How Sweet it is [Part 1]
by Michael Aubrecht
In 1983 an innovative heavy metal band was formed. What made them different? They were four outspoken Christians. They called themselves “Stryper.” Nothing like them had existed on the music scene before. Based on their Christian beliefs Stryper covered themselves in black and yellow stripes and blazed the trail for rock bands who professed their faith. Isaiah 53:5 became their mission statement. It states: “But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.” With a catalog of catchy songs and a positive message the band was able to bridge the gap between mainstream and Christian rock. Their breakout ballad “Honestly” became one of Stryper’s best-known songs, peaking at No. 23 on the Hot 100.
Founded by the Sweet brothers, Michael and Robert, Stryper went on to be a high-energy live act with several hit songs on the charts. Sitting sideways on the stage Robert, known as the “Visual Time Keeper” (now “VTK”), played with a unique and exhaustive style. His massive and highly unusual drum kits became a mainstay and part of the Stryper image. The mantra “Jesus Christ Rocks” branded the back of Robert’s drum chair. He also played a key role in the visual direction of the band itself as well as being a significant contributor to the music.
I was fortunate to have witnessed Stryper twice. I remember the black and yellow stage and how they threw bibles out into the audience during the show. As a drummer, and a Christian, I was fixated on Robert Sweet whose showmanship was unlike anything I had seen before. Playing behind his brother’s dialogue with the audience I don’t think he stopped drumming during the entire show. At the conclusion the band came to the front of the stage to interact with the audience. Robert and I shook hands. As a high-school student I never imagined that I would interview him 30 years later. Both times I attended Stryper concerts I left with ringing ears and an uplifting message. Their anthem “Makes Me Want to Sing” is still one of my favorites.
To this day, Stryper continues to spread their brand of Rock and Roll Gospel to generations of fans from the past and present. Last year they toured the states in celebration of the 30th Anniversary of their breakthrough album “To Hell with the Devil.” A huge thrill for me, Robert took time out of his schedule to talk about drums and Jesus.
MA: This is a real thrill for me Robert. Not to make you feel old but I saw Stryper perform twice back when I was in high school. They are still two of my favorite concerts. I actually shook your hand after one show when you guys came to the front of the stage.
RS: Thank you. Actually I don’t feel old. Rock and Roll is one of those things that will keep you young or kill you. At this point in life my perspective has kept me younger.
MA: Let’s start with the obvious question…What brought you to the drums?
RS: I have absolutely no idea [laughs]. I started playing when I was about five years-old banging on stuff and by the time I was eight or nine years-old the teachers were sending home report cards that said “Can you please ask Robert not to bang on the desk anymore. He’s a distraction.” It was just something that was built into me. I took a trip when I was about ten years-old to Las Vegas. We stopped at a club. I saw this Ludwig blue sparkle drum set sitting up on the stage and I just fell in love. From that point on I started playing. All these years later, I still ask myself “Why did I do it?” It felt right and was automatic. Once I started I couldn’t stop. I guess it was meant to be. You have to be dedicated to this instrument. Drumming requires a lot of work. You’ve got to be tough. A drummer is an athlete and a musician at the same time. I was both.
MA: Did you participate in any music programs at your schools?
RS: Yes and no. I was never in the marching band. I saw these guys who were blazing through rudiments on the snare but when you put them behind a drum set they didn’t sound as good. I got burned out going to school at eight o’clock in the morning, running to gym class, and then out on the field only to get wet. To get out of it, I suggested to the music teacher that we form a rock band using musicians from the school. He liked the idea. By the time I was a sophomore I was the band’s drummer. We played popular cover tunes from the 70’s. Whatever was a hit back then. We left school to perform at colleges so I thought to myself “Man, this is great. I don’t have to do P.E. anymore and I’m out of school playing gigs.” That’s about how much musical training I had in high school.
I went to college for about a month to do music and I realized it wasn’t for me so I left. I admired it but they don’t teach you how to be a rock star. That’s something that you pull out of yourself. When I was a teenager that was all I thought about. I was so driven that I could see it. My desire to be a rock star motivated me to work tremendously hard at it. That was what started my journey toward being the guy that shook your hand.
MA: It sounds like you decided that you were going to pursue music early on?
RS: Yes, me and my brother. Our first time believe it or not…I was in the sixth grade playing drums and he was in the third grade playing bass. Michael used our father’s jazz bass and it was almost bigger than he was. We entered a school contest and won first place. I remember that I didn’t even have a seat so I stood up and played. I remember holding the trophy and saying to myself, “OK. This is it. This is what I want to do.” It never stopped from that point on. We were always connected my brother and I. There was a point when I was too much older and he was too much younger but as we grew older it became just fine. By the time he was fifteen and I was eighteen that is when we got serious about working towards what we would later become.
MA: Can you tell us a little about those early bands that you and your brother formed?
RS: The first band we had was called “Firestorm.” That turned into a band called “Roxx” and that turned into a band called “Roxx Regime.” During that time we were playing out a lot and actually got signed under that name. We then changed the name to “Stryper.”
MA: By getting signed it sounds like you guys had established a public presence. What kind of gigs were you doing at that time?
RS: Yes we did have a public presence and we did what every other band back then did. We took every opportunity and played everything from dances-to parties-to clubs-to concerts and everything in between. Later on we would throw our own concerts together. When Stryper came to be we ended up headlining ourselves. We would put together our own shows. We really did the “Hollywood thing” a lot and we seemed to be a real favorite. I think we did 30 sold-out shows at one point. We were told by one well-known club owner that we had gotten too big and he told us to go do our thing. Despite all this we struggled. We didn’t have a lot of money. I was doing the band’s bookings and we took whatever we could get.
MA: At this point in time, were you a Christian rock band or did that focus come later? At what point did you incorporate your faith into the band?
RS: That all started when Stryper came to fruition. This would have been around 1983. We always maintained our beliefs as individuals. I became a Christian when I was fifteen and Michael did at twelve. It had always been in me. I just knew. I wasn’t much of a textbook religious person but I knew the reality of God. I began to see things that I thought could not just be a coincidence. One day when I write a book I will put a lot of those stories in there. You can have a coincidence three or even four times, but not hundreds of times. Even early on in my faith I began to truly understand the reality of God. I realized that my life is part of a plan that is far greater than I could ever understand. It was part of the whole band.
I knew our guitar player Oz when he was in seventh grade and I was in eighth grade. We were both Christians but we weren’t doing the Stryper thing. We were doing what every other band does. We were enjoying ourselves and having a great time. In 1983 we made the decision to give this thing to God and get serious about spreading the word. I think at the time many people misunderstood us. We weren’t fanatical. Maybe we were crazy in one sense by throwing bibles out into the audience but we were down to Earth guys. We were Rock and Roll musicians that were Christians. We were just trying to buck the trend and do something completely different. We were real and dedicated about taking this message to the world. We were out to change the music industry by doing what no one else had before us. It was so new and out of the box that people either loved us or hated us. Many of these people eventually came to respect us.
MA: So the major challenge of forming a Christian band was getting acceptance by the mainstream?
RS: You know we weren’t really unaccepted on the fact we were Christians. We weren’t accepted from a selling point. They were afraid they couldn’t market us as a Christian Rock and Roll band. They put us in the weird column and a lot of people across the whole industry refused to give us a break. Radio didn’t play us. Years later I’ve had people admit to me that we weren’t given a fair shake. Looking back it was so frustrating for us because we felt that we were just as “Rock and Roll” as any other band. Yes the lyrics are a little different, but that’s OK. Not every song has to be about something negative or violent. That’s how we looked at music.
Surprisingly, at the same time we didn’t really consider ourselves an official “Christian band.” We didn’t really want that stamp because you get your record stuck in the Christian section of the record store. It hurt what we were doing but we were not about to deny Christ. We were young and we didn’t know how tough it would be. People get the wrong idea. Jon Bon Jovi can write a song about living on a prayer and that is fine but if Stryper came out with a song on the very same subject people would laugh at us. On the flip side of that coin we had a lot of people that loved us. They were loyal and we’ve always maintained that Stryper fans are the most loyal of any fans. Because of them we began to see success and the crowds that were showing up grew every time we played. Some people wouldn’t admit that they discreetly snuck into Stryper shows.
MA: In researching for this interview I went way back and watched several interviews that you guys conducted early on. It seems that no matter what the show was, you always had to defend yourselves. I think you guys dealt with it very well. It was great to see you handle the pressure without compromising your integrity.
RS: Thank you. We tried our best. When I look back at that time, I recall that we were still young and naïve. When we got signed I think my brother was twenty and I was twenty-three. We had this innocence about us and yet I think that’s what gave us the guts to go out and do what we did. I firmly believe that God touched us and that became our mission to go out and spread his message whenever possible. I don’t think any other band at the time could have pulled that off. I’m not saying that because I think we are better than anyone else. We said, “OK God, this is different, but we will do it.” It was after that commitment the doors started flying open. It was a mixed bag. People have said that if we weren’t a Christian band we would have been a lot bigger.
In my opinion a lot of what Stryper did was what I call “Judgment Day stuff.” A lot of people don’t believe that one day they will stand before God. I do. My desire in my heart was to be a rock star and enjoy life but most importantly to store up treasure in Heaven. There’s nothing wrong with having nice things while on Earth, but you can’t take it with you. We all close our eyes for good one day. I always tell people that you only live twice. It’s that second life that really matters. To make a simple analogy…I look at people like a candy bar. Our body is the colorful wrapper on the outside. The real person is the candy bar on the inside. One day when this body is shed and we’ve lived our purpose, the real person inside of us will be revealed.
MA: The thing that I find astounding is the fact that you and Oz grew up in school together and you all, including your brother, grew up to be gifted musicians. You all shared the same drive to learn your instruments and even compose music. Even to this day your musicianship impresses me.
RS: Thanks. None of us were formally taught musicians. Everything we played was by ear. I’ve never had a drum lesson because everything I played was based on feel. Back then we didn’t have the Internet so you had to play what you heard. My desire to be a rock star made me driven to play my instrument and I was unstoppable. I learned by playing to other drummers and then coming up with my own style. There are many players out there who are far better than we are. We are certainly not the best players in the world, but we always want to put something together that had good songs. Our stuff is packaged together right and my brother has always been a real stickler when it comes to the band’s sound. All of us try to do our very best. The look has also been important to me. The entertainment-side of it really matters right down the last detail. All that said it comes down to your sound. You can look good, but if you don’t have the songs to pull it off you fail. I’ve always looked at myself as a simple player but I try to bash it into the ground and be a good showman. I’ve always wanted to take a different approach. I’ve had people come up to me and say that I influenced them and I’d be like “Really?” We’ve all worked hard at our playing.
MA: Stryper has had an impact on people since the very beginning. Your early fans believed in you. Wasn’t your first record subsidized by donations?
RS: Yes. And we did. We used to have what I like to call “Rock and Roll bible studies.” We would rehearse at our house and sometimes it would get so insane where we lived. We had a two-car garage that we turned into a rehearsal space. There would be hundreds of people there at a time. I remember nights of fifty people crammed into the garage with another fifty standing around on the lawn. We had stacks of amps and a big drum set so there was barely room to breathe. Amazingly no one ever called the cops. I still wonder about that one. It turned into a big deal really quick once the word got around.
MA: I know you must hear this all the time but…You are known as the “Visual Time Keeper” and your showmanship is astounding. How in the world do you maintain that level of energy night after night?
RS: It takes its physical toll for sure. I have no idea how it works. I feel like I have this cruise-control button. Usually before every show I get butterflies where I’m scared so I’ll down a Rockstar and get out there and go. It just kind of happens but after the show I walk off stage feeling like I can’t stand up [laughs]. I need a few minutes to recover. We just did the thirtieth anniversary of the “To Hell with the Devil” tour. In one sense it was like living it all again. I felt at fifty-six years-old that I was playing drums better than I was at twenty-six. People always ask me where my energy comes from and I don’t know. I just think I was meant to do this. Speaking of the entertainment aspect, people have asked me why I don’t do things like twirling or flipping my sticks. I can do that, but I saw all those guys back in the day doing it. I want to be original. I do have trouble holding on to the stick so I wear Ahead gloves.
MA: Playing with as much ferocity that you do I imagine you go through a lot of heads and cymbals. Is this true?
RS: That is a yes and a no. It all depends but not like you would think. For example on this past tour we did two months across the states from September to November. I’m endorsed by Staag Cymbals and the only one I ever broke was the bottom hi-hat and that was from me stomping on it. I love these cymbals. I’ve taken them out on four or five tour dates and they sound great. I’m so impressed because I pound on them. I use the Regal Tip ‘Metal-X” sticks which is like a 2B that is an inch longer. Sometimes I played them with the butt end up and nothing would break. As far as heads go I don’t go through them either. I use Evans heads. On this last tour I bet I only changed the snare head three times. I think that has a lot to do with my style. As a teenager I didn’t have a lot of money so I didn’t want to break anything because I couldn’t afford to replace it. I think that I swing the sticks in a way that doesn’t damage stuff. There is a “super-attack” as I like to call it and a “pull-back.” It’s a feel that’s in my hands. I hold the stick angled differently in my left hand so I can get the maximum volume. I mean I hit these things hard. At the end of the last tour I had a large bruise on my left thigh where my fist was hitting my leg. I can’t explain it any more than that.
MA: Speaking about the physicality of your play that drives your showmanship…is that why you set your drums up sideways on the stage?
RS: Yes. I want to connect with the audience. I started doing that back in 1978. I wanted to be different and I had the mindset not to look like anyone else. At the time I noticed that guys were being completely covered by their drum sets. You couldn’t even see them back there. I was influenced by guys like John Bonham of Led Zeppelin, Leonard Hays from Y&T and Alex Van Halen. A lot of the guys from back in the day that were incredible players influenced me. That said, and you may have a hard time believing it, I was influenced more by singers and guitarists than drummers. I think that the drums happened to be my instrument but from a Rock and Roll standpoint, I was impressed with the guys that were up front. I’ve had a lot of people come up and ask me if I am a singer or a guitar player. Growing up I thought a lot of drummers didn’t look good and they were lacking in showmanship. I’ve always believed that everybody in the band contributes and should be recognized for it. We are all showman in our own ways. By turning my drum set it opened up a lot of doors for creativity. That’s when I started mounting chains to hold things together and putting mirrors all over so I could see the audience and they could see me. That affected my playing too. I started jumping up on my drums and kicking the cymbals.
MA: You just mentioned that you were influenced by singers and guitarists. Who are some of the ones that come to mind?
RS: I was a huge Eddie Van Halen guy. I saw his band at the Forum in 1979. I was nineteen and I almost fell over. They were so fantastic and the impression that he made on me was phenomenal. One of the big bands to really grab my attention was Y&T. I saw them when they were called “Yesterday and Today.” I was seventeen. We recently did a Rock and Roll cruise with Y&T and I was talking to their guitar player about what an influence he was. In all I’d say most of the bigger bands of the 70’s and 80’s probably had some kind of impact on me. I’m not saying that I wasn’t into drummers but as far as the more visual aspects it was the guys up front.
MA: Do you have a favorite album from that era?
RS: It’s gotta’ be the first Van Halen record. That did something to me. One of the greatest Rock and Roll stories from my experiences was this…I was seventeen and that first VH album had been out a couple weeks. I went to a Battle of the Bands by myself. They were changing bands and playing music in between while they switched out the gear. Many of the audience left the room. The song “Running with the Devil” came on and I look over and there is this guy on the dance floor all by himself. He’s got big shoes on and is dressed all in red. He had long hair and he was dancing. Suddenly I thought I recognized him. I said to myself “Wait! Is that David Lee Roth?” There were maybe five or six people nearby. I started walking towards him and as I get about five or six feet away the song ends and he lands on his feet. Then a group of beautiful girls came out of nowhere and surrounded him. They started handing him drinks and they pulled him away. I thought to myself that was one of the greatest things I’d ever seen. I mean he had the confidence to dance solo to his own song and then to be attacked by a group of girls. I thought to myself “Yes, I want to be a rock star.”
MA: You have had some amazing monstrosity drum sets over the years. Some were downright ridiculous in a good way. Do you have any favorites?
RS: Yes. I built a lot of them myself. It’s a shame because I had a lot of gear stolen. So a lot of the stuff I had back then I don’t have anymore. When I was putting it together back then we had found a financial backer to put up money into the band. But even when we didn’t have money I made it work. I remember we were playing a show with Bon Jovi and Poison at a country club. I had basically built my own drum shells. I remember that Tico Torres from Bon Jovi walked up and said “What the hell is that?” He was looking at the cymbals hanging from chains and all the other customized pieces I had on it. I had made these strange looking toms that were kind of like those North drums. I would say from the 80’s era that my two favorite kits are the “In God We Trust” kit and the “To Hell with the Devil” kit. Those kits were serious. The “Soldiers Under Command” kit was incredible too. It had four gongs on it.
The “To Hell with the Devil” kit had two gongs but I added a timpani and four floor toms, two kicks, and twenty-one cymbals. Yes, I said twenty-one. I actually bought the drum riser for that kit from Frankie Banali from Quiet Riot. I labeled and bolted everything down to the riser. If it went smoothly there would be no adjustments. I would do the design, build it, and then make it stay that way. The only downside was that you couldn’t go crazy and throw things around if you wanted to. The “In God We Trust” kit was unbelievable. That was built on stage with my brother’s eight guitar cabinets built into the front of it. It had a 5,000 watt main speaker hanging underneath the riser pointing up at me. It was a 12’x12’ riser with 6’x6’ grating underneath. My chair was bolted to the grating. I had eight kick drums. I think four floors, four racks, eight octobans, twenty or twenty-five cymbals and two sets of hi-hats. I loved the sound of those double-headed octobans. There was a pole set-up that I had to climb to get up “into” the kit. The kit was configured in both directions so I could play the verse one way and then spin around and play the chorus the other way. I’ve seen pictures from that tour. I just recently received one on my phone and I am just amazed at how huge it was.
That was the fun-era for me. I was endorsed by Pearl at the time and I loved to have the UPS truck pull up with a load of boxes full of drums.
MA: Did you ever use any triggers?
RS: Nowadays I do. On this past tour. We have triggers on the bass drum, but it’s a fifty-fifty mix. We also use triggers on the snare but it doesn’t really change the overall sound. I really like the drums to sound natural. It just adds an extra punch.
End of Part 1
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