When Skillet’s 2010 album, “Awake,” became the band’s first million-selling CD, it changed a host of things for the group – now one of the most popular acts in Christian music – beginning with the size of its audience and size of its shows.
It also made the making of the recently released follow-up CD, “Rise,” a different experience than any of the earlier albums – and not in all good ways.
“Whenever you have that kind of success, everybody starts getting involved,” Skillet frontman John Cooper said in a late December phone interview. “All of a sudden the stakes are really, really high, and people that never really cared, whether it’s from the label’s perspective, the promoter’s perspective, radio, people that never necessarily believed in you or cared what you did, all of a sudden want to get involved. And they’re all nervous that the next one is not going to live up. Everybody wants to get their fingers in the pie, you know. So yeah, it (“Awake”) definitely kind of raised all of the expectations and the bar, and I think stressed a lot of people out for a long time.”
Cooper clearly feels he and his bandmates – guitarist/keyboardist Korey Cooper (John Cooper’s wife), drummer/singer Jen Ledger and lead guitarist Seth Morrison – stayed true to the musical sound and message of Skillet despite having to negotiate their way through the politics of making “Rise.”
But that’s not to say there weren’t battles on the road to finishing “Rise,” or a few second thoughts about things that could have been approached differently.
For one thing, after writing some 40 songs for “Rise,” Skillet’s label, Atlantic Records, asked Cooper to do another intensive string of writing sessions with outside songwriters. Cooper went along with the request, and several of those co-written songs made the album.
Still, Cooper said he’s not sure those songs made for a better album.
“I felt like we wrote an extra 30 songs that we didn’t need to write,” he said, referring to the number of tunes that came out of the co-writing sessions.
And the opinions coming in from different quarters during the recording sessions didn’t make that part of the project any easier, either.
“There was a lot of stress making the record, and again all coming back to the same point of all the pressure put on the album,” Cooper said. “I think everybody felt it. (Producer) Howard (Benson) felt it from the label. A&R felt it from the head of the label. I felt it from everybody. And so therefore there was just a lot of stress while doing it, a lot of needless overthinking and arguing about the way things should be recorded. It was a difficult process. And I think having success can do that, can just make things harder.”
In the end, though, Cooper feels Skillet emerged with an album in “Rise” that will feel familiar to fans, while introducing a few new wrinkles into the group’s music.
“We’ve always been dynamic. And I think it makes the passion of the lyrics come through,” Cooper said. “So I wanted to keep that kind of dynamism, which I think we have done. And at the same time, I think we tried some offshoots of some genres that we have never done.”
Indeed, “Rise” mostly continues a stylistic direction that started to emerge on the band’s fifth album, the 2003 release “Collide,” and came into sharper focus on the 2006 album, “Comatose,” and especially “Awake.” New songs like “Not Gonna Die,” “Good To Be Alive” and the title track bring together the big riffs and aggression of hard rock, doses of grandeur (courtesy of strings and synthesizers) and strong pop melodies (especially in the choruses) to create a hard-hitting but very approachable sound.
The music seems to be connecting, again. “Rise” debuted at No. 4 on “Billboard” magazine’s all-genre top 200 album chart, and the first two singles, “American Noise” and “Sick Of It,” have been top 20 singles at mainstream rock. Meanwhile, “Rise” has reaffirmed Skillet’s place as one of Christian music’s most popular acts, topping the Billboard Christian album chart.
Now Skillet is giving “Rise” a new push with a stint as co-headliner (with Third Day) on the multi-act Christian-music-oriented Roadshow tour. Cooper said Skillet, which is known for putting on an energetic, visually spectacular show, isn’t holding back with its Roadshow set. The band will play about 40 minutes – shorter than a typical headlining show but appropriate for this sort of tour. And it’s enough time, Cooper said, to give fans a good mix of songs, mainly from Skillet’s three most recent albums.
“Forty minutes is long enough for fans to get their fill and short enough that people that don’t know who we are don’t feel like they’re sitting for three hours of a band they’ve never heard of,” he said. “So it’s a pretty good taste. And we have some surprises production wise.”