Courtesy of Frontiers Music Srl

Stryper – Fighting the Good Fight One Last Time?

Frontman Michael Sweet discusses the band’s legacy, future and whether their brilliant new album is indeed The Final Battle.

Stryper have always been, and will always be, the antithesis of their musical peers. Although they shared the same big hair and flamboyant costumed look of other bands hoping to emerge from the early-eighties Sunset Strip music scene, they refused to subscribe to the decadent lifestyles adopted by others. While too many area artists courted death by indulging in copious amounts of sex, drugs, and alcohol, the members of Stryper chose to raise families and practice what they preached. Yes, Stryper are a Christian heavy metal band. They are not the first, but they are easily the most popular and commercially successful one of all time.

Although they experienced breakthrough success during the mid-to-late eighties, even finding their way into heavy rotation on MTV, by the early nineties their star had faded thanks to the rise of grunge. After an ill-advised concept change that resulted in 1990’s Against The Law (which did feature a stellar cover of Earth, Wind and Fire’s “Shining Star”), frontman Michael Sweet became disillusioned and departed for a solo career. As fate would have it, interest in the band would rebound as the decade came to a close and the band reunited, first as a touring unit only, and then in 2005 to release the aptly titled Reborn.

The band have since been on a roll touring and releasing a number of great albums full of anthemic songs that continue to resonate with fans. Yes, guitarist and founding member Oz Fox has suffered medical concerns and original bassist Tim Gaines stepped down in favor of former Firehouse member Perry Richardson, but otherwise, the band have barely missed a beat. Stryper’s latest, The Final Battle, however, might be their most traditional sounding work in decades, drawing favorable comparisons to their biggest albums including To Hell with the Devil. But is the album’s title about the growing threat of Armageddon or is it a hint that the band are considering ending their long running Yellow and Black Attack?

Given the amount of time that has passed, do you now consider the band’s nineties split as merely an extended hiatus?

Yeah. I left the band in ’92 because I needed to get my life in order and get my family in order. I needed to refocus my priorities and that’s what I did. When we got back together in ’03 just to tour it felt like the right time to reform. Everything really started, however, with the ’05 release of Reborn. Since then it’s just been fire – a blur of traveling, touring, performing, and recording.

Each album Stryper has released since 2005 has been strong and spawned at least a few memorable anthems, but The Final Battle is the most ‘Stryper’ Stryper record since 1988’s In God We Trust. Was this intentional?

It is interesting you say that, though you’re not the first. I’m still trying to figure out why people are saying that. One music journalist said it is “a cross between our debut [The Yellow and Black Attack!] and Soldiers Under Command. I, as a songwriter, did not sit down and plan out how to get back to that sound. I just went into my studio and started writing without any obviously intentions. Yes, I wanted to keep everyone, including the band, happy. I didn’t want to walk away from our musical roots, which a lot of bands make the mistake of doing. Too many bands try to reinvent the wheel, be fresh, new, and modern, and then they go in a direction that literally costs them their entire fanbase. I’ll never understand that. I agree that it’s important to throw modern influences in the arrangements and the production, but you have to be true to your roots. No, nothing was planned out. Reborn and Murder by Pride were certainly more experimental, with different things on those albums, more modern for that time. Now we’re circling back to where we began, I suppose, and it’s a good thing.

Because the new album is titled The Final Battle, some fans are concerned that this is the last Stryper album. Please put our minds at ease.

The album wasn’t named The Final Battle because we thought it was the final album. However, I won’t be in a band that tours under the Stryper name when there’s only one original member. That’s not to knock the bands that do that. I was actually in a band that was doing that [Boston] and it felt odd to me.

Boston is a slightly different situation. Guitarist Tom Scholz had written the music for their debut before assembling a lineup. He, essentially, is Boston.

Although I was blessed and happy to be in Boston, I always felt a little awkward. While on stage I would think to myself, “This really isn’t Boston.” Yes, Tom wrote and produced everything, but to me, the band was [singer] Brad Delp, [guitarist] Barry Goudreau, [bassist] Fran Sheehan, and [drummer] Sib Hashian. I went to see Foreigner perform seven or eight years ago and the only original member was guitarist Mick Jones. The fans in attendance didn’t care. They just wanted to hear the songs. To me, as a musician, however, it felt strange, even though my friend Kelly Hansen is their singer.

I witnessed Kelly Hansen with his former band, Hurricane, open for Stryper during the late eighties at Queens, New York’s L’Amour’s East.

We go way back and Kelly is a freak of nature. He sings as well as he ever did and there is no better voice to fill in for [original Foreigner frontman] Lou Gramm. I understand that Lou can no longer hit those notes, but it’s simply not the same.

You have spoken at length about asking your bandmates to tune down a step, but you still possess a powerful voice and you’re still able to hit high notes. What is your secret?

My voice is very temperamental and that has nothing to do with warming up or being trained. I have a persistent postnasal drip that affects my singing ability. When I take decongestants, which help clear up the mucus, they dry me out and that affects my vocal ability. If I don’t drink enough water, if I drink too much coffee, if it’s a dry, hot day or if I eat cheese, then I’m going to have a tough show that night. Still, I’ve never had nodules on my vocal chords and I’ve never needed surgery. The doctors have said, oddly enough, it’s because I have such a really thick postnasal drip that it literally coats my vocal cords. They said that’s why my vocal cords look like an 18-year-old’s. It’s irony above irony. Even though it’s been a curse, it has also been a blessing.

How is guitarist and fellow founding member Oz Fox doing?

Quite well. He came out of both surgeries [for a non-malignant brain tumor] pretty much back to normal. The only thing I’ve noticed is he now takes medications that make him a little tired and lethargic, but, otherwise, it’s great.

What has the band’s latest addition, bassist Perry Richardson, brought to Stryper?

I don’t know if there’s anything I can say that hasn’t already been said. He brings so much to the table. He’s a solid person, a solid player, and a solid singer. He’s not here for himself or for his own agenda. He’s the consummate professional.

The cover art for ‘The Final Battle’s’ is quite stunning, though it does remind me of the controversy created by the cover art for ‘To Hell with the Devil’ (which featured band members painted as Angels casting Satan back to hell). All these years later, we can finally laugh about it.

[Laughing] It’s so hilarious. There will always be that group of people trying to breakdown our album covers.

There were also televangelists who branded Stryper as “wolves in sheep’s clothing.”

[Laughing] That was Jimmy Swaggart. He referred to a lot of people as “wolves in sheep’s clothing,” but then we found out he was a wolf [who committed many transgressions]. In some sense of the term we’re all wolves in sheep’s clothing. We’re all sinners. We all make mistakes. But instead of just pointing fingers at people, Jimmy needed to point a finger at himself.

During Stryper’s upcoming live shows, will you be tossing bibles into the audience?

Oh, yeah. We’ve been doing that since the beginning and we will never stop.

Are you concerned that they’ve become novelty, merely concert trinkets?

No. We look at it this way: during the early days, we used to throw them out into the audience without a Stryper sticker on them and they were left all over the floors. We knew at that point in time it was going to be more of a novelty and we’re okay with that. Because if they take it and they keep it and they treasure it, maybe they’ll read it. Guitarist John 5 once told me he has a Stryper bible that he got at a show when he was young. There is so many people with similar stories. We never charge for them and we don’t sell them. If you make it donation on our website you can get a bible… or you can catch one at our shows.

When I got married 15 years ago, my now-wife wanted our first dance to be to Etta James’ “At Last.” I wanted “Together as One” (from Stryper’s Soldiers Under Command). My wife won, of course, though we did dance to your song later during our reception.

That’s great. Over the years the song has become a wedding staple and I’m not exactly sure why. It must just be the style of the music and obviously the lyric, but that so many people play that song at their weddings is pretty amazing.

I recently left my local church, because the priest would mostly talk about conservative politics and the Fox News channel. I respect everyone’s right to their own beliefs, but there needs to be a separation of church and state.

I am told all the time that you can’t mix religion with metal. We didn’t think about that when we started. We just took a stand for what we believed was right, so I guess you could apply that in some ways. But in other ways you really can’t and it doesn’t always apply to everything. I still don’t know why, however, if you do start talking about politics it clears the dinner table. People get so angry if someone doesn’t vote for their candidate. That’s the thing I don’t understand about politics. It’s terrible if you say you voted for this guy and lose half of your audience. We should be able to accept people for who they are and who they voted for.

My biggest problem with politics is that you have to subscribe to whichever political party’s entire laundry list. For instance, I believe in a woman’s right to choose, but if you’re against abortion you have to also believe global warming does not exist.

It’s so true and people laugh at me when I say things like that. We’re certainly on the on the brink, as my dad used to say. We’re heading in some kind of direction that is not good.

I often wonder what kind of world I am leaving for my youngest family members.

It’s so true and I think the best thing we could do every day is to smile and try to love people more. Try not to let other people’s anger rub off – not let it become a cancer. The more love we have in this world the better this world is going to be.

The Final Battle is out now and Stryper’s next tour will soon commence, but it’s not 1988. The music industry is not the same.

We are a band that doesn’t have a big machine behind us. We don’t have a Sony or some big, deep pocket record label funding us. At the same time, however, we’re more persistent than any other band in the world. Knock us down 100 times and we’re going to get up 200 times. That is who we are. That’s who we have always been. How do I say this without sounding cocky? I really say this humbly: if you take the religious aspect, or the Christian aspect, out of the equation we’re as good as or better than most bands out there. We work hard. I have produced bands who come to the studio unprepared. They haven’t properly worked on their songs. They don’t work on their regiments. They come in and they just expect magic to happen. Stryper is the opposite. We work hard before we go into studio. We take each and every note seriously.