Skillet’s John Cooper talks faith, band’s musical evolution, “Rise” and more

Skillet

In a music world where Christian music is becoming more and more accepted in the mainstream secular music world, the door has opened for numerous bands that’ve been together for long periods of time to finally get the big break and respect they rightfully deserve. In the world of rock music, the largest boost in popularity and success in the last decade may be Skillet.

With their debut self-titled record releasing in 1996, the band made their mark and broke big with 2006’s Comatose and has never looked back. Annually one of the hardest-working bands and among the most-traveled with some of the most shows played every year compared to anyone, Skillet continues to have a strong presence in both Christian and mainstream tour scenes and their faith grows stronger with each album.

2014 saw the band open the year on the massive traveling Christian tour, The Roadshow, co-headlining with fellow-veterans Third Day as well as Andy Mineo, Jamie Grace, We As Human, Vertical Church Band and Royal Tailor. They followed that tour up immediately with a spring tour with Third Day, Jamie Grace, Peter Furler and We As Human.

“Every year poses its own incredible adventures,” says frontman and Skillet founder John Cooper, “It’s been a really wonderful year. We’ve been on tour with Third Day since January on two different runs which has been really exciting. I’ve been a Third Day fan since they came out, our bands came out around the same [time], they were about eight months to a year ahead of us and we’ve never toured together so it was just a really exciting time to be on stage with some great players and all the people on this tour have been sweet-spirited people.

“I know that sounds a little corny but it’s true. A lot of the time when you get on tour with a lot of bands there are a lot of egos and [this tour] there’s a lot of the opposite of that so it’s been a great, great run,” elaborates Cooper.

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As if that wasn’t enough, Skillet will take a few weeks off before hitting the road again with another group of prolific, iconic and talented Christian acts and then getting their passports ready because they’re heading overseas.

“Then of course after this we’re doing a run with Tobymac and Lecrae, which is just gonna be absolutely epic- oh man, so excited,” says Cooper. “After that we’re going to Europe and Russia for six weeks, we’re doing all kinds of dates in Europe. We’re doing some opening dates, stopping at some festivals, one for Linkin Park, Aerosmith, Alice Cooper and we’re also doing some of our own club dates in Europe. Then we go to Russia and do some festivals over there as well.”

For those who have been fans of the band since the beginning and even during some of the early years, it’s been fun and rewarding to see Skillet reach the level they have. From headlining every Christian festival and tour possible to playing the main stages at the biggest mainstream festivals in the United States to playing this year’s lineup of the legendary Download Festival in the UK and countless other iconic festivals, Skillet are still reaching heights and levels that nobody deserves better than they do.

For the man who formed the band and has been there for the entire ride, it’s been an even more interesting ride.

“It’s been surprising and I’m sure there are other stories like this but for something to really take off 10, 11, 12 years into your career is really strange,” explains Cooper, “and to have so many records out, it’s the fact that we’ve kept a lot of our original fans and also gained new, younger people, it’s just been kinda surprising. It’s been fun and I don’t know how long it’ll keep lasting and I really don’t know what to expect from the future but it’s been thrilling and surprising.”

Having released so many albums during their career there has been room for a lot of musical change and evolution, which Skillet have seen their fair share of, utilizing many different genres over the course of their career before coming to the symphonic hard rock sound many fans have come to love today.

There are many current fans, however, who may not be aware of the early Skillet music and how different the band once sounded and that many of those elements can be found in the band’s music today.

“I think the thing about Skillet that makes us different,” says Cooper, “I don’t think Skillet by any means recreated the wheel; we’re not U2, we didn’t start a genre of music. The thing that makes us a little unique is that we can do a lot of different genres and we have done a lot of different genres- all the way from hard rock to electronica to techo rock to industrial to worship music to modern metal.

“Skillet has a way of doing that to where something about it still sounds like Skillet even though it’s new and that’s because I just love music and you can see it in our music,” continues Cooper. “You can see a little bit of that Fleetwood Mac, Meatloaf, Kansas, Journey era, you can hear that in the music. But also, I love metal and I grew up in the 80’s so you can hear Metallica in our music, you can hear some of that metal influence. Then of course beyond that you’ve got 90’s with Linkin Park and Evanescence and you can hear all of these different things in a Skillet record and I think that’s what makes it hopefully fun to listen to for the listener.”

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So where does the inspiration and desire to change it up come from? And where did the current sound come from- personal and musical growth? Staying current with the times? Or just not wanting to stay stagnant and where they are as musicians?

“I think it’s a little bit of all of it,” says Cooper. “For me it wasn’t like, ‘Oh, I’m bored,’ but I don’t want to keep doing the same thing over and over because just as a music listener’s tastes change. If you think of music you like now, in a few years you might get a little bored and want to hear something that sounds new. It’s just fun to evolve.

“As a listener I evolve in what I enjoy listening to and as a writer I want to keep switching it up. It is important to change with the times and try new things as well so I think the goal for Skillet has been ‘let’s try some new stuff, let’s not be stagnant and keep doing the same record over and over but let’s put some surprises on the record’ and it makes it more enjoyable to the listener and it makes it more enjoyable for us to not have to keep playing the same four chords over and over.”

After a self-titled debut that was heavily grunge and hard rock-influenced, Skillet released three records- Invincible, Hey You I Love Your Soul and Alien Youth, which had an electronic, industrial hard rock sound and followed those up with Collide, which many feel is the band’s heaviest and hardest release to date.

“Collide was kind of getting back to the roots of Skillet,” explains Cooper. “Skillet’s first album was just a hard rock album, we had a little bit of strings but there were not keyboards and they were not meant to be anything but hard rock. And then we went down the electronica path, which I loved and the industrial stuff we did on Invincible and Alien Youth was, at the time, pretty cutting edge for Christian music. It was definitely not being done a lot and I enjoyed it.

“Then Collide came up and I thought ‘I wanna do a record that just beats people’s heads in,’ and Collide was a very riffy album and still one of my favorites to listen to cuz it was pretty much just 10 rock tracks, no fluff in it,” says Cooper.

“Then after that, when we made Comatose,” elaborates Cooper, “again it was a little bit of ‘okay we did the hard rock thing, which I love and we wanna keep some of that’ and there is some of that on Comatose. Then I thought ‘let’s try and do something a little more unique’ and Comatose was the record that really solidified a Skillet sound and that is ‘yes, it’s a little riffy, yes it’s a little hard edge but it’s also symphonic and a little dramatic’ and that’s really where I think things got nailed down with our sound.”

With worship being a major part of Christian music and a big part of the Christian faith, many bands release a worship album in their career. 2000 saw the release of Skillet’s Ardent Worship: Live record, which was a 10-song traditional worship record and many fans have wondered if Skillet may release another worship record one day that features the current Skillet sound.

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It may be awhile before this happens, Cooper says, but not because they don’t want to but because their focus and calling is on a different area of Christian music.

“Even though that was a really big part of what we used to do and, frankly, we used to do worship at our shows before I’d even heard of Delieriou5? and before that big worship thing that happened at the end of around 1998 or 1999 in America,” explains Cooper. “We were doing worship at our shows in 1995 and it was a part of what we did and that was a really cool thing but, you know, I feel a lot more pulled toward evangelism and the lost.

“Worship is something I see more for The Church and I feel my calling more toward [reaching people],” continues Cooper. “I’m not against it and obviously I still love worship music and it’s nothing I’m against, it’s just not something I feel called to do at this point but if there’s anything I’ve learned it’s that anything can happen in this industry so ya never know.”

So let’s fast forward to 2014 and the band’s eighth studio release, Rise, which has been their most commercially successful release yet- charting at no. 1 on both the U.S. Rock and Christian charts and is also the band’s first concept album.

The record tells the story of the everyday American teenager who grows up to discover all of the hurt, pain and negativity in the world and has to make a choice on whether or not they will fall apart or rise up through it to find their true purpose.

Rise was an instant hit with fans and critics alike and, many feel, showcases virtually every musical sound Skillet have used and encapsulates Skillet’s entire career in one album.

“I feel like with the electronic stuff there’s some real classic-sounding Skillet stuff,” says Cooper, “and of course we tried new things we’d never done on a record on like “Good to Be Alive” and “American Noise,” they’ve got a little bit of that Americana classic rock sound to it and “Fire and Fury” is a bit different but I thought it was a montage of those records [Alien Youth, Collide, Comatose and Awake].”

Not only is Rise an impressive reflection on Skillet sounds of the past and present but it also shows the band being more straightforward about their faith and even includes excerpts from the Bible in spots and has been seen by many fans as the band’s war anthem.

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“[Being more open about it] wasn’t something I really set out to do but I did notice when I sat down to write that ‘hey these are more open, that’s really cool’ and I felt good about it,” says Cooper. “Everyone has a different take on it and I don’t mind people thinking whatever they think and I think it was [more openly faith-based] too and I wasn’t setting out to do one or the other.

“I just try to sit down and write the songs I feel that God is giving me and this is what God wants me to say for this record and it turned out to be, in my opinion, a pretty vocal record for Christ and certainly, if it’s not obvious, there are enough things about it that people want to know.

Cooper said he gets asked almost daily what’s being read on the intro to “Salvation” or ‘what this ‘rise’ thing is about.’

“You don’t have to dig very deep in those answers to find out our faith in God behind these songs,” says Cooper. “It’s been a great platform to see how God can use that and is changing people so I thank the Lord for that.”

John Cooper talks musical evolution of Skillet, “Rise,” faith in music and more: