July , 2011
By David Huff
Cooking Up Rock and Roll Dishes Seasoned with Faith
A JAM Magazine Exclusive Interview with Founder, Musician and Vocalist John Cooper
Talk about jumping from the frying pan into the fire. When Skillet founder John Cooper signed his first album deal back in 1996, he thought he’d come up with the perfect game plan for his band. Why not ink an agreement with a label that had both a Christian, and mainstream division, so he could release music to both markets. After all, one of his personal favorites, U2, had successfully balanced their personal faith with a mainstream career. No reason it couldn’t happen with Skillet.
As Cooper was about to find out, with all well intentioned ideas, it’s the unknown anomalies that usually come back to derail those ‘best laid plans.’ Six months after signing with Ardent Records, the label decided the mainstream market wasn’t for them. They folded the division to concentrate on the spiritual side of music. Skillet, like it or not, was going to remain a Christian rock band. They released their self-title debut just before Halloween in 1996. Their grunge rock sound, with compelling lyrics and looks to match, rattled the Christian music world upon its release. The follow-up, Hey You, I Love Your Soul, hit the streets 18 months later. The music incorporated some of the industrial rock attitude bands like Ministry and Nine Inch Nails were pioneering on the mainstream side of things. Once again, Cooper rocked the normally staid world of Christian music. The bass player was just warming up.
When Skillet released Invincible in February 2000, the band was undergoing internal changes to match the musical transformations that were now emerging. A now married Cooper convinced his wife, Korey, to become a permanent member of the group. A new guitarist and female drummer were added. Marriage seemed to strengthen the musician's resolve. The lyrics remained clean, but the sound became harder, as Cooper mimicked the approach bands like Linkin Park and P.O.D. were taking with their music. While pushing the boundaries within the conservative Christian community, questions abounded regarding the band's faith. To counter the criticism, Skillet released a Worship record six months after Invincible to soothe the skeptics. Within a year of that release, Skillet was back to its old bag of musical tricks. Not only did they exasperate the powers that be with a decisive emo influenced punk image, they rocked the airwaves once again with the hard charging 2001 masterpiece, Alien Youth. The album charted on Billboard and the band's popularity soared off the Christian charts.
It would take the release of Skillet's sixth studio album, Collide, for Cooper to finally realize his elusive dream of releasing a record to two diverse markets. Atlantic Records, basking in the surprising success of Christian rockers P.O.D., thought there might be more gold to mine in the secular world. They green-lighted the label imprint, Lava, to go after the controversial Skillet. Cooper and company didn't disappoint. Comatose, re-released to the mainstream market six months after its initial 2003 fall debut, drew critical acclaim and praise from both sides of the radio dial. Powered by the songs "Rebirthing", "The Older I Get" and "The Last Night", the Grammy and Dove nominated album sold over 500,000 copies becoming the group's first gold album.
With the release of Awake in 2009, Cooper had solidified Skillet's credentials in both the mainstream and Christian markets. The album debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard charts, anchored by the hits "Monster" and "Hero". The song "Awake and Alive" popped up everywhere in the fall of 2010 from daytime soaps to promo spots on Major League Baseball. The tune even found its way onto the soundtrack of the summer movie blockbuster, Transformers: Dark of the Moon. Skillet's crowning achievement would come at the 2011 Grammy Awards. Not only was the group's record breaking album snubbed in the Best Gospel Rock category, the band was mysteriously removed from playing live on the telecast. It took 15 years, but Skillet had indeed, finally earned it's rock and roll stripes - and most importantly, respect from their peers.
JAM: Most bands starting out are thrilled to get any type of label interest. Very few if any, view their music as viable alternatives for two very distinct types of markets. From the outset of your career, you were unwavering in your determination as to the direction you wanted Skillet to take.
John Cooper – From the moment Skillet formed, it was my intention to do both worlds, if you will. I didn't want to be just another Christian act. My idea for Skillet was to release an album for the Christian world, and six months later we crossover and start working with the label's mainstream division. Well, our record was released. Unfortunately, over the course of eight months the album was out, Ardent decided to shut down the one side of its business operation we were keen to explore with our music.
JAM: So your ambitious plans went up in smoke.
I wouldn't necessarily put it in those terms. I would say they went into a holding pattern. We signed with Ardent in 1996. Two years later, we released a single called "Locked in a Cage". The song got the attention of Atlantic Records and they started looking at us. They liked the band and our music. Three or four of their A&R guys wanted to sign us. In the end, however, the powers that be felt they just couldn't sign a Christian act. It really had less to do with Skillet and more to do with people's misconception of the Christian music industry.
JAM: So Atlantic passes on Skillet and signs P.O.D. another rocking Christian act.
When you’ve been doing the Christian genre for awhile, the mainstream world doesn’t think can cross over and become a credible, as well as viable, artist in their industry. In a sense, P.O.D. became the crossover trailblazers for our industry.
JAM: Einstein once said reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one. I'd say that statement definitely applied to your situation as a hard rocking Christian band.
After Sony signed Switchfoot in 2002, and had great success with them, suddenly the idea of Christian artist's crossing over to the mainstream world didn't seem so strange after all. Atlantic's success with P.O.D. wasn't viewed as a fluke. Jason Flom, the head of Lava Records, an imprint for Atlantic, really liked what Skillet was doing and wanted us on his label.
JAM: Coming from the mainstream world of music, or ‘non-secular’ as the Christian industry likes to call it, I noticed a shift in attitude toward Christian artists with P.O.D., followed by Switchfoot and continuing with Chevelle. As the dominos started to fall, did your initial thoughts on how you wanted to position Skillet change as well?
In hindsight, if I had thought cutting a Christian record first would have caused such a stigma about us, then I might have done things differently. At the time, I really didn't think it would be a big deal. To me, music is music. Even though we played concerts in the Christian market, I really didn't think people would hold that against us. Here's the thing. You have musicians that play in mainstream hard rock bands that have been baptized as Catholics, Lutherans, Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, etcetera. You never hear them being singled out because of their religious convictions. For the word "Christian" to be demonized, and the musicians ostracized, that all seems pretty ridiculous to me.
JAM: When did you realize that perhaps the word Christian was holding Skillet back?
I’d say up until a year ago.
JAM: It sounds as though Skillet was caught in the twilight zone between two different realms of music.
I never thought there would be such a chasm to cross between the two worlds. Ideally, I would have loved Christian music to embrace Skillet after mainstream radio had found us. But, it just didn't happen that way. Because this band had made a name for itself in the Christian world, at first, mainstream folks didn't take us seriously. Over the years, we've been able to navigate a fine line between both worlds that I haven't quite seen done before. Skillet will go out and do a mainstream rock tour, and when those end, headline our own rock shows and Christian festivals.
JAM: Seriously, up until a year ago, the Christian tag was still causing problems for you?
Yes it did. For instance, last year Skillet toured with Papa Roach. We stopped by a radio station in Kansas City. Why they wanted us I have no idea. The jocks didn’t like Skillet, they wouldn’t even consider playing our songs, and the especially didn’t like the fact we were still involved in Christian music. They had never listened to our music, but had already decided it was preachy. The thing is, Skillet music is about life. We got beat up pretty good on air about the Christian path we initially followed. Fortunately, those attitudes are going away because we’ve had a lot of success with our music. For most Christian rock acts, it’s not like they don’t want to break out, they just aren’t able to.
JAM: Here's a problem I think a lot of Christian rock acts don't understand. Throughout the '80s, bands like Ozzy Osbourne, Judas Priest, Slayer and Metallica were constantly being attacked by religious organizations claiming these artists were instruments of the devil. Those accusations really turned your average music fan off, and Christian became sort of a dirty word in rock and roll circles. Honestly John, I think that hangover from the past persists to this day.
I agree that a lot of Christians share the blame for alienating people who don’t share their particular beliefs. A lot of those problems have been brought on by activists who have created a stigma about the word Christian, especially where the music is concerned. Funny enough, some of the same people who boycotted Ozzy, or Priest, also boycotted Skillet and picketed our shows. There are some Christian people, but not as many as there once was, that really believe that rock music came from the devil, and the drum beat was just evil.
JAM: Yet you still walk that very fine line.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m proud of my faith. However, when I’m on these mainstream tours, I don’t run around telling people I’m a Christian artist. In fact, I never bring the subject up, unless someone asks me a question about it. For some reason, the term still conjures up a lot of weird ideas in people and can easily alienate them from you. It’s like people think if you aren’t a Christian, you can’t listen to that type of music. That’s just not true.
JAM: I have found it to be quite amazing how polarizing the term has actually become. It has created a sort of ‘us vs. them’ mentality, not only with fans, but musicians as well. When Creed and Evanescence first hit the scene, they went out of their way to disavow any ties to Christian music.
It's funny you should say that. I am really good friends with Ben Burnly of Breaking Benjamin. At the very beginning of Skillet's tour with them, I was sitting down with him at dinner talking about our mutual love of comic books. He has a big collection of Superman comics and I have one of Batman. He says, "Yeah, I have a big Superman tattoo on my leg." Then he stopped and apologized to me. I asked him what was he sorry for, and Ben goes, "Well, you know, if you have tattoos, you're supposed to go to hell." I had no idea what Ben was talking about. Then his statement began to sink in. Finally I said, "No, no Ben. You aren't going to hell. It's not like that at all." My point is, I had never told him I was a Christian. Ben had just heard it through the grapevine. He had preconceived notions on what a Christian might be, and they weren't accurate at all as to what I believe, or what most Christians believe. When I tell you I fully understand your confusion about the term Christian when it comes to the mainstream world, believe me I do.
JAM: In a sense, Skillet is in a very real Catch-22 situation where perception seems to outweigh reality.
Let me give you a quick explanation that I think will be helpful for some people. When you have young kids, turning on the radio can be very uncomfortable at times. I have an 8-year old daughter, and I don't like the idea of her listening to lyrics, that are at best, very questionable when it comes to describing the human anatomy. That's something I really fear. Obviously as a musician, you're supposed to be completely objective when it comes to all forms of music. However, as a father, you bring a very focused perspective to the type of music you want your young children exposed to. That's where Christian music comes into the picture. It provides an outlet for parents to go and feel comfortable when it comes to exposing their kids to music.
JAM: Obviously rap music has caused quite a commotion from the day it appeared on the airwaves. The lyrics some of these so-called artists dribble out of their mouths have always come under heavy criticism, yet the genre still remains popular. Ironically, the mainstream world turns a deaf ear to this so-called free speech while it openly scrutinizes Christian music as being to preachy. It's hypocrisy at its finest.
This is where my faith, as a Christian, is sorely tested. I have nothing against freedom of speech. However, I don't like the idea of my young daughter hearing something on the radio and saying, "Daddy, what does stop bluffin' with my muffin mean?" That example right there is the reason Christian music exists. The lyrics are clean, the messages are uplifting, and you don't have to worry about the wrong signals being sent out through the music. Personally, I love AC/DC. I have no problems with that band. There music to me is more metaphorical as opposed to something, let's say, from Nickleback. I don't need my 5-year old son hearing a song like "Something in Your Mouth", which talks about strippers. I am not comfortable with that. That's another reason Christian music exists.
JAM: If you put the words “country” and “gospel” together, you have no problems whatsoever. However, you associate hard rock or heavy metal music with Christian, and you have just started a war.
On one hand, that’s funny - on the other, sadly it’s true.
JAM: Have you figured out why there is so much distrust between the two areas of music?
I can tell by the questions you’re asking, you have been around this business long enough to understand the power of music. When I was growing up, and I fell down, or fought with my dad or I felt nobody understood me, listening to rock music made me feel better. One of the biggest purposes of music is to help people escape during hard times. I really think of music as being a weapon that helps shape the world for good. That’s what Skillet is all about. The ammo Skillet uses are songs, but they aren’t aimed at any particular audience. We just happened to get our start on the Christian side of things.
JAM: When you embark on these multi-act rock tours, what kind of reactions do you get?
First off, the positive messages in our songs don’t change regardless of the audiences we play before. When we do Christian festivals, we get a lot of young kids coming out to see us perform. On our recent tour with Stone Sour and Theory of a Deadman, most people looked at us as just another rock band on a multi-act tour. That was fine with me. The thing that makes us different is this. Skillet isn’t afraid to play before any type of crowd. There are some Christian bands that have gotten successful in the mainstream markets, but they refuse to participate in any Christian music festivals. We don’t do that. Those people supported us in the beginning, and I see no reason to abandon them just because we’ve been fortunate to spread our message to another market.
JAM: I would think your task to write music is especially challenging because you have to create music to operate in two unique spectrums of music simultaneously.
I do walk a fine line. Most the interviews I do are with Christian media outlets. They often ask, “So how do you write these lyrics?” When I do interviews with Christian publications, or radio stations, they always want my lyrics to be more Christian sounding than they are. In fact, this past year at the Grammy’s, our album, Awake, was taken off the ballot because enough people in the Christian world decided our record wasn’t Christian enough.
JAM: Do your responsibilities as a parent make it necessary for you to have a P.G. outlook on the world with your music?
It definitely changes you having children, but here’s the thing. I write songs about my life and what I see happening through my eyes. Now I create this music through my world view, which is geared toward Christianity. The trick for me is to find the right balance in a song that doesn’t affect the sensibilities of fans listening to the music on mainstream or Christian radio.
JAM: Music is always subject to interpretation, yet you seem to have drawn the ire of some powerful segments of Christian music. You weren’t kicked off the Grammy’s because your last record, Comatose, was bad. In fact, from reports I read, Skillet was robbed of a Grammy for best Christian Rock album the year before.
We are able to navigate both worlds in a way I haven’t quite seen done yet. That has rubbed some people the wrong way. I write about things in my life, or stuff that I see on the news happening around the world, where I think music will help. It’s one thing for a country band to find crossover success on the pop or adult contemporary charts. It’s viewed as a whole new extreme when the music of a Christian rock band finds success on the mainstream side of things.
JAM: Three songs from your last album were featured quite a bit in sports venues, promos for major league sports programming, movie soundtracks, video games and even a wrestling soundtrack.
You're talking about "Awake and Alive", "Hero" and "Monster". All three songs were written from personal experiences. For instance, "Hero" came about from a situation with one of my kids. I was standing in a checkout line at Target with my daughter, and she was around 5 or 6 years old at the time. She tugs my shirt, I look down, and I hear her say, "Daddy, what does 'Better Sex Moves' mean?" I looked down at her and said, "What are you talking about?" My daughter points her little finger at a woman's magazine that had the words 'Better Sex Moves' on its cover. Next to that magazine there was another publication announcing another idiot B-list celebrity girl was going back to rehab. Next to that headline, there was a blurb that mentioned another celebrity girl had an eating disorder, one had been caught with drugs and arrested. I started thinking to myself, "My daughter has no hero to look up to." None of these young girl celebrities mentioned in the tabloids were heroes to anyone. They were total fools. I certainly wouldn't want my child emulating any of these people, so the more I thought about it, the concept for "Hero" started to take shape.
JAM: That experience is something all parents could definitely relate to.
I wrote "Hero" in a way where it could be about God, about a parent being the hero to his child, or it could be interpreted as a child looking for something to believe in because life at home isn't all that great. Though the song incorporates feelings we can all relate to, it all came about because of that one eye-opening experience with my child.
JAM: Was “Monster” written the same way? That song has really been a big hit with sports franchises using the music for intros to games. Major League baseball used the song as its theme music to the playoffs last year.
Again, it’s a song almost anyone can relate. “Monster” refers to the inner demon that lives in all of us. Though we have learned to control and suppress the emotion that turns us into somebody we don’t want to be, sometimes it gets out. For instance, you’ve had a bad day, you come home, and your children do some little thing that causes you to snap. Next thing you know, you’re yelling at the kids. Now you don’t want to be that person, but that personality is always lurking underneath, just waiting for the right opportunity to raise its ugly head. That’s what the monster is all about.
JAM: Before the Internet turned the music industry upside down and inside out the past several years, the Christian music industry had already learned how to make technology its friend. When Skillet entered the mainstream world, did that knowledge prove invaluable when it came to putting the band on the map?
That's a very insightful observation you just made. The answer is yes. Listen, I'll be the first one to say Christian music has also done a lot of dumb things, but I do believe one of the few things the industry has been a leader on is technology. If you are Christian rock artist, you have maybe ten stations around the country that will play your music. I'm not trying to dismiss its importance, but if you're No 1 on their charts, it really doesn't mean anything. You can sell 5,000 records and have a No. 1 song, and again, it's no big deal. The Christian music industry doesn't have the advertising and marketing budgets, or the radio strength, to really promote its artists. That reality forced artists and bands to explore other options. The Internet was a wide open frontier Christian music took full advantage of before mainstream music really understood its importance.
JAM: I would think technology really came to the rescue for a band like Skillet.
The Internet gave our fans access to the band before it became fashionable to do things like that. Skillet had a unique problem almost from the beginning. First off, we didn’t have mainstream radio pushing us. Second, our music was too heavy and aggressive for Christian radio. As a band, we were forced to find other ways to get our name and music out to the fans. We did an excellent job working the grassroots level to promote our albums. Skillet constantly toured, and over the years, we compiled email lists so we could reach our fans to inform them about our activities. We did have Christian radio success and support, but really, developing a grassroots following through the Internet pushed us over the top.
JAM: I had a musician tell me earlier this year he wasn't in the music business anymore, he was in the ticket selling business. Considering the state of the industry right there, was he right?
We've heard that from a lot of bands we have encountered on the road. In fact, major labels are offering bands 360 deals where they not only promote the albums, but they share in the merchandising and touring aspects of the band as well. Everything in the music business is gearing itself around the live performance whereas ten years ago, there was a ton of money made with record sales. The paradigm is shifting. I don't like the idea that music is free, and I don't know if that will ever happen. But again, and this is going back to our roots in Christian music, as a band, we are used to making our money on the road. Until a couple of years ago, we never made any money off our albums. If you came to a Skillet show, you would think we're a really big act that sells a lot of records.
JAM: How do you and your wife Korey balance out the responsibilities of having a family with your job as musicians? Do your parents help out when you go on the road during the school year?
As a matter of fact, they do. The dynamics of this band are unique to say the least. There’s the fine line we walk as a rock and roll band between the secular and non-secular world. The fact we have two girls in the band is unusual. And then you have two of us married, which isn’t typical either. There’s a juggling act going on with Skillet all the time. Being married, and taking your kids on the road when you can, is incredibly difficult work. That said, I really believe the situation Korey and I have brings stability to the band.
JAM: Why do you say that?
For instance, before we signed with Lava, we had a meeting with company president Jason Flom. He says, “I want to ask you about this Christian thing.” I looked at him and said okay. He goes, “What does it really mean?” I went, “Well, what it means is you won’t ever have to worry about us being in jail. You won’t have to read about Skillet members going to rehab for drugs or alcohol. This band will always show up for concerts on time and never miss a chance to greet our fans backstage. It’s more than just the music for us. You will find out we are an extremely hard working, and the most punctual band you’ve ever signed.” He looked at me and said, “Sounds good to me. Welcome aboard.” We shook hands and that was it.
JAM: I think it’s funny that people are realizing that just because you started out in Christian music, it doesn’t make you the boogey man when you take your music to the ‘other side.’
Every time we travel with a new road manager, I always hear them say, “You are the only singer that does his interviews without me having to go out and find them.” I let people know up front I’m the most responsible lead singer they will ever work with. Being married plays an important role in the way I conduct our business affairs. Don’t get me wrong, I love what I do, but at the same time I’m very serious about music. I’m on a mission as well.
JAM: I understand where Jason Flom was coming from when he asked you about the ‘Christian thing’ you do. For some inexplicable reason, Christian artists are an odd curiosity to people who work inside the mainstream world. The Christian music tag creates a stigma, or wall, that is puzzling for those on the outside to understand.
I love my faith. I love my brothers and sisters in Christ. Here’s the thing. Christians make it easy for people not to like them. The attitude is finally changing. When I say I’m on a mission, to me it says it’s really time that we change the way people think about Christians by being loving rather than being judgmental, which has often been the case. I had enough of that growing up. I couldn’t wear black. I couldn’t listen to rock music. I couldn’t even listen to Christian rock music. When I first saw Petra at my church, my parents were so mad. They told me I couldn’t listen to this devil’s music and Petra were legends in Christian music. I couldn’t do anything, and I really started to resent it. Yeah, I wanted to do what the Bible said, but my parent’s attitude didn’t make any sense. I have bent over backwards to make sure my kids never have to deal with the stuff I did growing up.
JAM: You’ve been living off the Comatose album for three years. Is there anything new on the horizon for Skillet besides breaking in another guitarist?
We are rehearsing the new record right now. I have 20 songs written, but I don’t feel like I have all the songs I need to go into the studio. We have four months to come up with some more songs before heading into the studio early next year. Plans call for the band to enter the studio early next year, but first we have some international obligations. We are going overseas to Russia and Germany. Seth Morrison has been doing a good job in the band, and we getting along really well. Though we’re doing a six-month trial thing, I don’t see any reason why he wouldn’t remain with us. He’s a great player and has been a wonderful addition to the group.
JAM: Did you purposely tour with mainstream rock bands just to dispel this Christian band notion that has dogged you for years?
Absolutely we did. I wanted to tour with Stone Sour and Theory of a Deadman. I wanted to tour with Papa Roach. We felt it was important to expose Skillet to a totally different audience. When go out on our own, we headline with other Christian acts. We felt in order to be taken as a real and credible band, it was absolutely necessary to go out on tour with established mainstream acts. Listen, we got hammered by Christian music critics for doing it, but the truth be told, I love the experience. I became really good friends with Jocoby Shaddix of Papa Roach. In fact, I consider him one of my very best friends today. On the road, I felt like we were brothers.
JAM: When you write, do you find yourself in the difficult position of creating lyrics that will appeal to two very different types of audiences?
That's a very good question and a difficult one to answer. You started this interview asking me what it was like to walk the fine line between Christian and mainstream worlds. Well, it's even more difficult to create music that appeals to both genres. There are some songs that I write where I am more aware of the impact the words will have on my Christian audience rather than the mainstream one. When we recorded the track "Awake and Alive," I had absolutely no idea it would be so well received on active rock radio. I felt that tune was the most Christian song on the record, but mainstream radio just loved it, and the song became our biggest single to date. It was hilarious.