The Grammy-nominated Christian rock band Skillet has had quite an amazing year. Their newest CD, Awake, charted at number 2 on the Billboard top 200 and their single “Monster” has become a runaway hit. The band just finished a 52-city tour and they will be back on the road in 2010 with Shinedown and Puddle Of Mudd as well as Christian artist Toby Mac. Lead vocalist and bassist John Cooper chatted with me by phone about the bands new found popularity, their new CD, Awake and the music scene in general.

Your new CD Awake was released back in August and charted high on Billboard 200. What has been the response to the record so far and are you satisfied with the outcome?
John: Yes I am very satisfied and excited. I had no earthly idea we were going to sell so many records that first week or even the whole time. It has been much more successful than I planned on it being, which is kind of nice. Our fans for some reason just really liked it. You make a record and you hope they do but our fans have really gotten it and loved it. They are coming out to the shows, they are singing along and they are excited. So yes we are very pleased and happy that our fans like it.

What was the writing process like for this CD? Did you guys all write together? How long did it take?
John: I wrote this record for about a year and a half. We don’t necessarily write together I write most of the music. My wife Corey, who is the keyboard player and the guitar player, writes sometimes. Usually it is just me having something to say or having a lyric that makes you think. That is the kind of music that I really like. I kind of look back on the songs and realize that it is all about the lyrics for me.

You worked with Howard Benson, a very well known well respected producer. How did you get in touch with him and what was it like working with him?
John: It was wicked! I am a major Howard Benson fan! The records he has done are so great, Papa Roach, My Chemical Romance, Daughtry and Seether, these are all great albums. I kind of said “look, if I could have anyone produce this record I would like it to be Howard Benson.” I thought there would be no way that this would actually happen and I don’t even no how it happened. It was over a period of about eight months that they first told us that Howard wanted to do the record but then it fell through. We tried working with other producers and it wasn’t going well and then about eight months after that initial conversation Howard had some time open up, I got on the phone, we chatted and that is how we ended up with Howard.

I know you will be out with Puddle Of Mudd and Shinedown in January how much other roadwork do you have planned for 2010?
John: Well we had a busy year. Just talking about this makes me tired. We just got finished with a 52-city tour. We did 52 cities in 70 days and I am completely worn out. It looks like next year is going to be even crazier. We are doing the Shinedown tour, after that we will be doing a co-headlining tour with an artist named Toby Mac and then it will be summer and it is festival time.

All of that passion that you play with must be tough on you physically. How do you prepare for the physical demands of a tour?
John: Yeah, being on tour is really hard. Both my wife and I are really into taking care of ourselves on the road. I bring a treadmill on the road, we run and I do a lot of working out. Keeping up with the demands of the touring schedule is really hard. Usually what happens is bands don’t take care of themselves, the shows suffer and then the fans don’t get what they paid for. It is all about the fans.

Are the rigors of touring taking more of a toll on you as you get older?
John: Yes absolutely. Yeah there is a big difference from being 19 and 29, I will tell you that. You get on the road and you cannot do what you used to do, that is for sure. If you are going to do this for ten years or more you better take care of yourself.

Do you think the band is getting more respect now as opposed to 10 or 12 years ago?
John: Absolutely. We got no respect twelve years ago. Anything is more than we got a decade ago. I think we have been around long enough to where we have built a pretty loyal fan base. Like you mentioned earlier when the record came out it was number 2 on Billboard and everyone was like how in the world did they do this if they never had a radio hit.

How is the current economic slump affecting your band?
John: Well I am sure that it is, but even with the economic crisis and people saving money we are selling more records than we have ever sold before. I am sure it is affecting us but we gained a lot more popularity and our songs are better and we are being accepted in a commercial way that we never have before.

What are some of the songs you get the best audience response to?
John: Well our current single, “Monster” has very quickly become a crowd favorite. This is really cool because that means we have new fans coming in. There are people coming to shows and the only song they know is “Monster,” which is pretty awesome to me. Besides that we have a song called, “Rebirthing,” from our last record which has kind of been a Skillet fan favorite for a couple of years.

Are you guys playing a good mix of old and new songs on tour?
John: Yeah, it is a very cool to see because there people who are singing all of the older songs, and there are people in the audience who are singing songs off the new album that don’t know the older ones. There is a third person that only knows “Monster” because it is the radio song. We are seeing a lot of different kinds of people come to the shows which is really cool because we are finally getting the radio listener; we have never really had a radio listener before. There are several million people out there that have never really heard of Skillet until now and this is a pretty cool place to be.

When you compare the early days of the Christian Rock scene to the scene today what do you feel has changed for the better? What do you feel has become worse?
John: It has definitely changed for the better. Christian rock music at one point in time was probably not that viable for commercial music. The budgets to record records were not as good as they are now. Now there are so many great Christian bands, even bands that people do not know are Christians like Flyleaf and Switchfoot, these are bands that got popular before people found out they were Christians. There is some great Christian music out there. We are singing about life and issues like heartache and it all has a positive spin on it as opposed to every song singing Jesus, Jesus, Jesus. Skillet is a Christian band and we are not ashamed of that and we don’t hide it from people, but we sing songs not just to Christians, we sing songs to people. All kinds of people come to our shows.

You are right; the market has gotten quite large for Christian Metal. I have been working on a book for the last year on the Extreme Christian Metal Scene and there are quite a few bands like that as well.
John: Oh yeah, I mean if you walk into Hot Topic you can see all of the new Modern Hardcore bands such as Norma Jean and As I Lay Dying and most of them are Christian bands. I don’t know them personally it is just my understanding. We did a show with Norma Jean and their music is really heavy. Christian music is so much different than it used to be. If what you are looking for is Modern Hardcore chances are, you are going to end up listening to Christian bands at some point. I am personally a fan of the band August Burns Red.

In a hundred years from now what will the music history books say about your band?
John: Well I feel like, and not in an arrogant way at all, that Skillet is the bridge between Christian music and mainstream rock. The reason is this, no one has ever really done what we are doing at the moment. We are a very established Christian act, we are one of the top Christian acts and we are crossing over into the mainstream market and people know that we are Christians. We are gaining popularity as a Christian band and people are choosing to listen to it. I think that we are going to do some good for Christians. I think Christians need to realize that we need to be out in the world having normal lives with people that are not Christians. We should just love people and not be judgmental.