The music industry's success stories often surprise — witness the unstoppable "Old Town Road."
But who would have imagined one of the most accomplished rock bands of the 21st century would be based in Wisconsin and share a name with a menu section at Denny's?
But such is the story of Skillet, the Christian rock band featuring three Kenosha-based members: frontman John Cooper on vocals and bass, wife (and Kenosha native) Korey on guitar and synthesizers, and Jen Ledger on drums and vocals. Also in the band: Nashville-based lead guitarist Seth Morrison.
Skillet has sold more than 12 million albums. The band's past four releases — from "Comatose" in 2006 to "Unleashed" in 2016 — have been certified gold (at a minimum) by the Recording Industry Association of America. The 2009 album "Awake," featuring breakout single "Monster," has gone double platinum. This year, Skillet joined music service Pandora's "Billionaires Club," crossing the 2 billion streams mark.
The winning streak should continue with the band's 10th album "Victorious," out on Friday (followed by Skillet's first graphic novel, "Eden," out Aug. 27).
Even John Cooper recognizes Skillet isn't a household name like hard-rock acts Metallica, Shinedown or Godsmack. Skillet's sales and streaming success have never been frontloaded around the band's releases; all those accreditations were accomplished across multiple years, through positive and passionate word of mouth.
"Skillet has always been under the radar," Cooper said from his tour bus at Summerfest, a few hours before the band played for an overflow crowd on one of the Milwaukee music festival's smallest grounds stages, the Briggs & Stratton Big Backyard.
"Maybe that's a really good thing, because you can never go out of style if you're never the flavor of the day."
A band hitting its own sweet spot
That flavor really hits a sweet spot.
Skillet is definitively a hard-rock band — defined by Cooper's gruff vocals, Morrison's and Ledger's aggressive playing and a pyro-loaded live set — that welcomes pop hooks and hip-hop production, a similar approach that's helped Imagine Dragons, Twenty One Pilots and Fall Out Boy find crossover success at a time when rock is no longer the most consumed music genre.
"We're willing to try new recording techniques, like using a synthesizer instead of a guitar part, or a drum machine," Cooper said. "At some point, in the hard-rock scene it became a negative thing to appeal to young fans, which is just bizarre. … I think those bands are hurting their careers."
But Skillet isn't strictly a hard-rock band. It's also a Christian band — John grew up in a devout family in Memphis, and Korey's parents co-founded Living Light Christian Church in Kenosha. Skillet has 21 No. 1 singles on Billboard's Christian charts, but the Coopers' uplifting lyrics, run by their pastor at Living Light, are broad enough to connect beyond Christian circles.
"Whether you're spiritual or an atheist or anti-God, music has a supernatural quality to it," John Cooper said. "Every day on social media I see people say, 'I don't get this Jesus stuff, but your music makes me feel better.' "
And across their career, the members of Skillet have stuck to their guns, finding a way to attract listeners who don't follow Christian or hard-rock music while still pleasing devotees in each camp.
"Sometimes the faith aspect was inadvisable from certain people in the music business," Cooper said. "Some radio stations used to say, 'It's too positive, it doesn't feel like real rock music.' …
"But people love positivity in culture today. And they love their faith. … Our songs just exude that spirit of 'Be yourself, be proud of who you are, you can make it,' and people are connecting with that."
Skillet said the new album shows they've mastered a winning formula
Longtime fans are going to connect with "Victorious." It's the first Skillet album produced largely by the Coopers themselves, recorded on the tour bus and backstage at various shows across Europe. But John isn't hyperbolic when he suggests the album feels "louder and more in-your-face," and the band has mastered its formula, again delivering the kind of positive, stadium-ready rock anthems — a la lead single "Legendary" — that have become Skillet's signature.
"One of the things I am noticing is people are realizing that life is not as amazing as they thought it was going to be," Cooper said. "People are told by celebrities and movies and songs that every day is going to be the best day of my life, and social media has created this thing where we're constantly seeing everyone's perfect life. But suicide rates have gone up, and rates of depression.
" 'Victorious' has a lot of songs that are trying to say that life is not going to be grand, it's going to be hard, and sometimes it's really ugly. But there is hope."
Skillet is going to be touring North America through late October behind "Victorious," including runs with rock bands Sevendust and Pop Evil, and another with Alter Bridge, before headlining a European tour that lasts through mid-December.
Performing is Cooper's favorite part of his job, and the Coopers' teenage kids, Alexandria and Xavier, travel with them. But John’s looking forward to downtime with family in Kenosha during the holidays, already planning out what Christmas cookies they're going to make.
"I have come to love all things Wisconsin," Cooper said. "Being here reminds you who you are. The downfall of rock stars and celebrities is when they begin to believe their own press, and coming back to Wisconsin I know that I'm not all that. I'm a dad and another person at the Brewers game."
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story misidentified the instruments the Coopers played in the band. The story has been corrected.
This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: How a Christian band named Skillet became so successful