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Once considered too positive, Skillet’s brand of rock is comfort food for audiences |

Once considered too positive, Skillet’s brand of rock is comfort food for audiences

John Cooper doesn’t mind if you call him a nerd.

“I am,” said the vocalist and bassist for Skillet, one of the 21st century’s most successful rock bands with more than 11 million units in sales worldwide.

Skillet is headlining the multi-artist Winter Jam 2018 Tour Spectacular, which showcases a lineup of some of the top names in Christian music.

Winter Jam will arrive Sunday, Jan. 28, for a tour stop at the BOK Center. Cooper took part in a phone interview to promote the show, but the interview began with him being asked about his nerdy passions.

“Star Wars” is the biggest of those passions. The geek-out moment of his life came when the 2009 Skillet hit single, “Hero,” was played as Mark Hamill’s walk-up music at a Star Wars convention.

“I could not contain myself,” Cooper said. “I tweeted him and everything else. That was just unbelievable.”

Skillet’s frontman ‘fessed up that he has collected “Star Wars” toys since he was a kid.

“Those are the things that you grow up with that are always a part of you for whatever reason,” he said.

“They are woven into your history of how you view the world, and I still feel like a kid when I see ‘Star Wars.’ I’ve got the statues. I’ve got the collectibles. It’s a great franchise. I was thrilled when they sold it to Disney because Disney does everything wonderful, and they are crushing (in a good way) the new ‘Star Wars’ franchise.”

The Marvel Universe is one of Cooper’s favorites, too, which you know if you have seen the images of his Marvel tattoos that he posted to social media.

He said he has tats of Spider-Man, Captain America, Thor, Black Panther, Iron Man, Wolverine, Green Goblin and Venom. He’s not done yet. Doctor Octopus and the Human Torch are on deck, along with possibly Electro and Colossus. Does he have enough body canvas for all those heroes and villains?

“That’s all on one leg, so it’s a portrait,” he said. “They’re all crammed together. It’s going to be a great portrait — depending on who you ask.”

Cooper said Batman is the only DC character he likes, but — let’s not turn this into a DC versus Marvel thing — he supports anyone who loves comic books. He came to love them during his growing up years.

“It was a lot of imagination and a lot of fun, but, most of the time, it’s good, clean fun,” he said. “Of course, that has changed a little in the last few years, but, for the most part, it was innocent, and it was cool to pretend you were Batman, you know? Meant for greatness was a cool aspect of superheroes that I always found inspiring to my music.”

Why are we talking about comic book characters instead of Skillet’s music? Because they have something in common.

Allegedly, nerdy things used to appeal to a niche audience. Now — check box-office figures — they’re embraced by the masses.

Christian rock could be considered a niche, too. But Skillet has helped Christian rock graduate to mainstream. Among pieces of evidence: The band’s double-platinum single “Monster” was the eighth most streamed rock song of 2015.

Cooper said it’s cool that Skillet has been a part of the Christian rock-to-mainstream trend.

“But not just Christian music,” he said. “Even what some people call ‘positive’ music. Sometimes they call music in the middle as positive. People called Creed a pop positive (band). They called Evanescence positive. That was also not in style, and we had a hard time getting on the radio for years. They would say, ‘It’s not necessarily that it’s Christian. It’s just so positive. It feels too positive or Christian-y or something.’ ”

Cooper didn’t understand what that meant. His stance was that Skillet’s lyrics didn’t sound any more religious than, for instance, Creed’s lyrics. “But yours are just more positive,” he was told.

“Here we are 20 years later and what radio likes about Skillet is we are so positive,” he said.

“After Sept. 11 and after school shootings and after the Iraq war and all these things, people started going, ‘We really want to hear some positive music,’ so I think all of pop music began turning that way with Katy Perry and ‘Roar’ and all of these type songs.”

Skillet was on the front end of that and gender inclusion, too.

“Not only were we too positive for radio, they didn’t like the fact that we had girls in our band because that was not very rock ’n’ roll,” he said. “It made us softer. (People told us) ‘You just look so soft. You’ve got girls in your band.’

“Fast forward 15 years, girls in rock music now is becoming a trend. You are seeing more new girl black metal bands than dudes.”

Cooper suggested that being at the forefront of a couple of trends is probably a reason Skillet has been around for more than 20 years. He fielded additional questions during the interview.

It’s interesting to hear you talk about positive being viewed as a negative. That’s Bizarro planet stuff.

It really is, isn’t it? But you have kind of got to put yourself in the time period. OK, 1996, what music was playing on the radio? And it was Stone Temple Pilots and Alice in Chains, Korn, Marilyn Manson, Nine Inch Nails, Rob Zombie. That was the only stuff really hitting at that time on rock radio, and I’m a fan of all those bands, but it was a very dark — lyrically dark — generation of music in the ’90s.”

It’s almost like Skillet had to overcome a force field.

Definitely. The biggest reason we were able to overcome it, honestly, was just because our fans were so dedicated. Even when we didn’t have many fans, they loved the band. They would call radio stations. They would just fight for us. We would have good tours. We would have good album sales, even without getting that real commercial radio play and that commercial look. And they just stuck with us for so long that eventually everyone was forced to kind of get on board.

I was doing an interview with a rock station about four months ago and the DJ said, “The last thing I want to say before we end the interview, I just want to say to you on the air I need to apologize because I know a lot of people did not get your music and didn’t get you and wouldn’t support you for a long time and I was one of those people. I never knew how great your music was. I never knew how great of people you were. I just wanted to say I am sorry for that, and I hope you are getting the support now and we love you.”

I couldn’t believe it. I knew that was the case, but no one ever admitted it. It always felt that way, but no one had really said it, so that was pretty cool. I thought, “All right, we’re changing minds. That’s good.”

Because you brought up your fan following, can you recall the first time you ever heard the term “Panheads?”

Yeah, in fact, we kind of labeled our fans that because, when we first started, we didn’t have many fans. But they were driving eight, 10, 12 hours to see us play. We would have 80 people at the show, and after the show I would hang out and say, “I know you, but I can’t remember where I know you from.” He goes, “From Canada. I drove down from Manitoba or Winnipeg or wherever.” Winnipeg? That’s not close to here. He was like, “No, it took us 15 hours all night long.”

And they would bring skillets to the show, like pans, and hold the pans up in the air. One time, we were at a festival that summer. We were gaining a little popularity, not much. And you could see all these people holding pans out in the audience, but one kid was wearing a skillet on his head like a baseball cap. And he duct-taped a chin strap all the way around, and it was like 90 degrees and you could just see how hot it must have been. Someone backstage, a security guy, goes, “Man, look at that kid out there wearing that skillet. Now that’s a Panhead.” And that’s when we started calling them Panheads because they were so dedicated.

We know about groups like the KISS Army, which can be incredibly loyal. You hinted at this just now, but how loyal are your fans?

An amazing thing happened a few years ago. A lot of people don’t know this, and I was even unaware. Me, my label, my manager, no one knew that, which is a massive thing for music, they came out with this contest, a worldwide contest, and it was called the Fan Army Showdown or whatever. And their (angle) was basically music has changed and, these days, it’s not about a single hit in radio. It’s not about single sales or whatever. It’s about having a fan army. You’ve got to have a fan army.

And they said, so we have chosen what we see as the top 36 strongest fan armies in the world. I found out about it because a fan was tweeting me saying, “Hey, you’re winning the fan army contest.” And I looked it up, and I sent it to my manager. He had never heard of it. He sent it to the label. They had never heard of it.

And Skillet went to the top-four fan armies in the world. We beat Beyonce. We beat Katy Perry. We beat Justin Bieber. One Direction. We were the only hard rock band on the list, and we were the only Christian band on the list. And we made it to the top-four fan armies in the world. We got beat by some K-pop artists. I can’t remember who they were right now. And that artist went on to win. But, hey, I’ll take it. Top four is not too bad. I was stunned. I had no idea. And then the next year — they do it yearly — we were in it again, and I think we made it to the top eight or 12. We beat Fall Out Boy. I just couldn’t believe the level of artists that we beat on that list. It just showed me how strong our fan base loyalty really was.

Was it purely a fan vote contest?

Purely a fan vote. And they could vote multiple times an hour, so you’ve got fans all over the world staying up all night long or setting their alarm to get up and vote online and go back to sleep. You really see the fan dedication. It’s not about who has the most fans. It’s about who has the craziest fans. And I thought that was kind of cool.

How is Winter Jam different for Skillet than any other gig?

Winter Jam is different because Winter Jam is what I like to call kind of a buffet of music. It’s all eclectic, and you never know what you’re going to get, and it’s like three hours of nonstop entertainment — comedians or magicians. One time, I was on tour with Winter Jam and they had X Games, like bicycle tricks and ramps and stuff and people doing things they could have died doing. … So Winter Jam is different for that reason. It’s not just Skillet fans. It’s just all sorts of fans. It’s a great way to “win” new people. It’s a great family event. The age range is like 5 to 60. It’s a really cool night.

Winter Jam started as a single show in 1995, but it has exploded in popularity.

It is very popular, and I think that’s another thing that makes it unique. These days, not many acts or artists of any genre get to play in front of arena audiences — 10,000 or 15,000 or 20,000 people. That’s very unusual. For a rock band, that’s not something you get to do often and, of course, you get to headline it, which is even cooler. We try to do the biggest, best show we can. We put a lot of money into production because I want people coming to this event. I want them saying that was cool for Christian music. I want it to be on par or better than anything they have seen out there. The level of production is huge. It’s a big show. People can leave wanting to come again the next year, and I think that’s pretty important.

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