In a time of chaos and uncertainty fueled by the continuing pandemic, Skillet frontman John Cooper is reveling in what he describes as positive rebellion on the metal band’s new album, Dominion.
“It’s the best way to describe this album because the record has attitude to it, but it’s positive,” Cooper tells Billboard of the Jan. 14 Atlantic release. “It is rebellious because we’re in a spiritual battle every day against depression and anxiety and fear. People are absolutely terrified. Depression rates are going up. America has like an increase in suicides… Positive rebellion [says]: I will not be ruled by fear. I will not be ruled by addiction and by all of these internal forces that really want to take control of my life. It’s saying, ‘I will not be ruled by these negative things.’”
Cooper and his bandmates — wife Korey Cooper on keyboards and rhythm guitar, drummer Jen Ledger and lead guitarist Seth Morrison — have long combined aggressive music with positive messages, and it’s proved to be a winning formula for the Kenosha, Wisconsin-based band. The Grammy-nominated group’s 2009 album Awake has been certified triple platinum and picked up a Billboard Music Award. It also spawned the hit single “Monster,” which has nearly 400 million streams on Spotify.
Skillet’s 2019 album Victorious earned the band its fourth consecutive top 20 debut on the Billboard 200 albums chart. Their songs have also been synched by WWE, Marvel, ESPN, MLB, NHL and NFL. “Skillet’s music lends itself to sports, video games, WWE because it really is heavy and aggressive, but it has this spirit of overcoming — you hear that in all of our lyrics,” says Cooper, who founded the band in 1996. “I sometimes laugh, because the irony is it’s that uber positivity that used to hinder Skillet because rock music was just not synonymous with positivity. Rock music was synonymous with darkness, negativity, anger and angst and we were singing all these songs about overcoming. Some rock radio stations couldn’t wrap their head around that. Now it’s actually quite popular in rock music to be positive. It’s kind of a funny twist.”
Stellar musicianship, insightful songwriting and Cooper’s commanding vocals have earned Skillet fans among both mainstream rock and Christian music audiences, and their label serves up singles to both demos. “Surviving the Game” is the active rock single currently climbing the chart, and “Refuge” is the new Christian single. “There’s something about that guitar riff in the beginning, it just made everybody feel like this is the song coming out of the gate,” Cooper says of “Surviving,” which is featured in the new Rock Band video game. “It has a feeling of unbridled chaos to it, but it’s very positive as well. There’s something about all of those emotions that seem to resonate to people coming out of the pandemic.”
“Refuge” was inspired by Psalm 46. “I learned it when I was a kid, and it still sticks with me today. It says, ‘The Lord is my refuge and my strength. He is always present in times of trouble.’ I love that scripture,” Cooper says. “I’ve held onto it ever since I was a kid and, right now, we are in a time of trouble… God doesn’t tell us that we’re not going to go through hard times. The goal is to overcome the hardship.
“On ‘Refuge,’ I tried to write some really honest lyrics and my favorite line is the one that says, ‘It’s getting harder to say I’m undefeated.’ We all want to say we’re undefeated, but man, it’s getting a little bit harder now,” Cooper continues. “This is no fun, and it feels hopeless at times, but then when the chorus comes you are professing what you know to be true, which is that God is going to be my refuge no matter what is happening. He’s the place that I run to and that is how we survive.”
In creating Dominion, Skillet worked with producer Kevin Churko (Disturbed, Papa Roach, Five Finger Death Punch) and his son Kane Churko. “Kevin has a very unique sound and I love his records,” Cooper says, adding that Churko had produced individual songs for the band before but not a full album.
Looking for Churko to play a larger role on their 11th studio album, Cooper says they planned to go write with him — but COVID forced them to scuttle their plans. “The COVID restrictions didn’t go away. It was just too hard to get on a plane,” Cooper says. “We decided we’d get on Zoom and just write a song, which neither one of us wanted to do. We were both like, ‘This is just so weird and so sterile’ — but it just went really good and ‘Surviving The Game’ just kind of exploded out of us. So we decided to write a couple more songs and it started going so good that whenever the time came that we could fly out, everybody said, ‘Don’t mess it up. It’s been working so good so far.’ I’m not superstitious but if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.”
Cooper says they were never in person while working on the album, but the long-distance process was easier than he expected thanks to Dropbox and Zoom. “We’d jump on Zoom for a couple of hours and write lyrics and then me and Korey would sing the songs here at our studio and then send it back to them,” he says. “It was just so easy and we really just felt super inspired.”
Though the album was a very collaborative process, Cooper penned “Valley of Death” on his own. “That was the easiest and fastest song maybe I’ve ever written,” he says. “It’s just an honest song about the fact that when you are going through the valley, you can’t see what’s around you because there’s hills and mountains and you can’t see the way to go… What’s really hard about the time we’re in now is that none of us know if there’s light at the end of the tunnel. When is this pandemic going to end? Are we ever going to live a life without masks again? All of those things are really depressing and it causes you to take inventory of your life. Have you lived the way you wanted to live? What are people going to remember about you? None of us are promised tomorrow. But in the end, I know that I’m not alone. That is the hope and the light at the end of the tunnel.”
Sonically, Dominion incorporates some elements that might surprise longtime Skillet fans. “‘Standing in the Storm’ is so rhythmic and so syncopated — ‘White Horse’ also has a little bit of rap in it which is very, very different for Skillet,” Cooper admits, giving Korey the credit for expanding their sound. “She likes hip-hop. She likes rap music. She likes pop music and indie rock. I pretty much just listen to metal. If we ever try new things, it’s usually because Korey tried new things basically, and she’s like, ‘Hey we should do this,’ and I’m like, ‘Okay let’s give it a shot,’” he says.
Skillet will be serving up songs from Dominion on the Winter Jam tour, which kicks off Jan. 13th in Augusta, Ga. Cooper is hoping the band’s message of positive rebellion will encourage listeners during these trying times. “It really is a feel-good album even though it’s heavy and it has some dark elements, but I just think people can feel the positive emotion in the songs,” he says. “It really is an encouragement to not give up and I hope that’s really what people hear. I hope it brings some hope and inspiration, especially to young people, to help them keep fighting the fight.”