By Jeb Wright
Classic Rock Revisited
Michael Sweet knows about tragedy and triumph. He recently lost his wife after a devastating battle with cancer. Her death left him a single father, with a job that keeps him, mostly, on the road. Sweet had to change his priorities, and learn balance in his daily life, something he, all to often, took for granted when his wife was still alive. He also completed a tour with Boston, picking up the pieces left in that band by vocalist Brad Delp’s suicide. During the tour, rock fans discovered the Sweet was an amazing vocalist, an accomplished guitarist, and a maniac on stage. One could not attend a Boston concert without finding ones eye’s drifting to Sweet’s side of the stage. The glory was held in check, though, by the fact that the only reason he was on the tour was that his wife made him take the gig.
It is these kinds of ups and downs that build character in a person. Sweet has reflected on his life, owned up to his weaknesses, and stepped up to the plate, in both his families’ lives and his own. He is fortunate that a chance incident, a condolence sent when Delp died, has lead him to Boston.
Life before Boston, for Sweet, consisted of being the ‘go-to-guy’ in the Christian Metal band Stryper. In this interview, Sweet discusses his days as the good boy on the Sunset Strip, as well as when he went away from the Lord and refused to practice what he preached.
Jeb: You have an incredible musical story, but before we jump into it I want to pass on my condolences on the loss of your wife.
Michael: Thank you very much. I have been dealing with that on a day-to-day basis. It is difficult sometimes because I want to stay busy. When I am not busy I find that I am losing my mind. I am getting out and stay active, which is a bit different for me because I am more of a recluse. When I am out on the road then I am a busybody but when I am home, I am more on the reclusive side.
Jeb: Musicians have the dual personality thing...
Michael: I guess so. All of my buddies like to go out. Oz [Fox], from Stryper, likes to go out. If anyone asks him to go out then he jumps at the opportunity. I am the opposite. I go, “I think I will just get a movie and a pizza and stay in tonight.”
Jeb: I have a wife, a son and a daughter and my wife is the bedrock of the family. I read you story and was really touched. I can’t imagine what you are going through. My thoughts and prayers really are with you. It has got to be horrible.
Michael: I appreciate it, I really do. It really is, but it is interesting because with all the pain and sorrow that has gone on, there has been some really good come from it to. I always feel awkward saying that but it is true. It has somehow helped to bring my daughter, my son and myself closer together. It is not that we were not close before, as we were always a close family, but I was one who got lost in the flow of recording and touring. My priorities would get a little out of whack and this has really helped me to keep my priorities in check. I am really getting closer to my kids through all of this, so something good has come out of it.
Jeb: On another note, I saw you play with BOSTON last summer. The curiosity aspect was that there was a Home Depot employee that was now a member of BOSTON. I also knew that you, a member of Stryper, were also in the band. But I will admit I really was not focused on you. That is until I saw you play and sing. You were amazing on that stage. I don’t think I gave you the respect as a vocalist that you deserve. You stole the show.
Michael: I am one of those guys...I am not about competition. I hate being in the spotlight. In a room full of people I tend to be more shy and reserved. If someone asks, “Who wants to go do something,” I am not going to be the first one to raise my hand. When it comes to the stage, however, something happens. Maybe because I am so shy and reclusive I use the stage as a way to release it. I get lost in the music and I enjoy it so much. The fact that I am blessed and able to do that puts me on such a high. I am blessed and I am able to bless others...that is why I am running around like a chicken with his head cut off up there.
Jeb: I have seen BOSTON many times over the years. It was odd without Brad there, but you guys were amazing.
Michael: I have to tell you that when I heard the first BOSTON album, it changed my life. The first song I heard was “More Than a Feeling.” My chin fell and hit the floor. As a musician, I could not believe what I was hearing. What grabbed me was the production. Everything was perfect and that is what floored me. It helped me to strive to achieve better guitar tones, better vocal structures, better production methods and all kinds of stuff. BOSTON was a big influence on my life.
When I look at old BOSTON footage from Giants Stadium on YouTube, then I am just blown away. To me, they sounded great. When someone says to me that this version of BOSTON sounds better than the old one, I look at those old YouTube clips and the hairs on my arm just stand up. For some reason, I just love it. Some of the melodies have changed but there is just a raw energy that is so cool to see. At the same time, to be told that this lineup is the best that BOSTON has sounded is hard to believe. I say that very humbly.
Jeb: As far as a live sound goes, BOSTON really sounds great live now. All the parts are there with the guitars and the harmonies. I don’t know if that has ever happened before.
Michael: I am so glad to hear that. The other side of the coin is that there is really a great spirit in the band. It is really fun again. There is a newness that is refreshing. It is almost like the first time. Speaking from my experience, in Stryper, I head everything up in that band and I am the ‘go to’ guy. That can really take away from the joy of just playing the music. In BOSTON, I just get to be a musician. Honest to God, this tour was the most fun tour that I have ever been on in my life. Were there stressful moments? Of course there were. Were there moments where my voice didn’t feel up to par and I was worried about that? Of course there were. Those are just things that go along with touring. Looking over and seeing an ear-to-ear grin on Gary’s [Pihl] face and an ear-to-ear on Tom’s face was great. Seeing Tom move around on stage and smiling and bringing his guitar up in the air was awesome. We fed off of that and it kind of spread throughout the entire group.
Jeb: Are you responsible for getting “Hitch A Ride” back into the set list? That is the rumor...
Michael: I don’t think so. I think that is something that Tom and Kim [Scholz] wanted to do because it was one that had not been played in a very long time. I was all for it. It is one of my favorite BOSTON songs and I love the solo in that song. I wasn’t the one who walked in and said, “I want to do ‘Hitch a Ride.’” When it came up I was like, “I would love to do that one.”
Jeb: Tom explained to me that having you in BOSTON is really a chance thing that came from you giving your condolences to them when Brad Delp died.
Michael: You could never plan this. It happened, in my opinion, because it was a God thing—don’t worry man, I am not going to get over spiritual on you. I really do think it was the hand of God because it was the toughest time of my life. My wife was diagnosed with Stage IV of ovarian cancer and was really sick. I was completely floored and knocked down, beyond belief, and wondering if life was over. Tom was going through the death of Brad Delp. We were both going through the darkest times of our lives. I reached out and wrote something about what Brad meant to me as a singer and a person, even though I had never met him. Tom read what I wrote and was touched by that. That led to them reaching out to my management and me being invited to go out and sing a song or two at, what was supposed to be, the last BOSTON show, which was the benefit show. The talk was that they were not going to continue on without Brad. I completely understood that and agreed. I got my guitar and went up for rehearsals and learned some songs.
This is my side of the story, but at the very moment when we started to play, something happened. It was more on the guitar side of things and not the vocals. We all clicked and there was this really cool feeling of unity; you could feel it. Tom’s eyes got big and he made the comment that this was the best that the guitars had ever sounded. We started getting to the point to where we were actually rehearsing and I sang “More Than a Feeling,” and Kim, Tom’s wife, said she got goose bumps. Everything clicked and continued to fall into place. It wasn’t forced; we weren’t making it happen. It was them as people, and me as a person, and it just worked. We went and did the show and after the show Tom was really excited about the future. Tom came up to me and said, “If all the planets align, Michael, and we do anymore then we would like you to be a part of it.” Not long after that, I was in Spain with Stryper and I got a phone call from BOSTON’s agent, who tells me they are booking a BOSTON tour. It was really surreal.
If you put BOSTON and Stryper aside, I am just so blessed to be in their lives and to be a part of their lives. I am very blessed to call them friends and for them to call me a friend; that is the blessing in all of this. The icing on the cake is the rest of this but the cake is the fact that they are my friends. I am blessed, as was my wife, Kyle, to know Tom and Kim. I consider them family and I think they consider us family too. They are incredible people.
Jeb: This is more than just playing music...
Michael: We share a lot of the same values and views. We just hit it off. I understand them and they understand me.
Jeb: I have not found this to be true but a lot of people say Tom is hard to work with. Where does that come from?
Michael: I shouldn’t say that I don’t know because I do know. I think where that is misunderstood, and misconstrued, is because he’s a perfectionist. He wants everything to be perfect and I am the exact same way. I understand that. It doesn’t make you a bad person but it can sometimes make it more of a stressful situation when the other people you are working with don’t agree or are not perfectionists. They don’t understand and they will say, “That vocal is good enough,” or “That guitar part is good enough,” and in your mind it is not good enough. You want to keep getting it better and better until, in your mind, it is the perfect one. I don’t think there is a perfect take. I can’t listen to Stryper records because I listen to everything that is not perfect; instead of what is good, I listen to what is bad. I think Tom may do that as well because he is an extreme perfectionist. I don’t get the “difficult to work with” thing. I have not seen that at all. Tom just wants everything to sound perfect so the people who come to the shows get the best of the best. He is one of the nicest, giving and most incredibly humble people that I have ever met on this planet.
Jeb: I think the media does not like it because he is not out there doing a ton of interviews and waving the BOSTON flag.
Michael: I hear what you are saying but I don’t get it. I am one of those guys who waves the flag. Tom is very talented and he is very smart—he is ‘from another planet’ smart.
Jeb: When you were going to jam with BOSTON for the first time were you nervous?
Michael: There was a side of me that was saying, “Pinch me.” There still is that part of me that says that. I am still saying, “How did this happen?” I may get to sing on the new BOSTON album and I may get a song on the new BOSTON record. I might get to tour with BOSTON again. I never assume anything; I am very cautious about that. Life changes and things happen that are out of my control but the fact that they are my friends, today, is incredible. When I really step back and think about it then I really know how this happened. I view it as our paths crossing because of God saying that we needed each other during these dark times in our lives.
It has been like a movie; these things just don’t happen in real life. This goes beyond the events that happened with me. Look at the events that happened with Tommy. We got to go out with Styx and that was the best band for us to go out with. Everything really clicked. I came off of that tour thinking that I would not have gone back and changed a thing. The most difficult thing was being away from my wife. Knowing my wife the way I do, that was her gift to me. She insisted that I do it. She was very sacrificial. I was receiving that gift and that made it even more special.
Jeb: Tell me what you know about a new BOSTON album?
Michael: There is no time frame or date being set; nothing is set in stone. I can tell you this: It is being worked on. There is some material that might be re-recorded and there is some material with Brad on it. There is also new material and I have a couple of songs that I have presented to Tom. There are all sorts of ideas going on right now.
Jeb: With two perfectionists working together...it may never get done.
Michael: I hear you. Tom is really working away on it and I know there is a lot of work being put into it this year. The goal is to get it done sooner than later.
Jeb: As successful as you have been in Stryper, you have never had to go into the studio and top the debut album or Don’t Look Back. How do you do that?
Michael: When you get into a situation where you are making comparisons between songs that were hits, you lose sight of what you are doing and it becomes sterile. It can become lifeless and then you end up with something that is not going to touch peoples’ hearts. When you go into it with the attitude of writing from your heart and expressing your art that comes from your heart and soul then you can do it. If you do that and put everything into it then the rest is all going to fall into place. That is what is happening here. I don’t think it is a situation where Tom is trying to make an album like the first album. This album will have it’s own thing and it is going to be different, but I think it is going to be really great.
Jeb: Tom does not need the fame, money or accolades. He is free to create whatever he wants.
Michael: I stress this with this album or any band making an album: Write from the heart. Don’t get stressed looking at statistics or looking at the past or any of that stuff. If you go down that path then you are on a path that you don’t really want to be on. I have done that with some of my solo albums. I was trying to write an album that was like another album. Stryper did that with In God We Trust. We tried to copy the To Hell With The Devil album and it didn’t work.
Jeb: You’re still in Stryper but do you ever look at the set list for a BOSTON show and just get blown away from the songs that are written down?
Michael: When we are playing “More Than a Feeling” or “Long Time” or “Smokin’” I am having flashbacks to when I was thirteen-years-old and was a fan. It, honest to God, feels like I am dreaming everything because it just doesn’t feel real. It is so cool to be up there playing all of these songs that affected my life and so many others.
Jeb: Did you buy the first BOSTON album way back when?
Michael: I sure did. I don’t have it any more but my wife still has it. She has quite a vinyl collection and the BOSTON record is in there. I do have a copy of the original BOSTON record. I should get Tom to sign it.
Jeb: When did you know that music was going to be your life?
Michael: My parents were singers and songwriters so this has always been in my life. When I was two and three years old, I used to rock back and forth whenever music was being played. My dad used to come home from work and play everything from Mario Lanza to Elvis Presley to Creedence Clearwater Revival. Whenever he would put anything on I would start bopping back and forth—I could feel the music.
When I was five, I wanted to learn how to play the guitar. He had a Gibson twelve-string that was the worst guitar I could have ever learned on. But, he showed me some chords and I worked hard, and when was eight I got an electric guitar. By the time I was eleven or twelve, I got amps and distortion boxes and got into really playing. I had a musical family and music has always been a big part of my life.
My brother had a band and they needed a vocalist. My dad talked him into letting me try out for the band. I was thirteen and he was sixteen and wanting to be serious. He didn’t want to try me out but he finally let me and I got the gig. We bought a PA and we started playing clubs when I was fourteen. I played Garzaries when I was fifteen and sixteen years old. I played all of the Hollywood clubs then. I look back on it and I wonder how it could be because I was in these clubs and it was illegal for me to be in there.
Jeb: Was the family where your spiritual life came from?
Michael: It was. My brother started watching an evangelist on TV on Sunday morning. I got interested and, over a period of five or six months, my whole family started watching him. We got involved in our local church and we started doing music in our local church. I fell away from that and went through a period where I didn’t want to go to church or even have anything to do with the church. I got heavily into the club scene. We were playing with Ratt and Motely Crue.
Jeb: You were not called Stryper then.
Michael: We were called Roxx and then we changed the name to Roxx Regime. We played the club scene for years. There were a number of times when people would come up to me, while I was on Sunset Strip and tell me about God. There was this guy named Arthur Blessit, who carried this cross around the world, telling people about God. All of these little things started happening to me that started making me think about God again.
To make a long story short, we wound up forming a band. Our bass player was in a band called Stormer, who were one of the biggest Hollywood bands. He left the band and he was the bass player we always wanted. We always thought that he would be the coolest person to be in a band with. We saw a picture of Stormer and Tim [Gaines] was not in the picture. We got his number and called his house and spoke to his mother. We found out that he left Stormer because he had become a Christian. We contacted Tim and he came down and we formed the band, that a few months later, became Stryper.
Jeb: Was it hard to come out as a Christian Metal band?
Michael: We chose to be a light in the dark and to be a positive instead of negative. We wanted to be an encouragement instead of a discouragement. We started telling people that they didn’t need drugs. We tried to encourage kids to get out of that whole drug scene that was going on and is still going on.
Jeb: In Roxx Regime were you in the Sunset Strip lifestyle?
Michael: I was going up in sin in that lifestyle. I was there every weekend smoking and drinking. I was just there getting drunk. I was completely absorbed with that lifestyle. I finally discovered that was not me. From about the age of fourteen until the age of twenty, I lived that lifestyle. When I was twenty, I made a commitment to encourage people with the music that God gave me.
Jeb: You were young out on The Strip.
Michael: I started playing at an early, early age. I played talent shows and parties when I was ten years old. I played bass then and the bass was bigger than me. I recorded with my parents when they were recording Country records. I progressed very quickly.
Jeb: How old were you when you first played Garzaries?
Michael: I was either thirteen or fourteen. I joined my brother’s band when I was thirteen and I might have played Garzaries when I was just about to turn fourteen. I looked older than my age. I never got questioned by anyone. LA was on fire musically at that time. You had Y&T, Van Halen and Quiet Riot who were creating a huge buzz. In the early to mid-Eighties, you had Ratt, Motley Crue, Great White and Stryper. All of these bands were getting record deals from playing the clubs in Hollywood. People would come and see bands play in clubs and they would be signed two weeks later. We were in the right place at the right time.
Jeb: You say it like that but Stryper could play their instruments. You guys were better than a lot of Strip bands, talent wise.
Michael: I view us as four guys who strive to be good but who really aren’t that good. I prefer to view it that way because it keeps me humble. There are guys who put us to shame. There are guys who can sing and play circles around me. I will say that I always try to play from the heart and I will continue trying to do that.
Jeb: When you switched from partying on The Strip to being a good Christian boy, how did the other bands treat you?
Michael: We took a lot of flack, we really did. We would get a write up in the paper where they would say, “This has got to be a joke.” They would bash us until they would come and see us play live. They would come and see us and then they would say, “Never mind what I said before.” We were not the best musicians but we always gave it our all. Oz and I would spend days on one guitar solo working out every single note in harmony. I am talking tapping and everything. It was pretty intricate stuff and we had to work really hard at it to pull it off. We put more time into it than you will ever know. We busted our butts. I think that came across live. When people would see us live then I think that came off. The vocal harmonies and the guitar solos really sounded good.
Jeb: I heard Stryper but I never paid attention that you were a Christian band. Someone had a cassette and I heard some of it and thought it rocked. Then, I found out you were a Christian band and I decided that I had to hate you.
Michael: It is amazing because that has happened more times that you would believe. People would hear the music and like it but then find out we are Christians and not like us. The same people will take some of the really dark stuff and not want to listen to it because of the lyrical content. Our latest record, Reborn, is not lyrically like it was in the past. In the past, it was all about Jesus and it was really up front. We are not sweeping anything under the carpet now; we still take a really strong stance on who we are and what we are and we would never run from that. We have just changed our approach over the years.
Jeb: You have to change. You can’t put out the same thing over and over and over.
Michael: I listen to a lot of new bands. I made a solo record called Truth and I was trying to stay up with what was going on within the scene. I try to do that with Stryper too. When we mix I try to capture something similar to what is going on now. We don’t want to sound dated.
Jeb: You can’t go too far to the new or people will think you are not being true to yourself.
Michael: There is a very fine line there and it is hard to pull off. Reborn was our attempt to retain our roots and still step into 2005, which is when it came out.
Jeb: My only complaint on that album is that there needed to be guitar solos.
Michael: Two things that we have heard about that album are, “Where are the guitar solos?” and “Where are the high notes?” We just weren’t feeling it at the time. If I could go back then I would at least add guitar solos. Our new album, Murder by Pride, is all about guitar solos. There are a lot of harmony guitar solos with lots of notes.
Jeb: MTV played you a lot and I think that helped people get over the God thing.
Michael: Stryper really tried to achieve the best. If you listen to To Hell With The Devil, and compare it with other records that came out at the same time, then you would notice how well it was produced. The same was true with Against the Law, although that didn’t get much recognition. Tom Werman produced it and it had an incredible sound and production to it. It could really hold up with the best of them for that time. I think, coming from a Christian band, it blew people away. This is not a knock against other Christian bands but they tended to not sound like that. They sounded like they were made for ten thousand dollars instead of a hundred thousand dollars. They just lacked in quality and were not up to par. Our records always were up to par. We tried to make records that could stand up against anything out there.
Jeb: Did the record company try to get you to exploit the Christian angle so they could market you as something different?
Michael: We actually got signed and the record company had no idea that we were a Christian band. We played in clubs and we were really loud. The vocals were always muddy and not very out front. They had no idea what we were singing about. They loved the music and they signed us. When it came time to submit lyrics and liner notes, they freaked out. They called and said, “Are you serious about these lyrics?” This was a label called Enigma, who had signed Motley Crue. They said, “We didn’t know this is what this was going to be and we are not happy with this.” They really wanted out but we had a really good attorney and there was no way of getting out of it without it getting really nasty. They ended up releasing the record, Yellow & Black Attack, and in a three-week period it sold about 250,000 units, which for a totally underground, no world press type of band just blew them away. All of a sudden, we were their best buddies. We developed a great relationship with Enigma and they became really great friends of ours. We stuck to our guns and we did what we did and it ended up doing really well for them. Each record sold more than that last.
Jeb: Where did the spandex come into play? You are as famous for the yellow and black spandex than you are for anything else.
Michael: It is one of those love/hate things. The yellow and black is such a big part of Stryper. A lot of times that is how we are recognized. I will be talking to people and ask them if they have ever heard of Stryper and they will say, “No, I haven’t.” I will say they were the ones with the yellow and black and they will go, “Oh yeah, the bumblebees.” It is such a visual thing and it helps people remember the band. It is also kind of a curse at times. It is also what people want to see but we don’t always want them to see it. We want to be remembered for the music.
Jeb: You went with a different look on Reborn.
Michael: We incorporated the yellow and black but we did it in a toned down way. On this tour, and for this album, we are going to do a set with the new bass player and the new material and then we are going to take a break. We are then going to come out and play a set with new clothes that are being made for us, that are yellow and black, and play the yellow and black guitars and play a set of the old songs, with the original bass player. It is going to be really different.
Jeb: I think you and Motley Crue should have toured and called it The Saints & Sinners Tour.
Michael: We talked about a tour with Motley. We talked to Vince Neal and we talked about touring together. It never progressed into paperwork or going into the legalities. We were going to call it The Heaven & Hell Tour but it never came to be.
Jeb: Stryper never attacked their peers for their behavior. There was no holier than thou attitude.
Michael: We reached out to our peers. We enjoined hanging out with them. Michael Anthony would come to our photo shoot and hang with us and tell us that he bought Stryper albums for his kids. We are all people and we are all flesh and blood. We all go to the same place in the end.
I never wanted to have the attitude that we were better than them or knew more than them. It doesn’t work and it is the wrong attitude for any Christian to have.
Jeb: Stryper broke up for a while. What caused the break up?
Michael: We broke up in 1991, due in part to the fact that, for a brief period in our lives, we kind of walked away from God. We made a record called Against the Law and our hearts changed. It became more about the music than the message. We got caught up in the whole scene. We started doing things that we had never done and things that we had always spoke out against, and encouraged people not to do, like getting drunk. We were relying on alcohol to make us happy. We started bringing beer into rehearsals, which we had never had before. We had beer on the bus, which we had never had before. One guy would have one beer and then another and then another. It snowballed into something that we just weren’t and never wanted to be. It got to the point to where I thought we were being hypocrites. We wound up going our separate ways.
Jeb: I though you all just faded away as popular music changed.
Michael: We would have continued and made another record. We went through that phase and we needed to get away from one an other to renew our minds and restore ourselves. I am very openhearted and I speak freely, even though it might be uncomfortable for some people to read those things, but it helped me to become the man I am today. I learned a lot through it, and from it, we all have. At this very moment we are all in good places in our lives.
Jeb: Did it drop your jaws when some of the major religious people were speaking out against you?
Michael: It did and it didn’t. It dropped our jaws in the sense that we were trying to do the same thing that they were. It was somewhat painful and hurtful. When we stepped back and realized why they were doing that then it made us understand it a little bit more. You have to look at us. We were one of the first bands to do what we did and to do it the way that we did. It was shocking. I could image people in the church looking at us with the long hair, makeup and spandex and being shocked.
We used to have people from local churches come out to our shows with bullhorns. They would have twenty to thirty bullhorns and be shouting at people telling them not to come into our shows. They would say we were wolves in sheep’s clothing... We were on the news and it was just wild. We would always go out whenever that happened, and it happened often, and try to love them and be nice. We would offer them tickets and ask them if they had ever seen us before. Nine times out of ten they would say they had never seen us. We would say, “Why don’t you come in and check us out before you protest what we do?” Sometimes they would. Those that did come in, their hearts were changed because they saw what we were trying to do.
Jeb: Last one: Have Tom and Gary got you to stop eating meat yet?
Michael: I will be honest here... no, I still eat meat on occasion. My wife was a vegetarian. I considered myself a vegetarian for a while but I wasn’t a real diehard vegetarian because I still ate fish. I ate vegetarian on this tour and it is the best that I ever felt. We had a staff that would make these incredible meals. I consider myself a healthy eater. I like sushi; actually I love sushi. I respect the fact that Tom and Gary are so disciplined. It is not just about what they put into their bodies but it is about why they don’t eat meat as well. If you think about the inhumane side of things… it is tragic and I think it would change anybody who knew about it. It is about knowledge. If you don’t know what is going on then you are not going to change. If you see how animals are abused and the process of how it is made and packaged then it will change what you put in your mouth.
Jeb: I admire anyone who has that kind of conviction. I am still addicted to cows.
Michael: Once you do it and get into that mind set—it takes a lot more work to find good food and to prepare the food. Once you get into that way of doing things then there is no turning back. It is incredible food and you feel better. In many ways you are also helping the situation. It is the way to be. Tom and Kim have certainly been an influence. Every time I go to see them she makes these incredible meals. They would change anyone’s mind.
Jeb: Last one: BOSTON is taking a year off playing live. What is Stryper doing?
Michael: Stryper will be out this year from September to mid November. As far as BOSTON goes, there will be more touring but it just depends on when. It could be 2010, 2011 or it could be 2048 [laughter]. I think there will be more and I am so excited about that possibility and everyone is looking forward to it.