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.

Kind of an Andy Sneap (producer) approach where he takes the bands he produces and tells them to listen to the music they created early — the music that the fans came to know them for in the first place
Exactly. That’s what made them and put them on the map. That’s what we do with Stryper. We apply that. It took us awhile, but we started really listening to the fans who were saying, “Hey man, we want ‘Soldiers,’ and ‘To Hell With The Devil’ again.” And we tried to give them that on “No More Hell To Pay,” then we tried to give them that on “Fallen.” We’re doing the same on this new album. And the way you do that is you do go back, and you listen to those albums, and you say, “Oh, wow, that’s what we’re supposed to sound like, not this crap we’re doing now.” (laughs) If you care about your success, and you care about the fans and what they want, it’s important to make great albums like the past. So that’s what I would do, then I’d get a great engineer, and go into a great studio and make an album that sonically rivals those albums as well.

Sounds like a perfect plan. I’ll keep my fingers crossed. (laughs)
(Laughs) You know, the other thing you’re dealing with in bands is pride. And egos. Everybody thinks they know how to do it and what’s best. If there’s a guy in the band who co-produced it and wrote the songs, it’s going to be real difficult to tell him, “Dude, your new album sucks.” He’s gonna tell you to get out. He’s not going to want to hear that. He wants to hear that it’s the best thing they’ve done since the first album. It’s very difficult for some people to do things a different way, to bring someone else in to help them achieve that.

Social media is literally your heaven and hell. You’ve embraced it from the marketing side and do a good job of explaining and clarifying things when you feel the need, but do you ever reach a point where you think, “You know what? I’ve said what I’ve said, and either you like me or you don’t. I don’t need to defend myself at every turn.”
That’s what it is. I think what is important to know is that I’m really involved in the band’s social media. Usually in a band situation, it’s someone from the company answering the Tweets. Not all, but most. So the band sometimes doesn’t even know what is being said on social media. But I’m very involved. I post everything on there, and I police it. I have another guy, Ken Dale, who helps me, but for the most part, it’s me. I see everything, and I kind of have to. But it’s a double-edged sword. As much as I regret doing it, I have to do it. I miss this old days when things were much more simple without social media. I almost feel like social media, because of oversaturation, has hurt record sales.

There’s something to be said about the loss of mystique.
Right. Exactly. You used to have that. People knew a little about the bands, but not about everything. There was that level of mystique. Now that’s gone. You’re meeting all your rock star favorites on Facebook and sometimes end up going, “Wow, that’s not what I expected. I’m outta here.” I would have a party if social media went down. If Twitter went bye-bye tomorrow, I think I might go out in my car, roll the windows down and honk my horn for an hour. Facebook is the worst. It’s a haven for hate and idiots. Everyone thinks that, because they have a page and can post on everyone else’s pages, that they can say whatever the hell they want. It’s a haven for complete hatred, and complete absurdity. I’ll post, “Hey man, God is good,” and I’ll get 100 comments immediately about believing some silly God in the sky.

Like when you posted something good about your former bass player recently and then got taken to task and asked in a rather snotty tone, “Well, why did you let him go, then?”
Exactly. You can’t win. People read something, and read it their own way. You sit there and think, “How in the world did they get that out of what I said?” It’s insane. If you voted for this person, or voted for that person, and even hinted that you did that, you get death threats.

Over a perceived political stance?
We’ve received many over the years because of who we are and what we stand for. That’s our society, but then Facebook is like pouring gasoline on the raging fire. If Facebook goes bye-bye, I wouldn’t shed a tear.

What have you learned over the last couple of years, both personally and as a band, through these times of tumult?
We’ve learned to be more guarded. We’ve learned that you can’t trust everyone, even people you think you can trust.

That’s a shame.
It is a shame, but it’s reality. So I’ve learned personally to be very cautious with who I get close to, and when I do get close to someone, what I share with them. I’ve also learned through it all that there is a God. I’ve always known that, but I’ve learned in a more deep way that there is a God, and He is in control, and I believe that with all my heart. He’s got a plan bigger than ours, and if we just trust in Him, and put our troubles at His feet, things will be much better. We screw everything up as human beings. We think we know better.

And that’s a great message for people to hear — if they can get through the Facebook clutter.
(laughs) I think my word to people would be to stay off Facebook, and that’s coming from a guy who is on Facebook every day. I’ll probably get comments from people about wanting Facebook to go away, but that’s not what I really mean. I mean all the hate and the vile garbage on Facebook. There are good things and good people on Facebook, too, who do great things, have a lot of wisdom and speak from the heart and encourage others. I try to do that, to inspire people and spread the word. And that’s what it’s all about for me.

Have you ever had any thoughts of just shutting your social media presence down entirely?
I shut my Facebook page down once. My wife Kyle had passed, and I met Lisa and started dating her. Some people — whose business it wasn’t by any means — decided I was moving on too soon, and I started getting message after message. It was mind-boggling. I didn’t want Lisa to see it, so I deactivated my Facebook account. That was a good feeling and refreshing. I got my priorities in order. Facebook is never going to come above my God or my family or my band. I have no problem deactivating my account. If I ever have to again, I’ll do it in a heartbeat. I got talked into reactivating it again, and I did. And I’m deep in it once again and having to deal with the garbage, and sometimes it’s just not fun. The first thing I wake up to is some thing posted as a screenshot on Facebook, someone going off at the mouth and trash talking. And that’s before I even have my first cup of coffee. It’s our world today, though.

As if all that isn’t enough, you’ve got the sophomore effort from Sweet & Lynch, “Unified,” which about to be released as well. Talk about that project.
Sweet & Lynch has gotten a little overshadowed by the things that have happened the last few weeks, but yeah, it’s coming out on Nov. 10, and I think it’s better than the first album. I know people roll their eyes when they hear an artist say that, but it really is. I think it sounds better, it’s a little less slick, less produced, and we stretched out a little on this one and did some things that are a little different on this album. I’m very happy and proud of that. So is George (Lynch, guitar), so is Brian (Tichy, drums), so is James (Lamenzo, bass). I could see us making quite a few more albums together. We have to get out there and do it live, too. There’s a certain chemistry there that works.

Anything else you’re working on?
Of course there’s the new Stryper album. That’s coming out in late April/early May, and we’re really pumped about that. I’ve also been talking with Joel Hoekstra forever about doing an album together. We’re going to, it’s just a matter of making that happen. And I’ll begin working on a new solo album in late February or early March.

You, sir, are a machine. (laughs) Is keeping busy just your M.O. in life?
It is, man. I got tagged while I was in Boston. Everybody called me the “Energizer Bunny.” I’ve got a lot of energy and am always ready to go. On stage, everybody would be standing near their mics, and I’d be running around like a madman. It’s just my personality. The minute I finish an album, I’m not one of those guys who has to take three or four months off. For me, literally the next day, I’m like, “OK, what’s next?” It’s just how I am.