Thirty years ago this month, holy rockers Stryper unleashed what would become their biggest selling album ever, To Hell With The Devil. Combining reverent, optimistic lyrics about hope, free will and love with catchy hooks and buoyant vocal harmonies, the melodic pop metal opus turned them into double platinum rock stars, a notable feat in Christian rock or metal.
The band certainly marched to their own drummer, emerging at a time when the opposing forces of hedonistic, glammy hard rock and gritty, socially conscious thrash metal were butting heads on the charts and in the media. Cloaked in yellow and black outfits and gigantic hair, the Southern California rockers cut a niche for themselves, but they also had talent, particularly in the guitar licks of Oz Fox and the soaring vocals of Michael Sweet, whose Rob Halford-like scream at the end of the album’s title track is enough to charm any jaded metal head.
Of course, the band is not without its detractors. When you’re in a Christian heavy metal band you walk a fine line: Some heavier metal fans cried blasphemy at the marriage of metal, which often leans toward dark and demonic imagery, with spiritually minded lyrics and yes, occasional references to The Lord; and some Christian groups targeted the band as leather-clad imposters.
The music is certainly uplifting, probably too sweetly dulcet for those of us into the heaviest of the heavy stuff at the time, although I learned to appreciate them much later. In the end, the band have proven their staying power 33 years after their inception. While the gold and platinum days of the ’80s are over, Stryper continues releasing new albums (last year’s Fallen hit No. 44 on the Billboard 200) and still tours regularly, and Sweet has been cranking out solo releases, too.
On the road for their current 30th anniversary tour for To Hell With The Devil, which crisscrosses America until Thanksgiving, Sweet called the Observer to discuss Stryper’s classic album, his musical philosophy and his prolific solo career, which includes the solid new album One Sided War, which features the shredding talents of guitarist Ethan Brosh.
Your new album sounds good. It has that classic sound that you’re known for, but when I compare it to the earlier Stryper stuff it’s a bit harder and grittier.
We’re trying our best to merge the past with the present without selling ourselves out, and that’s a hard thing to do. But I think that we figured out a way to do it on the last two [Stryper] albums, No More Hell To Pay and Fallen, where it has that classic sound but yet there’s a little bit of a modern sound. It’s working.
To Hell With The Devil and Slayer’s Reign In Blood came out within two weeks of each other in October 1986. That was quite a contrast.
Which one came out first?
Slayer came out first, about two weeks before.
There you go, dude.
They had a controversial song with the gruesome tune “Angel of Death,” which was about sadistic Nazi physician Josef Mengele, and you had a controversial cover with angels wrestling a guitar and a large pentagram from a possessed rocker, which was later changed. Do you remember a lot about that time period?
I do. I remember most of it, as much as my mind will allow me to. Thank God I wasn’t laying on the street junked up on heroin at the time. It was great time for us, an incredible time for us. That album To Hell With The Devil specifically really took us to new heights and just blew doors open for us, man. There’s no question about it.
That album had slower tempos than the first two Stryper releases. It wasn’t until halfway through the album that you got those faster, chugging ’80s riffs. It seemed like you were going for more space in the music with bigger vocal harmonies.
Which is what I prefer. I’m a bigger fan of the songs like “Free” and the songs that have the space and breathe and give you the opportunity to hear what’s going on. It’s my personal style of writing, and I love it.
Even though you were a Christian band, you weren’t getting all the endorsements either. Some people had a problem with what you were doing.
You know, it’s funny because it’s so hard to say and put in a way where you don’t sound offensive, but we never wanted to be a “Christian band.” We were Christians in a band, but we were a rock band that grew up on the streets of L.A. playing all those clubs. We didn’t grow up in the church like a lot of Christian rock bands did. They came out of the church. We weren’t like that, but we’re sold out to God 100 percent. We have deep faith, and we do go to church, read our Bible, and pray, all that stuff.
But we’re just a rock band, and I feel like sadly we were categorized with that label, a “Christian rock band,” and I absolutely can’t stand that label. You have a band like Slayer, for example. You don’t go into Best Buy and ask for the Satanic category. There is no Satanic category. Why is there a Christian category? I just think it’s silly. It is a marketplace in and of itself, but I think it’s stupid. Music is music. Who’s going to figure out who’s Satanic and who’s not? What style it is, what message it has? We’re a rock band that has a very positive message. Slayer is a metal band that basically has the opposing message that Stryper has.
How did you guys feel about coming out around the time when glam and thrash metal were exploding? You were stuck between the two—one was offering a party-hearty version of the world while the other was showcasing its darker side. You were espousing this uplifting message in the middle of it all. You never embraced either of those other aesthetics.
No, and that’s the thing about Stryper. We fought our own battles. To use a cliché, we swam against the tide. Everyone else was swimming towards the shore, and we were swimming out to sea. That’s always been the case with us, and we wouldn’t have it any other way. We like doing our own thing and we’d take heat for years because of it, and that’s fine too.
What makes it worth it is when you see a former drug addict who is now a pastor because of Stryper. Who isn’t dead. To me, that’s what makes everything we do worth it.
What would you say were the most personal songs on To Hell With The Devil for you?
One of my favorites, if not the favorite, is “More Than A Man”. It’s one of the more underrated songs on the album because you don’t hear a lot about it, but oddly enough when we play it live it gets the best reception, more than “Calling On You” and “Honestly”.
It’s amazing. It’s a powerful song, and live it just hits you in the face. The message is very uplifting and very powerful. It’s one of my favorite tracks. Another favorite track of mine that we just added to this tour, and we haven’t played since ’87, is “Holding On”. It’s a pop metal tune, very catchy, very uplifting, and another fan favorite that we stopped playing years ago. I don’t know why.
You re-recorded some of the songs for the compilation Second Coming a few years ago, and you’re currently on the 30th anniversary tour for To Hell With The Devil. Now that you’re revisiting this album, are you rediscovering things or learning new things about it?
Yeah, when we put on the [yellow and black] clothes and we play the album from start to finish it certainly takes us back to ’86 and ’87 again. We think about all the good stuff. Songs like “Holding On,” “All Of Me,” and “Rockin’ The World” we’re playing live. We haven’t played those in years. It’s really, really cool to play those songs, man. I think it myself, “Gosh, why did we retire these songs? I have no idea why.”
I never got the sense that Stryper was a big party band.
It wasn’t. In 1990, ’91 and ’92 we went back to our old ways to a degree. We started drinking again and getting rowdy. We realized: Wait a second, we go on stage and tell people about God and then go to the bar and get drunk with them after the show.
Isn’t it possible to be Christian and still have some hedonism in your life?
Absolutely. Here’s the thing. This is how we feel and what believe. We’re accountable in a different way than most people because you don’t want hypocrisy to come in and overtake you. If you’re telling people you’re living a life that says you’re that, you’ve got to be real careful. Because people are just going to lose respect for you and think, these guys are fakes.
We really try to live what we sing. We do. We’ll drink. I’ll have a Jack and Coke or a beer, and I have no problem with that. But a lot of our fans do. So in other words, I’m not going to go into a room full of 100 fans and start drinking Jack and Coke. We try to be accountable and try to use wisdom in how we do things, but we’re regular guys, man. We like to enjoy life. I like to smoke a good cigar on occasion. I think when it becomes an issue is when it controls you and you don’t control it.
Over the last 10 years, you’ve had the most prolific period of your career between Stryper albums and your solo albums. You keep cranking them out. What is inspiring all this new music?
Just a passion to still do it and the love for it. When I hear bands like KISS talking about how they don’t know if they’re going to record anymore because it’s not worth it, I think, “So that’s why you started doing it in the first place? Because it was worth it?” That’s weird to me, man. I don’t get it.
I wonder if it’s because such bands are at a high level of sales regularly that they don’t want to be embarrassed when it doesn’t sell nearly as well as they used to. A lot of major bands these days aren’t even selling gold or platinum anymore. A band like KISS may not want people to know that they didn’t get a gold record with their latest release.
It still comes down in my opinion to you either love it or you don’t. Like those days in the garage when you were 15 years old writing songs. You either still have that or you don’t. If it’s all about the status symbol and the money, then freakin’ sell your gear and shut up and get out of it because to me that’s just fake and phony. That’s not real, man.
You should be doing this because you love it, you want to do it, and you’re passionate about it, not because you’re driven by whether it’s worth it or not anymore. Or not as many people buy albums anymore. Or you don’t get as much money from it anymore. That’s not why we get into it in the first place. Stryper’s budgets are much lower than they used to be. We’re fortunate that we sell 10,000 units the first week out as opposed to 150,000 [copies] 25 years ago.
That doesn’t drive or determine why we do this, so that’s why we continue to release albums. I’m doing a new Sweet/Lynch album coming up. I’m going to do another solo album. I’m going to do another Stryper album. We’re going to keep going, man, just turning out music. Why? Because we love it.
And they just can’t stop you!
They can’t. The passion and the drive is still there. Now when that’s gone then we’ll stop.
You also sang for the band Boston between 2007 and 2011. Given your vocal style and range that makes complete sense.
You know what? That was an incredible, unexpected moment in history, and I loved every minute of it. It was very cool. But I realized my priority is Stryper.
I did a press release and left the band. I took a little heat from that. I took heat from joining the band. People saying, “How can you call yourself a Christian and you’re in a secular band?” I just thought that was so silly. And I took heat for leaving the band. People were like, “What are you, crazy?”
You can’t seem to win here.
It seems like that’s the case, but hey, man, I’ve gotten used to it. I literally laugh and bear it. It’s pretty funny sometimes. It’s my comedy hour, for sure.
What inspired your new solo album, One Sided War?
Again, a passion to make music. The album title itself was [from going] online and watching these guys all rant and rave about other guys that don’t have a clue that they’re ranting and raving. I’m just thinking, “Wow, this is just a one-sided war here.” We see it in our families, we see it in our jobs, we see it with friends, where you just get hit by a bat over the back of the head and you think, “What just happened? Why are they attacking me? What’s going on here?” And it’s pretty sad that we live in that kind of a world, but that’s what inspired that.
This is why I am doing less political debating on Facebook. Many people are basically screaming their opinions and declaring you’re wrong or stupid and that’s it. They don’t want to debate just denigrate. I block idiots like that.
On my gosh! What is it about people…If you say you’re voting for Trump, yeah, many people hate him, but can’t you just say, “Well, I don’t agree but O.K.” If you say you’re voting for Hillary, many people hate her. You can’t just say, “Well, I don’t agree but O.K.”? Why do people get so insane over politics? If you’re not shoving politics or religions down someone’s throat but you’re saying I support this person, you should be able to say that without people threatening to kill you.
You’ve received negative comments for your music, too, right?
Oh yeah. Obviously with the stance that Stryper has taken we get that more than anybody. It’s insane the comments we get. And we don’t get into it, just like you said. It’s a smart thing to do. You just ban the person and move on.
Or you stop having those conversations if they’re friends.
A lot of these people aren’t friends, they’re just lunatics that go on our pages and go nuts. We’ll take two or three comments and just ban them and get rid of them because they’re just in there stirring the pot and they’re not even fans anyway.
Is there any other song on the new album that is really personal to you that you love?
There are so many tracks that I love. I’m very happy and proud of this album because of the energy, the performances, the musicianship. I love “Radio”. It’s fun. “Golden Age” is rocking, just straight up metal.
I like “Comfort Zone”.
“Comfort Zone” is cool, that’s really different. Every song is its own, but in some way it still has continuity and it flows very well. It just works, man. I’m very happy with how this album turned out.
How long is the 30th anniversary tour for To Hell With The Devil going on for, and what comes after?
Right up until two or three days before Thanksgiving. Then we’re going to go home for the holidays. We might do a few more one-off dates in South America and make-up dates in the U.S. somewhere, and then after the holidays I’m going to do this Sweet/Lynch album.
With Dokken guitarist George Lynch?
Yes. [Album] number two. We’re excited about that. He’s doing the Dokken thing right now, we’re doing this tour, and then we’re going to start writing and tracking for that around early February.
So for the 30th anniversary tour, do you play the whole album and then other songs?
It’s the whole album, and we take a little break, then we come out and do a bunch of other stuff. Before we start the Hell set, there is a 10-minute video that documents the making of To Hell With The Devil. It’s really cool.
So you’re giving people a history lesson?
But you’re not throwing Bibles into the audience anymore?
We still do. We’ve got special limited-edition Bibles made for this tour only that say “30th anniversary To Hell With The Devil” right on them. It’s not a sticker. We’ve been throwing Bibles out from the very the beginning, every show. We never stop doing that.
As long as nobody gets bonked in the head. I often wondered about that.
They do. We hurt people, we’ve killed people even. [Laughs] We killed them with The Word, man.
Judging from the interviews you’ve done lately and the quality of the music, you seem very happy.
You know what? We’re having a great time. We’re blessed to be where we’re at, to still be doing this, still be around, still have the original lineup, and still have our health. Lord willing, we’ll have more. We can’t be grateful and thankful enough, man. It’s pretty cool.