Michael Sweet probably doesn't get enough credit for his songwriting skills, even though songs like "To Hell with the Devil" – which starkly contrasted with the oftentimes-satanic focus of secular heavy metal - became an anthem for young, hard rocking Christians, and "Honestly" was an MTV smash. The later, with its words about patient friendship, could be read as a description of God's love, or it could just as easily be interpreted as being about human friendship. However, "Soldiers Under Command" is unquestionably filled with fighting words, as it encourages "soldiers under God's command" that "hold His two-edged sword" (Christian speak for The Bible) within their hands.
It's easy to have a laugh at Stryper's expense, what with their outlandish hair metal image. However, they weren't alone in this genre, as some of the same criticisms can be leveled at Poison and the like. Stryper was like water in the desert for thirsty Christian rock fans. Sure, there was a lot of other Christian music made at the time, but few of these artists were competing in the big leagues of rock & roll. In their own unique way, Stryper members were musical pioneers.
We spoke with Sweet while the group was waiting to hit the stage in Las Vegas - a city that we learned is not on his list of vacation spots.
Dan MacIntosh (Songfacts): And this is a Stryper gig, not a Boston gig, right? (Michael has filled in on vocals for the band Boston, who lost their lead singer Brad Delp to suicide in 2007.)
Michael: Yes, it's a Stryper gig, that's right.
Songfacts: What a cool thing to sing those Boston songs, huh?
Michael: It's pretty amazing. I got to tour with Boston in '08, we did 55 cities. And yeah, it came out of nowhere. And to be standing on stage night after night during that tour, it was absolutely surreal. It felt like I was dreaming up there every night, pinching myself. And I said that a million times, but that's the way I felt.
Songfacts: There's not much out there about you as a songwriter, and we're hoping to find out what goes through your mind when it comes to writing songs.
Michael: Sure. I can tell you that the songwriting is probably what I enjoy the most. I enjoy touring and the recording process. I really enjoy the recording process. But songwriting is probably my most enjoyable part of what I do. I love just waking up and grabbing my guitar and locking myself in a room and sitting there, working on songs, expressing myself and what I'm feeling at the time. And just the arrangement process, I like the work. I like getting in there and diving in and really just finding the right chord that interchanges with the chord prior or after. I really, really enjoy it.
I started writing songs when I was about five years old. They were pretty bad, but I was making up words and I used to do what was called "bopping." I used to bop, b-o-p. And whenever music would start, I'd start moving and rocking back and forth in the chair that I was sitting in. And my parents said that was bopping. And I'd just sit there and sing melodies and make up my own words. I started doing that at a very early age, and to this day, when I hear music, I can't sit still. I gotta tap my foot or move or do something.
It began there. And then I started really getting into the craft of songwriting when I was about 12 years old - I started writing songs. And we started recording those songs when I was about 13, 14 years old. And then by the time I was 16, 17 years old, we had two or three demos under our belt and I kept writing and writing and writing. The guys would go to work, I'd go to school and come home after school and go right in the garage that we'd converted into a studio, and I'd write until 11, 12 at night, and that's all I did.
So I've been writing for a long time. Through the art of writing I learned how to play piano somewhat, enough to write on piano. So I penned all the ballads on piano: "Honestly," and "Together as One," and all the Stryper ballads. I love writing all styles. I write ballads, I write poppy songs, I write real edgy, heavy, heavy songs. The latest song that we have on our album The Covering is called "God." And I was lying in bed one night just before we were going into the studio, I wanted to have an all original new song, and that melody was going through my head. And I went downstairs and grabbed a guitar, put chords to it, called my home phone from my cell phone, recorded the melody into my home phone machine so I could go to bed. That was the quick way of doing it. I went to bed, woke up the next morning, listened to it to refresh my memory, then penned the words at the kitchen island over a cup of coffee. And that one came together in the night and in the morning.
Songfacts: So do they always come to you like that or is it just once in a while that they come that quickly?
Michael: You know, most of them come that quickly. But there are those few songs that seem to take a year to write; for whatever reason, something's not doing it for me, or I'm not happy with this or that, and I keep going back to it. But most of the songs that I write, it starts with a melody in my head that I'm humming. Then I grab a guitar, arrange chords to that melody, finish the melody, and then pen the words last. I never start with lyrics. It's just the way I do things. A lot of people start with lyrics and the idea and the theme of the song, and I kind of do it in reverse.
Songfacts: Well, let's talk about the new album The Covering. Except for that exception, it's all cover songs. And I would imagine narrowing it down to an album's worth must have been difficult.
Michael: It really wasn't a difficult process, because we knew exactly where our history lied and our roots lied, and we knew the groups that influenced us the most. And we were all in agreement. Because, for the most part, it's all the same bands that influenced the four of us.
You know, I was into Creedence Clearwater Revival when I was really young. Obviously, that wouldn't be fitting to do a Creedence song. We wanted to stay true to the direction of the record and stay focused in the sense that we wanted it to all have an edge and translate well to what Stryper would do with each song, and make sense. We didn't want it to be all over the place. We wanted it to be focused.
So I came up with a list of songs, everyone looked it over, and then we added or subtracted this or that, and that was it. And it came together very, very quickly.
Songfacts: That's good to know that you're all pretty much on the same page when it comes to the kind of songs that really influenced you. Can you see a connection between those songs that you cover on this album with some of the music that you ended up making?
Songfacts: Is it a relief now, with the way Christian music has evolved, that it's okay for a band to put out an album like this, whereas I'm sure if you would have put out a covers album when you first started, you would have had more problems.
Michael: Oh yeah, it wouldn't have worked. I mean, we were crucified as it was. We took some serious flack and heat just for the look, the appearance, the sound. So it would never have flown. Absolutely not. But that wouldn't have stopped us from doing it. And I don't mean this in a disrespectful way, but we really don't care what people think we should or shouldn't do. And I don't mean that in the biblical sense. I don't mean that in the spiritual sense. I mean that we have a calling upon our life, and that calling is between Michael, Robert, Oz, Tim, and God. It's not between the four of us and CCM community, or the church. That's our calling. And if God tells us to do something, we're going to go and do it. If He tells us to go play a bar, we're going to go play that bar. If He tells us to go play with Slayer, we're going to go play with Slayer. If he tells us to do a covers album, we're going to do a covers album. We take everything to prayer, we take it very serious, and if we don't feel right about something, that we should not be doing something, we won't do it. We've got to have that peace and feel like, okay, this is what God wants us to do. But we try our best not to listen to man, and if God told us to make a covers album back in '85, we would have done it, and we probably would have been hung for it. But so be it. (laughing)
Songfacts: From those early days, what songs do you think stand up the best? Are there songs that are kind of timeless for you?
Songfacts: Really? Why is that?
Michael: Well, we just decided to kind of keep the set moving and not do any ballads.
Michael: Just do something a little different. And I think songs like "Calling on You" and "Free," pretty much most of the stuff from To Hell with the Devil, interestingly enough, gets the biggest response. And that is here in the States and worldwide.
Songfacts: I had the great opportunity to go to the Stryper convention in 2001, and there were so many people that I saw there that those songs marked a really important place in their lives. And so when you sing those songs, they're not just rock songs. They're like markers along the road in a person's journey. Do you still sense that that's what happens when people hear those songs?
Michael: I think so, yeah, absolutely. And those songs, particularly that album is what catapulted the band into crossover mainstream success. So we went from playing theatres to playing arenas and selling three or four hundred thousand units to selling a million and a half units. So it was all of a sudden magnified and multiplied. And because of the effect those songs had on people's lives, the changing power of Christ is the music or the lyric or what have you, absolutely. And people look back and say, "Okay, To Hell with the Devil, man, I remember that in my junior year. And I heard that song and I went and saw the band and I accepted the Lord and it changed my life." So yeah, absolutely.
Songfacts: Do you think that you've proven many of your critics wrong, those that said God can't use hard rock to change lives?
Michael: I don't think we have, I think God has. You can't argue with facts. And when you're standing talking to a person who tells you they were a drug addict, and they broke their syringes and threw away their pipes because of a Stryper show and a prayer that we said at the end of the show, and they're now a pastor, what do you say to that? And they're now pastoring a church of three or four thousand people. I mean, what can you say to that? It's not that God's not working or using rock and roll.
Songfacts: But could you foresee that happening? I mean, were you that sure of yourselves when you started out that you were going to have that kind of effect, or were you just as surprised by what God did with the music as they were?
Michael: We certainly weren't sure of ourselves. We just stepped out in blind faith; we just wanted to serve God, we didn't know anything about God, about the word. We were learning as we went along. And we were as green as green gets, and young and immature in the Lord and all that. But our hearts were pure and fresh, and we just said, "Lord, we just want to be used. We want to make a difference. We want to be different. We want to go out and reach these kids." Because we grew up on the streets of L.A. playing all the clubs prior to Stryper, and we saw that scene, and we wanted to reach those people.
Songfacts: So God gave you a heart for those people.
Michael: Absolutely. One hundred percent. And so we went with that. And we continued playing the style of music that we played, but we re-wrote the words and delivered the message with it, put the Isaiah 53:5 so the stripes signified something, they meant something, throwing out the word of God at every show. And that's just the power of God changing lives. People used to leave the bibles on the ground, and then we started putting Stryper stickers on them and they were never left again. Because they were a little memento. And we figured if it's just a souvenir and that's how they view it, maybe someday they'll read it. Sure enough, we get story after story of people that say after a year or two or three of collecting dust, I opened it up and read it.
Songfacts: How cool. I read that Randy Jackson from American Idol played on "Shining Star"?
Michael: He did.
Songfacts: Tell me about that experience and what you remember from that recording session.
Songfacts: Have you ever had a chance to talk with him again?
Michael: No. We hung out with him for about three or four hours that day, ate with him and laughed and we had a great time, and he was a great guy. And that was it, that was the only time our paths have crossed. Haven't seen him since. I don't even know if he would remember it. Hopefully he would. But who knows? Because I know he's played on a lot of sessions.
Songfacts: I want to ask about "Honestly." You said earlier that it's not something you're playing on this current tour. When you wrote that, did you think, "I need to write something that's quieter, that's more of a ballad"?
Michael: Well, it's just one of those things where I would write six or seven hard rock/metal songs and then I'd write a ballad. One of the first ballads I wrote that we recorded was the song "You Won't Be Lonely Anymore" on The Yellow and Black Attack. I have that side of me. Call it a sensitive side or whatever it is, I just have this side that I really like to write ballads. Because ballads, even though it's not the edgy heavy stuff, there's something to be said for a ballad, because it's really an emotional roller coaster. It dynamically comes down and you can really focus on the lyric and the emotion of the vocal. And it's very touchy. There's nothing like a great ballad. It can really move you, and I thought it was very important to have that.
We were doing ballads back before there were power ballads. When I say that, I mean the '80s power ballads, the metal power ballads. We were stepping out, we were playing all these clubs with Ratt and all these bands, and they never did any ballads, ever. We were adding ballads to our set. And then power ballads in the '80s became very popular. I remember people wondering if we had just kind of jumped on the bandwagon and the fact is, we were always doing ballads.
Songfacts: What do you have planned next? Are you thinking about a new studio album of new material, or are you just enjoying doing these covers and maybe taking a break from writing and recording?
Michael: I am enjoying a little bit of a break. But at the same time, I'm starting to think along the lines of a new album. I'm in writing mode now. I've got about six ideas under my belt. And once I go home in April, I'm going to write the entire month. I plan to try to, by the end of April, have about 10 to 12 tracks somewhat finished. And chances are we'll go in and probably start recording a new album towards the end of this year or the beginning of next year. But it's such a long, drawn out process, it's a good two to three month process from beginning to end. And that's in days. So if you spread that out with breaks and whatnot, it's maybe like a three or four month process. So if we start by early next year, it wouldn't come out till probably the fall of next year.
Songfacts: You're the primary lyricist in the band, but I imagine the rest of the group contributes to the creative process of the songs, right?
Michael: No. I mean, we've done that in the past on a few songs. But now, I write the song, I completely arrange it, bring it to them ready to go. And we just learn it and rehearse it.
Songfacts: So you really do the whole thing. I mean, obviously, they have their own styles and their personalities...
Michael: Yeah, absolutely. They all write and we all have our own styles. But the problem is, and it's probably a question that's been asked more than any other, is why I write most of the stuff. And the reason for that is because I write the style that has built Stryper. I mean, that's the Stryper style, the style that I write. If we all get together and try to write a song, it's usually much easier for me to just do it on my own than to go through the process of the four of us trying to write a song, because we all are so different in our styles. If that makes any sense?
Songfacts: Right. And even though you continue to be a band, you also have different projects that you work on outside of the group to express that side of their personalities.
Michael: Exactly. And when you lock into something that's good, you stick with that. It works, me writing the songs on Murder By Pride, on Reborn. We all have our gifts, and writing's probably my gift. God just gives me songs and they keep coming and coming and coming. That's probably my strongest asset and ability, is writing.
Songfacts: It doesn't sound like you ever have writer's block, either.
Michael: I don't. I'm fortunate. Every now and then I go through writer's block. But I'm definitely a bit of an odd bird in the sense that if the label calls me tomorrow and says, "We want you guys in the studio in a month, we need 12 songs," I'll go into writing mode from that moment till the time we go in the studio. And that's a bad thing, because I'll shut the world out and go into my own world. But I will write 12 tracks. And then I'll be ready to go, and they'll listen to them and go, "What? How did you just bang the stuff out?" That's how I wrote Murder By Pride. Those songs were just bang, bang, bang, bang. I got the call from the label, and it was unexpected. I thought we were going to be recording at a certain time - they called me and said, "Well, actually, we want to start by this time." And I didn't tell them this, but I thought, Oh boy. And I went into my studio and for a month, I wrote. That's all I did for a month. And I wrote I think 13 songs and those are all the songs that are on the album. And I don't say that in a boastful way, like Hey, I can write. It's just a gift that God gave me, and I always have a song in my head. Always.
Songfacts: If you were to give a state of the union address for Stryper, do you think you've reached a place where you've got a lot of the youthful divisions behind you, and you're all adults now and you're at a mature place? Because it seems like this is just a very productive and seemingly very peaceful coexistence that you guys all have right now together.
Michael: Definitely. We've gone through our battles and we've had our up and down periods where we didn't want to continue on as a band. But right now we're in a really good place. God's done a lot in us individually and collectively together. I think we're in the best place we've ever been. And times are tight. The economy and trying to make music and make a living at it and put food on the table and all that good stuff. But we still know what our calling is and we still feel that there's a lot of life left in the band. And as long as we believe that and feel that, we're going to continue on and find a way. And God will always provide. Always.
Songfacts: One of the things that you have that a lot of newer bands don't is a built-up audience that's stayed with you all these years. So whenever you tour, there's always going to be those people who may not go to a lot of shows, but if you're going to come to their town, I would imagine that would be one of the top shows on their list, whereas maybe other groups might have trouble rounding up audiences.
Michael: I think you're right, absolutely. And I say that all the time. Ticket sales are down a little bit this year, but they are for everybody. I'm just thankful - we hear stories time and time again of the bands that came to the venue the night before we were there, or coming the night after we're there, and their ticket sales might be half what ours are or a third. So we are so grateful that we're pulling 5, 6, 700 people a night. And it's just amazing, because it could be a lot worse. And we do have a very supportive, loyal, strong fan base out there who have always been by our sides, they stuck by us through thick and thin. And we're just so grateful for these people.
Songfacts: Do you have any other projects planned, any solo things?
Michael: Definitely more solo stuff at some point. I don't know when, but I've been doing a lot of co-writing. I've flown to Nashville and I wrote with Blair Daly, who wrote the song "Smile" by Uncle Kracker, I've written with Luke Laird, and Luke writes for Carrie Underwood and a number of other artists. They're really great, great writers, both of those guys. And I'm planning on going to Nashville again in May to co-write with some other people for solo projects for other artists. I'm trying to break into the writing path. I'm trying to take that path so I can write for other people.
Songfacts: Well, good for you. Wow, that's exciting.
Michael: Yeah, it's very exciting. And I write all styles. I mean, I write country stuff, I write pop stuff, I write real heavy stuff. I write everything.
Songfacts: Wow. That's a natural progression for you, Michael. So I wish you all the success there. And be careful in Las Vegas.
Michael: I know. My least favorite place in all the country. I have a lot of friends here, but I'm not a big fan of Las Vegas. It's the spirit here, you know, just the whole Sin City - I look forward to getting out when we leave. Again, great people here, I love the people. But just not into the city itself.
We spoke with Michael Sweet on March 11, 2011. For more, check out stryper.com.
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