After more than two decades leading the high-powered Christian rock quartet Skillet, a period that has included two Grammy nominations and two platinum-selling albums, John Cooper finds the band’s tours still have the feel of a diplomatic mission.
Elders in local Christian communities are wary of a group that has performed on bills with Ozzy Osbourne and Metallica; rock and metal fans, unaccustomed to receiving their music with a dose of Jesus, also need convincing.
“Sometimes, we’re not Christian enough for some Christians and sometimes it might be too Christian for people who aren’t. So you’ve just got to be yourself and be authentic,” Cooper says. “I think that authenticity has actually helped us in the end. Fans like that. Certainly, there are some people that might not get that. But that’s OK.”
The Nashville-based Skillet is among nearly a dozen popular Christian-music performers on the 46-city Winter Jam 2018 tour that stops on Sunday, Jan. 14, at the BB&T Center in Sunrise. The band, which includes Cooper on bass and vocals, wife Korey Cooper on rhythm guitar and keyboards, drummer Jen Ledger and lead guitarist Seth Morrison, spent most of 2017 on the road in support of the gold-selling album “Unleashed.”
The 42-year-old Cooper, who has a 15-year-old daughter, a 12-year-old son, a hipster beard and a large tattoo of the word “Forgiven” on his left arm, answered a few questions by phone during a break from rehearsals for Winter Jam.
Many performers follow a personal faith, but they keep it separate from their music. Have your music and faith always been so intertwined?
I’m in no way downplaying anyone else’s particular beliefs, [but] I think that faith interplays in every single aspect of your life. Loving Jesus is an all-consuming fire, in a wonderful way. I can’t think of my marriage outside of my faith in Jesus, and I can’t think of my art outside of my relationship with Jesus, and I can’t look at a sunset outside my relationship with Jesus, because it’s so all-consuming.
Writing music and singing about Jesus has always been very important to me. I’ve always thought it was important to stand up for what I believe and be open about who I am. When we go play in front of Ozzy Osbourne, someone in the media tent before the show will say, “You’re playing in front of Ozzy Osbourne — you’re not really a Christian, are you?” And I say, “Absolutely, I’m a Christian. I’m proud of that. I’m not going to offend anyone with that tonight or judge anyone, but that’s who I am.”
You have opened for Ozzy. Did you interact with him much?
No, I wish that I had met Ozzy. I’m a huge fan. The last few years have been awesome for me — I’m like a kid — because I get to play with my favorite bands. [Laughs] The highlight of my entire career was opening for Iron Maiden in Italy. But, no, usually when you play with bands that big, you don’t really get to meet them. That’s been my experience. Maybe it’s we’re not big enough.
One thing that does surprise me about those bands — not Ozzy specifically, but in general — artists that have been doing rock music for 20 or 30 years, even if they sing about drugs and mayhem, they’re all clean, pretty much, or else they’d be dead or they can’t perform anymore. … They live kind of a similar lifestyle that you’d expect a religious person to do, which I think is kind of funny. That’s how they have to run their business. They had to get clean, to keep staying alive and keep playing music. Most all of those artists walk around with an AA sponsor with them all tour long. That was actually a little surprising to me.
Do you have to explain why you play on bills with Ozzy and Iron Maiden?
Definitely. This tour we’re going on, Winter Jam, it’s a very Christian tour, we’re really proud to be on it, and I love the message and I’m thrilled to be there. But some people don’t know who Skillet is, parents or church workers, and they go, “Wait a minute. They played with Metallica, Linkin Park — who is this?” It’s not that they don’t like who we are, but they don’t know who we are. They’re concerned, and I get that. So people will ask me questions, and I get a chance to just be myself. And I’m not trying to say they always leave happy, but they usually end the conversation going, “OK, even if I don’t prefer you doing that, I see why you do it, and I’m OK with my kids coming.”
Why do you do it?
I never wanted to just be singing to Christian people. That’s the worst way to spread the Christian message there is, to only be around Christian people all the time. … Not that I don’t like Christian people. I do. I’m one of them [laughs], but I always thought of music as being bigger than and more important than demographics, religious, political or age or what have you. I never knew that doing Christian music would get people to feeling that only Christian people could listen. And I never knew that doing Christian music meant that I had to sing about Jesus every song, either. I kind of thought it more like a way of life, a lifestyle choice that could make me a Christian musician. Not because every song is religious.
The Winter Jam show in South Florida is on Sunday. How will you worship?
Winter Jam is unique because there are so many people on the tour that serve, that they have their own church service. Not for the public, for the tour. They’ll have an intimate gathering, and 30, 40, 50 people will worship together. There’s also a pastor on the tour that will speak. Winter Jam is unique because it’s such a community vibe.
“Unleashed” has a song called “I Want To Live,” an anti-suicide ballad that echoes the Logic hit “1-800-273-8255.” Can you talk about that song and where it came from.
This is a really special story. I love the fans, I love talking to them and … I take what they say really to heart. I think it’s the best way to know what you should write songs about: This is my audience. This is what they’re going through. … I was in Moscow, Russia, on the street. We’re very big in Russia. I don’t say it in a braggy way, more in a surprised way. We’re bigger in Russia than we are in America, and I don’t know why, so I’m always amazed that people will come up to me as if I’m Justin Bieber or something. It’s really bizarre. But this girl came up, and she gave us a note that she wrote. She had spent the night on Google translating from Russian to English, and she wrote us this broken English note about how she lives in a one-room house with her parents and five siblings, her parents fight, and her parents don’t like her, and she gets bullied in school. The only one good thing in her whole life is her headphones, and she listens to Skillet because our music makes her want to live. It really moved me, and I decided to write a song about it.
Do your children force you to listen to a lot of bad pop music?
Yeah, I don’t want to call it bad, but we listen to things that I don’t prefer [laughs]. My daughter, she loves urban music, somehow loves rap, which I never thought would be a lasting genre. So I was wrong about that — it’s the biggest thing in the world. There’s definitely stuff that I’m like, yeah, that’s not what I would listen to. I wish my daughter was listening to Skillet and Metallica every day, but [laughs] … My son is very eclectic. He likes the metal stuff, he likes the really hard stuff, and he likes some of the pop stuff. You find with young people, they’re kind of open, they’re very accepting of diversity in general, of course.
What is the future for faith-based rock or popular music?
Christian music is very much in flux right now. I think Christian [musicians have] to find out who they are, and I think that’s changing, as so many things are. In politics, you used to have pretty much Democrats and Republicans, and now on the Republican side, you’ve got the Tea Party movement, you’ve got people who are now trying to come a little more to the middle. And it’s the same on the Democrats’ side, with the hyperliberals, and then you have the people saying, “OK, maybe we don’t need to push that hard.”
Everything in our world is becoming niched, and I think that Christian music is trying to find out where it’s at. Right now, the niche that Christian music is going toward is basically worship music. Whereas 10 years ago Christian music was expanding and, I think, was more accepting of different genres and different ways of communicating that faith, now it’s pretty much down to one way of communicating. For Christian messages, [songs] need to be clearly about Jesus and they need to be something you can sing at church. Otherwise, it probably won’t do very well. At the moment, they’re niching out, and they’re probably hurting themselves by doing so.”
Winter Jam 2018 will begin 6 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 14, at the BB&T Center, 1 Panther Parkway, in Sunrise. Performers include Skillet, Kari Jobe, Building 429, John Crist, KB, NewSong, Jordan Feliz, Nick Hall, Dan Bremnes, Mallary Hope and Westover. No tickets are required, but a suggested $15 donation can be made at the door. Go to JamTour.com. For more information on Skillet, go to Skillet.com.