I had John Cooper of Skillet on speakerphone for this interview and the first thing I had to do was keep him on task. “I have a tape recorder rolling,” I said, “so I’m ready for the interview if you are.” It wasn’t intended as an enforcement measure by any stretch. It was a routine for me – so much so that I didn’t even think about it, but the phrase just jumped out of my mouth. It was a good thing in this case, however, because without a quick focus on the job at hand, we both would have just chatted up classic Christian metal bands like Messiah Prophet, Mortification, Whitecross and on and on.
I approached Cooper like a troubled fan after a show. It was a little bit of role-play, but it was 100% from my heart. I opened up about my marriage-separation-turned-divorce and how it has wrecked me – seeing my lifelong marriage covenant severed by the other party, who just walked away. As a colleague that’s known me for a long time, he was shocked and taken aback, questioning if this was for real or just a big joke. Once I shared with him that it was indeed my latest life story, he shared exactly what he’d do in a situation like this.
You see, I believe that, even from the distance of a magazine, others can glean wisdom – and perhaps even healing and encouragement – by seeing ministry (or, better put, love) in action.
“That is terrible,” he said. “I had no idea. I am sorry to hear that. I do get things like this (told to me), and usually what I tell them after hearing their story is … I always pray with them and just ask the Holy Spirit to lead me what to pray for. I really don’t want to give you too much advice, because I don’t really know you or what’s going on. My one true suggestion, which I believe with all of my heart, is that as a Christian – as a child of God – we do not need to be separated from people of God. Usually it is young people that I end up talking to, but I always tell people, ‘As much as you maybe don’t want to go back to the church – as much as you don’t want to go talk to your youth worker about this – I always encourage them to do that. Because it is not really something that God can speak to me for you, but it is probably going to have to be (through a lot of hard work) somebody that knows you and that can be there for you – and that’s not going to be Skillet. What I do have is that I can pray with you and I can encourage you to talk to somebody and find somebody that will listen and be there and pray with you.”
Spoken like a true gentleman and a veteran – someone who’s experienced enough situations and heard enough crisis stories to rely on what works. He knows he’s not a messiah – even though he’s on stage, front and center, for 90 minutes a night in front of adoring fans that came to see him perform, sing and speak.
“I do get a lot of stories like this,” Cooper said. “I get a lot of stories from young people (and) they really just think that they are worthless. Often they have been told that they are worthless enough that they pretty much believe it now. There are a lot of abusive families out there, single-parent families and so-called ‘whole’ families, where maybe they do have both of their parents, but they don’t really see either one of them or feel loved by them. The record Rise was born out of this passion of mine to share hope with people.”
Skillet has always been about ministry, but without ever having to talk about it, brag about it or make a big deal about it. Every album and every song served this purpose, but Rise did even more so.
“It is a concept record. It is about your average American teenager coming into adulthood and out of adolescence, facing the world’s problems,” Cooper said. “There are all these huge problems, like school shootings and bombings and floods, hurricanes, economic depression – there are all these things happening, but there are also all these inward things happening, abuse and hopelessness and worthlessness and abandonment.
“It is about your average kid going, ‘How can I rise above this place and find hope in a hopeless world? Is this ever going to change?’ The record takes you through a progression of this person trying to take hold of their life by their own strength and being strong enough and good enough – to believe and just have faith in themselves – and then that is taken away from them. They realize they are never actually going to be good enough and they are never going to be perfect. They finally realize that they need a savior and they need to be a part of something bigger than themselves. They want to believe that there is a God that loves them and that is the kind of salvation experience of the songs. The climax of the record, actually, is the song, ‘Salvation.’ Right before the song, we read a scripture from Isaiah foreshadowing that Jesus would come be beaten for our sins and hung on the cross and take the sin of the world upon himself. Then, in the salvation experience, all of a sudden, all that guilt and all that shame and all of those feelings of abandonment and wanting to belong – all those things are all met in that one salvation experience. That is what the album Rise is about.”
Skillet is excelling at its craft without having to apologize for cheesy musicianship or a cheesy, predictable story. The band’s last album, Awake, went platinum in an age where CD sales are dead or dying. In fact, there were only three rock bands that went platinum in 2012 – Mumford & Sons, the Black Keys and Skillet.
It’s not an easy place to create art from, either. On one hand, you have immense success and the pressure to repeat it. How do you forge new ground with those kinds of internal and external forces pushing against your creative timeline? And then there’s the ironic fact that Skillet – even though the band has been making nationally released and recorded music since 1996’s self-titled album – is considered a new and upcoming band by much of the mainstream press, radio and general marketplace audience. With seven previous albums under its belt, you’d think the members could puff out their chests – if not just a little bit – and demand some respect.
It’s not the Skillet way. Fortunately, a good amount of humility has graced the band’s public profile. This has done the band well.
“It is really weird,” Cooper admits. “I mean, even today we did radio stuff and we have people come up to us and they say something that gives you a feeling that they think we are a brand new band.”
He and his bandmates resist the urge to complain and instead take it all in with a dose of gratefulness.
“Skillet’s in a really great place,” he continued. “It is a very unique story. Yesterday, we played Rock on the Range (a three-day festival in Columbus, Ohio), which I guess is the biggest hard rock festival in America. I got to play in front of Bush, Soundgarden and Alice in Chains and meet some of these bands. We got to meet Sevendust. The singer was freaking out to meet me. Apparently he is a fan, which never would have crossed my mind.
“It is a strange thing to meet people that think we are a new. Many fans think we have just come out, so the important thing for Skillet is to remind ourselves that God has brought us here and that He made us who we are and that, in the end, all we need to be is who He has called us to be. I guess that could sound a little trite, but what I mean by that is actually a deep concept. It is a simple statement, but a deep concept. When Skillet goes and plays in front of Slipknot, we don’t have to try to be something we are not. And I don’t have to go, ‘Oh, what if I talk about Jesus and no one is going to like me?’ I don’t have to do that. Then, if I go play for MercyMe, I don’t have to go, ‘Oh my gosh, we are going to be so loud and crazy and I need to not play this song.’ I don’t have to do that, either. I just have to be who I am called to be and that is why I think Skillet is working.
“I think people come to see us play in front of Godsmack and Motley Crue or whoever … and even people that don’t like the Jesus part – I think they respect the fact that we do talk about Jesus and we are not embarrassed about that side of our band, the fact that we are Christians. I can’t tell you how many people I have met that are like, ‘Hey, I don’t really like all that Jesus stuff, but…’ Or, ‘Hell yeah! I like it, man! Talk about God if you want. You guys kick butt up there.’ I think Skillet just needs to be who we are called to be and that is how I wrap my head around it.”
When it comes to going against the cultural grain of the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll that live music touring is purported to be, Cooper reports not much conflict in that regard.
“We don’t really seem to have that much. Everybody we have played with on the road has been extremely respectful of the band. Christians know what it’s like to go to work and have that person that works next to us try not to cuss when you are around because they know you are a Christian. That is kind of what the bands are like. ‘What is Skillet going to be like?’ They always apologize, because they cuss around us. We don’t engage in those sorts of things – whether it is language or alcohol or all of the other various things that happen at rock shows. We don’t do those things, but we let them be themselves and we are not judgmental of that. Because of that, I think, we have met some really good friends.
“Probably one of the people we have the best relationship with in the business would be Corey Taylor (Slipknot, Stone Sour). We have toured together and, when I first found out it was going to be him, I thought, ‘Oh, this guy is going to hate me because I am a Christian.’ I found out that he is one of the nicest guys that I have met in the business. He’s extremely respectful of my faith and my wife, and he treats my wife like a sister – treats her very appropriately. I have been really impressed by that, to tell you the truth, and I have been challenged, too: While we are lights in a dark world and we are loving people into the kingdom of God, I think it’s a challenge to not always come out with a sword (laughs). Be the light of the world, but don’t come out with a sword ready to hurt people.
“I honestly love it. I love being in the world, being able to rub shoulders with people and share the Gospel with people that don’t believe the way we believe. Every tour we have done I have been able to get a chance to talk to other bands about Jesus and it has always been them asking me – every time. I have always made it a point go, ‘I am not going to go in and preach to them. I am going to live my life and love on the guys and maybe talk about my faith.’ I am not going to come in and ask them about their personal beliefs. I will wait for them to come and talk to me, and the longest it has taken a band to ask me about my faith in Christ has been eight days. They always want to know. We just live our lives and then we get a chance to talk about our Lord and sometimes it leads to getting to pray with someone to accept the Lord, or sometimes it is something they just are not interested in at all, but we just be ourselves.”
Personalities and faith aside, it’s hard to imagine Skillet even being a topic of conversation if their music wasn’t good — if it wasn’t striking a chord with audiences around the rock world. While the band fits within some of the expected confines of the post nu-metal era, Skillet has an enviable identity of having its own sound – part hard, driving rock, part epic rock and part straight-up rock. Besides the pressure of trying to follow up a million-selling release, Cooper said creating a sound has been something Skillet has had to focus on.
“I think that it is a challenging aspect, because Skillet has had a lot of different kinds of sounds,” Cooper said, “and we are a band that kind of enjoys recreating ourselves. I am a big fan of that. I have always been a fan of seeing a band grow a little bit, while at the same time refusing to abandon something you have done that actually was good, you know? I think that the real challenge for Skillet is going, ‘Okay, what is it that people really like about our sound? Let’s keep that and service those people, but also let’s try some new and exciting things.’ That is what we tried to do with the record.
“I think what the people like about Skillet is the kind of epic nature of our songs – the way we have some of the orchestra elements and the duets between me and Jen (Ledger, drummer) and kind of a bit of the mantic quality,” Cooper continued. “I think that people really like that and they like those hopeful melodies that we have done with ‘Rebirthing’ and ‘Awake and Alive,’ and I think that people have really been able to connect with that in a very spiritual way. So, I knew we wanted to keep those things, and we have some songs on the record like that.
“One of my favorite songs on the record is called ‘Not Going to Die,’ and that is a song that is very much Skillet. It is kind of what we do – it is slightly progressive and slightly epic. It has the orchestra. It kind of has all of the major music groups of a Skillet song, but at the same time, I wanted to update it a little bit, and one of my favorite aspects of Skillet has always been the electronic element. … (This time) we just decided a few things and didn’t get so nervous about it. But there will always be people that are like, ‘Oh yeah, those electronics – I wish they wouldn’t do that.’ Then there will be other people that are like, ‘Oh, I love the electronic stuff. It is so fresh and new.’ And then there are people that are like, ‘That isn’t new for Skillet – they have been doing this for 15 years.’
“In the end, we get this every record. I don’t know how many reviews came out about the last record that were like, ‘“Monster” just sounds like a joke.’ I remember doing a live interview with one of the biggest Christian rock shows in the country. The guy was just making fun of me so bad about how much he hated ‘Monster.’ He kept saying it and finally I go, ‘You know what? I’ve just got to tell you – it has 1 million singles sales. The average-selling rock song is about 80,000 units and we sold 1 million. So, I don’t care if you like it or not – enough people like it that I don’t care about your opinion.’ People are just going to do that. You just have to make music you believe in. … Sometimes it surprises people, and sometimes you give them what they expect. I think this album has both of those aspects.”
Besides the band’s signature sound, they’ve also got something else that other bands might be envious of: a live show. They travel with all the bells and whistles rock musicians dream of – pyrotechnics, hydraulic risers and a large, spinning drum set. With all the flash and glamour, though, it seems every positive has its negative.
“We have absolutely had our share of mishaps,” Cooper said. “We set our guitar amplifier on fire twice on the same tour. By the second time, we had burned it down and that was not good. That was just being stupid. We had all the proper permitting and we had a guy doing it that was not being very smart; he also set a towel on fire on stage and that’s when I thought, ‘We need to get somebody else.’ Since then, I am happy to say we are three years incident-free with pyrotechnics. In terms of the spinning (drum) riser, I think we had our first mishap recently. These spinning risers work through cables, and you can only spin it four times. I think we spinned it six and it pulled all the cables out. Those lifts are like elevator-type things, and one time, they got stuck at the top. So two of our string players were stuck 20 feet in the air until the end of the show. Everybody was leaving the show and they are still in the air on top of these things.”
At the end of the day, the pyrotechnics and the things that make for funny stories don’t always get you where you want to go, Cooper said. That can only truly come from a good record.
“We grew up (in) the big era of music where rock concerts were a lot larger than life,” Cooper said. “I loved that. I think it is something that is kind of missing in rock music – probably starting in the ’90s. I am into the business side of things for our band; I run the numbers on everything. The truth is, as great as it is, I have noticed that on nights where we are not allowed to do pyrotechnics, we sell the same amount of merchandise as we do on the other nights. I think a lot of bands have watched us and gone, ‘Oh, Skillet is doing really well. They are doing all these pyrotechnics, so (they must be).’ I tell younger bands, ‘Hey, all this stuff is really good, but it will not sell your records. You’ve got to have songs, and you have to connect it to your fans. That is how you sell records.’
“There is also something to be said for stripping it down, you know, and getting back to the basics,” Cooper elaborated. “Yesterday, we opened up for Alice in Chains and Soundgarden and we weren’t really allowed to do much of anything on stage. We were playing in the middle of the day. You are not relying on lights, you are not relying on pyro. You just get up there and absolutely rock somebody’s face off. There is really something to be said for that.”
To bring the interview full-circle, I came back around to some of the early Christian metal bands of Cooper’s formative years. I told him to imagine being up in heaven while some of his early metal heroes were on God’s hot seat. The Lord asked the members of Messiah Prophet about their fruit. “We recorded this song called, ‘Master of the Metal,’ and we wanted to point listeners to Jesus with that song.” Then the Lord looks over at Cooper and asks him, “What have you done with the gifts I have given you?” I asked him what that conversation might sound like.
He shuddered a little bit before answering. “It is a little hard to imagine not being fearful, even though God is gentle. I don’t know if I’d have those feelings of shame, but almost like at the end of the movie ‘Schindler’s List,’ when that main character, Liam Neeson, realizes that he could have done so much more. I assume that some of the conversation would be me feeling guilty that I really hadn’t given more of my life for the kingdom of God or more of my money and time and energy for the kingdom of God – everything. I know what God has asked me to do and my life mission – even as a kid – was to evangelize and to tell people about the Lord. I began doing that as a young kid and what it turned into was evangelism through music. It was an exciting idea when I first heard bands like Petra doing it. Even though there have been some hard times when I thought I would quit doing this – (when) maybe God wasn’t in it – and I prayed about it and we always felt God telling us to keep doing it, to keep going and to keep playing music and keep sharing the message. We have been thankful for that.
“I guess I would say, ‘Well, Lord, I could have done more, but in my heart of hearts I believe that we have done what you called us to do, even maybe at times when we didn’t want to.’”
He said traveling overseas is one of the things that tests the bands commitment to its message.
“It isn’t that I don’t love the fans. I do,” he said. “But I don’t want to go. … The idea of going to Russia and Japan is really great, but the truth is it is extremely hard work trying to get on a plane for 20 hours and then, by the time you get there, you’re ragged tired. You have to try to get into the time zone and you end up getting sick. You know it is not necessarily a great way to make money. It’s kind of a hassle, to tell you the truth, but seeing the fans is worth it. One of the things God spoke to us about was that he is not done with us yet, and he is going to keep asking us to do more and new things. Going overseas is a current new thing that God has asked us to do. So, this year, we are spending more time overseas than we have in the last 10 years combined.”
While it might sound funny to hear a touring musician complain about anything – especially when a bunch of us “armchair rock stars” would give our left leg to be on stage in Japan right now – it’s easy to judge someone else when you haven’t walked a mile in their shoes (or flown the pre-requisite 8,700+ miles to get there). I’ve always felt the best way to empathize with someone else is to pray for them. When asked how the readers of HM could support the band in this way, his voice lit up with gratitude and enthusiasm.
“When I meet people that say they pray for us, it just honestly blows me away that they would even take the time,” Cooper said. “Prayer is a real thing and … I can sense that I feel strength coming from the Lord. I really believe in that. The biggest thing for us, honestly, is that we hear what God wants Skillet to do. A big part of Skillet is that my wife is in the band, and my kids are on the road with us and that is hard to juggle a little bit. I am always asking the Lord to guide me in what I should do with their schooling and make sure that I am being an OK dad out here on the road. (I have) questions like, ‘Should we not take this tour, because maybe God wants us to take this rest with the kids?’ or, ‘Should we take this tour, because it is a Christian tour and we can go and get to play in front of a Christian fan base and encourage their faith?’ or, ‘Should we take this mainstream tour that a lot of our Christian fans can’t come to?’ I found in my life that having wisdom is a lot more difficult than having boldness. I am very bold for Christ and that is really not that difficult for me. But having wisdom about how to share the Lord? If some people wanted to pray to God for those things and have Him speak on how to juggle all these different things: the family, the mainstream, the Christian stuff, you know? That would just be absolutely epic.”
Consider yourself commissioned, Skillet fan.
Skillet was posted on June 3, 2013 for HM Magazine and authored by Doug Van Pelt.