Most bands overload their touring schedule when they’re just starting out, playing all around the country in any venue and with any band that will have them.
Once they’ve established an audience, they usually slow down – they can take long breaks between tours or spend more time in the studio. Not the Memphis-based Christian band Skillet. They’ve released eight studio albums since they started in 1996, but they’re a touring band first, and their momentum has never slowed since their early days.
“We’re always in the middle of touring,” said John Cooper, the band’s lead singer, bassist and principal songwriter. “It just seems to be our destiny.”
It’s not an exaggeration. The band-tracking website Songkick named Skillet the fifth-hardest-working group of 2010 and calculated that they played a whopping 166 concerts that year alone, which bested the likes of such established acts as Willie Nelson, Lady Gaga and Vampire Weekend.
That nonstop touring schedule has had two effects on the band. First, their lineup changes frequently – Cooper and his wife, Korey, are the band’s longest-serving members. Second, they’ve drawn an ardent following, Cooper said, primarily because they perform so often and in so many different markets.
“We never had a whole lot of radio success, so we’ve built our fan base on live performances,” Cooper said. “Because we tour so much and we’ve been feeding that fan base for so long, our fans are very loyal.
“We’ve continued to feed them, so they’re fat and happy now,” he added with a laugh.
Cooper started the band when he was in his early 20s, and he says the name was inspired by the fact that the original members came from diverse musical backgrounds.
“It was like (taking) a bunch of different ingredients and throwing them all into one skillet,” Cooper said.
Their popularity built slowly and steadily over the years, and they’ve broken into the mainstream. Their 2009 album “Awake” went platinum, and their newest release, a concept album titled “Rise,” topped the Christian charts and was a Billboard Top 10 hit.
The songs on “Rise” form a loosely structured story, which Cooper said came about organically.
“It is a concept record, but the songs are also stories within themselves,” he said. “I knew there were themes running through the songs. As we began to record them, it became clear that these messages were intertwined.”
Like all of Skillet’s music, “Rise” is brooding and theatrical (think My Chemical Romance or Evanescence), but it’s anchored by an optimistic, inspirational message. “It’s a coming-of-age story about your typical teenager coming to terms with how violent and tragic the world is,” Cooper said. “They’re trying to find their place, trying to find their faith and hope in a dark world. And that’s why it’s called ‘Rise’ – it’s about rising above these terrible things we see in humanity.”
Skillet’s current tour makes its way through Spokane on Saturday night, when they will be co-headlining the annual Roadshow music showcase with Grammy-winning Christian rockers Third Day. After years of touring and countless live shows, Cooper said he still aims to communicate passion through his music, whether people are listening to it live or through their headphones.
“I think people connect with it, and they see the excitement of the band,” Cooper said. “Life is about more than rock ’n’ roll, and our shows are about more than rock ’n’ roll. I think that’s what’s on my mind when I go out and connect with the audience and go out and play something that can help them transcend the darkness that we’re living in.”