With panheads (followers of Memphis rock band SKILLET) getting excited about the new 'Collide' album, and the group set to be launched into the mainstream now seemed a good idea for Mike Rimmer to talk to the band.
It's a cold December in Cardiff! When I arrive at the church where the evening's gig will take place, the members of Skillet - Ben Kasica, Lori Peters, John and Korey Cooper - are all flopped out having played a gig on mainland Europe the night before and suffered sleep deprivation. The band are crashed on selected sofas and easy chairs enjoying the meagre warmth of an electric fire and trying to keep the Welsh cold off their bones. Their road manager told me they are sleeping but Korey, recognising my voice, popped into the corridor and invited me into their room. Don't be fooled, being in a rock band isn't glamorous!
Flashback to April 2003 and Ardent Studios in Memphis. On a hot spring day the band are working away on the 'Collide' album. Ben has a rack of guitars and effects pedals lined up and is clearly relishing being in the studio. Producer Paul Ebersold sits in a big chair and relaxes into some old war stories of previous projects he's worked on. In another corner Korey is split between baby duty looking after her daughter Alexandria and trying to record the piano part which will end up adding so much atmosphere to "Under My Skin". John pulls me out of the studio and into his car to play me some unmixed completed tracks. Sitting in his car and enjoying the coolness of his air conditioning I hear the new direction of the band and although not all of the tracks he plays me end up on the album. The new sound of Skillet is an exciting step forward from 'Alien Youth'.
The album represents a stylistic change too with more guitars and less electronics and keyboards. At the Cardiff gig, Korey is rccking hard on the new material with a guitar strapped around her neck. Ever the rock chick! Cooper comments on the new direction, "We knew that it was going to be a lot harder and not industrial. We've done about three records with that real electronic sound and we've really enjoyed it but I don't really want to buy a record when I know it's just going to sound like the band's last record. I'm usually expecting that they've grown a little bit and we don't want to disappoint fans. So that's a little bit of it."
Another part of it is finally having a stable line up of the band! The current Skillet formation has gone the longest without any changes. That obviously helps the band develop their sound and adds more muscle to 'Collide'. John lived through the '80s hair bands and confesses he is still a metal fan but Ben was too young to remember it all. Cooper smirks, "The funny thing about Ben is, he's so young that he doesn't know any of the good metal stuff." Ben chips in, "I thought John came up with all these things. I'm like 'That's amazing! No-one's ever done that before!!' I missed the whole metal scene!"
John laughs, "About a year ago we were working on something. He was doing this toggle-switch guitar thing which basically cuts the sound off. Anyway we were talking about this and I think Ben just thought, 'Has anybody ever done this before?' I'm like, 'Dude, that is so Van Halen man!' It's kind of an ongoing joke. But it's good because sometimes in my mind I have an idea, that if it's something that I really like that's really '80s, then it's taboo and it's good to get Ben's feel on it because he's a young guy and he has none of that cynicism."
The direction of songs on the new album has radically changed for the band. Previous albums had very powerfully proclaimed truth, often taking in big themes for the Church and Skillet's fans, affectionately known as Panheads, had embraced the powerful stance of the band. John explains, "On the last couple of records that we've done, 'Alien Youth' and 'Invincible', I really felt that God had spoken to me about writing those albums specifically to the Church. Not that the Church doesn't deal with darker issues but I felt like I wanted to sing about revival and I wanted to sing about the Kingdom of God and what the Church is supposed to be today. That's really what I wanted to focus on in that. After 'Alien Youth', I started feeling that God was leading me in a different direction for a new album. So it was deliberate. I wouldn't say this was written more for non-Christians but it was just written about struggles and issues and fears. Things I think all people go through. So I think the subject matter is a bit darker. The only thing I want to say about it is, I don't want to give the impression that this album, lyrically, is more 'honest' than my other records."
Over the years I have interviewed the different line ups of Skillet a dozen times and one subject keeps rearing its head - the band signing a mainstream deal. Labels have come and labels have gone. Record company execs have enthused but the band have not been invited to sign the dotted line. Often they were put off by the band's radical Christian stance. However with the mainstream success of bands like P.O.D., 12 Stones and Evanescence, the time has finally become right for Skillet to be signed.
The Lava label, a subsidiary of Atlantic Records, has licensed 'Collide', and May11th sees the release of "Saviour" as a single into the mainstream American market. John comments, "We've been waiting for this for ages. We always believed that this would happen at some point and I think we have the right record now, a record with real potential. I'm curious to see what's going to happen."
Thinking about how the rock scene has changed, Cooper comments, "It's way different than four years ago and I do think that is because of P.O.D. and a few others. I think labels are saying it's okay if a rock band wants to talk about God if they rock!' So that's been really exciting to me. Now, I think a lot of it has come down to 'What are you going to talk about from stage?' you know what I mean? Nobody just really comes out and says it or asks you, 'Are you going to talk about Jesus from the stage?' but that's a big concern! But it's really not the biggest deal anymore. I also think you need to be relevant and I think it's more of a 'spreading seed' type ministry that happens."
Skillet have been a radically evangelistic band in the past with John taking time out to deliver altar call messages. If there's a switch to seed spreading, doesn't this change the very core of the band's ministry? "We are a very evangelistic band," Cooper confirms. "The evangelism part is my heart, that's what my life's about, big time! But I do think certain ways you do that is to do with the audience that you're playing in front of, or the venue you're playing at. Typically, we always play churches. But I think even in this world that we're in now, for a band like P.O.D. in the rock world, comparing their lyrics to secular rock band lyrics, there's such a difference! Even when they're not saying 'Jesus', even when they're not preaching from stage, there's such an evident difference between those shows. Well obviously there's a different spirit isn't there? I just think Christians can make such a difference in the world, playing rock music or whatever. Even without preaching the Gospel, I think they can make a big difference! But we're definitely a band that likes to share what we believe in and we're definitely not afraid of that."
When it comes to God's timing, there's no doubt that 'Collide' is the perfect album for the band to cross over into the mainstream. Everything seems to have come together at once with the scene and the band. John reflects, "Since '98 labels have been saying...and labels are always like this... 'Oh we love it! This is great!' and then you never hear from them again!" He laughs, "But we've been doing a lot more serious things that have worked. Actually we've always felt called to be able to sing what we want to sing about, and say what we want to say. So hopefully that will be the case! Even if nobody likes it, at least we get a shot. You go for it and God will open doors if he wants to open them. That's always been my biggest challenge since I've been doing Skillet; just trusting God to open doors when he wants to and not pushing things myself. It's not doing things in my time because I know God's in control.
Cooper confesses that aptly the first of the band's mainstream singles "Saviour" deals with that subject matter. He sums it up succinctly, "There's no need to run, that's what God is saying to me! 'Just chill out and let me do it!'"
The challenges of huge mainstream success, if it happens, will have an interesting affect on the band. John has given this some thought. He confesses, "I don't want to look back in a few years and decide I really don't like who I've become and I've really lost the mission aspect of what I've done just so I could sell records. That would be devastating to me but we still want to spread the hope that we have found."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.