”Do you guys both agree we should have named the band Guns N’ Moses?” Stryper’s Michael Sweet is asking this question, straight-faced, to Guitar World over Zoom. But the singer-guitarist isn’t referring to his long-running Christian metal crew. He’s talking about Sunbomb – the new side-project from L.A. Guns’ mainman Tracii Guns. Before we can parse Sweet’s deadpan delivery, Guns, who’s also on the call, bursts into laughter: “I agree with that!”
Jokes aside, the question does highlight a seeming paradox surrounding Sunbomb: how in the world did a nice guy like Sweet find himself singing over Guns’ heavier-than-ever exploration of black-metal-tinged doom and classic heavy metal?
The Guns/Sweet pairing makes a bit more sense when you learn how much the two musicians have in common. They both grew up in SoCal during the heyday of '70s hard rock.
Each guitarist was deeply influenced by the New Wave of British Heavy Metal as well as six-string greats like Eddie Van Halen, Michael Schenker and Randy Rhoads. L.A. Guns and Stryper rose to international fame out of the raucous '80s Sunset Strip scene, and both outfits are still going strong today.
The guys also shared a guitar tech – who was the matchmaker that led to their relatively recent friendship. They even tried to get an L.A. Guns/Stryper tour off the ground, but “it was very difficult for promoters to swallow,” Guns says.
The music for Sunbomb first started to take shape a few years ago. Guns had been working on songs initially intended for a solo outing for his label, Frontiers Records. He sent one of the unfinished tunes to his new friend Sweet to get his thoughts. “He dug it,” Guns recalls. “So I asked if he wanted to sing on it. That was the very innocent beginning of us working together.”
That track – a ripping cut called Life that features Guns unleashing a swarm of black-metal-style tremolo picking – kicked off a wicked collaboration that ultimately resulted in Sunbomb’s full-length debut, Evil and Divine. Besides the '90s Norwegian extremity of Life, the hard-charging 11-song album unfolds like a love letter to the favorite acts of Guns’ youth: from Sabbathian doom (Take Me Away, Better End) and Led Zeppelin blues-meets-crossover thrash (Born to Win) to Randy Rhoads-esque dynamics (No Tomorrows) and beyond.
Sweet proves a capable accomplice throughout Evil and Divine, which also features performances by drummer Adam Hamilton and bassist Mitch Davis (with a guest shot by L.A. Guns’ bassist Johnny Martin on They Fought). Guns handled all guitar duties, allowing Sweet to solely focus on vocals and channel some of his favorite frontmen, including Ronnie James Dio and Rob Halford. “I sound nothing like them,” Sweet qualifies, “but I tried to draw a little bit more from them on this album.”
“Putting the music together is one thing, but getting vocal tracks from Michael… I was losing my mind!” exclaims Guns. “I was telling my wife, ‘Come here and listen to this!’ To me Sunbomb is already a 100-percent success… I’m getting better as I’m get-ting older! I’m just telling myself that right now in front of you all… [Laughs]”
Tracii, what inspired you to start Sunbomb, and what does it allow you to express that you can’t in L.A. Guns?
TRACII GUNS: “I never wanted to make a boring instrumental record. I like songs, and I like impact. I like stuff that’s either really sad or brutally in your face. I’m able to do that in L.A. Guns to a point… It can’t get any heavier than Ozzy Osbourne. But I’m really into that whole New Wave of British Heavy Metal… So I just started writing this stuff.
“And when I got married, my wife, who’s Danish, listens to black metal… I was like, 'Damn, those riffs… I get it! This is good, this is like Randy Rhoads times 10.' [Laughs] Modal guitar parts within metal, which is very rare… Michael and I had recently met. We had known each other a little over a year at this point. We just really wanted to do something together, and this was the outlet.”
Michael, were you also a big New Wave of British Heavy Metal fan growing up?
MICHAEL SWEET: “Oh yeah… When I first heard Judas Priest I was a sophomore in high school and my sister was driving me to school… I heard Unleashed in the East. Diamonds and Rust blew me away… That changed everything for me. I started looking into bands like Maiden… then Dio and Ozzy Osbourne and Randy, and it blossomed from there.”
GUNS: “And Def Leppard, right? That early stuff…”
SWEET: “Oh yeah, Def Leppard. We covered those songs, Wasted. I dug them when they went more pop and radio-friendly, too.”
Michael, do you remember Tracii’s pitch? Were you immediately down, or did you have reservations about tackling a “doom” record?
SWEET: “I remember it very vividly. I was in Michaels [craft store] with my wife Lisa, and I get this beep on my phone and I open it up. I’m sitting there in Michaels listening to the song on my phone. [Laughs] Everyone uses the words 'dark' and 'doom' and all that, but really it was different for Tracii and for me. The combination of us, together, doing something different really made for a unique album in a cool, fresh way. I’m really proud to be a part of it.”
Tracii, let’s talk about recording. Did COVID impact how the album was created?
GUNS: “I had recorded all the guitars in 2018, 2019. Then Adam, who played drums, he got those things straight away. I recorded everything on my apartment floor… with a HeadRush. I’d never recorded anything like that.”
SWEET: “That’s awesome. God bless the technology we have to get great guitar tones like that. As far as how I do vocals, I’ve got a great chain here. I’ve done like 14 albums at my house; I enjoy doing it that way. I can take my time and I’ve got a Neumann and an Avalon and everything sounds clean and it works.”
Tracii, you unveiled a new Kramer Gunstar Voyager at NAMM. Did that make it onto the record?
GUNS: “No it didn’t. I didn’t get the prototype until about eight months after I finished all the guitar tracks… I played one guitar on the whole album, my Rick Nielsen 1959 Les Paul… with the HeadRush [and] the preset that I made specifically for the album. No wah or anything. It’s direct into the interface. I did record into Logic. I didn’t record to Pro Tools on this one, because I had to take advantage of the drummer track in Logic to really put those tempos or time changes together.”
Michael, what’s your main axe these days?
SWEET: “I’ve got the Washburn Michael Sweet [Parallaxe] models. I’m no longer with Washburn but they still produce them… I just did a deal with a company called Sully Guitars… He made me a signature that’s really cool. It’s called the Revolution; it’s basically like a King V and I’m really digging it. That’s my main guitar, for Stryper anyway.”
Tracii, Life features some ripping black-metal-style picking in the verses. Did it take long to build up your stamina?
GUNS: “I’ve been double-picking since I was 10. It wasn’t so much about working up to it to record the song, but the thought of playing it live scares me to death. [Laughs]”
What are some black-metal bands that influenced you?
GUNS: “The early '90s stuff is pretty trashy, which is appealing to me in one way. I can apply that style more to L.A. Guns, just noisy and raucous. But I really like Satyricon’s live album [Live at the Opera]. Those tones are very smooth. And [drummer] Frost hits so light, but it sounds so powerful. It’s like a swarm of mosquitos… And Marduk, too, is really cool, and Gorgoroth with Gaahl… Life is just like an L.A. Guns song, Speed, but you can’t really tell. It has the same Diary of a Madman finger pattern.”
Michael, black metal is often anti-Christian. Are you able to appreciate the musical aspects despite the lyrical content?
SWEET: “I appreciate the music for the music. Of my favorite bands, probably not one of them is a Christian band, per se. If a band is singing about the devil or Satan in a real way, but I like the riff, I can separate that. I’m pretty sure when people think black metal, Michael Sweet does not come up on the radar… [Laughs] I can safely say that. But I didn’t try to be 'mister black metal' with the vocals. I just did my thing.”
Take Me Away taps into a different doomy Sabbath-style darkness…
GUNS: “Take Me Away is a direct structure theft from the song Black Sabbath. I never hide where I get ideas from... I came up with a riff that has movement… with an early '80s guitar sound. It’s fatter, bigger and… it’ll change your mood in five seconds. The arrangement’s the same, but I think Black Sabbath is in the key of G and this is the key of as low as my guitar would go. [Laughs]”
Tracii, Sunbomb explore a lot of classic metal elements on Evil and Divine. Is there one song for you that sums up the vision for the project?
GUNS: “That’s so hard. To me it’s like one long song with tempo changes and dynamics. Some things are brutally fast… Life has that [black metal] style of picking in the verse. It only happens once on the album, yet it fits... Then we have a blues song, Born to Win, that sounds kinda like [Led Zeppelin’s] How Many More Times.”
SWEET: “Oh yeah, it’s got a little bit of a Zeppelin vibe to it.”
GUNS: “It’s a blues progression. But I played it on a 12-string with an octave below under it and then the chorus comes in – I don’t even think it’s half time, it’s like quarter time. It’s like, Woah, the engines just stopped on the plane! [Laughs]
“That’s what I was really trying to go for on the record as far as dynamics. Somehow it all fits. I think people that really enjoy the heavier side of Dio, Priest, Sabbath, Ian Gillan Sabbath, Deep Purple, early Maiden, early Leppard… if they don’t like this album, they’re not metal fans. [Laughs]”
- Evil and Divine is out now via Frontiers.