Soldier Under Command: The Testimony of Stryper's Michael Sweet

So many bands give the devil all the gloryIt's hard to understand, we want to change the story We want to rock one way, on and on...

Hard to believe nearly thirty years have passed since Stryper frontman Michael Sweet threw down that gauntlet with a crooning roar on the Yellow and Black Attack anthem "From Wrong to Right." Crazier still, perhaps, that the band's 2013 album No More Hell to Pay proved such a powerful slab of one-eye-on-the-divine glam thrash swagger -- no half-hearted nostalgia cash-in here; just a vital, remarkably worthy successor to classic albums like Soldiers Under Command and To Hell with the Devil. It's the sort of triumph that makes one wish some of these other eighties bands on the comeback trail would consider praying for a little guidance.

Amidst the chaos of putting the final touches on both an excellent new modern rock-tinged solo record (I'm Not Your Suicide) and an autobiography (Honestly: My Life and Stryper Revealed), Sweet was gracious enough to take some time out of his busy schedule to talk about the rigors and blessings of straddling the borderline between faith and heavy metal -- arenas he has done so much to establish as not-so-mutually exclusive.

To say faith has been part of Stryper’s mission would be a massive understatement, but do you feel as if the process of composing and performing these songs over the years has deepened your own personal relationship with God?

Full circle, getting to this point? Yes. In between though? There were times when it had an opposite effect. There were times when I felt God wasn’t there and questioned whether there even was a God. When my wife was sick and dying of cancer, I was thinking, "Wow, we’ve devoted our lives to you, God -- and this is what we get?" That was just what was going through my head at the time. Maybe that was selfish or whatever, but that’s just the truth of the matter. But to fast forward to today, having gone through all that, I do feel that it has strengthened and taken me much further in my faith. Absolutely.

It actually shows quite a bit of ethical fortitude and principle that you didn’t cash in on those doubts while you were having them -- a Stryper-abandons-God! record would probably have earned you oodles of fawning press and a truckload of money!

[Laughs.] Well, we’ve kind of been there and done that. Maybe not to the extreme it could have been, but when we made the Against the Law album that was in some sense a “No God” album. Lyrically, it was still involving and including God, but at the same time our lifestyles didn’t portray that. We were bringing booze on the bus, girls on the bus. We were all of a sudden something other than what we had said we were for however many years. We were, in my view, perfect examples of hypocrisy. And we’ve all done that. We’re all human. We all make mistakes. We’re all sinners. But the thing about Stryper is, we’re in the public eye and we’re going to be held accountable by the public when we fall short. Honestly, I wish other bands were held accountable as much as we were.

Several years back, a friend of mine wrote a book entitled In Defense of Hypocrisy, wherein he argued, to be kind of unfairly reductive, that it was better to set a high standard and fall short than to have no standards and say, “Well, at least I’m not a hypocrite!” Exactly. I think we realized -- and I’ve been very outspoken about -- our failures and shortcomings back then. I’m not asking for the violins to be broken out, but for some reason Stryper is one of those bands that is always under the microscope. Everything we do and say. Everything we don’t do or say. If we say Jesus too many times in a song, we get beat up for it. If we don’t say Jesus enough times in a song, we get beat up for it. It's kind of crazy to me, but those are the cards we’ve been dealt. We just try to rise above it and keep doing what we’re called to do by God, stay accountable to God and ourselves and stay strong. It seems like other bands get away with a lot worse and it only makes them bigger stars. Stryper, on the other hand...

Back when Stryper first broke out there had been a few Christian hard rock precursors -- Petra comes to mind -- but nothing like To Hell With the Devil or Soldiers Under Command. Now every metal subgenre -- except maybe black metal -- has a sub-subset of Christian artists. Is that heartening to you, as one of the members of the vanguard?

It is and it isn’t. I devote a chapter in my book to this idea that I don’t really care for "Christian music." It actually drives me a little insane. We are just as proud and boisterous about our faith as any band out there, but if you’re gonna put a Christian tag on us, you should have to put a Satan tag on a bunch of other bands. It’s like, why does it have to be Christian death metal or Christian black metal...it’s just metal. It's an attempt to put bands, including Stryper, into little boxes. Well, we run from our box. We’re not a Christian rock band. We’re a rock band that’s comprised of Christians. That’s a big difference. And let’s face it, Christianity isn’t all that highly respected in today’s culture. You see Christians portrayed as buffoons in movies and television, twenty-four seven. The minute you say Christian band, instantly a lot of people look the other way or look at you like a joke. We don’t want that.

It affects the mission, right? As a Christian you feel called to serve as a light in the world and engage people who don’t agree with you.

Absolutely. When I joined Boston, you wouldn’t believe the hate I got. The emails. The letters. People saying, You’re not a Christian anymore.

For joining...Boston?

Yeah, absolutely. And this is an example of the rules and regulations some Christians like to put on other Christians. You can’t do this you must do that. You must do this you can’t do that. Most of it isn’t true. I mean, obviously we can all agree on the Ten Commandments -- Thou shall not kill...um, duh -- but things like Oh, I saw you drinking a beer and it really destroyed my world because I used to look up to you. Really, man? Where does that even come from?

Doesn’t seem like the type of attitude that will lead to a whole lot of converts.

It’s not! But you can’t get some people to understand that because they’ve been raised in a certain family or attended a certain church that has instilled these ideas in them and they’ve absorbed it all like a sponge. But it’s just not biblical. It’s not. People get on us about playing in bars. And then you read the Scriptures about where Christ went and who he hung out with, and it just doesn’t make any sense. If Christ were here today, I think he’d be hanging out in bars. Totally.

Go where the fish are, right?

Exactly. That’s why we do what we do. We'll go wherever we have the opportunity to share with others who we are and what we stand for with others, regardless of what they believe. Now, sometimes there are people who aren’t exactly thrilled to have us there sharing, but...

Do you have any memories of particularly hostile crowds?

Yeah, we did this death metal festival over in Holland once that was truly one of the top two moments in my life where I wondered if I was going to get out of it alive. We're back stage and we hear the crowd chanting, Eff Stryper, eff Stryper. They were burning an upside down cross and attached to it was this poster of a woman in a bikini with my brother's head pasted over her face. We probably should’ve never been booked -- the crowd made it very apparent they hated us and wanted to kill us, basically. And we had to get up there and perform. So we changed the set, pulled the ballads. We just went out there and did all rockers, and after about three or four songs of getting everything but the kitchen sink thrown at us -- literally; chains, bottles, food, you name it -- we started winning people over and by the end of the set most of the crowd were banging their heads and raising their fists. When we got offstage we had a ton of people coming up to us saying, “We had no idea. We thought you guys were pussies and a joke, but that was great.” Believe it or not, we made a lot of fans that day.

The hope is, then, that some of those people might slowly open their hearts to you message, right?

That’s it. For whatever reason people have these preconceived ideas about Stryper, and it’s kind of sad because when people do give us the opportunity or see us play they leave there with different hearts. Whether you believe in God or whether you don’t, this world needs more light in it. There is just so much darkness and negativity. It creates a domino effect, just kind of spreading around. And, man, it is so cool to hear the stories of people whose lives have been positively affected by our music. They were drug addicts or dealers and now they’re pastors. It’s mind blowing.

Speaking of changed hearts, I saw a picture of you recently hanging with Dave Mustaine on your Instagram page.

Of course! These guys are my buddies. I have more friends in the mainstream than on the Christian side.

Must be interesting for you to have witnessed the faith journey of a metal icon like Mustaine -- from a guy who wrote these occult-tinged lyrics to an out-and-out born again Christian.

Totally. It’s awesome. But I would’ve been hanging out with Dave if the opportunity had come about back then. What someone believes doesn’t affect my feelings about them as individuals. I have many friends who are atheists. I have some friends who are Satanists. That might be weird for people to hear, but, man, I love people. And I really go out of my way to accept people for who they are and not push anything up on them. If my life, or example, or whatever, opens a door for them -- I’m there, man. I’ll answer any questions, do anything I can. But I don't harass anyone.

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Let’s talk about this excellent new album. No More Hell to Pay really does pack an enormous punch. It feels to me like a watershed moment for Stryper...

And what makes it even more special is there are a lot of bands out there -- and we were one of em for awhile -- that don’t have the original lineup. Looking back on what this band has accomplished and what we’ve gone through and overcome is quite astonishing, at least for me. To the next guy over, it might not be that remarkable a feat. But I feel great about it. How are we doing it? I don’t know. We strive for perfection. We don’t ever cut corners just to throw something together. We just let it all fall as it will and hopefully it comes together.

Did you break any new ground lyrically this time out?

Yeah, I got a little more into the idea of when this is all over, what are we going to leave behind. “Legacy” gets into that. “Revelation” gets into that. It’s an album that asks, Are you ready -- really ready -- to die? What are you doing to make the world a better place? Is your legacy three cars, a couple houses, and money in the bank? If so, to me that is not a legacy. We live life, get caught up in it and sometimes consumed by it, but then when we’re on our deathbed too many of us are left saying, "I should have done more." Our legacies are more about how we have touched people, and changed the lives and hearts of those around us. That’s what people are going to talk about when you’re gone, not your money. That’s what we’re focused on. And one of the messages of this album is that it is never too late to start living your life that way.

Are these the sort of things that ran through your head during the long Stryper hiatus in the nineties?

Of course. When I wasn’t in Stryper I thought it was over for forever. And it took me a long time to open my mind and heart to the idea of getting the band back together again. But now that it has happened, and we’ve been together longer now on this run than the first run, I just see no signs of stopping or slowing down. We’ve got a live album this year and then early next year we’d like to get back in the studio to make another album. I don’t necessarily feel a sense of urgency, but at this point in our careers I just don’t see the need to wait.

When you released Yellow and Black Attack thirty years ago, did you ever envision the band having this sort of longevity or impact?

I don’t think it ever crossed our mind. We were so young and in the moment and awestruck at what was going on. The fact that we able to tour and record as 21 year-olds was good enough for us. Now? I think about a lot of things I didn’t think about then. Today I understand what a blessed band we truly are.

Don’t get me wrong. Like everyone, we still sometimes climb up onto the complaint wagon. We get to a venue and maybe they don’t have the right kind of coffee -- Oh, man, they got us Dunkin Donuts not Starbucks! But at the end of the day we realize how petty all that stuff is. Yeah, we have the haters and the people who aren’t going to like us no matter what we do. But you know what? Stryper is still here making relevant music that a lot of people do care about, and for that I am so incredibly humbled and thankful.

During the process of writing your upcoming autobiography, Honestly, did you find any threads running through your life that maybe you hadn’t recognized before?

I had that experience, and then some. First of all, I didn’t realize going into it how difficult it was going to be. Basically, I was interviewed for fifteen or sixteen hours on and off by a great friend of mine, Doug Van Pelt, who then transcribed everything. That was supposed to be the basis of the book. But when I read my words, verbatim, on paper it wasn’t quite what I had in mind. It needed to be written. So myself and another gentlemen by the name of Dave Rose -- who also manages me and is an author as well -- spent over a year going through the transcript and made it a story. It ended up being forty chapters of my life. I think it’s going to be an interesting read for most people. There’s some shocking stuff in there. Not shocking like the Motley Crue book, maybe, but I go into a lot of things people probably won’t expect me to go into. The tricky part for me was finding a way to be brutally honest without hurting people. A lot of times through your honesty you’re really throwing people under the bus, backing up, and running them over twenty more times. I didn’t want to do that. But at the same time I wanted to tell what really happened. So that was toughest part of the process for me. And now it’s a finished book sitting on the shelf. It’s surreal and I’m very proud of it, but...What’s that button they sell at Staples? The “Easy” button? They need to sell one that reads, “Hard.” Because that’s what this was.

So you are happy to be back playing the guitar again.

Oh yeah. I was practically born with a guitar in my hand, and hopefully I’ll die with a guitar in my hand. I love performing and writing and playing. Music is my soul.

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