When the proverbial average Metalhead ponders the realms best known as the 'Christian' Hard Rock and Heavy Metal genres, thoughts will, for better or for worse, invariably turn to oft-embattled Orange County, California-born icons Stryper. Offering a positively themed message via the quasi-mosh-inducing To Hell With The Devil (1986), In God We Trust (1988) and the maligned Against The Law (1990), the group preached to both the converted and unconverted alike via an array of arena and MTV-ready tracks such as “Always There For You”, “Honestly” and “The Writings On The Wall”. Now, nearly a decade and after the group's long overdue, Reborn (2009)-fueled reunion, vocalist/guitarist Michael Sweet, always a man of many words and interesting stories, was kind enough to speak with us regarding, among many other things, his latest solo deflection One Sided War.
Todd: You obviously worked with a diverse group of musicians on One Sided War. How did that come together?
Michael: “I was working on writing and working on guitar solos myself, because I kind of wanted to highlight my guitar playing. I was realizing a lot of the songs were just sounding too much like Stryper. That's when I started thinking about bringing in some other guys. The first two guys that I thought of where (ex-Angels Of Babylon and Burning Heat guitarist) Ethan (Brosh) and (ex-Night Ranger/Whitesnake guitarist) Joel (Hoekstra). But I also thought of, contacted and was working with having (Extreme guitarist) Nuno Bettencourt play on a couple tracks. He was going to do it, but he was also working on a new Extreme album at the time and couldn't do it, unfortunately. But you know what? Joel and Ethan absolutely killed it and really brought a lot to the table. ...They took each of the songs to completely new heights, man. I'm totally thrilled at what they were able to do.”
Todd: How difficult is it for everyone to determine which guitarists will ultimately record each individual solo?
Michael: “It was a song by song process. I knew which songs would fit Ethan perfectly and I knew which songs would fit Joel perfectly. It was all planned out. Joel is playing on “Who Am I”, “Radio”, and “One Way Up”. Those are right down his alley and absolutely perfect. That's not to say he couldn't have played on “Golden Age” or “Bizarre”. Those are right down Ethan's alley and just perfect for his tool shed, if you will. That's the way that was played out. The songs that I'm soloing on obviously are much more my style of songs, ya know? It's something that as I go into an album as a writer and producer, I take into account. It's the same with each Stryper album. There's songs that are geared towards Oz soloing and songs that are geared towards me soloing.”
Todd: With there being a such major differences between each playing style, the writing process must be simple.
Michael: “Absolutely. Typically, the more up-paced frantic and in-your-face songs seem to fit (Stryper guitarist) Oz (Fox)'s style of soloing more. Oz is a little bit more wild in his approach and use of the whammy bar and the overall craziness, ya know? I tend to be a little bit more in line with the melodic type of songs because my soloing is a little bit more like from a singer's standpoint. I structure them and write them section by section and with more of a melodic sensibility. Songs like “Free” and “Calling On You” (from To Hell With The Devil) have those type of solos. Once we start recording an album, it's real easy for us to figure out who's going to do what.”
Todd: Did you intend to record a 'guitar-oriented' effort or were the results a byproduct of your creative process?
Michael: “I absolutely intended to do that all along. I wanted it to be a guitar album. That's what I miss about the '80's. I don't sit here and try to live in the past and go back to the past in regard to '80's music, but at the same time, what I miss about the '80's is, and what's lacking in music today big time, is musicianship. ...You're starting to hear more bands come out that have influences based on and in the '80's. I miss that feeling when I put on the first Van Halen album back in the late '70's and I heard (guitarist) Eddie (Van Halen) ripping and heard (vocalist David Lee) Roth doing all his antics and whatnot. I miss that, man. I don't know about you or anyone else, but I really miss that. What it brought was not only musicianship and the wow factor, being blown away by their level of musicianship, but also an energy level that's just not there in music right now. ...It's rare to hear it. This album, on the other hand, definitely brings some of that back. It's got a certain energy. It's got songs like “Bar” and “Golden Age”, ya know? Get in and buckle up, dude. ...You are definitely going to go for a ride.”
Todd: At this point in your career, do you still find yourself routinely not being recognized as a serious guitarist?
Michael: “Yes. I think the way it works in any band is when you have a guy who's singing, even though he also playing an instrument, people are going to focus on the singing. Just kind of look at that person as the singer, and that's fine. I think that's the case with me, because I mean, I don't know what else ...How else you could separate the two, or how anyone else could focus more on me as a player? If you go back to the old videos from 1986, 1987 and 1988, I'm playing solos in them. For someone to see that and then come up to me and say 'Man, “Free” is my favorite song, but I never knew you played guitar', ya know? It's crazy, really. Things like that have been said and their kind of comical. It's like 'Wow, really? You didn't know that I played guitar, but you've seen the videos and you've seen me playing guitar in the videos'. It's something subconscious that happens because people know Oz is the guitarist and I'm 'just' the singer. They block out the fact that I also play guitars.”
Todd: Taking into consideration the veritable wealth of audio, photographic and video evidence that highlights your abilities as a guitarist, it seems unlikely that even a casual Stryper fan wouldn't be aware of your 'skill sets'.
Michael: “The funny thing is that I consider myself more of a guitar player than a singer. I talk about this in my book (Honestly: My Life And Stryper Revealed). ...The reason why is I started playing guitar when I was five and I didn't start singing until I was twelve. Everything is based on guitar with me, not singing. When I write, when I'm working out ideas or when I'm showing someone something musically, I don't sing it to them, I play it to them. The guitar always comes first in my life. It's a huge part of me, so when people say 'We never knew you played guitar', I really do laugh at that. It's kind of funny. ...I do understand how and why it happens. I just educate people and say 'No, I've been playing guitar for a long time'. But then they'll say 'Oh yeah? What do you play on? What songs?' and I'll say 'Well, I played on that song and that song'. After I explain it to them or they see us live, I can't tell you how many times people come up to me and say 'Dude, we didn't know you played that much. That's crazy. It's the first time we've seen you and we're kind of blown away because we had no clue', ya know? I hear that all the time. I've gotten used to it. I went on a little bit of a rant, but I was trying to make people aware of the fact that I play guitar in my book, ya know? It is what it is. I hate that saying, but I'll say it. It is what it is. I've got nothing to prove. I've been playing my whole life. I love playing. What can I say?”
Todd: What was the primary inspiration behind the cover art featured on One Sided War? From an outsiders point of view, it could represent of a number of different thought processes. What is the 'reality' of the meaning?
Michael: “The cover showcases the One-Sided War that God has with us. That might sound weird to say, but what I mean is that many times we turn our backs on God, we rebel against God or we're angry at God and that's what I mean by that because it's one sided. We feel like God didn't do this or he did do that or what have you when he's probably sitting up there going 'I didn't do anything', ya know? When I wrote the song, I was thinking about a lot of stuff I see online, primarily with musicians and sometimes with actors and actresses where they go on these tangents and the other person is sitting there thinking 'What just happened? Why are you attacking me? Why are you saying these things about me? I didn't do anything.' A lot of times we're pulling our our weapons and shooting our bullets when there's no reason to. A lot of people do that, without naming names. It gets kind of frustrating at times for me to see. ...And I've been involved in some of those myself. I'll never forget it. I did an interview with (ex-That Metal Show co-host) Eddie Trunk as there was a possibility of me doing a (ex-Skid Row singer) Sebastian Bach album and we talked about it on air. About an hour later, I see a Tweet where Sebastian says I should 'Shut my fucking mouth or he'll shut it for me'. I consider that a one-sided war. It's like 'What?', ya know? It's this full-blown attack and you're left sitting there thinking 'What just happened?' It does speak to a lot of issues for people. Unfortunately, it happens on the internet on a daily basis.”
Todd: My initial thoughts regarding the cover art involved it being a graphic portrayal of someone self-harming.
Michael: “That's not what the image is supposed to represent. It's supposed to be Christ because he's wearing a crown of thorns. A lot of people miss that for some reason, which is okay. A lot of people have said that it looks like he's holding a bullet. Who is it? Some say they thought it was me. I think that's great if you're taking it that way, ya know? The bottom line at the end of the day is I want people to hear the album, see the imagery and somehow, someway, be encouraged and inspired by it. If that happens, then I did my job. ...To me, it's all about when you release something and then you go and you meet someone and they say 'Hey, this song on that album literally caused me to put the gun down that I was holding to my head' or drugs. They gave up drugs or alcohol. When you hear stories like that, it's everything, ya know? It's happened. ...It's so amazing to hear those stories.”
Todd: What separates Stryper albums from Michael Sweet solo albums? Is it about increasing artistic freedoms?
Michael: “With songs like “Bizarre” and “Golden Age”, there's not that big of a difference. Those are songs that could fit right in on any Stryper album. With songs like “Radio” and perhaps “Only You”, there's quite a difference in the songs stylistically speaking. That would not, especially these days, be a good candidate for a Stryper album. That would probably, by the guys, get vetoed or voted off the album, and rightfully so. It's an opportunity for me, when I do solo albums, to kind of express myself a little more and dig a little deeper and experiment more than I might be able to with Stryper. ...On the song “Radio”, I'm like 'Let's try a banjo on this, a distorted banjo', ya know? If I said 'Let's try a distorted banjo' on a Stryper album, I'd get laughed out of the room. It's an opportunity for me to try things I might not even try with Stryper. I get to dig much, much deeper.”
Todd: You've been releasing albums with Stryper and as a solo artist at what can only be described as a rapid-fire pace. That's a much different approach than what many of your remaining active contemporaries are taking.
Michael: “Absolutely. It's funny, ya know? We keep putting out albums because right now we're very passionate about it. Right now, those ideas just keep coming and as long as they keep coming, we'll keep doing it. I read a moronic statement by someone on Blabbermouth recently that said 'What's the point? Why do they do it? Why do they put out so many albums?' That's probably the stupidest thing I've ever heard anybody say. We do it because we love it and we do it because we still enjoy it. When I read interviews from bands who make these ridiculously silly comments where they say "'It's not worth it anymore', man, you're in it for the wrong reasons, buddy. ...What happened to doing it for the love of it and just the sheer passion of it? What happened to that, man? Where is it at? I just don't understand it. We will continue doing new albums and I'll continue making the solo albums as well. I enjoy doing a Stryper album every couple years and solo album every couple years. I've got some other things planned as well like a Joel Hoekstra and Micheal Sweet project. I'm going to keep making them until I can't do them anymore, ya know? Hopefully, that won't be for another twenty or twenty-five years.”
Todd: Do you have any plans to tour in support of One Sided War? A solo tour might sell quite well at this point.
Michael: “I want to, but it's hard because Stryper is touring all the way to the end of the year and then we're doing a new album next year in February ...I want to do some solo touring as well. I've even considered trying to work it out where I can open for Stryper with my solo band. It might be the only way we can do it and make it become a reality. What we would do is, I would do a short set. I would do a forty minute set. It's not the length of singing, it's the grueling schedule of doing three shows in a row, getting up at four in the morning and only getting three hours of sleep at night. That's what does a number on my voice. When I go out and sing an hour and a half set with Stryper, I'm just getting warmed up by the end of it. I feel like I could sing another two hours. That's not the problem. I could easily do it and I'd love to put together. Can you imagine having Joel, Ethan and (drummer) Will (Hunt) and a killer bassist opening for Stryper? ...It would be a ton of fun, ya know?”
Todd: If such a tour were to happen, what type of set list would you utilize? What would be your 'main' focuses?
Michael: “I would still do a few of them. I might do “All This And Heaven Too” (from Michael Sweet) along with some of the other ones that are a little bit more rocking. I would definitely do those as well. Of course I would absolutely do some songs from Truth (2000) like “Distracted”, “Ever After”, “I Am Adam” and “Save Me”. I would definitely do more of the rocking stuff. And I might throw in a ballad or two in there. I would have to keep it on a forty minute set, so I would have to keep most of the songs rocking, ya know? I'd also do songs like “I'm Not Your Suicide” from the last album and certainly quite a few new ones from One Sided War.”
Select Michael Sweet Discography
One Sided War (2016) **
Fallen (2015) *
I'm Not Your Suicide (2014) **
Live At The Whisky (2014) *
No More Hell To Pay (2013) *
Second Coming (2013) *
The Covering (2011) *
Murder By Pride (2009) *
Touched (2007) **
The Roxx Regime Demos (2007) *
Extended Versions (2006) *
Him (2006) **
Reborn (2005) *
7 Weeks In America 2003 (2004) *
7: The Best Of Stryper (2003) *
Truth (2000) **
Real (1995) **
Michael Sweet (1994) **
Unstryped (EP) (1992) **
Can't Stop The Rock (1991) *
Against The Law (1990) *
In God We Trust (1988) *
To Hell With The Devil (1986) *
Soldiers Under Command (1985) *
The Yellow And Black Attack (1984) *
* as a member of Stryper
** as a solo artist
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