When Michael Sweet and George Lynch released their first collaboration, Only to Rise, in 2015, the conceptual pull of their ’80s bands—Stryper and Dokken, respectively—was quite thrilling for those who had been waiting for some melodic shred by two icons of the genre. The album delivered on its promise with great songs, and, of course, kick-ass guitars. It also zoomed up into the top 10 of the Billboard charts—which meant that those who waited for such a musical mash-up were legion.
Well, the hordes should be prepared to be exhilarated again, as the collaborators—under the band name Sweet & Lynch—have launched stage two, Unified [Frontiers]. Musically, he new album follows the same general path as Only to Rise, but with two notable exceptions. Lynch was more involved in the arrangement of the songs this time out—for Rise, he sent a ton of parts, but left it to Sweet to piece things together—and the nature of the world today informed Sweet’s melodies and lyrics. What this means to listeners is that Unified still has all of the memorable songwriting and ferocious guitars, but it also sends a deeper message. Prepare to be inspired.
It’s so great that Only to Rise wasn’t a one-time project. What keeps you two collaborating?
Sweet: I think George and I work well together because we’re both melodic minds and melodic musicians. Melody is the foundation of everything, and you’ve got to have something that really attaches itself to people—beautiful melodies that people can remember and sing along to. When he sends me stuff, it’s almost laid out for a singer already. I can hear the vocal melodies in his guitar parts.
Lynch: In my own mind, I’m the world’s greatest singer, but I can’t sing. But I hear what I would like to hear there, and I’m always imagining the melodies the vocals are singing. When Michael puts down his vocals—obviously he’s on the other side of the country, and we’re not communicating directly regarding vocal ideas or anything like that—it’s usually not what I envisioned, but it’s still great.
There may be a teachable moment, here. Michael, what do some guitarists do that makes it difficult for a vocalist to write melodies, or even sing over the tracks?
Sweet: Well, with a lot of guitarists, it’s just constant soloing and jamming in the verses and prechoruses. How can you find any room for the vocal melodies? You’re done. But George is so amazing at knowing the right time and place to throw that stuff in, and the right time to hold back.
Michael has stated that one of the production concepts for Unified was to make a record influenced by the best music of the ’70s and ’80s.
Lynch: I was a little afraid of that concept, to be frank. I don’t even know what the ’80s thing means anymore. I was once hired by a record company in Japan to do something very ’80s specific, and it was one of the few times in my musical life that I was not able to pull something out and make it work. I failed. I literally walked out of that studio after a full day, and I wasn’t able to recreate what they wanted—a very ’80s guitar sound on a ’80s-style song. Perhaps that aspect of my creativity was lost in the 30 years since I was that person.
So how does a creative team in 2017 produce a record with, say, ’80s overtones that still speaks to a modern audience?
Sweet: Musically, I don’t think the goal was ever changed. It’s important to write songs that melodically grab people. You want them to sing along. The opportunity today, however, is to seek different and original chord progressions. We shouldn’t always be writing the same old standard rock songs with three chord changes. Even if you have a set melody already, there may be different chords that will work with it. For example, instead of going from a D to a G, try going to a Gm. You should change things up and explore other creative areas. I don’t always write the melody around the chords. Sometimes, I write the chords around the melody.
Then, there’s the importance of lyrics, and how they can speak to the times. I think it’s important that we write words that inspire people. We live in a world that is not just uninspired, but oppressed. There’s a lot of crap in this world, and we all have to deal with a lot of ridiculous stuff that is done and said. So it’s important for me to write lyrics that are going to make people smile—make them feel good, lift them up, encourage them, and inspire them, instead of the opposite. There’s enough of that already.
What gear was critical to recording your parts for Unified?
Lynch: The last few years, I’ve kept it pretty simple. I’ll just use two different guitars for two rhythm tracks. Usually, one of the guitars will be an ESP—a Kamikaze or a Tiger. For the second track, depending on the part, I might use a Les Paul, a Strat, or a Tele. I’ll also change amps sometimes, or the microphone, or the mic preamp. The trick is to find something complementary. You have to really listen, though. Sometimes, two awesome sounds can cancel each other out. So I might throw down a really crappy distorted tone, and, for some reason, it makes the blend sound just wonderful. The crummy tone adds some glue to whatever frequencies are missing in the first guitar. An engineer taught me that back in the ’90s, and it’s something I do to this day.
I’m an amp freak, so I built shelves in the studio from floor to ceiling that are full of amps. For this record, I used my preferred “default” head—my stock ’68 Marshall 100-watt plexi. I have to put something in front of it to push it where it needs to go, but it doesn’t matter too much if it’s an old BOSS 10-band EQ, a Tube Screamer, or something else. Then, I have a ’68 Marshall JMP 50 that I love. Those are the two big ones for me, but I also started using this amp called a Metz. I have an 18-watt version with EL84s, and a quad EL34 version that’s 35 watts or so. Another interesting amp was the RedPlate BlackLine. The bottom line for me is if I plug in and I can’t stop playing, then I’ve got to have it. I like to be inspired by an amp. For cabinets, I’ve got some old Oranges and Marshalls, and I use various combinations of them.
Sweet: I had my signature Washburns in the studio, as well as some PRS Miras from when I was playing with Boston. I love the tone of those—they’re kind of like a Les Paul Jr. For amps, I wound up using my Mesa/Boogie Mark V head through a 2x12 cab, and I also used my signature ISP MS Theta Pro. It just sounds killer. They added an extra EQ circuit for me to get more of my own signature EQ. I use a lot of EQ, man. I use pre-EQ and I use post-EQ, and, sometimes, multiple pre and multiple post. It’s just the way I get my tone. I knock it out on the front end, change the distortion, and get that half-cocked wah on steroids sound. And then, for the post-EQ, I get a nice, big fat chunky sound.
Lynch: Another critical factor for me is the mics. I’ve got an old RCA BK-5A ribbon that was designed in the ’50s to be used for high-volume film sound—like cowboy movies with guns blazing. They’re really great mics for loud guitar. If I need two mics, I’ll use a Royer 121 ribbon and a Telefunken 609. Those two mics together give me that bright perfect combination of openness and low end, and they’re very midrange friendly.
How did you divide up the tracking responsibilities?
Sweet: Probably 75 to 80 percent of the guitars are George. He’s doing all the soloing, and most of the rhythms, and I’m doing some overdubs, texturing, and little ear-candy stuff in the choruses. But this wasn’t ever meant to be a dual-guitar band. It was meant for me to be the singer, and for George to be the guitar player.
George, did you work out your solos beforehand?
Lynch: No. I’m not disciplined enough to go, “Okay, I’m going to sit with this stuff before session day, and I’m going to compose everything before I start recording.” I have never done that except once—for a Dokken song called “Tooth and Nail.” That was the last time I ever did that. I prefer composing my solos in the studio, so that I can let the song inspire me. So I’ll just improv over a song a few times until I start getting an idea for a framework. Maybe I’ll get the intro or the outro, and then I’ll see where it’s all leading me. I just piece it together.
Lynch: Exactly. But I think the end justifies the means. If you end up with “Comfortably Numb,” whatever it took to get there was worth it. If it took a month or an hour, it doesn’t really matter. That said, I should probably spend more time tracking solos, because this stuff is forever. Back in the ’80s, the solo was life and death to me. It defined my whole existence, so it had to be insane, and I’d spend a lot of time on it. Nowadays, it’s still important to me, of course, but I’m doing a lot of records, so it’s a bit more like a job—although a job that I enjoy very much. I’m also much more comfortable in my own skin, and more confident. Thirty years ago, what I could do was more of a mystery to me, and I was very stressed out all of the time. It’s just easier now. I’m not afraid that it’s not going to happen. I go in excited, because I know it’s going to be cool, and I try not to beat myself up too much—or the people I’m working with. That’s the other thing. Back in the day, I was really hard on engineers. I work 24 hours, and it’s hard for an engineer to sit in a chair while you’re playing the same part for the 184th time. I’m sure they want to strangle you. I try to be sympathetic to that now.