September 28, 2016 Interview – John Cooper of Skillet
In times where it seems the world’s events keep getting progressively worse, everyone is looking for a glimmer of hope. Thankfully, salvation from madness can be found in the haven known as music, and the Rock band known as Skillet are living proof. Going on two decades together, Skillet has rolled with the punches, withstood coming and going trends, only to become one of the most respected bands in Hard Rock. Dabbling in a variety of styles through the years, Skillet’s massive break into the mainstream came with 2009’s Awake, a record that hit #2 on US Billboard 200 charts. Keeping their eye toward the future, touring tirelessly and showing dedication to their fans, Skillet now return in 2016 with their exciting new album, Unleashed. A labor of love and sincere to their vision, Unleashed could be one of the most complete Skillet records to date. Recently we caught up with founding Vocalist/Bassist John Cooper to talk the improbable rise to Rock stardom, the passion behind Skillet, hope in music, and much more.
CrypticRock.com – You began Skillet two decades ago and, in that time, the band has grown into one of Hard Rock’s biggest acts, attaining Platinum status and touring all over. First, tell us, what has this amazing journey been like?
John Cooper – Surprising (laughs). I never know how it’s going to go. Of course every young band has dreams of, “We are going to put our first record out and the whole world is going to realize we are the best band in the universe and sell a million albums.” And then after, about three months on the road, you realize that no one likes you unless you have a huge radio hit (laughs). I am kind of being facetious obviously.
You kind of hope you are going to come out and do really well, you learn very quickly that it’s just a really hard road. Being in a band is hard work, being on the road is extremely difficult, especially in those early years when you are in a van and you are trying not to kill one another. Setting up all your own gear, merchandising, playing every night, talking to fans afterwards, load down all your gear, and drive to the next place in the van. That’s really hard work. I didn’t know that we would be around this long.
I hoped that we would get big, I realized as soon as we began that wasn’t in the cards anytime soon and I just kept working and working. Finally, ten years into the career, something just happened, I don’t really know why. We released the right record at the right time, or whatever, but people started listening. I realized, “Man, I am going to be doing this for awhile.” So yeah, twenty years into it, I am amazed that we are still here. It’s kind of a testament to the fans and a testament to how a hard-working band that treat our fans right, and keeps going, can overcome those odds.
CrypticRock.com – Absolutely, and it is a testament to that, as you said, the hard work, 100%. As stated, Skillet has certainly grown over the years. The band’s sound has morphed from the early days, which were more Alternative Rock than to mixing of Electronics, then leaning to a heavier Hard Rock sound. What inspired the band’s shift in style through the years?
John Cooper – I think that’s probably another reason we’ve been able to be around for so long. I think we identified early on what is about Skillet that is identifiable? For some bands, it’s a sound like for Queen, it’s the theatrics, and the classical thing. For Iron Maiden, it’s one thing, for Metallica, it’s one thing. For a lot of bands in the ’90s, which is when we came out, all Rock bands in the ’90s kind of sounded the same, I am generalizing of course. This was until you got towards the later ’90s where you had Korn, Rob Zombie, Linkin Park, and all that stuff. Before then, kind of like during the Grunge era, which is when we started, most of us kind of all sounded the same. I realized what is unique about Skillet is not that we sound different than anyone else, it is just that we have a passion and spirituality to the lyrics and a passion to my singing voice. Maybe not everybody likes that about us, but that’s what’s identifiable.
We were able to twist our sound as time went on, I always wanted to try and be on the cutting edge of something. We began dabbling in electronics very early on and Electronic Rock in 1998. I remember a record coming out and six months later someone sending an email saying, “Hey, you guys suck, you ripped off Orgy,” and I said, “What’s Orgy, I never even heard of that.” And about three months later, when they got really big, I said, “No we were around before Orgy.” I am sure they didn’t know that, but we were around sounding this way. I think we’ve been able to morph our sound, try new things, and to me, that comes from my passion for music because I love all kinds of different stuff. All the way from ’70s, Arena Rock, and Prog Rock, I’m a huge Prog Rock fan, all the way through Hair Metal, which is what I cut my teeth on. This is all the way up to ’90s Grunge and the ’90s modern Rock era. I think that’s why we’ve been able to change our sound.
CrypticRock.com – And all those influences bleed through in Skillet, 100%. The band has had their share of lineup changes, but Korey has been with you pretty much for the duration. Jen Ledger came on in 2008, and has really been a welcomed dynamic. What has Korey and Jen’s contributions meant to Skillet through the years?
John Cooper – Well, it is hard to imagine Skillet without Korey. As you’ve said, virtually from the beginning, Korey and I began making music together. It was on our third record, and that was in the year 2000, we started formulating “Who do we want to be?” It was a team effort. On our newest record, Korey and I wrote together more than we ever have. There are parts of the record that can seem very vibey and there are parts that can seem dark or more alternative, that’s going to be Korey’s influence on that kind of stuff. It’s good because I’m kind of a Metal guy, Skillet is not a Metal band, but we have Metal influence in our music. You can hear it in the guitar solo and the double kick on the drums. That is kind of my influence. We come together and bring a lot of that to the table. Korey certainly brings a softer side to it, which I really like.
Jen has been in the band now seven or eight years. It’s hard to imagine Skillet without her at this point, she sings in the band. Again, it’s the softer side to the band that gives us a lot of female fans, a lot of girls love Skillet. They love the lyrics, they love just the makeup of the band. We are Hard Rock, but we have a softer, more emotional side as well. That’s kind of what we are dealing with, with the girls.
CrypticRock.com – You had mentioned the new record, Unleashed. This album sees the band shift in directions slightly again with more Pop elements. What was the writing and recording process behind the new album?
John Cooper – We just had a load of fun writing it. Our last record was called Rise and it was a very difficult record to make. People sometimes don’t understand exactly why. It was two records ago, we had a record called Awake, and we had our biggest hit songs, – “Monster” and “Hero.” It was a successful record and I think no one saw it coming, including myself. I did not have any idea that record was going to be so successful. I think that everybody went, “Wow man, we had no idea this was going to be so big, we should really pay attention to the next record because it could be even bigger.” I think that’s kind of what happened, the more everybody paid attention to the making of the next record, the worse it got, it was a nightmare. I wrote seventy-two songs for that album and nothing was good enough. We re-recorded a lot of the songs twice, we remixed the album twice, we had to remaster the record. It was just a nightmare. In the end, I liked the album, but I hated the experience.
When we began writing for Unleashed, I just said to my wife, “Hey let’s write some new songs and we were going to have fun and we are not going to turn the songs in to anybody. We are not turning them in to the label, we are not turning them in to producers, it’s just for me and you.” Anything we feel like writing, we are going to write, even if the lyrics don’t make sense, if they are silly, if they don’t matter, if it’s dumb, we are going to write it and have fun doing it. If it’s too Metal, that sounds great, if it’s too Pop, that sounds great. That is how we went about writing the album. That is why the feedback we are getting on the record is it’s just really fun to listen to. It is Skillet’s most fun record, doesn’t mean it’s the best record, but it’s clearly the one that’s the most easy and enjoyable to listen to. Turn it on, go for a workout, lift some weights, go for a run, and it’s just a lot of fun. That’s what I really wanted to make on this record. I think it comes across on Unleashed.
CrypticRock.com – Agreed. It really is quite a diverse album with something for everyone. One thing that stands strong through each Skillet album is the topical lyrics. The band clearly sees the struggles we face every day in a crazy world, but look to provide hope. For Unleashed, what were some of the lyrical inspirations?
John Cooper – That’s really cool that you noticed that and say that. It’s funny, I’m kind of going back a little bit here, but I’ll get into the answer of that question through it. Remember when I said things took about ten years when things started going good for the band? I actually think it’s because if you look at the trend in Rock music in the ’90s, there was no hopeful lyrics. It was considered to not be very Rock-n-Roll. Whether people loved Creed or not, I think they were the change for that. You also had Evanescence and P.O.D. Things started seeming like it was ok to sing about hopeful things. Skillet had been doing that for a very long time and I think that, in the Rock community, the gatekeepers looked at us as a little like, “Oh, that’s kind of cheesy, cause that’s not what Rock music is.” We kept to that trend, I didn’t even know that we were writing hopeful lyrics, I was just writing what I felt and what I believed in. I was singing about things that I noticed in the world. Even if it was a dark subject, there was a tinge of hope in it. That’s just who I am, I am optimistic. I like to help people and I like to sing about things that matter.
That said, when we were writing this record, I said, “Hey, I still want to have that hopeful thing, but let’s write a record that is a bit instead of pointing out all the terrible things that happened in the world, let’s write a record that is a little bit of an escape from those things.” Everybody knows all the things that are happening, it’s not a surprise. I think some of the things that you will see in the record are going to be about not giving up, not giving in to fear. That’s a very big one that you see all throughout the record. Some of those things we might tackle in a serious way, but a lot of the record is not that serious.
For example, one of the songs that I like on the record, called “Back from the Dead,” it’s one of those songs that has a really funny story of why I wrote it. Most Skillet stories are not funny, but this is kind of funny. It came from the fact that so many people kept saying that Rock is dead and that nobody likes Rock music, it’s never coming back. I couldn’t even believe that Gene Simmons even said it, King Bassist of Rock-n-Roll, “It’s never coming back, Rock is dead.” I just got really tired of people saying that, I got tired of going to Skillet shows and there are several thousand people at the shows, and not getting any credit for it. Yet all these new Alternative acts were getting all this credit. Saying this is the new thing, it’s so fresh and cool, they are taking the world by storm. You ask, “How many people came? “And you hear, “It was only four hundred capacity,” but it’s the newest, freshest thing. Then you are at a Rock concert with two thousand people, and everybody is saying you are dead when all the new, cool Alternative acts are selling 10,000 records, and they are the hype. I got really sick of it, so I wrote the song “Back from the Dead,” which is a little bit of a stick-it-to-the-man kind of song for me. It’s just basically saying not to give up.
The record has some not serious issues, and then it has some other songs on the record that are a little more serious, like “Out of Hell” is one of my favorites. It’s talking about going through a really hard time and reaching out, needing someone to help you during that hard time. Sometimes you feel really alone, when you feel the most alone is when it seems like everybody is not helping you. We talk about things like that and we allude to people that are having suicidal thoughts and people who are self-harm type people, cutting and things. We allude to those kinds of issues in our songs, and “Out of Hell” is one of those types of songs.
CrypticRock.com – As said, there always has been an overall positive message through Skillet’s songs, whether it be dark matter or not. It is a universal message, regardless of one’s personal beliefs, so that is really wonderful as well.
John Cooper – Thank you so much. I think sometimes people think, “Skillet is a Christian band,” they kind of want to know what the title means. Sometimes I realize that different people have a different idea of what that is. I consider us to be a Rock band, but I am a Christian and not embarrassed of that. I am not embarrassed that Skillet has been in the Christian music industry, but I always want to tell people really what that means is that I’m a Christian, we’ve been in this industry, and I write songs about my faith, but we are not only seeing a Christian audience. It doesn’t matter where you are on the spectrum, you could be hardcore Atheist and listen to Skillet songs and say, “Yes, I feel like that too.” And I think it’s important to write music that can bring people together through all those kind of faiths all the way from religious people to non-religious people, we are all humans. Everybody can hear it and understand it in their own way, I think that’s the magic of music.
CrypticRock.com – Exactly, it really is something special that we can all connect with. My last question for you is pertaining to movies. CrypticRock.com covers music and Horror/Sci-Fi films. If you are a fan of the genres, what are some of your all-time favorites?
John Cooper – Absolutely. I love Science Fiction. To tell you the truth, I do like Horror as well. I say that except one of my, this is actually a funny story, my drum tech for our band loves Horror films. If I said I loved Horror films, I don’t like them like he does (laughs). Sometimes he goes, “I think this one might be a little too much for you,” but I actually do like Horror films as well. Especially if you consider some of the more light movies like The Ring. It can be a little more creepy than Slasher films. I love those kind of creepy films, Ghost stories, and I love Horror books. I like Horror books more than films, but I am a huge Science Fiction film guy.
My number two movies of all time is Alien (1979) and my number three movie of all time is Blade Runner (1982). Obviously I love The Matrix (1999), you can’t not love The Matrix, it doesn’t beat Blade Runner or Alien for me personally. Alien is still one of those movies I have to watch once a year. In fact, I was quoting Blade Runner recently, it’s not a lie. I said, “Yeah, those memories would be gone like tears in the rain,” and my wife started laughing because that’s the end of Blade Runner. I definitely love Science Fiction.
CrypticRock.com – Those are some great choices right there. Alien crosses over into Horror and Sci-Fi, and Blade Runner is a very dark film as well. They are very good films.
John Cooper – Ridley Scott is such a genius, he directed both of those films. I actually really liked Prometheus (2012) as well. I liked Prometheus most in the Alien franchise, which was the second film. I thought Prometheus was extremely well done. It didn’t beat Alien of course, but a really beautiful film to watch. I could go on and on with Science Fiction with you all day. I love Science Fiction books as well. I’ve read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), which is what Blade Runner was based on.