Time travel is one of my favorite subjects, so when I approached Michael Sweet about the new Stryper album, No More Hell To Pay, I put us both right into the ol’ time machine and sent us back to 1988 – the days of Aqua Net and Jimmy Swaggart – two short years and a worldwide tour or two after the double-platinum album To Hell With The Devil was released to the MTV world.
“I could sit here all day long and say what I would have liked to have seen, and woulda, coulda, shoulda and all that stuff,” Sweet admits, “but my gut tells me, I believe, that In God We Trust wasn’t a solid enough record to release coming off the heels of the To Hell With The Devil album.
“In God We Trust was a good record, but I don’t think it’s one of our best records. We really needed to follow To Hell With The Devil with a record that was at least as good or better. In God We Trust wasn’t that. This record, No More Hell to Pay, is that. It’s equally as good, if not better, in some ways,” he pauses, as if to weigh the gravity of the bold statement. “It’s right up there with To Hell with the Devil. I believe that, had we released it then, I think sky’s the limit.
“I think, honestly, it could’ve taken us to a whole new level that we may never see,” he continued. “But, I’m very optimistic and I have a deep faith. I believe that with God all things are possible (and) at any time when we least expect it.
“We live in an age where people don’t buy records. Record sales are dwindling as we speak with everyone all across the board, because nobody buys records, but there are those rarities – those albums that are released every now and then that go Gold, like with the Chickenfoot record. It blew everyone away. They were like, ‘What the heck? It went Gold?’ Great record, but why it went Gold, who knows? I think there are those albums that come along every now and then that, for whatever reason, make a lot of noise and I think that, for whatever reason, I’m hoping and praying that No More Hell to Pay is one of those albums.
“I don’t mean to slam a song like ‘The Way’ at all, but I don’t want to be that kind of heavy. To me, ‘The Way’ sounds like Iron Maiden. I want Stryper to have its own heavy. That’s the great thing about this record – it’s Stryper’s version of heavy. It’s our own unique thing. And that’s why I’m really excited.”
He’s not the only one. It’s a blasting, full-tilt metal record with guitars pressed to the floor like an accelerator that’s trying to break through the floorboard. “It’s definitely not a syrupy record. There’s not a lot of pop filler stuff.” He pauses, so as not to say the wrong thing to his loyal and loving fans. “I love those songs, too. I love ‘Calling on You.’ That’s probably our second most popular song of all time. ‘Honestly’ is number one, ‘Calling on You,’ number two. I love that stuff, but there is a certain fan base out there that just wants to hear the heavy stuff. They know Stryper has that in them, but we don’t give it to them enough. On this record, we’re giving it to them for the entire record – for the most part.”
Granted, there are a couple slightly tender moments (like “The One”), but giving the girls in the audience only one pop-like tune is certainly turning the tables on the typical Stryper musical menu. The yellow and black boys developed a winning formula of delivering up the super melodic sugar metal for the masses and only throwing the metalhead boys in the crowd a single bone per disc (“The Way” or “The Reign,” for example). Now it’s reversed. “The One” carries a whistle-able melody like the chorus of “Blue Bleeds Through,” one of the songs from his solo album, Truth. I think the female fan base would tilt their heads back and go, “What?!” The leader of the band, however, thinks otherwise.
“I don’t think the girls in the audience would’ve disappeared, either,” guesses Sweet as he continues to peer through the fantastic lens of time travel. “This isn’t that ‘rat-tat-tat’ kind of heavy. It’s not the (grating, grinding steel growling) heavy. It’s a melodic heavy. It still has melody. It still has vocal harmony. It still has lyrics that convey something else. ‘Te Amo,’ means ‘I love you.’ It’s a love song, basically. ‘The One’ is a love song, too. So, we still have those lyrics that will appeal to all those females out there, I hope.”
“I think it was a subconscious and a conscious decision,” he explains. “It was years of fans saying, ‘Heavy! Heavy, heavy! Give us heavy – more guitars, more this, more that, we want screams – more heavy.’ After hearing that for so many years, I think I finally said, ‘Okay, then heavy you get! That’s what we’re going to give you.’ And that was the approach on this record – to purposely try to write heavier riffs, more guitar-laden and guitar-driven music. Not put a lot of poppy or ballady stuff … like the one ballad on the album, ‘The One,’ is not a piano ballad. We’ve always done piano ballads. Other than ‘Lady,’ they’ve always been piano ballads. It was a conscious decision to not do that on this record and to get back to those riff-driven, chunky parts that people are going to recognize and remember – those hooky parts that they won’t forget. Hopefully we accomplished that on this record.”
Songs like “Revelation” and the aforementioned “Te Amo” are not too distant from the intense chiming, climbing and swirling crescendo of guitars like “The Hellion” and “Electric Eye” by British metal masters Judas Priest. This should be no surprise when one considers Sweet’s unabashed devotion to the band. “Judas Priest is a huge, huge influence on us and specifically me,” he told me. “I’m probably the biggest Priest fan in the bunch. When I heard Unleashed in the East on my way to school as a sophomore in high school, I was floored. That changed my life. There are definitely (some of) those Priest influences you can hear on this record, but also songs from the past. You can probably hear that in songs like ‘Makes Me Wanna Sing.’ It’s got that same vibe like ‘Running Wild’ by Priest.”
While Stryper is certainly known for their signature guitar sound, they also have a distinct and highly coveted lead vocal style. Just ask Boston or George Lynch (both of which have asked Sweet to sing). Not everyone can sing high like this guy and not sound like a joke. He somehow has enough knowledge about his own pipes to aim for the right range.
“I think the range on this album is super comfortable for me,” he explains. “There are a couple songs on the album that are pushing it for me, like ‘Saved By Love’ and ‘Sticks and Stones.’ They’re up in this range where I felt like I was pushing (during) the whole song. The songs that are super comfortable for me singing are songs like ‘No More Hell To Pay’ and ‘Revelation.’ Those are just right in my range and I have that midrange where I’m singing in most of the time and the high range when I scream. I go back and forth between the two. I am still able to pull that stuff off, to some degree. I can’t sing like I did on In God We Trust to save my life. My voice has changed a lot. I don’t have that kind of range any longer. I don’t think I ever will, unless God Himself comes down and touches my vocal chords.”
As if on cue, the singer gets introspective. “The voice changes as you get older. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. For me it’s a good thing, because I had such a ridiculously high voice and really wide vibrato back in the day. It was bordering on operatic at times – real clear and clean, not a lot of grit. I have a little more grit now, a little less vibrato and a little bit lower range. I sound a little bit more masculine. I don’t know that that’s a bad thing. I think that the comments from people so far seem to indicate they like it better than the higher style in the ’80s. That’s cool. I think it worked for me. I’m very fortunate.”
When it comes to the craft of heavy metal screaming, the 50-year-old frontman tried something different on this album to nail the high notes and vocal acrobatics.
“After doing this for 30 years, I did something different. I told myself, ‘I’m going to try singing the screams first.’ I would sing the screams first and then the song” – he pauses for effect, almost simulating the break between the two vocal chores – “and it was easy! They came right out. I got them done in one and two takes and then I sang the song and that was it.
“It took me 30 years to learn how to do that. What kept happening on the past few records was I’d spend two or three hours singing the song (and) then when it was time to hit those high notes, the voice was a little burnt. It was a little more difficult to hit those high notes, clear and strong. So I just reversed the order and sang the screams first and then sang the song … and there you go.”
I haven’t been sitting on these songs too long. Every album of ours has been somewhat different. If you go back to the first two albums, they were written when we were out playing them publicly. I wrote the songs, brought them to the band for the most part and we went out and performed them for a couple years and then we recorded them, so we knew exactly what we wanted to do.
It’s got to be rewarding to develop and continue a musical career over the years – and continue to learn valuable lessons about your craft. Stryper is certainly still experimenting and taking risks. Most would agree, I think, that the band is on a creative roll, making good decisions. Take their last two studio albums, for example.
The Covering and Second Coming were specialty albums, so to speak – The Covering a collection of killer cover tunes that shaped their musical tastes and influences as songwriters – and Second Coming, a re-recording (or “covering”) of their own classic and influential tunes. This album was talked about prior to those others being recorded and released, so it was obviously on the band’s list of things to accomplish. It’s not hard to wonder how old some of these No More Hell to Pay song ideas were – especially considering that not only one but two albums sort of “interrupted” the creation of this full-length of all-new originals.
“I haven’t been sitting on these songs too long,” explains Sweet. “Every album of ours has been somewhat different. If you go back to the first two albums, they were written when we were out playing them publicly. I wrote the songs, brought them to the band for the most part and we went out and performed them for a couple years and then we recorded them, so we knew exactly what we wanted to do. To Hell With The Devil – that was the first album where we didn’t know the songs and we weren’t playing them live. We had to go in and rehearse them and do demos and then go in and record it. We put a lot more thought into it and, obviously, more money.
“This album was written where I had my iPhone with me wherever I would go. We would be overseas, we would be here in the States, I’d be at the super market, at the doctor, in the bathroom – wherever. I’m not making this up. I’d have an idea and I’d press the voice recorder on my phone and I’d go (he demonstrates by vocalizing a guitar melody). I’d hum a melody and then I’d get home and go get my guitar and write chords to that melody and piece a song together that way. I ended up having almost 40 of these vocal ideas on my phone that I turned into 11 songs. Then the guys came out here for pre-production and I would teach them all the songs. We’d rehearse them. We went on the ‘Monsters of Rock’ cruise, came home and then went right into the studio and recorded them. It was a little bit different of an approach.
“That’s how I do records these days. That’s how I’m doing the George Lynch record (Editor: a project with the former guitarist for Dokken he’s been working on). He sends me songs and I’m kind of going, ‘La, la, la-la,’” Sweet laughs. “And it just works. Once we get into the studio, that’s the way we piece everything together.”
It goes without saying that Sweet is staying busy. Oz Fox plays in Bloodgood, as well as a fun, rotating celebrity cover band in Vegas. Stryper seems to remain the priority for all four members, and they’re all still bringing their distinctive gifts to the band. “We all have different levels of abilities and talents,” Sweet adds. “God’s really blessed everyone in the band, but where they really bring it to the table is when they actually get in and add their tracks and perform. Rob’s got that unique way of drumming and delivering his drum parts. Tim – same thing – a very unique style. Oz – same thing – very unique style. And then me – I have a unique style. When we mix them all together, that’s when it becomes Stryper. And everyone goes, ‘OK, cool! There it is.’ When Oz and I go lay down background vocals, it’s got that unique, one-of-a-kind Stryper thing going.”
Another classic element is back for the band on this new album – the artwork. It’s simply epic. “We’re pumped about it,” he gushes. “I sent an email to the artist – Stan Decker. He does a lot of artwork for Frontiers (Records). He’s a Stryper fan. He has the To Hell with the Devil album at his house on vinyl. I said, ‘This is the name of the album, No More Hell to Pay. I want to kind of do a follow-up to the concept of To Hell with the Devil in terms of the cover and the art. Not with four angels, but just one, and kind of similar to that …’ He took that and delivered the cover you see. The only thing we changed was the size of the font for the title at the bottom. The guy just hit it out of the park.
“When he sent that album cover to my inbox and I opened it up, my chin was on the floor. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I think, without question, by a landslide, it’s our best album cover ever. So far, with all the comments, everyone seems to agree. They love it.
“We’re going to be offering a package with that album cover on a shirt – a really cool shirt that’s created by Ron Campbell and his company, U! Creative. We’re going to be offering that limited run with the shirt and the vinyl. We’ll have some new shirts for touring with that artwork on it as well.”
While it’s great that Stryper has all the ingredients to get the job of wowing their audience – a great new album, a killer live show where they deliver the goods with energy and passion – I had to wonder what it was like for accomplished musicians their age, who had “been there and done that” to be stuck and segmented into a yester-decade box. Does it put a chip on their shoulder or what?
Sweet pauses to consider the question and then answers, “Not really. There’s more of a struggle and a challenge with being labeled a ‘Christian band.’ Everybody knows we’re not ashamed of our Christianity, our faith. We shout it from the rooftops – always have, always will. But we are a little bit bummed when we go to Amazon.com and we’re put in the Christian category. Or we go to Best Buy and we are looking for a Stryper album, because people say they couldn’t find it and we say, ‘It’s probably because it’s in the Christian category.’ And sure enough, we go over and there’s one copy hidden away in the Christian category. Most of our fans aren’t going to go buy from the Christian category. They’re going to go buy from the Rock or Metal category. I feel like, so many times, that really kills us – that ‘Christian’ tag.
“Again, we’re not ashamed of our faith. It’s just that we’re trying to do something different. We’re really trying to reach the masses. We always have. I think we actually got pretty good at it, because two-thirds of our sales are to mainstream, not the Christian. And that was the goal. That was purposely done. That was something we set out to do. We didn’t want to limit ourselves signing to a Christian label and being sold at Christian bookstores only. And doing Christian shows only with Christian bands only. There’s nothing against that, but it limits you if you’re trying to reach the world. That probably is a little bit more of an issue with us than the other thing.”
When he brought up this topic, I couldn’t help but be reminded of that hilarious scene in the movie “Pain & Gain,” with Mark Wahlberg and Dwayne Johnson where they pull out a Stryper record and have a go at them. When I brought it up, Sweet had a good laugh, and then he settled into a story about how it also bothered him. “What happened with that was they went to our publishing company and asked to use a song and, for whatever reason, we couldn’t come to terms over use of that song. So, they went a separate route and, instead of using a song, they decided to use a reference to Stryper and they had some bumper stickers on the cash register and they mentioned our name. The Rock says he used to work for a Christian rock group, Stryper, blah, blah, blah.
“And then, once I saw the scene, I thought, ‘Wait a minute! That’s not cool,’ because we had no say in the matter. You’re telling me that anybody that makes any movie out there can go and use your likeness and your trademark and your logo without your consent? Apparently so, because I contacted an attorney and looked into it to see if that was right or wrong in legal terms. Apparently, they’re Paramount Pictures and they’re so big and powerful, there was really not much you can do. Although it was funny and whatnot, I didn’t care for the fact that we were kind of tied to people doing that. What if we didn’t want to be tied to people going into a gun shop and buying guns? I’ve got nothing against guns. I’ve owned guns my whole life, but I’m throwing out the ‘What if?’ scenario. Or being tied to the movie itself and what it’s about. What if we didn’t want to be associated with that? I guess we didn’t have a choice! That was really disconcerting to me.
“I saw the scene and I thought it was kind of funny, but at the same time what concerned me the most was how we didn’t have a say in the matter. Imagine if they took HM stickers and Doug Van Pelt and used your name in some movie and you’re like, ‘Wait a minute! I didn’t want to be associated with this.’ You know what I’m saying? And you have no say in the matter. That was really just bizarre to me to hear that. It was good publicity, I guess, if you look at it that way. I don’t know.”
“It would have been nice to have been told what the movie was about and have a say in whether we wanted our name and likeness and trademark used in that movie.”
I decided to offer Sweet some free legal advice at this point in the interview, telling him Stryper should cover the tune that The Rock sang with the sales associate in that movie scene … and then let Paramount try to sue them.
“And that made it worse,” he adds. “It was the dumbest song I’ve ever heard in my life – absolutely stupidest, cheesiest song ever! And what do people think? That that’s a Stryper song! I’m like, ‘Really? Come on, now!’”
Stryper was posted on November 6, 2013 for HM Magazine and authored by Doug Van Pelt.