With over three decades in the game, hard rock/heavy metal legends Stryper have outlasted many of their peers and continue to forge ahead on the ever-changing musical landscape. Established in 1984, Stryper is responsible for such ’80s metal classic albums as “Soldiers Under Command,” “To Hell With The Devil” and “In God We Trust,” securing it’s place in rock history as one of the top Christian rock bands of all time. In fact, Stryper is the first band to ever have two songs in MTV’s Top 10 simultaneously with their hits “Free” and “Honestly.” To date, the Dove Award-winning and Grammy nominated band has sold upwards of 10 million records worldwide. Their last studio album “No More Hell To Pay” debuted in the Top 40 of the Billboard Top 200 landing at #35.
The band took the road less traveled, defied the odds and find their creative fire burning stronger than ever before. Stryper still boasts it’s original powerhouse lineup of Michael Sweet (vocals/guitars), Oz Fox (guitars), Tim Gaines (bass) and Robert Sweet (drums). Together, they have returned to reclaim their throne in the hard rock/heavy metal world with their 11th studio album, Fallen. Despite the album’s title, the band has risen above and landed at #1 on the Top Metal Albums and #3 on the Top Rock Albums on iTunes. “Fallen” is 12 all-new songs showcasing the musicianship that garnered them a huge fan base in the mainstream world and Christian market. From the opening choral refrains of “Yahweh” to the signature vocal scream at the end of “King Of Kings,” it is apparent that Stryper is back with their heaviest and most inspired work to date.
Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Stryper frontman to discuss his life in music, the longevity of the band, the making of their latest album, ‘Fallen,’ and what the future may hold for him musically as one of the hardest working musicians in the business.
It is great to catch up with you today, Michael. You certainly have a ton of irons in the fire these days.
We are pretty excited about what is happening with the new album. It is getting a lot of great reviews and people are seeming to like it. That is always a good thing!
You created an impressive musical legacy with your work through the years. What sparked the creative fire in you early in life?
I have always had a passion for music and it has never gone away. I have had ups and downs and periods where I would put my gear in the closet for a while but music has always been there. I am not sure what the inspiration has been. Someone said that a fire has been lit under my butt recently. I don’t know, maybe that is my wife’s influence on me. We like to joke about that. My wife is an extremely hard worker and overachiever. She really motivates me in many ways. Most of all, I have this desire to write all of the time lately. When I finish an album, whether it is Sweet & Lynch, Stryper or a solo project, once it is done I want to start on a new album. Most people go through burnout mode when you do an album. I was that way in the past as well. After you do an album, you can be burnt out and want to take some time off or go tour. You don’t really consider doing another album for another two or three years. I am just kind of cranking them out! I am working on a solo album right now. Literally, before I picked up the phone to talk to you, I was writing a song. I plan on starting to record this solo album on the 16th of November for Rat Pak Records. I have to crank out 12 cuts in the next week because I have to go to Nashville, come home to eat Thanksgiving dinner and everything else. There is a lot going on, man! There is just a never-ending fuel tank in me. I don’t know how else to describe it! It’s crazy!
That is a good thing to have for a guy like yourself!
It is! No complaints here! I would like to take a break at some point and take my wife on a real vacation. Maybe that will happen sometime soon. We will see!
Focusing on your early years, was it difficult to find your creative voice when you were just starting out?
I have been doing it for 35 or 40 years at this point. I started writing songs at a really early age. I am 52 years old now. I was making up silly song lyrics when I was 2 or 3 years old. I would rock back and forth on the couch, my parents called it bobbing, whenever there was music. I have always had the desire to write songs. It is just in my makeup and part of who I am. I have been talking about how it is a blessing and a curse a lot lately. The curse side of it is that I am always thinking of a song. It is hard for me to pay attention to other things going on around me. I don’t know how other people do it or how I have done it other than it is something that is in me. The song never leaves my head. I go to bed at night and when I wake up in the morning I have a song. I wrote the song “God” one night when I woke up with the melody in my head. I got up, grabbed my guitar and recorded it and went back to bed. When I woke up the next morning I wrote the song. It is just a constant thing, an ongoing process and part of who I am.
Stryper has been around for three decades at this point and has outlasted the majority of its peers. To what do you attribute the longevity of the band and yourself as an artist?
We try to take care of ourselves. We haven’t lived a lifestyle or lifetime of drugs and alcohol. I mean, we drink occasionally and we like to have fun. We aren’t boring chaps by any means but we try to take care of ourselves and we haven’t abused our bodies. I think that has helped us to stay around and helped us with our longevity. We try to communicate and talk through our differences, as well. If we aren’t getting along or if there is an issue in the band, we try to talk through it and work it out. You know, a lot of bands don’t do that. They just get in a fight and, that’s it, they go their separate ways. We really try to work through things. Our faith is probably the number one reason why I am speaking to you and why we are still here with the original lineup and still making music. We aren’t just making music but making music that is exciting! We enjoy what we do! I think that is because of where our faith lies. We have a different outlook on life, man! We get up in the morning and are excited for the day, to see what is going to happen and what God will bring our way. That is the way we feel every single day!
“Fallen” is your 11th studio album with Stryper. What goals or expectations did you have for this new album?
It is always my goal personally to outdo the last project. Sometimes you do, sometimes you don’t. If you can aim for the bullseye each time, hopefully you will hit it. The old saying, “Don’t fix what ain’t broken,” applies here. With Stryper, it came back to the reality of giving the fans what they want to hear. It doesn’t compromise who we are as artists by any means because we love doing what we do. We love this style of music and grew up with this style of music. At the same time, we want the fans to be happy, buy our music and say, “Wow! This is how we remember you guys.” With that said, we put a modern twist on it as well. We went into the album with those goals in mind — trying to please the fans, please ourselves and outdo the last project. You know, I think we might have done it with this record!
How has the way you write for the band both changed and remained the same through the years?
To me, it all starts with a groove. I have a couple of drum machines and a drum program, Ezdrummer 2, and I work with those. I am a closet drummer, so I get in there and really manipulate the drum grooves to get a great groove going and a riff to go along with that groove. Once I have that, I run with it. Once I have something I like and it feels right and sounds right in a riff that is memorable and catchy, it is probably about an hour to an hour-and-a-half per song to arrange it and another hour or so to write some basic lyrics. I tweak those as I go. In total, it is a three to four hour process per song. I have this system down. It is similar to when you have a recipe for a great meal. Once you have it down, you don’t change the recipe. If it is good, it works and everyone likes it. I stick to a certain recipe in the way I write songs. The style of writing that went into “Hell To Pay” and “Fallen” is pretty similar. I am guessing writing for the next album will be similar as well. Like I said, we try to change it a little bit each time. It might be a little heavier or might have a little of something else that is a total curveball but Stryper is definitely trying to stick to what we do best these days and remain true to who we are.
With any album there are songs that come easy and those which are more difficult to nail down.
Yeah, absolutely. You know, what happens with me is the songs that are more complicated come to me super fast. Like the song “God” on “The Covering,” that was written in a few hours. “Yahweh” off of “Fallen” was written in about an hour. It came so fast it made my head spin! Clint Lowery of Sevendust, if it wasn’t for him, the song probably would have never seen the light of day. He submitted a guitar riff and I ran with it. I loved it and it happened really fast. My wife was sitting here making dinner and I was at the island in the kitchen with my iPad, computer, speaker and guitar and I cranked it out! Now, some of the other songs that are more simple and straight ahead, I had to keep coming back to. The song “Fallen” is a great example of that. It is a real straight ahead song but it took me closer to three or four hours to figure out because I tend to overthink things sometimes. If it is a straight ahead song, you think, “Gosh, is it clever enough? Is it thought out enough?” Sometimes that is the best stuff when you keep it simple and don’t overthink it. But it is never a long process with me. I talk to friends of mine who say, “Yeah, we have been working on this song for a couple of weeks.” I think, “What? A couple of weeks? What are you doing?!” [laughs] That just blows my mind! It is crazy to me. To me, if I spent a couple of weeks on a song, I would throw it out, literally. What that is saying to me is that the song is probably not good enough because I am spending such a long time on it. The songs that are really powerful and speak to people are the ones that, BOOM, come really fast and hit you right away!
You mentioned Clint Lowery of Sevendust’s contribution to “Yahweh.” How did the two of you cross paths initially?
My wife is a huge Sevendust fan. Before we met and started dating, she used to go see them all the time. She had talked a lot about them but I didn’t really know much about Sevendust. I had heard about them but I couldn’t name a song or tell you much about their music because I just didn’t know. I wound up meeting Clint and Lajon Witherspoon on a plane. They introduced themselves and said that they knew about the band. Clint said he grew up on Stryper and it helped him learn guitar, which really blew my mind. We exchanged information and I ended up reaching out to him to see if he wanted to submit a couple of new riff ideas for the new album. He did and one of the two I loved and it ended up becoming the song “Yahweh.” We have stayed in touch through text and email and follow each other on social media. He is really a great guy, man! He is a standup guy who is all about family, all about God and we share the same faith. It was really a pleasure working with him.
In the time we have been talking today, I can tell you are a person who is focused on the future. What does the future hold for you musically? What are you looking at in both the long and short term?
You’re right, I am a guy who is always thinking ahead. Right now, as I mentioned, I am working on a solo album. I start recording that on November 16 and will turn it in by the end of January. That will come out in May or June on Rat Pak Records. Stryper’s album, “Fallen,” just came out and we are going to start touring and go all the way through to November of 2016. I am already planning out a new Sweet & Lynch album. I have been talking to George [Lynch] through conference calls and we are talking about starting that in mid to early part of next year. I am also talking about another supergroup with Joel Hoekstra, Robbie Crane, Troy Lucketta and myself. We are planning that out for the possibility of the end of next year. So, I have the next year to year-and-a-half booked out! In the next three to five months, I will start booking into 2017 and 2018. We are planning a Stryper acoustic album and, at some point, we will do another heavy album to follow “Fallen.” We will be looking to release that in 2017.
I have to say it is both impressive and inspiring to see someone like yourself continuing to pursue their passion.
There are two schools of thought on this. There are the people who think that rock and music in general are in a really hard place. It is a tough sale, so they ask if it is worth it to make music. That is one of the most mind-boggling things to me to hear coming from musicians mouths — “Is it worth it to make music?” Why did you ever start making music to begin with? Did you do it just to sell records or did you do it because you love it? I don’t care how many albums Stryper sells. We will always make music, until we call it a day as a band. If we sell 100 copies of an album or a million, that isn’t what it is about, ya know? It is about the art of expressing yourself, being creative, touching people’s lives and inspiring people. That is what music is about!
I’m sure we could talk all afternoon about the changes you have seen in the music industry over the years. What most excites about being an artist in today’s climate?
It is exciting to hear new music that is good. There is a lot of good music coming out. I hear an album and I get inspired by them. When I hear a great singer, a great guitar player or a great song, it is still exciting. However, there is a lot of stuff that is made for the pooper scooper to be scooped up and thrown over the edge of the hill. That is the one of negatives about the music industry these days. Obviously, there is the piracy of music and the fact you go and spend time and money on doing an entire album and people only end up buying one or two songs. There are so many things that are hurting the music business side of things. There are just so many bands and it is an oversaturation. I remember back in the ‘80s, in terms of hard rock or heavy metal, you were talking about maybe 10 releases. Now, you are talking about hundreds, literally! [laughs] Whether it is a major label, an independent or just some guy in his basement, we are so inundated with music and anyone can make a record these days on their own. Not to take that away from them but bands like Stryper can feel the effects of that because there is so much out there. I think that is part of the problem. When you have 1,000 movies coming out, you are only going to go see one or two. You can’t see them all. It makes it more difficult to hear the music that bands are making.
As the years go by you keep moving forward and that is inspiring. What is the best lesson we can take from your journey?
I think it is important as an artist to never give up. Always express yourself through your music and don’t let people tell you that you can’t do it, you aren’t good enough or to give up and get a regular job. I have heard all these things myself and I have never given up. I have always been a go-getter and an overachiever. I have always said, “OK. I am doing this!” That is just the way I think. I would hope to inspire people to think the same way because if you are positive and believe in yourself, you are going to be successful. You might not be get to the level you wanted to be but ultimately you will succeed. Success isn’t all about numbers. Success is about being able to do what you love and to be happy. That is what success is about to me, so I am one of the most successful guys on the planet because I am happy and I get to do what I love.
You put your life story together in a book last year. What was that experience like for you and is there a chance we might see you release another book at some point?
I would say so, at the right time. It was really tough writing that book. A lot went into it and I could have never imagined how hard it would be to write an autobiography but it was. It took a long time and took a lot out of me. Down the road I believe I will write another book. I don’t know if it will be an autobiography or a book on advice in the music business, which I have thought about doing at some point but I definitely plan on doing something down the road at the right time. There is a lot more music in my future. If I had to guestimate, in the next 15 years, I would say there would be another four or five solo albums and Stryper albums. There would also be three to five other projects. There is thoughts of me working with the T&N/Dokken guys. There have been other people who have reached out to me who have expressed interest in possibly working together, so there is a lot more music that is going to come out of me. I would love to see at least an album per year!
You mentioned your upcoming solo album a few times. What can we expect for this one as you begin to gear up for it?
It is all about guitar on this upcoming record. Usually with solo records, I kind of get to express my musical thoughts in ways I don’t get to with Stryper. Because of that, I experiment a lot. You will hear a song that is really heavy, a song that is really poppy and then one that is almost country. I get to do whatever I want to do and that is really cool. I think people appreciate that but this next album is going to be very focused in the hard rock/metal realm. It is going to be a guitar album. I have Will Hunt (Evanescence, Black Label Society, Sebastian Bach) playing drums on it. It is going to be chunky guitars and riffs where people go, “Wow!” I really plan on branching out as a guitar player on this album and do a lot of cool stuff effect-wise and solo-wise. I really want people to say, “Wow! That is really Michael playing guitar? Come on!” That kind of thing. I am really excited to do it and I can’t wait to get into the studio and record it. I have tons of ideas I am working on right now and it is all coming together! It sounds killer!
That is awesome to hear! We are definitely looking forward to seeing where your journey takes you next, Michael! Keep that creative fire stoked, my friend!
I’ve got a lot of life left in me, Jason. I am ready to do it! Thank you for taking the time to talk to me today. I very much appreciate it!
Absolutely! With all you have going on, I am sure we will cross paths again very soon!
Alright, buddy! Take care! God bless, ya!