Skillet catches fire in mainstream rock
>‘ Core’ Christian artists hope to be ‘bridge’ between two music markets
When John Cooper, frontman for Christian rock band Skillet, heard that the group’s eighth and latest album, Awake , had debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard Album chart a few weeks ago, he had one reaction.
“I was very disappointed,” says Cooper, barely able to contain his laughter, “I was really expecting to be No. 1.”
Cooper is, of course, being funny about his disappointment, but Skillet’s success is no joke. The longtime Memphis-rooted group — featuring bassist/vocalist Cooper, his wife and multi-instrumentalist Korey Cooper, guitarist Ben Kasica and drummer Jen Ledger — has made a very unlikely jump into the mainstream rock world, selling nearly 70,000 copies of its album in the first week alone. The band plays Minglewood Hall on Thursday.
These days you’ll find Skillet’s songs on the radio, being used as soundtracks for NFL and WWE broadcasts, and even shows on MTV.
“There is a snowball effect, where it seems like you’re seeing and hearing the band everywhere,” says Cooper. “And it’s that perception is reality thing; all of a sudden Skillet seems like it’s getting really big. We certainly do hope people will hear the songs and be curious enough about the music to go and buy the record.”
The kind of success Skillet is enjoying now — firmly established as Christian music stars and as a fast-rising mainstream act — is far from where the group began.
In the mid-’90s, Skillet was viewed as an upstart amid a conservative Christian radio climate.
“Ten years ago, as a rock band in Christian music you had a hard time getting played on the radio, a hard time getting people to come to shows. We simply couldn’t get any attention,” says Cooper.
“One of the reasons things have changed for us overall is that now we’re a core artist at the Christian format.”
Cooper says the shift toward rock by Christian radio programmers has been slow but definitive.
“Within Christian music there’s been a generational change,” he says. “Most of the people who have influence at the stations now, they grew up listening to rock music, so the resistance is gone.”
Although the group is following other successful faith-oriented bands like P.O.D. and Switchfoot to pop success, Skillet has taken the harder path, making the slough from the less glamorous Christian market into the mainstream world.
“We’re probably one of the most successful Christian artists who are crossing over,” notes Cooper. “And so I think — and I hope — Skillet is going to be another bridge between Christian and mainstream music. We hope that our success will give a little credibility to the Christian market.”
Despite the inroads they’ve made on the charts and in radio — the album’s first single, “Monster,” is getting some relatively strong airplay — Cooper says there is still some resistance to the group within certain corners of the music industry.
“There are some radio station program directors that refuse to play our song — not based on the music but on our history, and because we’ve been in the Christian market for 10 years,” says Cooper. “They don’t want anything to do with Skillet. Those are the times where it’s frustrating, where we just want to be judged as musicians. It’s like, judge me like you judge everyone else — on the songs.”
For Cooper, finding the right balance between a passion for his beliefs and for his career is a continual challenge.
“I love rock music, love playing in a band, playing shows. At the same time, I do feel this kind of honest draw to singing about my faith. And I think walking the line between those things can be tough,” he says.
“I’m not a preacher, I’m a lead singer. But I look at someone like (U2 frontman) Bono as having done both those things successfully. He’s very much a preacher for social issues and the things he believe in,” says Cooper. “I just saw U2 play a few weeks ago, and I thought this guy’s preaching way more than I do. But there are people like that, who’ve done a good job combining those things, and I’m trying to follow in their footsteps.”
Skillet’s upcoming show at Minglewood Hall is part of what’s expected to be a long year of touring behind Awake , released on Atlantic/Ardent/INO. Beyond the band’s headlining shows this year, Cooper adds that Skillet may do some opening slots for a mainstream band in 2010.
“The biggest goal is to keep serving our fan base. That’s what we want to do most,” says Cooper. “And, beyond that, the next goal is, let’s continue with the mainstream success we’ve built. Mainly, though, we’re having fun and enjoying what we’re doing, and because of that I hope we can continue to do it for a long time.”
Skillet is (from left) Jen Ledger, John Cooper, Korey Cooper and Ben Kasica.