On the first night of their tour with RED earlier this year, Jesusfreakhideout.com sat down with Skillet frontman John Cooper to discuss their latest album, Awake, touring with TobyMac, the band's career, and even a little about parenthood.
This interview took place on: 4/15/10.
JFH (John DiBiase): When I recently interviewed TobyMac while you guys were touring together, he told me about how you got to record on his album because your bus had broken down in Nashville?
Yeah! That's true. I think we had already started talking about touring together at that point. I think management had kind of talked. And I was like, "Yeah, we were talking about if this would really happen?" I really wanted it to happen and I know he wanted it to happen. And he called and said "What about recording on the record?" And I said, "Yeah! Really?" I was into it, I'm a Toby fan. He's kind of a legend, obviously. So, obviously, as a fan, you wouldn't say no to that! It's a really cool thing, but I was just kind of "insecure" - is maybe the word. I was like, "Really?" Cuz when you think about people singing with Toby, you don't think about me! You think of Kevin Max and all these really "singer" singers. I'm like, "My voice is not going to go good with this!" So he sent [me] the song and I loved the song, but I was unsure if I'd actually sound good on it. So I was having trouble working it out because we had started that tour with Hawk Nelson, which I know I saw you somewhere.
JFH (John): The Electric Factory down in Philly, yeah.
Electric Factory! That tour was SO slam-busy! I was like, "I just don't know if I can get to Nashville!" We were playing 5 nights a week. Anyway, I even called him at midnight one night right after a show and I said, "Dude, our bus broke down. I just found out that we're rerouting to Nashville to get the bus fixed, so I could do it tomorrow." He wasn't even in town! So I didn't even see Toby when I did it. His producer came and picked me up and I went and sung it in an hour and went home. *laughs* -- Not say "home." "Hotel." *laughter* But it was a really cool thing.
JFH (John): And the tour is starting up again in the fall, right?
Yeah! It was such a fantastic tour. It was a good tour for lots of reasons, but I felt like it was... I don't know, maybe I'm reaching here, but this is how I truly felt. I don't know if it's true, but I felt like it was an important tour, not just for Skillet, but for Christian music in general. Y'know what I mean? I don't know of anything that big and edgy that's happened in a long time. Y'know what I mean? I mean, you've had big tours with Casting Crowns and Leeland, whoever -- those are massive tours. They're more adult contemporary, but nothing that's been edgy since "Freak Show" or something. Which, you know, was dc Talk and Audio Adrenaline.
JFH (John): *Sigh* That was a great tour. *laughs*
I mean, that's pretty epic for Christian music! So I'm not trying to say this is as epic as that, but nothing's happened big like that.
JFH (John): I felt like it was epic. I mean, cuz I've been following you guys since the beginning and I've been following dc Talk since I'd become a Christian, stuff like that. So to have the two together was really cool. And it's an interesting pairing, too.
Yeah! Y'know, it's an unusual pairing that works! Not all of those things do. Like somebody said, "Well what about you and Casting Crowns?" I was like, "No, that would not work." I love Casting Crowns, but that's not the right fit for us OR for them. It would be bad for them, too. Their fans would be like, "What in the world are you doing with this band?!"
JFH (John): There is a hard rock element too.
But do you know why [this works for us], is because Toby's music is so energetic! It's very intense...
There is a hard rock element too.
JFH (John): And it's not like you're Underoath or screaming every five seconds.
Right, yeah. Mmmhmm.
JFH (John): And the fans are shared, as evidenced by the turnout for the tour.
Yeah, it was a fun tour. And it was also important to me -- I'm just thinking out loud -- because with all the mainstream stuff that's happened with us, people ask a lot of questions about "what are you going to do next?" and there's a lot of jumping of hurdles all the time. An incredible amount of planning because there's so many people to make happy and so many people to cater to. And as you know, it's only been six months since we had a radio hit in the mainstream market, and I've always said that if that is the case - and I love the Christian market, I'm not looking to stop doing Christian gigs or whatever you call it. And a lot of people have done that when they cross over. They don't do festivals or what have you - so that was a really good opportunity for me to kinda put-my-money-where-my-mouth-is kind of thing and say, "Look, this label would rather me -- I mean, we got asked to go out with Sick Puppies, Chevelle -- my label would rather me be doing that, but we turned that down to do this Christian market tour." And that's why I think it's important for us, too. Like, it's not just talk, we finally can prove it! We've had a big song and had to turn other things down to do what I think is really important for the Christian market.
JFH (John): And it honors your fans who have been following you since the Christian market years.
Absolutely! It's cool, because there are definitely a lot of - I was talking with Toby about this - Skillet fans, young people, who have not been able to see us play. Like maybe their parents don't want them to come see us at The Electric Factory or a venue like this. And a lot of those kids' parents only let them go if their parents take them. And, a lot of parents don't want to go! *laughs* So those kinds haven't had a chance to see us where their parents felt safe enough -- "Well, they're with those bands, I don't know those bands..." -- Like this tour [with RED and The Letter Black] is harder-edge.
JFH (John): Yeah, but they're all Christian acts.
They are, which is great. But still, some young kids with parents aren't into that. But their parents like TobyMac. So it was a good chance for us to hit those fans. It's important. It means a lot to me.
JFH (John): With your album Awake, it was your first time working with Howard Benson. How was that different from previous records?
It was very different. My experience has been really all over the map. With working with some producers that maybe didn't get too involved. Or maybe what's probably more accurate or fair is that I didn't want them too involved because I didn't understand the role of the producer when I first started. I didn't know much about anything. It came to a point probably around the Invincible and Alien Youth time that I just kind of trusted myself more than I trusted the people that I could work with. I worked with some really talented people and I learned a lot but I got to a place where I liked the option of working with a few people and working with myself. That's why I did that. Going into Collide is when I was really frustrated that I did it by myself. We didn't have the budget or the money or the contacts to find other producers or get other people involved. My label was not being very supportive of that. I was really frustrated going into Collide. And Paul Ebersold, who produced Collide, had called me to come do some songwriting for an artist. At that point, I hadn't talked to Paul for like five years. He recorded our first album. We were working and I said to him "Man, I need to do a really good rock album and I need some help." He started thinking about it and said "Alright, I'm gonna do it." So that was really cool of him. He took a big paycut to do ours. He had just gotten done doing some big, big albums. So he did Collide. And he's great. Paul's really good and he worked on me with my songwriting, but he's not necessarily a songwriter. He's got good ears. So I went from there to working with Brian Howes on Comatose. Brian's the type of songwriter where every single line he picks apart. I remember we argued for about 30 minutes in the pre-production. We disagreed on how the beginning of "Yours to Hold" would go. And it starts, "I see you standing there." My original version started with, "See you standing here." We argued over whether it was going to be "I see you" or just "See you!" He's like, "It matters!" I'm like "No, it doesn't matter!" He's like "Yes it matters. It matters." He kept going back and forth between each one and finally I was like, "I don't care which one it is, it doesn't matter to me!" And he's like, "Naw!" And then, when we got to sing on the record, he couldn't decide and he had me sing it both ways! I sing it both ways, so he said, "I'll decide later!" So I left town and he spent hours on it. Then it was going to be either "I see you..." or "....Iiii seeee you..." Then it was, do we want the breath before the "I"? I'm like, "Dude, I'm out! I'm done!"
JFH (John): Talk about overthinking!
John: That's the kind of stuff Brian does. But he's a genius songwriter. He worked on the latest Boys Like Girls album and wrote the song "Two is Better Than One." I have to give it up to him, he's amazing.
JFH (John): And it ended up being a very successful record.
John: Absolutely, and I wanted him to do the next record, but he couldn't. So I was like, "I don't know what to do." At that time, Howard Benson was my favorite producer with the way that his records sound. He did the two big P.O.D. records, he did Seether, Three Days Grace, Flyleaf, Daughtry, My Chemical Romance... he just did so many amazing records. I was like, "I would love to work with this guy." Anyway, that's a long story to get around to saying that I did enjoy working with Howard. He's very different than Brian. Howard is not a songwriter. For example, for the song "Hero," I would say "Should it be 'I need a hero' or should it be 'I want a hero'?" He would just say that it didn't matter. I wasn't used to that. He's more about the concept of the song than the details. He wants to make sure it's something that people want to hear. I learned a lot from Howard about the overall sound of a record and what you're trying to say with it. He's a smart man. I went in with 35 songs or so written for the record. The first day I met him I was like "Dude, I'm a huge fan of Satellite [P.O.D.] and so many other records!" We talked about a lot of stuff. And I played my songs for him. The second song I played was probably one of my favorites and I thought he was gonna love it. I had just met him 30 minutes before. And he looks at me and says "I gotta be honest, that song sounds like a way to not sell records." And I was like "Really!?" And he was like "Yeah, I don't get that. That's terrible." And that was my initial meeting and I was like "Alright, this is what I've signed up for!" *laughs* "I need somebody to give me an honest opinion and this guy will give it to me." And that was helpful. And I just worked him, I just drove him nuts. I don't know if he's ever had another artist do that. I gotta pick it apart. I gotta know what you don't like about it. I wrote several of the songs after seeing what he was looking for. "It's Not Me, It's You," "Sometimes," and "Should've When You Could've" were all written after that day.
JFH (John): "Should've When You Could've"... what's that song about?
John: Every record we'll do something a little 'off.' "Looking For Angels" was a little off for Comatose. "Should've When You Could've" was a left field song that I thought was funny, basically. It's just about somebody that didn't treat you right. It's their loss, you know? It's meant to be kind of a joke. Like "you had your chance and you missed it. I'm moving on." It's just supposed to be like a fun summer song. People feel really passionate about that song. They either hate it or like it a lot. The label didn't like it. My manager didn't really like it.
JFH (John): I didn't really like it.
John: You didn't like it? *laughs* Yeah, a lot of people didn't like it.
JFH (John): Well you know, I kind of look at it this way. The age I was when I started listening to Skillet was pretty much when people were starting to pick up Comatose. I think a lot of the songs on this record are kind of written more for the younger crowd. You can listen to "Should've When You Could've" and it sounds like a breakup song or it sounds like a relationship song. I think if I had first heard this record [Awake] when I was 15 or 16, then I think I would've connected with it in a deeper way. Now, I look at it like you're married, you have kids, where are some of these songs coming from?
John: Yeah, I know what you're saying. It's funny because most people felt like it was an older audience than Comatose. I feel that way in some ways, and in some ways not. "Monster" and "Sometimes" are maybe darker and more mature. But some people are saying this one feels a little older. And their reasoning was because on Comatose we did songs like "Those Nights." There was a magazinet hat wouldn't do anything on Comatose. They were just like "Oh, you guys are just reaching a junior high audience."
JFH (John): Well, "Those Nights" connected well with me as a married guy. I'm very sentimental. So, for me, that seems like a sentimental song.
John: Yeah, it isn't necessarily a young person song. It's about being young, so I felt the same thing. You just never know how people are gonna take a song. To me, that's kind of the magic of music. For instance, I haven't really been forthcoming about what the song "Lucy" is about.
JFH (John): That was one of my questions too.
John: Really? Haha! People ask all the time. And I'm glad. It's probably the best song I've ever written. It has a little bit of a magic to it. A lot of people think it's about one thing or another, and I'll get really great emails about it.
JFH (John): Would you say that you wrote it from a specific standpoint and a specific thought but you just don't want to give away what it is?
John: I did write it from a specific standpoint. There is a story behind it. But even though there's a specific story, it has a lot of interpretations that have kind of meant a lot to a lot of people already. They're all different. So I decided I'm not going to tell the story behind it. Maybe I will later after it has meant what it's going to mean to people. That's the magic of music and I like that. What would be really funny is if "Should've When You Could've" turned into this massive pop single. Like the All-American Rejects or something. That would be so funny.
JFH (John): I think it can really connect with a young audience.
John: Yeah, "Should've When You Could've" really is a young song.
JFH (John): Even "It's Not Me, It's You" even connects well with young audiences.
John: Yeah I guess it could! You could see it either way. Definitely, because it could have like a teenage angst-type feel to it. That's my favorite song on the record.
JFH (John): What about "Don't Wake Me?" Where did that come from? Was there a specific inspiration for that song?
John: No, it didn't at first, but it became something. Have you seen the movie Braveheart?
JFH (John): I haven't. I'm not really into gory stuff.
John: Yeah, it's pretty gory. It's very realistic violence. But the story is really inspiring. It's a really moving film. I know you're not into gory stuff, so I'm not afraid to ruin it. His wife was killed. He has these dreams about his wife, and in one of them, she tells him that he's dreaming and he has to wake up. And he tells her that he doesn't want to wake up. But the song also means something else. While we were recording Comatose, my grandfather got really sick. He passed away probably 6 months after that. And for a year, I just had these dreams about him all the time. I started writing "Don't Wake Me" before Comatose came out. It was the first song I wrote for Awake. That's when I started having more and more thoughts about it. I was dreaming about me and my grandfather hanging out all the time. I meant to dedicate it to him in the artwork and I forgot to because I was so stressed out. But that song is dedicated to him even though it ended up having a different meaning than I intended.
JFH (John): You had mentioned that it could be taken as a break-up song, but hearing that it's about Braveheart and your grandfather, I can definitely see where it's coming from. I've had dreams about my grandfather too.
John: Really? It's crazy! They seem real, don't they?
JFH (John): Yeah, and when I have them it's like 'Dude, this is awesome! I don't wanna wake up.' I totally had that feeling the last time I dreamt about him.
John: If we release it as a single, that will kind of be the official story of the song. It wasn't the original writing, but I still wrote half the song. "Believe" was written later.
JFH (John): Yeah, wasn't that added after?
John: Yeah, it was the last song that we did. It was after the fact. The record was done. But that's a special song to me. I really like that one.
JFH (John): What is that song about?
John: Well, "Yours to Hold," is kind of a prom song, with the excitement of young love. But "Believe" is a little bit of a more mature look at things. It's like the difference between men and women. You're having a fight. You're mad and you're saying things that you don't actually mean. You're just mad. And in the end, you're kind of like 'you should know me better than this.' I always laugh at my wife and say that this song is basically a guy's way to apologize, which is like 'I'm really sorry I said it but you should've known that I didn't mean it.' *laughs* That's basically what "Believe" is about. I don't know why, but that song is kind of special to me. We did that on the tobyMac tour. We played that one and "Lucy."
JFH (John): Yeah I think you played "Lucy" on the tour last year too.
John: We did! But we only did it on half of the tour, on the east coast side. We stopped doing it on the west coast side.
JFH (John): ): We talked at one point before Collide about how you wanted to resurrect "Locked in a Cage." Have you still been thinking about that?
John: I've thought about that again, yeah. I've told my manager for like three years now. I've got this new chorus and I still think that "Locked in a Cage" could be the right song for a record. I did some rewriting on it. But that song will only help us in the mainstream market. Not that our fans won't like it, but I can't see it being a big song on Christian radio. It's so dark, and if we did it again, it would be heavier and it would just sound heavier. But I still would really like to do that.
JFH (John): Are there any other songs that you've thought about bringing back?
John: That's literally the only song I've ever thought about bringing back.
JFH (John): I was thinking about the song "I Can." I can hear that being symphonic.
John: Yeah! I know what you mean. I can hear that too.
JFH (John): I was thinking back even to the Alien Youth days, and "Kill Me Heal Me" would be a good song. I look at how you have so many new, younger fans that probably have never heard those songs and probably won't ever hear those. You have a wealth of songs that you could possibly bring back.
John: Yeah, six records they've never heard of! *laughs* It's been a really bizarre career. It's been a really, really weird thing. But, it's what it is.
JFH (John): 14 years this year, right?
John: Yeah, whew. It's weird. I can't believe that.
JFH (John): There are people that have just discovered you. But anyways, let's see... oh! The growl in the song "Monster" isn't on the radio version...
John: Yeah, I just heard about that today! It's up to the station which version they want to play. I thought everyone was playing the "Monster" growl version. They are in Chicago, which is the station that I pick up. I'd never heard it on the radio without it until yesterday here. I heard it and was like "aww, they took out the growl!" Some people might not have liked it. For the most part, fans love it. The growl has sold us more records than the song.
JFH (John): The night we saw you guys at Creation this past year, I was sitting in the hotel with a friend of mine. The label had sent us a stream for it. I was sitting in the dark on my laptop doing site updates, had my headphones on, and wasn't expecting the growl. When you're by yourself, in the dark, not expecting it, it's the creepiest thing in the world. *laughs* I was totally freaked out by that. But I wasn't sure how I felt about that (the growl). I played it for another Skillet fan and he was like "that's so cheesy."
John: Yeah, some people really, really think it's cheesy. But tons of people love it. You've seen us do it live. Whenever it happens, people go crazy. It's really funny. We did an acoustic set at a radio station last week. It was just me singing "Monster" with an acoustic guitar and of course I didn't do the growl. There was this girl there that got really mad.
JFH (John): You should just take a little recording with you. *laughs* You should have an iPhone app for the "Monster" growl.
JFH (John): Between Christian and mainstream shows, which do you feel more comfortable with on stage?
John: I probably feel slightly more comfortable at Christian shows or Christian festivals because I know who's coming and what kind of people are coming. When we're playing a mainstream show, we're usually opening up for somebody, and I don't know if people know who we are or not. We have such a weird career that it's a little hard to say if people know who Skillet is or do they not know. That's the only reason. But I do love being an opening band. Getting new fans is awesome.
JFH (John): One last question. Any advice for new parents?
John: Are you going to be a new parent?
JFH (John): Yes, In October...
John: Congratulations! That's awesome man. Prepare for it to be the grossest thing ever. It's gross and it's traumatic. You've probably heard people tell you that you're not going to sleep very much when you have a baby. Well, whatever you're thinking about that right now, it's worse. *laughs* It's hard. Other than that, that's it! Oh, and be nice to your wife during the pregnancy and after it for at least six months. Then you can be mean again. *laughs*
Skillet' new album Awake is available now!