Rock quartet Skillet releases Rise, its ninth studio album, on June 25th, breaking a four-year recording silence from one of Christian music’s most enduring bands.
Classic Rock (With Some Surprises!)
When a band’s been making music for 16 years, the sound can become a bit predictable. Fans know what to expect. With Rise, Skillet stretches its range with an ambitious nod to modern rock operas. The repertoire showcases some traditional Skillet rock anthems (“Not Gonna Die”, “Rise”, “Salvation”) with some self-described “left field” tunes (“Good to Be Alive,” “Fire and Fury”). The album also features brief interludes, including an opera choir and 911 call. The instrumental accompaniment strays from the rock band norm as well, utilizing the mandolin, accordion, dulcimer, and bells.
“What’s really funny is that we did not start out to do a concept record, nor did I ever want to do one,” lead singer/bassist John Cooper says in a telephone interview. “The emphasis on those records always seems to be centered on the concept rather than centered on the songs.”
The concept for Rise came about organically, and rather quickly – in a 20 minute brainstorming session, according to Cooper.
“There were like 70 songs we wrote. We initially picked 15. That’s when it hit me. These songs felt more important than just songs to me. This needs to be a story.”
Cooper has melded the final 12-song album into a poignant coming-of-age saga familiar to many American teenagers (and those of us who are parents of teenagers). The world’s harsh realities can be a bit overwhelming to those entering adulthood: bullying, bombings, school shootings, The album points to a lot of what’s wrong in the world before dealing with internal issues and moving on to the song of salvation.
Music that Ministers
Skillet’s music resonates with young people in part due to Cooper’s fingerprints on the lyrics. He knows what he writes. Cooper lost his mother to cancer when he was only 14 years old. Subsequent years brought struggles between him and his father. Before Skillet, Cooper worked in a local church in youth ministry; he returned to youth ministry briefly in the middle of Skillet’s success while he and his wife Korey, the band’s keyboardist and rhythm guitarist, started their family.
“Music was one of the most powerful influences during my high school years,” says Cooper. “I see all this stuff that these kids are dealing with, and I just want to make the world a better place. They are looking for hope, and I want to give them something to grab on to.”
Cooper deftly walks a tightrope between music and ministry, ignoring the occasional suggestion that the band’s bold faith-based stance is holding back its career.
“You hear voices all the time. There was a promoter on a mainstream tour who bluntly told me, ‘I just want you to know how much I love your band. If you’d just stop talking about Jesus, you could be the biggest rock band in the world,'” says Cooper. “We have always been unapologetically vocal about our faith. I believe it’s the element that makes Skillet’s music potent. I love singing music that I believe in.”
It’s a love reciprocated by Skillet’s legion of fans, known as Panheads. In 2012, Skillet was one of only three rock bands to go platinum. The Black Keys and Mumford & Sons were the other two. The feat still astonishes Cooper.
“We saw it coming when Awake came out, and it debuted at No. 2 (on the Billboard Mainstream Rock chart),” says Cooper. “We had hoped to sell about 30,000 units the first week. When we sold 72,000, I had to call my manager. I thought this had to be a mistake. I didn’t know that many people even knew Skillet.”
Not only do they know Skillet, but Skillet works hard to get to know them. The band just hosted its first two VIP Fan Experiences, one in Nashville and one in Chicago.
“Skillet has always had a great relationship with its fans,” says Cooper. “In the beginning, when there were like 30 people showing up, we got to know them by name. As we got bigger, it became more difficult, really a security issue. These events took me back to the early years. It was wonderful to hear their stories, how they walked down the aisle at their wedding to a Skillet song, how a Marine deployed to Iraq used our music to get through it.”
It’s an influence Cooper does not take for granted.
“When you realize your music is helping people and means that much to people, it really is a genuinely humbling experience.”