To Hell With The Devil: Stryper Interviewed
, March 17th, 2010 07:58
Dr Rock chats religion, heavy metal and working as a park ranger with Stryper frontman Michael Sweet
This week Dr Rock goes on a pilgrimage to find the gospel truth about what makes Michael Sweet - the lead singer of God’s favourite LA glam-rockers Stryper - tick. A quarter of a century since their mind-blowing debut Soldiers Under Command and 23 years since their last London gig, Stryper are back and they are in honest to God heavenly form. Still decked out in black and yellow striped outfits and instruments, the band won’t shy from chucking bibles into the crowd, saying a prayer after their concert and, best of all, rocking your socks off with some kick ass tunes about the Lord Jesus Christ. To Hell With The Devil? Hell Yeah! All hail!
Congratulations on 25 years with Stryper. Did you ever think you’d make it this far?
Michael Sweet: I never ever gave it any thought, to be honest. We took it one day at a time and still do. We don’t think about the future and what’s down the road in six months or a year or two. But to look back on the past going on 26 years, it’s crazy. It went by in a blink of an eye. It was an absolute blur. So that’s scary and frightening because it makes you realise how important it is to take advantage, and seize every opportunity and every moment and make the most of it.
What was your first love, music or God?
MS: Music was definitely my first love and then I came to know God when I was 12, walked away and gave my life back to God when I was 20.
I enjoyed listening to everything from Creedence Clearwater to Jimi Hendrix to David Bowie and I moved on to Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin and Van Halen and it just went on and on from there. My parents are musicians and I grew up around music my whole life; we used to have jam sessions and family reunions and we’d all play. So yeah, music’s in my blood, it’s all I’ve known.
A lot of people indentify with heavy metal’s rebellious outlaw character. So what fascinated you, growing up as a devout Christian, about bands like Van Halen?
MS: Now this may shock a lot of people - here I am in a supposed heavy metal band - but I’m not a metal guy at all. I enjoyed listening to bands like Scorpions, Maiden and Priest when I was growing up but I’m not a metalhead, I never have been. I was basically drawn to guitar-oriented rock with great tone. And it’s interesting because I never thought about it back then. Eddie Van Halen, I loved his playing but it was the tone of his guitar that was like ‘"Wow man". Same with Boston, the tone, "Wow". So I’m a tonehead, I’m always tweaking. And I love great vocalists. If a band has those elements – a great guitar player with great tone and some great vocals - I’m a fan.
Initially you were called Roxx Regime. What made you change your band name to Stryper?
MS: Roxx Regime was too hard to say, too hard to pronounce, too hard to remember. We’d always thought that. And the label, when we signed with Enigma, agreed. They asked us if we’d be willing to change it and we said of course. And it just worked out because everything was already striped – the guitars, the clothes, the walls of our studio. We just thought, “What about Stryper?” and everybody thought, “Yeah, that’s perfect.” So initially it was to do with the look and the outfits and after we dedicated our lives as Christians we came up with the acronym [Salvation Through Redemption, Yielding Peace, Encouragement, and Righteousness], the Bible scripture, all these things, that tied into it and brought it all together.
Has Stryper’s religious focus been an advantage or a disadvantage?
MS: It’s been both an advantage and a disadvantage. We were embraced by some and shunned by others. Primarily shunned by the mainstream, we did shows with Anthrax and a lot of secular mainstream bands back in the day and its tough to win the band over and tough to win their crowd over, but at the same time we were well accepted by many. There have been people over the years who’d talk trash about Stryper but once they came to see the band they would say, “Wow, sorry, I like you guys, you guys rock”, that kind of thing. So it was based on them not having the knowledge and not having seen the band.
By the time Against The Law came out you’d turned your back on Christianity. What’d happened?
MS: We didn’t really turn our back on Christianity, we just rebelled a bit towards the church because we’d gotten a lot of flack from them. It was a period in out lives when we decided, “You know what? We’re not going to take this anymore.” There were a handful of people that had really been speaking out against us year after year. So we said “Let’s do our own thing, here’s what we think about you” and we wrote the song ‘Against The Law’. But we did it with a bit of a rebellious attitude which was wrong. I think our hearts hardened somewhat. And we took on an attitude that really wasn’t Stryper. And it never should’ve been. So we came back to the approach of staying humble and trying to keep soft hearts and we accept the fact that there are going to be those that are against us and those that are for us. Not everyone’s going to like you.
After Stryper broke up in the early 90s you started to work as a park-ranger. Tell me more.
MS: We’d moved back from the west coast to the east coast and I just took a break from music. It was a family business, I had a job there waiting for me, my wife at the time as well, and we jumped right into it for three or four years. It was a cranberry business and camp ground. I saw people to their camp sites. I got them hooked up and everyone called me Ranger Mike.
A few years ago you started to sing for your childhood heroes Boston. How did that come about?
MS: I was asked by someone online to write what Brad Delp [Boston’s original lead-singer] had meant to me after he’d committed suicide. So I wrote a few paragraphs, they posted it and Tom Scholz [guitarist and main songwriter] and Kim, Tom’s wife, read it and were moved, and asked me if I would like to sing at what was supposed to be their last show. I said of course. Initially it was going to be one song called ‘Higher Power’ but then I ended up going on singing ‘’Piece Of Mind, ‘Rock’n’Roll Band’, ‘More Than A Feeling’ and playing guitar for the whole set. We clicked and after that show Tom asked me if I wanted to be a part of the band and they decided to go do more shows. So we toured with Styx in ’08, a 55 city tour. It was crazy.
Coming back to Stryper, what had been your high points and low points so far?
MS: The high point was definitely between ’86 and ’87, that’s when To Hell With The Devil went from below Gold to Platinum. We went from theatres to arenas, all on the same tour, it was just an explosive time.
The low point would probably be around the Against The Law period in the early 90s, when we went from arenas to clubs and we felt like we were beating our heads against the wall and not getting anywhere. We’d gone up and down really quickly and it was time to move on, at least I felt that. So that’s when I left. It was definitely a very low point within the band. Of course we then officially reformed again in 2003; the time was right and everybody’s hearts seemed to be in the same place again. It just felt good.
Stryper’s new long-player Murder By Pride is out now on Big 3 Records