The concept of Christian metal may sound contradictory to some, since heavy metal music is thundering and aggressive and its Christian messengers tend to emphasize positive and hopeful aspects of their faith.
But nothing says you can’t be loud and spiritual at the same time, which is a combination that Skillet has embraced for more than 20 years.
Along the way, the band has sold millions of records, earned two Grammy nominations and a reputation as one of the hardest touring bands around.
Skillet is the headliner for Winter Jam 2018, a tour of Christian performers that plays Friday at Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena. The lineup includes includes singer-songwriter Kari Jobe, rock band Building 429, hip-hop artist KB and comedian John Crist. Tickets are $15 and can be purchased at the door.
John Cooper, lead singer and bass player for Skillet, co-founded the group in 1996 and is the only remaining original member. Over time, it’s become something of a family affair: His wife, Korey, is a guitarist and keyboard player for Skillet.
Cooper talked about the band, its music and its devoted fans — called “panheads ”— in a recent telephone interview from his home in Kenosha, Wis.
Let’s assume that some of the readers here are not panheads.
What’s the story behind the band’s name?
We called the band Skillet because when we got together, it was my friend, actually a pastor of mine who kind of helped us get together, who said, ‘You would be good with a guitar player from another band. Start a side project, write a few songs, find a drummer from a different band — and it would be like cooking, taking all these different ingredients from different bands and throwing it all in a skillet.’ And that’s how the name came about.
What’s the story behind the term “panheads?”
When we started the band, starting touring, we did not have a lot of fans, but we had extremely dedicated fans. And they were bringing skillets to shows, and holding skillets up in the air and stuff like that. And we were like, ‘Wow, these people really like us.’ We were at an outdoor festival, and someone was wearing a skillet as if it were a ball cap. They had it duct-taped all the way around their chin, they were wearing like a helmet. And it was hot, and it was nasty — and you know how hot a skillet can get on your head, it gives you a dripping sweat. And someone said, ‘Man, that’s a real panhead right there,’ and that’s when we started calling the fans panheads.
You were 21 when you formed Skillet. You’re 42 now. Have your core beliefs changed over the years?
Um, no actually, not that I know of. [He laughs] No, I’ve always kind of had the things that I’ve held to, and they’ve always kept me grounded. And I’ve been passionate about those items. Didn’t want that to change. And that’s what we’ve based our career on, and our life on, and our message on as well.
Can you condense your message for the sake of a newspaper article?
Oh, sure. Skillet writes a lot of songs about hope in general, and they’re not always all religious. They can of course, be taken that way, because of my world view, and I also just write about life, and you can kind of take some of it as you want to, is what I’m trying to say. I write about having hope, and not feeling like you’re a failure. In fact, I write about those things quite a lot, those are important to me, and feeling that you are created for a purpose. … And that God loves you, even if you feel unlovable. and even if you messed up, and even if you feel alone, you’re actually not alone. So our music is very hopeful.
And I meet people all the time from all kinds of world views. Just about every weekend at a show, somebody will come up to me and say, ‘Hey, I’m not a Christian, I don’t get the Jesus stuff, but your music makes me feel good about my life. and feel better about myself.’ And I always take that as a big win. That’s important to me.
What do you think are the reasons for Skillet’s success?
I think that we have kept true to who we are without being embarrassed. I think people don’t really mind it when you’re up front about who you are. The fans haven’t minded that at all. So I think that’s been a good thing. The fact that we haven’t changed, just to fit in with a particular format is good. And think I think we have always been open and honest, I think people have just gravitated to that for some reason.
When you formed the band, did you have specific goals in mind?
Yeah. I never wanted to be just a Christian act. I always wanted to be a mainstream rock act, and probably in my naivete I didn’t realize that you would have to choose one or the other. And that’s typically how it goes. Now luckily for Skillet, doors have opened and that’s not the case. But I’m realizing now how out of the ordinary that is. It’s very hard to be taken seriously as a rock act when you’ve been a Christian act.
But I never wanted to just sing to only Christian people. I would have thought that was not something I was interested in, and that would have been not the point. That was a main goal of mine, to play a rock act, to play with metal bands, and to write what I want to write about and not be embarrassed about it, and just be myself. So, under those guidelines, we’ve very much held true to our core, how we began.
You do play secular events and festivals, you’ve toured with bands like Korn, where maybe the musical genre is similar, but the messages are not identical. In a situation like that, do you feel like you have to prove yourself to audiences, or is your fan base usually there for you?
I would say the answer is yes to all of those questions. There is a measure of proving yourself. Not everyone that comes knows that we’re a Christian band. … Some of the people don’t even know who we are because … we’re not a household name. I usually tell people, and I mean this in a really humble way, even a little bit making fun of myself, but I usually tell people that we are the biggest selling band that you’ve never heard of.
We sell a lot of records, you would think that we would be known by now, but we’re really not. And some of that has to do with the fact that we’re not really a mainstay at any particular radio format, even though radio has really embraced us throughout the years. …
Sometimes people maybe haven’t heard the music, but they’ve heard of us, they’ve heard we’re a Christian act. Maybe they don’t like the idea of that, but there’s a little bit of an idea of winning the fans, but you know … Brian “Head” [Welch], from Korn, he would always tell me, ‘John, I come to watch you guys play when you open for us. I’m telling you, by the third song, there’s nobody out that doesn’t like the band, people are really into it,’ and I think people pick up on the energy and excitement of the band. We’re not trying to be something we’re not. We’re not embarrassed of who we are. We’re not preaching it either, We’re just having a good time and playing some music that we like and being ourselves. I think people quite like that.
David Crumpler: (904) 359-4164