Tony Cummings reports on the rise of Wisconsin rock band SKILLET and their current push into the mainstream.
Head of A&R at Atlantic Records Andy Karp told Billboard recently how he saw Skillet as carrying forward the legacy of legendary Atlantic rock acts like Led Zeppelin, Genesis and Yes. "All of those acts.took a long time to develop. Skillet have paid their dues and I think the time is now."
Whether or not Skillet do indeed eventually reach the multi-million sales of those old school rock behemoths, no one could argue with Karp's observation about Skillet's dues-paying. Slowly but relentlessly the group have moved from local church obscurity to become one of the best selling acts in the Christian music scene. Their latest album 'Comatose' is shaping up to be their most successful so far with the songs "Rebirthing" and "Whispers In The Dark" major Christian radio hits in the States (though it's one of those strange UK licensing anomalies that the album, released in the US to mainstream retail through Atlantic/Lava and to Christian retail through Ardent/EMI CMG, is unreleased in Britain in either marketplace). Recording 'Comatose' was very much a challenge for Skillet.
When the band entered Chicago Recording last spring, Andy Karp challenged the members to make their own 'Hysteria', referencing the landmark 1987 Def Leppard album. Karp says the goal was "a record with five or six singles on it, where the album tracks are better than most people's singles. I think they hit the mark." Skillet lead vocalist John Cooper cites 'Hysteria' as one of his favourite albums. "That was the goal," he says, "to make a record where every song on that record was really awesome. Today's records are more about singles than entire albums."
Comprising Cooper on vocals and bass, his wife Korey on keyboards, Ben Kasica on guitar and Lori Peters on drums, Skillet launched 10 years ago in Memphis, but is now based in Kenosha, Wisconsin. The band began their laborious climb up the recording ladder in 1996 with their Ardent Records debut 'Skillet'. Further albums, 'Hey You, I Love Your Soul' (1998), 'Invincible' (2000) and 'Alien Youth' (2001) saw the band develop a sizeable fan base as they toured the USA and Europe. It was Skillet's 'Collide' released in 2003 and picked up by Lava which began the positioning of the band for mainstream rock success. Cooper spelt out the situation succinctly to Billboard, "When we made 'Collide' there was a shift from writing lyrics about my relationship with God to writing lyrics about relationships that all kinds of people are dealing with, not just what the Christians feel, but all people feel."
'Collide' made number nine on the US Christian album chart and eventually sold over 200,000 units. What it didn't bring them though was a big mainstream hit. Cooper told Billboard he thought the band had lost its chance at mainstream success when Lava, Atlantic and Elektra underwent consolidation. He feared the group would be dropped from the roster, but A&R head Karp had other ideas.
So now the band are out there in the mainstream market. 'Comatose' was produced by mainstream producer Brian Howes (Closure, Hinder) and mixed by Chris Lord-Alge (Green Day, P.O.D.) and David Bottrill (Tool, Staind). The new emphasis on mass appeal comes after the band's first foray into mainstream touring with bands like Three Days Grace, Saliva, Shinedown and 12 Stones. "God really used (those tours) big time to help me realise how needy the world is," Cooper told Christian Retailing. "(Their need for salvation) was all theory before and then I saw it firsthand."
Because of that paradigm shift in his thinking, Cooper wanted to speak less about where Christians are and more about where people in general are living, including the pain of a broken home that the singer experienced firsthand in his own childhood. Another song, the eyebrow-raising "Better Than Drugs" was inspired by Cooper's belief that, regardless of what some youth workers may tell their teens, sin is actually fun for a time - but ultimately unfulfilling. The song uses controversial lyrics to deliver a message about the pleasure of sin for a season but the finality of God being "the ultimate fulfilment." "It's a little shocking at first," Cooper said of lyrics like "I'm addicted for life/I feel you coming to get me high."
Seeing the empty promises of addiction and sin firsthand in the faces of others, the singer hopes the new record will speak to a new generation of young people and offer listeners a glimpse into a fruitless world without Christ. Ultimately, it's all about "waking up to the needs of the world."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.