Ever get the feeling that barring a few noteworthy exceptions, most Christian Hard Rock and Heavy Metal groups lack the musical conviction and lyrical sincerity of their Secular counterparts? Although I'll be the first to admit I wholeheartedly enjoy the arguably-pioneering works of Barren Cross, Tourniquet and Whitecross as much--if not more--than the average self-proclaimed Headbanger, I frequently find myself disappointed with the overall lack of imagination that often characterizes the recorded output of such acts. Accordingly, it's not often that we are afforded the opportunity to gleefully deploy descriptives such as 'a breath of fresh air', 'refreshing' and 'stunning' while remaining entirely ethical. Fortunately for all parties involved, this was once again indeed the case with Fallen, the latest high-octane offerings from curiously long-running veterans Stryper.
Todd: How did the writing and recording process for Fallen (2015) compare to No More Hell To Pay (2013) and Murder By Pride (2009)? I would imagine that at this point the group has an established plan of for everything...
Michael: “Yes, it's similar. The way that I've been writing, arranging and putting it all together is under pressure. Because we've been so busy, there hasn't been the luxury of setting aside three months to write or that long block of time to sit down and do it how some bands do it. Oddly enough, it's somehow worked. For example, with No More Hell To Pay, I only had a couple of weeks to write the album and it worked out. Everyone seemed to really like the material and the reviews were great. It was the same way with the writing process for Fallen, only we had even less time. I only had ten days and then the guys flew out here and I had to teach them everything. I had it all recorded and saved, hut we still basically had to rehearse a song a day to get it down because it was so fresh. ...Interestingly enough, again the reviews have been off the charts and people are saying this is possibly our best album. I'm doing a solo album right now and it's the same thing (laughs). It's just so insane. I had to go to Nashville to do some solo gigs, so I only had a small window of time to put this together. I had no songs at all, so I'm scratching my head going 'I hope this works out'. It sounds really good and I think people are going to be blown away by this solo album, too. It's just the way I work. I work well under pressure.”
Todd: Has the overall lack of time had a negative impact on the quality of the music? Do you feel as if the end results of your efforts could've been improved upon if you had been given additional time to 'polish' everything?
Michael: “I don't think it does. I've had a couple comments from people saying 'Because it was thrown together, it's going to suck'. But then it came out and thank God that all the fans and critics love it. I don't think I've read one negative comment yet, even from the critics that said they didn't like us before. This is the album that made them like us. ...For this record, this late in the game, to transform someone into a fan is kinda unheard of. It's pretty amazing and it blows my mind. Again, I don't want to say that we rushed the last two records because I'm the kind of guy where if I wasn't feeling it or I felt like we didn't have it, I would have called the guys and said 'Stay home until we have this'. I'm not one to start on something unless I feel that we have it and it's ready to go. I'm not going to compromise on quality at all. ...I feel like some bands just kind of throw albums out there and when I listen to them being the perfectionist I am, I find myself thinking 'I wish they had worked on this a little more'. Even though I'm a fan of that particular band, I'm still let down by the songs because you can tell it was rushed. Stryper doesn't do that. We give our all to the songs and the recordings. Until it's right, it just ain't right.”
Todd: At this point in your career, how necessary is it for the group to record and release new material? While No More Hell To Pay and Live At The Whisky charted and sold impressively well, did they both need to happen?
Michael: “To me, whether or not it's necessary really doesn't matter. ...I really don't care. Obviously, as a business man I care because I've got to pay the bills, but the point is, I'll never stop making music just because it's not relevant or because it's not popular or selling. I'm always going to make music because it's in me. It's part of me and it's how I express myself. I'm not jumping on that bandwagon. I've literally heard bands say it. I've heard Journey say it and I've heard Night Ranger say it as well. I've heard quotes from other bands saying 'We're done making music' or 'We're just going to do a single at a time' and I'll think 'Wow, that kind of sucks!'. You've lost the desire to do what you originally got into this for? I don't know. That's kind of odd to me. ...And I hear it more and more. I get it because if the funds aren't there, the funds aren't there, but there are other things you can do. Obviously, we all know about Pledge Music, Kickstarter and other crowd funding, but there's also labels. If you're good and of you have the material and the audience, there are a lot of labels out there who will work with you. You may not get the budgets you got back in '85. You're not even going to get close to that ya know? Stryper gets pretty darn close. We do all right. We get decent budgets and I think that's because there's a level of respect for the band from the labels. They have the same vision, so they're willing to put up the money.”
Todd: On both personal and professional levels, how well does everyone 'get along'? With the more than considerable internal strife of yore having been well documented, is everyone now on genuinely friendly terms?
Michael: “I would say we're in a better place now than we were in the '90s. That was a tough point for us when I left the band because our relationships were certainly put on a shelf for awhile. We didn't talk to each other for quiet a while. I know that the guys were pretty upset that I left and I don't think they fully understood it. And to some degree, I might have led them astray by making them believe we might do another album and then dropping them the bomb and saying 'Hey, I'm leaving'. ...It was a really tough time, but I think our relationships are good. Are they perfect? No. No, they're not perfect. I'd be a complete liar if I said they were. We have our differences and we but heads and fight. We're all very opinionated and because of that, I'm kind of leading the band right now. With leadership, when you're dealing with other people that are very opinionated in the way they want to do things, you can open the door for disappointment and disagreements. You have to deal with that like anyone else. But you know what? I think we still love each other, but I don't think we always like each other if that makes any sense. You go out and travel or you hang out and after two or three weeks of spending time in a tour bus together, you look forward to going home to your family and getting away from it, ya know? ...I think it's pretty miraculous where we're at as a band. The fact that we're still together with the original line up and we're still making passionate music... There's a lot to be said for that. I know most bands from our genre aren't because they either don't have the original line up, they're not getting along, they're broke up or they just don't care. Stryper is one of the few bands that's making new music that rivals all our old music.”
Todd: Much has been said in regards to how much heavier post-reunion Stryper is in comparison to efforts such as In God We Trust (1988). Was this a conscious decision or simply a by-product of your songwriting processes?
Michael: “I think No More Hell To Pay was certainly heavier than Murder By Pride and Fallen is a little more heavier than No More Hell To Pay and No More Hell To Pay was pretty darn heavy. ...It's just more consistent in that heavy vein and it's a little bigger sounding, so that gives the listener the sense of heaviness, ya know? ...Obviously, we've worked with some of the best Producers in the business like Tom Werman (Boston, Molly Hatchet, REO Speedwagon) and Micheal Wagner (Accept, Overkill, White Lion). Those two guys are legends. But that being said, I've been living in studios, I just don't have all the accolades that those guys have. I didn't work for Epic (Records) and I don't have Gold albums on the walls from the hundreds of bands I've Produced, but I feel that I should. And I certainly could have them because I've been living in studios since I was ten years old, playing on my dad's demos and sessions. My dad was managed by (notorious Curb Records founder) Mike Curb and signed to RCA (Records). He did a bunch of stuff musically. He was a big time musician and my mom was, too so I grew up in studios. I've been recording my whole life. When we went in and recorded all those Stryper albums, everything was ready. If we could go back in a time machine and be a fly on the wall, I think we'd all be kind of surprised because there wasn't much to Produce. All they had to do really was make it sound good. ...It's not like they had to create the songs, arrange and break everything down and tell us what to play like a lot of Producers do for bands. Stryper was ready. We'd just go in and record the songs and the Producer would say 'That sounded great!'. That's kind of how it is. I got to the point when we reformed, I just didn't want to waste the money. I suggested that the guys let me Produce the stuff, so I did and it's gotten better and better. Now, we're at a point where we've got a system, the sounds is killer and we don't overspend. You know when you hire a Producer you're going to instantly give them a twenty-five to fifty thousand dollar advance and you're also going to give them three to four points on every album sold. You're going to give away a lot of money. I don't see the need for that, ya know? ...We know what we're doing and we're able to save and invest the money.”
Todd: How did drummer Kenny Aronoff (Chickenfoot, John Fogerty, John Mellencamp) become involved with Stryper? There was a lot of concern regarding the stability of the group when he recorded on Murder By Pride...
Michael: “Kenny Aronoff had already played on a couple of my solo albums. That's how I had that relationship with him. ...He played on Murder By Pride quit honestly because (drummer) Robert (Sweet) just wasn't ready to play on it. Here's what basically happened. We went to Vegas and did pre-Production for Murder By Pride, rehearsing everyday. We worked out the songs and then we all took home a CD with the songs on them so when we were ready to record, everybody would know what they were doing. Well, my brother somehow managed to misplace and lose the CD and never asked for another one. I didn't know about it and when it was time to go record, I called Robert and he said 'I lost my CD'. So I aid 'You don't know any of the stuff?' and he said 'No'. It was a real situation. I called (lead guitarist) Oz (Fox) and we discussed it. We mutually decided that it would be best to bring in Kenny Aronoff is such a pro. And it's not
that Robert isn't. Robert is amazing. Robert's a pro too, but Kenny's a guy that can come in and chart everything. He can listen to the song, write it out musically and then go in and play it one time through and be done. ...That's what he did for Murder By Pride. He came in and banged those drums out in like two days. Now this coming off the heels of Reborn (2005) where the tracking of the drums were a bit of a nightmare. It took a long time and we spent a lot of money because Robert wasn't one hundred percent prepared for it. I didn't want to repeat that with Murder By Pride because we just didn't have the time or the money. My wife was sick with cancer at the time, so it was a very stressful and I didn't have a lot of time to away from home. ...I was very concerned with spending an entire week on the drums. ...And it's tough for the fans to accept Robert not being on a Stryper album because Rob's part of that signature sound and brings so much to the table. He's a brilliant drummer and it was a tough call for Oz and I to have to make. and we made it. I don't have any regrets about these situations other than I wish Rob had been ready for everything.”
Todd: In hindsight, do you feel responsible for some of the issues involving the repeated departure of (bassist) Tim (Gaines)? How many of them can be directly attributed to you becoming the 'de facto' leader of everything?
Michael: “Yes, but to a very small degree. Sometimes I'm unjustly accused of being the guy cracking the whip. The issues began with To Hell With The Devil (1986) ...We were looking for a certain bass sound. A real straight ahead eighth note style of playing which Tim has proven he can play better than anyone, mind you. But at that time, it didn't quit feel right and there was some concern with that. That was from me, Oz and from Robert and also from our Producer Stephan Galfas (The Allman Brothers Band, Meatloaf, Saxon). So we wound up bringing in a different bass player for that album. If I could go back and do it all again, I would have given Tim the opportunity to do it. I've learned a lot over the past twenty-five or thirty years. So we brought in a bass player and he played on the album and unfortunately it caused a lot of dissension and rightfully so. We would up asking Tim to leave having a guy named Matt Hearick that used to be in Leatherwolf. ...He was in the band, but it wasn't working. We wound up asking Tim back. I really felt like we made a terrible decision. My brother was really set on letting him go and I pleaded 'We gotta bring him back' and we did. He came back and it shows you what type of person he is. We all forgave each other and went and toured. Then we had some more issues similar to what went on with In God We Trust, so there's been a lot of things that have happened over the years that has obviously caused some bad feelings. But we're over all of that now. Tim came back again and has proven himself as a player and has shown the world how great he is and how much he can just kill these songs.”
Todd: The first time I listened to Live At The Whisky (2014) in a surround sound setting, I noticed the presence of a third guitarist in the center channel. Has the group been touring with a third guitarist without announcing it?
Michael: “We didn't have an extra guitar player. ...We went in and touched up just a few things. There were a few spots where there were some clunker notes and vocals. We went in and we spent about two days touching stuff up. Then we Mixed it all. (Hit Factory/Longview Farm alumni) Danny Bernene, the guy that Mixed all of the Stryper albums during the past six or seven years, Mixed that as well. He's a brilliant guy, man. He did some really cool things. I'd go out and get a cup of coffee and when I'd come back in, he'd say 'Hey, come check this out'. There would be some plug in that he was putting on the Mix and I'd be like 'Oh my gosh!' ...So I'm really pleased for how it turned out for a live album. It's funny because people on Blabbermouth think it's some conspiracy theory that we've used backing tracks on occasion. They'll be like 'He lip syncs' and I'm like 'Yeah, I have before' and 'Yeah, we do on some songs'. I'm not ashamed to say that and I want to break it down for everybody. For example, on the last tour, we wanted to do the song “God” (from The Covering) and in order to pull that off, we needed some help because it's got a big choir at the end and some extra guitars on it that we wanted to pull off live without bringing in another guitarist. So we had some stuff on tracks and that's what we played to. I'm the first guy that will talk about that stuff. Who cares? If you want to break it down, let's compare Stryper using tracks on two or three songs out of an eighteen to twenty song set to bands that use tracks for the whole show and have been their entire careers. But let's not get into all of that. It'll really disappoint some fans.”
Todd: As a musician with a 'trained ear', is it easy for you to determine when a group is using backing tracks in a live setting? Is it really obvious or do you need to be a trained 'student' of a band to understand what to look for?
Michael: “I can go see a band and literally know instantly. Anytime you see a drummer with a computer and he's wearing earphones, they're using tracks. You don't even have to hear anything. I've gone out and done festivals and played with band after band that used tracks. My view on is that I think it's fine as long as you're using them for some enhancement. If there's a really cool guitar line or hook that you can't play because you're playing the other line, it's okay to use a track to play that. Or if you've got keyboards on some songs and you can't afford to take out a keyboard player. It's also okay to use those tracks. Or with background vocals. If you've got this giant choir like we do on “Yahweh” (from Fallen). ...We can't pull that off live. So do we not play the song live? You know what I'm saying? As long as it's for enhancement, it's fine. I don't have a problem with it. The thing I have a problem with is some bands, again I'm not mentioning names because I'll get in trouble, who are out touring right now, who are not going to be touring anymore, use an absurd amount of tracks. You might as well just play the album, ya know? That I've got a problem with. It's overkill. The point of this semi rant is that I'll talk about whatever, man. I'll tell you exactly what we're doing and how we're doing it.”
Todd: Your honesty on this subject has definitely been an eye-opening experience. Good or bad, it's appreciated.
Michael: “Absolutely. And like I said, we keep it to a minimum. On the last tour we did in 2014, we might have had four or five songs that had some tracks to enhance and help us. It was all stuff that we really wanted people to hear live that we couldn't pull off live. “God” was one of them. I think we also did it with “Honestly” (from To Hell With The Devil) because we don't have a keyboard player on the road. Normally, I'll play to the piano track and that's kind of like 'Meh'. People want to hear the whole band on that one, ya know? But who is going to play the piano? Well, we had a piano track and we all played to it. ...That's another one where we do it some.”
Select Michael Sweet Discography
Fallen (2015) *
Live At The Whisky (2014) *
No More Hell To Pay (2013) *
Second Coming (2013) *
The Covering (2011) *
Murder By Pride (2009) *
Touched (2007) **
The Roxx Regime Demos (2007) *
Extended Versions (2006) *
Him (2006) **
Reborn (2005) *
7 Weeks In America 2003 (2004) *
7: The Best Of Stryper (2003) *
Truth (2000) **
Real (1995) **
Michael Sweet (1994) **
Unstryped (EP) (1992) **
Can't Stop The Rock (1991) *
Against The Law (1990) *
In God We Trust (1988) *
To Hell With The Devil (1986) *
* as a member of Stryper
** as a solo artist
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