August 14, 2019 Interview – John Cooper of Skillet Talks Victorious
How, pray tell, does one summarize the band Skillet? Between selling out arenas on four continents over the past two decades, the multi-platinum, two-time Grammy Award-nominated band has grown to be one of this generation’s most successful Rock acts. With over a billion streams in 2018 alone, 12 million-plus albums sold worldwide, and their music featured by the likes of WWE, MLB, NHL, and more, Skillet is legendary.
Recently, the quartet made their triumphant return to digital and physical formats with their tenth studio album, the aptly-titled Victorious. To celebrate the album’s release, the band’s always jovial Vocalist/Bassist John Cooper sat down to talk all things Victorious, Vikings, Goonies, and more.
Cryptic Rock – Alright, let’s just dive right into the new album, Victorious, which is amazing, of course. Are you channeling your inner-Viking on the album cover? (Laughs)
John Cooper – Yes, I am! (Laughs) It is very Viking-ish, isn’t it? That’s what we were going for. I’m about to go into a long story, maybe you don’t want me to? I can save it if you want to move on.
Cryptic Rock – Go for it!
John Cooper – Okay, I’ll make it as short as I can. You know how when you record a record—and some readers won’t know this—you buy a record and it’s got 10, 11, 12 songs, but the band record like a million songs—or they write a million songs. I think we wrote 48 songs—wrote ‘em and demo ‘em. Demoed, they’re pretty close to being done-done. So, we demoed 48 songs, then you have a bunch of people come in—the label chooses and you choose. So, as an artist, you don’t always know what songs are going to get chosen.
Sometimes people go, “What’s the theme of the record going to be?” It’s like, well, I don’t know: I have 48 songs, it depends on which ones get chosen. (Laughs) So, they choose the songs and then you finish the songs, and then as I’m listening to the record done before we had a name for the album, I’m going, “What does this record make me feel like?” We, of course, did have the song “Victorious,” but after I finished the record, the very first time listening to the whole thing, I was like, “Man, this record makes me feel like I could take on the world.” I don’t know if it’s just me but it makes me feel victorious, and I just said that’s gotta be the name!
As I was thinking about imaging and what comes to my mind, maybe it’s because of watching the Vikings TV show, or all the Game of Thrones stuff everywhere, but that’s what it feels like to me. It feels like, “You’re about to go into battle, son—and you can win!” So, that’s kind of where the cover imaging came from.
Cryptic Rock – The album really does make you feel victorious. Lyrically, there’s a definite push for finding light in the dark on Victorious, although that’s something that is always present in Skillet’s music. This time around, of the songs that made the record, there does seem to be a lot of material that leans towards mental health, though. Was that a conscious decision during the songwriting process?
John Cooper – I don’t know, to tell you the truth. I always just try to write what I feel and what I’m going through, and I always try to be really honest about that. I will say that, as you said, most of my albums do have that kind of sense of positivity, optimism, reaching through the darkness to that light at the end of the tunnel. Most of my albums all have that, and it’s not necessarily a formula; I think that’s just who I am. I am kind of, as you said earlier, we could talk at six o’clock in the morning and I would be pretty up, you know? (Laughs) Pretty awake and excited.
I’m a pretty optimistic person and that’s how I’ve overcome some things in my life—that’s just my personality. The things I’ve had to go through in my life, you know, my mom was diagnosed with cancer when I was eleven, fought cancer for three years; she passed away when I was fourteen. Subsequently, I was fighting with my dad, I had a really hard relationship with him. Just all of these things. I’ve always found that I don’t want to be a depressed person, and I kind of refuse to give in to those inner demons.
I’m kind of like, well, life is going to suck sometimes, and you can either just let it suck or you can make the most of it and you can push through to the light. Because of that, my songs do tend to all kind of have that feeling. Even when I’m really negative, there’s always that feeling of this is a bunch of negativity in order to get it out; I need to get all this out so I can get to a better place.
We’re not here on Earth for very long. We’re not here long and that’s what the lead track, “Legendary,” is all about. It’s not about being awesome, it’s not about being so amazing that everybody’s going to know the name John Cooper in a thousand years. That’s not gonna happen! (Laughs) “Legendary” is about, dude, your life is really short and you might as well live it the way you want to live it, be who you want to be. Don’t be afraid to be yourself and make your life count! You’re only here for a short time, make it count! That’s what that song is about.
Cryptic Rock – That was the perfect song to start the album with, because it gets you pumped and excited for more.
John Cooper – I almost wanted “Save Me” to be our first single—because it’s so heavy and it’s different—but I thought some people might be like, “Holy crap, what’s going on with Skillet?” (Laughs) That might be good, but “Legendary” ended up feeling like the right song because it’s kind of like the median: there are some songs on the record that are heavier than “Legendary,” some that are lighter. “Legendary” felt representative of the band, and it was kind of a good throw your fists in the air song. You can imagine that at a football game, you know?
Cryptic Rock – You definitely chose right, although “Save Me” is actually my personal favorite song on the album. To be honest, the album is a bit heavier than your usual—or at least the heavier songs are heavier this time around.
John Cooper – I personally agree with that, but what’s funny is that I always tell people when… For instance, if you had said, “Hey John, I like the record but I think it’s not as heavy as the last one.” I wouldn’t have been surprised because everybody has a different opinion. I was talking to someone the other day that said, “I was really surprised, John, this record isn’t as heavy as your last one.” I was like, “Oh, that’s funny. I think that it’s heavier.” Everybody takes things a different way—it’s interesting.
I feel that the record just sounds more aggressive. I feel like it’s just got more teeth to it, the guitar sounds are a little bit more crunchy. When the hits come in like at the top of the record with “Legendary,” when the hits come in I’m like, yeah, that’s got some balls to it! Then songs like “Save Me” and the last track on the record, “Back To Life,” and there’s a track on the record called “Never Going Back” that just, I don’t know, I feel like that’s heavier than the stuff we’ve done in a few albums.
Cryptic Rock – So to dive right in, obviously “Save Me” is a favorite. What inspired that track in particular?
John Cooper – “Save Me” was a song where I had written the chorus melody. Sometimes I write a hook first, so I’ll like (sings) “Tonight, I’m standing on the ledge / Tonight, I’m …” Like that, and then you can make the music sound any way you want to. I had wondered if that would be a Fight the Fury song; I wrote it before the Fight the Fury record came out.
I was thinking I could almost hear Death Punch doing that chorus. Then I said I just think that this could really be a Skillet song; instead of moving towards ultra-Metal, it can move a little bit towards romantic and sad. I decided to keep it a Skillet song, but then when we started recording it and working on the parts, I was like you know what? It can be sad and Metal at the same time. I literally thought, “If this was a Five Finger chorus, what would they do on the drums?” I know it doesn’t sound like Five Finger it sounds like Skillet, but for a musician if they really picked apart the guitar and the drum parts and the chorus, you can hear that being a Death Punch chorus with his voice—if Ivan was singing it.
Some bands don’t like to admit stuff like that, but I do. I like to pay homage to bands that I love, because I don’t have much of an ego—I think it’s cool. So, I can hear Ivan sing it. (Sings like Ivan) “I’m going off the ledge.” (Laughs) I wanted to make the song kind of sad, because the lyric is very romantic, actually. It’s dark-sounding, but it’s about the fact that intimacy is really hard. We all want to be known and we all want to know someone in an intimate way, but what we’re not always prepared for is that intimacy hurts.
The second verse lyrics—“Peel back the skin, exposed to you / Take pleasure in the pain”—what that’s saying is that it’s really wonderful to be known, but it also hurts because we have a lot of ugly crap inside of us. It’s not always wonderful when somebody finds out how selfish of a person you can be, or what a jerk you can be in the mornings when you’re in a bad mood; the way you respond to someone you love when you’re exhausted and they find out how bad you are. But it’s still wonderful to be known, and to still be loved is a really wonderful thing to me, and that is what “Save Me” is about.
And we get to show off a little bit: the bridge on that song has got some riffage. When we’ve been playing it live, somebody was like, “I had no idea Skillet could play like that!” I was like, “Son!” (Laughs)
Cryptic Rock – (Laughs) Okay, inquiring minds have to know: on “Never Going Back” are you channeling your inner-Goonie?
John Cooper – That is hysterical! When I read that in the Cryptic Rock review I literally started laughing, because I love Goonies! That was like, The Goonies (1985) and The Lost Boys (1987) were the battle cry of those four years in junior high and high school. So, no, I wasn’t but maybe I was? Do you understand what I’m saying? Maybe I was without knowing it!
But “Never Going Back” is not my favorite song on the record, but it’s my go-to song to listen to. Do you know what I mean by that? It’s a little bit like the Dr. Feelgood (1989) album: the song “Dr. Feelgood” is the best song on the record, but “Kickstart My Heart” was my go-to song because I was always in the mood to listen to “Kickstart My Heart.” But I guess if I had to choose which one was my favorite, it’d probably be “Dr. Feelgood.”
“Never Going Back” is like that because it’s just really easy to listen to it— it’s got a lot of attitude to it. I like the idea of I used to be weak and I’m not weak anymore. You’ve pushed me to the edge and I’m not going back to the way I used to be—not for you, not for anybody else. I like the attitude and I like the riff, and Skillet doesn’t do a lot of single-note guitar riffs. We usually do big chords, more in line with Linkin Park or Three Days Grace; we do a lot of those types of riffs. This one is more single note-y and that’s kind of a fun thing for us.
Cryptic Rock – Now, you close out the album with a truly killer track, “Back To Life,” which is an amazing way to end the album and it sounds like a possible holdover from Fight The Fury.
John Cooper – Actually, no, it wasn’t. That was one of the first songs that I wrote for this record. It wasn’t a holdover from Fury, but I do think that Fury subtly inspired some of the guitars on this record. You know what? I’m not trying to blame other producers, because I’ve had great, great times with my producers. But when I was producing Fury on my own I was like, I think that some of my producers are trying to polish my records a little too much to make them more accessible to broader audiences. I’m not necessarily complaining about that, because we sold a lot of records and I’m happy—I thought Unleashed was a fantastic-sounding record, so I’m really happy.
Because I was producing it myself, I started realizing that I don’t think we need to polish it that much. It’s really about the songs: if you have a song with a great hook that the crowd can sing, I think the guitars can be heavier. That was where I was going on “Back To Life.” When that intro kicks in it’s like a dropkick to the balls. I was like, “I am not changing this!” I just felt like it was the right song to end the record, because of the heaviness of it.
Me and Korey produced the record together—she’s more of a producer than me, she’s better at it. Without telling her, we had gone into the studio to finish up the guitars, and I was like, “You know what? I want to end the record with this song and I want to end this with a Metal jam.” If you remember on our last Skillet record, the song was called “The Resistance”—it ended with a little bit of a Metal jam on the end of that record. It kind of became a thing: something the fans talk about.
I thought wouldn’t it be fun if every record from now on we end with some kind of Prog Metal jam? I’m just going to do it on “Back To Life”—I’m going to record it in the studio and then tell my wife, “Hey, I did this. Is it okay?” (Laughs) I was like, “Hey, we had a few hours and I recorded something at the end of this song different from what we talked about. If you don’t like it, we can change it.” I said that to her and she was like, “You’re such a maniac! You know what? I actually like it. If you want it, keep it.” It’s just such a fun way to end the record.
Cryptic Rock – That’s good that you know that you need Korey’s permission. (Laughs) Alright, do you have a favorite lyric in the collection?
John Cooper – I do, and I was just talking about it the other day. There’s a lyric on there that’s a little bit funny. Oh, I love in the song “You Ain’t Ready,” which is the second track on the record, there’s this—all the lyrics are saying, “A little bit of this, a little bit of that.” It’s talking about life is going to give you good stuff and life is going to give you bad stuff—get used to it. There’s a lyric in the second verse that says, “A little bit of hope, a little bit of hurt / A little bit of get what you deserve.” (Laughs)
It makes me laugh every time I hear it, because it’s just so true. It’s what you want to say to somebody, like, “You’re going through a hard time? Well, we all get what we deserve!” (Laughs) I don’t know why it makes me laugh. Also, I don’t mean that it’s a nod to Trent Reznor, but there’s a little bit of “You’re gonna get what you deserve” from … (Sings) “Bow down before the one you serve.” “Head Like A Hole.” That’s a great song! So, it’s a little bit of a nod to it, but I also thought it was just kind of funny.
Cryptic Rock – That is a great song and a fun reference. Now, ultimately, what do you hope fans take away from Victorious, and are you hoping to pass along some of that victorious spirit?
John Cooper – Absolutely! I would say that you just answered what I would say. Tell you the truth, I’ve been thrilled. Pretty much everybody that I’ve interviewed with that has heard the record has said that this record does feel victorious, you feel inspired afterwards. I hope so!
I have a theory that the reason that we’re seeing suicide rates go up, depression rates among young people go up, mental illness go up, I think the culture is not doing a good job of preparing young people for how hard the world is. I think it’s coming from social media culture, celebrity culture. It’s just, “Every day is going to be better than the last! It’s amazing! Best day of my life! We’re partying! Do you, be you; be the best you can ever be! You’re gorgeous, you’re amazing! You’re powerful, you’re strong!” You know what? We’re not actually all that strong. Sometimes we’re strong and sometimes we’re weak as crap.
I want to tell people the truth is that you’re going to have some really hard times in life, and life can be amazing and life can be a real dud. The goal of this is to get through the crappy parts and still be the person that you want to be. Enjoy the good parts, suck the good parts up, but it’s going to be hard sometimes and you can be victorious. That’s the message.
There’s kind of a personal story about the song “Victorious” that I’ll share. The inspiration for that song actually came from a specific instance of me being, I was really down after Chester Bennington’s suicide. It just felt like there was a string of celebrity deaths, and a lot of them were suicides or accidental suicides—whatever you want to call it. Robin Williams, Prince. Oh gosh, who was the singer who committed suicide right before Chester? Soundgarden, Chris Cornell.
I was a huge Linkin Park fan and I was just so down. I was like, “Man, I wish that I could say something to people that are going through these things that could help.” And tell people while I can’t understand fully what you’re going through, I still know that there’s hope and you’ve gotta believe. That’s kind of what the song “Victorious” burst out of—that sadness over Chester’s death. So, I hope that what people get from the record is that they can be victorious, they can make it through those hard times.
Cryptic Rock – The record really relays that message loud and clear. So, besides the album’s release, you now on the road with Sevendust, who are absolute masters of their craft—that’s a phenomenal bill. What should fans coming out to the shows expect?
John Cooper – Well, I’m really excited about it—and yes they are! They’re very much a band’s band. It’s funny because I remember the very first time I ever played with Sevendust was at a festival, and the bill was like ten bands. I don’t remember who was headlining, but I’m pretty sure it was Godsmack. It was ten years ago—Godsmack, Breaking Ben was there, Three Days Grace was there, everybody was there. All the band were having lunch, hanging out; you’re hoping to see some of your friends. All of a sudden somebody was like, “Hurry up, Sevendust just started!” All of the bands just ran to the stage to watch. It was actually a funny experience because, you know, we see bands play every day, but there are certain bands that are band’s bands. Kings X was one of them, Rage Against the Machine; people like that.
That’s kind of cool for me because I enjoy the musicianship of the band, they’re really nice people, and they’re amazing live. So, I think it’s going to be really cool! Even though they’re more Metal than we are, we’re different enough that there’s a lot of different kinds of people coming to the show. That’s a really great thing: we have a chance to hear a lot of different kinds of music throughout the night, because Pop Evil is also on the bill. They’re amazing! I think there will be a lot of different kinds of fans there, and to me that’s always a win-win. It gives you a chance to hopefully steal fans; we can steal theirs and they can steal ours.
Cryptic Rock – (Laughs) That’s a great thing! So, it’s pretty well-known that you passionately love a wide variety of music. Are there any album releases coming up that you’re looking forward to?
John Cooper – To tell you the truth, I don’t even know what new records are coming out. I’ve been so in my own world with this record that I’m completely out of it. I’m excited about my friends in Alter Bridge—we’re touring together. They have a new record coming out, I should pump that up. Actually, you know what? Korn has a new record coming out and I love Korn. We’re friends, we’ve toured together. We’re not great friends, we don’t know each other uber well, but I’m just a fan. So, on a fan level, I’m very excited about the Korn record.
Cryptic Rock – That is a highly-anticipated record, for sure. Okay, last question. So we’ve already asked you about Horror and Sci-Fi films a zillion times, and we know you are a fan of both. Have you seen anything intriguing recently in either genre?
John Cooper – Well, I loved Season 3 of Stranger Things, which is not really Horror, it’s kind of Science Fiction-y. I thought it was better than Season 2. I was amazed because they switched it up on us, which I thought was a very genius thing. I have not had any time, I didn’t even get to see It (2017). I really wanted to because I’m a fan of the book, but I did not get to see it and I’m really bummed out.