Thirty years ago, back when MTV played music videos and bands stockpiled Aqua Net, Stryper dominated the hair metal scene. Donning their signature black and yellow leather, the faith-driven rockers won over fans of all denominations with their undeniable ability to unify a crowd. Stryper have endured by continually writing, playing and producing over the years. Their newest album, Fallen, released in 2015, resonates with the tones of metal’s past while invoking new melodic sounds. Uplifting and relevant, the band still packs venues in 2016. As they tour for the 30th anniversary of To Hell With The Devil—the band’s multi-platinum album that defined the Christian rock genre—frontman Michael Sweet, drummer Robert Sweet, bassist Timothy Gaines and guitarist Oz Fox maintain their enthusiasm for the band, the fans and their relationship with God.
A wide vocal range and longish locks distinguish Michael Sweet as the quintessential frontman ’80s fans remember, although the lead singer’s constant evolution has brought depth to that image. In an effort to live in truth, Sweet bravely penned a memoir in which he explored Stryper’s trials and tribulations over the years. Borrowing the title from their hit single, “Honestly,” he attempted to tell the band’s story as well as his own.
Aside from writing a book and making music with Stryper, Sweet expands his musicianship with a slew of solo endeavors. He was the vocalist/guitarist for Boston (2007-2011), collaborates with an eclectic array of musicians—including Dave Mustaine’s rising-country-star daughter, Electra—and has recently released his well-received seventh solo album, One Sided War.
After a successful night at Chicago’s House of Blues on Halloween, Stryper continues their tour with lifted spirits and plenty of rock attitude. While most of us still grapple with where the past 30 years went, the band uses this nostalgia on the To Hell With The Devil tour to remind us of our youth, how music unties us and what a rock scream should really sound like.
Here, Sweet spoke with me about band communication, audience reception and what it’s like to write a book about the guys you share a tour bus with:
Since Stryper was at the House of Blues in Chicago last night did you catch the Cubs game?
Yes, I did! It made me go out to buy a Cubs jersey, and I wore it on stage.
Seemed like a fun night, even your family joined you guys on stage…Could you have predicted this 30 years ago?
No, I don’t think so. It’s been an incredible ride and journey. I shake my head in disbelief—in a good way—of how we’re still going and people are still coming. It’s incredible.
Do you feel that Stryper, along with a few other bands on tour now from decades ago, are filling some void for audiences?
Yes, no doubt. We’re one of the few bands that, for whatever reason, has been able to do just that. I’m not sure why, I don’t have the answers…but we have the original lineup, people are still excited about seeing us, hearing us, buying tickets and buying albums and supporting what we do. It’s mind-blowing because it’s been almost 33 years since the band formed. You know, I don’t know how much longer we’ll go for, but I hope a long time. If it were to end today, it’s been an incredible ride. It really has.
Appears as though you all legitimately get along and enjoy making music together years later whereas with some bands the reunion tours seem forced. Do you credit faith, friendship or all of the above?
I think it is all of the above. I mean, we’d be liars to say we don’t have our issues, like any group of people or any band. Whenever you put four guys together with different personalities on a bus, in a tube, you’re going to have issues. We try to communicate, talk, work through our issues and our differences. And we try to take care of ourselves, you know, we pray, we read the Bible, we talk…I think it’s communication. It comes down to that as in any relationship.
Now that you’ve matured, you communicate a bit differently than 30 years ago…
Thirty years ago we communicated through words, now we beat each other up (laughs). Just kidding. We are very family-oriented, and I think—on a serious note—that’s another big reason why we’re very close-knitted. We have that camaraderie. It’s special to us. But, again, we have our days where we get up and say, “Grrr, good morning…” and we want to get away from each other. That’s the reality, as well, of course.
How supportive of your solo career—including your new album, One Sided War—is the band?
I haven’t toured since 2001 as a solo artist, so it’s long overdue. It’s a very tricky subject. When you start talking solo people get up in arms—a lot of fans of the band get up in arms because they think, ‘Uh, oh, what is this?!…Is the band coming to an end?…Is he leaving?…What’s happening?…blah, blah, blah.’—It doesn’t mean that at all. I just enjoy making music, and I enjoy making solo albums because it’s an opportunity to free myself up a little bit more, experiment a little bit more, and try some things that Stryper may not be able to try. So I just enjoy doing it. I love it. I want to get out. I’ve got a lot of music, a lot of solo music that I’d like to go out and play live that I think a lot of people would like to hear. And it will happen next year for sure.
Great news. Now will you be bringing Ethan (Brosh) on tour with you?
I want to bring Ethan. What I may do is, I might do some dates with Ethan and then do some dates with Joel and try to get both of them in there somehow or maybe do dates with both. That would be really cool. And, of course, Will Hunt on drums…He’s a busy guy, and when you work with guys of this caliber it’s difficult to make all of the calendars align. But I’d love to…I’d love to have Will, Joel and Ethan to go out and just “melt faces” as they say.
On the guitar-driven song “Bizarre” off of your new album, there is a bit of the old metal sound mixed with a fresh new metal sound…
Absolutely. It was important for me to merge all of the above. I wanted to go back to the roots, to the ’80s and not sound dated. That’s important with the engineer you work with and the studio you work at to pull out those modern sounds, stay relevant, stay 2016, and I wanted to bring in some great musicians, the best musicians, obviously Joel and Ethan are two examples of that. Will is an example of that. John O’Boyle on bass, he’s amazing. So it’s important for me…I love making albums that inspire people and encourage people lyrically and musically, but I also like to make people go, ‘Whoa, what? What is this? Who is this?’ You know? That shock factor where they can’t believe what they’re hearing, you know? And that’s the goal. That’s always the goal. I love making albums like that, and this was an opportunity to do just that. I also wanted to stay heavy on this album, keep it rockin’, so the continuity and the flow was just “boom!” smacking people upside the face, you know? I didn’t want to get too light on this album.
Your solo music, as well as Stryper’s, is hard and heavy, yet, a positive message still comes through just in more of a visceral way. Is that the aim?
Yes, and not only through the lyrics themselves, but also even if you were to turn the vocal off and there was just the music itself, the tracks…it’s important that the tracks are lifting you, energizing you, making you want to move, smile and have a good day…all of that stuff is important.
So you’ve accomplished a lot on your own and with the band over these past few years. Your evolution as a musician has taken you in many different directions. Can you speak to your draw to country music when you collaborated with Electra Mustaine?
Yeah, I did. On the last album I always wanted to do the Neil Young song, “Heart of Gold,” because it’s one of my favorite songs. I love it, always have. And I wanted a female vocal on that song. I was considering different vocalists, and I came across Electra singing a song. I was very, very surprised, and I thought, ‘Wow, she’s really good.’ It just so happens that I am friends with Dave, so I reached out to him to ask about the possibility of having her sing. They were both very excited about that, and it just worked out. All the planets aligned, and that was it.
I’m so happy she did it because she did a fantastic job, and I’ve said since that I think the world will be hearing a lot about Electra, because she’s got a country career that she’s working on, songs, performing in Nashville and whatnot. She’s a really talented girl, and I think you’re going to hear a lot more about her very soon. She’s young, but working with people young like that helps to keep me young as well.
So you guys are back on the road rockin’ leather pants and all, but what is different, if anything, this time around?
Well, I haven’t been working as hard as I normally do. Last time, I was hitting the gym at all the hotels, eating better and all that stuff. This tour’s been bad. I haven’t really worked out. I haven’t got on a treadmill for weeks, and we’re eating terribly…Being on stage and sweating every night is definitely our workout so thank God for that! You’ve got to be careful, because when you’re 53, going on 54 years old, you’ve got to start watching because the metabolism definitely slows up a bit.
It is your anniversary tour—sort of like one big party for you guys—so you’ve earned it…
It is. And we’re enjoying it, having a blast celebrating doing things we’ve never done, going out to dinner at different restaurants, going sight-seeing, all that kind of stuff, so we are enjoying the party.
About Honestly—your memoir—did you write it for you to process your experiences or for the fans?
It was a little bit of both. I wanted to put it out there because there had been so many misconceptions over the years—people thinking this happened, when it didn’t, or that didn’t happen, when it did. More so, for myself. It was therapeutic for me to write that and get it all off my chest. I always said that if I write a book I want it to be brutally honest. And I think through that brutal honesty I probably lost some fans…people said they lost some respect for me because of some of the things I said in the book. They felt I was a little harsh toward the other guys. But that was the difficulty in writing the book—telling these stories that involve other people and being honest about it. How do you do that without, maybe, offending some people? It’s pretty much impossible.
I didn’t want to throw people under the bus. I really went out of my way to not do that. There’s so much more I could’ve put in the book, and there were ways I could’ve put things…As I was writing and thinking about some of those old stories there were times when I was thinking, ‘Hey, I want to say this,’ but then I’d read it and say, ‘Maybe I don’t want to say that’ (laughs). So I was very cautious about how it was written and everything and how it involved other people. I did my best. It’s not easy writing a book. If anything, I throw myself under the bus more than anyone.
I am a very open person…I am that way on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram…and when you’re open and honest—because of the world we live in—you offend and upset many people on a daily basis, and that’s just what I do. I don’t do it just to do that, but I’m not going to whitewash things just to please everyone.
Songs from Stryper’s newest album, Fallen, are being fit into the set while you’re playing To Hell With The Devil in its entirety?
Absolutely. We come out—we have a video that is like 12 minutes long—we do the To Hell With The Devil set from start to finish, and that’s really cool. Then we leave for like five to six minutes, come back out and do a whole other set of songs from Fallen and In God We Trust…It’s really amazing because the To Hell With The Devil set is exciting, but when we come out and do the second set it almost goes to a new level. Something happens in the audience and in the band where that level of excitement rises even higher and that’s really cool.
Stryper’s tour celebrating the 30th anniversary of To Hell With The Devil comes to Reverb in Reading, PA on Nov. 17, The Stone Pony in Asbury Park, NJ on Nov. 19, and the Gramercy Theatre in New York, NY on Nov. 20. For more details, check out Stryper.com.