Stryper‘s new album God Damn Evil caused a storm in the US on its release and was banned by major retailers the length and breadth of the country. Founder member Michael Sweet talked exclusively to HRH Mag.
Sweet by name, sweet by nature? Not exactly. Stryper frontman Michael Sweet might have a reputation as a man of religion but it wasn’t always so. Prior to fronting a band that became synonymous with Christian metal – against a backdrop of the hedonistic 80s hair metal scene – the starry-eyed musician was like any other Sunset Strip wannabe. Living the dream and living life on the edge.
“I’d had that lifestyle of sex, drugs and rock and roll before Stryper,” he said. “I was playing clubs from the age of 13 and by the time I was 16, 17 and 18 I was playing those Hollywood haunts every weekend.
“I was very much immersed in that world. I was doing drugs and I was drinking and I was very involved in all of that stuff. But I got out of that before it consumed me and I feel very fortunate that I did. By my early 20s I knew change was needed.”
Sweet had lived out his rebellious years before most kids his age knew their beer from their tobacco and alongside older brother Robert he launched Roxx Regime – the short-lived name swiftly changed to Stryper to better reflect the band’s Christian ethos.
“There was a real rock movement in the mid to late 80s,” he added. “It was a combination of the look and the sound and the energy and the fans. Everything was interlinked and everyone knew everyone else.
“We were like one big gang back then. It was really cool. It was such a special time for rock music and I don’t know if we’ll ever see anything like it again. Albeit in the most respectful way, I do feel a lot of pity for the kids in bands now. Although there’s so much great new music out there that scene, that movement and that gang mentality just isn’t there any more.”
Stryper hit the big time on the back of the Grammy nominated To Hell With The Devil – a record that spent three months on the Billboard charts and went platinum. But at the same time as the Sweet brothers were positioning themselves as bastions of Christianity they were sharing stages with Ratt and rubbing shoulders with Motley Crue.
“Of course our faith was at odds with a lot of what was going down back then,” added Michael Sweet. “But we were real with our music and we were real with our message. We still are today. People thought we used God as a gimmick. But why would we be so stupid as to use God as a gimmick? God is not so much a gimmick as a target and we put that target on our backs. But we went with our gut.”
By the time Stryper came to record the follow-up to To Hell With The Devil the quartet were established as one of Enigma Records’ hottest properties. Thirty years down the line and the band’s polished response to hair metal’s overnight popularity sounds very much like a record of its time with Dial MTV favourites Always There For You and I Believe In You showcasing Sweet’s softer side.
“1988 was a very exciting, thrilling time,” he added. “Everyone in our genre seemed to be doing well. Great things were happening and great songs were being written almost every day by so many bands. We just feel very blessed to have been part of it.
“But with In God We Trust we faced real pressure for the first time in our careers. To Hell With The Devil remains the most successful album of our careers. As a consequence we had a label telling us that we had to deliver this and that and at the same time we wanted to outdo ourselves on the next record and make something even better.
“We worked longer and we worked harder and then I got sick. There was some down time and in the end it took longer to make that record than expected so straight away we lost money. Looking back it’s a good album but because of everything going on around it I feel it’s kind of sterilised and over-produced. A lot of bands suffered in the same way at that time.”
Five years later and Sweet walked away. Much in the same way that he had turned his back on mid early 80s excess he experienced a watershed moment that would bring an end to his beloved band and stop Stryper in its tracks.
“I quit the band in 1993 for my faith and for my family,” he added. “They should be at the top of the list in terms of priorities. When you’re a person of faith you should not allow something like music to take precedence over your family and friends but the band was taking over every aspect of my life. As a result I wasn’t being a good husband or a good father. I knew it and I left the band.”
Sweet left the band, left his brother and left behind the only life he had known for the best part of a decade. Musical tastes might have been changing by 1993 but a shock decision wasn’t based on anything but strong belief.
“It was a very difficult decision,” he added. “I thought about it for a long time. It wasn’t an overnight decision: I tossed and turned and lost a lot of sleep over it. I was very upset when I left because I didn’t want to hurt my brothers in the band – including my blood brother Robert.
“I didn’t want to bring any harm to them and yet I knew that simply by leaving it would make life very difficult for them. But I said to myself ‘I’m doing this for my friends, my family and my faith. When I left it shook us all up. I genuinely had no plans to go back into music but by 1994 I was back and I had a solo album. It did really well and I picked things right up again. I was back in the scene but even in the short time I’d been away I was better prepared for it. I’d had time with my family and I felt strong enough to get back on the rollercoaster ride.”
Still there was no Stryper. That is until 2003 when Christian metal’s original crusaders embarked on a fresh journey of faith and began to unleash some of the best records of their storied career.
“To be sitting here looking back at the last 15 years is incredible,” added Sweet. “I think we’re actually more productive now than we ever were first time around. Not only are we more productive but I think we’re still putting out our best music. Whether it actually means anything in this day and age is open to question but it means the world to us.”
Sweet will turn 55 this summer and there’s a sense that the singer songwriter feels time is running out. Rapidly. Not only are Stryper back – and back to their rousing best on new album God Damn Evil – but their main man is a prolific collaborator on various projects including his critically acclaimed partnership with ex-Dokken guitarist George Lynch.
“I’m a really aggressive guy in terms of doping the most that I can with my life,” he added. “I’m not one of those guys who sits around thinking about what I could do. I’m out there doing it. I’m a very driven person and a very creative person and I like to take the opportunities that come my way. And the more I do the more things seem to come along! “I’m going to be 55 soon and I’m not going to be able to do this for my entire life. At some point what I do will become part of the past so I’m doing to do as much as I can, while I can. Stryper is part of that. When we’re sitting around together I’ll say to the guys ‘let’s do this’ or ‘let’s do that’ and I’m bouncing off the walls just wanting to do something.”
God Damn Evil is something else. The follow-up to 2015’s Billboard Top 50 album Fallen is a feisty affair with Sweet refusing to hold back in the twilight of his career. “We’re a band that likes to make a statement musically and lyrically,” he added. “We always have been. Some people have accused us of going for the shock value with the new album title just to make people talk. But it’s not that at all.
“God Damn Evil is a statement, a prayer and a request. We’re asking God to condemn all evil. Evil itself seems to be getting worse and worse and going to a whole new level. People need to stop and debate exactly what’s going wrong. We want to spark that conversation.”
Lead single Take It The Cross has done exactly that. Controversial both in terms of lyrical content and musical style, it puts the metal into Christian metal. And then some.
“We released Take It To The Cross to rattle a few cages – we didn’t want to put out a predictable song or something that was going to be expected by everybody. A lot of our fans have been asking for something heavier and as a band we grew up on British metal.
“Judas Priest are one of my all-time favourite bands – only Van Halen would be up there with Priest. My sister was driving me to school in ’78 or ’79 and I heard Unleashed In The East on the radio – they were playing Diamonds And Rust. I heard Rob Halford singing and my chin just hit the floor. I had never really sung in my upper range but that was the inspiration I needed. I loved all of those British metal bands like Priest and Maiden.”
At the other end of the range is Matt Bachard – the Shadows Fall/Act Of Defiance growler adding the low notes to Sweet’s high end shrieks.
“To me it’s fitting that we’ve introduced Matt’s death growls on Take It To The Cross. When I wrote that track that’s the first thing I heard in the song. I heard the low part and I just added the high part later. A lot of people don’t like it and say that I sound like Beavis and Butthead but Rob Halford always sang a lot of stuff like that and it’s my metal roots shining through.”
Stryper, in their defence, have always been a band of many shades – constantly moving from the dark into the light and back again with a ‘no boundaries’ approach to making metal.
“Back in the day you’d hear a song from Stryper like Loud N Clear and then you’d come across You Won’t Be Lonely,” added Sweet. “Or we’d play First Love and then Soldiers Under Command.
“We’ve always been that double sided coin as a band. As much as we loved Maiden and Priest we loved Journey. We like to get heavy but we’ve always been proud of our music’s eclectic mix. I enjoy heavy and the fans have been calling for heavy. So we’re giving it to them on God Damn Evil.”
Thirty-five years on from forming Roxx Regime the criminally underrated Sweet has developed into one of hard rock’s most evocative guitarists. Strip away, for one moment, the distinctive vocal style and the Stryper frontman is a talented axe slinger quite capable of standing toe to toe with his illustrious peers.
“I think with my guitar style I’ve branched out a little bit over the years,” he added. “It’s still that Michael Sweet style. I’ve always approached a guitar solo like I would a vocal. There’s got to be a melody and a structure. I like it to make sense within the song. It’s always been like that for me. If you look at the early solos – something like You Know What To Do. It’s very structured and melodic and I’ve stayed true to that approach down the years.”
So just where did that oh so Sweet sound take its lead from back in those formative teenage years?
“In the beginning I was really influenced by John Fogerty because of his riffs,” added Stryper’s main man. “Those Creedence Clearwater Revival riffs were so memorable. And Chuck Berry was a huge influence when I was a kid. I’d dance around on the bed listening to him and playing air guitar.
“Michael Schenker is one of my all-time favourites. It’s maybe more subconscious but Schenker is a big part of my guitar style. I’ve always liked his vibrato style – he’s always had a real, heavy vibrato and that’s what I like.
“After Schenker I got heavily into Randy Rhodes, Eddie Van Halen and John Sykes. These days I dig George Lynch – he’s such a great player and I’ve made a couple of cool albums with him. In terms of new kids on the block Joel Hoekstra is one of my favourites and a guy called Ethan Brosh played on my solo album. He’s well worth checking out along with a guitarist called Andy James.”
Get one of music’s nice guys talking about his favourite guitarists and he could easily rattle off a Sweet 16. Thirty years after he was one of hair metal’s self-styled gang leaders, Stryper’s frontman remains just as passionate about his music as he is about his faith. God Damn Evil. And God damn the doubters.
*This article was first published in Volume V of HRH Mag.