Skillet: Wide Awake to the pitfalls of being dubbed "a Christian band"

Wednesday 9th February 2011

Tony Cummings reports on the slow but steady climb to success of SKILLET

Skillet: Wide Awake to the pitfalls of being dubbed "a Christian band"

In the 14 years of Skillet's existence the Kenosha, Wisconsin-based rockers have climbed a long way up the music ladder. 2006's 'Comatose' has been certified Gold by the RIAA while 'Awake' was one of the biggest selling Christian albums since its release in August 2009; this in a marketplace where CD sales have slumped dramatically. Skillet's frontman and founder John Cooper spoke to about the changes in the marketplace. "It has changed, obviously bands don't sell records like they used to, due to whatever - whether it's piracy or singles sales, whatever that may be. I know when you used to talk about a band going Platinum, it means a lot more now than it probably used to. Things like that have really changed, and it makes it a little bit harder to do it for a living. But on the other side of that, one of the great things on the music scene has been the accessibility to music on the internet. Bands like us have done very well because of other formats, avenues to get your music across. A band like Skillet, we don't have a bunch of radio hits like Nickelback or somebody, but all the Myspace kids, all the iTunes people, are all like, 'Oh check this out,' and the accessibility to stuff on the net has really helped us, it's just incredible marketing. It's something that I think 10-12 years ago, I wouldn't have dreamed of. It used to be like, 'You gotta get your songs on the radio or you're never going to sell any records,' and now there are other avenues, which is really good for bands like us. The internet [has] really helped us a lot."

John is modest about 'Awake''s most successful song "Monster". "'Monster' did really well, but it's not like what I would say a smash - there's a difference between a radio hit and a smash, and it wasn't a smash. It did well for us, and it's almost certified Gold, the single as well, so it's done very well. We're really good to our fans, we do a lot on the internet with our fans, with them being involved. We feed them a lot of information, and people feel in some way that we're theirs - and it sounds cheesy - but kind of like they know us. That has also helped us, so we've done a good job at kind of doing that.what do they call that? Virally. See how I use these big words?" [laughs]

Possibly "Monster" would have been a bigger radio hit if some American radio stations hadn't taken the peculiar decision to remove the growled "monster voice" from one of the choruses. John commented on the gravel-less version when he visited Pennsylvania and spoke to, "I just heard about that today! It's up to the station which version they want to play. I thought everyone was playing the 'Monster' growl version. They are in Chicago, which is the station that I pick up. I'd never heard it on the radio without it until yesterday here. I heard it and was like 'aww, they took out the growl!' Some people might not have liked it. For the most part, fans love it. The growl has sold us more records than the song."

"Monster" tackles the inner struggles people have to overcome. Other subjects on 'Awake' include abortion ("Lucy"), making the most of every moment ("One Day Too Late") and eating disorders ("Never Surrender"). The album was produced by Howard Benson (Daughtry, Papa Roach). John reported that working with Benson was a very different experience from that of other albums. He said, "My experience has been really all over the map, with working with some producers that maybe didn't get too involved. Or maybe what's probably more accurate or fair is that I didn't want them too involved because I didn't understand the role of the producer when I first started. I didn't know much about anything. It came to a point probably around the 'Invincible' and 'Alien Youth' time that I just kind of trusted myself more than I trusted the people that I could work with. I worked with some really talented people and I learned a lot but I got to a place where I liked the option of working with a few people and working with myself. That's why I did that.

"Going into 'Collide' is when I was really frustrated that I did it by myself. We didn't have the budget or the money or the contacts to find other producers or get other people involved. My label was not being very supportive of that. I was really frustrated going into 'Collide'. And Paul Ebersold, who produced 'Collide', had called me to come do some songwriting for an artist. At that point, I hadn't talked to Paul for like five years. He recorded our first album. We were working and I said to him, 'Man, I need to do a really good rock album and I need some help.' He started thinking about it and said, 'Alright, I'm gonna do it.' So that was really cool of him. He took a big paycut to do ours. He had just gotten done doing some big, big albums. So he did 'Collide'. And he's great. Paul's really good and he worked on me with my songwriting, but he's not necessarily a songwriter. He's got good ears.

"So I went from there to working with Brian Howes on 'Comatose'. Brian's the type of songwriter where every single line he picks apart. I remember we argued for about 30 minutes in the pre-production. We disagreed on how the beginning of 'Yours To Hold' would go. And it starts, 'I see you standing there.' My original version started with, 'See you standing here.' We argued over whether it was going to be 'I see you' or just 'See you!' He's like, 'It matters!' I'm like, 'No, it doesn't matter!' He's like, 'Yes it matters. It matters.' He kept going back and forth between each one and finally I was like, 'I don't care which one it is, it doesn't matter to me!' And he's like, 'Naw!' And then, when we got to sing on the record, he couldn't decide and he had me sing it both ways! I sang it both ways, so he said, 'I'll decide later!' So I left town and he spent hours on it. Then it was going to be either 'I see you...' or '....Iiii seeee you...' Then it was, do we want the breath before the 'I'? I'm like, 'Dude, I'm out! I'm done!'"

John continued, "I wanted (Brian) to do the next record, but he couldn't. So I was like, 'I don't know what to do.' At that time, Howard Benson was my favourite producer with the way that his records sound. He did the two big P.O.D. records, he did Seether, Three Days Grace, Flyleaf, Daughtry, My Chemical Romance... he just did so many amazing records. I was like, 'I would love to work with this guy.' Anyway, that's a long story to get around to saying that I did enjoy working with Howard. He's very different than Brian. Howard is not a songwriter. For example, for the song 'Hero' I would say, 'Should it be "I need a hero" or should it be "I want a hero"?' He would just say that it didn't matter. I wasn't used to that. He's more about the concept of the song than the details. He wants to make sure it's something that people want to hear.

"I learned a lot from Howard about the overall sound of a record and what you're trying to say with it. He's a smart man. I went in with 35 songs or so written for the record. The first day I met him I was like, 'Dude, I'm a huge fan of 'Satellite' [P.O.D.] and so many other records!' We talked about a lot of stuff. And I played my songs for him. The second song I played was probably one of my favourites and I thought he was gonna love it. I had just met him 30 minutes before. And he looks at me and says, 'I gotta be honest, that song sounds like a way to not sell records.' And I was like, 'Really!?' And he was like, 'Yeah, I don't get that. That's terrible.' And that was my initial meeting and I was like 'Alright, this is what I've signed up for! [laughs] I need somebody to give me an honest opinion and this guy will give it to me.' And that was helpful. I worked him, I just drove him nuts. I don't know if he's ever had another artist do that. I gotta pick it apart. I gotta know what you don't like about it. I wrote several of the songs after seeing what he was looking for. 'It's Not Me, It's You', 'Sometimes' and 'Should've When You Could've' were all written after that day."

John gave his thoughts about the ongoing division between the perceived Christian and non-Christian markets. "Where we live in the States, you know, there definitely is 'This is Christian music, and this is not.or this is rock music,' and in the past we've had a lot of struggles with that, with people going, 'Oh Skillet's a Christian band, I don't really know about it.' That's finally going away now because 'Monster' did so well. Funny enough, when 'Monster' came out on the radio, I remember doing an interview with a radio station. They were kind of making fun of the band, they didn't play our music because it was too Christian, and I said, 'Hey, it's not too Christian for the WWE, it's not too Christian for you,' and the guy was like, 'Well I guess you're right.' We still get a lot of that, but we do try to write songs that are not limited to a faith-based audience or a Christian audience, whatever that may be. Writing songs that are just about life, and issues that I think most everybody can relate to. I've always said in my interviews that we don't want to be a band that sings only to Christian people, you don't have to be a Christian to get our music. The Christian part is more about our lives than it is our songs. You hear 'Monster' or 'Hero' and of course 'Hero' could be about Jesus, or it could be about a fireman, Martin Luther King Jr, or whoever it might be. The Christian part of us is more like about our life message, backstage or even onstage, and that's usually where we make the most impact. We don't have alcohol in our dressing room or we're not with girls backstage, or whatever else, so those lines definitely exist. There are some bands like P.O.D. that people just like a rock band, and find out later that they were a Christian or gospel band. Skillet's been around for so long in the States, that everybody knows we're a Christian band. So we had a lot of fighting to do, a lot of hurdles I guess, but we've finally overcome that."

John is certain that being tagged a "Christian band" makes it considerably harder to break through. "People naturally judge the music before they hear it sometimes, because in their minds Christian music is not good, or it's cheesy, or it's not rock, it's kind of like pretend. I always relate to, like, if the Jonas Brothers all of a sudden did a metal record, and then going and saying, 'No, no I know it's the Jonas Brothers, it's kids music, but this record is like serious rock.' And you'd be like, 'I don't care how serious rock it is, they're not a real rock band,' it'd kind of be like that. I'm not dissing the Jonas Brothers, but you just have in your mind that's what kids - Disney Kids - like, it'd be kind of like that. So in people's minds, that's a Christian band, that's not real. So it has been difficult, we've missed some tours because people thought, 'Oh it's a Christian band, we don't want to tour with a Christian band,' and of course it's reasonable, they don't know what we're like. I think they think we're going to be no fun, telling them 'You can't dress like that!' You know, telling them how to live their lives, which we don't really do. But now we've been on tour with Shinedown, Three Days Grace and Breaking Benjamin, we're going on tour with Papa Roach next month, so that's finally going away." CR

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.
About Tony Cummings
Tony CummingsTony Cummings is the music editor for Cross Rhythms website and attends Grace Church in Stoke-on-Trent.


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