Salvation Through Redemption Yielding Peace, Encouragement and Righteousness is the acronym that is the Christian metal band Stryper. As heavy metal music has developed since its start in the 1970’s it has continued to progress and has become fragmented into sub-genres such as lite metal, death metal, speed metal, gothic metal, glam or hair metal, metalcore, nu-metal, Christian metal and apologies to anyone left off the list.
Stryper hit the music scene of Los Angeles back in the 1980’s, and because it was the hair metal era and because their lyrics were obviously of religious background, it was at times a struggle for them to be respected as a metal band by metal fans and Christians by Christian music fans. The recipe for metal is not so simple. It lies within a mixology of powerhouse guitar solos, extreme volume, emphatic beats and heavy bass lines for starters. Those of us who are lifelong metalheads know that there are so many facets of heavy metal and its overall message. Stryper became crusaders for Christians but in a much more “heavy” manner. We recently were able to sit and talk for a bit with lead singer and guitarist of Stryper, Michael Sweet.
Stryper began in a garage in La Mirada, CA by brothers Robert Sweet (drums) and Michael Sweet (lead vocals and guitar). They were joined by Oz Fox (guitar and vocals) and Timothy Gaines (bass) and went by the name Roxx until they found out that another band had the same name so they changed it to Roxx Regime. “We actually signed to Enigma as Roxx Regime” Sweet tell us. “Personally, I didn’t like the name either and I think my brother liked it way more than anybody else in the band so that’s when we ended up changing the name to Stryper. Basically, we just wrote out a bunch of names for a few days and coincidentally, everything was already striped. It was either taped or painted stripes and we were already wearing stripes so hence we came up with the name. Once we came up with the name, we came up with the acronym based on the Bible verse from Isaiah that says ‘by His stripes we are healed’ and from there everything fell into place with the name itself.”
Sweet was 13 years old when he joined his brother Robert’s band and was 20 years old when they signed the record deal. Sweet details the timeline of how the band met. “Robert went to junior high at a school named Katherine Edwards with Oz Fox, our lead guitarist. Oz was in 7th grade and Rob was
in 8th. Then they ended up going to Pioneer High School together and then I wound up going there when my brother was a senior, Oz was a junior and that’s how we met Oz and got to know him. My brother and Oz ended up working together and I would come home from school a little early on break and write songs and they would come home from work and I would show them the songs and we would just keep doing it until we had a whole show and album’s worth of material. I don’t even recall our first live show but we actually did a show as Roxx Regime with Metallica before they broke out. We played so many times. Once we became Stryper, it may have been in a church or a college. We were actually attending a church called Calvary Chapel in West Covina and Paul Riese was the pastor and he ended up helping us put a little tour together where we played high schools and colleges and churches, so that is probably where it all started, it was all just such a blur. We were going so fast and it was such a fast paced journey, it’s difficult to remember everything and it’s not due to alcohol and drugs, it is just that some things just move than quickly. You know, I was young, I was a kid, my eyes were wide open and chin on the floor and it was just so fast, it was hard to keep up.”
As a Christian metal band, Sweet says they never really had concerns with being categorized or criticized when they started out. “Oddly enough, we didn’t worry and it’s probably hard for some people to believe but the beautiful thing about it is that we were raised on the streets of LA (musically speaking) playing Gazzari’s or the Whisky A Go Go and all these different clubs and seeing all of these bands all the time at a very early age, we got it out of our system. We knew about God and went to church off and on between all of us throughout our lives and our childhood but it never really sat straight within our hearts or took root until we decided to dedicate the band Stryper to God and that was around late 1983, early 1984 which is when we started going down that path.” There was no looking back and Stryper just wanted to devote their music and the band to God and let the rest fall into place regardless of what people thought and that is exactly what they did and that is what they continue to do.
While Stryper was not exactly the first Christian rock or metal band historically they were arguably the most popular in the mainstream market and some even say they are the first to ever identify as a Christian metal band. Not only were they considered and respected in the metal community, but to Christian music fans as well. “There were a few before us like Petra and Resurrection Band. We were the first band to take it to a different level with our sound and look” Sweet affirms. “We didn’t sit and plan it out, we just
took what we were doing before we decided to do that and went with it. We looked like that and sounded like that before we were considered a Christian band. I think we were the first hair metal Christian band to break out, get airplay on MTV and have a platinum album and be playing arenas.” Those who don’t listen to metal aren’t necessarily Christians and those who are Christians aren’t necessarily metalheads. Unfortunately, metal sometimes has a false stereotype of being satanic or a bad influence which while some bands do portray violent or underworld tones, it is just that. It’s a stereotype. Just as Christian music can be considered negative or too cult-like or country music is assumed to be about a divorce and a truck. To people who don’t listen to or have an appreciation of a different world of music or to those who do not fully engage in Christian beliefs one can only imagine how the bridge was built to link the fans of both metal and Christian music and bring them together.
When Stryper began, there was no social media and it wasn’t as easy to get your opinion worldwide unless you were a critic or a music journalist. “We get crap from both sides which is to be expected, but we have learned how to deal with it” Sweet says. “Some days when you wake up and haven’t had your coffee yet, it can be hard to deal with certain things but you deal with it. Sometimes you might go online and read something a critic said which is completely unfair or a fan or non-fan has said but it’s the way things are but that’s the internet and it’s to be expected. 25-30 years ago you didn’t have to read everyone’s comments and now you do. And everyone has one, unfortunately it can get nasty. We do get grief sometimes because we’re a Christian band and we get criticized for that from mainstream and get told we’re a joke or we’re not real metal because we are a Christian band and we get grief from the Christian side, that we can’t be real Christians because we play metal. We get it all. So we just keep doing what we have been called to do and we just let the music do the talking and I say all of this humbly. You listen to a Stryper album and what is there left to say other than it’s good music?”
Over time, Stryper has proven that the marriage of metal and Christian music can work and it does. “We strive for perfection” Sweet tells us. “We don’t go into the studio like some bands, not all bands but some and throw stuff out or put something together just for the sake of getting it out. We take our time recording, producing and arranging it right and we want our albums to get better and better with each album and I feel we have accomplished that and I am very proud of where we have come from since 2005 reuniting
since releasing our first album in 1990 called Reborn. I think every album we put out is better than the last album and the same goes for our album Fallen that is coming out. The last album we had received really great reviews so I am happy and excited about the direction we’re going. It’s pretty amazing to have been doing this for 32 years and feel like you’re getting better at it. It’s really a cool feeling.”
This brings us to the new album Fallen that is set to be released October 16, 2015 through Frontier Records and Sweet gives us the details about it. “A lot of the album is based on the Bible. If you take the title track Fallen, which was our second single off the album, it’s based on the fall of Lucifer. How he was kicked out of Heaven and became Satan. If you take the song Yahweh, it’s based on the crucifixion of Christ. It’s like the film Passion Of The Christ set to music. It’s pretty powerful, it’s right out of the Bible. If you go to the Bible, it aligns exactly. We have a song called Let There Be Light which is about the creation of the Heavens and the Earth and how God said ‘let there be light.’ It’s right out of Genesis giving you that story. This album is almost like a musical Bible study. Then you have other songs like Big Screen Lies which will be our next single released which will come out the first week in September. It’s basically lyrics that explain and explore and show how often the film and TV industry make Christians out to be complete morons. Either crazy or insane or fanatical or cult-like, they’re mostly portrayed as idiots or scary people. Not just normal loving people which is how I know most Christians are. There’s a lot of cool stuff on this new album and musically, it’s definitely our most heavy album and lyrically it’s one of our most bold albums. It just sounds good.”
With the flooding of free music in this day in age, bands need to worry about more than just their talent in order to stand out and not be in the invisible middle. Whether it’s including a little gift to fans in their physical music product or packaging their album in a unique way that is geared towards their specific fan base. With Spotify and YouTube, bands have to continue to do more and more to get people to buy their albums, not just download their music on iTunes. “There’s something to be said for holding the physical copy of an album in your hand” Sweet says. “Personally, I like to read the liner notes and credits, how it was made and so on. It’s sad because a lot of people in today’s times don’t really think or care about that, especially those born in the digital age.” The music industry is always changing from the day of written sheet music to vinyl to cassettes to CD to iTunes to stations like Pandora, Tidal and Spotify. While people’s love of music continues, there is sad truth to the lack of album sales. Sweet says “let’s be honest, if people stop paying for music, bands won’t be able to afford to put music out there and labels can’t release albums. There is a business side to it and for some it’s more about the business but for me it’s more about the music. In the same regards, it’s about the passion for the music and the love of it. But, it is still about the business side of it, you can’t ignore that. In order for people to continue to release that music which is God-given and an art, it’s tricky because you’re out and about trying to make it work during these times it is also a frightening time for someone like me,” Sweet acknowledges “ I’m not like Eddie Van Halen who can play arenas with a strong, large fan base who can go on and on until they’re done. For a band like Stryper who are on a lower level, we still have a strong fan base but we couldn’t play arenas year after year. It’s hard to pull out those budgets to go out and do it at our level and manage to pay salaries to everyone involved but I’m a firm believer of if you have the passion, you have the songs and it is all about the song at the end of the day.”
We are all inspired by someone or something that fuels our drive to pursue our passion. Sweet credits his father who is a singer/songwriter as well as his mother who is also a singer. “I remember when I was a little kid, I was always around music. Always hearing my parents play and write songs. My dad would hand me a guitar and teach me some chords, I was only five years old so I was learning chords on a Gibson 12 string. We would go to family reunions and there would be 75-100 people there and we would have dinner and by the end of the day, we would all break out guitars and pots and pans and have a jam session. My grandmother, my mother and my aunt would travel with the old Gunsmoke show when it would tour. They were the singing trio that sang for them. I have known music my whole life and been involved in it my whole life.” When asked if he was always into metal and wanted to play that genre, Sweet recalls that his dad would play 50’s era music like Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and Fats Domino as well as a lot of 60’s and 70’s era music. “I will never forget the first time my dad played Creedence Clearwater Revival. I was wowed by it and drawn to it and I loved it so much, I still do. My dad was real eclectic in his music and that passed onto me and because of that I love metal but I also love so many other types of music. One of my favorite bands of all time is Journey. I also love Styx and Night Ranger, I just love solid, guitar oriented rock with a good singer and good guitar player. When it comes down to it, I love and appreciate all genres.
Anyone who has heard Stryper’s music over the years undoubtedly knows the level of talent that Sweet possesses. As a self-taught musician, he has never had a formal guitar lesson and started playing when he was only five. At around the age of 12 is when he became more serious though and at 13, he joined the band and started buying guitar amps and other equipment as well as trying new things. “I just kept playing and playing. I would hear a song and then play the guitar riffs by ear. I can read chord charts, but I can’t read music. I took music theory in school, but I was so bored that I dropped out. If I knew then what I know now though I would have stayed in the class. Lessons would probably do me some good but as much as I am all for people taking lessons so it can teach you things you don’t know, but there is a downside especially for those who play by ear. Bringing up the example of one of the all time greatest guitarists in history, Eddie Van Halen who is self-taught and that is what makes him so unique so taking lessons would have only gotten in the way of Van Halen’s distinctive sound and riffs. He was able to be more of an individual rather than focusing on technique only. Sweet confesses, “for me, I just feel that lessons would not have done any good and I am happy with how I play. Not to say there aren’t things I could learn, but if I were to take lessons, there’s only a few people I would want to take them from like Steve Lukather, he’s one of my all-time favorite players. It is actually on my bucket list to take lessons from him. Maybe it will happen sometime.”
When it comes to writing songs for Stryper, Sweet says his process is a little odd. “A lot of people will spend a day or two in a writing session, but what works for me is that I won’t write for a few months. I will just hum ideas into my phone as they come to me so once it comes time for me to sit and write for an album, I will just go through the melodies I’ve recorded and delete the ones I don’t really like and take the ones I do like and just go from there. I could take 10 days just writing and then emerge with 12 songs for an album. At that point, the other band members fly out and we rehearse and record and that’s it. One thing I never worry about is a shortage of songs because of the content of our music. It always comes together which is nice.”
Recently, Sweet worked with George Lynch and he basically would send over ideas and they would collaborate. “I would suggest some old Dokken or some Van Halen sound and Lynch would oblige and then I would take some of his guitar ideas and I would arrange them, write sections that weren’t there. We just went back and forth until we had 12 songs.” Sweet goes on about how “it was amazing to work with Lynch and then Brian [Tichy] and James [Lomenzo] in the rhythm section were also cool to work with. It was just a great experience and I’m working on another album with Lynch.” Sweet enjoys collaborating with other songwriters like Blair Daly. “We actually worked on a song together for my solo album called I’m Not Your Suicide, and I would love to work with Butch Walker and Glenn Hughes. I am just all about the songs musically and lyrically.” Sweet mentions he is working on another solo album and has been reaching out to several people to team up with him. At this point, recording will start in November with Will Hunt, the drummer from Evanescence and they are seeking a bassist and singer. The album will be released April 2016 on Rat Pack Records.
As time goes on, Stryper will continue to shine a light in the dark places and encourage people. “Music is fun and everyone loves the music part, but that is what we do and that is our purpose. At the end of the day, we want to deliver a message that fans can take with them. Without that, the point becomes moot” Sweet says. As Stryper gears up for the album release of Fallen along with their tour, there is also an acoustic project they are working on. They are looking forward to hitting all cities especially Texas as it holds a special place in their hearts being it was where they started their first tour. Singing the same songs night after night you would think could trigger some complacency, but when you are playing the music you so strongly believe in, it only gets more exciting with each performance especially when fans are singing along with you and chanting along to the music, it is such a feeling and the definitive confirmation of how deep your lyrics and music go with those people in the audience. It is the infinite reward to any and all artists regardless of what their purpose is. Sweet assures us that they are switching things up on this next album and feels the fans need more than they have given. Fans are very special to Stryper and Sweet tells us how much of a blessing it is to be able to connect with the fans instantly. If someone needs prayer or help or has a question, he can answer it right there. On the downside though sometimes fans can take advantage and get upset when he doesn’t respond right away or if he misses them. Sweet assures that he does his best not to miss any tweets or messages, “But it is impossible for me to see everything.” He just does the best he can and since he does handle all his social media he feels it is important to at least try to respond directly and the fans love that and a lot of other artists do the same thing in trying to do it themselves.
Sweet’s advice on how an artist or band can stay relevant over the years to come, he jokingly responds “sell all of your gear and run!” Sweet’s heartfelt advice is to, “Stay focused, stay true to yourself and your music and keep that passion you started with. Don’t let it get you down and follow your dreams.” As for Stryper, we can look forward to a long future with these guys. They plan to continue to spread their message and to bring music to all the fans they are so grateful for. “We are blessed beyond belief to have our fans” Sweet concludes.