When bassist/vocalist John Cooper got busy writing Skillet’s new album, Unleashed, with his wife, keyboardist-rhythm guitarist Korey Cooper, the last thing they wanted to do was get to work. This time around, the couple and the rest of the band — rounded out by guitarist Seth Morrison and drummer Jen Ledger — decided that they were going to have fun instead.
“Making Rise was no fun,” confesses John Cooper about the 2013 set, even though the album topped Billboard’s Hard Rock Albums chart and entered the Billboard 200 at No. 4 with first-week sales of 60,000 copies, according to Nielsen Music. “There were too many cooks in the kitchen, and there was too much pressure” to follow up the success of 2009 predecessor Awake, which spawned the double-platinum hit “Monster” and has to date moved 1.3 million copies in pure album sales, according to Nielsen Christian SoundScan. “Making that album was a real journey of terror … We wrote over 70 songs for Rise and the whole thing was a nightmare, so when Rise came out, it’s not that I didn’t like the record, but I did not enjoy the process.”
The lesson of just enjoying being creative paid off. Skillet’s ninth studio album, Unleashed, dropped Aug. 5 on Atlantic. It debuted at No. 1 on Top Christian Albums and Hard Rock Albums (the band’s third and second leaders on those lists, respectively) with first-week sales of 58,000, and also entered the Billboard 200 at No. 3.
“I had so much fun writing the record,” says Cooper. “Me and Korey wrote more together on this album than we ever have, and it was really liberating because we were just writing to be storing the songs up. Whatever ideas we wanted to try, we weren’t letting all that pressure get to us, and I think that it shows on the record. I’m not saying that it means it’s a better record, but it’s more fun.” He also calls it a “very energetic record, very inspiring … It makes you want to feel good.”
Cooper admits that hasn’t always been the case with Skillet’s music. “Some of our records have been very compelling in a good way, but some of them can feel emotionally heavy or a little bleak because they are talking about issues,” he explains. “They are important issues — what is happening in the world — but I really felt like I wanted to go a different way on this record and maybe for the first time in our career write a record that instead of pointing out all the issues that are happening, just write a record that’s an escape from those issues, because we all know they are happening.”
Despite the struggle surrounding the making of Rise, the raspy-voiced rocker is still in love with his job, even after two decades of being in Skillet. “For me and Korey both, it’s always been two things, really: passion for the music and passion for the message because we were both very inspired and touched by music as young people,” says Cooper. “We have a real belief that music is inherently powerful. There’s something spiritual about it. There’s something life-changing and even world-changing about it. We both were touched not just by music, but by the message of Christian music.”
The Atlantic Coast Conference is using Unleashed’s first single, “Feel Invincible,” during the entire 2016 football season. The song is the soundtrack for the opening video montage to lead into each week’s syndicated game and will reach more than 90 million households, according to the ACC.com. “Feel Invincible” has also been licensed for synch usage by the WWE during its WWE Battleground pay-per-view series, TBS’ Eleague, Nickelodeon’s Kids’ Choice Sports Awards and the Rock Band 4 video game.
“It’s been a great way to get the music out there,” says Cooper of the exposure Skillet has garnered, especially through the ACC and WWE. “It’s been a real honor, and it’s definitely helping. This record is just good for sports because it’s a very energetic album.”
Skillet has long had a dual fan base since its music appeals to both Christian rock fans and mainstream rock lovers, thus Atlantic is working singles to mainstream and Christian radio. “Feel Invincible” has hit No. 2 on Hot Christian Songs and is still gaining steam at mainstream rock stations. Meanwhile, Unleashed track “Stars” is currently being worked to Christian hot adult contemporary stations.
Among the standout tracks on Unleashed is “Back From the Dead,” a song that Cooper says is meant to be “humorous.” He explains that when Rise came out, rock music had become less popular. “I started getting really annoyed about people saying, ‘Oh, rock is dead, and nobody is going to like this.’ Some people were hammering on Skillet, saying, ‘Oh, they’re over.’ ” Cooper claims that Skillet was treated “a little badly by some of the people that we’ve always been faithful to and had good relationships with in the industry,” so he wrote “Back From the Dead” as “a little bit of a shut-up to everybody. It became my fight song, and it really didn’t have a deep meaning. It felt a little rebellious in the right ways.”
Skillet will kick off the Unleashed Tour on Sept. 22 in Clive, Iowa, at 7 Flags Event Center. The band is also taking the tour to Europe: Those shows will kick off Nov. 6 in Paris at Elysee Montmartre and end Dec. 9 in London at Koko. (Devour the Day will provide support in the States, along with Sick Puppies and Thousand Foot Krutch, while Red Sun Rising is opening for Skillet in Europe.) “We’ve been traveling overseas like crazy. I think we’ve been to Europe four times since Rise came out and Russia, as well as South America,” says Cooper. “It’s been really, really busy [with] expanding the fan base. It’s amazing that there are people all over the world that know Skillet. It’s beginning to really kind of break open over there, and the fans are great. The fans in Europe are extremely passionate fans.
“When you are out there onstage and you see the fans in the crowds singing the songs and sometimes you see someone out there crying and singing the song, it’s such an incredible thing,” continues Cooper. “I know people cry at U2 shows, but we’re just Skillet. I know they might cry at a John Lennon song, but this is something that I wrote and it’s very humbling as you realize that, ‘Wow! I wrote a song like that for someone.’ Those are the moments that are the most precious. Seeing the crowd impacted by the music is powerful.”
For more information about Skillet’s tour dates, go here.
[Editor’s note: The sales figure for Awake has been updated since this article was originally posted.]