|CROSSROADS..........John Cooper of Skillet|
Pivotal moments in musicians' careers propelling them from obscurity to infamy by Mark E. Waterbury
The road to success can be very rough in the music business, especially for Christian rock bands. Just as the Bible tells us that the road to heaven is narrow, rocky and full of peril, that can often parallel what it takes for these impassioned musicians and bands to get to a point where they can spread their message to the masses. They find resistance from commercially accepted avenues such as labels and radio, and often encounter more frustrations within the Christian community itself as many may balk at their particular musical style as a conveyance for the word of their Savior. In recent times, a handful of bands have been able to break through the gauntlet of adversities and find commercial success. The hard-rocking foursome Skillet is a perfect example of this. Perched at the cusp of stardom, having inked a deal with a major label, toured the nation with well known bands and received a Grammy nomination, this band has never lost sight of what it took to get them there. Their mantra on how they live their lives and the passion they have behind their music helped them steer through that proverbial rocky road, and perhaps gives inspiration and direction to how other musicians can achieve the same sort of success, no matter what their beliefs may be.
Memphis, Tennessee is a town that is undoubtedly steeped in a rich musical heritage. It was here that basssist/vocalist John Cooper eventually sowed the seeds of Skillet. Always a fan of the aggressive but melodic rock bands, John had been playing for a number of years in the Christian rock band Serath when he originally formed Skillet with a guitarist and drummer who went to the same church that John did. The trio recorded a demo CD which managed to get into the hands of Forefront Records, an imprint of the Memphis based Christian label Ardent Records. "It was funny, because we were all playing in side projects or different bands," John recalls. "(Skillet) was also something that we were just doing as a side, it was not something that we were doing very seriously. When Forefront called us and told us they liked the demo, it was really surprising. Here we worked in these other bands for years and years and nothing happened. Then we do this band that just kind of happened and we get signed. You just never know what is going to happen."
Forefront/Ardent released Skillet's self-titled debut in 1996. The band had barely ever played live and really did not have a following at the time. "There was a pretty decent circuit for small Christian coffeehouses and music clubs we started playing at, places that hold about fifty or a hundred people. We didn't make any money, but we played almost every night...we played our butts off! And we eventually started gaining a small following." Through a mutual friend, John met a keyboardist/guitarist named Korey, who was originally from Wisconsin. The two married, and Korey joined Skillet as their fourth member. Through constant performing and the label's distribution network, the band sold nearly forty-thousand copies of their debut. They retooled their sound for their second CD "Hey You, I Love Your Soul" to a more aggressive, modern rock and roll feel. The original drummer also left the band after the recording to be replaced by Lori Peters. A song off the CD "Locked In A Cage" managed to get airplay on the commercial alt rock station in Memphis. "Because the song did quite well on the radio there, we began getting calls from all these labels," John remembers. "They would come see us play but back then nothing was happening with Christian music on major labels. A lot of labels were scared of it and didn't get the whole Christian rock ideal. It took several years for that to change."
Skillet stayed with Forefront/Ardent, releasing two more studio CDs and a live CD and DVD. Of course, the touring schedule stayed hectic, as the band constantly trekked across the country. "We were too heavy for the Christian market, so we toured on our own since 1998. We worked hard to grow our fan base slowly, and ended up selling over a hundred thousand CDs on our own." In 2003, with new guitarist Ben Kasica on board, Skillet released the album "Collide" in a time where the perception of Christian music in the commercial marketplace was changing. Bands like P.O.D. blazed a trail for others to follow, and soon the major label interest in Skillet was renewed. "There was still an attitude with some of the labels that they still didn't get this Christian music thing. But Lava Records stepped up and said they didn't care and ("Collide") was a record they believed in." Lava's Skillet signing and subsequent re-release of "Collide" capped part of a long journey for Skillet, who not only had to rise above corporate music's perceptions of Christian music, but often (what some fellow Christians thought of) their hard rock style as well. "The Christian music scene is great and I do love it in a lot of ways," John reflects. "There are those negative sides, and it can be difficult for a band that looks and sounds edgy. We did a lot of shows where we were asked not to do certain songs because they were too heavy, or the guys to take their earrings out, or cover our tattoos up because they don't like the way it looks. These things happen and you think it is ridiculous. Or some think we were compromising with our lyrics because we are not always talking about Jesus or praising Jesus in every song. But people are realizing there may be a better way of getting the message across these days, and maybe it is not so in your face. It's more poetic and it makes people think, and it is fun to figure things out. You let the music say what it needs to say."
Skillet received their first commercial crossover taste after signing with Lava when they wound up as the opening act for Saliva, Shinedown and Finger Eleven. The quartet of heavy acts toured the nation, and in the short twenty-five minute set. Skillet made some lasting impressions. "I do remember that every night somebody would ask us if we were religious, maybe because we were not cussing at the crowd or drinking or flipping them off or whatever. I think that kind of love makes people wonder what is going on, but that is about the strongest message I can give, stronger than me standing there talking about Jesus. I want people to see our lifestyles and see that I am faithful to my wife and not giving all these other girls my attention. Not everyone at the shows got it but some people did and it was really fun. And if your message hits just a couple new people a night, that makes a difference."
After the Saliva tour, Skillet did what they have been doing since the beginning; loading up the van and the truck and taking their show on the road again. They are headlining in various venues, churches and festivals, and are encouraging donations to the victims of the Asian tsunami. They will take a bit of time out to head to L.A. on February 13th for the Grammy Awards, as they are nominated for Best Rock Gospel Album. In spite of all these signs of success, John and his bandmates are not losing sight of what got them there, why they are doing music, and what their true goals are. "You know, unfortunately there are not a lot of rock bands out there talking about something positive, like talking about love instead of hate. We like to sing about things that all kinds of people can relate to. There are some bands that hide that they are Christian, but I am very proud of my beliefs. We do want to be proactive in how we get our message out there, but we don't want to make people annoyed, just make them aware. I would love to see us have more success with the mainstream radio and touring with mainstream bands, but I am very content with the fans we have. Life isn't about just selling records, it's about everything. We don't let the business rule our lives, although we would like to see our fan base grow a bit more."
John Cooper's advice for musicians: "A lot of bands think too hard about wanting to be big stars, and with that bit of thinking you'll never be successful as you want to be because your priorities are mixed up because it's all about yourself. Life isn't just about you, it's about everything. You see some of these big stars that are leading unfulfilled lives. They seem to be very successful, but it's not really doing what they thought it would do for them. Success can't really satisfy the longing in your heart for the purpose in your life. It's so simple to not be selfish and understand that it's not about us. It's great to have dreams but you find so much more dreams and happiness and joy in life, and by helping other people."