Author Stories Podcast Episode 985 | Michael Sweet Interview
Today I am excited to bring you an interview with songwriter, guitarist, and vocalist Michael Sweet of Stryper. Be sure to check out Stryper’s latest release Even The Devil Believes.
When it comes to groundbreaking bands in the hard-rock genre, Stryper is renowned for its distinctive brand of “heavenly metal,” extraordinary crossover success and venerable endurance. The group ascended to prominence in the 1980s with Billboard Top 40 hits like “Calling on You,” “Honestly” and “Always There for You.”
Stryper’s career album sales exceed 10 million worldwide, including 1986’s multi platinum release To Hell with the Devil. The band also made history when it notched two songs simultaneously in MTV’s Top 10 with videos “Free” and “Honestly.”
Today, some 35+ years after emerging from the southern California nightclub scene, the foursome continues to record, tour and perform for loyal fans around the globe. Comprising three original members including brothers Michael Sweet (lead vocals, guitar) and Robert Sweet (drums), Oz Fox (guitar) and newest bandmate, seasoned bassist Perry Richardson (formerly of Firehouse), the group finds itself creating their finest, most powerful music yet.
Proving its lasting durability once again, Stryper is now set to unveil Even the Devil Believes (Frontiers Music Srl), the band’s thirteenth studio album.
“We’re incredibly happy to write a new chapter in the book of Stryper,” says Michael Sweet, who has served as the band’s primary songwriter since its inception in 1983. “This album was recorded during the pandemic, and I believe its message pertains to the times we are living in so perfectly. It’s a recording of hope and inspiration and a light in the darkest of times.”
Filled with the band’s signature riffs, harmony-laden melodies and positive themes, the 11-track project is Stryper’s first studio album that features Perry Richardson on bass and background vocals.
“Perry helped take things to a new level for us,” Sweet says. “We’re honored to have him with us.”
Sweet revealed that the band members delivered focused determination, a collaborative spirit and spot-on execution for the new record. The result is a collection of remarkable songs that leaves a strong impact on listeners.
“It has an energy unlike any other album we’ve done,” he asserts. “We even pulled a song from the past that has never been heard or released, and by doing so we brought a little bit of 1989 back into the mix.”
Standout tracks include “Blood from Above,” “Make Love Great Again,” “Do Unto Others,” “How to Fly”, “Divider” and the heart-stirring ballad “This I Pray.”
“The music and lyrics are rock-solid,” says Sweet. “God really blessed this one, and hopefully it will bless everyone who hears it as well.”
In fact, forging such an early artistic partnership while growing up together in the Los Angeles area surely cemented the foundation of the Sweet brothers’ co-founding roles in Roxx Regime, who along with guitarist Oz Fox and bassist Timothy Gaines, would soon take the world by storm.
After quickly establishing themselves throughout the hard rock/metal scene, the guys signed with Enigma Records, changed their name to Stryper and spent the rest of the 1980s on a rocket ride to success. Classic albums such as Soldiers Under Command, To Hell With The Devil and In God We Trust helped propel the band to selling upwards of 10 million records around the world, while other milestones include a Grammy nomination, scoring multiple Dove Awards and becoming the first band to simultaneously have two songs (“Free” and “Honestly”) in MTV’s Top 10.
“God was really moving on the band and sending people into our lives to direct us to what we were called to do, which was to be a band that would glorify Him,” recalls Michael of the group’s earliest days. “We started feeling in our hearts ‘something’s going on here’ and sure enough, we signed the deal with Enigma and that’s when everything exploded…I was 20-years-old when we first broke big and I was just in awe, although having done demos and sessions from the time I was 12 and 13-years-old, it also felt as though I’d been involved in music for an eternity.”
“The history of the band has been a roller coaster ride full of ups and downs,” continues Michael, citing Stryper’s rich touring history split between mixed reactions at massive mainstream rock festivals, to hearing testimonies of the band’s influence at their own headlining shows in virtually all types of venues, to even playing in Jakarta (a predominantly Muslim territory). “It’s so hard for me to pinpoint one moment, but to me, there’s something special about every time we play. We always wonder ‘why are we here?’ There’s always something unique where we meet someone, see something or experience something and we walk away talking about it afterwards. A lot of the stuff that Stryper goes through just doesn’t make sense and I don’t think most bands would do it. We have a different calling but simply say to ourselves ‘alright, if that’s what you want us to do, we’ll do it.'”
In spite of such enormous faith-sharing opportunities and tangible successes, Stryper soon found themselves in the midst of a record label transition once the ’90s rolled around, alongside the ever-increasing influence of the grunge sound emerging out of Seattle. Though the group soldiered on through the more experimental (and in hindsight, quite extraordinary) Against The Law album and tour, members went their separate ways shortly thereafter.
Though it took some time to recharge his faith and physical batteries following a season of burnout, Michael dived head first into a solo career, starting with the back-to-back attack of his 1994 self-titled arena rocking debut, followed by 1995’s more acoustic-minded Real. “I took some time off and really tried to get right and level headed in terms of my faith, and I thought because of that, God gave me another opportunity and another chance,” remembers Michael. “And you know what, that solo album did super well and I thought ‘maybe God’s not done with me?’ It was only released in the Christian market because I was on Benson Records, which was a Christian label, but right now it’s sold almost 300,000 units even without being released in the mainstream. It exploded, had five number ones and made the cover of CCM Magazine, but at the same time, the label was hurting, and by the time I did Real, they were getting ready to close their doors. That was a really depressing time having gone through another record label turnover, so in 1995, I basically went back east with my family [to work at the family campground/cranberry business] and got out of the music world for awhile, which I think really did me a lot of good. But those albums mark a very definitive part of my life and history and I don’t have any regrets.”
Michael came back swinging with the electrified Truth, which was first released in 1998 as a self-released offering, sold a staggering 25,000 mail order copies right out of the gate and prompted a slightly altered re-release in 2000 on Restless Records (prior to its premature closure). “It was pretty cool to see it work, and no disrespect to labels, but it showed what a guy could do even without a label,” asserts Michael, in spite of the unfortunate turn of events the second time around. “God can do anything. He can open the doors and the floodgates to whatever you want to do, which I’ve seen personally time and time again.”
Following a few one-offs (including some Stryper expos and the mammoth Cornerstone Festival), the group finally got back together for good to celebrate its 20th anniversary in 2003, marked by the Hollywood Records compilation 7: The Best of Stryper, a full-fledged tour, the 7 Weeks: Live in America, 2003 CD and the Greatest Hits: Live in Puerto Rico DVD. The group spent the next decade rebuilding the band on the road and in the recording studio, but by 2013, Stryper’s creative and commercial renaissance was back in full swing on Frontiers Records with No More Hell To Pay landing at #6 on Billboard’s Top Rock Albums Chart, #2 on the Christian Albums Chart and #35 on the entire Billboard Top 200. Just two years later, Fallen placed on no less than eight charts, including #2 on Top Hard Music Albums, #5 on Top Current Rock Albums, #2 on Billboard’s Top Christian/Gospel Albums and #44 on the Billboard Top 200.
“Truth came out and then I started focusing on Stryper in 2003,” Michael confirms. “Not a lot of people know this, but I recorded another solo album and was going to sign a deal with Big3 Records. That album was Reborn and it was a totally different sound in more a modern rock/modern metal world. Stryper wound up doing a one-off show down at Disney and I played the music for the guys. Oz in particular flipped and I eventually suggested ‘what if this became a Stryper album?’ and everyone thought that would be incredible. Long story short, we wound up turning that album into a Stryper album and that’s what really started to ignite the fire again in the Stryper camp. Once that album came out, we were officially back together.”
Though Michael’s maintained full-time membership in Stryper ever since, he’s managed to balance just as fruitful of a solo career as ever, starting with 2006’s Him (featuring his unique interpretations of timeless hymns and spirituals), followed by 2007’s Touched (a love songs tribute to his wife Kyle in the final stages of her brave battle with cancer). In spite of the tumultuous personal time, Michael experienced an astonishingly unexpected musical high when he was asked to join classic rock legends Boston in 2008 following the passing of original front man Brad Delp.
“That was so surreal,” he admits. “You had what we were going through at the time, which was the darkest point in our lives, and then you had me going and performing with Boston at a Brad Delp benefit in 2007, which was supposed to be their last show. I don’t think I ever felt my feet touch the ground! It was just an odd time, but then not long after that, I wound up being asked to join Boston and that made it even more odd. ‘What? Join Boston? I’m in Stryper and my wife is sick. I can’t do this.’ But it’s something that just worked out and I guess I was supposed to do. Obviously I wound up leaving in 2011 and focusing on Stryper ever since, but I think it was just a time of healing for [co-founding Boston guitarist] Tom [Scholz] and I. Tom helped me to heal and I helped him heal because he lost Brad. And maybe we didn’t even realize it at the time, but it was also a time of healing for the fans. It was a time for everyone to come together, remember Brad and heal through the music. I’m thankful to have been a part of that and it was really special.”
After amicably departing in 2011 to focus exclusively on a Stryper/solo split, Michael hit another grand slam on his critically-lauded Big3 Records return I’m Not Your Suicide, released on the same day as his immensely anticipated autobiography Honestly, which candidly went into depth about all of the above (and beyond). “I’m very happy with how I’m Not Your Suicide turned out and I consider it a follow-up to Truth,” he reflects. “It got a little more electric at times, such as on the metal track ‘Taking On The World Tonight,’ though there’s also ‘Coming Home,’ which is basically a country rock track. So it’s all over the map, but that’s the great thing about solo albums. I’m able to experiment a lot more and hopefully Suicide has something for everybody.”
Shortly thereafter, Michael added yet another band, Sweet & Lynch, to his diverse resume when connecting with fellow veteran George Lynch (Dokken, Lynch Mob) for the Frontiers Records partnership Only To Rise. Along with James LoMenzo (White Lion, Megadeth) and Brian Tichy (Whitesnake, Foreigner), the co-headlining pair sought to hearken back to the classic sounds of the late ’70s and early ’80s and succeeded with unanimously favorable reviews upon its release in 2015. “You’re not going to find better musicianship as you’re going to find on that album,” he proclaims. “I listen to that and am just floored by their performances. It was really cool to be able to work with George, who’s always been on my bucket list, and we’re planning another album we’re going to start work on probably at end of 2016.”
Speaking of 2016, the year also marks Michael’s seventh individual studio album, which is currently going by the working title One Sided War and is shaping up to be his most rocking to date. “I think it’s going to be the fans’ favorite solo album and it easily rivals the Stryper stuff,” he predicts. “I wanted to focus on guitar on this album, and while I started out doing some solos, I realized they sounded similar to Stryper’s guitar tones, so I sat back and did all the rhythms while making a few phone calls. I’m still doing solos, but there’s a local guy from Boston named Ethan Brosh, who’s phenomenal and reminds me of George Lynch meets Eddie Van Halen meets Steve Vai and a little Yngwie. I’ve got another guy, Joel Hoekstra, who’s exceptional and plays for Whitesnake and Trans-Siberian Orchestra, plus was previously in Night Ranger and the ‘Rock of Ages’ Broadway show. Will Hunt [Evanescence, Black Label Society] is playing drums on it, John O’Boyle [Tom Ingram Band, Screaming Souls] is on bass and there’s even a girl named Mariah Fornica that came at my wife Lisa’s suggestion. Mariah is 15-years-old from Clifton Park, New York. She opened a show for me and she’s the only person in 25 years who brought me out of the dressing room ten times to watch her perform cause she kept blowing my mind with her powerful voice. It’s a very high energy and heavy but different album, and I think when people hear it, they’re gonna be pleasantly surprised.”
Even with so many projects in the pipeline, Michael is just as excited about Stryper as he’s ever been, using all of his outside artistry to douse additional fuel on the entirely original foursome’s unrelenting fire. “When I go out and do another project and then I come back to do a Stryper album or tour, I feel recharged and I’m able to come up with bigger, better and stronger ideas. Speaking of Stryper, I think there’s a lot more to come for the band and our fans. If we continue to communicate and honor God, I think God’s gonna honor us. I also want to let the fans know we wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for my wife Lisa because she puts it all together and makes it happen. Musically we might be, but in terms of all the other stuff, it’s 100% her. I really don’t know where we’d be without her!”
Adds Michael: “The goal right now is to go and tour this year heavily in support of Fallen. We’re gonna do a 30th anniversary celebration, possibly with To Hell With The Devil, and then we’ve got an acoustic album, which will showcase a different side of Stryper. There’s so much going on my head’s spinning, but I can’t wait!”