John Cooper, frontman for the long-running Christian rock band Skillet, usually likes to listen to his band’s albums, something many musicians try to avoid for any number of reasons – such as hearing mistakes or missed opportunities to strengthen songs.
“I do like to listen to my projects after a while to kind of try to experience it as a fan,” Cooper said in a recent phone interview.
But the singer-bassist has a hard time listening to Skillet’s previous album, the 2013 release “Rise.” Even though he appreciates its tracks, it “was not a fun” album to make, he explained. Working on the record, he was urged to do co-writes with established outside songwriters, pushed to re-record certain songs and overall just felt stress in creating the music.
Against that backdrop, it makes sense that Cooper and the other members of Skillet – his wife, Korey (guitar/keyboards), Seth Morrison (guitar) and Jen Ledger (drums/vocals) – went into the group’s latest album, “Unleashed,” looking to have a markedly different experience.
In a word, the guys and gals in Skillet just wanted to have fun.
“Writing the record, I’m not saying we didn’t have any hard times, because we did,” Cooper said. “Writing is always hard because you’re struggling and you’re fighting. It’s a little bit like climbing a mountain. It might be exhilarating, but it’s a lot of work. But it was quite fun ... for me and Korey when we were writing together.”
Some of the pleasure came from ignoring advice to dial down the hard-rock element of the band’s sound. “It was … part of why I called (the album) ‘Unleashed,’ ” Cooper said. “It was kind of like I felt very liberated.”
Coooper had a fairly specific idea for the sound he wanted to create on “Unleashed.” He felt Skillet, which formed in Memphis, Tenn., in 1996 and has enjoyed success in both the mainstream and Christian rock scenes, really found its musical voice on its seventh album, the 2006 release “Comatose.”
“It kind of solidified a very Skillet sound, which was very kind of arena rock, very theatrical,” he said.
The band returned to that sound and then built upon it.
“When we were making ‘Unleashed,’ I just thought it needs to sound like a really modern, in-your-face, big record,” he said. “The most modern sounding records at the time really in a bizarre way have been pop albums, and even Skrillex and the dubstep movement. It’s ... very aggressive, and a lot of that is coming from synthesized sounds. So I said I want to have a rock element that incorporates that kind of sonic assault that (you feel) when you hear Skrillex, but with the loud guitars as well. So we kind of tried to achieve that while still keeping our identity.”
Songs like “Undefeated,” “Feel Invincible” and “Out of Hell” bring the intense synthetic tones of dubstep, a subgenre of electronic dance music, into a hard rocking setting, while packing a good deal of melody into the vocals and guitar riffs. Meanwhile, the band downshifts the tempos a bit for the more atmospheric “Stars” and “Lions,” but keeps things epic with big guitars and expansive choruses.
Fans are getting a sampling of the new songs during the shows on Skillet’s winter tour, along with hits such as the blockbuster 2009 single “Monster,” “Awake and Alive” and other favorites.
They’re also getting to see the group up close and personal. After having played primarily arenas and other large venues on tours promoting “Rise,” Skillet is playing theaters and clubs this winter – including Sacramento’s Ace of Spades on Wednesday, March 8.
Cooper said he likes the change.
“The intimacy of a club is so fun,” he said. “You can see everybody’s faces. You can see who’s singing the song and you can kind of get to know the crowd in a different way. That’s not to say I don’t like arena tours because 10,000 people singing your songs truly is a spectacle. There’s nothing like it. But it’s nice to do it in this way.”
When: 6:30 p.m., Wednesday, March 8
Where: Ace of Spades, 1417 R St., Sacramento