As a part of the IVM team, I’ve had the chance to interview some heavyweights in the industry. I’ve interviewed bands I’ve looked up to for years and even a few that I was just discovering with the rest of the world. However, never before have I had the opportunity to interview a band that has had quite the impact on the musical world in both the Christian and secular markets for such a lengthy amount of time as my recent interview with Stryper’s front man Michael Sweet.
As the band prepares to unleash their new album No More Hell to Pay, which is getting great reviews all around and is already selling quite well in pre-order form, I got the chance to talk to Michael while he was driving on the road to one of many touring events the band has planned into 2014.
Lee: Thanks for this interview. Let’s talk about the new album a bit, but first, you just released your first music video in over 22 years. What made you decide it was time to do another video at this point?
Michael: Well, you know, we were very limited on budget. We shot two videos and a documentary actually. The first video, which is “No More Hell to Pay” winded up being the last video of the day. So we literally only had about an hour and a half to two hours tops to pack up and leave the studio and go out, having shot our first video… and shoot this one out in the desert.
In terms of your question of what made us want to do that now, we haven’t made a video since 1991. That was the last time we made videos. We wanted to make a statement with the video and let the song speak for itself. That’s why the video is not rocket science. There’s not a lot to it. It’s basically just two or three run throughs of each guy with one camera out in the desert. We caught a little flak for Rob not having his kit, but it was difficult to bring his kit, number one… and I actually kind of like the fact that he doesn’t have it, because it makes it a little bit more unique. And the cool thing is that the next video will obviously showcase Robert’s kit.
But, I think it’s perfect. And it’s funny, because some of the people that didn’t like it at first love it now after viewing it three or four or five times. Again, it was about the song, not the video. Let the song shine, and not to go crazy with all of this production and all these cuts and edits. That’s one thing I’m not a big fan of. A lot of these videos now a days kind of make you sick to your stomach or make you dizzy watching them, you know?
Lee: Can you give us a heads up on what the next song to have a video will be, or is that still “to be released?”
Michael: No, it’s pretty much common knowledge. It’s a song called “Sympathy.” We made a video for that more-so because of the message of that song. It’s just a really cool message. We shot footage of us in the studio all in black and then there’s intercut footage of us actually making the record. Footage from the studio itself, when we were making the album. It’s just really cool, man. It’s got a great feel to it, and I think people are going to love that. It’ll come out at some point. I don’t know the exact day. There’s been talk of a few different scenarios, and we’ll see what happens with that.
Lee: What was different from making this video in 2013 compared to the last one in 1991?
Michael: From 1991, there’s not a lot of difference. The very last video we made was to a song called “Two Time Woman.” Oddly enough, we had shot “Lady” that day, and that was the big production video. And then we did two or three run throughs of us live on a stage playing “Two Time Woman.” So, it’s awfully similar, like I said oddly enough, to “No More Hell to Pay.” It’s just so real. We’re just on stage playing and running through having a good time. There’s not a lot to it. So, that’s a little ironic. Now that I think about it, that’s kind of cool. But, again, with “No More Hell to Pay” we just wanted the song to speak. We wanted the words to speak… and just so people could see us relating that. We didn’t want anything crazy and have actors in it.. because that can be hit or miss. You could go down the path to cheese really fast. We didn’t want to do that.
Lee: Now, the album isn’t even out yet, of course Nov. 5th, but it’s getting near universal praise. I know you’re all humble guys, but did you expect the album to already be taking off like this?
Michael: You know man I wasn’t really sure. I believe… I’m going to go so far as to say it’s our best album. I’ve said before “one of our best,” but I think it’s our best album. And, I know that’s saying a lot, but I really believe that. But, that’s just my opinion. Just because I think it’s our best album, you may not think so. I didn’t know what the reviews were going to say. I was hoping for great reviews, but I wasn’t sure. So far they are beyond our expectations, they are better than great. They’re amazing. You know, people giving it five stars and 95/100. And saying the same thing that I’m felling and that is that it’s our best album. That’s really gratifying to read. It’s amazing.
Lee: Now, you stuck to your guns on this album and recored a very classic… heavier, but classic… Stryper album. Did you feel the need to venture out or include other styles or influences or was it always just the idea that you’re going to focus on what you do better than anyone?
Michael: We really tried very hard to focus on what we do and what people have been wanting to hear over the years. We made “Murder by Pride” and people really liked that album and it got great praise, but people were like, “Ah man, I hope you go a little bit heavier on the next album.” We made “Reborn” and people liked that album, but said, “Ah gosh, I hope you do more solos down the road. Or, more screams.” We really focused on giving everybody what they’ve asked for, but yet, still trying to make ourselves happy as artists. I mean, because we have to be happy at the end of the day and proud of what we’re doing, musically speaking.
And we are. We’re really proud of this record. It blows my mind to think that we’ve been going for 30 years and we’re making albums that we’re happy with. That’s just amazing. It’s phenomenal.
Lee: You know, leading off of that comment; in my own review I made a comment about the state of music and said that one of the most relevant things you guys could have done was to stay right where you were doing what you do best, because it seems like music, in subtle ways, is swinging back in that direction. What’s your take on where (specifically) rock and/or metal music is going today?
Michael: Absolutely, it’s come full circle. I mean bands are getting back to what you heard in the 80’s… you know: Guitar solos, and harmony solos, and singers that sing. It’s not just about screaming, but it’s singing with harmony and there’s melody. And, it’s really cool.
Obviously they’re not a new band, but Avenged Sevenfold, to hear their stuff on the radio… and I was just listening to Altar Bridge with their new album… It’s just really a lot of melodic stuff with guitar solos. It’s getting back to the old school roots, and you didn’t hear a lot of that in the 90’s or even the early 2000’s. It was really just about a vibe in the vocals versus a melody or no guitar solo, just guitar effects. It was really just a different time, and now we’re back to those melodic parts in the song and with the bands… and man, that is just encouraging.
It’s very exciting for me, because that’s our stomping grounds. That’s where we come from.
Lee: At several places in the album you hit some pretty high octaves, again, some of your classic vocals. How do you keep your voice so pristine over the years, when a lot of guys are done vocally and just can’t do it anymore after a few years of singing like that.
Michael: Well, I try to take care of myself. I have my own little secrets or things that I do that help me get through a show or an album. One of those things I did on this album: Usually I would go down to my studio and record the whole song, and then do the scream at the end of the song. But, then my voice is a little tired and my voice isn’t what I want it to sound like. So, this time around I did it different. I went down and I recorded the screams first. I got those out of the way. Then, I punched in and I sang the song.
That made the screams really fresh, and it gave them a little more life, and a little bit more power doing it that way. But, I do try to take care of my voice and I’m very blessed. I don’t have the voice I had in 1987 or ’88, and I don’t think that that’s necessarily a bad thing. My voice has changed a lot, it’s gotten a little deeper. My range has come down a little bit, and I think in some ways that a good thing. But, I’m still able to sing and I’m blessed in that way and fortunate. Very fortunate.
Lee: On the album you cover “Jesus is Just Alright,” by the Doobie Brothers. Now, I know you’ve had a cover album out already, so what lead to the choice to put that specific song on the new record?
Michael: Well, we talked about doing that song over the years many times. We just felt that this was the perfect album to put it on. It fit right in because of the riff. This album is all about guitar riffs… that song is all about guitar riffs. (Imitates guitar riff) It’s got that riff and we just felt that would be perfect. It’s got that great breakdown section, sort of a Sabbathy… Black Sabbath breakdown section, and that’s why we did it. And, then, lyrically it’s as bold and powerful as it gets.
It basically proclaims, “Hey, Jesus is alright with us and He always has been.” It’s a perfect song for us. “Tailor Made.”
Lee: Now, I’ve just got to ask. Did you guys listen at all to the dc Talk version before recording yours?
Michael: Believe it or not, I’ve heard the dc Talk version, but we didn’t listen to the dc Talk version at all, and they did a great version. We listened to the Doobie Brothers version. That’s really more of what we based it on, was that.
Lee: On the track “The One,” and I don’t have any singing ability at all, so you’ll have to forgive me, but the “Ooohh aaaahhh oooohhh” that goes through that… it’s the background vocals you’re doing there… it kind of resembles the tremble and the chorus a bit of your own song “Blue Bleeds Through.” Was that intentional or kind of a happy accident?
Michael: I think it was kind of a little bit of both. I feel like “Blue Bleeds Through” was a really cool song, and I’ve had a lot of good reviews, but sadly it just kind of fell by the wayside. I incorporated a similar melody on this song, on “The One,” as well. It was kind of… not so much that we sat down and thought, “We’ve got to do this just like ‘Blue Bleeds Through,'” but it was one of those things that just happened. Yet, at the same time there was some thought put into it. It’s got a neat little inflection on the melody and a neat melody. It was perfect to do on this album, as well.
We wanted to keep it a rock guitar ballad, and not go after that piano… real syrupy kind of ballad. We were purposely doing that. People seem to like the song, so far from everybody that’s heard it. Even people that don’t like ballads they like the song. So, it’s pretty cool.
Lee: Yeah, I think it’s a great song. If you don’t mind for a second taking a side-track. Can you talk about what “Blue Bleeds Through” was about. Because it’s a wonderful song for those who haven’t heard it.
Michael: “Blue Bleeds Through” was about how no matter what you go through… basically describing everything we go through by using colors… yellow… orange creeps in… white holds me tight… black… you know, just explaining everything that you feel on a day to day basis. Good and bad, up and down throughout life. But, no matter what we face on our painting and all those colors that are on our painting, the blue, representing God, bleeds through and covers all. Gets you out of it, lifts you up, gets you through it all. And, that was really the message of the song.
Lee: With the track “Legacy,” you seem to hit a theme that speaks volumes about where the band has been after thirty years together, but also many of your original fans may be at that point in their lives where they’re looking back on their own history. Talk for a minute, what do you think Stryper’s legacy is, and your own thoughts on it so far?
Michael: Well, I hope it’s not the yellow and black. I hope it’s more than that. I hope it’s the fact that many lives have been changed and altered and renewed, as one of the songs on No More Hell to Pay that ends the album says. I hope that we’ve encouraged people and inspired people to do better and turn their lives around and devote their lives to God.
That’s it. That’s our legacy right there. That’s what we’re going to be…. I hope to be remembered for. That no matter what we never gave up. We never wavered. We stayed on the straight and narrow and we stuck to our guns. And, you’ve got to give us that. Love us or hate us. And, hopefully through that lives have been changed.
Lee: There are a lot of bands like Skillet who making a big splash in the market and are sticking to their guns like that. But then, of course, there’s always that temptation to water it down to sell more albums. Have you dealt with that dichotomy, even this far into your career? Maybe P.R. people trying to tell you to water it down?
Michael: Yeah, but we’ve never… never ever listened to that. We do our own thing. We do what God calls us to do. We believe in it and are very determined in our hearts to get that out. When labels tell us we need to tone this down and do this and do that… we basically just say to them, uh, look you signed us. You wanted us. If you want us to change, then let us go. I mean, it’s not going to happen. It’s not going to happen.
Lee: My favorite track on the album was “Marching into Battle,” which comes across as the spiritual successor to “To Hell with the Devil” and “Soldiers Under Command.” Can you talk a little bit about that song and how it fits into the “Revelation” theme of the first track and kind of the overall theme of the album?
Michael: That was a song that I wrote when I was sixteen years old. And we were playing that song out, Robert and I, when we were a trio at Gazhari’s. And we were playing with Ratt, and we were playing “Marching into Battle.” It’s basically the same song. The lyrics were different, but it was the same title, same riff… and I just felt like something has got to be done with that song. It’s such a waste, cause it’s such a cool riff. Fast forward to 2013, and we realized how perfectly it would fit into No More Hell to Pay as an album. We decided we were going to do it. And, we recorded it. We did it, and I’m so glad we did because it was one of the better (strongest) tracks on the album. When people hear it as a whole, I think they’re going to be floored, man. It’s a real powerful song, lyrically and musically.
Lee: Now, we reached out to our readership, and so we have some questions from them, as well. Skelly said, “One thing I would love to read is a book about Michael’s testimony, his journey through the years with Stryper, and maybe a bit of personal influence there. But, also with his wife’s battle on cancer. So, my question is, have you ever thought about writing and publishing a book?
Michael: Well, apparently, and that’s ok, you guys haven’t heard that I have written a book. It’s called Honestly, and it’s coming out next year with a brand new solo album. And it is my life’s story. It’s an autobiography, and it’s all in there, man. Ups and downs. Good and bad. It goes all the way back from when I was a kid, to now. I think it’s going to be really cool. I can’t wait for people to read that. So, the answer to your question is yes, and it is already a done deal.
Lee: That’s a nice turn-around. “Yes, and there it is.” Logan Flaming said, “What Christian metal bands do you think are keeping the fire burning for this generation of Christian metalheads?”
Michael: Oh gosh, man. I don’t really keep up on a lot of Christian metal. I listen to the bands that cross over. Obviously bands like Switchfoot – they’re not a metal band, but – Switchfoot, I love. Skillet. I keep up with them and they’re making a lot of noise. I liked P.O.D. when they were around and they were doing it on a big level. But, man, there’s just not a lot of stuff. It’s hard for me to answer that question because I don’t really keep up with it.
Lee: Jeremy asked, “If you could change one thing about – or something about – Stryper’s past, what would it be?
Michael: I would probably, and this might shock a lot of people… I devote a whole chapter in my book to this… and that’s the color scheme. I don’t know that I would have done it. A lot of people would say, “what in the world is he saying, that’s crazy!” Because that’s what a lot of people remember us for. But, that’s exactly why I may not have done it, because nine times out of ten that’s what people remember us for. It’s just the colors… not a song or a message. And it’s a little frustrating at times… Actually it’s very frustrating at times.
I would prefer that people remember us for the music and the message, rather than the yellow and the black. But, on the other flip side of that coin, it has helped people to remember us, so I can’t complain about that. That’s something that’s always been in the back of my mind over the years.
Lee: Dave86 says, “I’d love to hear about how Dale Thompson from Bride almost took over as lead vocalist for Stryper.”
Michael: You know, I wasn’t in the band at the time, so I don’t know all the behind the scenes details. But, talking to my brother, because he was a little closer to Dale than some of the other guys, but it didn’t work at all. Dale came out and did a gig or two together and it just didn’t work. I don’t really know why, I didn’t hear them. I didn’t see them… I couldn’t tell you anything, but I do know they got terrible reviews. People weren’t big fans for whatever reason. And it didn’t work within the band, the dynamics. It didn’t work at all. My brother says to this day, “nah, that did not work.”
You’d probably have to talk with Robert to get all the juicy details. You would think it could work, but you know Stryper has a really distinct sound and you’ve got to be cautious of changing i too much. If you chang it too much, people are going to get up in arms. You know, it’s kind of like Judas Priest… you know Rob Halford exiting and then instead of them replacing Rob with Tim “Ripper” Owens, who sounded a lot like Rob… they replace Rob Halford with Lou Gramm…. you know, who’s an amazing singer, but imagine him singing Priest. People would be like, “what in the world?” Same kind of thing applies to Stryper, I think, it’s gotta fit.
Lee: We had a couple questions across different bands… like, “Have you played with these guys? Tell some stories, etc.” But I’ll just summarize all of those into one thread and just say, what are your thoughts on the bands you’ve played with over the years and the impact you’ve had in bringing that light of Christ into these secular venues?
Michael: Oh man, it’s been amazing. That’s why we play with secular bands. A lot of Christians have given us a ton of heat over the years for doing that. Not understanding… “why do you guys play clubs? Why do you play with secular bands?” Well, why wouldn’t we? Aren’t we to go into the world… into the dark… and bring the light?
I mean, that’s what we’re called to do as Christians. That’s why we do it. We play clubs, we go to places where no Christian bands go. We play with mainstream secular bands so we can play to their fans and we can talk to them. I mean, that’s kind of the whole point in what we do. We’ve been doing that for thirty years and there’s no sign of stopping. We’re planning on continuing to do that, of course.
It really works for us. Again, its kind of cut us off with a lot of people in the church, because they think we’re not really Christians, or we’re this, or we’re that. It’s like, Ok, whatever. Someday we’ll all stand before God and we’ll know who was real and who wasn’t.
Lee: What do you do then, being in these secular venues, to keep your fire going for God and feed yourselves?
Michael: Obviously we’re accountable to one another. We’re always sticking together and encouraging one another to pray and have some quiet time and this and that. And then we’re accountable to other people, too… pastors… we read our Word, we pray… stay focused on God and include God in everything that we do. Sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we get caught up in the day and we realize, “Man, we didn’t pray today…” We do our best to really be accountable and keep God in the loop, and keep Him involved.
Lee: I hate to go from such a nice spiritual question to… my last question is always just a nice silly one. Who’s better, Batman or Superman?
Michael: Absolutely, I’m going to go with Superman. Batman is cool, but I guess he’s a little more dark. You know, Superman is all light and, you know, of the light. So, I guess I’ll go with Superman.
Be sure to check out our official review of No More Hell To Pay, here, before you go. Keep coming back to IVM for more exclusive content, interviews, and album reviews. Coming up in a few weeks we’ll drop an entire week of exclusive content from another legendary metal band, Living Sacrifice. You don’t want to miss it.