a live DVD from that tour?
MS: You know, I don’t know. There’s been no talk of that. We have so many other things to do first that are a priority. That being the next new Stryper album. And we’re working on a documentary, that’s a priority. And then we’ve got an acoustic album that’s in the can for the most part that we need to finish and release. And we want to do a Christmas album at some point.
MM: Oh, that would be awesome. I’d love a Stryper Christmas album.
MS: Yeah, we’ve been talking about that for a long time so I would think those things would come first. Then there’s also The Covering 2 and the Second Coming 2. There’s just so much that we’ve gotta tackle and goals that we’ve gotta achieve. We’ll see how that works out.
MM: Yeah, very cool. So, last time we talked you’d mentioned that you were doing an album with Tracii Guns called Sun Bomb. What’s the status of that?
MS: Well, some things came into development that kind of halted everything and then they decided that they were gonna make it a guest album, which I think is still the plan, due to the schedule and finances and whatnot. I think I’m gonna be a guest on it on Tracii’s solo album and then he and I are still going to – down the road, in the next year, I believe – do an album together, which will be the Sun Bomb project. At least that’s the way it’s been explained to me. That the label wants to do it. I’m just kind of sitting on standby, waiting to hear from everybody about what they want to do. Once they decide, I’m ready to go.
MM: This might be an odd question, but when you look back at all the music you’ve released solo and with Stryper, are there any songs you kind of wish you hadn’t released?
MS: You’re talking about solo songs in the past and Stryper songs in the past?
MM: Yeah. Is there anything you kind of cringe about?
MS: Yeah, there’s a few. There’s a few. There are some songs that I feel like I should’ve maybe pushed harder to improve and to change to make less corny. But I’m not gonna name the songs because then I’ll start a war within the Stryper camp. I think everybody already knows what songs those are. Because I’ve talked about them in my book and whatnot. Some songs that I thought were kind of corny that I worked on. And even musically, they needed to be worked on and could’ve been a lot better and less corny, but that’s the way it goes. You live and learn and you try not to repeat those mistakes.
MM: The only one that comes to my mind is one I think was called “Abstinence Rules,” I think it was the last song on your first solo album. I thought that one was a little cheesy.
MS: Yeah, that one was a little interesting. I was referring to Stryper songs when I was just giving you examples, but that song in particular – you’re talking about “Ain’t No Safe Way” – that was a time that was very highly debatable. People were talking about abstinence and just abstaining and blah, blah, blah and that’s how that song came to be. There was a push from the label to do a song like that and it wound up kind of corny. And the video, I think, is what made it kind of corny. If you listen to the song, it’s not so bad. But you watch the video and it’s like eww. You know what I’m saying?
MS: The video, I could’ve easily done away with. [Laughs]
MM: Have you ever thought about doing an album of duets for your next solo album or something?
MS: You never know. You never know, man. I know I want to do something really different for the next solo album, but that remains to be seen. I haven’t even thought about it because I’m so in the moment right now with the new solo album that’s not even out yet. But, you know, I plan on the next few years to do another solo album and just keep going with that. I’m 56 now so if I do one every couple of years I could get another 10 or 11 in before I’m over 70 years old. So, we’ll see what happens. That would be pretty cool. I’ve always had a goal set in my mind to do 21 solo albums and 21 Stryper albums.
MM: Wow, that would be sweet.
MS: That’s probably unrealistic. Of course, that means I’ve gotta live a pretty long, healthy life and that’s in God’s hands. I don’t know what’s gonna happen with that. I’m just gonna keep making music. Writing and recording. Because [I have] this never-ending desire to do so. And as long as it’s there I’m gonna do it.
MM: Now, Ten is your tenth solo album, right?
MS: Yes, it is.
MM: What number are you up to with Stryper?
MS: Now, we’re doing a few select dates. Fly dates and I’m gonna start writing. Like I said, in November. I might start writing guitar riffs before that. I’ve already got a few. Get about ten to twelve really cool riff ideas and then sit down at my computer and iPad and just sit in my little den and light a fire and work on a song every day and create a song every day until I’ve got 11 or 12 tracks. That’s the plan. And I’ll start that in November. [NOTE: I was asking Michael how many albums Stryper had out, not asking him about Stryper, which I’d already done. But I wasn’t going to interrupt him and correct him. ]
MM: I was just thinking – Perry Richardson is such a great bass player. Is there any chance you might do a bass solo on a Stryper song? I think that would be pretty cool.
MS: You know what? Who knows? Maybe. He is a great bass player. You’re right about that. He’s very underrated as a bass player and as a singer. Perry is an incredibly under-rated musician. Solid player, solid singer and an incredible guy and we’re so blessed to have him. That’s a great idea. Maybe he will do a solo. I’ll ask him about that.
The tracklisting for Ten:
1) Better Part of Me (featuring Jeff Loomis of Arch Enemy)
2) Lay It Down (featuring Marzi Montazeri)
3) Forget, Forgive (featuring Howie Simon)
4) Now Or Never (featuring Gus G of Firewind)
5) Ten featuring (Rich Ward of Fozzy)
6) Shine (featuring Ethan Brosh)
7) Let It Be Love
8) Never Alone (featuring Joel Hoekstra of Whitesnake)
9) When Love Is Hated (featuring Joel Hoekstra of Whitesnake)
10) Ricochet (featuring Tracii Guns of LA Guns)
11) With You Till The End (featuring Mike Kerr and Ian Raposa from Firstbourne)
12) Son Of Man (featuring Todd La Torre of Queensryche and Andy James)
Stryper tour dates:
OCTOBER 9, 2019: PHOENIX, AZ ~ ARIZONA STATE FAIR
OCTOBER 10, 2019: HOLLYWOOD, CA ~ WHISKY A GO GO
OCTOBER 12, 2019: NASHVILLE, TN ~ WILDHORSE SALOON
OCTOBER 19, 2019: VERONA, NY ~ TURNING STONE RESORT CASINO SHOWROOM
FEBRUARY 8-13, 2020: COZUMEL & BELIZE ~ MONSTERS OF ROCK CRUISE
MAY 1, 2020: UNCASVILLE, CT ~ WOLF DEN @ MOHEGAN SUN CASINO