The trio of musicians that make up SWEET CRYSTAL – Marq Andrew Speck on lead vocals and keys, Bill Blatter on guitars and vocals, and Steve Wieser on drums – are on the front line of the Christian rock music scene, holding high the message of the cross.
Welcome to the world of 5 Carat Rock: sweet, very sweet indeed!
Entertwine: How long has Sweet Crystal been together?
The band and its three founding members – Marq Andrew Speck (lead vocals/anything with keys), Bill Blatter (backup vocals/anything with strings) and Steve Wieser (anything hit with sticks) – got together right out of high school over 40 (!) years ago and have never regretted it or stopped playing together for those 4+ decades.
How did the members of the band meet and begin writing music and performing together?
Actually, Steve and Bill had been playing in bands together even during high school so their particular musical and friendship bonds have existed even longer than Sweet Crystal’s. Marq was introduced to those two by mutual friends and immediately discovered both common musical likes and influences and personalities that just meshed from Day One. To this day, we’ve never had any major falling out or arguments on direction of style of music or message, types of gigs we’ll play or even hairstyles.
Could you tell us a bit about the musical background of each member?
Growing up with the progressive leanings of British progressive rock groups such as Yes and Pink Floyd and then evolving with the American sounds of 80’s icons Journey, Kansas and Queensryche, we’ve polished our “arena rock” style of power ballads and progressive anthems, focusing more on memorable melodies and inspirational lyrics than on the normal loud volume and screaming vocals that dominate the usual Detroit-based rock bands. Song writing is collaboratively shared between Marq and Bill relying on drummer Steve to keep us “on time” and on task. We’ve been compared (in print) to bands as diverse as Saga, Meat Loaf, Asia and Rush.
What is the significance of the band’s name?
Originally the band was named after a pet boa constrictor owned by Marq (!) but as the spiritual direction of the band changed in the 80’s (an interesting story in itself – can be found at Sweet Crystal Interview), research into the Bible found references to the “sweet waters of life” that flow in Heaven, “clear as crystal”. It all made since at that point to what our direction would be.
What is it like living in Detroit? What can you tell us about the music scene of Detroit?
Detroit’s musical history is still a major influence today, both for Sweet Crystal and the entire music scene nationally and internationally. Think Motown for great melodies and memorable hits; think Bob Seger, Ted Nugent, The Stooges, MC5 and so many more rock bands – iconic and flourishing genres of the 60’s still can be found dominating radio and Internet-based music sites. The current scene is every bit as active and divers today and for us, we still find our sound and especially our message entirely relevant and needed. It’s a great place to be.
In the 1980’s the band opened for Bob Seger, Nazareth, Steppenwolf, Foghat, Rare Earth and Stryper, among others. Could you tell us about the experience of sharing stages with these artists? Are there any other exciting or interesting live performances the band has been a part of?
Hard to decide a best experience: Opening for Bob Seger & Silver Bullet Band one New Year’s Eve in the 70’s (Wing Stadium, Kalamazoo) was amazing for us at our (then) very young age; we played the Cornerstone Festival (largest Christian rock festival in the US) in 2010 which also marked a milestone for us but probably it would be the May 2009 trip to Nashville for the first time that really got us back on track. We played an industry showcase for the Christian Independence Alliance (CIA) and at the end of the 4-day conference; we were presented with a Momentum Award (their version of Christian mainstream music’s Dove Award) for Perseverance and were treated to a 5-minute video of our history played for the whole conference. Subsequently, TMG Records (our soon to be label) saw us there and we were later signed, resulting in the release of the “3” CD. That Nashville showcase would have to be one of the more defining gigs to date.
What experiences and events inspired the writing and recording of your new EP “QUAD”? Could you tell us about each of the featured songs? How does this new release expand on or differ from your older material? Could you tell us a bit about some of these older projects (your debut EP “Power-N-Glory”, debut album “Still Standing” and second full-length release “3”)?
Even after all this time together, the guys get together every week to rehearse and write. There are mountains of ideas (all burned direct to CDs during those rehearsals) that we regularly revisit to see what riffs and chord patterns jump out to our ears. The thinking is – if it moves us musically, it should resonate well with our fans and friends. For “QUAD”, we decided to “up” our game: instead of simply recorded and releasing the songs ourselves (we record in our own studio – Nightcrier Music), we took the raw tracks over to award-winning engineer/producer at Pearl Sound in Canton, MI, Chuck Alkazian (Christina Aguilera, R Kelly, Mitch Ryder, Pop Evil). There are songs here about desperation and redemption, asking questions of faith and finding real answers for our lives as well as some mighty uplifting instrumentals.
From the opening flourish of “Fanfare” (in our live shows we start with this and segue right into a very powerful version of “The Star-Spangled Banner”) into the slide-guitar driven progressive rock anthem “Foot Of The Cross”, these songs finds us sounding larger and more powerful than ever thanks to this new collaboration with Alkazian. As an added surprise to the band, “Foot Of The Cross” has already won a 2015 Global Music Award (Rock Category) and a 2015 Detroit Music Award for Outstanding Gospel/Christian Recording (just one of 13 Detroit Music Awards the band has won over the last 9 years).
“QUAD” is also unique in that we are featuring songs written in part or in whole by writers outside of the band. “Some People May Ask” was based on a poem written by Mary Hamilton White, who’s personal journey from abused wife to a woman who shot her husband out of desperation to finding Christ in prison is mirrored in the lyrics of the song. “Him Alone” was penned by up-and-coming singer-songwriter David Perez, who’s own journey into addiction and eventual redemption continues to fuel his musical passion and we are proud to put our spin (we call it “Crystalize”) on his music. The song “Anthem” was originally written for a Civil War era movie called “War Flowers” but has since turned into a soaring instrumental that we play at every show.
What does the writing and recording process look and sound like for Sweet Crystal? How has this process either remained the same or changed and evolved over time due to technology and new methods of recording?
The bulk of the writing has remained consistent over the decades: main themes and arrangements are brought to the group usually by keyboardist Speck with the focal point of every song being guitarist Blatter’s power chord drive and soloing expertise. Drummer Weiser keeps the songs tight and focused in rhythm and tempo. Lyrics and melody lines are all written by Speck but it’s 40 years of collaboration and respect for each other that keeps the music and message of the band cohesive and still relevant.
The technology has indeed changed – making it easier to get the ideas down for review and refinement – but it’s the musicianship and the friendship of the guys that really make all this Crystal…Sweet!