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30 years later, Stryper’s music stronger than ever

30 years from the date of conception, Stryper’s songwriting is turning out to be the most mature of its entire career.

Stryper has had most of its commercial success early on — in the ’80s, when big hair and big image ruled the day in heavy metal/hard rock. However, the band has matured as a whole, and their recent songwriting is possibly their best yet. “God,” off of The Covering (2011), and “Blackened,” off of this year’s Second Coming, are two examples of strong compositions that combine heavy metal riffs and melodic structure perfectly. And with the release of Second Coming, Stryper has redone many of their classics and given them a more contemporary feel and sound.

It has been 30 years since Stryper formed. And for a band that has become synonymous with the genre tag of Christian metal, vocalist Michael Sweet points out that Stryper has really always been a heavy metal band that happens to be Christian. There was never any reason to give them a category separate from heavy metal. In other words, you don’t have to be Christian to listen to Stryper. The band would be overjoyed if you explored Christian teachings after listening to their lyrics, sure, but it’s not a necessity to enjoy Stryper’s music.

The following is a recent interview with Michael Sweet of Stryper. We’ll begin by asking Michael for a quick update.

Michael Sweet: Working on a new record, arranging songs, shooting for a July release on Frontiers Records. Second Coming is out March 26 in the States. The single “Bleeding From the Inside Out” was released via iTunes the last week of February. And I feel really happy about the direction of the new songs and kind of where we’re going in terms of music these days.

Maybe you can you describe the re-recording process of the new album, Second Coming. Anything that the fans might be surprised about?
Sweet: First, we made the record really for ourselves. We didn’t make it for the fans. And we never intended on releasing it. Our goal was to just fund it ourselves, go make the record and do it for retainment — meaning retain the rights to our songs, and our publishing company have a little bit easier to go on shopping them to film and tv. That’s really why we did it. Cut out the middleman — being the label that owns our catalog. After we started recording the record, hearing how it was turning out and getting a little more excited about it, we decided this would be really cool to offer to the fans, because as fans have said over the years, we would really like to hear these songs with modern technology and sonic production quality. So, you know, the more we thought about it, the more we thought, ‘Yeah, that makes perfect sense. Let’s do it.’ And that’s when we started talking to other labels about coming on board to actually release it worldwide. We round up, obviously, doing a deal with Frontiers. And there you have it. And we’re starting to hear a little bit of the flack. Most of the comments have been really positive. But some negative comments: “Oh, I don’t want to hear it. I’ll just take the originals. Never touch classics.’ I think the difference with this record is, I think we outdid the classics. I think we outdid the originals. On every track? Maybe not. On most tracks? Absolutely. We were somehow able to — Thank God — retain the energy that the old tracks had but we were able to definitely surpass the quality. Some of the old tracks I can’t even listen to. I couldn’t listen to them back then. Like Yellow and Black Attack (1984) — I’ve never been able to listen to that record because I absolutely despise the sonic quality. I think it’s horrendous.

Well, you know, it was the ’80s and it was the time.
Sweet: I know, I get that, but even that record, even though it was the ’80s and that time. I can listen to To Hell With the Devil (1986) because that’s sonically one thousand times beyond The Yellow and Black Attack. Yellow and Black Attack was real low budget. We cut a lot of corners and I feel like it’s such low quality. Then we did a remix of it that was horrendous. It was like one hundred times worse than the original (laughs). So I just felt like, you know, it felt great to be able to re-record those songs. And Soldiers [Under Command] (1985), it didn’t really have a lot of bass. Michael Wagener did a great job of producing that but it never had any bass guitar, the solos were really drenched in reverb and set back, and this was much more in-your-face and tougher and more raw.

[pullquote_right]Some of the old tracks I can’t even listen to. I couldn’t listen to them back then. Like Yellow and Black Attack (1984) — I’ve never been able to listen to that record because I absolutely despise the sonic quality.[/pullquote_right]

And you have said that’s what you think would be more appealing to a younger generation of fans.
Sweet: I think so. I mean, we didn’t sit down and have a corporate meeting and say let’s make it more raw so we can reach the younger generation but I do think that because of its rawness, you can really distinguish everything. Everything’s very clear and it’s a little tougher in the sense that my voice has changed — it’s a little deeper. I don’t sound so much so like a woman like I did back in ’87. I think for that reason — the reasons why some people were never really able to stomach Stryper — I think those reasons have been thrown out the window, and I think that this is a lot more appealing to the world, to the people who like the real heavy stuff and they couldn’t get into Stryper because my voice was too high or because there was too much production or what have you. This is definitely more appealing to those people. Because it is more raw and tougher, richer and deeper, and just a little bit more powerful-sounding, in my opinion.

I agree. Your voice has gotten better, too. And the new songs … I was thinking, is it possible Stryper is at its best all these years later?
Sweet: Well, you know, it’s always kind of weird for a band member to comment on that and say Yay or Nay because it might come across as being a little cocky or prideful or whatever. But I would say that we are. I mean, I think, we started out at such a young age, and with that came a little bit of an immaturity in a musical sense. And also in a spiritual sense and lyrical sense. We’ve matured a lot over the years and that shows in all areas. I do think that we’ve gotten better over time. And we’ve continued to perform and sharpen our skills and I think somehow, some way, thank God, this band has improved. What’s really funny about that is it’s a tough pill for the naysayers and haters to swallow. The people who couldn’t stand us before, maybe, quite possibly, can’t stand us even more now because it’s hard to admit that the band has gotten better and is sounding as good or better than we ever have.

One of the reasons to be disappointed about the release of The Covering at the time [of release] — with the song “God” being one of the best songs the band has written — there were those hoping for a full original album instead.
Sweet: And I understand that. That’s a complaint from many. And the reason why we did The Covering at that time, we talked about and toyed with the idea of doing a cover album for years, and quite frankly we weren’t ready to record an all-original record. But we wanted to make a record. Our label wanted us to. We wanted to. And we all talked about — the label included — doing a cover album. Everyone got really excited about it. It was just an opportunity for us again to show where we come from musically, and it was really surprising for a lot of people to see and hear. Because most people think, ‘Okay, Christian band, they’re gonna do Petra covers, they’re gonna do Rez Band covers.’

That’s a good point.
Sweet: You know, that’s what people automatically assume. Because they’re a Christian band, they’re gonna do a Christian band. And it’s like, no, that’s not where we come from. We’re a rock band that just so happens to be Christian, made up of Christians. We’re like any other rock band. We’re not a ‘Christian band.’ You know, we’re just not.

Your lyrics have matured and certain songs like “Blackened,” the lyrics aren’t as literal, they’re deeper.
Sweet: Yeah, they are. They’re deeper. A lot of times the lyrics of the past, love them or hate them — and they certainly served their purpose — they were almost more judgmental at times. Almost like pointing the finger, like you better turn or burn kind of approach. The lyrics nowadays are deeper and they’re done in more of an approach and thinking of ‘Hey, we’re all the same.’ When I write a lyric I’m talking about myself. I’m sharing from my own personal experience. It’s to show people, ‘Look, I’m no better than you. I don’t think I’m better than you. I never have, I never will.’

Which will be appealing to more listeners.
Sweet: Well, we’re all sinners, man. As much of a cliche as that is that’s going around, it’s true. Nobody’s perfect. We all sin on a day-to-day basis. We all commit sins and do worng and have weaknesses and temptations, and, you know, I’m one of those guys. Maybe at times more so than anyone else. We acknowledge that and admit that. We just try to reach out to people and encourage people through our lyrics these days and try to broaden the approach to lyric writing, and not just doing the same ‘ol song. You know, ‘Jesus is the way …’ We were laughing when we were making the last record about how many songs have the word ‘rock’ in it.

That’s typical for quite a few rock bands (laughs).
Sweet: Oh my … Can’t Stop the Rock, C’mon Rock, The Rock that Makes Me Roll, Rockin’ for the One Who is the Rock. It’s like ‘Good Lord!’ So I would like to think that we’ve grown a little bit.

Do you think that over the years that the fanbase has come to expect every song to be about Christian spirituality? When the record Against the Law came out I couldn’t believe how some people freaked out about it.
Sweet: It’s like you can reverse and flip that coin, and think about if Slayer came out with a Christian album. How would people freak out?

[pullquote_left]I don’t sound so much so like a woman like I did back in ’87.[/pullquote_left]

Okay. That’s a good point.
Sweet: They would flip, right? Of course. Because it’s unexpected and that’s not who Slayer is.

People flipped when they heard (Slayer singer) Tom Araya went to church (laughs).
Sweet: Yeah, well, I know. That’s definitely crazy, in my opinion. But I could understand and totally get … I’d be thrilled if Slayer came out with a Christian album. I’d be like, ‘Cool!’ But I could see why people would freak out. The same thing applies to Stryper. When Sryper does anything that is off the beaten path, people flip out. It’s unbelievable. If we don’t throw bibles out one night … ‘Oh my God, are you guys still Christians?!’ It’s, like, ridiculous. And I say “Oh, we just ran out of bibles!’ (laughs) We ran out. It’s that simple. So, I don’t know, man. It’s difficult.

I think it comes down to the fact that people are going to criticize no matter what you do.
Sweet: Exactly. They really are. And, you know, when you get on that bandwagon of trying to please everybody, you can literally drive yourself crazy. You will. Because you are always going to be upset about something you read or something someone says. I try hard not to do that. I’m an extreme perfectionist, so it’s very difficult for me to do that. I take everything to heart. I’m very serious because I want everyone to be pleased but that’s just not reality.

How did it feel being in a Christian band for many years and then working with a secular band like Boston? Did you find it strange at all?
Sweet: No. Not at all. As a matter of fact, when I said this, I almost felt at times during the Boston tour, it was more Christian than a Stryper tour.

Why was that?
Sweet: What I mean by that is that sometimes when we’re not getting along or when there’s so much tension you can cut it with a knife because we’ve been doing this for so long that we’re at each other’s … whatever. Me going out with Boston, there was none of that. Everyone got along. It was really fun. And cool. It was amazing. And I took some heat for that, too. I got the letters and the emails from people saying ‘How can you call yourself a Christian …’ You know, those are the shallow-minded people. Those are the same kind of people who crucified Jesus Christ on a cross. And those people are always gonna be walking the earth. They’re never gonna go away.

I hear that. You know, Christ’s own people turned him in, so ...
Sweet: Totally. Absolutely. And you know the man did nothing but love and that’s why he was killed. There are people on the internet, it’s their job in life and their goal in life to show the world and prove to the world that Stryper is not Christian. And they’re out there every day posting YouTube videos, posting comments on why we’re not Chrisitian and you got to scratch you’re head and say, ‘My God, dude, Is this really your pathetic life? Really?!

And the thing is, religion is so personal. And why do they feel like you have to justify it all the time?
Sweet: Because the two most heated subjects in the world are politics and religion. And they always will be. I don’t know why it is, how it is, but in religious conversations/subject matter always taking the prize. It’s just the way it is, you know. Stepping into this, we knew that. Did we know it would continue on for the rest of our lives? No. We thought maybe it would improve. It has in some ways but in other ways it’s gotten worse. Stryper’s just one of those bands. No pity party. I’m not asking for violins here or anything. We’ve got the crap beaten out of us over the years. And we’ve got a lot more crap taken and have beaten out of us because we’re not planning on stopping or changing anytime soon.

[pullquote_left]Think about if Slayer came out with a Christian album. How would people freak out?[/pullquote_left]

And hasn’t it been 30 years?
Sweet: 30 years. Tim (Gaines, bass) joined the band 30 years ago in 1983.

Really haven’t seen much mention of the anniversary.
Sweet: I’ve mentioned it a few times. I don’t think there’s been a big blowout in terms of press. But, yeah, it’s 30 years, man.

I mean, do you think Christian rock is in a better place than it was 30 years ago?
Sweet: No. No, I don’t. I always view Christian rock and music differently than a lot of other people do. For saying these kinds of things I get referred to as a pompous jerk and someone who’s just not nice. But I speak from the heart and I am very open and very honest. I just think that a lot of times Christian rock is every bit — if not more so — a cookie cutter business. Sometimes I question whether any of these bands are really Christian. And I don’t mean that in a judgmental way. I just mean that in the sense that: ‘Oh wow, I couldn’t get a major recording deal, so I’m gonna go get a Christian deal. Because that’s easy.’ And you get so many of thee bands and you meet them one-on-one and you start having a conversation with them about religion or spirituality and they have no clue what you are talking about. They’re looking like deer in the headlights. And it’s like ‘Wow. Okay.’ And I’ve seen this personally. I’ve come across it personally — and I won’t mention names — and it’s kind of sad, the state of where we’re at. So many bands, clawing their way to the top, and fighting like it’s a competition. I listen to this band and then listen to the next band, and I couldn’t tell the two apart. So many bands sound the same. Every now and then there’s a special band that comes out and you’re like ‘Wow, they’re amazing.’ That’s few and far between, in my opinion. Groups like Switchfoot are amazing. They come out, you know who it is when you hear them, they have their own unique sound, like POD when they hit the scene. But not a lot of bands that come out have that kind of power and uniqueness and that originality.

Do you find that Christian record stores still carry a lot of the CDs?
Sweet: I don’t know. I haven’t stepped foot in a Christian record store in, I don’t know, maybe 20 years. So I’d definitely be the wrong guy to ask that question.

One thing you should get credit for: don’t you think the music of Stryper has been like missionary work? Haven’t people told you that you’ve helped convert them?
Sweet: We get that a lot and that’s always the most extreme compliment when you hear that. When you meet somebody who’s turned their life around — [say] they were addicted to drugs and turned their life around — and now they’re pastoring a ten-thousand member church. I mean, that’s really insane. That makes the hair on my arms stand on end. That makes me say this is why we do what we do. Right here. This is it. And you can’t get a better compliment than something like that. That’s just mindblowing.

Heavy metal always had the stereotype of siding with the Satanic since it has anger and aggression. It’s just ignorance because anger and aggression is often used against injustice.
Sweet: It is.

And Christ himself used these emotions.
Sweet: Absolutely. And it’s funny. I never really got the separation — in terms of genres. When you hear of a metal band that’s just a mainstream metal band they’re called a metal band. But then here comes Stryper and we’re called a Christian metal band. And I always thought, why couldn’t we’ve been referred to as metal band. Why the ‘Christian’? Why do you have to add the ‘Christian’? Yeah, okay, so our lyrics are Chrisitian. Slayer’s lyrics are Satanic. Why not call them a Satanic metal band? They’re just a metal band. It just makes no sense. It just seems so unjust and unfair, and that I guess is such is life.

And then you were called Glam metal because of the yellow and black stage attire.
Sweet: We’re not even close of being in the same vacinity of anything Glam metal. If you were going to categorize us based on looks and call us Glam metal, that’s just insanity. Then you gotta go back and call Guns N’ Roses Glam metal, too. Because if you go look at all the original pictures of them, they were more Glam than we were. We’re not a Glam band. You can’t do that. You know that just by listening to us.

During the ’80s the Glam metal tag was out and it could be easily applied.
Sweet: And it was. It still is. I mean, I think Eddie Trunk just referred us as being more Glam than Poison or something (laughs). But I was on his show and I remember laughing about that. C’mon, man. And, again, it’s because of the look. I will agree that looking — if I had never heard Stryper and saw a picture — I might say ‘Oh, they’re a Glam band.’

Do you still wear a lot of the yellow and black?
Sweet: We don’t wear as much these days. It’s pretty much about our instruments. A little yellow here and there but it’s nothing like it was in the old days. Frankly, I think that’s a good thing. I think it’s a little more relevant. Modernizes us a little bit more. Maybe there will come a time for us to put on head-to-toe yellow and black and go do it again for a tour or two. But not consistently.

And you mentioned throwing the bibles out in the audience. Do you still do that?
Sweet: We do. We’re limited. We buy all the bibles ourselves. We throw 20-25 bibles out per show to a crowd of a thousand. It’s not that many, obviously, but back in the day we used to throw a couple hundred bibles out. We threw out a lot. We were playing to ten-thousand people a night so those numbers have changed.

There will be a tour, right?
Sweet: Absolutely. We’re going to be doing some touring on and off. There are a lot of fly dates this year. Not that many. Maybe 15-20 dates, between now and the end of the year because our focus this year is to do an all-original full-length which we’re starting on pre-production and we start recording April 2. We have to turn it in by June 1. That’s going to come out this year. And then , not a lot of people know this, but we’ve got another record to make at the end of the year. And what it’s gonna be is the live record. My idea is to go to Nashville, rehearse for four or five days and then record us rehearsing with an audience. So it’s going to be a little different than the Live in Puerto Rico but it’s still live. And we’re doing that in November, so it will come out early part of next year. We’ve got a crazy year in terms of recording.

[pullquote_right]Not a lot of people know this, but we’ve got another record to make at the end of the year. And what it’s gonna be is the live record.[/pullquote_right]

You”re in the midst of songwriting right now. Do you see the material being more in the lines of “Blackened” and “God”?
Sweet: Yeah, there are some songs that are kind of reminiscent of “God.” There are some songs kind of reminiscent of “Blackened. And some songs that are reminiscent of old Stryper. I’ve got twelve songs now in a phone filled with about 54 ideas that I drew those twelve from, and now I’m trying to arrange them. I’m taking them all on at once. I’ve never done that before so I’m really feeling the pressure. Songwriting is my real love. I put that above singing and guitar.I love to write and I think that’s my true calling, because there’s always a song or a melody in my head, 24/7.

Go to www.stryper.com for up-to-date announcements

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