Interview: Stryper's Michael Sweet

If ever there was a band whose music and message were so tightly intertwined, it would -- without a doubt -- be Stryper. The glam-rockers saw unparalleled success for a Christian rock band in the 1980s, with their landmark album To Hell with the Devil becoming the first Christian metal album to achieve platinum status.

Hits like “Calling on You,” “Free” and “All For One” made Stryper a household name before their 1992 break-up. After more than a decade off, the band reconvened in 2003 and have since released two albums of original material in the new millennium, both of which have earned praise from fans and critics alike.

Now their sights are set on bringing the band back into the spotlight.

Stryper’s latest offering, The Covering, finds the band examining its roots and taking on classics by hard-rock and metal heavyweights, including Black Sabbath, Van Halen, Iron Maiden and Deep Purple.

Stryper frontman Michael Sweet handles the daunting task of producing on the album, adding to his lead vocalist and guitarist titles. But Sweet will tell you he’s a guitar player, first and foremost. Those who think of him as another lead singer prancing around with a guitar may be surprised to know he actually penned most of the solos on Stryper’s early albums, not to mention providing half of the twin guitar attack Stryper is so famous for.

Sweet recently caught up with Guitar World to talk gear, The Covering, and the possibility of a new Stryper album.

GUITAR WORLD: How it does it feel to finally start getting some recognition as a guitarist and not just a vocalist?

MICHAEL SWEET: It’s a bit surreal. It’s one of those things were I kind of just didn’t think about it for a long time. I had a lot of people coming up to me on this last tour, noticeably, saying, “We didn’t know you play guitar,” and that that was the biggest surprise of the night. And I said, politely, “How did you not know I played guitar?” I’m playing guitar in the videos. I don’t know, it just kind of blew my mind. But it’s nice, you know, because I’m a guitar player first and a singer second.

So Stryper have a new album, The Covering, which is made up of covers of songs that influenced the band. How easy did the track listing come together? Were there any songs that were brought up that the band had to veto?

Prior to confirming all the songs for this one, we had a few songs get vetoed. We had always messed around with “Fox on the Run” by Sweet, and we toyed around with the idea of doing that one instead of “Set Me Free.” But, you know, I felt that we needed to be appropriate with the subject matter and the lyrical content, and that song is primarily about a girl that got heavy, and the guy doesn’t want to know her name anymore. I thought that’s not really what the message of Stryper is about or should be.

All of the songs that you hear on The Covering were very easy. I compiled a list, submitted to everyone and we all agreed on them. “On Fire” (Van Halen), back in ‘91 we were playing live. We’re all heavily influenced by Van Halen, more so than any other band on the record. That band, more than any other band, energized us to take things to a new level in our band.

Eddie certainly changed everything…

Definitely, man, and as a guitar player is one of my biggest influences. I don’t really play anything like him. Maybe sometimes I’ll do something like a hammer-on that’s got that Eddie sound that he invented so well. I’m a big Randy Rhoads guy. Randy and Eddie are two of my biggest influences, and we had to throw an Ozzy song on there with Randy [“Over the Mountain.”]

What guitars are you playing on the new record? Is it mainly your custom Carvin?

The Carvin, on this record, is all you hear out of me. Oz used his guitars, an old Jackson soloist. The Carvins are killing it for me, I love them. I have them spec out the neck to my custom PRS 24s, so if you close your eyes, you’d swear you were playing a PRS.

How did you get started playing Carvins? I know you were into Jacksons for a while, then the PRS guitars you play in Boston.

I was having trouble because I bend a lot, really wide bends and the guitars would go out of tune ever so slightly, and I didn’t want that at all. PRS doesn’t offer a locking tremolo system, so I reached out to Carvin. I had a Carvin way back in the day that I really liked, and they built me two replicas of the Randy Rhoads guitar: 24 frets, Seymour Duncan pickups, the Blackouts. I gotta tell you man, these guitars are just simply stunning. They are the best Stryper guitars I’ve ever had. They stay in tune, they sound amazing, they feel killer, the balance is perfect and they look killer.

What’s your amp set-up like on The Covering?

The actual recording process was strictly digital. The amps on this album … there’s one amp alone used, the Mesa Mark V. They sent me that amp for the last tour and I was completely blown away. I’ve always been a Mesa guy, so when the Mark 5 came out, I thought, “I’ve got to hear this!” They sent me one, and I was completely blown out of the water because they were somehow able to capture the best qualities of all of their heads and roll them all into one head. You literally can get all the Boogie tones out of that one head. I always had two or three heads to get different sounds, but with this one you don’t need anymore.

That head is the tone on the entire record, my tone. My tone is the Mark 5 through a 2x12 Road King cab. One side [of the cab] is closed-back and one side is open-back. The open side has an Electro-Voice Black Label; the closed back side has a Celestion Vintage 30. Both are miked with (Shure SM) 57’s.

You also served as the producer on The Covering. Was it difficult approaching the album as a producer, especially on a covers album where you’re trying to find the balance between preserving the sound of classic songs but still making sure they have the Stryper sound?

It’s tricky. You’re juggling many things at once and you’re walking the fine line of trying to please everybody and be all things to all men, and you can’t be. I had to realize at some point that we had to be true to ourselves, and try to give the fans what they want but at the same time just do what we do, and do what we do best, which is more in the style of the song “God” [the original song on the record.] That’s really what Stryper does best. That up-tempo, twin-guitar, high-pitched, high-octane vocal style, and that’s what we did. And we tried to pick songs that were kind of in that vein. There are no ballads, everything’s just kind of punching you in the face. I’ve very happy with how it came out.

Tell us about the song “God.” It seems that when bands put originals onto cover albums, it’s usually a throwaway track, but “God” sounds like it belongs right up there with the best of Stryper.

[laughs] That’s funny you say that. I just did an interview and I said the same thing. A lot of bands, when they do cover albums or best-of albums, and they include an original, it’s almost like their B-side. With “God,” I didn’t want that to happen. I wanted to release a song that made people say, “Wow, these guys can still do this”

The song came quickly. Sometimes songs don’t come quickly, sometimes I take months on a song. But that song came immediately. I was lying in bed and I got the melody [sings melody] in my head, went downstairs, grabbed a guitar, kind of figured out a quick chord progression. Then I called my home phone from my cell phone and played it, then went back to bed [laughs]. I woke up the next day, figured out an arrangement, wrote the words over a cup of coffee and that was it. The guys came out about a week later, I showed them the song and that was it. Thank God, I think it’s one of the better Stryper songs, and so far the reviews and the comments have been way better than we ever expected. We’re pleasantly surprised that people dig it.

You know, Van Halen came out with the best-of, and I was excited to hear new material. Some people dug it, but I guess I was expecting Van Halen energy. You just can’t just pull a rabbit out of a hat, snap your fingers and you’ve got that magic. I think a lot of that comes from how the band’s getting along, where they are in their lives, how young they are, how motivated they are. You know a lot goes into that. Amazingly, we were able to capture that on this record, that special energy that Stryper had back in the day. A big part of that was that we have the original line-up, and we were excited about making a record with the individual line-up.

Is “God” the predecessor to more new Stryper material?

It is! We’re planning on doing a re-record of a number of tracks, for a lot of different reasons, and we’ll probably do a couple of originals to add to that. And then we’re also planning an all-original album, relatively soon, not too far off. I’m writing for it now, I’ve been writing for it for the last three. I’ve got maybe six or seven ideas, a couple completed songs.

Can you give us an idea of what the new material might sound like?

I’m really wanting to go down the avenue that “God” is on and stick with that format. I think that’s what fans are expecting and what they want to hear from us. And hopefully we can kind of re-invent the wheel and get the band and the band name back out there in the spotlight and remind people that Stryper is still alive.

Check back soon for an exclusive online edition of “Dear Guitar Hero” with Michael Sweet.

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Josh Hart

Josh Hart is a former web producer and staff writer for Guitar World and Guitar Aficionado magazines (2010–2012). He has since pursued writing fiction under various pseudonyms while exploring the technical underpinnings of journalism, now serving as a senior software engineer for The Seattle Times.