John Cooper of the multi-Platinum hard rocking band SKILLET talked at length to Tony Cummings
When Cross Rhythms first wrote about Skillet (then a three-piece) in 1997, we rather clumsily referred to the band as "pioneers of grunge gospel". Little did we know then that John Cooper and his four bandmates were to go on to become a multi-Platinum selling phenomenon and one of the biggest acts in the long history of Christian music. With their 'Victorious' album firmly lodged in American and British charts, and with the band set to kick off a European tour playing concerts in Copenhagen, Vienna, Paris, Budapest, Antwerp and, on the 10th December, London, now seemed an excellent moment to have an in-depth conversation with the band's founder, singer and songwriter, John Cooper.
Tony: I've talked to bands in the past who've suffered badly from burnout. They've done so many tours, so many gigs that eventually they're doing everything on autopilot. Has that ever been a danger for Skillet? That you would simply do too much?
John: "I don't think that I'm really susceptible to burn out. Sure, it can get exhausting when you're out on the road for a long spell. There are times when you might say 'that's it, I need a break'. But of course there's physical burn out and spiritual burn out. They are two different things. The spiritual burn out thing I cannot relate to very much because I always feel very excited about what God's doing with the music and with people's lives; I feel very sure about my mission. I'm not saying I've never experienced any spiritual burn out, I'm just saying I'm not particularly susceptible to that. On the physical side yes, there have been times, particularly when we've toured overseas - whether it's Russia, South America or Europe, there can be a real physical burn out that happens because it's hard on your body. Jet lag is hard to get used to. You stay up late singing songs and it feels like you're singing a concert at 5 am. That's no fun."
Tony: Two of your albums are certified Platinum and double Platinum and I think two of your albums are certified Gold. Have the huge music sales affected your attitude to life?
John: "I don't think so. But it has been a really remarkable turn of events, the last decade. There are probably a lot of reasons why it hasn't changed my view on life. The first 10 years of Skillet was really hard work and we only experienced a modicum of success and I think that kind of toughens you up to the world; what it means to work hard, what it means to keep going when it doesn't look like there's any hope. You feel you have a calling and you're like 'man, I'm doing my calling but I've not seen if it's working. Yet I still feel God's calling us to it.' You go with faith, even if your eyes can't see what God's doing, he's doing it. You also have to put meat on those bones - if faith were the bones, you've got to put meat on it. You've got to pay the bills; you've got to make good business decisions. I think the first decade of Skillet very much toughened me up. And there's something to be said for humility. When you really have to work hard for something, when you achieve it typically there's a measure of humility that comes with it because you know that God blessed you with it. In other words, when you achieve something without working for it, I believe it's worse for you than if you've worked really hard. It tastes sweeter when you get it. The terminology that comes to mind is you don't buy your own press. Some people come out with their first project and there are accolades, everybody's patting them on the back. And they think 'man, I must be really, really good!' But the truth is in the entertainment industry, if you aren't a Christian, you say it's all about luck. As a Christian you say it's all about calling, it's about what God chooses. He may open the door in a big way, he may open it barely a crack but it's his call as to what's your destiny."
Tony: I speak to thousands of musicians of every type who can't even get a living out of their calling. They have to do concerts at weekends and save up their pennies until they can afford to release a low budget album and that's as far as it goes for them.
John: "I do feel for people when I meet them and they say I feel like my calling is music and I'm working at it and it looks like it's never going to happen. I feel for people in that situation, whether it's music or any other kind of profession. I do think there is beauty in surrendering to God's plan. I'm not saying that's easy but for me, for the first decade, it was very hard to make ends meet. But we felt called to do it. I never felt that I was owed a Platinum record or that kind of thing. I just thought I'm going to do this till God calls us elsewhere. That's not easy. The beauty comes in wanting to be used by God in whatever way that looks. Sometimes it ends up on a big platform and sometimes it doesn't. It's not easy but reminding ourselves that in the end it's about his Kingdom and what he's called us to do in it."
Tony: You've got a close connection with the Visible School in Memphis, training musicians to move in their calling.
John: "Actually, it was our original guitar player, Ken Steorts, who started the Visible School - it's a Christian school of the arts. He was in Skillet for two years and after that he went and did Visible. I've not been involved in Visible except that I've gone to speak here and there and do some promotion for them. It was very much his thing, and what he feels passionate about. They've done a wonderful job of connecting ministry, discipleship and business so that people can understand what the music business is. If we're going to affect the world with our music - I don't mean souls but in terms of the way the business is run, as Christians we need to understand how the business is run so we can do the business side well, not just the music side. I think it's a pretty cool thing."
Tony: I love 'Victorious'. I think it's the best thing you've ever done. It's certainly encouraged me. You said recently it's an album that encourages you.
John: "Yes, that is true. These songs were born out of many things I've seen on the road the last few years. Cory and I wrote the songs while we were on the road, meeting a lot of people. I think anyone over 40 years old or even 30 years old in our world today would probably say yes, the world is changing at an extremely rapid pace. I'm over 40. When Skillet first started there was no Internet. It had just begun but you couldn't listen to music on the Internet or buy music on it. There was no social media when Skillet started. In the last 20 years the pace of change is ramping up so quickly that honestly I think a lot of people, religious or not religious, are scratching their heads and wondering what's going on. I see a lot of young people that I really have a heart for and I want to help. I try to encourage them with my songs. Some of the songs on this record were geared to telling people that there is a lying culture right now that is ubiquitous, all around the world, that is telling young people to believe that life is going to be amazing; and every day is going to be more amazing than the last. It's tells you 'you can have anything you want because you're special and unique and you're the best you there'll ever be'. And that's not really true. I guess it's true that you're unique and there will never be another you. But that's a beautiful thing that should inspire worship to God, not worship to ourselves.
"I want to tell young people that life is actually going to be quite difficult. There's never been a generation before that has thought every day is going to be better than the last day, every day's a party. That's not how life works. Life is going to be hard. The great news is that you can survive it. The even better news is that more than just survival, you can have life abundantly in Christ. I try to tell people these messages in my interviews and I write those kind of songs because we're seeing these rates of depression in young people go up; suicide in young people going up. Even in the Church now we're starting to have suicides. Older people, and I guess I'm an older person now, need to be telling these younger people what life is really like and that it's going to be hard. The Bible promises us that we are going to share in Christ's suffering, which is a privilege, by the way. But it's not going to be one long party."
Tony: Some churches have played into popular cultures so their message is 'follow your dream.' It depends what your dream is. There was a certain controversy recently over the Hillsong worship leader, Marty Sampson, and your article What in God's name is happening in Christianity? You wrote in that article, "We now have a church culture that learns who God is from singing modern praise songs rather than from the teachings of the Word." It's obvious that the Church has real problems. The fact is you didn't name Marty Sampson although, in a subsequent response, Marty took the whole thing on board as a personal attack on him.
John: "To me, it was not an attack against Marty or Joshua Harris, another worship leader in America. There's been a lot of it. It wasn't an attack against one person. It was recognising a trend in the Church and the spirit of the age, which is now influencing the Church, which is crazy because the Kingdom of God is supposed to be advancing into the world. Instead the world is advancing into the Kingdom of God. It's ugly and it's dark, and the Church is trying to be light. We're trying to be accepted by the world, but it's not going to happen because Jesus is exclusive. He is the only way to Heaven. The churches are so scared of the feeling of exclusiveness that we're beginning to try to make Jesus seem more inclusive than he is. Now Jesus is inclusive in terms of every tongue and every tribe will bow down before Christ; he's inclusive in terms of the way people look, the colour of their skin, the amount of money they make, rich or poor. He's inclusive in terms of those things, there is no Jew, there is no Greek. But he's exclusive in that he alone is the way to Heaven and he alone is the truth. I have no idea why in God's name churches are not saying that as much as they should do, other than that they want to be liked by the world.
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