On the heels of 2016's gold-certified Unleashed, hard rock outfit Skillet returns Aug. 2 with Victorious via Atlantic Records, Billboard has learned exclusively. "Legendary" will be the first single worked to mainstream rock radio and "Anchor" is the first single going to Christian radio.
"It's the first time that me and Korey produced most of the record ourselves," Skillet frontman John Cooper says of his efforts with his wife, Skillet's guitarist/keyboardist Korey Cooper. "When I was looking at what we did well on Unleashed, I thought it was a real energizing and fun record to listen to. That's what a great Skillet record is -- songs that make people want to put their fists up in the air at a concert or get them through a run or drive or whatever they are doing. So we set out to make a record that had a lot of emotion to it."
Victorious is the 10th studio album for the Wisconsin-based quartet, which also includes drummer/vocalist Jen Ledger and guitarist Seth Morrison. "We got to really dig in and try anything we wanted to try, and that comes through in some of the intricacies of the production," says Cooper. (He and Korey co-produced six of the 12 tracks on Victorious together and co-produced two additional songs with Seth Mosley & Mike "X" O'Connor.) "It's quite a musical record. I think it's a little bit more musical than we've done in a long time."
The band has been playing "Legendary" on tour and getting strong response. "'Legendary' is kind of fun because it sounds like Skillet, but it's actually a little different for Skillet as well," Cooper tells Billboard. "That opening guitar riff isn't like anything we've ever done on guitar. It's a little bit bluesy, a little bit rock. I thought it was cool."
Cooper is hoping the lyric will make fans stop and think. "The general message of 'Legendary' is to make your life count," he shares. "You're going to have a lot of hard things in your life. Sometimes it will get you down, but you need to make your life count. You are only here for so long on earth, so every day fight to be legendary."
Cooper says the song also holds a special place in his heart for another more personal reason. "For me, what this song is about is it's to all the people who said that Skillet would never make it," he says. "They said we were too Christian. We were too pretty. We had too many girls in the band, too many keyboards. It's too musical. It's too this or too that and 23 years later and 10 albums later, we're very unlikely people to still be doing music."
Cooper says they've gotten a lot of warnings over the years and advice as to how to handle their dual career as both a Christian band and mainstream rock act. "They go, 'You've got to stop talking about your faith. It's going to kill you at radio,' and we say 'No, we're not going to do that.' To me that's what this song is about. I kind of drew on that," he says. "There's a line in the chorus that says, 'Still the one who is standing now,' and that's how I feel about Skillet. You all said it couldn't happen and we're all still standing. That's what 'Legendary' means."
Skillet has sold more than 12 million units, earned two Grammy nominations, a Billboard Music Award for their double-platinum album Awake and five Dove awards, including rock/contemporary album of the year for Unleashed, which debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 and spawned the RIAA gold certified single "Feel Invincible," a No. 1 hit on Mainstream Rock Songs. Their double-platinum single "Monster" is one of the most streamed rock songs with more than 285 million plays on Spotify.
Yet there's still the perception that they are underdogs. "We've marketed ourselves as the biggest selling band you've never heard of," Cooper says. "Usually when I start the sentence, people look at me like I'm about to say something arrogant like 'We're the biggest selling band in the world' and then you end it like it's a really weird dichotomy," Cooper admits.
"What's really interesting about Skillet is the fan base is so diverse," he continues. "There are the Christian fans. There are the church group fans, but there are also hard rock fans, people who love Metallica and Slipknot. They like Skillet too, and then you have people who like Skillet that don't even like rock music. Then we have a lot of girl fans that a lot of rock bands don't usually have because there's a nice softer feminine side of Skillet. It's not because we have girls, but we have Jen singing sometimes and there's piano and strings. There's some romance to it. The reason people never heard us is because it's not like all of our record sales come from one specific format. They all come from different areas and it's cool because that's how our music is. It's made up of a lot of different kinds of influence."
This summer Skillet will co-headline the Victorious War Tour with Sevendust. The tour kicks off Aug. 11 in Memphis with Pop Evil and Devour the Day as opening acts. Cooper is looking forward to introducing new music from Victorious. "I love performing," he says. "The longer you do this you realize how important the business part is. I spend most of my time running business now -- approving merchandise, approving production for the set and working on the next album while I'm touring, but when I hit the stage it's just like when it was when I was 18."
Over the years, Cooper has learned a great deal about the impact Skillet's music has had on their audience. "I have more of an understanding about what our music does for people," he says. "I never imagined I'd meet somebody and they'd say, 'Your music was the only good thing I had in my life in high school. I got bullied every day and the only thing that got me through was listening to your records.'"
During their 23 years as a band, Cooper has heard some poignant stories. "I met a girl one time that said she never met her dad. Her mom ran out on her when she was four. She was in an orphanage and didn't have anybody or anything," he says, "but she began watching the Skillet YouTube podcasts we'd put up once a month. They were 15-minute videos of us on the road having fun, playing concerts, me and Korey hanging out with our kids on the bus. This girl said, 'The only thing I had in my life was once a month I'd watch a Skillet YouTube podcast and I'd feel like I had a family.' You meet people and they've got your lyrics tattooed on their bodies because it's their marriage song or something. I never dreamt that Skillet would have this kind of impact on people's lives. I don't want to say that I appreciate the job more, but I have more of an understanding of what the music does for people. It's very humbling."