Skillet lets their music speak the loudest. That’s how the quartet cemented its place as one of the 21st Century’s most successful rock bands. Selling more than 11 million units worldwide, the Wisconsin quartet — John Cooper [lead vocals/bass], Korey Cooper [guitar/keys], Jen Ledger [drums/vocals] and Seth Morrison [lead guitars] — received two Grammy Award nominations and won a Billboard Music Award for the platinum-certified “Awake.” Their double-platinum single “Monster” is “the eighth most-streamed rock song of 2015” with a total of 57 million plays (and counting) on Spotify and earned the distinction of becoming “the best-selling digital single in the history of Christian music.” 2013’s “Rise” bowed at #4 on the Billboard Top 200 upon release and received resounding and eclectic acclaim from the likes of “USA Today,” “New York Times” and “Revolver Loudwire,” and was recently certified gold by the RIAA.
The group’s ninth full-length album, “Unleashed [Atlantic Records/Word],” sees them turn everything up louder, amplifying all aspects of their signature hypnotic sound. After getting off the road in 2015, John headed to Los Angeles to begin recording “Unleashed” with producer Brian Howes — who helmed the 2006 platinum-selling “Comatose” and co-wrote the platinum No. 1 smash “Awake and Alive.” Cutting half of the album with Brian, John tapped the talents of multiple producers for the first time in Skillet history, working with both Grammy Award winning producer Seth Mosley in Nashville and Kevin Churko [Five Finger Death Punch, Ozzy Osbourne, Disturbed] in Las Vegas. The results were undeniable as the album debuted at #3 on the Billboard Top 200 Album Chart, and serves as the band’s third album to debut in the top 5.
With the hard work of creating a powerful new album behind them, Skillet is taking the music to the people! After all, it is the band’s diverse and dedicated fan base that helped fuel the band’s success and creativity. The band recently embarked on an ambitious worldwide headlining tour. Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon had the pleasure of catching up with frontman John Cooper to discuss his musical roots, the making of “Unleashed,” the keys to the band’s longevity and more!
I like to go back to the beginning, especially when someone has had a long and successful career in the music business. When did music first come into your life and take hold of you?
My story is kind of funny actually. My mom was a piano teacher and a voice teacher, so I got involved with music really early. It was in my house all the time and I began taking piano at the age of 5. The funny thing about it was that I wasn’t allowed to listen to rock music. Drums were considered the devil’s instrument and guitars were just as bad. I wasn’t able to listen to rock music but I loved it. When I first heard of Christian rock music, I was really amazed to find out that my parents wouldn’t let me listen to it either. They really viewed it as something being inherently evil about rock music, drums and that sort of thing. I kept playing music and I played the trombone in school and the church. Eventually, I found myself falling in love with rock music and getting very serious. I was about 15 when I started singing in my first band and started writing my own music. I fell in love with the entire process.
When did you decide to pursue your passion professionally? It’s definitely not a profession to take lightly.
Yeah, yeah. Music can be one of those things that is your heart and soul. You put all of your money into it with demos and you play on weekends but you never really know if it is going to go anywhere. When I was in college, I was about 19 or 20 years old, we were offered to record a record for an indie label in Memphis. I realized that meant I would have to drop out of college to do it. That was probably when the big step happened. I was already putting my heart and soul into it and I knew I would have to keep working other jobs to pay the bills and I could always go back to school later. So, that is when I decided to take the plunge.
Here we are decades later and you are still going strong. What is the secret to longevity in this business?
[laughs] I can’t take much credit for it. It has all been a pretty big surprise to me. I will say this, we have treated our fans really well over the years. We give them a lot of access to the band. We do a lot with our fans on social media and autograph sessions. We have always treated them good and thanked them for coming and always put our heart and souls into the songs. It has always been about the fans. That is one thing I would say we have done really well. You also have to be willing to try new things and not keep making the same record over and over. The final big component is that Skillet has always been very honest in our lyrics. We have been honest about who we are, especially when we crossed over to rock radio. There is a lot of pressure there to act like we aren’t a Christian band and that we don’t sing about Jesus. People really want you to shut up about that stuff. We just said, “Who cares?! This is who we are and we aren’t embarrassed by it.” We just kept being ourselves and I think that fans really liked that. Even if they aren’t religious, I think they really like that truthfulness and it helps them know us more and let’s them know we are true to who we are, so that is also pretty important!
Skillet just released a brand new album, “Unleashed.” Did you have goals in mind for the album when you started the process?
Honestly, the biggest thing we wanted to do on this album was something we had never done. I just wanted to make a really great, fun workout album. That is what I call it! It’s an album you can turn on to go for a run, pound some weights or drive in your car and it doesn’t have to feel heavy emotionally or lyrically emotional. You don’t have to think about it, you just turn it on and let it rock! That is actually very different for a Skillet record because our records are typically extremely dynamic and cerebral. I think one of the things people like about Skillet is that we can be very emotionally heavy and honest about tough issues. There is a lot of passion in those songs but this time I just thought, “Man, the world is getting so bad and so crazy. Why not make an album that is a bit of an escape from all of this stuff?” People can turn on this album and have hope just for the fact that it is easy to listen to. Whether people love the album or not, I think we accomplished that.
What can you tell us about the songwriting process there days? What changed and what stayed the same?
I think when it comes to spending a lot of time maybe trying to overthink your lyrics … I’m kinda not in that phase anymore. I am kind of more in the zone of, “If it sounds cool and feels cool then write it!” That was also something that was different on this record. With a song like “Invincible,” which goes, “I just want to say, I feel, I feel invincible!” There’s not really much more to it but it says everything I want to say, it is cool to chant and it feels cool. A lot of times in the past, there would be a tendency to overthink the lyrics and think you aren’t saying enough, it’s not deep enough or intellectual enough. I just kind of put that away. I just want to write things that sounded cool, were fun to listen to and even a bit tongue in cheek at some point. Like track two on the record, “Back From The Dead,” is. A very tongue in cheek kind of song. It’s fun and I think it’s really cool.
You work alongside your wife Korey in Skillet. What does she bring out in you creatively?
I think it is a great partnership that Korey and I have. We have been writing music together for a really long time. Actually, we wrote more together on “Unleashed,” by far, because we had a bit more time. That was really fun. I think Korey and I wrote 25 to 28 songs together. That is fun because we really shape the sound and every time we write a song we try new things. With every record, we try something new. I am more of the metal/hard rock guy of the two of us, where she is more of the indie/alternative moody side of what we do. I think that when you put those things together, that is why Skillet can sound artsy and heavy at the same time. It is kind of heavy but it is also kind of pretty and I think that combination is what makes us a little bit unique. I think that is a really good partnership!
What is the biggest challenge you face as a band these days?
I think Skillet’s biggest challenge is always rectifying the very diverse audience that we have. You know, a lot of things right now are all about niche. Pop music is extremely pop and there is no rock in pop music right now on pop radio. On rock radio, there is nothing pop about any of the songs on rock radio! [laughs] It is extremely metal, really heavy and really dark. Everyone is doing their own niche. Skillet has always been a band that pulls from an extremely wide audience range. We are on tour now and last night, there was everybody from 8 years old to 65 years old at the show! There are a lot of religious people and a lot of anti-religious people. There were a lot of beer drinkers there right next to people who wouldn’t probably have a drink ever! I love that about Skillet fans! I love that we all come together and see eye to eye on something, even if it is just having a good time and accepting one another. I really enjoy that a lot but it still is a little bit of work. Sometimes there are rock radio stations that might say, “They have a really young fan base and a lot of girl fans. They must not really be a rock act.” For some pop fans, they might think, “Oh, they have guitar solos and tattoos. Maybe they aren’t for me.” I think rectifying that fanbase, pulling everybody in and saying, “It doesn’t matter what kind of music you typically listen to. If you like it, then we are all on the same page!” That is why Skillet’s concerts can be really big but still you want to make everybody happy and that can be hard sometimes.
When you look back on the journey you have taken with Skillet, what is the best lesson we can take from it?
I think that, like I said, treating fans good is really important. You have to give the fans what they want. If I was speaking to other aspiring musicians out there, I would say to them how important it is for them to realize this is show business and empathize the business part! You’ve got to learn how to run a business. Unfortunately, you can’t just make art, which is what I did at the beginning. I kept refusing to be involved in the business of it and I paid a price for that years ago. Since I made the decision to embrace the business side of it, it is something I have done well and excelled at and it is something that can really bring a lot of longevity to your career. Finally, it is very, very important to keep trying new things and don’t get locked down into one niche or pigeonhole. Be willing to reshape and try something new!
Great advice! We can’t wait to see where the road takes you and we wish you all the best, John!
Thank you very much! I appreciate your time and it was great to chat with you!
Skillet’s new album, ‘Unleashed,’ is available now. Visit their official website at www.skillet.com to get the latest updates and tour dates! Check out the video for their latest single, “Feel Invincible,” below.