Without a doubt, Stryper is one of the top Christian rock bands of all-time, and certainly the most celebrated Christian metal band of all time. Comprised of Michael Sweet (vocals/guitar), Oz Fox (guitar), Tim Gaines (bass), and Robert Sweet (drums), Stryper has been rocking since 1983, and is responsible for such '80s metal classic albums as 'Soldiers Under Command,' 'To Hell with the Devil,' In God We Trust,' and such MTV hit singles/videos as "Calling on You," "Free," and "Honestly."
After a sabbatical for much of the 1990's, Stryper returned strong in the early 21st century. But it was not until their 2011 covers set, 'The Covering,' that the aforementioned definitive Stryper was reinstated, as the band welcomed Gaines back into the fold.
Recently, I sat down with Michael to talk through what had transpired in the previous months until now. What I heard amazed me. Michael and his band mates have continued to be on a mission for over 30 years. To point people to Christ. In this interview Michael shares what is on his heart. He is honest and real.
John: Michael, just to kind of start… you guys have a new record out now called Second Coming—which certainly brings back a lot of amazing memories, probably for you guys as well as for us as fans. I want to go back to the beginning. When it all began, when it was you and your brother and a couple of other guys with long hair. You guys wanted to change the world. Take us back. When was that? Was it 1983 or ‘82 when you guys formed the band?
Michael: It was 1983 when we officially formed—the four of us: Tim, Oz, Rob and myself. Robert and I had been doing it long before then, of course, but when Tim actually came and joined forces with us, and the four of us decided collectively to pursue the Stryper thing, that was 1983. And it’s been virtually nonstop since then, with just a few detours along the way.
I left the band in 1992, and then we didn’t head out on the road again until 2003. That was over ten years later; and we didn’t officially reunite again until 2005, and that wasn’t even with Tim. Tim did the ‘03 tour, but he didn’t reunite with us when we did it officially in 2005. He wanted to pursue other things, so we wound up going out with a different bass player. But then Tim came back to the band in ‘09 and we’ve been going with him ever since.
It’s been the original line-up since then, and that’s what you get on this record, Second Coming—which is really unique and rare, I think. Most bands that are 30 years old don’t consist of the original line-up, so this feels really good to us as a group. In fact, we’re very proud to be able to say that.
John: I’m sure! I mean it certainly has been a remarkable story, following your career and seeing how you guys, in a sense, went separate ways, but then somehow came back together again.
Michael: Well, you know, I think that’s one of the misconceptions about the band. I think because we are a band that consists of Christian guys (we’re four Christian guys who have deep faith), people expect us to be perfect and to not have any issues, and to get along 100 percent of the time and that’s just not the case. I mean, we wind up going through ups and downs and relationship issues with each other, even to the point where we need breaks from one another. We really do need time away from each other sometimes. That might sound odd to people when they hear it, but those are the facts. It’s just kind of how life is. And the beauty in that, because of our faith, you know, is that God always restores and heals. So with a little bit of time away, we come back restored and revived, and God works through the band again and incredible things happen.
It’s really been quite a unique story and to be a part of it, I’m blessed. I’m so blessed.
John: How does that transpire? Do you guys just kind of call each other on the phone and say, “Hey, I think we have something again?” How did things start moving in that direction, where God orchestrated the four of you to shift toward coming back together again?
Michael: Well, just speaking for myself… I’m sure if you ask that question of us individually, you might get a different answer or a different reaction, maybe similar but different. But, my answer to that is I’ve always wanted God to lead the way. I felt from 1992 to 2003 like it wasn’t time. He didn’t want me to be a part of it. He had other plans for my life and other things that he wanted me to do, and to fulfill that did not mean at the time rejoining Stryper.
I just followed His lead, or at least I felt as though I was following His lead. I know there were some fans who were upset about it, and couldn’t understand why we split up. Even my brother didn’t really understand. When I left the band, he was probably the most hurt out of the bunch, and it didn’t necessarily make sense to him. He always thought brothers would stick together no matter what, through thick-and-thin. Yes, that does apply in the private life—it should apply—but not always in terms of business—and that’s the thing, we’re a ministry, but we’re also a business. So sometimes when you’re in business with family, as you know, if you’ve ever experienced that, it doesn’t always work.
You kind of need to step back and say, “Okay. I’ve got to clear my head here, because (and not a lot of people know this) we went bankrupt.” I mean, we never incorporated the band, and because of that we were just a partnership. And we wound up building up and racking up this incredible debt, basically spending more than we made night after night for years, all to put on this production and what not. We wound up having this huge debt and as individual partners we had to file bankruptcy. There were a lot of things like that, which I’ll talk about in the book I’m working on. It’s an autobiography, and I get into all the details of those things. So there were a lot of reasons why I needed to clear my head and get away from it all; so much so, that I moved from the West coast to the East coast. Not only did I need to get away from it, but I needed to get as far away from it as possible. So, that’s what I did for a while.
John: To say that there’s new life in Stryper is kind of a misnomer though, isn’t it?
Michael: There is new life in Stryper, and that’s because of Christ. I don’t mean to sound cliché, but there really is.
Michael: It is. It’s the truth, and only God can do that. Only He can restore and heal, and change men’s hearts—only Him—and that’s what happened. After some time away, healing took place and we were able to come together again. Not only come together, but to love each other more than before, and to work together better than we ever did. It’s really incredible. It demonstrates what God can do and is a powerful testament to His love.
John: I can’t remember what year it was, but I saw you guys a few years back. You played the Wild Horse in Nashville TN, and man, it was as if you had not missed a beat. I literally was standing there going, “I feel like these guys have never left.” Like you’d always been playing together, all four of you guys.
How have you honed your craft as a group in all of these years? How have you guys stayed on top of the game? I mean, you guys sound great!
Michael: Well, thank you, first of all. Thank you very much. I think a lot of that comes from, first, the fact that is Robert and I are brothers. There is something that comes with that in terms of meshing, and we just lock. He goes for a cymbal, I know he’s going to go for a cymbal and I’m going to go for a chord and he’s going to hit a kick and I’m going to stop with his kick. We just kind of know what each other’s going to do. I’ve heard this from other brothers in the music business as well: Eddie Van Halen and Alex Van Halen, on and on. There’s something to be said for that connection, and not just with brothers, sisters or siblings, or what have you. There’s just something to be said about that. So that’s the first thing, and then secondly, we all went to high school together. We all grew up together pretty much.
Even prior to high school, we knew each other. Oz and Robert and I, so growing up together in the same time, in the same area, I think, plays a big part in it too. We just know each other so well, and we know what we’re going to do musically, that we could play it in our sleep. There’s a certain chemistry that happens and so a lot of it’s just instinctual.
John: You guys decided to come out with the Second Coming. You do classic songs—is that the right word to use? Do you like that word?
Michael: Yes, I think so. I mean I would call them classic. They’re certainly fan favorites, and they’re old. Some of those songs date back to 1981.
John: How did you go through and pick those songs?
Michael: That was really easy. The reason, or purpose, rather, for this record was solely for our publishing company. We were going to re-record a handful of the songs—as many as we could afford to and that we had time for—so we could retain the rights to the masters so that nobody else would own them. We would own them, and the publishing company would come directly to us and say, “Hey, we got this movie Mark Wahlberg is in, and we want to use ‘Loud and Clear.’” We’d say, “Cool” or something like that, and the deal could be done in one phone call, versus them having to go to Disney and Hollywood and trying to get someone on the phone for two weeks. Because once they do that, then they would have had to go talk to their boss, and get back to them in two weeks. And then when they finally do get back to them after a month has gone by, the deal has either gone south, or they don’t want to do it, or they want too much money or something.
This happened time and time again, and we got fed up with it, and said, “You know what? This is silly. I mean, let’s just go re-record these songs and make it simple and cut out the middleman.” And that’s why we did it. Once we went and started recording, we kept that in mind. We figured we’d do the favorites. So we did the most popular tunes and tackled the first three albums, and then our mentality was we’ll get to the other albums later.
Michael: When we have the time and the money, that’s what we plan on doing. Right now, we don’t have any set time frame. We don’t know when that will take place; maybe in two or three years we’ll do another Second Coming or a re-record. We’ll hit albums like, In God We Trust, Against The Law and maybe even Reborn and Murder by Pride.
John: You were thinking of all the fans, like, “Hey, these are the songs these guys want,” and I love it. I absolutely love it. It’s fantastic!
Michael: Well, I’ll tell you, honestly, we weren’t initially thinking of the fans at all, because we had no plans to release it to the fans. It was only being done for our publishing company.
John: Well, on behalf of your fans, Michael, thank you. Thank you so much.
Michael: You know what, we’re really pleased that it worked out that way, and that we were able to release it to the fans too. We wound up hooking up with a great company, Frontiers, who has a vision for what we’re doing. They had a super high belief level in Second Coming and they got behind. They made it happen, and they released it and God bless them. We couldn’t have done it without them, no way.
John: So is there a tour planned?
Michael: At the moment, believe it or not, no tour is planned. Here’s what’s going on. This year, we’re going to do a handful of select dates across America starting in June and going through September. But first, we’re going to make a new record. We signed a three-album deal with Frontiers, and they put some pretty heavy deadlines on us. We’re okay with that, though. They’re going to release another record this year—coming out in either September or October. It’s going to be an all-new, original 12-song album. You’ll need to put some head gear on, John, and get in the boxing ring, though, because it’s going to punch you in the face about 10 times, or 12 times I should say!
John: I love it.
Michael: It’s going to be real heavy. We’re going back to our roots, which is exactly what people expect from Stryper, I think. I really believe it’s going to be our best album to date. People are going to hear it and hopefully think, “What in the world? How is this possible?” We’re really excited about that.
Then we’ve got those dates that I talked about from June to September, and then we’ll to do another album, probably a live recording of our rehearsals in Nashville in November. That’ll come out early next year, in the first or second quarter of 2014.
John: You certainly are not very busy, is what I’m hearing. (laughs)
Michael: You know what, brother? I’m overwhelmingly busy! I have a solo record coming out, supposedly this year, with a book. I’ve been asked to sing for another band too (which I actually can’t really talk about at the moment), and maybe do some touring with them in October. It’s been kind of crazy, really. I think about it, and I don’t remember a year in the history of Michael Sweet ever being this crammed full of stuff. It’s just ridiculous. I guess that’s a good thing. I’m very, very blessed.
John: Michael, as we’re kind of nearing our conversation here, I just want to touch base on that. Obviously, I was kidding you in saying that you’re not very busy. As a man who pursues Christ, how do you challenge either your peers, or the people at your church, or others you come across—like those reading this blog—in the midst of life’s busyness, to stay focused on Christ? What is your process in going through that, and how can we learn from you?
Michael: Well, not only do I challenge everyone, but I challenge myself more than others, because I’m guilty of not doing this. That is, when you put your feet on the floor in the morning, and when you lay your head on the pillow every night, I’d say thank God. Talk to Him, and develop a relationship with God through a simple prayer, a long prayer, meditation, or even going into a closet or into a room and closing the blinds, if you have time. If you don’t, do whatever you can to make time for Christ. For connecting with Him. I think so many times we visualize God as being somewhere else, being distant in heaven, far away, but the fact is that he’s right here in front of us and around us daily at every moment.
I think if we come to terms with that part, that He is with us all the time and as close to us as anyone can be, it might help us develop a close relationship with Him and talk to him more. I try to include him more and to think of him more. Unfortunately, daily life often robs us of that one-on-one time with not only God, but with anyone else who might be close to us. The people we love, unfortunately, kind of get thrown out the window, and we wind up focusing more on our business and the tasks at hand and what we have to do today. It’s the old To-do list. Then we realize after 30 years passes, how much time we’ve wasted, that we didn’t use to focus on loving God and our family.
I would just share with people to just love God with all your heart. Put Him first, and then put your family second, obviously, above all the other stuff that just truly doesn’t matter.
John: So, here are two slightly random questions coming from a few followers, a few friends of ours here. You did a stint with Boston, the band, is that an ongoing relationship?
Michael: It’s not really. I’m in touch with them, mostly with the co-lead vocalist, Tommy Decarlo, I’d say. He and I are dear friends and have stayed true friends over the years. I’ve kind of lost touch with Tom and Kim, Tom’s wife, for no particular reason. I wound up deciding to leave them almost two years ago because I wanted to focus on Stryper. I felt like there were too many distractions, as we were just talking about, from my priority band, the band that I started building as a kid with my brother. I just wanted to focus on that, instead of working with the inconsistency of not knowing when we were going to do this or that, and being a little more on and off, if you will, with Boston.
I just felt like it wasn’t the ideal way for me to conduct my affairs or scheduling, at that point. So I left that, even though some people might think, “What? Are you crazy? And some might think I was crazy for joining Boston in the first place. I mean, I got some flack for that from the Christian community. Like maybe I wasn’t a Christian or something because I joined a secular band. So, you hear all this kind of stuff, and you just think, “Wow. Okay, I guess that’s what determines your Christianity and your faith to some.”
John: Is there ever a moment, Michael, where you or Stryper will not be under the microscope when it comes to the Church?
Michael: I don’t think so, because we’re just so different. We weren’t raised in the church. We were raised in Hollywood on Sunset Strip, and because of that, I don’t think we’re ever going to really fit in or be a part of “the club.” We love our Christian brothers and sisters, don’t get me wrong. Man! We love them to death, and some of my best friends are into that, but Stryper’s just always done things their own way. In saying that, I don’t mean that we do things our own way in the sense that we don’t listen to God. We absolutely 100 percent listen to God. We pray about everything. We wait on everything, and we do everything according to God’s lead. But it doesn’t always line up with how other Christian artists or people in this industry are doing things. So, because of that, we get a little flack. We’ve taken some beatings over the years and that’s okay. We’ve got tough skin. We’re okay.
John: As we close here, I’m wondering, I’m sure you’ve had some embarrassing moments on the road with the guys? Is there something that comes to mind?
Michael: Most embarrassing moment, let’s see. I talk about this in the book. For me, it goes way back to a time when some guy was banging his head in front of my feet at the bottom of the stage. He was banging his head so hard that his glass eye popped out.
John: Oh, my goodness.
Michael: It was at my foot. I didn’t know it was a glass eye and he kept yelling at me and I bent down and flicked the eye. I didn’t know it was an eye! And it went through the audience, and then he was obviously livid for the rest of the show. It was in Australia, and it’s one of the most surreal, oddball stories I’ve ever told, but it’s real. It’s a true story that actually happened. It was crazy.
John: Oh, my goodness.
Michael: I was very embarrassed and it was difficult, but I had to get through another 45 minutes of the set with this guy yelling at me and wanting to jump on stage, and probably give me a good slap across the face, but hey.
John: Wow. Unbelievable.
After listening to The Second Coming, many times, I have to say that I have pleased. This band still rocks. Michael can still hit those high notes. Both Robert and Tim still have rhythm. Don't get me wrong, these guys are not some grandpas trying to sound relevant. They are a rock band that has stood the test of time. They sound great.
For Stryper tour information, click here.