To Have His Peace Of Mind: A Conversation With Michael Sweet

There’s a palpable sense of relief in Michael Sweet’s voice on this crisp, late October morning. The longtime Stryper frontman and founding member speaks with a clear, yet contemplative tone, as he looks back on recent events that have brought him as much hell as they have heaven.

Being a target is nothing new for Sweet and his band of 30-plus years, which includes his brother/drummer Robert Sweet, guitarist Oz Fox, and freshly-hired bassist Perry Richardson. Death threats have been numerous, he said, as have the sharp edges of criticism from critics and music fans alike. Being the tip of the spear in the fight to spread the Word will bring trials and tribulations, and Sweet knows it. It is, as they say, “the way.”

From left: Robert Sweet, Oz Fox, Perry Richardson and Michael Sweet of Stryper.

But this latest battle has been fought on another front — social media — where Sweet found himself caught between a rock and a hard place following the recent dismissal of bassist Tim Gaines due to what the band deemed in a press release to be “erratic and hostile behavior, which has damaged Stryper and threatened to undermine the band’s ability to go forward professionally.”

While social media has been an effective tool in helping resurrect Sweet’s once-dormant music career in the hard rock wasteland known as the 1990s, the Stryper/Gaines separation also exposed its hellish side, as fans took sides after the news broke and began to sling equal amount of arrows and mud at each other and band members alike, with a frustrated Gaines fueling the fire himself at times with social media posts of his version of the truth. The subtle jabs were lost on no one, and the divide widened. Sweet, for his part, has attempted to mediate the goings-on and offer clarity when possible, but it’s been an uphill battle.

“There’s a lot of hate out there on social media,” Sweet said in a phone interview, “and I’ve got to wade through the garbage.

The hiring of Richardson, the former Firehouse bassist who has also worked in country music as well, has given Sweet some light at the end of the proverbial tunnel, however. Naturally, Sweet is thrilled. Richardson has been a God-send — all pun intended.

“He’s talented, and the most important thing about it is he is such a normal, pleasant, sweet guy,” he said.

Sweet sat down with ListenIowa to talk about the hiring, his love/hate relationship with everything that is social media, and his ongoing dream of producing the next Van Halen record, among other things.

You have a new bass player, Perry Richardson. It has to be a relief to get that slot filled.
It is — for many reasons. We feel like the band is a team again, and complete. We’re not missing a limb. We are a full body and ready to go rock.

How did Perry initially come onto your radar?
Our co-manager, mentioned him. We were talking with Sean McNabb, (Lynch Mob), and I had a brief conversation with Chris Wyse, who plays with Ace Frehley and The Cult. I love James Lomenzo, who could have been a great fit, too. But there’s so much to think about, so when Perry’s name got thrown out there, it was one of those, “I never thought of that” things. I reached out him, and scheduled a flight. We jammed, and it felt right. No one was uncomfortable. We haven’t known him long, but from what we have heard from the people who have known him all their lives is that he’s a great person. He came in, learned five of our songs, and locked right into the pocket with Rob, who is one of those drummers who adds a lot, and is a little more difficult to follow. Perry nailed it. We sang harmonies, and it sounded like the album.

That sounds like the Metallica documentary “Some Kind of Monster” when the band auditioned Robert Trujillo and pretty much knew immediately that he was their guy.
Exactly. Same thing with Perry.

There we no open auditions, then? You just talked to people?
We talked about some people, and we talked to people. We originally made the decision over the phone that we were going with Sean McNabb. He’s a wonderful guy. Talented. But he’s got the Lynch Mob gig, and they’re going to be very busy next year. We just fell like that, after talking to George (Lynch) and Oni (Logan), we just didn’t want to go there. We’re really trying hard to run away from any kind of drama. Any time we feel any form of drama is coming our way, it’s, “Boom! We’re out,” believe it or not.

Drama has seemed to find a way of coming to you guys of late.
It doesn’t come to use, it storms down on us! (laughs) And we’re out there without umbrellas and getting soaked. It’s the way it’s always been with this band, but the past two years have been that times 1,000.

When you’re in the room with Perry for the audition, do you play something like “Soldiers Under Command” right away to test his mettle, so to speak, or do you ease him into it?
I threw him a tough song on bass on drums, which is the “The Rock That Makes Me Roll.” It’s a pretty tough song to play consistently and tight. We threw him that and “Soldiers,” “Calling On You,” “No More Hell To Pay” and “The Way,” which is another up-tempo fast one. And he did. And this was coming off the heels of learning 25 songs for something else he was going out to do the very next day. He’s a pro. If you look at his resume, it’s astonishing.

Speaking of “The Way,” that’s a great riff.
Oz came up with that riff. It’s definitely sort of a Maiden-type thing, so people who love that style, love that song. It’s one that we pretty much play every night, and the crowd really likes it. There are quite a few in our setlist that get me pumped because of the riff or the style or the speed or tempo. “The Rock That Makes Me Roll” is one of my favorites. I know that it’s Rob’s favorite. That’s the one he gets excited about playing, but sadly we don’t play that every night. “Soldiers Under Command” is probably my favorite Stryper metal song. That’s my No. 1 on the list. I think that’s the song most everyone thinks of when they think of Stryper. Or “To Hell With the Devil.” We’ve got some cool tunes, and we’re going to keep putting them out there and keep trying our best to make great albums.

Where are things right now, then, with regard to your follow-up to 2015’s “Fallen” album?
It’s all done. I came home from a recent four-show acoustic run in California, took a day off on Monday, and then Tuesday I set up all my gear. I had my computer, my speakers, my little iPad with my guitar rig in it, and I started writing. Within a week, I had everything. I’ve been tweaking since — a chord here or a lyric there — but everything was done within a week. Oz sent me some ideas, two of which ended up being used for the album. It’s like a puzzle and fitting the pieces together and getting things to flow. We have a title, and a title track. It’s shocking, moreso than with “To Hell With The Devil.” When people hear it, they’re going to go, “What? Can you tell me that again?” A lot of the lyrics on the album have been kind of therapeutic, coming from the last two or three years.

When you say “shocking,” are you talking musically? Lyrically? Or both?
The name of the title track and the lyrics. The music is straight up Stryper and a little AC/DC and a little (Judas) Priest in a blender.

Sounds like a winning combination.
Oh yeah, it’s great. It’s an anthem with a straight-ahead, memorable, sing-along chorus, and people will be like, “yes?”

When are we going to get a taste of some new tracks?
We start setting up Sunday (Nov. 5), and we start tracking Monday morning. We’ll be making videos along the way, but that won’t be until Wednesday or Thursday, when people will be getting little bits and pieces and teasers. I’m excited. I don’t start getting excited until the background vocals start going on. Then I start hearing the melodies, and they start sounding like songs. I started getting excited for this when we started with them in pre-production a week ago. I don’t usually get that excited this early on. I can’t wait to get it done and for people to hear. It’s like Christmas, and I can’t wait open the presents.

Or you have a million kids out there who you can’t wait for them to open their present you’re about to give them.
Exactly. And the presents are in front of them, and you’re going, “Nope, can’t open it yet. Just four more months!”

Unofficially there are around 100 Stryper original compositions, and about 90 are in the three- to four-minute zone. That’s obviously your wheelhouse. How did you develop that songwriting style and discipline?
There are a few reasons for that. We come from an era that was all about radio, and radio was all about songs under four minutes. That’s just a fact from that era. You had your AOR or classic rock stations that played the songs that were seven, eight, nine minutes, and that worked, but for hit radio — which we were going after — it was all about songs under four minutes. The other thing is that the attention span is short. You lose people’s attention after so many minutes. The longer the song, the more apt you are to lose their attention. I most recently read an article that said, in America, the brain or listening capacity is at a third or fourth grade level. Once you get too deep or long or complicated musically, you lose the listener. That’s why practically every country song talks about beer and trucks.

Because that’s what people are familiar with.
Yes, that’s what they’re familiar with, and it’s cookie cutter. If you start venturing too far away from that, and you want a song on the radio, you’re going to have more of a problem reaching that crowd. You have to write simple songs and simple lyrics, is what I’m saying.

That might explain why, being as big of a big Van Halen fan as you are, you’ve made a few pseudo, tongue-in-cheek pitches to the band through the press to produce their next album.
I would! I’ll say that to my last breath. That doesn’t mean I’m going to, but I’d love to.

So what would you do, then? Say Van Halen comes to you and says, “Michael, we’re giving you total control over the next album.” What would you do?
Well, there are two bands, really: Van Halen and Boston. And I can speak a little more freely about Boston because I was in Boston. I’m a huge fan of both bands because they changed my life musically. Boston was first. I was 13 when I heard that first album, and it changed me. It made me want to go out and get a better guitar tone and be a better player and writer. With Van Halen, it was the same thing, only at a whole different level. It really inspired me. The first Boston album was the best they ever released, and I don’t think there’s anybody who would disagree with me on that. And the first Van Halen album was the best they ever released, too. Same thing. But they slowly got away from that with each album, and each album kind of got a little less better. By the time you get to now, you listen to their albums and it’s like, “What happened?” Where did the fire go? Where did the inspiration go? Where did the great songs go? For whatever reason, they don’t have that in them to pull it off. It got lost somewhere along the way. It happened to us, too, for a few albums. We were just kind of going through the motions. So what I would do as a fan, and as a writer and a player and a singer, in a very positive way, would be to direct them in trying to get back to the heyday. They might not pull it off, but at least we’d try.