November 9, 2018 Interview – John Cooper of Fight The Fury & Skillet
You know John Cooper from his phenomenal “day job” with the Grammy-nominated Skillet. With the Christian Rockers, he has released nine albums over the past two decades-plus, but every now and then, a man needs to inject some new spice into his life. Enter Fight The Fury: a darker, riff-ier project for the Vocalist/Bassist, one that sees him proudly exploring his lifelong passion for all things heavy. The band’s 5-song debut EP, Still Breathing, arrived in late October, and has allowed Cooper to delve into some weightier lyrical territory while paying homage to his love for Metallica and displaying a sonic facet of his personality that we might otherwise have missed.
Candid, talkative, and jovial, Cooper recently sat down to discuss all things Still Breathing, from lyrical inspirations and his Metallica influence, to Corey Taylor and Slipknot, to finding hope even in the darkest of places.
CrypticRock.com – You’ve been at the helm of Skillet for over two decades now. What do you think is the most important thing you have learned that you can take with you into Fight The Fury?
John Cooper – Oh my gosh! I’ve got too many important things: I’ll give you some of them and you can write whatever you want. (Laughs) You know what? Today is my daughter’s sixteenth birthday and I can’t even believe that. You saying two decades got me thinking of that.
It’s incredible! I can’t believe we’ve been around this long. Things I’ve learned, they’re all going to be obvious. What I’ve found in life is that all the stuff that will make you successful is all the basics; it’s nothing incredibly genius. Here they are: you’ve got to treat your fans good – you’ve got to give them time, you have to sign autographs. You have to smile at them, listen to their stories. You’ve got to put on a good show! Sometimes I’m playing with bands and they just put on crappy shows; they’re just bored or they’re like, “This audience isn’t loud enough so I’m not going to play well.” In my career, I’ve watched other people do it right, be it Corey Taylor, Jacoby and my Papa Roach guys, and Brent Smith of Shinedown; great bands that I’ve toured with that do it right and they treat their fans awesome, and they always crush onstage. They always think, “How can we give the fans a little bit more?”
So, I think that’s what I have learned: put on a great show and appreciate your fans, don’t take them for granted. It’s going to be a little work: being a Rock star isn’t a party every day, it’s a lot of work. You might not want to get up and do phone interviews at 11 AM, but it’s just part of the job and you do it. Those are the things that I’ve learned: don’t be afraid to try something new and, in your music, sing about something you believe in and be really honest. One of the biggest things that I like about Fight The Fury, one of the things I really love is the honesty of the lyrics; things that I’ve been through and singing something I believe in. It would really suck to have to get up and sing a song every single night when it’s not real to you – I don’t know how some artists do that. For me, it needs to be something I feel.
CrypticRock.com – If you are not being sincere, it doesn’t really mean much anyway.
John Cooper – Yeah, I kind of find that. I’m sure there’s examples where it has worked for people. The music that I really believe tends to be the music I like the most from artists – whether I agree with what they are saying or not.
CrypticRock.com – Okay, so discuss the Still Breathing EP in more depth, let’s start with the fact that it definitely showcases your bass-playing. Was that intentional?
John Cooper – I think you’re my #1 favorite ever! (Laughs) Nobody ever asks me about my bass – I don’t think people even usually know that I do play bass. It might be, Skillet is not necessarily hyper-riffy. Some people have asked what’s the difference between Fight The Fury and Skillet? Why couldn’t this just have been Skillet songs? It’s actually quite different in terms of the complex nature of the riffs and, it’s not Prog Rock, but it’s got a touch of Progressive Rock/Progressive Metal to it. You know, stuff like Dream Theater and even some of the complexity of the early Speed Metal – Metallica records or Slayer. It is a chance to showcase, not just my bass-playing, but the instrumentalists in general. I think that’s one of the things that, at large, might be lost on the Skillet audience? Not because the audience is dumb: a Skillet audience is looking for something a little bit different than what I would call a Metal audience. So, that’s why we created a whole different entity.
CrypticRock.com – There is definitely a Metallica influence to the collection.
John Cooper – Well, you know what? It’s funny and I’m kind of joking, brown-nosing to you – I’m kidding and I’m not brown-nosing to you when I say this: nobody has actually said that. I keep saying it because people are drawing obvious comparisons and they’re right – Slipknot, Disturbed, stuff like that. The truth: Metallica’s the best Metal band of all-time! I would say Metallica, Slipknot, Korn, things like that. A lot of people have not really noticed the Metallica influence, which I actually think is kind of funny because sometimes it’s quite blatant.
CrypticRock.com – The last song, “Lose Hold of It All,” has a pretty bold Metallica influence, for sure. How could anyone miss that? Although, the people that are going to review the band are going to be split between those that are looking to write Fight The Fury off as “another Skillet,” and then you will have the Metal elitists that will just tell you that you’re not Metal enough.
John Cooper – Right. It’s funny. I mean, I do think there could be an argument made that some of this could go on a Skillet record. It’s a little scream-y and I think we’d need to back off some of the screaming, back off some of the darkness of the lyrics, and I think it could fit on a Skillet record. The reason it felt like its own identity to me is that I felt that would de-legitimize the songs, and what they wanted to be and how real they were to me; I felt like it would be a little bit less honest.
At the same time, these songs on a Skillet record would de-legitimize poppier Skillet songs. To me, they just felt different to me: it’s not that it’s hyper-heavy – it’s not Cannibal Corpse, it’s not the heaviest thing you ever heard. (Laughs) It’s just very raw and the lyrics are darker in a way that Skillet doesn’t usually do. To me, that’s one of the biggest differences: the screaming, the complexity of some of the riffs, and the darkness of the lyrics.
CrypticRock.com – The lyrics on the collection really are wonderful and you truly do delve into some dark, weighty and emotional subject matter, but there’s always that sense of hope. In particular, on “My Demons” you sing, “I hope you’re happy wherever you are, ‘cause you’re the reason I’m afraid of the dark.” What inspired that line?
John Cooper – First of all, you kind of touched on something that I think is really interesting and a little bit, I think maybe metaphysical is the way I would view it – metaphysical about lyric-writing and my band’s identity. Maybe a good way to say it is this: sometimes you can read an Edgar Allan Poe poem and it’s not necessarily actually dark, but it feels dark. (Laughs) You don’t really know why, but it does – there’s something in its identity that just has a darkness to it. I find Johnny Cash like that. I’m a huge Johnny Cash fan and I don’t even know why, because it’s not like what I would typically love; I fell in love with it because there’s a sadness to his voice. He sang, “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine,” but when he does it, you feel like you’re on drugs and going through the ninth circle of hell. (Laughs)
I think because I do write a lot about pain and hope at the same time, my songs tend to feel somewhat hopeful – like I’m reaching for a light at the end of the tunnel, that there is something worth living for. That’s who I am, so that comes across in all the songs. “My Demons” is particularly a dark song. I was inspired by a fan I was talking to years ago after a Skillet show, and he was sharing his story with me about child abuse that he endured at home when he was a kid. I was really moved by the story and I was really angered by the story. While I am not a victim of child abuse, I’ve had some abusive things in my life that, when he was telling his story, I was like, “Yep, I can relate to this on some levels.” Even though, to be fair, his story was way worse than mine, but I’ve had some hard things that, frankly, are hard to forgive. The thing about forgiveness is that you try to forgive someone and then tomorrow you have to forgive them all over again; it’s not a one and done thing sometimes. Some people struggle with that for their whole lives, so that’s what that song is about: specifically about that issue, but it’s broadly about things we all have to deal with in our past.
CrypticRock.com – It’s a very heavy song, not just sound-wise, but lyrically. Now, another stand-out lyric is on “Lose Hold of It All” when you sing “You can’t defeat me, I’m still breathing.” What’s trying to defeat you?
John Cooper – That is the end of the EP and the EP is called Still Breathing. So, that would be kind of a theme of the entire record, but it really suited that particular song, because what that song is about is voices in your head. Not necessarily literal voices, but these voices that tell you that you’re not good enough and that you’re a screw-up. Sometimes those are voices from the past – whether it be a parent or whatever it may be in your life – you’ve been through that kind of negativity and it can still haunt you.
If you’re asking me, personally, what is that in my life – that was a real issue for me growing up. My mom died when I was fourteen, fighting with my dad after that. You know, being told that I was a failure and an embarrassment to the family, an embarrassment as a son and I’ll never be a man – those kinds of things. I’ve moved past that in my life because I’ve forgiven my dad and we have a relationship now, which I think is a really healthy thing. It doesn’t mean that I don’t still have things in my life. Sometimes, if I’m trying to fix the radiator or something and it’s not going well, I will take it as a slight on my actual manhood. (Laughs) Whatever it is in my life, I tried, I failed, and I will feel like a failure, and my wife will go, “Why do you feel like you’re such a failure?” I’m just embarrassed as a man, you know? I’ve gotta fix this and I won’t rest until I get it done!
I realize that these things stem back, for some people, to when they were younger; things they’ve been through in life. That’s what Still Breathing is about: it’s about the fact that we all have different levels of struggles. Me going through some verbal-abusive relationships is not nearly as bad as someone going through a physical or sexual abuse relationship, but it’s still real to me and it’s one of the things I have to struggle through – and that’s what Still Breathing is about.
CrypticRock.com – Considering that there are so many great lyrics in the collection, do you have a personal favorite or standout?
John Cooper – Oh gosh! Great question! To tell you the truth, nobody ever asks me about the lyrics, so I’m just so happy that you did. I find that each of these songs can be kind of emotional in a different way, just angry in a different way. I quite like the lyrics on the song “I Cannot,” which are quite dark. Probably the lyric that sticks out to me on that song is “I want to change what I am not, but I cannot.” I think that’s really cool, because that’s the human condition – we want to be something that we are not; we want to be gods, but we are insects.
It’s funny, because it’s a really dark lyric but the inspiration was the Book of Ecclesiastes from the Bible, which kind of lays out, basically, yeah, we all live, we all die. (Laughs) It’s quite a depressing book in the Bible that a lot of people don’t like, but that’s where the phrase, most people know the phrase, “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” That’s from Ecclesiastes. It’s basically, at the end of all of this, we have a short time to live: it’s not going to be what you thought it was going to be; it’s not always going to be great, sometimes it’s going to be terrible. Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die. It’s a pretty bleak outlook, but I thought it was worth singing about.
CrypticRock.com – You turned it into something that is hopeful.
John Cooper – Good! Truthfully, not to get preachy, I love the Bible, but Ecclesiastes – actually, it’s meant to be hopeful, it just doesn’t seem like it. So, I’m glad that the song came out like that! (Laughs)
CrypticRock.com – Okay, at the risk of sounding ridiculous, in one of the publicity shots of the band, as well as in the “My Demons” video, you are wearing a prominent red arm-band. Does that have a special meaning?
John Cooper – You know what? It does not, it’s just a cool jacket. When I saw the photographs, I thought, “This is like what football players do when somebody passes away or something like that.” Gosh, that would have been wicked – I’m going to make up something and I’ll get back with you! (Laughs)
CrypticRock.com – It was a missed opportunity for a great story! (Laughs) Alright, so you have said that you are a Metal guy. Who are some of your favorite Metal bands and are there any bands that you think fans would be surprised to hear that you love?
John Cooper – For years, I’ve seen tons of Skillet video footage from interviews where I’m wearing a Metallica shirt, but for whatever reason people are always stunned that I love Metallica. I guess I understand that because you don’t really hear much Metallica in Skillet, but that was the band that I fell in love with, with Metal; that was the game-changer. That is why, as you said, at the end of the album, we do go into a straight-up like Ride the Lightning-era Metallica ending for the song. Some of that was because I always hear people complain – of course, they’re all old folks – all the old folks like me are going, “Their music isn’t really Metallica anymore.” You know what? (Laughs) I’m going to do an ending of a song that’s more Metallica than Metallica. It was a little bit paying homage, to me, because I assume everyone is going to be like, “Yeah, that sounds like …And Justice For All and Ride the Lightning.”
Some people are surprised that I like Slipknot, probably because, lyrically, Slipknot may seem a little antithetical to Skillet. The funny thing is – this is a really long story, but Corey Taylor and Skillet are friends; we toured together with Stone Sour. At the time, his wife was also on the tour: she was an assistant for Stone Sour. Well, her and my wife Korey got to be good friends, and we invited her to come on tour with us for a couple of tours. She came out with Skillet, and so Corey Taylor flew out and went on the road just to hang out with his wife and Skillet on our bus for a weekend. I said to him: “Hey! You’re going to see three Skillet shows this weekend, and I want you to pay attention to all of the Slipknot shirts in the crowd – every Skillet show there are tons of Slipknot shirts.” We have a similar audience, believe it or not. He was amazed, I was amazed. What we all kind of came up with was that, even though there can be antithetical places that we’re coming from, some of the lyrics are about similar things; it’s a similar kind of fan that wants to hear something that they feel being sung. So, I thought that was kind of interesting.
Other people might be surprised that I love Progressive Rock: Yes is my favorite band of all-time. I love Dream Theater. I love Math Rock, you know? You can hear a little bit of Progressive stuff even in Skillet, but I think you can hear it a little bit more in Fury.
CrypticRock.com – Both great bands, definitely. Okay, so the last question. You last spoke to CrypticRock back in fall of 2016, and you said that you are a fan of Science Fiction and some Horror. Since that time, have you seen any films in either genre that you enjoyed?
John Cooper – Honestly, I have two more episodes to finish in that Netflix series The Haunting of Hill House. It’s a series, it’s not a movie, it’s a Netflix TV series that’s awesome, so far. I love it. I’m a big Horror fan, in general, including books, and I love The Haunting of Hill House, the book – it’s the classic Horror ghost book.
Other Horror that I’ve seen – you know what I loved but it’s kind of lame because everyone loved it? I’m never on the front-end of trends, but I was actually the first person I knew that watched Stranger Things. The reason I watched it, I just saw it pop up on Netflix, and I was like, “What is this? This looks like old Stephen King” – almost like Stand By Me (1986) or The Goonies (1985) or something of that nature. I was curious and I thought, “I’ll just give it a shot.” From the first five minutes, I was sold! That was blending Sci-Fi, Mystery, Horror, but it was something that my kids could watch too – it was a great family watch. It was the best TV I’ve seen since X-Files, which I also loved.
The original Alien (1979) is one of my favorite movies, and you asked about the last couple of years – I actually liked the recent Alien films, Covenant (2017) and Prometheus (2012). I thought they were both really good.
12/2 — Glavclub Green Concert — Moscow, Russia
12/3 — Cosmonavt — St. Petersburg, Russia
12/5 — Podzemka — Novosibirsk, Russia
12/6 — Teatro — Tomsk, Russia
12/8 — Vagonka — Kaliningrad, Russia
12/9 — Re:public — Minsk, Belarus
12/11 — Atlas — Kiev, Ukraine
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Purchase Still Breathing:
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