Since the beginning of their unconventional ministry, arena rock mainstays Stryper have been turning heads and getting people talking. From their yellow and black costumes to their shredding guitars to their gutsy album titles like To Hell with the Devil and No More Hell to Pay, Stryper has always caught the collective attention of audiences in order to get them talking about the things that matter.
Everything, they say--from the wardrobe to the song titles to the lyrics to the album art--has a purpose.
Now, on the verge of their fourth new album since they were "reborn," the band has sparked some Internet bulletin board conversation with the unveiling of the title of the new project: God Damn Evil. Before anyone's heard a single note of the new music, some people have already made up their minds regarding the band's validity, their content, and even their Christianity.
Always willing to engage in healthy open dialogue about their methods and motivations, frontman Michael Sweet took some time to chat with NRT Executive Editor Marcus Hathcock about the new album, the band's motivations, and the things that keep them going strong after all these years.
NRT: Thank you so much for letting us do the first interview with this project. We're really honored by it. Give us a "state of the union"... where is Stryper at these days, creatively? Are albums easier to write--does this thing get easier? I would think that as you go you'd run out of things to talk about, but you guys are going stronger than ever.
Michael: It's interesting, and it's hard to say this without some readers possibly thinking I have an ego. It's not ego at all, it's just confidence that I feel God's given all of us and a security. We really believe that the best is yet to come for us. For whatever reason, the fountain is overflowing and it seems to be filling up and filling up and overflowing even more than it has in decades.
NRT: You have so many projects going on. What's your process like?
Michael: My gift is music. Everyone has their own gifts and mine is music. The minute a label calls and says, "Hey, it's time to start an album," I say, "OK, I'm gonna start tomorrow." I sit down with my computer and my amp and my guitar and my drum programs and I just start writing. This new Stryper album was written in about nine days. It's a really quick process for me, and if there's something that's taking me long, if I'm working on a song and it's taking me four to six hours and it's not complete, I'll toss it. That's usually a sign to me that it's forced, so when something like "Sorry" or most of the tracks on this album were written in two or three hours, that's usually an indication for me that those are the strongest songs.
NRT: So then between your projects, how do you decide where they go? You've got your solo stuff, you've got Sweet & Lynch, you've got Stryper. There are differences, but there's also some commonality sonically between your different projects. How do you decide if this song is for your solo stuff, for the duo or for the band?
Michael: You know what? I never really think about it. I never sit down for each album and say, "OK, this one has to sound a certain way." When George [Lynch] sent me a bunch of songs and we were lacking some songs for the Sweet and Lynch album, I wrote three songs and whatever came out, came out. It just so happened that those fit perfectly with everything else [for the Sweet & Lynch record]. With Stryper, sometimes we'll say "Hey, let's go a little heavier on this." The album will take on a little edgier sound, but for the most part, there's not this well-thought-out pattern of, "OK, let's do this and not do that." We just write from the heart, it comes out and it usually works. This time, it really worked.
We're so pleased with--we believe--certainly our best album since 1991, by a landslide. I'll even go a step further and say it's our best album. People always snicker at people saying things like that, but we really think from all perspectives, it is. From the sonic side, from the songwriting side, from the continuity side, from the artwork to the title and the message and every lyric. We've got a new band, a new bass player. We feel young and revived. From all angles, it feels like our best.
NRT: So would you say that excellence comes from doing it for as long as you have or from this overall confidence that you referred to before? What is it that made you now be firing on all cylinders?
Michael: I think obviously the gifts that God has given us are No. 1. Also, our deep faith. We can't be shaken. A lot of people have attacked us over the years and have said some pretty horrible things about us, and we have our critics. But you know what? It only makes us stronger. We don't sit around in meetings of depression going, "How are we ever going to do this? We'll never do that." You never hear that in this camp. It's always, "We're doing this; let's go." It's just this really high level of confidence and faith, knowing that God's gonna get us through because He always has, He always does and I think He always will as long as we put our trust in Him.
NRT: So let's get back to talking about this album. Obviously, nobody's heard a note of it yet and they're already making assumptions. Let's talk about the concept of God Damn Evil. Was it something where you were just looking at the world and just how dark it was? What inspired such a bold statement to begin with?
Michael: Nobody knows this story and you're the first to hear it. My brother threw that title out a few years back and at the time we all loved it but we thought, "Hmm, I don't know if it's the right time or place and we don't know if it's the right thing for us to do at this very moment." So we actually sat on it for quite a while and when this album came to be and we started working on it, I actually re-suggested it. Everybody said, "Wow, yeah." With the times we're living in and the evil that we're faced with on a daily basis, we felt like there wouldn't be a better time for such a bold message. It's a prayer, it's a request. It's not a demand. Some people have said, "Oh, you're demanding for God to damn evil." No, we're not. We're asking God to damn evil, we're praying for God to damn evil. God, damn and condemn the evil. Stop it in its tracks. That's what it means. A lot of people have said, "Well, I'd be okay with it if there was a comma." That really doesn't make quite as bold a statement, at least not in our opinion.
NRT: In my opinion, the only appropriate use of those first two words together is to follow it with that. It's kind of funny that the outrage is retro-reactive because some people are not thinking of what it's actually saying; they're applying it to a curse towards God and that's not it at all.
Michael: Exactly! The chorus lyric is simple; it's an anthem song. It's like a 2018 To Hell With the Devil stylistically. So when people hear the music, I think they're gonna be floored and say "Oh my gosh." The chorus is: "God damn evil / God damn it all / God save the people, but God damn the walls." It's a very powerful, simple approach and it's shocking. I understand how people can read that and think, "Oh my gosh, how am I to explain this to my nine-year-old daughter or my pastor?" It's very simple; I think all of us should be educated on the use of the words together. First of all, it's separate words. God is one word, damn one word, evil one word. The way we're presenting it is a request, a prayer. It's not a curse. A curse would be a lower-case g, and God and damn as one word. That's the difference, and it's a big difference.
NRT: You've gone through this before with To Hell With The Devil. Times have changed and even though we look back on that title and people barely blush now, back when it came out, I'm sure it had just the same sort of effect that this is already having now. Is that your experience?
Michael: Absolutely. It's been an interesting few days of reading comments and seeing the fallout. A lot of positive, some negative. I think more positive than negative, which I'm actually surprised about. It's almost like a cross between the To Hell With The Devil era and Against The Law. We have some people saying we did it for the shock value and some people even putting sermons out there talking about how you shouldn't do that, and the funny thing is that's not what we did. We didn't do it for shock value; we never do stuff for shock value. We don't sit around and say, "Hey, let's do that just to shock people." That's not how Stryper operates. We don't work that way.
NRT: Something you always seem to do is try to get conversations going and people thinking.
Michael: It's important. Here's what would come from this that would really bless us: if people actually start praying. If people actually take this theme as, "Wow, I'm gonna pray that when I wake up every day, for God to damn evil." With enough prayer, maybe we'll start seeing a change in this world.
NRT: Let's talk about the album cover for a second. I mean, the title is one thing, but in the album cover there's a lot going on. There's a lot of symbolism and there's a lot of activity there. How involved were you with this and what are some of the things that you're trying to communicate with that image?
Michael: Well, we sent some ideas to our designer. He did the last album Fallen as well as No More Hell To Pay. People have asked if this is kind of following that concept in a trilogy, and yes, it basically is. We gave him some ideas, like we wanted to have God coming down from the Heavens with His staff, slamming His staff down and speaking out against all the evil. He sent us a rough design and it was pretty close. We made a few little changes, tweaks here and there. You look and you see lust and gluttony and money and the love of money, all these things, and God just coming down with the angels following Him and saying, "Alright, I've had enough."
NRT: That's awesome. It's a very theatrical and cinematic, a very apocalyptic cover there. I love that you've developed this trilogy thing. Can you explain that for people who may be just coming into your music?
Michael: Absolutely. No More Hell To Pay was our first album since 2005, and it was the first one that really made a statement in the sense that we're really going back to our roots. It was much more Stryper-of-old. We had a lot more of those guitar solos and screams and harmonies and things people expect to hear on a Stryper album. Then Fallen was the follow-up to that, just even with a little more edge. Keeping in the same vein of No More Hell To Pay with the artwork and with the layout and even with the sound and the conception of the music and how it was put together, just a little edgier. This album is kind of both of those, merged together and then injected with a bunch of steroids.
NRT: So it's taking the best of what you've done and continuing to push forward.
Michael: It really is and has. People hear this album and the first song we go live with is a song called "Take It To The Cross." A gentleman by the name of Wayne Joyner did the lyric video for it and when I first watched it, I got chills. It doesn't look like any lyric video I've ever seen in my life. It looks like you're watching Blade Runner meets Marvel Comics. It's powerful and the lyrics, when you see them coming at you on the screen, it will pin you to the back of your seat. The song is very Stryper, but the chorus kind of kicks in and goes somewhere else and they border on thrash-y. We've got a guy doing like a death growl kind of thing below me, and in the end he comes back. Lyrically, it's just telling us all, instead of fretting and worrying and living in fear and letting that consume us, to take it to the cross. Just give it to God, lay it at His feet and take it to the cross. If we would do that, our lives would change.
NRT: Any doubts people may have about the title, you immediately deal with where you're at with that first song there.
Michael: I'll be as bold as to say this: You're not gonna find any band out there, and you can try, but you won't find another band that makes the bold statements that we make musically and makes the bold statements that we make lyrically. We try to make people think, yet we never compromise who we are or what God has given to us and the message He wants us to portray and deliver. When you listen to a Stryper album, you're gonna walk away from that album feeling like you just stepped out of a twelve-round fight in the ring. It's gonna beat you up and you're gonna feel it, but in a good way. It's not bad for a bunch of old guys.
NRT: Your revived career is really incredible to watch. This album has some of your most overtly Christian lyrics on it--which you've always had, but this is the most ever. Talk about that commitment lyrically.
Michael: That's very accurate, and at the same time, we also have some lyrics that deal with other real-life situations that people face and have gone through. We have a song called "Sorry" that's coming out three or four weeks after "Take It To The Cross," and it's about a volatile relationship and someone that's basically lying and cheating on his spouse. It's powerful and is probably my favorite song on the album. Then we have another song coming out after that that's called "Lost." It's just asking "Are we lost, are we lost? At what cost? Are we lost?" The verses kind of give you hope and say, "Hey, if we do this, are we lost? Well yeah, we are." Then we've got a song coming out later called "The Valley" and the chorus is "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil." It's Psalm 23. Boom, right in your face.
NRT: You guys have always had attention from the mainstream world, but it seems like you guys continue to generate momentum on that side of things. Talk about that aspect of your band ministry and encounters there.
Michael: Well, we don't really fit any molds. I don't think people know how to take us because of that. We're not your typical CCM band, but we are Christians and we sing about Christ boldly and proudly. We're not your typical metal band because we have three and four-part harmony vocals and harmony guitars and melodies. We're different. Everything we do and the way we do it is different. Because of that, people like it, people come to the shows and throw their arms in the air and love what we do, but at the same time, there's no one really to compare us to. No one else is dressed up in yellow and black stripes head to toe. We've been compared to Kiss for that whole thing, but everything we do, we want to make a statement so we can explain to people what it means. Those stripes signify Christ being nailed to the cross and beaten. There's a point to everything we do.
NRT: What is next for you guys after this releases in April? I assume touring is next and beyond that, what are you guys looking at for 2018?
Michael: So the album comes out April 20th, and we're very excited for that. I think it's so appropriate that the day it's coming out was also Hitler's birthday. We didn't plan that, someone just brought it to my attention, but you're not going to find anyone more evil than that on Earth. Soon after that, we've got a lot of touring. We're gonna tour all year. We're gonna just see what God does. It's a new day for the band and maybe it's gonna be a new lease and we're gonna see some new things happening. Who knows?
NRT: How can we all be praying for you and for the band?
Michael: It's always good to pray for strength to keep doing what we do and do it with 100 percent of our all, and then it's always great to pray for patience just to deal with everything. We take a lot of flack, and that's OK. We're used to it, but sometimes you kind of want to roll over under the covers and sleep another day.
Marcus Hathcock is the Executive Editor of NewReleaseToday.com, a husband to Savannah, father of three and a worship leader living in Boise. He has released an EP, Songs For Tomorrow, and occasionally blogs at mheternal.com.