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Collide #3 ("Reinventing Skillet")
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Reinventing Skillet:
an interview with John Cooper
Interview by: Kierstin Berry (from grassrootsmusic.com)

At first glance, Skillet might seem like just another in-your-face hard rock group in black leather pants. But a conversation with frontman John Cooper following the foursome's recent jaunt to Europe reveals a multi-dimensional collision of talents and personas. Not only is there a surprising sensitive side to Skillet, there's also a humorous side, a theological side, a parental side, and a musical side in constant pursuit of reinvention...


Kierstin Berry:
Was this your first time to tour in Europe?

John Cooper: It was our second time actually. Our first we did in 1998. And it doesn't go that well. I mean, it's fun, but nobody knows us so it's weird.

KB: Here in the US at least, Skillet is known for creating a distinct sound with each new album. Do you go into every record knowing how you want your sound to evolve?

JC: Let's see. Usually, we go into a record knowing what we want it to sound like, whether it's a really drastic change or not. But usually it's also the case where once we're in [the studio], big changes can happen. I'll give you an example. On this record, Collide, we knew we were going to have hardly any keyboards, we knew it was going to be guitar heavy and that the drums were going to be louder. The things that I really wasn't prepared for was the use of strings on the record, and the piano and the acoustic guitar. And then in the end, we actually put more keyboards in than I was planning on doing. It's one of those things where if a song really wants it you just do it, and then you go, 'Man, this needs to be on more of the record because it sounds nice.' Also, what's current in rock music changes things. You listen to the radio and before you know it, what's current in music has definitely infiltrated what you do, whether you want it to or not.

KB: In terms of wanting less keyboards, was [your wife] Korey ready to try something different for a change?

JC: Well, I don't even really know what was the main factor that contributed to that change, except that I remember Korey saying she thought it was time that we not have keyboards, that it was time for something new, for a heavy guitar record.

KB: Did she play mainly guitar on Collide?

JC: She actually didn't play guitar on the album, but she is playing guitar live with us. About a year ago, we began changing our live sound a little bit because we knew Korey would begin playing guitar live, kind of pulling back the keyboards. We were transitioning our sound with fans of our old music so that when our new muisic came out, it wasn't a total shock. Korey still did all the programming on the record. There's actually a lot more drum programming on the record than it sounds like, a lot of low kicks and low loops where you don't really hear them but you feel them.

KB: You mentioned being impacted by what's current in music. Do you take a lot of your cues from what you hear on the radio?

JC: Whether you want to or even notice it, you are kind of being influenced by what's around you. The truth is, I don't really listen to the radio hardly ever but I am kind of aware of what's being played, and I have friends in bands who are up on what's going on and will say, 'Listen to this song by so and so.' There is definitely some of that. Now, I don't want to say that the reason that we would change our sound is because everybody is doing a certain sound so we want to do it too. But you have to pay some attention to that. Like for instance, our first record came out in '96 and it was a very grunge-rock record. By the time '97 hit, nobody liked grunge anymore. So you kind of have to decide, 'Is my sound defined by my songs and my voice, or is my sound defined by grunge-rock music?' And the truth is that I'm really a songwriter at heart; I'm not really a grunge guy.

KB: Which album would you say is most reflective of your personal taste?

JC: The thing that's really hard for me is that I go in transitions where I'll really like a certain type of music and then a year later I won't really like it and I'll like something else. So basically, within its time, each album that I wrote I like the best. Right now I think Collide is definitely our best record songwriting-wise. I think it's got the best songs and the most mature sounds on it. But when we were recording Alien Youth I was really excited because I produced it myself. It really just kind of depends. Out of all the records we've done, my least favorite is Invincible, and my favorite is Collide, as of now.

KB: Do you think it's important for artists to continually reinvent themselves?

JC: Yeah, definitely. Again, being that at heart I'm a songwriter, I think some of your fans don't want you to change, but if you want to be around for awhile, you have to do that, unless your sound is very signature and it's working really well. And there are some bands that can do that. Take a band like Tool. They just sound like Tool, you know? In fifteen years, they can still sound like that and they're going to have people who really like them. It's very signature. But I see myself being more interested in the songs than I am in the sounds, so yeah, I think reinventing ourselves is going to be the key for Skillet staying around for awhile. The negative side is that if you reinvent yourself into something that nobody likes then that's not very good.

KB: Where did you find the specific inspiration for Collide?

JC: Lyrically, you mean?

KB: Yeah.

JC: Well, let me think. It must have been about a year and a half ago that I began really praying, 'What does this record need to be about?' I had done a couple of records that were very much written for the Church, about revival and what the Church is supposed to be. And I really felt God telling me that this record needed to be about issues and the things that we are seeing in our day, issues that would be relevant to all kind of people, not just the church. Some of it has just come from my own life, things that I felt when I was growing up that I can remember now, or things that I see in young people at our shows. There are some songs about insecurity because young people are feeling so pathetic and useless and it's all coming down to insecurity. And of course I wanted to write something having to do with the war that's going on and all the violent things that we're seeing, and what it came down to in my mind was fear basically. We're in the midst of a world that is full of fear, but as Christians we believe that we have hope and a reason to live that gets us beyond that fear. Those are the kinds of things I wanted to get across on the record.

KB: On this album, there's also a love song. Was it challenging to write a love song that would fit the louder grittier edge of the album?

JC: The thing is, that song has been written for quite a long time. My wife and I wrote it and we started recording it on Alien Youth actually. If you've heard Alien Youth you know that song wouldn't really fit the record, which is why it's not on there. I had not planned on using it for this record either. It seemed like it was a few years old, and didn't work the last time, but I just really liked the song. Then my producer heard it as a demo and said we needed to record it, and it has actually been really refreshing. I mean, I do write love songs and they've never really seemed to have a place with Skillet, you know? It's kind of funny to me because obviously I am in love and so many people are dealing with falling in love, infatuation, things like that. I think it's something that's good for the Church to address. And maybe there have been some inhibitions on my part because I have not felt like the Christian music industry really cares to address those issues. On this record I wanted to get rid of all my inhibitions.

KB: Why do you think the Church is wary of talking about love and romance?

JC: Well, you know, I don't really know. I don't have the answer to a lot of the problems that I see. I can recognize what we're doing wrong. I don't really know how to do it right. But I do think there's something about Christianity where we don't like to talk about practical things, and I don't mean worldly, like sin, but things that aren't super-spiritual because we feel like they're carnal or something. Or that they're not really worth talking about. For instance, I don't want to be too mushy or fluffy but we never talk about friendship in church. Just what being a true friend really is. The principles in the Bible have everything to do with loving people, your brothers and sisters in Christ, your family. I think we just think they're not spiritual enough to talk about. And really the only 'being in love' stuff that we talk about is when we're in youth group and then all that we talk about is how far is too far, sexual sins and things like that. We never really talkabout 'is it okay to be in love, what does it really mean?' I think basically you have a whole generation of people growing up who don't know what it really means to love someone. Truly love someone. Like, what's the difference between loving someone and infatuation? Obviously the world isn't seeing what true love is like from the Church because divorce rates in the Church are just as bad, really. That's why I was kind of excited about this song. Even though it is a love song, it's actually a really good message for people to hear.

KB: You and Korey just had a baby recently. How has parenthood changed things for you?

JC: Oh man, I love being a dad. It's great. My daughter Alex is fourteen months now. Before we had a baby, I had spent quite a bit of time with my nieces and nephews and I began to realize how selfless you have to be to have babies, and I wasn't really prepared for that years ago. As we were preparing to have a baby, I knew that my life couldn't be about myself anymore. As humans we're so inherently selfish, right? All that we really care about is what we want to do. But when you have a baby all of a sudden you can't do anything you want to do and it's totally about your baby.

KB: Has being a dad affected your songs at all?

JC: Funny enough, it hasn't really affected my songwriting or musicianship at all, which is kind of a shock to me because everyone said, 'It's going to change your songwriting,' and it hasn't. I don't know what that means about me.

KB: Skillet has a female drummer, which is relatively unique. Is it helpful having the dynamic of two males and two females in the band, in terms of keeping things balanced?

JC: You know the funny thing is I always thought that since we had two girls and two guys, this could be marketing genius right here. Nobody meant for it to work out that way and never capitalized on the fact that we've got two girls in a rock band, which is just so cool. Our drummer is so good live. She plays harder than tons of the guy drummers who we've played with. I guess what I'm saying is, we need to do a better job of capitalizing on this because our girls rock! Now I've forgotten your question because I'm so busy bragging about our drummer.

KB: That's okay. Does it help keep things more balanced to have a couple of girls on the road?

JC: I do think it is really good getting girls' opinions on things. In the end, it's so much more accurate than guys' opinions, I've started learning. The way that girls react to things is so different, and having that balance is good because you get four or five guys together in a bus and things get weird, you know? Even just the fact that guys live like pigs. A lot of the guys I know who play in bands, they don't bathe properly and they just smell, you know what I'm saying? So having normal, practical life is going to be a lot easier having a few girls on the road.

KB: So going back to this album and the issues you have found it important to address, I've noticed you have a lot of songs that seem to deal with running from God and then finding Him. Weakness met with strength. Tell me about that.

JC: Yeah, I think that everyone ever can relate to that. I guess with the exception of a few people who say they don't believe in God so they just don't care, I think that anyone who has an idea that God is coming after them can relate to that. And even if you've been walking with God for ten or fifteen years, you're still probably going to have times like that where you think, 'I'm running from what God wants me to do.' The thing I've found is that I think our society has equated running from God with living in sin like crazy. Or that when you're serious with God, you do all the right things. But running from God can mean so many different things. It can mean simply 'I know God wants me to do this certain thing, but I really don't want to. I want to do what I want to do.' And in the end, you're fighting God's will. The first track on the record is about that idea that there once was a time when I was passionately in love with God, and what happened to that time? And that those times aresweeter in my memory than the time that I'm having right now. I guess that's something that I've gone through in my own life and I think it's so necessary to talk about that within the Church. So many people can relate to that.

KB: So what would you say to those who think that faith in Christ should mean the end of that kind of tension? Either believers who are disillusioned, or those who expect Christians to have it all together?

JC: I guess I'll have to get a bit theological for that but not because I'm trying to look smart. [Laughs.] Within theology itself, you've got two kinds of sanctification. You've got salvation sanctification, which says that when you give your life to Christ, He wipes all your sins away. The Bible says you're whiter than snow; you're holy before God. And then you have daily sanctification which means that even though it's true that I'm holy before God, I still have things in my life every day that need to be purified. It's a process of making me holy, which some people say is a contradiction but it's really not. It's the difference between God purifying you and you purifying yourself with God's power in your life. And so it is the end of the struggle of 'I finally found what I'm looking for. I found a reason to live. I found my first love.' All those things. But you still have the process of day to day. What do you do now to keep that relationship going? It's like finding your soul mate. It's not the end to all of your problems just because you've found the woman of your dreams, the one who is made for you, youbelieve. So then it's great, we're together, we're married, but we still have problems in our relationship. It could come from times when I don't feel affectionate toward that person for whatever reason. Or I don't feel as in love as I used to. Real life things that happen that you have to learn how to come through, and that's part of being human but it's also part of the Christian life. When you get to heaven you won't have those struggles anymore. You'll be in one perfect relationship with Christ.

KB: That's a great explanation. And in closing, do you have any idea what the next evolution of Skillet will look like?

JC: In terms of musical style, I've really got no idea. I guess what I'm kind of getting into at the moment, well, I'm kind of getting more into some of my metal roots you could say, and some of the stranger progressive rock stuff. I don't mean to say that I think Skillet is going to be a punk rock band. I don't think that will happen. But I am really enjoying the aggressive, screaming, heavy rock side of what we do, and I also love the strings on this record. So who knows? I'm just very, very happy doing what we're doing right now.