It's a warm, breezy afternoon, and platinum Christian rock band Skillet is settled on the patio at Warner Music's Nashville headquarters, anxious to talk about its new album, "Rise," due June 25 on Word/Atlantic.
"It's a story about your typical American teenager," lead vocalist/bassist John Cooper says. "He's coming into adulthood and he's faced by the horrors that we see every day-floods, bombings, earthquakes, school shootings. He's also faced with his own problems from his family life. It's about his path to salvation, and wanting to be significant in some way. The record has a lot of ups and downs, all leading to this salvation experience."
Rise wasn't intended to be a concept album. Producer Howard Benson, who had worked with the band on previous album Awake, recalls that he'd "just read a Pete Townshend book about how they made Tommy and Quadrophenia." But Cooper was initially hesitant. "I don't love concept records typically," he says. Too often, "the emphasis is on the fact that it's a concept record rather than good songs." As the band began to hone in on the tracks, though, a story took shape.
Skillet's own story, actually, has taken an interesting shape of its own since the band launched in Memphis with a self-titled album in 1996. It's since been a slow, steady climb for the group, which now includes Cooper; his wife, Korey, on keyboards and rhythm guitar; drummer/vocalist Jen Ledger, who joined in 2008; and lead guitarist Seth Morrison, who became a member two-and-a-half years ago. Skillet's sixth album, Collide (2003), represented a shift in momentum, selling 320,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. The act followed that in 2006 with Comatose, which has sold 740,000.
Awake, though, was the game-changer. The 2009 album debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 and at No. 1 on the Top Christian Albums chart, spending 12 weeks at the summit. Alongside Mumford & Sons and the Black Keys, Skillet was one of only three rock bands to go platinum in 2012. Awake has sold 1.1 million copies, a figure that baffles Cooper. "It was really a surprise," he recalls. "I would call my manager and say, 'How is this happening?' Even now, it's still selling."
How it happened, basically, is that Skillet makes serving two masters look easy. Cooper's raspy vocals and incendiary stage presence, combined with the band's dedicated work ethic, have ensured the group a faithful following among Christian consumers while attracting a rabid fan base among hard rock connoisseurs unconcerned with the band's religious beliefs. With Rise, Skillet retains both its faith-driven message and universal appeal.
"Skillet maintains a strong fan base in Christian as well as in the mainstream rock world for a variety of reasons," says Jeff Cage, PD at Clear Channel's KDJE/KHKN Little Rock, Ark. "The band does not wear their religion on their sleeve by preaching to the audience when playing mainstream rock shows. Skillet just comes out and does their thing with high energy, tons of fan interaction, fire, and they always have a full production show."
Relentless touring has certainly played a major role in Skillet's success. "They rock out and they come out hard and dynamic," Atlantic Records Group chairman/COO Julie Greenwald says. This summer, the band will join Shinedown, Papa Roach, In This Moment and protege We As Human on the Carnival of Madness tour. In the fall, the band heads to Europe with Nickelback.
Along with major mainstream rock tours, Skillet also plays multiple-artist Christian tours like Winter Jam. "One thing that always fascinates me about this band is I can literally go on the road and one night see them play a mainstream rock festival and the next night play a Christian show, and I keep waiting for John to mix up the audiences in terms of his stage patter," Atlantic Records executive VP of A&R Pete Ganbarg says.
Yet Cooper remains consistent, and is who he is no matter who's in the crowd. "Their faith is a part of who they are. They aren't having to water that down," Word Entertainment president/CEO Rod Riley says. "There's a feeling in the Christian industry of 'We know they are one of ours.' They are still talking about what we believe in. Fans that have followed that journey with them have seen that consistency."
Skillet's repertoire this summer will focus on songs from Rise, its ninth studio album. Cooper wrote or co-wrote 70 songs for the new project, then with the help of Ganbarg, culled them down to 12. "I don't sit down to write and say, 'OK, I've got to write this for this audience,'" Cooper says. "I want to write songs that all people can relate to-not just Christians, not just about love, not just about Jesus," he says. "I like writing songs that could be taken in multiple directions."
He partly credits the band's success to its lyrics. "There aren't a lot of hard rock bands with uplifting messages, and while 10 years ago that was not in vogue, it's probably become a little more in vogue now," Cooper says. "Due to the violence and the negativity of the world that we live in, [hearing] another song about hating someone is getting a little old and the positive uplifting nature of our music is resonating with people. I remember meeting a girl at a show recently who said, 'I'm an atheist, but I love the way your lyrics make me feel.'"
Skillet has placed 13 songs on the Christian Rock chart, including eight No. 1s-among them "Sick of It," which has spent six weeks at the top. And while it's not unusual for Christian acts to score the occasional hit at mainstream radio, Skillet has fought hard to be a regular presence, charting nine titles on Mainstream Rock, including "Monster" (No. 4 peak) and "Awake and Alive" (No. 2), both from Awake. "Sick of It" is No. 17 and climbing.
Cooper admits that getting mainstream radio acceptance has been a challenge. "The problem is, Skillet was already known as a Christian band. And that being the case, there were stations who were just prejudiced against it," citing "Monster" as an example. "It took a long time to get in."
But Skillet has won over many gatekeepers. Cage, for one, says he loves "Sick of It"-"just a straight-ahead rocker with lots of melody and a hooky chorus." And Skillet's willingness to go above and beyond in working with stations has also endeared it to radio. "The band works hard by meeting fans and being part of radio station promotions centered around their concerts," Cage says. "John is always willing to play acoustic in the studio. In fact, Skillet has always been willing to do just about anything we've thrown at them over the years."
"There are things I know we've done well," Cooper says. "We've always been good to our fans-they believe in what we're about, they believe in the message, they believe in us as people. We treat them good. We do autograph signings and give them access to us online or at our shows. That is definitely helping what's happening now."
Atlantic and Word are working in tandem to market Rise to mainstream and Christian markets. Four songs were released to iTunes leading up to street date, and Skillet fans, known as Panheads, were engaged for the "Sick of It" video. "It came from an Instagram campaign, which was edited into this amazing video of real fans [telling] what they were sick of and what issues that they wanted to address," Greenwald says.
Riley says the major Christian retail chains are actively preselling the record. "We're going to place about 704 displays into Christian retailers," he says. "We're bringing nine different SKUs in addition to the standard and the deluxe versions of the album, and that includes T-shirts and drum sticks."
But even beyond the marketing, manager Zach Kelm of Q Management Group cites Skillet's authenticity as vital to its success. "They haven't changed," he says. "They don't see themselves in two markets. They see themselves as Skillet."
The band has been pressured to change through the years, Cooper says, but the members have refused. "We have made it a point to stay true to who we are," he says. "There have been people who say, 'You guys could be the biggest rock band in the world if you would just stop talking about Jesus. You've got to stop playing Christian festivals. Stop doing Christian radio-just stop doing it and you guys would be the next big thing.' We have chosen to not listen. We're going to stay true to who we are. It's worked."