interview by Michael McCarthy
On September 4th, 2020, the world’s most famous Christian rock/metal band of all time, Stryper, will release their 13th studio album, Even The Devil Believes, on Frontiers Music Srl. If you’re a fan of the band’s last three albums, No More Hell To Pay, Fallen and God Damn Evil, then you’re sure to be thrilled as they continue to deliver blistering, high octane heavy metal that rises up and burns bright like a phoenix as it ascends from your speakers with fervor. It’s the band’s first album to feature bassist and backing vocalist Perry Richardson, formerly of FireHouse, and his playing on the album is nothing shy of fantastic, elevating the band’s sound to a new peak as he and drummer Robert Sweet deliver the album’s tight rhythm section. Together, they provide the perfect backbone behind the grade A riffs and solos courtesy of co-lead/co-rhythm guitarists Oz Fox and Michael Sweet. From the moment the album blasts off with pummeling “Blood From Above” until it finishes with the rapid-fire “Middle Finger Messiah,” there isn’t a mediocre song to be heard, each of the album’s 11 tracks easily potent enough to be a single. As with its predecessor, God Damn Evil, my favorite tracks change each time I listen to it. To that end, it’s an album I have to play from start to finish every time. To try to pick just one song to listen to would be like sticking your hand in a bag of potato chips and trying to eat just one. Currently, I’m obsessed with “Divider,” “Do Unto Others,” “Let Him In,” and the two ballads, “How To Fly” and “This I Pray.” In the following interview with Michael Sweet, we discuss the new album and much more.
MM: First of all, how are you holding up with the pandemic at this point?
MS: You know, just continuing on and moving forward. Not really thinking too much about it or at least not trying to. But yet trying to be smart and safe and all that stuff, you know?
MM: Has anyone close to you gotten the virus at all?
MS: Not close. Definitely people that we know. Acquaintances and good friends of a good friend. That kind of thing. Not anyone close yet. Thank God, you know?
MM: Yeah, same here. So, are you going to church or are you concerned that doing that would be a recipe for disaster still?
MS: We’ve been doing a lot of church from home and that sort of thing. I have been asked to come and perform at church but the only reason why I didn’t do so is because I had other things going on so I wasn’t able to. But if I didn’t have things going on I would’ve in a heartbeat. I’m not one of those guys that lives in fear and stays hidden away in my home thinking that I’m gonna die. It’s just not my mentality at all. Sadly, I do know people that think like that. And I think there’s a fine line. You’ve gotta keep living and keep moving and do what you do but be smart in the process.
MM: It’s definitely tricky. I know myself, I’m probably living a bit too much in fear and staying home most of the time.
MS: Well, a lot of people are. A lot of people do. It’s easy to fall into that trap, you know? I just think that if you’re smart and you take extra measures to be healthy and safe you’re gonna be fine. There are so many other things out there that we could fall prey to. So many things. We get in our car and put our life at risk every time we get in our car.
MM: That’s true.
MS: Every time we get on a plane we put our life at risk. Every time we get on a train. Every time we walk busy streets. There are so many things we could die from. It’s important for us – at the end of the day – to remember, we’ve gotta keep living.
MM: Definitely. So, last time we spoke you were saying that the pandemic struck when you were working on the new Stryper album. What point were you at when that happened?
MS: Well, I started writing that album in December, early January. So, we started hearing about a few incidents in China around that time and never really thought much about it and the guys came out to my house for pre-production and rehearsals in January and we started rehearsing. We got in the studio at Spirit House in mid-January and that’s when we started hearing more and more about the virus. The first cases in Washington or wherever it was in the U.S. It was on the news more and more every day and Robert started filling us in and it became a little bit more of a thing as we went along with the recording process. But not until we got back from Mexico. We went to Mexico in February. Early February. When we got back from Mexico that’s when it really went into full-blown. We started going into shut down, lockdown mode and that’s when it became a world-known pandemic.
MM: You guys were able to record the new album entirely in person then?
MS: Yeah. I mean, exactly as we always do, which is the basic tracks in person and then overdubs remotely. I’ve always done my vocals here at home and then I go back to the studio and mix. And Oz does his solos at home. We did that the same way. That never changed. The only thing that changed was the mixing process. That was done remotely. I got a high definition feed with studio-quality headphones and sat there with Danny Bernini and we went through the mixes for four, five, six days and mixed the album that way. It didn’t suffer at all doing it that way.
MM: Right. It definitely sounds as great as all the others.
MS: Yeah, I think in some cases it was actually even better because I was able to really digest things and go away then listen. Burn a copy and listen in my car. Have a little bit more time to live with the mixes versus when I’m up there in the studio it’s not so much that way. It’s a little more rushed and I don’t get to really listen to the mixes quite like I’d like to. This time around remotely I was able to do that.
MM: The new album comes out on September 4th. Was that always the plan or did the pandemic delay or move up the release date?
MS: You know, it got moved up, actually. It didn’t get delayed. Which was surprising to me. When we turned it in, we got the word that they wanted to release it in September. Early September, mind you. It kind of surprised me because it wasn’t scheduled to be released until October. But I thought, OK, cool. I’m good with that. But I would have thought that because of the pandemic and everything taking place in the world that it would’ve gotten bumped back to November, December, maybe even January.
MM: That was purely the label’s thinking then?
MS: That was the label’s thinking, yeah. They wanted to get it out sooner than later and I thought, OK, cool, let’s do it.
MM: The press release states that one of the songs was from the past but not released until now. Which one is that?
MS: That is a song that I wrote in 1989 that we actually tracked the music to for the Against the Law album and it’s the track “Invitation Only.” Now, that would have, of course, been an obvious song on Against the Law and the reason why we didn’t ever complete it and add it to the album was that I couldn’t finish the lyrics. It was one of those songs at the time where I got hung up on the song and I could not finish the song to save my life. So, we just decided, oh well, let’s just put that on a shelf and we’ll deal with that later. And I felt like, you know, probably 30 years was enough time to pull it off of the shelf and make it a part of the new album. We changed it a little bit. And it started originally with a “Panama” drum groove and it felt very “Panama”-ish by Van Halen so we changed that. We just kicked right into the song. But I think people that have been wanting to hear more of that ‘80s sound from Stryper, more of that poppy metal feel, they’re gonna love the song. It’s probably gonna be their favorite song on the album.
MM: Could be. What made you think of it to go back to it at this time?
MS: I just felt like it was time. I always felt like it was a great song. And, you know, I always wanted to pull that off the shelf and have another go at it but we just never did. And I started thinking, in my mind, if we don’t do it now we’re never gonna do it. So, let’s just make it happen. And we did.
MM: How often does it happen that you work on a song and you’re not able to finish it like that?
MS: Not very often. I mean, especially, over the past 13, 14 years, it’s been where every song that I write has turned into a song and been recorded and used. It’s rare. On a rare occasion I might come up with a riff or a groove that I’m not feeling and I’ll shelve that but it’s not a completed song. That’s happened before. I’m on a really good roll and in a good place lately in terms of songwriting. And once I sit down and I start writing with my computer and all my gear and what not it just starts kind of flowing out and it comes fairly easily.
MM: Usually, you kind of go into your studio for a week and write the album. With this one, was it a similar process or did you take more time writing this one or anything different?
MS: You know, I didn’t. It was pretty much the same process as the last four or five albums. Actually, if you include Sweet & Lynch and solo, maybe eight or nine albums. Once I sit down and start writing, it’s pretty much a song a day. That’s what it averages out to be. Once the riff and the groove are in place, the rest of the song comes really fast. It’s usually, literally, a two to four hour thought process. And then I’ll tweak lyrics along the way for the next four or five or six weeks until we go record. Until I sing the vocals, I’ll be tweaking lyrics here and there but for the most part, the song is done in a day. That’s just the way I’ve been writing. People say, well, maybe you should take more time writing. And I always say to those people, maybe you should take less time writing.
MM: If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.
MS: That’s what I mean. If it’s not broke, don’t fix it. It works for me. And some of these bands, I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again. Some of these bands, I’ll read an interview and they say we’ve been working on an album for two years and we’ve got 29 ideas, and I’m just thinking to myself that’s the last way I want to spend my years on earth. Wasting so much energy. If it takes you that long to come up with some ideas – two years – I feel like something’s wrong. I don’t know. I’ve just gotten into a groove where it comes really quickly. And I like that. A song a day. I play it for everybody and everyone digs it and no one’s saying you should work on this a little more.
MM: I always find it strange how some bands – Boston immediately comes to mind because I’m talking to you –
MS: – I have nothing to do with Boston. [Laughs]
MM: Well, I know, but you sang for them at one point. And they’ve released albums very sporadically. They’ve always taken a really long time, which I’ve always found kind of odd. I’d almost rather have bands release albums that are like a B minus – if I was giving them a letter grade – every couple of years than release one A every eight years.
MS: You can’t improve upon the first Boston album in my opinion.
MM: I agree.
MS: I think most people would agree with that. And that took a while to record and produce. They didn’t do that overnight or even in a few months. But then once you get to that point where you obsess over things and you’ll spend two, three, four, five, six years in between releases what happens is you start sucking the life and the energy right out of the project. You can overproduce and literally lose the energy. And, really, what makes an album so special to me – some of my favorite albums – if I had to pick what I like most about those albums it would probably be the energy. So, if you lose the energy, you’ve almost lost everything. You’ve gotta have that energy and that fire that makes people excited. And, of course, the song structure is important and the foundation of the track and the performances. That’s all-important, but the energy is really crucial.
MM: Definitely. Now, one of the new songs is called “This I Pray.” What have you been praying for lately?
MS: Oh, man. I’ll tell you what, first of all, I don’t pray enough. When I do pray, I’m praying for my family and my friends. I’m praying for the state of the world. I’m praying for our leaders. I pray for President Trump. It’s funny because if I say something like that, it’s instant attack mode. For people to say, why would you say that, he’s a piece of garbage and blah, blah, blah. And it’s important at the end of the day to realize if you’re a Christian, and I am, and I try my best to be Christ-like and be an example of Christ, you have to remember that God loves us all the same, all equally. With our imperfections and without. He doesn’t dislike Trump any more than you or me. And he loves you as much as he loves Donald Trump. He loves me as much as he loves Charlie Manson. And that’s a difficult thing for us. For our minds to comprehend. But that’s the beautiful thing about God’s love. It’s unconditional. It never changes. And it’s the same for everyone. So, that being said, I pray for the president. I pray for our leaders. I pray for those that I don’t necessarily care for. I pray for those that I might have problems with. I pray for them. I pray for my enemies. I think it’s really important to do that when we’re praying. I really do.
MM: On “Make Love Great Again,” it goes on for about a minute before the first verse begins and the bass is featured prominently in that part of the song – as well as the whole song – but I was wondering if you had the bass guitar part in mind when you wrote it.
MS: No. That song normally and typically kicked in like one, two, three, four, right into the intro. Then kicks in. And then what we did after the fact in the studio, we thought it would be really great to come up with an intro for this. And we created that intro with Danny, our engineer, helping immensely. We treated the bass differently and did some really cool things with some filters and plug-ins and kind of rammed it in and faded it in and came up with what you hear. We did the same thing for “Take It to the Cross.” We did the same thing for “Sorry.” We like going in nowadays and creating some really cool intro for at least one song on the album. It’s kind of fun.
MM: I really like the way it came out. How did having Perry in the band impact your approach to the songwriting, if at all?
MS: Well, you know, Perry wasn’t super involved in the actual songwriting process. I’ve always pretty much locked myself in a room and written most of the songs. That’s just what works for this band. I don’t want to say it’s the easy way. It’s just the best way for this band. It doesn’t become convoluted. It doesn’t become complicated.
MM: I just didn’t know if having another great background vocalist in the band caused you to write with more backing vocals in mind or if his particular bass guitar style influenced anything.
MS: Not really. The only thing, when I first started writing the album I reached out to the guys and said, hey do you have any song title ideas? And everyone started throwing out title ideas. And Perry had the idea “Make Love Great Again” but it was originally “Make Rock Great Again.” And I thought, that’s cool, I like that, the little spin on that. And then my brother said, “Well, what about make God great again?” And I thought to myself, well, God doesn’t need to be made great again. He’s always been great and he’ll always be great. That never changes. I changed rock and God into love. I thought, love does kind of need to be made great again. I thought, there’s a lot of love in the world but even though there’s a lot of love in the world, there’s a lot of hate. And we always have to work on that. Improving love for one another. That can always use some work. I thought, let’s go with that. And they liked it. And then Perry also had the title “Do Unto Others,” which I really loved. That’s actually the first music video that’s coming out on release day. That’s probably my favorite song on the album.
MM: How did you guys make the video? Did you have to do it remotely?
MS: No, man. And that’s what I mean about living. We could have. There was a little fear in some people about getting together and flying and doing this and doing that. But we did it. And the reason why we did it is because this is what we do. You can’t just lay back and be defeated. By anything or anyone. Whether it’s Covid or a war or a person, you’ve gotta fight. If you have cancer, you don’t just get in your bed and die. Those who have cancer, they fight it. They try to beat it. Many people do. Some people, sadly, they don’t. But, man, they don’t give up. They fight it. Same thing goes for the situation we’re in right now. You have to fight it. So, the guys all came up here. They flew out to the house. We sprayed them down before they came in. They took their shoes off. We washed their clothes. They took showers. We quarantined for two weeks. We went and shot not only the video but two live albums in their entirety to be released on demand very soon.
MM: That’s exciting.
MS: We did a lot. And as we were taking photos and posting them I got some comments from some other bands and musicians as if to say what the hell, what are you guys doing? Like we were being irresponsible or something. And it’s like, no, we’re not. We’re not being irresponsible at all. We’re being very responsible. Doing what we’re required to do by the state. But we’re still living life and continuing on doing what we do. It’s a fine line, man. It’s a middle ground.
MM: I really like the backing vocals on “How to Fly,” which is a really powerful song. Can you talk a little about that one and what it’s about?
MS: Well, good, I’m glad you like that. I’m a Beatles fan – well, we all are, but I’m a really big Beatles fan and that song has a little bit of a cross where you hear Beatle-esque sections in the harmonies and the melodies and then you hear maybe a little Collective Soul in there. It has a very unusual taste and feel for a Stryper song.
MM: It’s definitely different.
MS: Different for Stryper. I’m sure some people will say, uh, that sounds more like a solo song. I can almost guarantee you that will happen. When it does, I’ll forward you the messages. It’s just different for Stryper. It’s another one of my favorite songs on the album. I love how it turned out. It’s Oz, Perry and myself singing the background and then we also have another kid, a young kid, who’s a drummer, he’s a local drummer, by the name of Keith Pittman. And Keith plays in a Bon Jovi tribute band and he’s gonna be playing on my solo tour. And it just so happens that Keith sings like a bird. He sings beautifully. And with perfect pitch. He can sing all the high parts. He has a perfect voice. So, it was the four of us singing the backgrounds on the entire album.
MM: And how did you know him?
MS: I met Keith through a friend of mine. Actually, I heard about Keith through a friend of mine. A guy that owns a pedal shop. One of my best friends. A local legend, so to speak. His name is Rick Tomassi. And Rick said, hey, you should check Keith out. Keith had some videos playing some Sweet & Lynch and some solo songs and then I realized that Keith knew some guys in my circle. Charles Foley and Ethan Brosh. Because he plays in a band with those guys. I thought, this is cool, it’s all making sense now. The dots are connecting. And I wound up getting together with Keith. Playing here at my house and loving him as a person and as a singer. And because he was so talented I invited him out to sing on the album. I told Oz and Perry, I know a guy who can come out and really add a lot and help us achieve what we want to achieve and he came out and spent the night here a couple of nights and just killed it.
MM: I could definitely hear some differences in the backing vocals, but I’d assumed it was all Perry.
MS: Well, Perry, obviously, is a great singer and brought a lot to the table. Usually, all the background vocals, not all, but most of them throughout all the years have been Oz and I. And the limitations with that – see, Oz and I can lock in really quickly with one another. And get things done quickly. Once you bring in more people, it’s more difficult to lock-in. It might sound bigger and fuller and maybe even better, but it takes more time to achieve that. With Perry, Perry locks in really well and then Keith locks in really well. Sometimes we’ve had singers over the years come sing with us and it might take a little more time to get things because they might not lock in as easily. But that’s not to take anything away from their voices. But, man, Keith and Perry and Oz and I, it was double the voices, it was four voices instead of two.
MM: Just off the top of my head, talking about that, what was it like working with Jeff Scott Soto? I remember he sang on the previously unreleased songs on Can’t Stop the Rock and on Against the Law.
MS: Oh, man, well, Jeff Scott is a phenomenal talent and a legendary voice. No one can ever argue that at all. So, to have him come in. See, Jeff, not a lot of people know this, but Jeff goes way back with us. He used to come to our shows and hang out on the side of the stage and I’d call him out and we’d perform “Magic Mountain” and he’d come out and sing with us. We’d drive around town in L.A. and sing Van Halen songs. We go way back. So, we always knew the talent that Jeff had and that he was and the person that he is. We invited him because of that to come and sing with us on the Against the Law album. And he sang background vocals with us and he also sang double lines and whatnot with me on “Two Bodies (One Mind One Soul)” and then some other songs and we all know what he went on to do. Some incredible things. That’s one of my favorite things about the Against the Law album, the fact that Jeff was on it. But everybody knows how I feel about that album. I get a little flack for it. I think even Jeff likes and respects that album more than I do. I’ve said some things in the press that upsets people but, man, I don’t put that album at the top of my list. Tom Werman is one of my favorite producers. I love him. And he knocked it out of the park. The sound on that album is phenomenal. Absolutely. Between Tom and Eddie Delena, amazing. I just don’t like how we as a band changed everything. We changed too much. Even when we were doing it at that time, deep inside, my heart was kind of breaking. I felt like, what are we doing? It didn’t sit right with me. And it still doesn’t ‘til this day. But, again, that’s some fans’ favorite album. But not most fans. And I don’t even have to say that. People say you can’t go by the numbers but certainly, you can. You have to go by the numbers. That’s like saying a movie that gets 20% on Rotten Tomatoes is really a great movie, that you can’t go by the numbers. You have to go by the numbers because stats mean a lot. And that album is our least selling, charting, you name it. It’s at the lowest end of the spectrum. So, the fans basically have spoken.
MM: It’s one of my favorites.
MS: It’s a great album. I mean, God, it would’ve made a hell of a Van Halen album. You put “Not That Kind of Guy” as a follow up to “Hot for Teacher” and Van Halen fans would’ve gone wild. But it’s not Stryper, though. We’re Stryper, not Van Halen. Imagine for one second if Van Halen made an album that sounded like Stryper’s Soldiers Under Command album. People would go, it’s a great album, but it doesn’t sound like Van Halen. That’s how I feel about Against the Law. But back to Jeff. I love Jeff. And Jeff brought a lot to the table on that album and it was such an honor and a thrill and a pleasure to have him be a part of that album.
MM: What’s the Japanese bonus track on Even the Devil Believes going to be?
MS: It is going to be an alt mix of “This I Pray,” which I actually like better. And when you hear it, I think you’ll agree. It’s a great alternate mix. And that’s a great song. I know I’ve already said it about two songs, but it’s true. That’s another favorite of mine. The reason why is it’s got something very different for Stryper as a ballad. It’s got a little bit more of a Southern rock, gospel-y feel to it. It’s not typical. And yet it sounds like Stryper. It’s very Stryper sounding and yet it’s not. And I think the reason for that is actually that it’s a co-write and it’s by a local legend by the name of Livio Gravini and his finance Lisa Marie Greenia and they sent me that song, the basic structure of a song. It didn’t have an intro. It didn’t really have the chorus that it has now. The verse was the chorus. And I wound up writing a chorus for it and then writing a couple of extra verses and arranging it. And we made it a Stryper song and I love it. And I’m so proud to have them be a part of the album as well. I’m very blessed to have them contribute such a song as that.
MM: What’s the status of the Stryper acoustic record? You mentioned that you were working on that last time we talked.
MS: Yes, I know. I think I’ve said that about a hundred times. My apologies on that. We have been working on an acoustic album. The reason why it’s taking so long is that it hasn’t been a priority. We’ve had other things take priority over that. But we finally completed it. It’s completed. It’s mixed. It’s not mastered, but it’s mixed. It sounds great. It literally is a live, acoustic album. The only thing that isn’t truly live in terms of the four of us in a room is we re-recorded the original bass tracks with Perry’s tracks. But Perry played them live right there in the studio in the control room. And then we also added Perry’s vocals because it was just Oz and I on the vocals. We added Perry’s vocals and, dude, it sounds so good. We’re so excited about that album. It’s a different sound for Stryper.
MM: Well, I look forward to it, but in the meantime, I’m quite pleased with Even The Devil Believes.
MS: Glad to hear it, man. How many interviews is this now?
MM: I believe this is our eighth.
MS: Well, let’s make 80. We have 72 more to go!
Special thanks to Michael Sweet for being a great interviewee as usual and to Brian Mayes at Nashville Publicity Group for connecting us!