Sunday, April 1, 2018

Rebel with a Cause: Michael Sweet on Christ, Critics and Keeping Stryper Alive (w/ Bonus Album Review)

Left to right: Robert Sweet, Michael Sweet, Perry Richardson and Oz Fox of Stryper (photo courtesy of Frontiers Music)

Stryper have never done things the easy way.

When many of their ’80s peers were penning odes to decadence and debauchery, Stryper released albums comprised of songs that displayed their devout Christianity. When other bands of the era wore studs and torn jeans, Stryper donned distinct yellow-and-black outfits that led some to compare them to bumblebees. And when their supporters thought they had them all figured out, the band put down their razors, got gritty and released 1990’s still-controversial Against The Law. (Also, let’s not forget the time they raised eyebrows with their decision to cover Black Sabbath and Judas Priest on 2011’s excellent The Covering.) Earlier this year, the band obliterated expectations once again with the release of “Take It To The Cross,” a very surprising tune complete with death growls – yeah, I said death growls – courtesy of special guest Matt Bachand (Shadows Fall/Act Of Defiance). All of these aforementioned things have regularly made Stryper the target of derision, but they’ve also helped the band establish one of the most devoted fan bases in the world. Love them or hate them, you can’t deny that Stryper have always followed their own path.

On April 20, that path will get longer and more intriguing with the release of the group’s latest studio album, God Damn Evil (reviewed below the following interview). Following a trend that began with the band’s 2005 reunion album Reborn, the new record features a sound much heavier than the one found on ’80s classics like To Hell With The Devil [1986] and In God We Trust [1988]. While several veteran bands begin to soften as the decades carry on, Stryper – singer/guitarist Michael Sweet; his brother, Robert, on drums; guitarist Oz Fox; and new bassist Perry Richardson (ex Firehouse) – have taken the opposite route with exceptional results.  

As I know from past experience, Michael Sweet is one of the most outspoken and straightforward people you’ll ever encounter in the music business. As expected, he put the sugarcoating aside when he recently rang me for the following chat. 

Very few bands with a 35-year history get heavier as they go along, but there have been many times since the Reborn album when you have gone that way. Has that been an intentional direction shift or something that’s been happening naturally as you’ve been writing new material over the years?

It’s certainly been intentional to some degree. What I mean by that is we like to involve and include our fans. I ask questions all the time, like, ‘What do you guys think about this?’ ‘What would you think if we did this or did that?’ We like to get their feedback and then we apply that a lot of times. We take that to heart. That’s how ‘Take It To The Cross’ came to be. We’ve had a lot of fans over the years request something heavier and bordering on Thrash. That’s what made us want to do ‘Take It To The Cross.’ It’s not that we’re only listening to the fans and doing something we don’t want to do. We grew up with real heavy music as well; we like getting heavy. We’re a Heavy Metal band at the core that also does occasional Pop Metal tunes and the occasional ballad. But we grew up on Priest and Maiden and all these bands. That’s at the core of our hearts and what we do musically speaking. So yes and no is what I’m trying to say. (laughs)

Not too long ago on your Facebook page, you posted a list of your most-favorite to least-favorite Stryper albums. That struck me as interesting, because the album in your past that I think is most identified as a risk-taker, Against The Law, was last on the list. The latest album, in a lot of ways, is also a risk-taking record, but it was on the top of your list. Because they are both albums that kind of stray away from what fans might call a ‘traditional’ Stryper record, what makes God Damn Evil a successful risk while Against The Law, in hindsight, might not have been successful in that way?

Well, with God Damn Evil, we didn’t walk away from everything – the message and the look, if you will. We still have the yellow-and-black thing – not as much as in ’86, ’87 and ’88, but we’re still doing it. We’re identified by that, and then there’s our signature guitar tone and our sound. Even though ‘Take It To The Cross’ is the one that’s the most out in left field on the album, ‘Sorry’ and all the other songs that people will hear will have those harmonies and the more traditional [sound] – although it is very different. We are taking risks and chances, but it’s more of that traditional sound. Against the Law wasn’t – at all. In many ways, it didn’t even sound like Stryper. We lost the guitar tone; we totally changed it – like it or not. Number two, we lost our yellow and black on Against The Law. Even though I’m not a big fan of the yellow and black – I don’t like the color yellow; I don’t have any yellow clothing in my wardrobe – it’s who Stryper is. It’s such a signature piece, and we threw that away. We grew beard stubble and scowled and tried to look like we were tough, bad and mad. We just became this completely different band. That’s not the case with God Damn Evil at all. As a matter of fact, we feel like we’re back on track to what we were in ’85, ’86 and ’88 much more with God Damn Evil, No More Hell To Pay [2013] and Fallen [2015] than we were with Against The Law. And then you add to it where our hearts were at the time. It was a really bad time in the history of Stryper. 

We were complete morons, complete hypocrites. We were going out and telling people about Jesus and God from the stage, and then we’d be hitting the bar and getting drunk with them after the show night after night. It was just a joke – a complete joke – during that period. People go through situations and they learn and grow from it, and we did. We experienced that, and I’m the man I am today because of it. I know Oz and Rob also learned from it. But at that time, we were really just a bunch of hypocrites kind of living a lie for a couple of years. Because of that, there aren’t good memories. Thank God we’re in the place that we’re in right now.

I think Against The Law is a really good album – it sounds good, Tom Werman produced it and there are some good songs on it  but it just doesn’t do anything for me at all in any regard. I never listen to that album ever, but I will throw in [1985’s] Soldiers Under Command and enjoy it.

Stryper took a pretty long break after the Against The Law experience, but the band has been back together now longer than you were together the first time around. What is it about this second time around that seems to work so well to the point where we’re talking about a new album in 2018?

It took a long time to get to that place where we felt like, ‘Okay, let’s do this again.’ We were apart from ’92 to ’03. That was probably mostly because of me; I just didn’t feel led to do it. I didn’t want to do it; I was happy in a different world and a different life, raising my kids and doing solo stuff and other things. I didn’t really want to go back. I guess, up to a degree, I was worried about falling back into that trap of the Against The Law period. All of our marriages suffered during that time; it’s just something I never want to repeat and go back to. Because of that, it took a long time to even consider getting back together. Once we did a ‘Celebration Tour’ in ’03, it kind of opened the door, because there were a lot of good things that took place on that tour. It opened the door wide for us to consider doing more.

I did a solo album called Reborn, and I was shopping that to labels – not a lot of people know that Reborn was a solo album. I was shopping it, and I had a record deal in place. I was going to release that as a solo album. I played it for Oz and Rob, and they really loved it. We wound up deciding to make it a Stryper album and release it as a Stryper album. We just feel like from ’05 when that came out to now, there’s been this surge and this relentless flow of creativity and excitement – all sorts of things coming from the well. We’re super happy and excited about that. We’re just kind of taking it all in as we can, while we can, until we can’t do it anymore.

Another thing I find interesting about your career is that there were times – especially when the real commercial peak happened with To Hell With The Devil becoming a huge hit – when Stryper was kind of getting it from both sides. You had the diehard Heavy Metal contingent saying you guys were soft and too Pop, and then you had the folks within the Church saying that Stryper were misrepresenting God and that the message was being given to your audience in an inappropriate way. When that was at its peak, was there ever a temptation within Stryper to reconsider things and maybe appease one side or the other? Ultimately, what led you to overcome those criticisms in those days?

That’s the thing about Stryper. Although some people might laugh at this – and that’s fine; I don’t really care – we’ve never been a sellout in any way, shape or form. We don’t sell out who we are, we don’t sell out who we are musically and we don’t sell out at what we feel led to do and the path we’re on [by saying], ‘Well, this side doesn’t like us, so let’s appease them.’ Yes, we listen to the fans and try to please them. I don’t mean it that way; I just mean that, like with ‘Take It To the Cross,’ for example, we didn’t even give it a second thought, like, ‘Well, maybe we shouldn’t do this because we’re going to alienate all the people who hate this kind of music,’ or, ‘It’s risky because we’re doing [mimics the death growls in the song’s chorus].’ We never even thought that; we did it because we wanted to do it. We don’t sit around and have meetings about, ‘Well, what should we do that will improve things and grow our fanbase or appease the haters?’ We just do what we were called to do.

At the same time, if you follow me on Facebook, you see that I’m a guy who likes to talk to people and inform the fans, and I give my opinion a lot. Sometimes people don’t appreciate that; they get upset. I’m a very opinionated, open and honest guy. I’ll tell fans, ‘Look, I don’t really care what you think if you don’t like this song or if you don’t like that I post funny videos all the time on my Instagram. Hit the block button!’ That’s just how I am – like it or not. People think it bothers me; they always say, ‘Oh, don’t let it bother you.’ It doesn’t bother me at all; that’s my whole point. I’m saying, ‘Well, just go, then. No big deal. No sweat off my back.’

That’s a healthy attitude to have.
Well, yeah, because life is too short to let all these people bother you, sway you and control you. It’s crazy. Who cares, you know? But again, I have to clarify that it is important to us to listen to the fans. We ask the fans, ‘Hey, what do think about us doing a ballad on the next album?’ If 90 percent of them say, ‘Yeah, we’d love it!’ we’ll do a ballad. If 90 percent of them say, ‘No, no, no. Please don’t do a ballad,’ we might consider not doing a ballad. We do want to make albums that the fans enjoy and appreciate. If they really don’t want to hear something or they do really want to hear something, we’ll do that. We try to involve the fans because they’re part of our journey.

This year represents 35 years since Roxx Regime became Stryper, and you’re clearly still actively doing this band. For you, what is the greatest fulfillment that comes from being a member of Stryper? What does it give you that you couldn’t have any other way in your life?

It’s two-fold. It’s being able to express who I am musically. God’s given me a gift and abilities and a passion for it. I get to express that through music, and I’m so thankful for it. I really am very blessed. Number two, I can take that music and use it as a tool to encourage and inspire people through the lyrics, through the message, through interviews and through what I do, how I live my life and what I say. At the end of the day – and even more important than the music – if I can help someone, then I’m fulfilled, man. I’m totally thrilled with the fact that I help somebody. For someone struggling or someone down and out who doesn’t know what to do, it may be a song, something that I’ve said or me meeting them that has helped turned them around – and 10 or 20 years later, they come up to me and say, ‘Man, I’m this person today because of that song or something you said.’ It warms my heart; it makes me say, ‘Wow!’ That’s pretty amazing, and that makes it all worthwhile. All the crap that we take, all the things that people say…If you’ve noticed, Stryper is one of the most questioned bands in the history of Rock and Metal. We’ve got the double-edged sword constantly slicing us to the bone. 

We just released the video for ‘Sorry;’ it’s about a volatile relationship. We got some people saying, ‘It’s not about Jesus.’ (laughs) Well, it is about Jesus, because Jesus tells us to love one another, trust one another and be good to one another. That’s the message of the song, really - stop blowing it and saying you’re sorry all the time and start being a better person. We just get heat constantly, but we just learn to rise above it. What makes going through all that worth it is being able to reach and inspire some people. That’s just awesome.

*Portions of the above interview were edited for clarity. 

ALBUM REVIEW: Stryper: God Damn Evil

Christian rockers Stryper haven’t always been “cool,” but they’ve always been great.  

The groups 35-year career has seen them embraced by millions of fans while also being the object of distain of Metal elitists and some factions of the Church alike. Through it all, they’ve maintained their own course, releasing the music they’ve wanted to make and leaving negativity in the dust. This mindset continues on their latest – and quite possibly greatest – album, God Damn Evil.

The album kicks off with the much-discussed “Take It To The Cross,” an uncharacteristically Thrashy number that serves to inform the listener from the beginning that Stryper are not content to simply repeat proven formulas of the past. The grit continues on the urgent “Sorry,” an examination of a fractured relationship that boasts one of guitarist Oz Fox’s most incendiary solos in years. The classic Stryper guitar tone is in full force of “Lost,” with the band responding to the current state of our world (“Watch the news and read the stories/it’s a nightmare”) with a shrieking chorus that finds Sweet asking his audience (Christians and beyond) a critical question in modern times: “Are we lost?” It’s a song of heartbroken protest in the tradition of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” – a screaming push against a world bent on betraying its heart. It’s also heavy as heck, much like the album’s title track – a Bluesy fist-pumper straight from the Accept school of anthemic earworms.

Other highlights on God Damn Evil include the mid-tempo burn of “The Valley” – a track propelled by a main riff as bulletproof as anything found on the latest Judas Priest release – and “Can’t Live Without Your Love” – a scorching ballad that strips away the more saccharine tendencies of the band’s past efforts and proves that sweetness can still have a razor-sharp edge.

One of the genre’s most underrated timekeepers, Robert Sweet absolutely shines on God Damn Evil, displaying a level of groove and skill akin to Bill Ward in his mid-’70s prime. (Check out the man’s playing on the album-closing “The Devil Doesn’t Live Here.” Extraordinary.) As for Michael, his voice on God Damn Evil is utter perfection that pairs the high-pitched wails of years’ past with the raw vibe he’s continually explored since the band’s early-2000s reformation.

I’ll say it right here, right now: God Damn Evil is the strongest and most satisfying Stryper album since To Hell With The Devil.

Whether you view Stryper as the solid songwriters/performers they truly are or a decades-old punchline, there is no denying that they have built a durable and enduring career by doing things their way. That’s Rock ‘N’ Roll credibility in my book.

Official Stryper Website


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