This year marks the 30th anniversary of Stryper’s To Hell with the Devil, the now-legendary metal album that was a shot to the arm of a young but growing Christian music industry. In celebration of this turning point of their careers, and the lasting impact felt by the record, Stryper have taken to the road again, this time presenting the entire album in its recording order, and featuring the original line-up of the band in their iconic yellow and black uniforms.
Taking some time from a leg of the tour, Stryper’s lead vocalist (and respected solo artist in his own right) Michael Sweet spoke to our own critic, Jon Propper.
Soul-Audio: First of all, you’re on tour now for the thirtieth anniversary of To Hell with the Devil, but you just came off the last leg of another tour, correct?
Michael Sweet: We did, we came off of the Fallen tour, and we did twenty-some-odd dates on a straight-run–then we did some fly dates as well. And it was great, man! Now we’re doing thirty-six (at least at this point) To Hell with the Devil dates.
SA: Wow, so you’ve been incredibly busy–not only with the release of [Fallen, the band’s eleventh studio album], but also the touring.
Sweet: Yeah! I really have been busy. I’m blessed; I have no complaints. I mean, I get a little rundown from time to time. But I’d rather be working, doing what I love to do […] I enjoy every minute of it.
SA: A couple of different things I want to touch on, because you have two tours, one right after the other, and because not too long ago, you released Fallen, which was a big record for you. It was a much fuller sound than the last couple records. It was very symphonic, very ambitious. Can you walk me through what was going on creatively as you were laying those tracks down?
Sweet: We approach every album the same way, which is to make the best album, and to outdo the last album. That’s always my mentality, as a writer and a producer. I think we really hit the mark with No More Hell to Pay; oddly enough, as much as I love Fallen, it seems by reading the comments and the reviews and the numbers on No More Hell to Pay that it was a little more successful. In terms of being well-received.
But, you know, Fallen does have a bit of a bigger sound, in terms of the low end and the depths of the album itself. The songs are straight ahead; there’s a little more downtuning going on, which tends to give you a bit of a meatier sound in the guitars, certainly. But it still has the melodies and the high notes and the typical Stryper energy that you’ve come to expect over the years.
I’d put ‘em side by side — No More Hell to Pay and Fallen. They’re two of my favorite Stryper albums. And I’d say my other favorite classic album is Soldiers [Under Command, the band’s second album]. So I’m going to put Fallen and No More Hell to Pay above albums like In God We Trust and Against the Law… and even To Hell with the Devil, which is saying a lot.
SA: It is interesting… because it really sounds like, for a band that has said and done so much musically for so many years, there was a certain feeling of really hitting your stride on the last couple of albums. And everything just firing on all cylinders.
Sweet: I would agree with that; it felt that way too. It’s not like we laid out a piece of paper and said, ‘Okay, here’s what we’ve got to do,’ and had a plan. We just went in and did it.
I listen to the fans; I’m very active on social media. I love asking questions and hearing the comments from all the fans. And I take those into consideration when it comes to making a video or an album or whatever it is. It’s important to me; I want to please the fans.
Some bands have the attitude of – and I’ve read the interviews – basically, ‘We’re going to do what we want to do, and if the fans like it, great, and if they don’t like it, screw them.’ I’ve heard those words come out of bands’ mouths before, and I’m thinking ‘Wow. Crazy.’
Fans are the ones who put you where you are; you’ve gotta listen to them without compromising your integrity and what you want as a band. And I think Stryper has figured that out.
SA: How did you figure that out?
Sweet: I think the key is, what we’re doing in the approach of the song itself is really giving the fans what they want, which is that classic Stryper sound: twin guitars, high notes, melodies, vocal harmonies… All that stuff you’ve heard on Stryper albums of old, you’ll hear on new Stryper albums.
But at the same time, I think it’s important in the production sense–the tones, the sonic quality, the way it sounds sonically–it’s important you think of 2016. A lot of bands make albums, and they sound like 1986! The reverbs and the delays and the tones, and you’re thinking ‘Wow, this just sounds dated. It’s not good.’ Stryper tries to sound relevant to today’s times and the year we’re in, but also bring in those classic flavors that people expect to hear.
SA: Thinking about To Hell with the Devil… 30 is a big number. And there were a lot of albums that were important to the Christian music scene, historically, that have fallen by the wayside, that people have essentially forgotten about. To Hell with the Devil is not one of those albums–it’s iconic. And I was thinking about…Stryper as an icon of a particular kind of Christian music from a particular era, that unlike a lot of artists from that era has endured. It goes beyond irony or nostalgia or something like that. Do you have a sense of what the key to that success is?
Sweet: I can only speak for myself… I’m very driven… And I think those qualities in me bring a lot to this band. That’s why I strive for perfection all the time: good isn’t good enough. We’re always trying to outdo ourselves… I think that certainly helps, and it adds to why Stryper is who we are in 2016… Too bad we’re not back in ‘86, ‘87, or ‘88 again. I think if we were they’d be very, very big albums.
SA: Thinking back to the making of To Hell with the Devil… it’s become such a trademark album. Did you know you were sitting on a landmine?
Sweet: I think we sensed that something big was happening, but we didn’t know what or why. I remember listening to the mixes and thinking, ‘Wow, we’ve got something special here.’ You know, goosebumps and hair on the arms standing up… But we didn’t know what was about to happen, for sure.
SA: As you play those songs now in their original context… what is that like for you? […] What is the feeling that you have when you go on-stage trying to recapture that initial album release?
Sweet: Aw, man, it’s interesting– and I say this humbly– we don’t have to try that hard. We’ve been playing most of the songs from To Hell with the Devil for the past thirty years…. It just works. I will say that it is tricky coming out and opening with “To Hell with the Devil.” That’s hard vocally. That’s a song you want to save for the end of the set and warm up to. And we open with it. It’s been a little bit of a difficult task for me, vocally, but I’m getting through and I’m trying to stay healthy and not get sick so I can keep singing these songs like they’re supposed to be sung.
SA: Definitely. I was listening to Live at the Whiskey, and comparing how that live recording sounds compared to other live recordings of Stryper that have circulated. Is there a specific sound you were trying to capture with this tour? […] Things I noticed – punchy drums, guitars sparkling. It’s a really full-bodied sound for a live album. Is that something you’re trying to keep going?
Sweet: Absolutely, we’ve always been known for things like drum tones, guitar tones. Love it or hate it we have our own distinct signature sound. And you’re going to hear that when you come to the show… Drums are pounding, guitars are crunching… And the vocal harmonies, that brings it all together… I don’t know of another band that really sounds like us. We do our own thing, and I hope we are doing it well.
SA: So, one last question… Christian music has changed so much since To Hell with the Devil. And part of those changes have been because of Stryper. Being willing to be heard by anyone, not necessarily targeting Christian markets all the time. A lot of those changes happened because Stryper was on the frontlines doing that initially. Do you have any predictions for where Christian music is going? Do you see Stryper as a part of that?
Sweet: We never really did see ourselves as part of that scene. We were never accepted by that scene. We never wanted to be accepted by that scene. And that’s no disrespect to the Christian quote-unquote marketplace. I never understood it; I always thought it was silly to have divisions like that, and labels. To have the Christian section and the mainstream section. I just never have got that, I never will get it. So Stryper never wants to be labeled a quote-unquote Christian band.
We are Christians, and more proud of that than anything else that we are. But we hate being called a Christian band. We’re a rock band, comprised of Christians. But like I said, we never fit into it. I remember going to perform at the GMAs, the Dove Awards, and people freaking out. The looks on people’s faces. They didn’t know what to think of us, or what to say to us–and they still don’t. I go to these events on rare occasions, and you can just sense… They don’t know what to say. We’re not part of that club.
We’re just different, man. We don’t do what’s required to be a part of that club. All the ‘hey bro, Jesus, hey brother!’ [laughter] We don’t do that. It’s not us. It just never has been. We grew up on the streets of LA.
We love God with all our hearts and souls, but we march to our own beat, and always have.