Kickin' Down the Door

By Andy_Argyrakis
Posted: Tue, 08/11/2009 - 14:09

By Andy Argyrakis, senior music editor,

Summer festivals are the heart of this season, and there's no better band to dowse an already scorched crowd with even more alt-rock attitude than Skillet. The scene is Ignite Chicago, just seconds away from O'Hare airport, and the band is blasting its way through a headlining set in the sold-out expanse of a baseball stadium. Though the set list is overflowing with tunes from its 2006 blockbuster Comatose (which spawned six consecutive chart-topping singles and is currently approaching gold sales status), anticipation is particularly high for previews of the upcoming Awake (Atlantic/Ardent/INO).

Thankfully the group obliges with two fresh tunes: the lead off mainstream single "Monster" and the Christian market's current chart burner "Hero," both of which are destined to be enduring rock anthems full of mighty guitars, icy keys and frontman John Cooper's unmistakably melodic screams. Add in an ultra-slick show complete with a string section, smoke machines, plus pyrotechnics (when it's dark enough outside), and you have what amounts to a band that's clearly the modern rock forerunner on both sides of the fence.

From pressure to productivity
Shortly after the explosive performance, Skillet invites into its home away from home – the cozy and comfortable tour bus – where the charismatic leader, keyboardist/singer (and John's wife) Korey Cooper, guitarist Ben Kasica and drummer/vocalist Jen Ledger are cooling off but still brimming with exuberance. Coming down off the high of nearly 10,000 fans going crazy for the past hour, the band reflects on the last and best three years of their career, a season simultaneously met with both elation and apprehension.

"I always thought once you got success there would be less pressure on you because you've finally got that fan base and you just have to put out the music, but that's just not the case," contends John with a chuckle. "There's an immense amount of pressure from people on all ends wanting the record to sound a certain way and have the lyrics be either more Christian or less Christian. So all of that is happening in between doing what you normally do, and while you don't want to listen to all those voices, you can't help hearing them. But in preparing for the new record, we've spent a lot of time praying and soul searching for what God was leading us to say on the record and trying to stay true to that."

If early concert performances of the aforementioned Awake tunes were any indication, Skillet hit the ball out of the park, maintaining its spiritually centered convictions and connecting with seeker-friendly relevance. In fact, the band's on the verge of following in P.O.D. and Switchfoot's footsteps as the scene's ultimate crossover act, capable of conquering any Christian festival one night, and then laying it out righteously hard in any rock club or arena, the next. The double GRAMMY-nominees' recent resume also includes three Top 40 tunes on Billboard's Mainstream Rock charts, two BMI Songwriting Awards, touring alongside mainstream standouts Breaking Benjamin, Three Days Grace, Seether and Flyleaf, plus a solo headlining slot on Pollstar's Concert Pulse Top 50 Tours for 2008.~(continued from page 1)

"Even if we get to the point of selling five million records, we still want to come back and play Ignite," continues John. "I grew up listening to Christian music and that's been a cornerstone in my faith that's helped me get through a lot of hard times in life. Plus I'd feel a lot more comfortable having younger kids see us at Ignite or at Cornerstone than opening up for Rob Zombie. It's encouraging to their faith and also gives us a chance to say more from stage."

Positive messages and powerhouse production
But that isn't to say Skillet is shy about sharing its faith no matter what the environment, whether it be the overt admission during the Comatose Comes Alive club tour that the foursome is indeed a "Christian band" or the fact that Awake is loaded with uplifting antidotes. If anything, the new album seeks to empower believers to live out their Christianity even more boldly, while spreading seeds of hope to those in darker places that might only know the band from mainstream radio.

"It's an aggressive title, and it feels very in your face," John asserts of Awake. "It's basically the opposite of feeling like you're wandering or strolling through life, but rather, facing issues and the world as a whole head on with a mission in your life. It also mirrors the sound in a way, which is pretty full on where even the rock songs are louder than normal."

A major factor in the collaboration process was a production tag team with Howard Benson, the creative mastermind that helped propel P.O.D. to global conquest, not to mention springboard the careers of Daughtry, My Chemical Romance and The All American Rejects. In addition to giving Awake yet another injection of mainstream credibility, the partnership also pushed the band beyond the sonic box to add a sweeping, epic feel to its pre-existing pedigree.

"We have the standard string and piano songs, but there are a lot of distorted pianos, plus low-end 'sub' stuff that makes the guitars sound really big with keys placed underneath," Korey explains. Ben adds: "This record has a completely different approach to guitar tones, and there's some really high gain that gets pretty heavy. There's more of a classic rock edge blended with modern tones that really builds off where the band left off with Comatose."

The sessions also featured another first in the Skillet camp, which was the first-ever studio recording since Jen jumped on board direct from the United Kingdom. In addition to flawlessly keeping the beat, she also steps up to the microphone on several spine- chilling occasions. "It's been super exciting," she relays of the process. "I hope both non-Christians and Christians can listen to this record and see everything from our friendships in the band to our instrumental abilities glorifying God, and not only bring people to Christ, but also inspire people already living for God to run harder and want to get to know Him more."~(continued from page 2)

The real deal
Ben can already attest to those benefits as moderator of the band's MySpace page, where feedback pours in at all hours of the day and night. "We've actually heard from people who've beaten serious things like depression, cutting and drug addiction after being affected by a song's message," he confirms. "We'd love another record where God could use it to set people free. It's really satisfying to read emails from someone who struggled but doesn't anymore, knowing that God used us as a part of that path."

As John kicks back with the question of future goals, he can't help but hope "Monster" makes major waves on mainstream radio, but he'll gladly trade singles success and record sales for the band "keeping true to our mission and message no matter what happens." Yet Korey perhaps summarizes Skillet's current state with the most candor, calling Comatose the thematic prelude to the even more authentic Awake.

"When you wake up from a coma, you're awake, but everything's kind of messy where you can't stand up and your muscles don't work properly," she considers. "The world wants to see Christians who are real, and what I love about this record is it's kind of messy and realistic. And if you look at Jesus even closer, He got in there with people who were messy and they felt comfortable with Him. So I guess the goal with this would be to be Christ-like in the way where people feel like they can approach you, rather than coming across so super spiritual that it comes off as judgmental. For some reason, that's how the church can come across sometimes, but our goal is just to reflect [Christ's] light in the most approachable way possible."


About the Writer

Andy Argyrakis is a Chicago-based entertainment writer/photographer who appears in the Chicago Tribune, Illinois Entertainer, Daily Journal, Concert Livewire, Hear/Say Magazine and Image Chicago (to name few). His record label writing credits include Warner Brothers, Atlantic, Curb, EMI and Universal, with additional photo credits for Fuse TV, Live Nation, Nikon, Pollstar, Celebrity Access, Paste Magazine, and He's also the author/narrator of "Access Matthews" (an audio CD tracing the career of Dave Matthews Band) and spends considerable time on tour, including outings with Arlo Guthrie, The Guess Who, Madina Lake (on Linkin Park's Projekt Revolution) and Gospel Music Channel's very own "Gospel Dream" (where he served as season one judge).

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