Latest release: God Damn Evil (Frontiers)Website: www.stryper.com
Stryper wears their Christian faith on their sleeves and thus not averse to controversy. Success in the music industry is difficult enough to achieve without also having to endure the mixed attitudes of the masses who strangely expect to be placated. Ploughing through undeterred by various obstacles and now active for well over a decade following an understandably cautious reunion, the songwriting core of the band remains intact and inspired. Their latest album God Damn Evil brings back the heavier music sensibilities of their roaring success in the Eighties with Soldiers Under Command and To Hell with the Devil melded with an updated approach with overwhelmingly positive reception for one of their heaviest albums to date. As Stryper are finally returning to Australia for what will be their fourth tour here, Loud Online took the opportunity to discuss Stryper’s legacy with front man and mastermind, Michael Sweet.
You’re returning to Australia very soon which is excellent.
Yeah man, we are really excited about it. It has been far too long. The last time that we were there was in 2010. I am not sure why it takes us so long to get back to Australia but we’ve got to break that pattern somehow.
In that light, are you struggling with the set list to include recent tours of material?
Well no, it was just that for whatever reason and all of the logistics that go into travelling afar and with Australia being one of those places, it is just difficult to work everything out and make it align so that we can come there easily. But, you know, it worked out this time and we’re coming so we’re excited. We’ve got four shows planned for Australia and then after that we head to Japan to do two shows.
Japan has always been a really good market for Stryper.
It has been but I mean, we broke up in 1992 and we didn’t return to Japan until somewhat recently. So it is sad to say that I think in waiting so long to return to Japan and go back and perform, we might have lost some of our following. Yeah, back in the day, we played Budokan and sold it out. We had a video [Live in Japan] that went multi-platinum and we always did very well in Japan.
It is curious because there are bands such as Mr. Big who are huge there yet in the States their following is not so large, by comparison.
I think it is that way for almost all bands. You’ll find that they are very popular in one area but then when they go to another area, they are not as popular. We have been able to consistently keep our fan base here in the States and in certain other parts of the world. But we are rebuilding it in Japan. So we’ve been a few times in the past ten years and we’re coming back again to perform. It is going to be amazing and Australia as well; we have a great fan base with a lot of fans and friends there too. I think that the key is just continuing to do it and being consistent with that. You’re always going to find that, you know, we can play to a thousand people in here in the States and then go to Puerto Rico and play to five thousand people. It is different for every band.
I remember when Stryper first came here in 1987. It was an intriguing time with the Christian music tours we were getting. You had people like Petra, Amy Grant, Rez Band and Whiteheart. I guess Stryper were lumped in with that until you turned up and people realised it was metal.
Yeah, it has always been interesting and I say this with all due respect but we have, as you put it, been lumped in with some of those bands because we are really nothing like any of those bands. We’ve never fit into any groups or clubs and we’ve never tried to so we are not a typical CCM [Contemporary Christian Music] band. We’re a heavy metal band. We grew up on Iron Maiden, Judas Priest and Van Halen. That is the stuff that is in our blood. Then we became Christians and we continued to play the same type of music that we always did but just changed the message and the lyrics. So we didn’t grow up in the church like Amy Grant, Michael W. Smith and Petra. Most of those bands literally grew up in the church and their Dads were pastors, which is great and they relate to the people that go to church. Stryper has been more of a band that tries to relate to the people that go to bars and to people that don’t go to church.
When you were Roxx Regime and playing around California, W.A.S.P. would have also been running around the place.
Oh yeah, absolutely. We came on the scene right at the same time as W.A.S.P. and we used to see each other play live back in the day. Blackie Lawless is actually a Christian now and there are some songs that he won’t sing that they used to perform. There are new songs that they have that are very hardcore Biblically and are right to the point. So, that is very cool.
Did you also have Metallica play an opening support slot for your band in those early days?
I don’t know if Metallica supported us but way back in the day when Dave Mustaine of Megadeth was still in the band, we did a show with them in this little auditorium in California and this might have been in 1982 or 1983. This was way back in the day and we were still called Roxx Regime. I don’t know if either band was supporting the other or if we were just all playing but I remember hearing them and thinking, ‘Wow, those guys are really heavy and really good’ and then the rest is history as they went on to become Metallica, the legendary band that they are.
Whilst the thrash metal scene was bubbling away, glam metal was still huge. Did you have an inkling of how big MTV was going to become?
Not really. I mean, in the early eighties when MTV began, I always knew it was special and thought it was really cool to have a video station that plays all of these videos that were fresh, new and exciting. Then, we wound up being a band that they played a lot of as well thanks to Dial MTV and fans being able to call in and request us. If that hadn’t ever been, we might not have ever seen the light of MTV because we’ve always had resistance, you know, trying to get radio and television to play or to air Stryper videos and songs because of who we are. We take a bold stand for our faith and for God; everybody knows that but for whatever reason, the minute you do that, I don’t care if you’re a dentist or a rock musician, you’re going to see resistance. You’re not going to be among the popular vote, instantaneously and so we’ve come to terms with that because that is the way it is. But, all things considered, miraculously, we’ve somehow managed to rise to the top and to still be relevant and to thrive in today’s unstable music world so we are very blessed.
In those earlier years, Stryper toured the United Kingdom as well. Given the New Wave of British Heavy Metal had been so big prior and with so much momentum, what was the reception for Stryper at the time?
It was good and bad. We had times when we would go over to Europe or anywhere else in the world for that matter including Japan, Australia and South America, where we would perform. The turnouts would be amazing and the reception would be incredible but sometimes more rarely, we would be received with boos and things being thrown at us. It was very difficult and we performed quite a few shows that way but we did it with a smile and we didn’t let that detour us from what we were there to do. We’ve always been about that. Stryper’s mentality is, ‘Hey, let’s go. Wherever you want us to go or wherever you want us to play, let’s do it.’ We don’t back down from a show. Ever.
The curious aspect is there are so many bands who continue to preach about the Devil and so on. Why can’t you preach about Jesus Christ in your songs if you want to do so?
Well yeah, it is a silly concept. I don’t know why people have that stamped into their minds and their hearts that metal and God should not go together. A lot of people say it is like water and oil but the silly thing about that is if you believe in the Devil then you must believe in God and therefore you must know the story of the fact that God created the Devil. So, the Devil is a creation, God is the creator. We’re mixing the creator into our message and I think in my own mind and heart that God is more metal than the Devil ever will be. There are a select few people that don’t think you could ever mix the two but it is perfectly fine to mix Satanism and metal. That works beautifully but heaven forbid that you mix God and love with metal. Then you’re an outcast. I think it is pretty ridiculous.
That brings us around to the artwork of the latest album, God Damn Evil. Do you think that imagery is what dictates these sorts of attitudes?
Yes, we have always been a band that has wanted to make a bold statement with the imagery, the message, the titles, the songs and with the sounds and the look. In everything that we do, we have tried to make a bold statement. The reason that we do that is to get people to think and to talk about what we are doing and about what we are saying. It is no different with God Damn Evil. We have probably our boldest title ever and there is a purpose for that. It is not just done to be controversial or to gain attention. It is done with a purpose and that is to make people think. What we want people to think and what we want people to take to heart is hopefully to pray more and ask God to be more involved in our lives, in our world and to protect us from evil; to damn evil and to condemn evil. That is the message of this album.
I find it staggering that Walmart refused to carry the album given huge ongoing issues in the States such as guns, all sorts of violence, unemployment, homelessness, you name it and yet people get upset about a title. It is just absurd.
It is absurd especially when it is explained to them what it means and when you read the lyrics to the song, the title track ‘God Damn Evil’ and when you see it. You go in Walmart and you see an album like God Damn Evil that is banned but yet you see albums on their shelves with explicit stickers, naked women or God knows what on the covers. It is a double standard that is a real issue in our society.
It could almost be a bit like Spinal Tap’s Smell the Glove.
It really is, it is pretty hilarious but we find it ironic and as I said, a double standard for Walmart to ban our album. We explained to them what we were saying and again, if you know anything about Stryper, you know what we mean by it. You know that there is no evil intent or we are not trying to be blasphemous or evil, we are just trying to uplift the name of God. The really funny, weird and odd part about it is I’m sure that Walmart knows that.
When you embarked on your solo career, did you feel a similar sort of opposition that you’ve copped with Stryper along the way?
There has always been opposition. Stryper takes it to a new level because everything is at a different level with Stryper. When I did the solo thing in 1994, you know, I got opposition as well, I got flak from people and we always will. We always have and I see that as a positive because it is an opportunity for me to talk to people, to share with people and to share my heart and explain myself.
Stryper are playing the Whisky a Go Go on Halloween this year. You also did a live album [Live at the Whisky] at that same location several years back. Does it bring back memories?
My, how non-Christian of us to play the Whisky a Go Go on Halloween. Wow, that is just evil. Ha. Yeah, we grew up in Hollywood and that is where our roots lie. One of the first clubs that I ever played was the Whisky a Go Go and at the time it was just called the Whisky. Before that it was the Whisky a Go Go, then they changed it to the Whisky and now it is the Whisky a Go Go again. But, that being said, it is an infamous club in Hollywood. We’ve played there many times and I’ve played there many times and it is always good to go back. It is a small little club, it still looks original; everything about it – the dressing rooms, the décor, you name it but that is the beauty of it. It is this historic club in Hollywood that we have a really intense history with so it is very cool.
Speaking of cool things, an effect used by Oz Fox during the guitar solo on ‘Not That Kind of Guy’ from Against the Law has a fantastic chirp or flutter sound. What was the piece of equipment that Oz was using to get that fast modulating sound?
I forget what is was but I want to say that it was a patch in a Digitech rack mount effect that he used. He kicked it on and it did that ‘brrrrrr’ thing. It was just an effect that he kicked on and used for that song at that particular moment.
Can we ever expect to hear a lesser known song like that one or even the effect within a touring set?
You know what, I don’t know. We’re doing the set that we’ve been doing for the past few months and I don’t think that effect is in the set. I know that song is not in the set and I don’t see in the future it being in the set either. It is a good song and everything but it always reminded me a little too much of Van Halen’s ‘Hot For Teacher’.
The last few albums have progressively gotten heavier with the most recent one getting a positive reaction. Does this increasing heaviness look set to follow into the next album release?
I think so. I feel like we have rediscovered ourselves over the past ten years and especially with the last three albums starting with No More Hell to Pay which came out in 2013, Fallen in 2015 and then of course in God Damn Evil this year. I think that we have really somehow found ourselves again and have come around full circle to who we are, what we were and what we should be and that is a metal band. We’ve always really been that and yeah, we’ve dabbled in ballads because we love Journey as much as we love Iron Maiden but at the heart and core of this band, we are a metal band. We are going to try our hardest not to ever forget that again. I felt like we forgot it a small degree with albums like Murder by Pride also to a degree with Reborn but I just feel like we need to stay on that metal path because that is who we are and we do that well. There is something that happens within the band when we play a heavier side and go with a heavier sound. There is this energy that somehow just comes through and we start to click more.
Are you still finding people are coming to you and saying they are playing your ballads at weddings and other events?
Yeah and to go hand in hand with what I just said, we are a metal band at heart but at the same time, we love ballads too. I remember when we were back in the day, as kids growing up, we would put on Judas Priest album like British Steel or Unleashed in the East and then right after that, we’d put on Journey’s Escape. We loved Journey, Loverboy and Night Ranger. We loved so many bands and I remember times when Oz and I would be in the garage and we would pop in Lionel Richie, the Bee Gees or the Beatles or even Neil Diamond. We listen to everything and we appreciate all forms of music. I think you can hear those influences in our music since we love the Beach Boys and Queen. You can kind of hear that in our harmonies from time to time.
Well, members from Toto would have been on many of those albums too.
Oh man, we love Toto. We listened to Toto all of the time back in the day. We just enjoy good music, man, good musicians writing and performing good music. We’re so there. If we get that and we hear that, we’re all over it and it doesn’t matter what genre. Some metal heads have this mentality that is like, ‘Ah, what do you mean, man? You guys are wimps listening to Journey and Toto!’, so we’ll reply, ‘No, we’re all but wimps.’ It makes us stronger to listen to bands like that because it broadens our spectrum and it kind of helps us to stretch out as musicians ourselves.