NOW IN THEIR 13TH YEAR, THE HARD ROCK BAND SKILLET IS GOING THROUGH SOME CHANGES. LIKE ANY OTHER 13-YEAR-OLD, THEY HAVE EXPERIENCED SOME GROWING PAINS. SINCE THEIR INCEPTION IN 1996, MANY MEMBERS HAVE COME AND GONE. AND WITH GETTING A LITTLE OLDER, THEY HAVE LEFT BEHIND THE NAIVETE OF THEIR EARLY DAYS AND HAVE BEGUN TO EXPLORE A DARKER ROCK SOUND WITH HEAVIER THEMES.

Since Skillet was last on HM’s cover in 2006, their drummer Lori Peters amicably left the group. The remaining members of the band, lead vocalist and bassist John Cooper, his wife and guitarist/keyboardist Korey Cooper and guitarist Ben Kasica, found this particularly unfortunate because one of the band’s stand-out elements – possessing a female drummer – was gone.

“I thought, there’s no way we’re going to find another girl and I wasn’t even looking for one to tell you the truth, because I just thought that just wasn’t going to happen,” says John. “We tried a bunch of drummers, and Jen (Ledger) was going to our church … I had never heard her play drums and I just thought that she’s really young and she’s a young kind of cute, sweet girl … and I’m sure she’s not a great drummer.”

But knowing Jen through church, the band was certainly willing to at least give her an audition, and when they did they were pleasantly surprised to find that she was an excellent percussionist.

“So we went for her and I thought there was going to be a lot she has to learn – she’s never done anything professionally, but she’s really got it,” John says. “That’s the thing, you can teach people how to be on the road, and how to do their job, but you can’t give somebody talent if they don’t have natural talent, and she really has that. And then after she joined the band I found out that she could sing. I had no idea she could sing … so we started incorporating that into our music and our fans immediately fell in love with her. So she starts singing on the new record.”

With Jen’s singing abilities now brought to the table, the band searched for other ways to expand their sound and their fan base.  After the sudden surge in the group’s popularity that comes with two Grammy-nominated albums, 2003’s Collide and 2006’s Comatose, respectively, they made sure to step things up as they worked with different producers on the latest record, Awake, which releases August 25th.
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“It’s cool getting to work with some of my favorite people,” John gushes. “For instance, Chris Lord-Alge is my absolute favorite and we were lucky enough for him to mix this record. And my favorite rock producer, the producer I really wanted to work with, we were able to work with on this record and his name is Howard Benson. Howard Benson did P.O.D.’s Satellite and albums with Papa Roach, My Chemical Romance, Three Days Grace, Daughtry and Seether, a lot of really big rock albums. I think that was the reason that this record is a little more aggressive than the last album. It is a little heavier, because working with a producer like Howard, he is a real rock guy, and he is into capturing that raw rock sound.”

While Lord-Alge and Howard brought some bite to the record, it still remained the band’s creation, as they spent many hours and days molding it to fit their standards, as well as the standards of their growing fan base.

“I’ve been writing for this record for almost two years now, just working trying to get the right songs and all that. We tried different producers for the record and there has just been a lot of work put into this album, probably more than we ever have had to do in the past because we are now dealing in two different worlds. We have the Christian world, which we have been doing for a long time and then on the other side we have Atlantic records which is really trying to break us into the mainstream rock world. That has been increasingly difficult because we are such a known name in the Christian world. Everybody in the mainstream world knows who we are, they just don’t really know if they want to support a band that has had the level of success we have had in the Christian market.”

This new record shakes that perception as two of the albums biggest tracks, “Hero” and “Monster” both discuss issues that Christians and non-Christians can relate to. “Hero”, for instance, is about our ever-changing world and the ways we can healthily deal with the bad things and bad influences that are occurring around us.

“We are living in a scary world and it is getting darker, and in the past three years, a lot has changed,” John explains. “The war is seeming to be going on forever, the economic crisis … I mean sure, things seemed to be going bad three years ago, but that has gotten much worse. And if you look at youth culture, the loneliness that people are feeling is drastically different from three or four years ago. So that is what the song “Hero” is about. It’s the fact that, whether you are looking at politically in this economic crisis, or looking at our role models in Hollywood or even the church, with all the sexual immorality and all these things with the Catholic priests… all of our heroes are falling and they are almost not worthy of being called a hero. And the twist on that of course is that you can become a hero. If you are waiting for someone else to do it, maybe you should step up to the plate and do it yourself. And that’s what the switch is, like maybe you can do it yourself and be a hero to someone else.”

Other songs on the album also tie into this theme, such as “Awake and Alive” and “Never Surrender,” which speak of standing up for what you believe in and never giving up on what you want to accomplish in life, regardless of the negative influences on your life and the battles you must face.

“Monster,” however, takes a nearly opposite approach in that we all must be aware of our less-than-holy side, so that we can improve upon it.

“Everyone has this darker side to themselves that you don’t want people to see, even the people you love the most,” John says. “You try to keep it hidden underneath. I also think that the more you go in your Christian life you want to keep that old self, if you will, at bay. You don’t want anybody to see him because you know that guy is wrong, and that is when you get really bad. A lot of times as Christians we don’t like to admit that at times we are feeling like crap, sometimes we are going through these things and it is in no way justifying that you have a right to be a crappy person, or a monster, if you will. But it helps me realize I do want to be saved, and I do want to change.”

One way the band does not want to change, however, is they do not want to abandon their Christian audience for a secular one, regardless of their popularity or urgings from their secular record label.

“What I do not want to do is stop doing the Christian events and Christian tours that we have done in the past because I like doing that and I love being in the Christian market and I’ve been a Christian music fan ever since I was a kid,” John says. “So, there is a little bit of a temptation when you begin to have a little bit of mainstream success, which we did with Comatose a little bit when we were out on the Three Days Grace tour, and there is a temptation where people want you to stop doing Christian events and stop doing Christian publicity because they want you to just be known as a viable rock act. So I think we are going to keep doing the same things, play our own tour at House of Blues and stuff like that. I mean it’s not churches, where it’s so Christian-y that people don’t come, and then hopefully be able to join those two worlds together, but I have always been very clear about my mission and what I feel called to be. I love singing about my faith and talking about my faith and there won’t be a time for Skillet that we stop doing that. Those are maybe some mistakes made by some of our other band friends that have maybe crossed over that kind of wanted to just act like they were not involved in Christian music and we are not going to do that, I think that is probably a big mistake for other people as well but I know it would be a mistake for me. So, we are doing our own tour with Hawk Nelson. I think the label would rather see us go open up for Buckcherry or Shinedown or something like that, and I am open to doing that at some point but not if it means we need to stop doing what we’ve been doing for 12 years.”

And while Skillet is not prepared to back down from doing the kind of tour they want to do musically, they will be sacrificing their usual flashy, pyrotechnic-filled stage show to play some smaller venues and interact in more intimate settings with fans.

“Once you do a show with pyrotechnics you never want to do it without it,” John explains. “It’s like playing a show with a really great lighting rig and then having to play the next day without any lights at all. Its just a big bummer.”

But what they will not be missing are The Who-like technical difficulties these setups have sometimes caused.

“On our first tour we caught one of our amps on fire – the same amp – on two different occasions,” John says. “The second time we just burned that thing down, we were like, this thing has had it man.”

But from every inflamed amp to every Grammy-nominated album, Skillet has taken something away from the experience and has learned, though not without the help of their faith. Now with the release of Alive, the band is truly just that. The time has come for them to pop their pimples, grow some chest hair, and move on to an even bigger and better stage in the band’s existence.

(c) Copyright 2009 HM Magazine. All rights reserved.