Latest release: Unleashed (Warner)Website: www.skillet.com
American band Skillet have no qualms about being known as a Christian band. It hasn’t hurt their ongoing career trajectory either with a growing market base and an online video presence that many bands would be envious of attaining. The band includes the husband and wife team of front man John Cooper on bass guitar and rhythm guitarist, keyboardist and backing vocalist Korey Cooper respectively. Skillet have been nominated for and collected a decent chunk of reputable awards across various media platforms and aside from churning out nine studio albums, have toured the world with a solid work ethic alongside some seriously heavy hitters in the hard rock world. Last here seven years ago, they are returning to Australia for a four date tour run that promises to deliver on the live front. Loud Online spoke to John Cooper recently to discuss the tour and how the enduring band has survived the rapid changes in the music world today.
Your last tour to Australia was back in 2011. What can fans expect from this coming tour?
Well, we are very excited to be coming back. We had an amazing run last time. Since then, we have had two albums come out. So we will be playing a lot of songs that we have never played in the country before which is going to be awesome and fun. Of course, we’ll be playing what I guess calling them the hits is the way to say it because the people will be mad if we don’t play them. Ha ha, we don’t want people to get mad but we always like to try new things and do things differently. We like for the show to be different than just listening to the records so we will always have some surprises in there.
A bit of a broad question but how would you say your song writing has changed over the years?
I think that I would say that song writing in general changes from era to era. If you look at some from The Beatles and since that time, the way that songs were written has changed and so has what people write about. My song writing has changed kind of as culture has changed. For me it has become more about finding what works for Skillet because we try to write anthemic hooks and songs that people might be able to work out to and so on. They can go for run and they can come to a show and put their fists in the air singing these songs. It wasn’t that we weren’t doing that before but I think that probably on our latest record, it is very much anthems hopefully written for arenas full of people.
Do you then try to write with an album project in mind or is there label pressure to write a song that gets a lot of attention on YouTube and other channels?
Well, let’s see. I suppose that is something that has changed naturally. Certainly when I was first making records, sometimes you would look at all ten to twelve tracks and you would look at the full record and ask yourself what the record would need. We might have a lot of songs that were in a similar key so we would need something in a different key or maybe in a different tempo. You’d need something really fast and you would look at things more like that because people would listen to a record in its entirety. At some point that all changed and so now you’re just picking the best ten songs you have. I don’t think that is bad or good, I just think that is that way it is and that is more of what I was referring to with those kinds of things when I said that the song writing and business has changed so much because culture has changed. People don’t necessarily want to listen to a full record. They don’t want the rollercoaster, they just want the hit songs.
Fair enough. Are you now producing albums yourself or is it co-production?
No, we do quite a lot of production but we have not as yet really been producing. I think that to a large degree we really are co-producing but our names are not on the project. How does that sound?
You play a five string bass guitar. What got you into that style of bass playing?
You know what, the truth is that I was singing in a band years and years ago but we just could not find a bass player. Bassists were really hard to find because there is no glory unless you are Flea or Geddy Lee or someone of that stature. Otherwise, there is no glory in playing bass anymore. We just couldn’t find a bass player and I was thinking, ‘how hard can it be?’ and I thought I could do that. I already played piano, the trombone and a little bit of guitar. I never thought that I would like it, I was just filling in a position until we found someone. After about a year, I started to like it but I really didn’t know just how important bass guitar was before then. You know, I’d played in a band and all I really knew about was guitars and singing. So that was kind of cool.
In that light, what is it like being part of the rhythm section but also being the lead singer?
That is the biggest difference. Most or maybe even all guitar players assume that they can play bass because technically bass is easier than guitar and that’s since typically you’re not playing chords but more likely to be playing one note at a time. But the truth is that most guitar players or at least most rock guitar players are ahead of the best most of the time. The intensity of playing guitar just makes it that way. When you play bass and drums, you are kind of meant to be behind the beat or in other words, you’ve got to have a little bit of groove to do it. That is good for me because I have more groove than I have technical skill or guitar. That works well for me and I like that since I cannot play guitar and sing at the same time very well but I can play bass and sing which came kind of naturally. I like holding down the rhythm of that because it feels like you’re building a foundation for the songs.
Skillet has done a lot of touring. In watching the crowds interacting, do you notice the audience gravitating towards say the snare and kick drum or is it the vocal melody line that grabs them?
These days I would say that the crowds definitely gravitate towards the melody line. I mean rock music and music in general has changed so drastically in my career. Our first record came out in 1996 and back then, whilst rock music had to have a melody and hopefully some hooks, half of it was just having cool guitar work and cool guitar tones. I remember that every time Smashing Pumpkins material would appear, all of the guitar players would be listening to the pedals used or how Billy Corgan was getting this sound and that. Korn was a little bit similar because they were doing so many unique things on guitars at around that time such as tuning really low and using all of these weird effects. That is really not as much of a thing anymore and I think it is because music these days is recorded by people who don’t even play music. A lot of it is computerised so they get on, they do something and it sounds like they are playing guitar but a lot of the time they really are not doing that. Not to be rude but that is the reason that all of these albums might sound amazing but when you see the bands play, some of the bands cannot really perform that well and they probably didn’t perform on their record. So, that’s the difference between those bands versus bands like Skillet and Korn. We just toured with Korn last year and they were the absolute best live band I have ever seen. I was just amazed by it and the benefit of bands that have been doing it for a long time is that we’ve always had to play all of the parts. I think the crowds are just changing, that’s all. But, there is certainly still the tribe of what I would call hard rock fans that care about these things and that is cool.
Of the many bands you’ve toured with, are there any you’ve watched from side of stage and picked up or honed your stage craft skills just from watching quality artists play live?
Oh, I definitely get influenced by people, without a doubt. Every band I have toured with, I’ve gone to watch them and learned from them seeing how they do their thing. I don’t know if I can point to one person or band and say that was a major influence but certainly all of them do so. Honestly, with everybody we play with, I always pick up something that they do which I think is really smart. Even if I don’t use it, I recognise almost like the feeling of what they are doing and what gives them their identity. It is good to learn from folks and then ask how it works for me. You’re not ripping somebody off but you’re realising what your identity is and then seeing how you come across to fans.
The legacy of a band like Stryper includes that they opened doors for everyone from Messiah Prophet, Leviticus, Whitecross, Bloodgood and Shout to say Deliverance, Believer, Vengeance and Mortification. Would you say you might be in a similar position today with Skillet?
Oh yeah, sure, absolutely I do. I’ve heard a lot of people say that Skillet is kind of like the new Stryper – not that we’re doing what they do but a little bit in kind of doing what Stryper did then. There have been other bands that have done it but in the hard rock world, Stryper were really the first band that was a Christian metal band that had people asking what in the world Christian rock actually was and so they definitely opened up those doors. A lot of bands have been able to follow in their footsteps. I say this respectfully but I think that the reason that Skillet is most associated with that is because a lot of the time when Christian bands crossed over into the rock world, a lot of those bands tried to cover up that they were a Christian band. It was more a case of saying we’re not really a Christian band but we’re a band of Christians and they were very quiet about their faith. I am not saying that is bad in any way and that is none of my business as to what they do but Stryper did not do that and Skillet did not do that. I think that is reason that even though there are other bands that have done it, Skillet is most associated with Stryper because we have both been very blatant about where we came from but that is just my interpretation of it.
The contrast is that bands like Petra and to some extent, Whiteheart, were pretty much playing to church audiences.
Yeah, that is right. I was a very big Petra fan. You mentioned Whitecross and I loved a band called Barren Cross. They were my favourite of all of the Christian metal bands. Yeah, I think that was the thing; the intent of what Christian music means has broadened a lot and there are a lot of different interpretations of what that means. I think that there were a lot of Christian bands at that time who were really just playing to Christian people and there is nothing wrong with that. Then there were other bands that kid of crossed over so that those doors opened for some people but they didn’t open for others. I do not think that is was a testament of somebody being better than somebody else, it is just the way it works.
How do the secular bands you tour with take your evangelical approach?
You know, I have not had any issues with anybody. We’ve toured with plenty of bands such as Korn, Shinedown, Stonesour and Papa Roach. We’ve played with Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath and Nickelback. We’ve really had an amazing run and I think that it is just mutual respect. It would be different if I were to get on stage at those shows and start preaching the gospel and doing altar calls. I think that then we would have problems because they’d be saying, ‘hey, that is not what people are paying to see’, since people are paying to see a show. So, give them 100 percent every night and then if Skillet is doing a great show then I can say what a song is about or dedicate a song like ‘Hero’ to Jesus Christ and then play the song. Then you are not really preaching or offending people but you are telling your story and then you’re doing a kick butt show. As long as that is the case then they don’t judge me and I don’t judge them. I’ve made great friends with tonnes of agnostic or atheist people that we’ve toured with and with people who are from a very different vantage point than me so I think that is a really positive thing.
Finally, with your back catalogue continuing to grow, what would be your favourite album thus far?
My favourite Skillet record is still Comatose which was released in 2006. It is my favorite record because I think that was the turning point for Skillet. Before then we had a loyal following and it was going well but in 2006, it just kind of changed. I don’t know why but all of a sudden people were singing our songs and it just took on a whole new life of its own. I think it was a special record since it solidified our identity. I do not think that I will ever like a Skillet record as much as that one because it is nostalgic and it was a life changing album.