By Andrew Bansal
While he continues to front legendary classic metal group Stryper, who’ve been going strong for the best part of three decades, vocalist, guitarist, songwriter and producer Michael Sweet also has a well-established solo career. Sweet made his solo debut in 1992, and 24 years later, still devotes time to make his own music whenever he can find some out of his Stryper schedule. He’s ready to release his seventh full-length solo album ‘One Sided War’ on August 26th 2016 via Rat Pak Records, and along with his signature songwriting and performance, he has also included some competent guest musicians on it. Last Wednesday August 24th, Metal Assault had a detailed conversation with Michael Sweet to discuss the album, the guest players, his thoughts on melody in heavy music, his biggest metal influences, humorous lyrical themes, and much more. Enjoy the chat below, along with a taste of music from the new album.
Michael, it’s good to have you again on Metal Assault. We’re going to mainly talk about your solo album ‘One Sided War’ which comes out this Friday on Rat Pak Records. I gave it a few spins from start to finish, and I think it’s definitely one of your heavier efforts but it still retains the melody that’s been evident in your own albums in the past, as well as whatever Stryper has done. What were you going through that resulted in the sound on this album?
Well, I just keep writing. I always have songs in my head, and I don’t sit down and plan each album out. If I’m trying to do a Stryper album, I don’t sit down and ask myself, “OK, how do I write Stryper songs and how do I make them sound?” I just do it. I mean, I have an idea of the direction and the style, but it’s not like it’s really planned out. Same thing goes for my solo albums. I just start writing, and if I feel good about a song once I start programming the drum groove and playing a riff over that, if I get excited about it, then I got with it. If I don’t, after an hour or so I’ll take it and scratch it. I’ve scratched many songs that didn’t necessarily fit on a solo album or on a Stryper album or a Sweet/Lynch project. That’s happened many times.
People try to be heavy in hard rock and heavy metal, but melody is equally important, and actually makes the music sound fuller and heavier. You’ve always been an advocate of that. Without it, I couldn’t even imagine what your music would be like.
Absolutely. And you know, it’s interesting, if you want to call it a movement or just call it a genre, but this style of screaming, screamo and all that, it’s crazy to me that when you have such a cool song or a great riff and an incredible band, and then you put those screaming vocals over it. It doesn’t make sense to me, even though it does to a lot of the younger generation, but melody is super important to me, of course. I believe I grew up in the greatest era of music, which was the ’70s and ’80s. The best bands of all time came out of that time. It was all about melody and all about crafting a song, about guitar gods and incredible singers. Nowadays, not so much. Occasionally a band will come along that has those qualities, but for the most part, it’s a completely different time we live in. I miss that about the ’70s and ’80s. May be bands will slowly come back to that full circle and will respect it and want to honor it. I’m trying to.
That’s the hope, and people like you who’re from that era are trying to keep it alive, and may be inspiring younger people to take it up again.
Oh yeah, absolutely. If you’re a musician and you go back and listen to some of those albums and those musicians and songs, you can’t deny how great they are. You just can’t. If you’re a true musician, when you hear Eddie Van Halen play those songs from the ’70s and ’80s, or you hear George Lynch, Randy Rhoads, Yngwie Malmsteen, Neal Schon, and the list goes on and on. All the singers from those same bands too. You just can’t deny that, and to a very large degree, that is missing in hard rock and metal today.
I would agree on that. You mentioned a lot of great guitar players there, and even this new album of yours, even though it’s based on strong vocals and lyrics, it’s also guitar-oriented. Guitar-based albums can sometimes go over the average listener’s head because of the focus on that instrument alone, but hooks and melodies are crucial in that style. You’re kind of presenting that with this album, and you’ve done so in the past.
Yeah, on this album that was very important to me to focus on guitar, but it was also equally important to focus on, say like the drums. I wanted to work with one of the best drummers out there, Will Hunt, and I really got into producing and working with the drums, as much as I did the rhythm guitars, the guitar solos, lead vocals or bass. You have to focus on everything. That’s how you have an exceptional album. Everything shines on some of my favorite albums of the past, not just the guitar playing or the vocals, but also the bass playing, drums and the crafting of each song. Everything just excels. It was important for me to at least try to accomplish on this album.
Talking of the lyrics, usually the lyrics you’ve written in the past have been inspirational to some people, and sometimes it’s a little bit dark and serious, but on this one I think you’ve injected some humor with songs like ‘Radio’. You’re bringing something fresh in that sense too.
Totally. That song hadn’t been written for very long, but I’ve had the idea of writing a song like that for a long time. It’s kind of poking fun at all the guys that think you just wake up one morning, throw on a pair of cowboy boots and a cowboy hat, go to Nashville and you can become a country star! I’m certainly not trying to be mean-spirited about it, but it is kind of comical when you think about it. And if you reverse that, it would apply to any country stars trying to come to wherever to become metal stars. It’d be kinda funny, you know. I just think it’s somewhat comical, because country is a lifestyle as much as metal is a lifestyle. You live it, you don’t just play it. You have to respect that, even if you don’t like country music or if you don’t like metal! You have to respect the people that are diehards and actually live it. That’s what makes it real. So, ‘Radio’ as a song is kind of like a parody and is supposed to be funny. The video is even funnier. It’s really cool, man. You’re supposed to watch the video and not get up in arms about it. It should make you laugh and smile, because it’s done in a humorous way. I’m singing to myself as well, because I did an album last year and I had a song on it that certainly could be considered country, a song called ‘Coming Home’, which has steel guitar on it. I’m never going to be a try to be a country star, because I’m not. I’m a rock guy. But I respect country. Some of the best writers in the world are in Nashville and they’re writing country songs every day. These guys are simply amazing and I’ve written with a number of them, like Luke Laird, Blair Daly and Bruce Wallace. These guys are phenomenal, man. I’ve never experienced anything like it. So, it’s not about snapping your fingers and becoming a country star, you know. You’ve got to build that, you’ve got to live it and it’s got to be real.
Exactly. In terms of the heavier elements on this album, I feel a bit of the Ronnie James Dio and Iron Maiden influences. Would you say that bands like that have always influenced you, even if it’s not directly audible in the music?
Oh, absolutely. The first time I heard Dio with Vivian, I was totally floored. It was so exceptional, and really inspired me as a musician, as a singer. I don’t sing anything like Dio, I’ve never tried to, I don’t sound anything like him, I’m nowhere near the singer he was, but he influenced me. He was so good that he inspired me and made me want to be better. And the same thing with Iron Maiden. I’ll never forget the first time I heard ‘Run To The Hills’. I had heard Maiden before that and then I heard that song, which was the first time I heard them with Bruce Dickinson. I didn’t even know it was Iron Maiden! I was like, “Who is this??” I almost for a split second thought it was Judas Priest, because of the high-pitched vocals! And it just blew my mind, oh my god. So, there’s nothing like hearing something for the first time as a musician that really makes you want to go pick up a guitar, drumsticks, microphone or whatever it is, and work at being better.
Right, and it’s interesting that you brought up the Bruce Dickinson thing when he first joined the band. I’m too young to have been around back then but you were. So, you heard them with Paul Di’Anno and then with Bruce for the first time. In general, what was the response of Maiden fans back then? Were a lot of people divided? Was there anything like that, or did everyone just accept it?
Well, most of the times when you replace the lead singer, it doesn’t work, specially when you have such an identifiable voice and such a signature sound, like Bruce Dickinson, Rob Halford, Brian Johnson or anyone like that. But Paul, on the other hand, he is a great singer and had a lot of success but he’s a completely different type of singer. Bruce is more of my style of singer, and more the type that excited me and made me go, “Wow!” I think most Iron Maiden fans would agree with that. He really took Iron Maiden to a new level.
That’s definitely true. Coming back to your new album, you also have other musicians that worked with you on it. How did you put together the lineup?
I knew I wanted Will Hunt, I’d spoken to him and made that decision moving forward with Will on drums. He’s phenomenal. I was planning on playing all the guitars myself and may be just get in a guest guy on a couple of songs, and believe it or not, I was talking to Nuno Bettencourt at the time. Nuno had agreed to play a few solos on the album, but that didn’t work out because he was really tied up with the Extreme album. I believed so and I understood that. So, once I knew Nuno wasn’t going to work out, I was working on guitar solos and what happened as I sat there working on them was, I started feeling as if it was just sounding more and more like a Stryper album. Not that it’s a bad thing, but I didn’t want that. I wanted this album to have its own unique signature sound. And of course it was going to have Stryper qualities because of my voice, I’m playing guitars on it, all the rhythms and overdubs, I wrote the songs. So there’s going to be that, but I wanted to try and bring in some new things, new ingredients to give it different flavors and have a different recipe than the Stryper thing. So that’s when I started thinking outside the box and I wanted to get a couple of other players involved. I instantly thought of Ethan Brosh, who’s a local phenomenon, amazing Berklee guy, incredible player, blow-your-mind good. And then Joel Hoekstra, who is also the same. Everybody knows how great Joel is. He played for Night Ranger and now Whitesnake, and he’s phenomenal. I had Joel on a few songs that really fit his style. ‘Radio’ is one of them and Joel is actually also in the video. And then I had Ethan on some songs that I thought he would really blend in with, like you’ve hopefully already seen in the songs ‘Bizarre’ and ‘Golden Age’, which have Ethan playing the solos. So, these guys just really brought new things to the table and helped take this album to new heights and new levels that I would not have been able to accomplish on my own. I’m really happy and thankful that these guys are a part of it.
It sounds like they definitely contributed in enhancing the album. And there’s also a bonus track to end the album, a duet version of ‘Can’t Take This Life’. On the previous album you had a duet with Electra Mustaine and on this one you’re introducing another young female singer named Moriah Formica. Can you tell us a little bit about her?
Yeah, I did a solo show with her and she blew my mind, and my wife Lisa’s mind. Lisa suggested to me and said that it would be great if I could work with her. So I ended up reaching out to her without hesitation and asking her to sing on my album. There’s nothing more gratifying than being supportive and being behind up and coming talent, female and male. The sex of the person doesn’t matter. It’s just inspiring to be able to support someone and help them flourish and grow. Obviously I wanted to do that with Electra, I think she’s incredibly talented. She’s going to be a big star and everyone is going to hear her name and know her name very soon. She’s got a lot of talent and it obviously runs in her family. Her dad is Dave Mustaine (laughs). So, a lot of talent there. And then, you have Moriah, I call her Mo, and she just blew my mind. She was singing Heart, Pat Benatar and Halestorm, and the Skid Row classic ‘I Remember You’, and I just kept coming out of my dressing room to watch her perform because I was so blown away. She’s great on the album, but you have to see her live to get the full effect because she plays guitar, leads and solos too. She’s a rockstar.
That’s awesome. The duet came out good and her talent shows. I think I have just one more question for you here. This is your seventh solo album and even though you’re still going strong with everything that Stryper is doing, you have this identity as a solo artist, and Stryper is not your only claim to fame. Is this about carving an identity for yourself, or is it just another expression of your creativity?
I think it’s probably a little bit of both, more so just expressing myself. I’m a very creative person, I’m always writing, I have tons of energy, I’m drug-free and have been since the age of 20. I’ve got a lot of energy, man. I have OCD and ADHD and I joke about that. I exhaust people around me because I’m always saying, “Let’s go!” And people are like, “Hey man, slow down!” I’m always writing songs and humming melodies. I love to record, I love to produce. If I could, if I had the finances and the backing from the label, I would easily, easily record two or three albums a year and enjoy every minute of it, and I’d be smiling ear to ear, because it’s just coming out of me non-stop. Obviously being in Stryper doesn’t allow me the time to do enough of what I want to do, if that makes sense. I mean, the other guys want times off, or we’re touring. But things happen where we can’t do this or do that, and I’m like, “OK, I’ve got two weeks, so I’m going to record an album of my own!” It’s just how I’m built.
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