As the world began to shut down earlier this year, Skillet was in the midst of touring their 2019 album Victorious. Considered one of the most popular rock bands of the 21st century (and certainly one of the busiest), this forced pause would not last long.
While sequestered at home, founding member John Cooper and his wife Korey (also of Skillet on guitar and keys), found a space on social media to share chill piano versions of songs from Victorious and new songs. As fans connected, they saw a need to release an extended version of the original project as Victorious: The Aftermath.
This deluxe version also includes a creative bridge to another of John’s endeavors, a follow-up to a successful graphic novel debut in 2019. Eden II: The Aftermath inspired the song “Dreaming of Eden,” whose “otherworldly soundscape” helps sets the scene for the next chapter in the dystopian story.
I spoke with John recently about the new album, the new graphic novel, and the social unrest which landed not far from his front door in Wisconsin.
John, thank you so much for joining me today. I’m really excited about this new project that you and Skillet have been working on.
Yes. Thank you very much. We’re excited too.
Skillet came off of touring the Victorious album earlier this year?
You know, we were touring all the way up until the pandemic came out. Victorious came out in 2019 and we made it almost through our entire tour. And until finally, I think our last few shows in New York and maybe Virginia and the governors came in and shut it down. So we only missed two shows.
I noticed on social media that you guys are really engaged with your community. Tell me what you call your community.
Well, Skillet fans have been called “pan heads” ever since we came out in the nineties. You know, Skillet did not sell a lot of records when we first came out. It took a really long time to build the fan base. But what we noticed was that the people that really, really loved Skillet, there wasn’t many of them, but they were really loyal. And so at some point, people are bringing skillets to shows. It was just a really funny thing. One was wearing it as if it was a baseball cap. They had it duct taped all the way around their chin, you know, and somebody said, “That’s a real pan head out there.”
On social media, the members of Skillet listed their favorite songs. I was listening to your album and “Terrify the Dark Re-imagined” is probably my favorite.
Cool. That’s so great to hear. I’m glad that song is kind of getting a little bit more attention now, too. It’s a very appropriate song for the times we’re in right now. It’s like when you write a song and then sometimes it’s a year later and people go, “Wow, that song is for now.” Obviously there is this crazy pandemic, and then we have all of the heartbreaking stuff that’s happening in our country and all the discussions of race or politics, and it’s the presidential election. So people are even more yelling at each other. There’s so much pain out there and there’s so much confusion and people are scared. And so I think “Terrify the Dark” is just really like the right time for the song. It’s bringing a lot of hope to people and I hope that it can be an encouragement to Christians. It’s based on the Bible verse that says the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. To me, that’s what this song is about. It’s about the fact that this isn’t like darkness rules the world, and we have a tiny little light. Instead, it is that the light of Christ will overcome the darkness and whatever power that the enemy has.
It’s also a perfect answer to one of my other favorite songs, which is “Save Me.” You just said something about the light, and the lyrics in this song are “Reaching for the light, standing on the ledge, what are you waiting for? Someone please save me.” I read that sharing about mental health with your fans is very important to you.
You know, a lot of times rock and roll fans have always typically been people that felt marginalized or they felt misunderstood or they were angry. There’s a lot of anger found in rock and roll music. And, and so, and, and also rock and roll could be like a very vasculature kind of, you know, it used to be very much like “men only” in rock and roll, but there is something about the aggression of the music and we meet tons of fans like this. So it is important to me, and I like to write those kinds of songs. I draw from my own life experience. My mom passed away when I was young and I was fighting with my dad and extreme anger that I went through in high school. Sometimes even making me want to hurt people – really very dark type things that I faced. I like to write about those things, because as you say, Jesus is the one who reaches out to us in those, those moments. “Reaching for the light,” – we try to find those answers. But when we look outside of Christ, it’s going to go poorly. You’re not going to find the answers. It’s going to lead you into more darkness and then more chaos. That is kind of the message of the song “Save Me.”
I was gonna wait to talk about this till later, but I’m curious, you have a podcast called “Cooper Stuff.” That’s awesome! Tell me about it.
Thank you. You know, a few years ago, I think that a lot of people started noticing that culture was changing so quickly. I began to notice so many of my Christian friends were really struggling and didn’t know how to live for Christ. All of a sudden all these new messages were coming in and I began to notice, “Man it’s more difficult to know how to live for God now than five years ago. That’s how it felt at the time. And so I began reading, a lot of studying, a lot, asking a lot of questions, trying to figure out what it was in culture that was happening – that was confusing everyone. As I got to the bottom of a lot of those things, I was just praying. I was asking the Lord, “What can I do to help Christian people find, navigate their way through this?” I’d been seeing a lot of Christian people stand up for things that I actually think are not good and they don’t seem biblical to me, but they think that it’s biblical.
So what can I do? I’m not ultra-smart. I’m not ultra-intellectual, but I wanted to start this podcast just to talk about, from a normal person’s point of view that loves Jesus and loves the Bible, how does the Bible tell us how to live? How are we supposed to live for Jesus in 2020 with all of this stuff going on? I do talk a lot about chaos because I believe that we’re in a post-truth society. I think that the fact that we don’t believe in an objective truth is the reason that anything goes. I always say, we are living in “Lord of the Flies” America. Now, anything goes, anything that you think is moral is okay, anything that that you don’t think is immoral, that’s fine too. Whatever you have to do, by any means necessary, to get your point of view across – that’s Lord of the Flies. God gives us a rule book and he tells us, “This is how you thrive in the world that I created.” And so that’s what I try to do in Cooper Stuff is bring order. I mean, that’s what God does for us. God brings order to chaos. We’re living in a chaotic time. So certainly the Bible can tell us how to live.
Recently you were on Fox and Friends. You and your family live in Kenosha, Wisconsin. You’re not just watching this chaos on the news, you’re living it.
That was the interesting thing. Yeah. You know, I follow all these things happening in America. And I said, here’s what it seems like to me, you know, and I would lay it out ABCD. And then it happened literally four blocks from my house. I mean, you can see where the fires were from the street that I live on. And so when it’s happening here, I would you would go around, you’ve read the news reports and I’d say you know what? This basically confirms what I already think is going on. And I talk quite a lot about those things. So yes, it is finding the ideologies of the world and the thing I’m most passionate about in this is finding where Christian people are unknowingly being co-opted into ideologies that Christians think are really good and virtuous, but they’re actually really not biblical. I don’t do this from a place of judgment, but from a place of, “Hey, I just want to warn you. This is what I see.” If you disagree, that’s fine, it’s between you and the Lord, but “This is why I think that this is bad and why you should stay away from this from a biblical point of view.” Not everybody’s going to agree with me, but I try to do my best to help people. You know, how then should we live as Christians of the world? And that’s what I want to help people answer.
Another way you’re reaching people is with this graphic novel. You’ve got the second installment coming out, Eden II: The Aftermath. The artwork is fantastic.
Yeah, he did a really good job. The artist’s name is Chris Hunt. I’ve been a fan of comic books ever since I was a kid, as young as I can remember. I love Spiderman and Batman and Iron Man. And I always dreamt of doing a Skillet comic book. I thought it would be fun. And it’s really hard because doing a comic book, you know, it can either be really, really cool or really, really dumb. And, you don’t want it to be dumb! I got approached from a company that does graphic novels and they said, “Hey, we know you love comic books. What do you think about writing something?” And I said, “Yeah, I’ve got all kinds of ideas for science fiction books. Let’s put something together!”
It was a real bucket list item. The idea of Eden is science fiction. It takes place in a bit of a dystopian future, but it’s very much like what we’re seeing now. It is people with ideas of how to make utopia on earth and fighting against other groups of people, you know? It has a little touch of like “The Hunger Games” or “The Walking Dead” and things like that within the book. It’s a really cool book because it has a lot of action, but your whole family could read it. My kids can read it, my little six-year-old nephew – he read it and loved it. I guess what I just want to say for parents is, this is 2020. You cannot send your kid into the comic store and just say, “Buy whatever you want,” because comics are R-rated these days, and are pornographic sometimes. That’s a real bummer because comics were not like that when I was growing up. So having a comic book with some religious overtones that all ages can read, and if you read between the lines you will see the message of the gospel of the book, which I think is really cool. But if you are not religious, it just reads like a science fiction novel. And I think that’s pretty cool.
What would you say the album embodies most? I read that it started because of quarantine boredom, that you and Korey were just sitting at home playing around with songs.
A lot of time when we’re making a record, you record more songs than you actually put on the record. It’s almost like watching a movie and watching the deleted scenes – not everything makes it. At whatever point that certain songs don’t make it, you just stop working on them and you go, “Well, maybe in the future.” Sometimes they get released and sometimes they don’t. So when we hit quarantine it was, we were like, you know what? We should finish those songs out because then we’ll have something new to give fans. But as we began to finish them, it began to be clear that for one thing, quarantine was going to last longer than everyone expected.
And then something else happened that was organic, that I thought was kinda cool, which was basically because we were getting so many social media messages of people struggling with mental health, as we talked about, people saying that they’re depressed. I saw on the news that suicide hotlines were receiving 800% or a thousand percent more phone calls than the year before. We decided to record live just some Skillet songs. Corey was playing piano. I was singing, threw it up on Instagram and Facebook just for the fans. And we had such a huge response to people enjoying those, what I call unplugged piano versions that I just said, you know, what, why don’t we just release an extended album? We already had those other songs we were finishing. And then we could record some piano versions of the songs because people really liked this.
And when you hear something without the heavy guitars, you begin to notice the lyrics more. All of a sudden the song has taken more of an emotive characteristic than they originally had. And that is why there’s so many piano songs on the extended. We’ve got three brand new rock songs, and we’ve got a few piano songs and it’s just a really good project. So I think that people will really enjoy the ebb and flow, you know, a lot of ups and downs, on the record. It’ll make you want to work out, but then you’ll hear the softer stuff. And you’ll really, I think, connect with the lyrics in a way that maybe you wouldn’t have before.
Is there a particular phrase or chorus or song from the album that resonates with you more than any other?
You know, there’s a song on the deluxe that we wrote actually for the graphic novel. And again, the graphic novel is called Eden and the song is called “Dreaming of Eden.” It feels like a really special song to me because it really speaks of the tragedy of the fall of Adam. Not to get too deep here, but God created us to be in relationship with him and to enjoy his earth. Adam and Eve had everything that humans could ever desire or ever want, but it was the tragedy of the fact that they didn’t trust God. And because of that sin, now we are all in 2020, we are all suffering and people hate each other and they’re hurting each other. We’re living in this devastation because we didn’t trust God. And so this “Dreaming of Eden” is kind of that call out. It’s like you’re dreaming of that day when we will be with God, as we were intended to be, and we will be made like him and we won’t sin, and we won’t cry, we won’t hurt each other. It’s very much kind of like dreaming of this world to come about – the kingdom of God. That’s a really exciting, prophetic picture of Christ coming to earth. So I don’t know. I think that song is kind of quite special to me.