The band Skillet has recently embarked on the second leg of their U.S. tour. On this tour, they will be playing songs from their 2016 release, Unleashed, and celebrating more than 20 years as a band with more than 11 million units sold worldwide. Band co-founder, bassist, and lead singer, John Cooper, took some of his time to talk with us about the most recent record, a headlining tour, and even more…
Carrianne Stoker-Postier: First off John, I appreciate you taking the time out to talk with us.
John Cooper: Absolutely, I’m glad to talk to you.
CSP:So, can we just start off with, what are you noticing about the reception of your newest record, Unleashed, and is there anything in the process of creating that record that you hoped would most resonate with your fans?
JC:Oh, absolutely. You know, it’s funny when you start to make a record, you never really know how people are going to like it or not. Even if you think you’ve made an awesome album, you know, you might be wrong. But, I gotta say, when we were making this record, we had such a great vibe. And, I’m not just saying that, because to be 100% honest, the previous record was the absolute opposite. It was like all fighting, the whole thing was hard, argue with the producer, with the label, it was just a nightmare. This one, I set out I said I’m not doing that again, we’re going to write songs that we believe in, we’re going to have fun doing it, and we did so. I really felt that…I don’t know if it sounds superstitious, but that good vibe or whatever you want to call it…I really felt that the fans were going to experience it when they heard the album. And, that’s what happened. We tried some new things on this record and right when it came out, people were saying “wow, they tried some new things and I like it” and then it kinda snowballed and it’s gotten bigger as it’s gone, so we’re very thankful. The thing I probably wanted to get across most, honestly, I set out to make a record that was less cerebral than the ones in the past. I kind of felt like, rather than pointing out the hard issues that are happening in the world right now, I thought it might be more poignant to not point them out and make an album that was an escape because everybody knows how hard the world is. Everybody is fighting, yelling, everybody’s mad about everything all around the world right now, and I thought it might be poignant to make an album that was saying, hey, in this record it’s going to be a record you can turn on, it’s going to make you feel better, it’s going to make you work out a little harder, run a little farther, lift a little more, drive a little faster, and inspire you to face the problems of the world.
CSP:That’s awesome. How does making a record now differ from the ones that you’ve made in the past?
JC:Honestly, what was great about this record was that we got to kinda do a little bit more of what we wanted to do. I know that sounds a little metaphysical, but I guess what I mean is, sometimes in the past we’ve had a lot of cooks in the kitchen, and we have less cooks in the kitchen this time. I think that’s what I’m getting at. This time was a little more, “Hey, you know we recorded some demos. And you know what? We really like the way the guitar sounds in the demos, so we’re keeping it.” Rather than re-recording 2 or 3 times with other people saying what needs to change. People saying, “I don’t like that lyric and blah blah blah blah blah,” and I’m saying, “you know what, I do like the lyric, I’m keeping it.” I’m not trying to say that we’re always right and I’m not saying that we didn’t change things. I love getting people’s council and advice, but I like in the end being able to make my own decisions and say, “I think I know our fan base really well, I think I know what they want to hear, and I definitely know what I want to say. So, thanks for the input. I might change it, I might not.” That’s what we did on this record. I think it shows the record sounds really good, the fans are really reacting to it, and that’s been good for us and our confidence.
CSP:So, Skillet has so much going on and you guys have lived on the road like tour machines. With being the headliners for this run, what does that give you an opportunity to do and what could fans look forward to?
JC:Well, there’s nothing like doing your own show, absolutely. You know, we’ve done a lot of our own headlining tours in the past, but in America up until last year we had not done a headlining tour for like 4 years. And, we haven’t come to the west coast on a headlining tour in 5 years, I think. So, I am so thrilled to be out on it. It gives you the opportunity to, number one, just play a lot of music. When you’re always doing opening gigs, you’re doing 30, 40, 45 minutes. When you do your own, you get to play a whole lot of old songs, you get to play songs that maybe weren’t radio hits, but maybe they’re fan favorites, you know? Or, maybe you’re just a selfish rock star and you want to play something you want to play and who cares what the fans want. So, that’s quite fun. And then, also as the headliner, you kinda get to get the overall vibe of the tour because every band that plays has their own vibe and their own kind of thing that they put off into the audience. As a headliner, you get a chance to not just put off your own vibe, but an entire tour vibe. So hopefully you can bring bands that kinda suit what you do and hopefully even add to what you do. That’s what we’ve really done on this tour package, the bands that are with us are so good and they’re great people, there’s been such a good unifying, you know, a presence…I just keep getting all these tweets from fans saying, “Wow, the whole show was just so electrifying, it was inspirational, and I feel better about my life after the concert,” and to me, that’s what it’s all about.
CSP:That’s great. So, when you consider the ways you’ve built and maintained a fan base that crosses a range of ages and backgrounds, what are your thoughts on the importance of social media or other ways you’ve been able to connect with the audience?
JC:Well, I will say this, when a lot of people want to know, because last year was our 20th year anniversary of Skillet, and a lot of people say “what’s the biggest difference between now and 20 years ago.” The biggest difference is social media, well, internet in general I guess is probably the most accurate answer. Internet in general of course has led to listening to music online and iTunes and yada yada. But, the essence of social media is huge and we really were lucky because Skillet didn’t have any real radio success until 2009. And, you know, that’s 13 years into our career. The reason we really built that underground fan army was social media and we really had a great fan army online. We always have a lot of interaction with our fans, answer questions, or even just two nights ago we kicked off the tour and as like a celebration I did a Twitter Q&A following the first show. It’s midnight to 1:00 am, I’m doing a Q&A for all of our fans, keeping up with them, making them feel special. Treating fans good online and in person. That stuff goes a really long way and I don’t know why a lot of bands haven’t quite figured that out yet, but it’s really helped Skillet solidify our fan base. So, then when we hit radio, it was kind of like, the piece of the puzzle that had been missing and frankly is the biggest piece of the puzzle. But, once we hit radio, it just snowballed very, very quickly.
CSP:So, like you’ve said, you’ve been at this for many years and you all work very hard. Looking back over your professional career, are there any learning experiences that stick out to you?
JC:Oh, yes (laughing). You know, if I could go back to my younger self, I think I would try to convince my younger John to realize that the music business is business and not to be so naive about that, and not to be so naive to think that it’s really all about art. Because really, I just didn’t want anything to do with the business, I just wanted to write music that I believed in. I was like, I really don’t care about those contracts. I just didn’t think I’d need to get my hands dirty on the business side and I was really wrong. I learned that as I went, sometimes I learned it the hard way. Not filing taxes properly…it wasn’t my fault, but I should have been asking the questions. There’s financial burdens that come with those kinds of things, but there’s also just a headache that comes with it. So, having the freedom to run a business…I have 16 employees now and to take care of them is also very rewarding. It keeps your whole business going and the more you keep your business going, the more freedom you have to keep releasing art that you’re really proud of. I would definitely teach myself that, learning experiences with taxes and things, that I will absolutely never forget.
CSP:John I know you’re busy, so I just have a couple more questions if that’s okay.
CSP:There’s a unique aspect of you and your wife being in a band together, and managing that success that you’ve achieved. When you think of the commitment that needs to exist not only in business, but also in marriage, what does that take and how important is having balance?
JC:Well, it is unique. I was thinking just the other day, I’m assuming you could count the number of married couples who have been in bands together and stayed together, I imagine you’d count them on one hand, two hands certainly. It’s really unique. I think one of the biggest aspects is…this is even actually an overall…is this idea that marriage is about love, is about feeling in love, so I guess I’m getting into a philosophical debate here, but a lot of people just don’t really understand that loving someone is a choice. There are going to be times when you don’t feel in love with someone or they’ve really ticked you off and you’re annoyed and whatever. I think that kind of philosophical belief plays into a marriage, certainly plays into a marriage/business partner. You just have to kind of know that that commitment is there, then you can sit down, you can work out any problems, you know, sounds cheesy but you can overcome any hurdle as long as you’ve kind of made that agreement on the front end and that’s what we’ve done. There’s been a lot of things that have needed to change that maybe I didn’t realize when I was younger. Taking time to care more about my marriage than my business and my art, and that’s as a father as well. You kind of learn those things the hard way sometimes, so we’ve just been able to kind of… I tell people that Skillet is the most boring band to be on tour with because we don’t stay up all night playing video games and partying, and sleep till one o’clock and get up and chill out. Everything we do is extremely scheduled because we have kids that do school on the road. We get up and we do school, we work out together, and we have lunch together, I do interviews, then we get to play together later in the afternoon. Everything is very scheduled out. If I’m a good father and I’m a good husband, then I can be a good rock star.
CSP:Skillet carries a powerful message in their music and with Unleashed, there’s this “warrior” sense that exists. Any song in particular that you believe stands out as THE battle cry?
JC:Oh, that’s a great, fun question, let me think. I’m going through my list of songs on the record (laughs). Well you know, I probably would choose the song, it’s the last song on the record, it’s called “The Resistance.” It has not been a single, a radio single, but earlier I think I said something about when you’re on headline tour you get to play songs that are fan favorites. Maybe not radio songs. “The Resistance” clearly was a fan favorite. It’s special to me for lots of different reasons, one of them is completely selfish, which is that it’s a song that nobody really believed in and didn’t really want on the record. We recorded it anyway and it got put on. It’s the last song on the record because they thought nobody would really love it and it ended up becoming the biggest requested song by the fans to hear live. I guess it’s a very vindicating experience for me (laughs). That’s why, but also it is a very, I would say extremely pertinent message for today. It’s about standing up for what you believe, making the world a better place, and saying that even though things are really bad, that it can be better. I think that’s probably the biggest what I would say “battle cry” kind of song on the record.
CSP:Awesome. So, what keeps you inspired to do what you do, and any other thoughts you might want to share on what you’re hoping for in 2017?
JC:Sure. Inspired…meeting fans that say that our songs just changed their lives or saved their lives. I mean I’m always amazed that I’ve written a song that convinced someone to not commit suicide or I met somebody recently that said that one of our songs is the reason they checked into drug rehab and they’ve been clean in the first time in 20 years, you know, things like that. I’m always humbled by that because I never expect that when I’m writing a song, I just hope people like it. Those are the most impactful moments of my life and my career. Meeting those fans keeps me going. I met a fan in Russia about four years ago, Moscow. She gave us a letter and the letter was basically the story of her life, and she had a very difficult life. Four siblings, her and her siblings and her parents all lived in one room, fighting and bullying at school, and she wanted to take her own life. She said the only good thing that keeps her going is our music and she said that our music makes her want to live. I actually wrote a song from that called “I Want to Live” and that was kind of based on that letter that I received from her. Those are the kinds of things that make me want to keep doing this. Music is so powerful. It can change people and it can help people. That’s what keeps me going. So, what I’m hoping for for 2017…Oh man, you know, I hope that our music reaches more people and new people. We’re getting more radio play right now, which is really the biggest medium there is, is getting played on the radio. I think the more it gets out there, the more people begin to respond to rock music in general, which is really exciting to me. So, I think that’s probably the biggest thing I’m hoping for is to keep getting out to new fans through radio, and through any way we can obviously, but mainly through radio.
CSP:Well John, again, I really do appreciate you taking the time out. I’m looking forward to seeing you all at the Spokane date. Thanks so much, and we wish you well on the road.
The re-imagined version of the song “Stars” on the soundtrack of the upcoming movie The Shack.