Skillet Unleashed: A Conversation With John Cooper

Skillet frontman/bassist John Cooper is as upbeat as one could be considering the mountains of interviews and other band-related issues he’s faced already that day.

Being the face of a multi-platinum rock and roll band does have its perks, including getting your mud-covered, screaming mug splashed on the cover of the aforementioned new album, but in order to keep the Skillet machine well-oiled and in front of the public eye, the less-than-glorious side needs to be taken care of, too. That includes interviews — dozens of them.

But Cooper — never one to shy away from an honest answer — takes it in stride. If he is tired, he won’t let you know it. And while there’s a chance that he’s being helped along by the caffeinated residuals of years of consuming his favorite beverage (“I love my Dr. Pepper”), his drive is more likely being spurred on by his need to spread the Word, which is the core of Skillet’s very existence.

“Spreading our message of hope and faith in God is the most important aspect,” he said in a phone interview. “People need love and hope. They need to know that no matter what they are going through, God is listening and loves them.”

Cooper and his wife Korey Cooper (guitar/keyboard), guitarist Seth Morrison and drummer Jen Ledger dropped studio album No. 9, “Unleashed,” to the masses on Aug. 5, and the platter went straight to No. 1 on Christian Albums and Hard Rock Albums charts, entering the Billboard Top 200 at No. 3. But despite the successful opening and a history that includes two Grammy nominations, two platinum albums (2006’s “Comatose” and 2009’s “Awake”) and another that is gold-certified (“Rise,” 2011), Cooper and company are taking nothing for granted as they prepare to hit the road in this, the band’s 20th anniversary year.

“We’re just lucky,” Cooper said. “Lucky to be doing it for this long and that the fans are still liking the music.”

You’re based out of Wisconsin, which isn’t exactly known as a music hotbed. What’s the draw?
My wife is from there and has a lot of family there — siblings, her parents, and 15 grandkids. My wife’s parents started a church there in the early 80s, so there’s a lot of family. There are benefits to living there, but I hate cold weather. I’m from Memphis, so I’m still not used to that. (laughs)

Let’s talk about your new album “Unleashed,” which is out now. It opened on the Billboard chart at No. 3. Are you much of a chart watcher?
I am. Not like, all the time, but I want to know where mine is at. (laughs) Especially when it’s just coming out. To be honest, I think we sold twice the number of records that I thought we would, so I was really thrilled to know the people are still supporting us. There are a lot of rock bands that are finding it harder and harder to keep the doors open.

Album sales matter in helping with the revenue stream, but today’s music industry is vastly different than when you guys started out 20 years ago. Do you aim things more toward the live show now, rather than worrying about album sales?
You know, Skillet had a weird start. We’ve always banked everything on the live show because, truthfully, for the first 10 years we didn’t sell enough records to make a living on just that. We were making records just to have product that would allow us to tour. It wasn’t until our “Comatose” record (2006) that all of a sudden we found ourselves selling a lot of records. I was stunned at the amount of records that we were selling. And then, all of a sudden, it really mattered. Our story is a little opposite of other bands, but now most bands are doing that. And when you are selling, you know people are really listening, because these days, people don’t want to buy what they can get for free unless they really, really like it.

As to the album itself, it seems like you touched all the bases from metal to rock to synth-heavy portions. There’s a bit of everything, including some tracks that almost have sort of a — dare I say it — dance sensibility to them. Where does that element come from in the band?
I guess you could say that’s always been on the table. Our second record in 1998 was an electronic, industrial rock album, and I think ever since then we’ve always had keyboards on the record, and sometimes they’re more prominent, then they’re less. I think on this record we wanted to incorporate some of those things and just see how it went. What we really aimed to do was make a rock album that was very, very modern sounding. “Back from the Dead” is kind of an ’80s throwback rock thing, but the record is really modern, the drums sound really modern, the guitars are very clean and crisp. It’s so upbeat that it makes it feel maybe a little more electronic than it actually might be. It’s always hard when you’re in the studio to know, “Do I do that with guitar?” “Do I do that with synth?” So then you do it with both and let the mixing engineer decide what he likes better. It was a fun process. We didn’t spend a lot of time arguing about those things, which was really nice. Sometimes you can just stand there and argue with your producer for months and months, and you’re like, “You know what? That’s not really what it’s about. It’s about the song, the lyrics, connecting with the fans.” We just tried things, and whenever we grinned, we knew it must be good. Kinda like a gut check. (laughs)

“Out of Hell,” has that word — the h-e-double-hockey-sticks. As a Christian band, you know you’re not supposed to say that, right? Or are we past that at this point?
(laughs) Well, not really, you know. Whenever I think we are, we end up getting backlash for something that will really surprise me. For instance, when we released the “Awake” album, to be honest, I thought it was going to be our first Grammy that we could get. I really loved the record, and it was selling like crazy. I thought, “Man, I wonder if we’re going to get nominated for a Grammy this year, and who knows, maybe even win.” But in the Christian music category, they kicked us off the eligibility thing for the Best Gospel Grammy, which I couldn’t believe. We’d been around for 13 or 14 years, and they just said the album wasn’t “Christian” enough, and that annoyed me really bad because we’ve always been faithful to the market. So, whenever I think it’s over, people get really upset. I’m aware that “Out of Hell” is a little edgy, but I think it’s a really important message to be singing about.

It’s my favorite song on the record.
Mine, too. (laughs)

On that song you also kind of let Seth out of his box playing-wise.
Yes, off the leash! (laughs)

Do you make it a point to give him a couple of moments on each album to shine, or is it just whatever fits the song?
Hopefully both. (laughs) Hopefully we can let him off the leash, but if not, I can find a place for him. It’s got such a great harmony guitar solo in it, and the end of the song has got a kind of prog rock kind of thing, which is kinda Dream Theater-esque. I just have a real love for ’80s guitar music and ’80s guitar solos and the musicality of some of that stuff. Take Michael Jackson. When “Thriller” came out, it’s R&B, it’s dance, it’s funk, it’s rock with Eddie Van Halen doing a solo in it; it’s just a little bit of everything. I always want our stuff to be a little bit like that. Seth has got some really good guitar solos on the record, and I always enjoy that stuff. Who knows? Maybe I enjoy it more than the rest of the band does. (laughs)

When you mentioned the ’80s music, are there are any rock bands from that era that were influential in how Skillet sounds today?
Oh sure. Absolutely. Now, when you’re talking about influences, it’s kinda weird. It’s like talking to Corey Taylor from Slipknot, and he says he’s listening to Johnny Cash, and you think, “I don’t see how Johnny Cash is influential to Slipknot,” but it all kind of goes into the stew that makes you who you are. I really cut my teeth on ’80s metal, ’80s glam metal. Metallica, Iron Maiden, Motley Crue, John Bon Jovi, pretty much all the ’80s hair stuff, I loved. If they were wearing spandex, I probably liked it. (laughs) But I also love ’70s arena rock and prog rock — bands like Yes, Fleetwood Mac, Meatloaf and Queen. You can hear some of that in Skillet, and I think that makes us kind of unique. We’re not unique like Metallica, where, when you hear it, you know it’s them, because only they sound like Metallica. We’re not like that, but what I think is unique about Skillet is that we’re very much a product of several generations of music. It is modern, but it’s also a little bit throwback and has a lot of the theatrics of the ’70s bands and classic music.

Were there any songs from “Unleashed” you look back at and think, “I would have never thought this song would have turned out this way when we started, but I’m glad it did.”?
I don’t know if there was anything like that, but there are some things that I’ll say were maybe somewhat of a surprise to me that they even made the album — things we kind of got away with, if you will. “Out of Hell” is one. My label typically doesn’t really want me doing metal. But Skillet has different sides. We have that metal side, but we also have that broad, arena, pop-rock side. “Feel Invincible” was considered to be on that side. And then you have songs like “Out of Hell” or “Undefeated,” which are really hard rock songs. A lot of the times, whenever I want those metal tracks on there, everybody is like, “Oh, no, you can’t do that. It’s a small audience.” So I was a little surprised I kind of pulled that one out, but I did. (laughs)

And I’m glad you were able to.
Me, too. (laughs) I had to fight for that one. Actually, at the end of the record, there’s a song called “The Resistance,” and at the end of the song, just when you think it’s over, the song comes back in with 40 seconds of what I consider just straight-up prog metal. The reason I did that was because I was mad. (laughs) I was really upset that they weren’t letting me record something I wanted to record. And so I thought, “You know what? I’m going to write an ending for that, and it’s going to end the whole record and nobody is going to know until it’s mixed.” I got it out of my system. (laughs) Another song I think we got away with was “Famous.” It’s very dancey, very pop for a rock band. But, you know, sometimes I like doing something out of the box and something you wouldn’t expect to hear on a Skillet record. It’s cheeky and fun to listen to — maybe annoyingly catchy.

The “call and response” vocal style between you and your drummer, Jen, has become somewhat of a signature to the band’s sound. She’s quite a talent.
Jen has become an important part of the Skillet sound. When she joined the band, I had no intention of her singing. Actually, I didn’t even know that she did sing! We had come off of the heels of “Comatose,” which began that signature Skillet sound with the duet-style, male/female vocals, and Korey was singing the female parts. As we were writing the “Awake” album, Korey was moving away from singing for many reasons, so it made sense for Jen to step in, and honestly it worked out better than I had imagined. She has a very clear, pure voice that is in direct opposition to the roughness of my voice, which has a sort of “beauty and beast” effect that seems to work.

You and Korey share a deeper bond than most bandmates for obvious reasons, but tell me, what does Korey mean to Skillet?
It’s hard to imagine Skillet without Korey’s involvement. Even at times that her influence can seem intangible, the heart and identity of the band is very much comprised of me and her. Korey is my rock and my anchor. The tangible influence of Korey is most obvious in our sound; it wouldn’t exist if both of us hadn’t have joined forces. Korey brings a more artistic, indie, alternative and atmospheric side to the band. If it were only left to me, Skillet would be a bit more “paint by numbers” hard rock band.

When you and Korey have wrapped Skillet up and are sitting on your porch sipping Dr. Peppers looking back at what you’ve accomplished, how will you answer this: Why did God put Skillet here?
Sitting on the porch with DP sounds wonderful! Well, positive music that brings people together rather than tearing people down has been a very important part of our history. Having a band that is suitable for all ages is important. When I was growing up listening to metal, it wasn’t about sex, drugs and rock and roll — it was about the music. Skillet has brought that sentiment back to rock and roll. It’s about a feeling, a belief, an experience that is put into words and chords. These days, there aren’t many rock bands that you can take your kid to and feel good about what they’re going to hear. Our hopeful lyrics have inspired thousands of people to make life changes for the better. Suicide prevention has been a major effort of the band. [We’ve heard] stories of breaking addiction, forgiving abusers, helping through depression, etc., and we’ve managed to change people’s minds about Christian music. That’s important to me personally.