When the Christian rock band Stryper first emerged in 1983, many people thought they were both a marketing ploy and tasteless joke. After 1986's To Hell With the Devil sold over two million copies, so-called Christian bands started popping up everywhere.
Somehow, brothers Michael and Robert Sweet have kept some form of Stryper alive, on and off, for nearly 30 years. Speaking from his home in Massachusetts, in anticipation of tonight's show at House of Blues, Michael discussed the legacy of one of the first Christian metal acts.
How has Christian rock changed from when you started in the '80s to now? I think it certainly implies the same thing. It's a band made up of Christian guys who deliver a different message. The way the bands and the music have evolved is really different. We came out at a time when it was not so acceptable or popular to have Spandex on and have big hair and run around all over the stage. We came on the scene with the likes of Petra and Baby Grand. We were certainly shocking. Nowadays, anything goes and there's nothing that really shocks people. Everything's been done and then some. I come from the old school of melody and guitar solos. We put more thought into musical arrangements. Nowadays, it's less about that and more about angst. But I can appreciate that stuff, too. It's a different time.
When you first started the band, were you worried people would think a Christian metal band was just a marketing gimmick? I'm sure some people thought that way. The truth is that it wasn't. If you look at the bands we were in before Stryper, we were wearing those yellow and black Spandex outfits.That's who we were and that's how we presented ourselves before there was Stryper. It just continued on once we decided to give our hearts to Christ and we decided to change the lyrics and let that be the message of the band. We weren't trying to use gimmicks and be something that we weren't.
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When you first put those god-awful outfits on, did you look at one another and wonder how you got into this mess? Yes, a little bit. My brother is more of the visual guy, it was more his idea. He was the guy who painted the drums and the amps. He encourages us to go down that road, to have that yellow and black look. I was more of the music guy who stayed at home on weekends writing songs in the garage all day long. We worked as a team.
Former televangelist Jimmy Swaggart was never a big fan of Stryper, but another televangelist, Jim Bakker, was. What did he understand that Swaggart didn't? I don't know that it was what he heard. Having met Bakker but never having met Swaggart, I think he was intimidated by us. Maybe he was fearful of the new generation of Christian music. He was just kind of scared and fearful of it. Jim Bakker was more open-minded and more accepting. He knew that things were changing. He was really cool. He came and watched us perform and we all went and hung out at Heritage. We got to know him and he was really a great guy.
Both of those men had their downfalls not long after. I know. The sad thing is that I think Jim got a bad rap. I really do. He made some mistakes, but he was treated as a complete criminal, like someone who didn't admit up to his mistakes. He was a humble guy. From my perspective, he was very apologetic. Jimmy Swaggart, on the other hand, seemed to be the guy speaking out against prostitution when he was out doing all that kind of stuff. It was a typical definition of a hypocrite. You got to be real careful with how you present yourself. When you are out telling people the dos and don'ts of the Bible, you better be ready to have your life line up with that.
Styper has sold more than ten million albums and more than half of those albums were sold to non-Christians. How did the band succeed in appealing to the non-Christian masses? I think it was the packaging. We were doing what we did and we were being ourselves. I think we fit in at that time. We had the look and the sound. It opened those doors to bring people in, people who did not know we were a Christian band. Our record label at the time had no idea we were a Christian band. We didn't throw out Bibles during our showcase and we didn't talk about God in between songs. We were so loud and the lyrics were obviously drowned out. When we signed the deal and presented them with the lyrics, they called us and said, "Whoa, whoa, whoa, we didn't know you guys were a Christian band." They actually contemplated dropping us. I think that is a similar situation with the fans. I think maybe people didn't know we were Christian. They just like the sound of the music. They heard the songs and they thought it was cool and they went out and bought it. Maybe they got home and read the lyrics and were surprised. I know that has happened a lot of times.
Do you still throw Bibles to the crowd? We have always thrown Bibles and we always will. We consider that to be a very important part of what we do.
Have you ever nailed anyone in the head? We have. We have to be real careful. Back in the day, we used to take them up so that they would fly further. We hurt a few people. I know recently we were doing a gig in Massachusetts and there was a guy who was carrying four beers. We threw a Bible and knocked all of the beers out of his hand. I thought that was pretty funny.
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Is it odd to see people drinking beer or doing drugs at a gig by a Christian band? It's all the same stuff you see at any rock show. You are going to get all of that. You're going to smell weed and you are going to see people drinking booze. We have played all-ages shows where they don't sell alcohol. Our goal is to go out into the world and shine a light. We want to shine a light in a dark world and take that light to places where no one else has taken it. That could be a bar or a festival in Mexico. We recently went to Jakarta and played for a predominately Muslim crowd. And we still threw Bibles out. It's all been pretty crazy.
God help a Muslim band if they tossed out copies of the Koran in America. Yes, I know. Tell me about it. We got out of there unscathed. There were no issues or problems. We are always respectful. We don't go one stage and start riots. We don't beat people over the head and say, "You better turn or burn." We don't present it that way. We just go and rock, turn the amps us and deliver our message.
Stryper performs with Supernova Remnant tonight, May 17, at House of Blues.