Posted October 2019
As a teen in the 70’s, I grew up in a church world that was, much like Elvis’, centered around hellfire and brimstone preaching and gospel music sung out of a hymnal. Not just any hymnal, but “the red one”. Otherwise, it wasn’t deemed “sanctified”.
For extra sizzle, pizzazz, and goosebumps, we’d listen to Southern Gospel quartets. They brought energy (none dare called it “entertainment”) to a crowd and left self-produced vinyl albums behind.
Then, someone dared to change things. Bigtime.
That someone is believed to have been the late Larry Norman, known for his song, “Why Should The Devil Have All The Good Music” and “I Wish We’d All Been Ready”. Other artists and bands such as Barry McGuire, 2nd Chapter of Act, Love Song, and others helped blaze the trail from what was considered to be traditional Gospel music to something that a young kid like me would latch on to and drive my parents crazy with by playing too loud.
Within churchdom, the debate raged as to whether the style was acceptable to God because it certainly wasn’t acceptable to “the church”. Televangelist (and cousin to Jerry Lee Lewis and Mickey Gilley), Jimmy Swaggart, preached against the evils of the genre’s syncopated rhythms (before getting caught indulging in his own “sin-copulated” rhythms – but you know that story).
That was then. Now?
The CCM industry is alive and well on planet earth (thanks for the great line, Hal Lindsay . . . and the pun is most certainly intended). That is especially evident with double platinum band, Skillet. Led by John Cooper and his wife, Korey, the band is bolding going to where CCM bands and artists seldom go. For instance, they’ll be performing at Exit One Eleven where such choir boys as Guns ‘N Roses, ZZ Top, and Def Leppard will be performing.
While heading to my day job a few weeks ago, I was channel surfacing on my satellite radio, listening to the news when I stumbled upon an interview with John Cooper. I stopped surfing and started listening to him.
Upbeat. Straight-forward. Energetic. Articulate. I sat in my car in a downtown Nashville parking garage and listened to everything John had to say. When he was finished, I was e-mailing his publicist, requesting an interview. It happened within five days.
John called me while still on a press junket in NYC. He came across on the phone just as he did on the cable news station that I heard his interview on.
“We're doing promo for the album and all that stuff. So, it's a nice busy time. Yeah, but it's great!”
As John and I exchanged pleasantries, I summarized my CCM experience as a kid, how the genre was received at that time, that I was glad to see a band like Skillet taking it all to the next level. I then asked if he could give me an elevator speech as to who and what Skillet is.
“Yeah. I'm with you on of your story you were just sharing - early Christian music. I've been a fan, you know, since I was a kid. And, so, Skillet; let's see. We're from Memphis, Tennessee, originally. And my wife, Korey, is in the band. We've been touring for 22 years together as a married couple; had two kids that are also raised on the road and got our start in Christian music; kind of crossed over, if you want to call it that, into rock music. I always believed in playing music for people. I never wanted to play only to religious people. That was, you know, not what I wanted to do at all. But music was a really powerful force in my life as a young person. Got me through hard times; always kind of been there for me. And I always wanted to write music about things that I believed and share that. Skillet is a very kind of upbeat and very inspiring, kind a positive rock band. And, to tell you the truth, we had kind of carved out that niche on our own for a while. And it's becoming, actually, I think, more in vogue in the secular rock world, to be positive and to be inspiring. But, you know, we used to kind of hold that candle all alone for a long time. You heard it actually on rock radio. They didn't really dig that for a long time, but then it didn't get working. And, you know, now it's kind of a thing, I guess. So that's kind of cool.
We’ll circle back to the band’s impact on CCM and the band itself. But before doing so, I asked Cooper to tell me about Skillet’s new disc.
“Oh, yeah! Yeah! The new record is called, 'Victorious' and comes out here. I'm so very pumped about it. Of course, you're always excited about your new album. Everybody just reviewed the record, so far. Every review I've read, it's been like, you know, 'This album makes you feel like you can take on the whole world, basically; take anything that comes along. And I think that's kind of cool because when we finish the album - well, some people might find this interesting. You may. I don't know. Hopefully, your readers will. Sometimes people don't know that, when you buy a record, it's got 12, 10 songs on it, this and that. But usually, we'll write 40, 50, 60 songs as a band. So, you never really know what's going to make the record until the label or whoever, producer, they choose the song.
“So, we wrote about 50 songs; chose the songs; finished recording. If you listened to all 10, you know, together you kind of get a vibe because you never know what's gonna get chosen. It's interesting. You end up naming the record on the backside. And it just felt that ‘Victorious’ was the right name because the record, to me, felt really inspiring and hopeful. It rocks really hard. Like, you could take it to a gym and run and really do some serious weightlifting and some running. But it also feels really positive. And everybody that has reviewed it has said that same thing.
Skillet’s label is Atlantic. I was curious if a label like that one welcomed the band’s message, faith, and lifestyle with open arms.
“They've always been really great. They've always kind of understood the band. Now, I'm not trying to say the very first time they ever met us that they understood it. I think for a while, they kind of quite didn't. In fact, we were very close to getting signed by Atlantic Records in 1998, which was our second release. And after about six months, I think, they sent four different A&R guys to see us play at about six months of talking about doing a record. We just never got a callback, which is really weird because, like I said, four different ADR people. That's a lot. And in the end, they just didn't get the Christian thing.
“But then Atlantic side, P.O.D, which was kind of a known - well, not really a known Christian artist, but they kind of become became known as being religious. And I think they were kind of sort of getting it a little bit more. By the time they (Atlantic) signed us in 2003, Skillet had made four records; on our fifth album. People were kind of learning what the band was all about. And I remember talking to the guy that signed us. At the time, he was president of Lava Records. And he was like, 'OK, so what does this mean? Like, I'm signing a Christian band. What is it going to be?' I remember it hit me because at the time, I don't want to say sometimes, but at the time there was a lot of rock bands - several rock band - that were renown at the time for having to end their tours because - and it's sad - but like some of the singers were getting thrown in jail for drug possession, overdosing on drugs, cancel on half of the tour. People are losing millions of dollars because they they're literally, like, killing themselves on the road from all of that or getting jailed. And, so, he said to me, 'So, what if I sign this Christian band?' And I said, 'Well, I said, Jason, what it means is that you'll never have to lose a bunch of money because we can't do half a tour because I go to jail for drugs. I get up on time.
“There was all these stories at the time of rock stars - that they go on stage four hours late and there's riots breaking out because they're in their hotel room. They don't feel like playing. So, I'll always show up on time. I always do my time. You'll never get a call saying Skillet is really bad because it's just not who I am. It's kind of against my faith. You're never going to get crazy stuff with us. I'm very serious about my job and I'm very serious about treating my fans right. And, hopefully, I'll make you a lot of money at the process. He said, 'OK.' I think that's kind of funny. They kinda let us be who we are, which I really appreciate. And, in return, I think that we've, in good faith, I think we've been really easy to work with. I mean, in other words, we don't go and open up for Guns and Roses and start preaching about Jesus on stage. That would be an inappropriate place to do so. I let my music do the talking. I let my lifestyle do the talking and we treat people well. And it's been a great relationship.
I posited that fans compare Skillet to bands who show up late and mistreat their fan base and the grateful fans reward Skillet with continued support.
“Yeah, you know, I think these days, I think it's a different world than they used to be in. Part of what I mean, is this: Axl Rose could treat every single fan that ever came to a Guns N’ Roses concert, he could treat every one of them terrible and still sell 80,000 tickets per show because it's Guns N’ Roses. They're icons, you know? And, these days, I think it's a different story because there is a lot of competition. And for an artist to come out and have that sort of impact, if they want to have longevity, they need to treat their fans well and they need to do things. If they don't take your job seriously, they could still last while they're on top. But as soon as they're out from the top, everybody will be glad to see them go because there's just too much competition out there.
Earlier in our chat, John and I were talking about some of the patriarchs and matriarchs, if you will, Christian rock. I wondered who John’s influencers were from the genre.
“Well, there's probably a lot I had to say about that. My family was very against rock music. And when I discovered Christian rock in fifth grade, which was a band called Petra, I came home and I was, like, 'Guess what? There's Christian rock music!' because my parents wouldn't let me listen to anything with drums. My mom gave me the holiest butt whoopin' of all time for listening to a Christian rock band! I'd never heard of it! I thought they didn't know it existed. So, I thought, 'Oh! They're going to like this!' Christian rock was even worse than normal rock to my parents. It was wolves in sheep’s clothing. They took me to a Bill Gothard seminar. People were CRAZY about it.
“Honestly, my parents would rather me have ended up in prison than be in a Christian rock band. I mean, they would rather have been a drug dealer because this is the number one thing that the devil was doing in the earth, you know? I grew up in that kind of a way. I convinced my parents to let me listen to some select acts, which they really didn't like. I think they finally realized, you know, you don't want your kids doing ABC at the end. Then you realize kids are going to do some of this anyway. I may as well give in on something so I can still make the rules, you know?
“So, they allowed me. Petra, DeGarmo and Key, Amy Grant. They weren't happy about it, but they did (let me listen to them). But they didn't like it. It was a really big fight in my house. At the same time, as I was listening to Christian music and I was expanding my Christian music taste into the Christian Metal World, Rez Band, Resurrection Band, as you said, White Cross, Stryper - my parents HATED all of that. But at the same time, I'm finding it at my friend’s houses, and it was the 80s.
“So, you know, metal was pop, basically, so you couldn't go to the mall without hearing Bon Jovi or Metallica or Motley Crue, or Iron Maiden. All of that music also became very influential to me, even though I didn't own it. I knew all the words. I knew all the songs. At home, I only listened to Christian music. I loved Christian music. That's also why I've always been so faithful to the genre. I never forgot where I came from and I'm proud of Christian music because it was always there for me. I learned a lot about my faith from Christian music. Petra - I mean, yeah, if you didn't have a Bible and you listened to all the Petra records, you’d know a lot about the Bible."
I’d responded to John by saying that it’s amazing when you consider that in the older hymns and gospel songs, one might argue that the listener didn’t get much biblical education from the music. Cooper responded:
"Interesting. Yeah. You know, the whole music thing never made sense to me. I honestly always just kind of viewed it from a perspective . . . I don't know . . . I just think that great Bible theology - this is going to sound like an oversimplification, but I believe it - great Bible theology can answer all of your questions in life. And every everything that you're fighting about, look at what the Bible says about it.
“I feel that, if people just done that was rock and roll, it would have become really clear that what our parents didn't want us doing was partying and having sex outside of marriage and doing drugs. It wasn't really that they didn't want us hearing a drumbeat. And it's not really that it makes any sense for Satan to create music. Satan doesn't create music. He distorts music. It was just such a dumb thing for our parents to be so crazy about. I honestly think it was a lack of Bible reading. I think it was, ‘We want our kids to look right and look respectable and act respectable. We don't like that long hair.’ It was all about just dumb stuff, if you ask me. But whatever."
Regarding the feedback from “the church” - or at least members, the kids, anybody that maybe even be outside of the faith and looking in at what Skillet is doing, I asked what kind of feedback they are were getting in all that.
“I think, in general, Skillet just has great fans; that people just understand Skillet. I know that there have been people that haven't and, I'm sure there's been people who thought, 'That's just too loud to be Christian music', and this and the other. But, for the most part, even today, a lot of what I call ‘the gatekeepers’, which is going to be, you know, Christian radio, Christian promoters, stuff like that - most of these people are - they grew up with Christian music. So, they're not like they're not like old people. They're not, like, 'I don't like all that young music', you know? They grew up with Zeppelin and they grew up with Hendrix and Van Halen and then discovered Christian music; a lot of that. So, people kind of tend to get it.
“Then, on the mainstream side, I guess Skillet's not really a preachy band. We're a band that we're very vocal about our faith, but we don't preach at people. And people kind of just seem to accept that, like, 'This band is cool.' They know that we're authentic and we will always treat people good and always play with bands. We've played with Slayer two nights ago. We play with bands who think very differently than us about the world and we're cool with that. So, we've had a pretty good little run. I think some of it is probably in what defines Christian music. I think there is some people that go that the meaning of what it means to be a Christian band might be different than it was 20 years ago, for me personally. And I think that that's OK. I think there's room for all of those philosophies in my book.”
As mentioned at the beginning of this piece, Skillet is performing at Exit One Eleven in October. So, I asked what can fans expect from that show and any of the other shows during this tour.
"Oh, yeah! I can't wait! You know, that album's coming out, which means when we go on tour, we'll be playing brand new music, which I love. It's always fun to play new songs. And what people can expect from Skillet is as an incredibly energetic show. Every time somebody reviews a concert, they go, 'Man! This band's got a lot of energy!' It's just a passion for the music. Passion to put on a show. To me, it's all about connecting with the fans. One of the funniest things I read in a review of a Skillet concert reviewed is it said, 'I don't know how to describe how I felt about the Skillet show. But at the end, I felt like I wanted to do community service.' That was absolutely hysterical. He's like, 'I don't know why this show made me feel better and maybe want to be a better person'. I was just dying because we kind of get a lot of that. I don't really know why that is. But there's something about the vibe of the Skillet fans at the concerts that people always describe is like very uplifting. And I think that's kind of cool. That's what we're known for.
What’s on Skillet’s radar for the next couple of years?
"Well, probably, with this album coming out, it's going to be really busy touring, but also releasing a graphic novel, which sounds kind of silly. But I love comic books. I grew up with comics and graphic novels, and I've always dreamt of doing one. We're releasing it three weeks after our album releases, and we're going to be promoting that at some of the Comic-Con events. We recorded an exclusive song for the book, too. The book is called Eden and it's just a cool kind of science fiction - supernatural kind of a book and about a post-apocalyptic world. And we're all in a race to find the gate that takes us to paradise. That's kind of the idea. And it's pretty exciting. So, we're gonna be promoting the comic book, promoting the new album and touring - touring the world. We have tour dates from now to December 15th – which is our last one for the year.
Wrapping up our chat, I asked John the question I often ask artists and that is: When you step off the great tour bus of life up at that great gig in the sky (to borrow from Pink Floyd), what do you hope your legacy will be and how do you want to be remembered?
“Well, let's see. I mean, I think the only thing I really care about, honestly, is knowing that I lived my faith. That's really all that matters to me: knowing that I lived my faith, that I told people about it and wasn't a hypocrite. That's something that I just could not live with: saying that I believe one thing and acting like another thing. We all make mistakes, of course. Then we repent and we try to become better people. I'm not talking about not having regrets. I'm talking about going, 'I went for it, did the best I could and held strong to that.' I never, never want to be embarrassed of who I am; my faith, my God, the way I live my life. And that's really all that I want. I'd like to give people hope - the same hope that I have, if I can - through my music; through my relationships, the words I say. That's what I want.”
Undoubtedly, we’ll be hearing about Skillet for many years to come. You can keep up with John and the band by signing up for their newsletter at Skillet.com. While you’re there, you can purchase tickets for their Exit 111 gig or other shows on their tour.