Northern lights

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By Gary Graff  

In an age when commercial success in music is often achieved via video exposure, Internet gimmickry or marketing department-generated hype, Nickelback has made its way to the top in an almost old-fashioned way -- through radio play and intensive touring. And it's worked: the Canadian quartet's third album, Silver Side Up, has sold nine million copies worldwide, while its first two releases, The Long Road and All the Right Reasons, each debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart.

Singer-guitarist Chad Kroeger started Nickelback in the mid-'90s. After kicking around in a Vancouver cover band called Hanna, he borrowed $4,000 from his stepfather to record demos. After delivering -- along with bandmates Ryan Peake, Daniel Adair, and brother Mike Kroeger -- an EP, Hesher, and a debut album, Curb, Nickelback made its mark across the border with The State, which both spawned the hit rock track "Leader of Men" and plenty of touring with kindred spirits such as Creed, 3 Doors Down, and Fuel.

Silver Side Up cemented Nickelback's multi-platinum status, and besides keeping the band operating at a high level, Kroeger -- who had a solo hit with "Hero" for the 2002 Spider-Man soundtrack -- started to spread the wealth amidst his peers, starting a production company that's worked with fellow Great White Northerners Default and Theory of a Deadman.

Q: Nickelback is a rock band that's had a lot of hits in the pop world. Ever have an identity crisis about what this band really is?

Chad Kroeger: What's the difference? A lot of people use pop as a bad word, but pop is short for popular. So Korn is a pop band. Tool is a pop band. Slipknot, they get played on the radio which makes them a pop band. But if you called them a pop band, they'd be insulted. I'm not insulted by the word pop. It just means we're popular. Last time I checked, popular is a good thing in the music business.

Q: So how would you classify Nickelback?

Chad Kroeger: We're a popular rock band -- how's that? We are a band that, due to songs like "How You Remind Me" and myself stepping out of Nickelback and doing "Hero," we are a mainstream rock band. I like that. We write songs for everybody. We don't write songs for 13-year-old girls or for 45-year-old businessmen. I'm happy both those types of people like our music. We're not just about headbanging. I love stuff like Creedence Clearwater Revival. I could listen to that twenty-four hours a day. That may seem a lot different from what people think we do, but there's a lot of that in Nickelback too, really.

Q: Nickelback also has established itself in kind of an old-school way, through radio and touring. Does that build a more devoted audience?

Mike Kroeger: I think so. You aspire to be that kind of artist that puts out a record and people just want to have it because they have a relationship with the artist. They're not necessarily gunning for your single, y'know? It's a cool place to be in. It's flattering. We've worked hard to make quality songs, and that just isn't enough, so you work with the radio people and try to make friends at radio. You go out and make them feel connected to you, like they're on the team, and then when they have to choose between all the great songs out there, they'll pick yours because they feel that connection.

Q: What was different about making All the Right Reasons?

Chad Kroeger: Well, we didn't have the pressure, the follow-up pressure to a big record. We had that pressure on The Long Road for sure. We definitely had to prove we weren't one-hit wonders, and we were feeling that. This one we felt like we had all the time in the world, so we took seven months to do this record and tried to incorporate a little bit of a vacation into it.

Mike Kroeger: I see a better realization of the vision that Chad had when we were doing some of the things in the studio, because some of the things seemed a little bit different than we're used to, I guess, and I felt at times that it might be out of character. And in hindsight it all fits just fine.

Q: You incorporated more instruments into the album, especially keyboards. How did that come about?

Mike Kroeger: You know, I never once dreamed I'd be listening to piano in a Nickelback song. I always viewed us as this meat-and-potatoes, straight-ahead rock 'n' roll band. But once we started hearing strings and piano, all kinds of things getting laid down, I'm like, "Bring it in! I don't care what it is -- harpsichord, anything." I wanted to hear anything we could to be used a another texture. I wouldn't be surprised if you started hearing some harmonica on future Nickelback songs.

Q: "Side of a Bullet" is a very poignant tribute to Dimebag Darrell -- with some of his playing sampled into it. What were you trying to do with that song?

Chad Kroeger: That was a very difficult one to do, obviously. I spoke to Darrell's brother Vinnie (Paul), and he asked, "Hey, would you write a song for my brother?" I said "I will, but it's not gonna be a ballad. I'm gonna write it from the angle of someone who's very pissed off, very angry to the point where if I got a chance to shoot Nathan Gale (Dimebag's assassin), I would definitely do that. I definitely wanted to come across as not someone who knew Darrell or knew Vinnie but as a fan very deeply angry and upset with the situation. That's how I felt.

Q: Was there more of a collaborative, "group" situation on this album?

Chad Kroeger: They've all become more collaborative. I'm loosening up the grip of tyranny (laughs) because when I've got the whole thing sitting up in my head, I used to find that people coming in with other ideas was usually a distraction. Now that I'm getting a little older and growing up and am not so narrow-minded, I've definitely started allowing that creative control to slip out of my hand, and we wind up with great stuff. I'm learning, slowly but surely, that I'm not the most creative person in the room all the time -- and I don't need to be.

Q: Is the songwriting and the creative process the best part of this for you?

Chad Kroeger: Yes, that's my favorite part. When we're in the studio I feel like I'm a kid in a candy shop, and I get to make my own chocolate bar.

Q: What are you able to achieve by producing your own records?

Chad Kroeger: A lot of experimentation. We get to try tons of textures. Before, Nickelback always sounded like a band that walked into the studio and jammed out a song and left. Now there isn't a producer saying "You can't do that..." about anything. It's the four of us running blindly through the album, recording everything and voting on everything. It's time-consuming, but it was very cool. And we know that as soon as we finish with a record they're gonna make us go tour the world again, so it's "Let's take our time and really make something we love and can live with for a long time."

Q: What led you to start working with other bands?

Chad Kroeger: "You've got to strike while the iron is hot, really. There are so many things in the music business that I understand completely that so many bands don't care about or that doesn't interest them. There's all these other aspects in how you get this music to everybody else. It's nice to explore and help these other bands get to where we are without going through those turns and hassles we did, as character-building as they were. If I can save somebody from that, I will.

Q: What kind of milestone was it turning thirty?

Chad Kroeger: I thought I'd get all depressed about thirty, but I just don't care. I'm in love. I've got a fiance and we live together. I've got a recording studio at my house. I've got a band I love playing in, and things are pretty cool at the moment. So thirty doesn't bother me at all.

Gary Graff writes extensively about music. His work has appeared widely in such publications as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Detroit Free Press, and Billboard.