No other band within modern-day Contemporary Christian music has been more legendary in the metal scene than Stryper. For a secular metal band, though, they are markedly different from others, using both their lyrics and their style to promote their faith. Stryper's faith is undeniably at the forefront of their music.
Stryper was formed in the mid-1970s by brothers Michael and Robert Sweet. The brothers converted to Christianity with their family when Michael was 12. However, the brothers stopped attending church and started rebelling through underage drinking and drugs while they were playing clubs on the Hollywood Strip. It wasn't until Michael turned 20 that he decided to return to the faith of his family.
Chatter caught up with Michael Sweet, Stryper's lead vocalist/guitarist for all these years, and talked with him about his faith, his musical influences, the controversy surrounding Stryper and the band's latest album. (See our Rocks Off blog for his time singing in Boston and plenty more.)
With Supernova Remnant, 7 p.m. Friday, May 18, at House of Blues, 1204 Caroline, 888-402-5837 or www.hob.com/houston.
Chatter: One of the most interesting things about you guys is that, according to your press release, you still have all of your original band members. Not many bands, either mainstream or Christian, can say that. What do you think has contributed to Stryper's longevity and legacy?
Michael Sweet: Well, I'm going to make a really bad joke. As of today, we have all the original band members. I think there's a lot to be said for that, and a lot that goes into that. There was a time, multiple times, over the years where we did not.
Oz [guitarist Fox] was out of the band for a brief period. Tim [bassist Gaines] was out of the band for a brief period twice. I obviously left in 1992 and rejoined in 2003. So we haven't always been able to wave that flag, but lately we've been able to do so and it's very cool.
It's a unique thing because you can count probably maybe on one hand, at most two hands, the bands that can make that claim from our genre. It's not a lot. It's definitely a rarity. We're pretty proud of that.
CL: You use a quote from the book of Isaiah. Why did you pick that specific verse, and what does it mean to you?
MS: We used to be called Roxx Regime and when we were Roxx Regime, everything was yellow and black back then. This was in, like, 1982-83. Even going back as far as '81, things started becoming yellow and black: My brother did his drum kit, [we] changed the amps and we started wearing black and yellow.
When we became Stryper, we just wanted to have everything represent Christ in everything we did: Our lyrics, what we wore — that's why we used the numbers 777. We had signs onstage that said "no devil," "no 666" with a circle and a slash through them. We found the scripture "by his stripes we are healed," which is Isaiah 53:5, and we started applying that by putting that on all our logos. Everywhere you see the Stryper name, you see that verse.
C: How did you guys handle criticism from fundamentalist Christians such as Jimmy Swaggart?
MS: You try to do it with love. That's the real test — the real difficult part. You kinda want to get in their face and set 'em straight, but that doesn't work. We try hard to do it in love.
Sometimes it's difficult. A lot of times we'll talk to them or invite them to the shows if they're out in front of our shows picketing or protesting the shows. We'll try to have a one-on-one conversation with them and share our hearts because a lot of the times, these people who come against us don't even know us.
They're only going on what they've heard or seen: They're not going on actually knowing our hearts, knowing us as people. So they're judging the book by the cover and they haven't even read the book. We try to get 'em to read it and see what we're about.
C: Speaking of Christianity, what role has your faith played in your music?
MS: It's helped me to draw deeper as far as the content, both musically and lyrically speaking. It helps me to focus more when I'm writing a song on positive things, as a way to help and encourage others who are going through difficult times, instead of just writing a song about drinking a beer or whatever difficult rock and roll songs are written about.
With having a deep faith, I'm able to draw on other things that don't necessarily line up with rock and roll, but that's a good thing in my opinion.
CL: Switching gears here, your latest album, The Covering (2011), includes covers of Black Sabbath, Kansas, UFO and more. What specifically influenced you about those bands?
MS: All that evil Satanic stuff — that's a joke [laughs]. Those are the bands and songs that made us musically who we are. Those are the bands that we listened to growing up and made us wanna play rock and roll. We just thought it would be fun to show people how we came to be musically: To make a record of covers of all the bands that helped us to get there.
Again, we got flack for it because of this cover album of secular songs. A lot of people in the church freaked out and said, "See? They're not real Christians," or just some of the comments that we read. The fact of the matter is that it really has nothing to do with Christianity.
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In my opinion, that's not the problem with this world — a song by Black Sabbath, Van Halen, Judas Priest, Iron Maiden or whoever it is. There's much bigger and better problems to have to conquer with and sort through.
C: What's your favorite song on the album and why?
MS: Oh my God. I'd say one of my favorite songs on that record is probably "Heaven and Hell." I like how that one feels. I like how it melodically sounds. I like how it performs live.
It's a great-structured song, dynamically speaking. It starts and builds and builds, speeds up. It's just really cool how it's written. Definitely "Heaven and Hell."