I had the chance recently to sit down with John Cooper, frontman for the hugely popular Christian rock band Skillet. We had the opportunity to talk about a variety of subjects, and John was able to share his thoughts on such topics as signing with a mainstream label, touring and family life among other things. The following is an excerpt from our chat. Enjoy!
The band’s been pretty busy over the past year (signing w/ a major label, increased touring, appearing on VH1, etc.); can you give a little recap of how your lives have changed over this pat year?
Cooper: It really hasn’t been that much different. Well, it has been much busier. Since the mainstream release of Collide was done after it had already been released in the Christian market, we had to immediately go back out and start another tour if we wanted to break into the mainstream market more. But since no one there really knows us, you don’t really get paid to do anything, so we did about 25 or 26 shows a month to get out there. So that was really difficult, but really exciting in a way. For years I’ve kinda been waiting to see when these doors would open for us, and with all that’s happened it’s kind of rejuvenated us. It was cool to do some of the tours and I really think that the mainstream deal put a lot of life into us. At times you feel like maybe you should be making more headway than you are (laughs). You’re like ‘Shouldn’t more people of heard of us by now, it’s been nine years.”
With some of the changes you guys have experienced over the past year, do you think the band’s focus has changed any?
Cooper: Yeah, the way I kind of envision the band (in my mind) started changing a bit before the mainstream deal hit. And after we started playing more secular shows, and I tried my hardest to live like Jesus growing up, so I really never lived in that world (of partying, etc). I guess what I’m getting at is that the past year of playing these mainstream shows has really showed me what the world out there is like. Up to this point it’s been kinda just theory. I’ve been able to see a lot more of what people are dealing with, and it’s really hit me pretty hard. You go “Wow!” And because of that in my own life, and maybe the whole church at large, I can see where we might not be doing enough to reach out to those who are hurting. I’ve heard people say that, and I try not to point the finger at the church all the time, but with the kind of things I saw out there I think we could be doing more as a whole.
How does family life affect being out on the road?
Cooper: It’s difficult. I mean, well let me say this, it’s wonderful and great. Playing all these clubs and stuff, people are like “Are you different?” and “Are you tempted by any of these things the world has to offer?” It’s just not possible with our lifestyle. My wife’s on the road, our daughter on the road, and we have another one on the way. It’s kind of like “what are you going to do, and how are you going to keep it secret.” You’re there with these people all the time, so it actually is really wonderful.
Now the hard side of it is that you’ve got to worry about putting your daughter to bed on time and try to keep the noise down. She’s up at 6:30 in the morning, and you’re completely done from the previous night’s show around 2. The practical side of it can be pretty exhausting. I really like it. Ben and Lori (and the crew) are into it too and they help out. They’re not like “This stinks, why do they have to do that now.” They’re all into being like aunts and uncles and stuff like that.
While on the road, how do all of you stay accountable?
Cooper: Well, on the road it’s not that regimented. It’s not like “let’s get together…how are you doing today?” It’s more like living that life with each other. You know. It’s usually pretty clear if someone isn’t doing well and they’re going through a hard time. Their mood changes, and you just know something’s up. So that’s when we have those kind of talks like “What’s going on, and what can I do to help?” For those most part, honestly, it has to be something you do on your own. Being on the road is a rude awakening for most people. They soon realize how much they depend on the church service to be their Jesus, you know. Most people go to church on Sunday and it makes them feel kind of good for the rest of the week. You get on the road and things change. I think everyone should go on the road, so they can really appreciate all of what church is about. We have a great love for our particular body, the church that we’re a part of. We’re not there on Sunday particularly because the preacher or sermon is great; it’s because they are our family. We miss them, and they kinda look out for us. So that’s what I feel, personally, what church is all about.
Are you able to find your own personal time with God while on the road?
Cooper: It depends. You definitely have to try harder to make it happen when you’re not at home. It’s not easy. At home, you can wake up and do your thing, but on the road you have people around you constantly. We have some down time during the day, and you can do it, but it takes some work to make it happen.
For someone who’s never seen the band perform in concert before, and I think there’s a few still out there (John laughs), how would you describe your live show to them?
Cooper: Very energetic, first and foremost. After the shows we always get comments like “Wow! The energy you guys put off on stage is insane.” We do put a lot into our shows, and to be honest, I’m kind of hard on the band at times to put on a great show. When I was a kid and was going to see a band in concert, I’d be looking forward to it for like two months beforehand. Just because you’re tired, or having a bad day, doesn’t mean you can’t put on a great show for the people that come out to see you. They don’t know those things. It’s not that they don’t care, it’s just that they’re there to rock. As I said earlier, I’m pretty hard on the band, and we try to give it our all at every show. The only time I’ve ever had to leave the stage (during a show) was last year at Kingdom Bound, because I was so sick.
Other than that, we do talk about our faith from stage. We really want to be a band with a clear message, but as you asked earlier, that has changed a bit. I used to preach quite a bit during the shows, but recently I got thinking about how the world was taking this. Don’t get us wrong, we’re not ashamed of our faith. But it’s like, say I’m in high school and I’m not a believer and my friend Joe (who’s always trying to get me to go to his church) invites me to go see a Christian rock concert. So I say “OK”, and I pay my $15 or $20 for the show and it rocks. But then halfway thru the music stops and they continue to preach for a half-hour or so. Then you’re like,?”That’s now what I paid the $15 for, you tricked me.” So I started thinking about. I mean, it’s a good trick, especially if they make a decision for Christ. That’s a wonderful thing. So that’s changed a bit, but I still feel we’re a band with a clear message. We definitely share our faith, and about things that are eternal; we’re not ashamed of that.
For those artists out there that are thinking about entering the business, what one piece of advice would you offer them?
Cooper: The best piece of advice, which I’ve just learned over the past couple of years, is to have a good team around you. I finally learned that I can’t do all this myself, and that there are people out there that I can trust. You’ve just got to find those people. That’s been the biggest thing for me, having the right manager, the right attorney. People think, “It’s the Christian music business”, so everything’s on the level. And for the most part it is, but it is a business. If I can add one more thing, you’ve also got to know what you’re called to do. There are a lot of artists in the Christian music scene that really don’t want to be in Christian music; they really want to be in the mainstream. They don’t want to talk about Jesus, they’d rather sing about love. In the end, I just wonder why they ever wanted to be a Christian artist anyway. I really troubled by that. I think the Christian music industry is really great. I really cherish Christian labels and bookstores, and Christian radio. I believe that there’s a real need for it.
Any particular bands or CD’s that you’re listening to right now?
Cooper: I haven’t been listening to much honestly, but I did recently buy a few CD’s. I bought them because I needed to, since I like the bands, like Breaking Benjamin and My Chemical Romance. Some of the bands have been getting a lot of attention lately, and it’s always good to be familiar with the new bands. I also like the Showbread CD. There’s one song on there that’s really great, but I forget the title of it. There’s a lot of stuff I like; it’s just that I don’t get a chance to listen to it. When we’re off the road I listen to much softer music, like Sarah McLachlan. Something to just chill out to. I love classic rock as well, bands such as Journey and Kansas.
We’re getting to the end of our time here, so I’ll close with the following. How can the readers, and the panheads out there, pray for you and the band right now?
Cooper: That’s a good question. Wow! Well, just pray that we (the band) know what we’re supposed to do out here on the road. Pray for freshness for each show, that we give it our all. Also that the Lord will give us the patience we need and steadfastness. We’re going into the studio later this summer to prepare for the next record, so please pray for that as well.
Will Do. I appreciate you giving me the time for this interview, thanks again. I guess I’ll see you in August at Kingdom Bound.
Cooper: You’re welcome. It’s always good to talk to you. Yeah, we always look forward to playing the festival each year.
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