Exclusive Interview: Michael Sweet from Stryper
Stryper is offering fans a head banging view of who their influences were early on, with the arrival of an almost entire album’s worth of covers, The Covering. The album includes twelve rocking covers, as well as an all-new original tune, “God”. And most significantly, the album marks the return of original bassist Tim Gaines back into the Stryper fold, setting up the first Stryper release in years to feature the definitive line-up of Michael Sweet (vocals/guitar), Oz Fox (guitar), Tim Gaines (bass), and Robert Sweet (drums).
According to Michael Sweet, the impetus for putting out a mostly covers set was a simple one. “Every Stryper album is pretty serious and pretty bold in the lyrical faith sense of the word. We just wanted to roll our sleeves up, cut loose, and have some fun.” And when it came time to pick out a listing of tunes to cover, all the band had to do was look back upon their club days. “Growing up, before Stryper was even Stryper, we were a cover band. We played Gazzarri’s on the Strip for years – we would do originals but also do covers, as well. We always did Priest covers and Maiden covers, all those bands that we grew up on and influenced us.”
We caught up with Michael the day The Covering was released to talk about the album’s early success, what it’s like to have the original lineup back together and what the future holds for Stryper.
Michael, it’s great to talk to you – especially on the release date for The Covering. It seems to be a monster already!
We are seeing the benefits of everyone being involved. We couldn’t do it without you and we couldn’t do it without all the people out there spreading the word and supporting this record and the band. It’s incredible. The numbers, pre-orders, reviews – everyone really seems to be diggin’ this record. It’s blowing us away.
It’s charting all over the place online.
Just to give you an idea, I talked to the label today. Murder By Pride, which really was a success, shipped about 22,000 units out of the box. By today’s standards that’s really well. With the pre-orders, this record shipped almost double that. Nobody can really explain it, but the “street team” as I like to call everybody, has really been spreading the word. We literally gave our blood, sweat and tears to make this record. We put everything into it and I think it paid off. I listen to the record and other people have listened to it and it’s a great sounding record. Sonically we just stumbled upon the right combination with the studio – SpiritHouse and the engineer Danny Bernini. I produced the record and having the original lineup – it just came together. It was the right chemistry.
I could tell upon first listen that you guys weren’t messing around. You can really tell that you’re sincerely fans of these songs. Every little detail that a music fan pays so much attention to is in these songs. The little details make such a difference.
They really do. It’s very important – from an effect used on a guitar solo, a vocal line or what have you. We were walking that fine line of trying to be respectful to the original version and not try to create our own version so much that it destroyed the original. Some bands try to get so creative and put their own spin on a song that they completely destroy anything that the original had. We didn’t want to do that. That’s why we stayed true to the originals but still put our little spin on them. I don’t know how but I think we accomplished that.
Who initially had the idea to do a covers album?
We were doing covers way back in the day before we were Stryper. Over the years we’d always sound check with a cover or two. We started adding “On Fire” to the set in ’91. Recently we started adding “Breaking The Law”. My wife Lisa was backstage one night and said, “You guys oughta do a covers album. Look at the response you get live.” That’s what really got me to thinking and we talked about it as a band. We agreed that now would be the perfect time to do these because the four of us would be able to go in and have some fun, loosen up and show people where our roots lie. Add to that, a lot of people over the years have asked us about doing a covers album. It just felt like the right time and having my wife suggest it confirmed what we had been thinking for years. We went in and did it, so props to her!
How times have changed, though. Who would have guessed Stryper would release an album covering songs from artists like Black Sabbath, Ozzy and Kiss? If you would’ve tried this 20 years ago you would’ve been crucified!
I know, man. I don’t think it would’ve worked 20 years ago. We would have been crucified for doing so. We were doing good to pull ourselves out of the hole that was dug from the Against The Law period. Just doing that record, I don’t see a problem with it at all, but the church shunned us to some degree because it was so off track with To Hell With The Devil or In God We Trust.
Lyrically Against The Law was still inspirational, positive music. The content was still there.
Absolutely. It was still there. What had more to be desired was our attitudes. We were definitely in more of a dark place at that time. We were angry for getting beat up on both sides for so many years. We wanted to show the world we were going to do it our way. It may have appeared more abrasive, but lyrically and musically I think it’s one of our better albums. If we had done this covers album back then I think we would’ve been excommunicated from the church!
You mentioned the original lineup is back together. Tim is back. Is he back for good this time?
If he behaves himself! (laughs) Tim’s back for good, man. He’s an important, crucial part of the chemistry in this band. He helps make Stryper who they are. The fact that he’s on this record and he’s with us live is very important. Everything is awesome. We’re having a great time together and enjoying each others company. It’s the best it’s ever been, man.
I’m guessing when it came time to pick songs for the album that everybody brought in their own ideas. Were there a lot of suggestions that didn’t make the cut?
There were some songs we were thinking about and decided we probably shouldn’t. There were some Ozzy songs, some Maiden songs, some Priest songs. We tried our best to be appropriate with the lyrical choices. Some may argue, “How can they justify doing a Sabbath song?” If you read the words to “Heaven & Hell”, those are lyrics that Stryper would’ve written. There’s nothing wrong with those lyrics. They’re absolutely dead-on the money. We wanted to solidify the fact that we’re as serious about our faith as we’ve ever been by doing the original song “God”. I think “God” is one of the most powerful songs we’ve ever done.
“God” is the perfect representation of Stryper. Is that song a good indicator of where Stryper is headed next?
Absolutely. I think we’d be fools not to go in that direction with the next record. I can guarantee that’s what we will do. Expect that from us for sure. We’re toying around with the idea of re-recording some of the classic Stryper tunes. We’re keeping it rockin’ and keepin’ it heavy – just doing modern day versions of the originals.
If you can imagine “Soldiers Under Command” with the same sound and production as the songs on The Covering. That would be pretty cool to hear.
They’d all be “beefed up” quite a bit.
Exactly. The low end, the punch. In your face. I think it’d be a fun record to do as well. We’re definitely going to do that. We’re going to do an all original album. We’re going to keep churning them out. We’ve got a month off from touring in April and we’re already talking about going in and doing some recording. I don’t know if it will happen – but we’re talking about it.
When you went into the studio to record The Covering, how much time had you spent listening to the original tracks?
We didn’t. Those songs were so in our heads and in our hearts from growing up on those songs. We didn’t pull out the originals and say, “We gotta do this, we gotta do that.” Every now and then we would listen to the original track to get the same effect on the guitar solo or something like that. We purposely tried not to go back and listen to those songs while we were doing this.
This record may be a gateway to a new audience.
I hope so. Over the years there have been thousands and thousands of people that haven’t given Stryper the chance because we have the Christian tag. “They’re Christian? There’s no way they can be any good.” We’ve fought that battle from day one. This record completely destroys those misconceptions. It shows to anybody that has ears that we can pull it off. We can play our instruments and we can perform. It’s about the music. We’re still going to have the haters. Those are the people that just aren’t listening, man. I say this humbly and not with pride at all, but you can’t listen to The Covering if you know good music and say that it sucks. You just can’t. It’s a good album. Those are incredible songs. I think we did ’em justice. Those people that say it sucks…we couldn’t do anything that would please them. (laughs)
Since you guys were so familiar with those songs, was it easier in the studio or did you have a little more pressure making sure your versions measured up to the originals?
It was smooth sailing for the most part. There were certain songs that kicked our butts. “The Trooper” was rough on all of us. That’s a tough song, man. That’s not an easy song to play! That’s why Iron Maiden is Iron Maiden! There were some songs I went into with a higher level of fear vocally. “Blackout”, “Highway Star”, “Heaven & Hell” believe it or not. Interestingly enough, I think those are some of the better tracks. I was really nervous about them. They have that special flair to ’em and I’m really thankful for that.
You’re hitting the road soon. Which cover songs will you be performing and do you have any plans to pull some old songs into the set?
We’re definitely pulling some old songs. We don’t have the luxury to completely revamp the set list for this March run but we are gonna add “Always There For You”, we’re talking about “First Love”, “Surrender”, and one of my favorites has always been “Loving You”. It’s one of my brother’s favorites, too. It’s just a fun song to play live. On the covers side we’re talking about adding “Over The Mountain”, “Heaven & Hell”, maybe “Shout It Out Loud”, “Carry On My Wayward Son”, possibly “Blackout”, “Highway Star”, “On Fire”. Of course they won’t all be in the set. We’ll have a 2 1/2 hour set but we’ll switch it up from one night to the next. We’ll do four or five covers a night.
How do you feel about Stryper as a band now as compared to any other time in it’s history?
I think we’re in the best place, all around, than we’ve ever been. Spiritually, musically, physically – I feel better than I ever have. I feel better than I did when I was 20 years old. I’m trying to take care of myself. Maybe The Covering will be the album that puts Stryper on a wide appeal level so we can reach out to all the people instead of just a select few.
Michael, it’s been great talking today. What would you like to say to wrap everything up?
Thank you for all your support. We could not do it without you and we are so grateful. Thank you so much!