Listen: Duncan Robinson chats to Stryper frontman Michael Sweet.
When Stryper first exploded onto the music scene in 1983 in all their vinyl-and-big-hair glory, they baffled believers and metal fans alike.
Because for all of their heavy metal flair – the black eyeliner, tight pants, bare chests, high pitched harmonies, menacing bass and screaming guitar solos – they were singing about the love of Jesus.
Incredibly, the unusual combination worked. And 35 years later they’re still smashing stereotypes, writing new songs, making new fans, and touring the world with their unique brand of gospel music.
With their fifth Australian tour imminent (August 17 to 21), lead singer Michael Sweet got on the phone to Duncan Robinson for a chat about his career shining light in the dark.
Having seen personal tragedy, sweeping changes in the music industry, and even a band split, Sweet said he’s amazed and grateful Stryper is still going strong,
“The fact that we’re still together in today’s unstable music world, still thriving and going out and performing to a lot of fans and releasing music and doing well with that, it’s really pretty miraculous for a band like us, the underdogs, so to speak,” he said. “We’re very blessed and fortunate to still be doing it.
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Reaching People Others May Never Reach
Stryper’s name comes from its signature Bible verse, Isaiah 53:5 – “He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon Him; and with His stripes we are healed.” Their albums include titles like To Hell With the Devil, In God we Trust, Reborn, and Second Coming, and their 2018 album is titled God Damn Evil.
Their overtly Christian message has not only attracted lifelong fans, it’s also borne more ‘fruit’, spiritually speaking, than Michael Sweet can even count. When asked if they ever meet people who found faith through their music, he says, “all the time”. It’s the thing he loves most about his work.
“It’s fun cranking the amps and putting on the guitars but the blessing is hearing the lives that have been affected by the message,” he said. “When someone comes up to you and says ‘I’m a pastor now’, or ‘I pastor a 10,000 member church’, or ‘I travel the world, I’m a missionary’… that’s unbelievable to hear.”
It’s not only fans who are impacted; Stryper are constantly sharing their life of faith with other metal bands as well.
Sweet recounts some of the highlight moments, like touring with the band Boston, hanging out and talking spirituality for hours with Lemmy [Kilmister] of Motorhead, performing one of their God-songs in Canada with Rob Halford of the British metal band Judas Priest. And at music festivals they’re rubbing shoulders with the likes of Kiss, Ozzzie Osbourne and Megadeth. Sweet counts all those moments as opportunities to share God’s love.
“We’re hanging out with these guys and meeting them and having lunch and dinner with them backstage,” he said. “Stryper has been put there to kind of be a light in the dark, and be an example and pray with these guys. We sit down and have lunch and we’ll say a prayer and maybe that plants a seed, maybe that leaves a mark on them.
“We’ve had many people, from regular people to big stars, come to our shows, musicians, actors, you name it. Our hope is that those seeds are planted at every show, whoever’s there.”
The Suprising Faith of Heavy Metal Stars
What a lot of people don’t know, says Sweet, is that many hardcore rockers are in fact men of sincere faith.
“Some of these guys are Christians,” he said. “Dave Mustaine, the lead singer of Megadeth, he’s a Christian. Nicko (McBrain) the drummer from Iron Maiden, he’s a Christian. Deep in their faith, very devout. It’s pretty amazing. They’re just taking a different path.”
“A lot of people think they’re ‘Satanic’…but if you really read the lyrics and talk to these guys and hear their hearts [they’re] not.”
At a personal level, Sweet has continued to bounce back from life’s setbacks. After a falling out with its long-time bass player, the band resolved to continue and found a new bassist that has given them a new lease of life. And while Sweet tragically lost his first wife in 2009 to cancer, it wasn’t long before he was back on the road touring, and remarried.
He’s had his critics, but hasn’t let them stand in his way.
“We’ve reached more people by doing that than we ever would performing in churches for 34 years.”
“I can look at life two ways and that is either to live it, or to draw the blinds and not go on…become a recluse and not live life to the fullest,” he said. “I chose after my wife Kyle passed, to move forward. And she wouldn’t have it any other way. It was hard for a while but I dove right into the deep end and went back out on the road. I lost some friends because they thought I wasn’t taking time to grieve.”
He’s been for nine years now and doesn’t apologise: “We’re all on our own little journey. We all do things in different ways, God speaks to us in different ways, he calls us in different ways, and I knew without a shadow of a doubt, that’s what I was supposed to do. I feel like I’ve been blessed twice with love, it’s pretty miraculous.”
Called to Be a Light in the Dark
To this day many churchgoers still don’t understand what Stryper does, Michael says, but it’s never deterred them.
“We go out and play bars and they don’t get that, but that’s our calling and what we feel led to do. We’ve reached more people by doing that than we ever would performing in churches for 34 years,” he said.
“We do things our own way. We always have. We’re really not like any other band. The reason why is, we weren’t raised in the church. We were raised in Hollywood on the streets of L.A., playing with Motley Crue and Ratt, and W.A.S.P and all these bands. We grew up in that scene, and we became Christians, and we changed the message, but we kept the style. That’s what we are.
“A lot of people didn’t really know what to think of it and still don’t. But it’s the real deal, we’re sincere about what we do and it comes from the bottom of our hearts, and we wouldn’t change a thing.”
Catch Stryper Live
Stryper is playing live shows in Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide and Brisbane between Saturday August 17 and Tuesday August 21.