April 25, 2018
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A Christian rock band’s hard rock life

Contributed | BDN
Contributed | BDN
By Andrew Neff, BDN Staff

Skillet lead singer and founder John Cooper may be the only man on Earth who has ever been punished for listening to Peter Cetera music.

Yes, the front man for the Christian hard rock quartet was once grounded for listening to the former Chicago lead singer’s “Glory of Love” solo hit single.

“I was part of a very strict Southern Baptist Christian family and my mom was a piano teacher. I grew up playing classical piano music, but all my friends were into metal,” said the 34-year-old Memphis, Tenn., native. “Well, one summer I saw ‘Karate Kid II’ and I loved that Peter Cetera song.”

That summer Cooper had wheels (a bicycle) and money from summer jobs, so he went to the music store and bought the sheet music.

“I learned to play the song, but when my parents found out, they grounded me,” he said

Fast forward 20 years and the 34-year-old Cooper has gone from Cetera to AC/DC, Metallica and Breaking Benjamin.

“I’m a big metal head,” Cooper said. “I didn’t really like ’90s music. I liked Fleetwood Mac, Yes, Kansas, Metallica, Motley Crue and Bon Jovi.”

He must really be in trouble with his parents now.

“My mom passed away when I was 14. She was the one who was really against it. That’s when I really started singing,” Cooper said. “My dad’s just happy that I’m happy and I can support my family with this.”

“This” is a 13-year-old band that has gone through so many revisions, renovations and reshufflings, there’s only one original member (Cooper) left.

The current incarnation of the group includes Cooper (vocals and bass), his wife, Korey Cooper (guitar, keyboards, backing vocals), drummer Jen Ledger and guitarist Ben Kasica — and they’ll be opening for Puddle of Mudd and Shinedown at Lewiston’s Androscoggin Bank Colisee on Saturday night.

Although the band has seen its sound and roster remade, its name is even more appropriate now than when Cooper came up with it in 1997.

“I said one day it was like cooking where you’re throwing a bunch of different things all into a skillet and seeing what you could make out of it all,” he explained. “That’s what we were. It’s still what we are.”

Perhaps that’s why it has taken so long for Skillet to burst into the mainstream.

“I tell people we’re a melodic, symphonic hard rock band,” Cooper said. “We’re a hard rock band, but we’re very melodic with symphony elements and electronic elements as well.”

Things really started cooking for Skillet when “Collide” cam out seven years ago and “Savior” became the group’s first mainstream hit.

“For the longest time, us being Christian and hard rock definitely worked against us,” Cooper explained. “We were too Christian or not heavy enough, or we were too heavy to be on Christian charts and not heavy enough to get on rock or hard rock charts … Whatever.”

That same labeling hurdle frustrated the band with follow-up album “Comatose” in 2006, but their patience and determination has paid off.

“Comatose just got certified gold, which was huge for us because it didn’t have a single radio hit,” Cooper said.

Ah, but it did have the acceptance and acclaim of “panheads,” the legions of loyal Skillet fans worldwide who follow the band hither and yon as they tour almost nonstop from January though December.

“We’ve always had loyal fans,” Cooper said. “Our first record only sold 35,000 copies, but we had pretty good support at shows. They’d bring skillets to the show and hold them up.”

The combination of that loyal fan support and Cooper’s belief in making and performing music has kept Skillet simmering for more than a decade, but things are coming to a boil now that ‘Awake,’ the group’s newest album, has been released with almost instantaneous acclaim and popularity.

“‘Awake’ is shocking everybody. It feels like an overnight success even though we’ve been around so long,” Cooper said. “We’re sitting at No. 4 on the charts right now for “Monster,” which is also the No. 4 video on MTV’s elite eight.”

Although technically not even released yet, another single has also become wildly popular through a less conventional route. “Hero” has gotten a lot of play as the official theme song for the WWE’s “Royal Rumble” this month, as part of the soundtrack for “NFL Sunday Night Football” and weekend NFL promotional spots, and most recently as the movie trailer and promos for the movie “Percy Jackson and the Olympians.”

It has been quite a payoff for Cooper’s perseverance.

“We’re finally doing it, but there were times when it was hard to pay the bills and make money and thought maybe it was time to get another job, but I believed it was what I should be doing,” he said. “I think music can change people’s minds and hearts. I mean, we get letters from people saying a song changed their lives or made them realize that life was worth living, and in some cases made people decide not to commit suicide.

“To me, music is more than just what I wanted to do … It’s a calling.”

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