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Skillet Breathes Life Into Awake
After three years, Skillet returns with one of the most anticipated albums of the year. NRT's Senior Editor Angel spoke with lead singer and songwriter John Cooper about the new album.

By Angel

John Cooper:

"I finally had reached the point where I thought: I don’t want my whole life to be wrapped up in this band. I want to be able to spend more time with my wife and kids and to be happy about the life that I’m living."
Since Skillet last hit the studio for 2006's breakthrough project Comatose, the group's toured with the likes of Breaking Benjamin, Three Days Grace, Seether and Flyleaf, followed by a solo headlining ranking within Pollstar's Concert Pulse Top 50 Tours for 2008. Along the way, the Grammy-nominated alternative outfit also scored three top 40 singles on Billboard's Mainstream Rock charts, earned a pair of BMI Songwriting Awards and released its first ever concert CD/DVD combo pack in support of the season called Comatose Comes Alive.

Aside from the commercial accolades, the Grammy-nominated modern rockers are rapidly approaching gold sales status, backed by both public adoration and critical praise, making the brand new
Awake the band's most anticipated album to date. Not only does Skillet continue in the tradition of bone crunching rockers and melodic power ballads that comprised the last trip to the studio, but there's also a noticeable evolution sure to connect with longtime listeners and open the floodgates of its fan base even further than ever before.

NRT's Senior Editor, Angel, recently had the opportunity to speak at length with John Cooper, lead singer and principle songwriter for the band. John answers questions about their most commercial record to date, reveals who's behind the bandages on the album cover, and gives readers an in-depth look into one of the most anticipated albums of the year.

Hi, John. Welcome to NewReleaseTuesday.com. We're so glad you could join us to talk about Skillet's latest release, Awake. This is your seventh studio album, and it's another stellar effort with engaging and relevant messages for today's generation. Please tell us what song on Awake lays the foundation for the album.

There’s a song on Awake called “Hero,” which really sums up the album. It’s the first track on the CD, and I wrote this song for a number of reasons. One, I love comic books [laughter], which is maybe not super cool to say, but I grew up on Batman and Spiderman. So I had a metaphorical idea of what a hero should be. At some point I thought it would be really cool to write a song about that, but the reason I suddenly felt that I had to write a song about being a hero is due to how crazy this world has become. It just keeps getting scarier and scarier! The final straw for me was this economic crisis, especially when I heard that there were people who were defrauding others and causing many of the elderly to lose their retirement funds. That news hit me pretty hard and really made me mad. I was like, "All the people we believe in have let us down!” Another contributing factor would be the Catholic priests who were part of the sexual-abuse scandal here in the U.S. I was very upset when I heard about that and started to think, Where are we going to find hope in this world? It’s getting so dark.

The bridge of this song really drives home the message we want to communicate, and it’s the reason why I feel “Hero” sums up the album. When I wrote it, this was the idea I wanted to express:

"Maybe I don’t need to wait around for someone to speak up for what’s right. Maybe it’s time for me to stand up for what’s right and for me to be a hero to someone who is hurting and in desperate need of hope."

How did you come up with the title, Awake?

I wanted to call the album “Awake and Alive,” but then we thought, Maybe it’s too long or somebody might think it’s a live project. [Laughter.] It’s funny when you think about all the little, annoying things you have to take into consideration when you’re making a record. But it would be a bummer to name it “Awake and Alive” and then have everyone think it was a live album. So that’s why we called the record Awake.

Can you tell us about the title track, “Awake and Alive”?

The lyrics of this song address the state of the world today and tie in to the same social issues that “Hero” deals with. In spite of it all, this song encourages us to be strong and say: “All right, I’m not going to go through this world blind, or naive, or asleep. I’m awake, I’m alive, and not only am I ready to face the world head on, but I’m also ready to face myself head on as well as the demons or monsters that are in my life. I’m going to live what I believe and not be afraid to stand up for what’s right.

Comatose is the title of your last album, and Awake is the title of your latest project. Did you purposely choose album titles with two opposing meanings?

Well, no actually. It wasn’t intentional; it was just a natural progression. The message behind Comatose is, “Don’t sleep through this life. It’s time to wake up!” However, now we've come to a place where we’re ‘awake’ and that’s when we start to realize that there are important issues in the world as well as in our personal lives. The question is, “what are we going to do about it?”

As the band’s principal songwriter, were there any personal experiences you drew from while writing for the new album?

I would say most of the record is personal to me in terms of the lyrics, especially some of the darker songs like “Monster,” “Sometimes” or “Never Surrender.” Songs like that, I guess, express my feelings about getting a little older and a little more honest with myself about some of the things that go on inside of me, such as the things I want to change or wish I had done differently. It's about wanting a second chance and those kinds of issues. And that’s what the song “Monster” is about. It speaks of having a secret life that you don’t want anybody to know about and the thoughts you shouldn’t be entertaining in your mind that make you go, Man, I shouldn’t think that. That’s not who I want to be. Let’s keep that monster underneath.

The rock ballad, “One Day Too Late,” really struck a chord with me. What inspired you to write it?

Thank you! That’s one of my favorites, actually. We’ve been doing Skillet for such long time—and it’s really kept me busy! This kind of job can be all consuming because you’re constantly on the road, and you're constantly doing promotions. It all starts with a new record. Once you are finished with the new record, it’s time to go on tour and work very hard to promote it. Then you need to do a bunch of press, or videos, and other things to sell even more records. After that, it’s time to do another record! [Laughter.] So not only are you juggling a very busy schedule, but you’re also stressed all the time, and you're fighting to be number one as well! All that had been going on with me for a long time. I finally had reached the point where I thought: I don’t want my whole life to be wrapped up in this band. I want to be able to spend more time with my wife and kids and to be happy about the life that I’m living. What if my life was all over now? Would I be happy that I spent 95 percent of my time doing this? So the idea behind this song is to be who you want to be today because tomorrow could be one day too late.

Would you explain the concept behind your album cover? Are there any Scriptures that inspired this imagery? And one of our NRTeam members, Xcstarr, wants to know who’s behind the bandages?

[Laughter] That is actually me. I thought the visual concept was kind of cool because the songs on Awake are my songs, and the album cover shows me as I’m coming awake. There wasn’t any Scripture in particular that influenced it. The funny thing is, I wasn’t really thinking of the Comatose angle when I came up with the idea. In fact, this is the kind of picture I had in my mind (and it's a little scary): Imagine being in an accident or a car wreck—you’re either passed out or in a coma—and you wake up in an abandoned hospital with bandages wrapped all around you. It’s almost like you’re in some freaky movie where you’re all alone, and you’re wondering what’s going on.

As for the imagery, it represents this juxtaposition: A person who is coming awake would appear to be in a good situation—but at the same time, it can also be frightening! And that’s the idea behind the photograph. It’s like, “OK, I’m awake; I’m ready to go!” But then all of a sudden, you realize your whole body is wrapped in bandages, and you’re a little scared at what might be underneath.

With the success of the previous album under your belt, what was the atmosphere like when you went into the studio to record Awake?

I’d often thought that if we ever experienced any real success, the pressure in my life would go down, and then I’d be able to make the music I really wanted to make—but that is absolutely not true! Since the success of Comatose, there were more people telling us how to make our music while we were recording Awake. They thought they knew what kind of music people wanted to hear, and it got a little annoying after a while.

On top of that, I had a war going on within myself because I was trying to figure out what it was that people really liked about Comatose, and all these thoughts started running through my mind: Am I going too heavy? Lyrically, am I not going Christian enough? Or, am I going too Christian? Maybe people won’t like the song “Monster.” Maybe other Christians will be really offended by it, but I’m just going to do it anyway! And now that it’s done, people are really connecting to the messages on Awake.

The same thing happened while we were recording Comatose. As I was writing “The Last Night” in the studio, I started to become very nervous about the lyrical content because it is a dark song about a girl who’s talking to me about wanting to commit suicide. I kept thinking there was no way anyone at Christian radio was going to play this song—so much so that when it came time to lay down the vocal tracks, I went into the studio and asked my producer, “Are you sure this is OK?” He said: “Dude, I don’t know? This is heavy! Let’s just do it tomorrow.” So we slept on it that night. The next day I came back and said: “You know what? I don’t know if anyone at Christian radio is going to get it or not, but that’s what God gave me—and I’m going to do it!”

Amazingly enough, “The Last Night” ended up being the biggest song on the record. You know, even though I honestly had no idea if anyone at Christian radio would ever play that song, I have definitely learned this: No matter how much pressure you’re under, you have to trust God and do whatever He’s tells you. It might work out really great, or it might not. But at least you did what God has told you to do, and you can feel good about it.

Can you share any stories from fans that have been impacted by your music?

I can’t tell you how many hundreds of people we have talked to, have received messages from at MySpace, or have handed us written letters at our concerts who've expressed how the song “The Last Night” has impacted their lives. We've had so many people share their stories on how they decided to stop cutting or how they decided that they were not going to commit suicide after they listened to that song. It was literally hundreds of people, which is just absolutely amazing to me! I definitely knew that God had given me the song, and I had a feeling it was going to affect people. But I had no idea it would be to that extent—and I’m honored to be a part of what God has done with that song!

I understand Skillet’s lineup has changed a little as Lori Peters, your previous drummer, has left to start a new chapter in her life. Her replacement is Jen Ledger, who is not only a great drummer but also an amazing singer! How did you hook-up with her?

In Kenosha, Wisconsin, where we live, our church has a school of worship which draws people from all over the world, and Jen came from the United Kingdom to be a part of that program. So I knew Jen for about a year and a half, although I never heard her play the drums. When Lori decided to leave, a lot of people in our church kept asking me to let Jen try out. At first I thought, There’s no way this girl is going to be a good drummer. Jen was so young that I just didn’t think it would work out. But my wife, Kory, was into the idea, so we tried her out, and she was great! Jen just turned 19 this year, so it’s nice to have a young person on the road with us in terms of the excitement. She’s a great asset to the band!

What Bible verses have really inspired you? [A question submitted by LauraCC on the NRT forums.]

As a child, one of the first verses I ever learned was Matthew 6:33: "But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you” because that Scripture was incorporated into a worship song. [Sings song.] It wasn't until two years ago that I started to realize this one verse of Scripture is what the entire Christian life is about. That’s when I decided to make it one of my favorites.

Another favorite would be Romans 8:38: "I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love."

John, it was a pleasure talking to you. Before we go, do you have any words of encouragement you would like to offer to someone who is facing a seemingly hopeless situation and feels like there’s no way out?

In the end, this album sends out a message of hope. I want people to walk away feeling good about life after they listen to Awake. I also want them to know that there is a God who loves them just the way they are. I know there are people out there who are dealing with challenging situations that are so overwhelming it looks like their circumstances will never get better. As I said earlier, going back to Matthew 6:33, if we can seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, then all these things will be added to us. If we can make God our number one priority and live a life that glorifies Him, then there is nothing that we won’t be able to overcome. Jesus is so great that He can help us get through anything! Love conquers all, right?

To find out more about Skillet visit www.skillet.com or www.myspace.com/skilletmusic.

Posted August 24, 2009 | Angel, a concert photographer and writer, frequently conducts artist interviews for NRT. She loves Christian music and currently lives in FL with her husband.