If there is one recognisable name in the world of Christian rock music, then that name would be Skillet. Ahead of their upcoming performances at Freedom Festival in South Africa, Craig Roxburgh spoke to the band about the difficulties of being a christian rock band, how far they have come in their career, the musical climate, and their upcoming performances in South Africa.
Skillet has been grafting in the rock scene since 1996, with two Grammy nominations and a platinum album under your belt, yet it took you nearly a decade and a half to get a song on to mainstream radio – with “Sick of It” being your first song to receive mainstream radio play. How does the fact that you were widely ignored by mainstream radio for close to two decades make you guys feel as a band?
Our first single that hit mainstream radio was our song “Monster”. It was a good 13-14 years into our career so it was very difficult at that time, for lots of different reasons. One thing that played in would probably be the Christian music–faith aspect of what we do. And not everyone was completely comfortable with it, and probably didn’t understand what it was. It was a lot of work, but what it did for us was give us a strong underground fan-base because we had been touring for so long. When we hit that radio song, our career just exploded. The good side of it is that we’ve been around for a long time and have built a career based on other things besides your latest radio single, which is now playing in our favor.
Do you think that this is an indictment of the current musical climate that a band with so many accolades has to release nine albums, and conform to a more palatable sound, in order to receive recognition by mainstream media houses?
I’m not sure if it’s because of the musical climate that we didn’t get play on radio for a long time. I think it was just that Skillet’s sound was a little out of the box. We were not quite hard rock enough to be a metal band, but we were too hard rock to be a pop act. And we certainly were not an alternative act. So, I think because of the strings in our music, the fact that we have piano, a girl singing sometimes, and that we sing about very positive issues – our music felt more inspiring than it did heavy metal. I think those things just threw people off and they didn’t know how to buy that. Luckily, with our song “Monster”, it was more palatable for what they were looking for and really got us to places that we never could have gone without it. Truthfully, what defines Skillet is our lyrics more than a specific sound.
With your Grammy nominations and platinum albums in mind, was there any belief that the band formed in 1996 (making you guys the same age as I am today) in Memphis would ever transcend to the position of selling two millions records in the US alone, receiving two Grammy nominations, selling a platinum record, touring all over the world, and now being invited to perform in South Africa?
No, the fact that Skillet is still around almost 20 years now is shocking. I never expected to have this long of a career and to sell this many records. It’s been a really cool thing to watch and be a part of. I’m just so thrilled that the fans are still listening – that people still care. Probably the biggest surprise of all is that we’re traveling around the world now. I just never thought that would happen. We can certainly thank the Internet for that. There are places that we don’t sell records but people can hear the music on the internet, which is such a huge thing. To go to another country and hear them singing your songs is so wonderful. It’s such an amazing opportunity to see the world and to see the fans. I never thought I’d be doing it, but I sure am happy that we are!
Looking back on the early days of Skillet, what were they like in comparison to the life you are living now?
The biggest difference between Skillet 15 years ago and Skillet now is just the fact that we are an established band that’s had some success. When you’re first starting a band, you’re driving around in a van, loading all of your gear, setting up all of your merchandise, playing for free, and playing anywhere someone will let you set up! That’s extremely hard work. It takes a real toll on your body and your mind. It’s exhausting and it ages you, too! Now we’re lucky enough to have a crew that sets up our gear and does our merchandising. It allows us to do what we really want to do, which is write music, perform, and get a chance to know the fans. It’s great with social media – there really wasn’t much of that when we first started. Now, at our fingertips we can have a conversation via Twitter, Instagram, Facebook with people all over the world. Coming to South Africa is really cool because I have people that tweet me from South Africa and I wonder if I’ll meet them and if I’ll recognize them from their icon. So those are major differences – the social media aspect is something that’s hard to imagine living without at this point.
Was it difficult, at first, being a Christian band in the grunge/rock scene at time when people were still stuck in the belief that metal and rock music was “the devil’s music”?
Yes, that was a hard time. Still today, there are sects of people who believe that rock and roll is from the devil. Some religious people think that Skillet is doing the work of the devil, but it was certainly harder when we first started. Even people that were OK with Christian music were sometimes not OK with Skillet because we were quite loud for the Christian genre. Our lyrics can tend to be dark, edgy, and honest in a certain way that maybe the Christian market wasn’t ready for. That’s still around today but not as much as it was then. It took us quite a long time to gain peoples trust.
There was a period in your career when your music seemed to stray from the Christian influence that was prevalent in your earlier music. Sometime between Alien Youth and Rise, your songs were ambiguous with regards to whether they were strictly Christian songs. Was there a point where Skillet, as a band, decided that they wanted to separate faith from music an allow people to interpret your music from whatever point of view they wanted?
Yes, that is an accurate statement. There was a time when Skillet decided to change the way we wrote songs. It was not from a point of view of wanting our Christian music side to be a secret, by any means. It became clear to me that most of the people listening to Christian music are Christian people. I never wanted that. I always wanted all sorts of people listening to my music. Whether they were religious, atheist, or anything in between, it didn’t matter to me. So, we did decide to start making our songs more open to interpretation. Songs about life, death, heartache, love, or just having a good time, good day, or bad day. That change started around when we put out Collide. I’ve just been writing about things that I go through, things that are important to me, things that I see in the world. Because of that, Skillet has a really broad audience of extremely religious people and non-religious people and I really like that. I think that music should be open to interpretation and it should bring people together.
A lot of your fans are in-fact atheists, or non-religious. This speaks to the concept of music being able to transcend boundaries that might be put up by belief systems, and that a song can have multiple meanings for different people. What are your thoughts on this?
I answered this a little bit in the last question – but yes, I think it’s great that songs can be open to interpretation. I like that not only in music but also in poetry and film. It leaves something to the imagination, and I think it’s cool that it can mean something completely different to me than to someone else. So yes, we do have lots and lots of fans that are very open about being atheist but still like our music. It gives them hope and inspires them. I’m truly happy about that and I like to meet those fans. I like the fact that they feel comfortable coming to the shows, being themselves, meeting me and telling me face to face “hey, I’m not religious at all but thanks for your music.” I think that’s great, that’s what I want to be doing.
In recent interviews, you’ve stated that a new Skillet album is halfway done. Can you give any comment on what the album may sound like?
We are not currently recording a record, however, we are currently writing a record. We’re about halfway done with the writing process then we’ll be recording, hopefully, by the summer time. I plan to release the record early next year and we’re having a great time writing the songs. We’re feeling really inspired. It’s actually been an enjoyable process. Sometimes it’s not enjoyable, it can feel like work and be frustrating, and you can have writers block. This time we’re enjoying writing and I’m excited about the new material. I hope to have the best record that we’ve ever recorded released next year.
You must obviously be familiar with South African music seeing as you’ve toured with Seether many times in the past. Are you excited to finally be heading to South African shores for Freedom Festival?
Yes, we’re very excited. I’ve never been to South Africa, which is cool in itself. We’re going to come and just get to see some of the beautiful landscape. I do have friends in the band Seether, and I’ve known some other bands and people from South Africa that have told me about how beautiful the cities are, and everyone says “you have to go do a safari, it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done!” So we’re very excited about seeing the country in general, but probably more than that, I’m excited about seeing the fans. The idea that someone in another country knows my music is still amazing to me. We’re so excited about headlining Freedom Festival; it’s such an honor to be asked. We’re just going to come and hopefully do a great show for everybody and have a great time!
Finally, what do you have to say for your South African fans?
I’d just like to tell the fans, thank you for listening to the music and thank you for wanting us to come to your country for the first time! I hope that lots of you get to come out, rock out with us, sing the songs and we’ll do our very best to make it an experience that everyone remembers. I just can’t wait to see everybody!