This is the third piece of our Unlikely Encounters series, where a local musician interviews a big-name artist. This time around, Elim Bolt frontman Johnnie Matthews has an endearlingly amiable chat with bassist Mike Kroeger.
Nickelback was scheduled to play in Charleston in August but were forced to cancel due to a medical emergency.
When I heard that the City Paper was trying to get a Nickelback interview for their upcoming show here, I begged them to let me do it. I mean ... it's Nickelback. I've never been a fan of their music, but after researching them for the interview, I became sort of intrigued. They're the laughing stock of rock but have sold over 50 million records. It's so bizarre.
I wrote up some questions to sort of poke fun, and some serious ones to get them on the hook. I wanted to play the "Would you rather" game with them and recommend Hyman's Seafood. I had some solid stuff, but 15 minutes into the interview their manager lady got on to say, "We've got time for one more." At the time, it was kind of a bummer. I hadn't really done what I wanted with the interview, but I'm sort of glad I didn't really go there. Once on the phone with Mike Kroeger, bassist and brother of frontman Chad Kroeger, we were cracking up and sharing stories about touring and awful showcase shows for label execs. (At one point, he even mentioned that this was the best interview he'd had in a while. Score!)
This guy gets it. He knows how his band is perceived. That being said, he takes their music very seriously. All I'm saying is maybe I didn't do what I thought I was going to do. I didn't end up being the thousandth person to interview Nickelback and make fun of them, but I feel like maybe I made this dude's day. Nickelback said it themselves, "I was waiting on a different story" [from "How You Remind Me"]. Turns out I asked him some real questions about the music he loves to make, and I'm totally OK with that.
Johnnie Matthews: Hey, Mike. How's it goin'?
Mike Kroeger: Hey, going just fine under the circumstances. A little cold in Grand Rapids today.
JM: I got stuck in the snow there one time after a show for two days.
MK: (laughs) That is not an uncommon story I don't think.
JM: No, not at all. So basically this is an interview for the Charleston City Paper. But I'm not a writer for the City Paper. It's like artist-to-artist is basically what they're trying to do.
MK: What do you do? Tell me about yourself? Let me interview you.
JM: Yeah, right on. I play in a band called Elim Bolt. I play guitar and sing and write for that. A little indie-rock band, and we do a little bit of touring. So, fun stuff.
MK: Cool. Yeah, it can be a lot of work in the beginning. I remember very clearly. All work, no pay. And uh, yeah it's pretty uphill. I remember very distinctly.
JM: We broke even last tour, which is a big thing for us. Yeah, we were happy with that.
MK: Holy shit. I'll never forget the day when we had these managers these guys way, way, way, way back when we were trying to get it off the ground like you're doing. They would send us out on the road, and we would lose money every night — but their commissions would basically cover it. They were like, "Don't worry guys, you can just pay us later." We were like, "Fuck you guys. Thanks for the charity, asshole." Yeah it didn't last very long. But you're up there losing your money already, and they're gonna hand you a bill later on. Ugh. There's just something so wrong about people making money off the same thing you're doing. It's just wrong.
JM: It feels great, right?
MK: Yeah, gettin' those people down the road is a good thing. I believe it all comes back, good and bad. I don't know if you call it karma or whatever, I'm not really of the persuasion. I just think what you put out there comes back in some form or another.
- A recent crowdsourcing campaign sought to raise funds for charity by poking fun at Nickelback
JM: Most definitely. So you guys have a big, long tour coming up, and you put a new album out recently, No Fixed Address. I was reading that you recorded at a handful of different locations. What I took from the name like No Fixed Address was basically a vast array of stylistic shifts on the album. Do you think recording so many different locations influenced that and changed the sound a little bit?
MK: Yeah, from being in the studio can get a little stale, and creativity can kind of slow down when you're in the same place kind of sluggin' away. And a change of scenery really, for us, made a big difference, and we changed scenery a lot in this one. We were all over Europe, Hawaii, California, up in Vancouver — I mean, we did work everywhere. It really was cool being in a different room about every three months or every two months. And also it makes you install brakes in the process, too, which is also good. A little bit of time away makes the creativity stoke up again, and you come in fresh, with fresh ears. And sometimes you listen to the stuff you already did and sometimes you feel good about it still, and other times, it's just like, "Ugh, that sucks. What were we thinking?" So, that can happen.
JM: Sure. So you guys have had a really long career as far as mainstream standards go now. And you've sold like 50 million records, which is crazy, which is insane. When you're writing and recording new material do you still press to expand Nickelback's sound to reach a new audience, or do you think it comes naturally from an artistic approach of just wanting to push yourself to break new ground?
MK: You know, I'm really starting to like this interview. Because you get it. You're not the typical person I talk to. So, the thing that makes change and makes experimentation sort of come to the fore is a challenge from, really, within. We all listen to different kinds of music, so we're all bringing a different kind of flavor to the finished product. A lot of us come from different places, musically, and have different things we like. So when it's time to play a heavy metal tune, there's an understanding in the group of how that goes. It allows you to go down those experimental paths and still. When you're finishing it up and listening to it for the first time, sometimes you have to reign it in because you can easily get one bridge too far and everybody's confused. You always have to keep it close to the core, because we know who's gonna buy our albums first. We don't want them to get it and, like, listen to a song and go, "What?" I mean, there are artists like U2 or Madonna or whatever who, with every album, strive to reinvent themselves, and I think that that can possibly come at the expense of some fans. I think you leave some people behind when you do that. And maybe you garner a new one. I would suppose that's they glass-is-half-full way of looking at things. If you garner new fans with the new sound and the new direction, I feel a little bit of responsibility to the people who put me where I am right now. And I want to give them this thing that they love from us. I mean, it's hard enough to get fans and get the masses interested in what you're doing. So basically, for us, that model doesn't work.
JM: So in an interview back in 2003, I read that Chad, at 27, had written his "Hotel California;" he'd written his "Stairway to Heaven." Aside from commercial success, is there a moment when you write that song where you're just like, "Oh, fuck yeah." You know what I mean? Like, how do you know? Do you have that feeling where you're just like, "This is it. This is that single."?
MK: Well, you know, everything within reason has a shot. When you put it out there, it has a chance if it's a well-crafted, well-written, and well-executed song. It's about what the climate is like at the time. It's really more about timing, because a good song is a good song. A great song and a mega-hit song is based on timing. If you're at the right place at the right time with the right song, those three things come together, and two of those things are out of your control. Two of those things you can't help. And if you write your "Hotel California," and the world isn't looking for it — if the world is looking for "Who Let the Dogs Out" or "Gangnam Style" — your "Hotel California" is going in the backseat, and it's just too bad.
JM: Well, this is kind of a silly question, but are there any certain activities that pop melodies into your head? Like when I'm riding my bike or cooking eggs and stuff, a lot of times something just pops in my head. So what about you? Is there a particular activity that you're doing like working out or anything where you find yourself with some good things popping in your head?
MK: For me, in almost all cases, and in the cases that this doesn't cover I don't know what they are, but in most cases my role is far more collaborative and reactive. So Chad brings the spark in, and then we all turn it into a fire. You know what I mean? So I'm not doing dead lifts going, "Ah yeah, shit, I just got this hit chorus." So no, it's not like that. More like Chad's cooking bacon and goes, "Ah crap, I just got this hooky post-chorus melody." You know what I mean? He brings it in, and then we work it together. All of us get involved together and work on it.
JM: So a lot of times he brings just pieces in, basically?
MK: Sometimes they're pieces. Sometimes they're just a riff, or a vocal melody or a lyric or all of the above. And sometimes the song is essentially finished. It's all over the map. It's been all of those things.
JM: Cool, cool. So y'all are coming to Charleston. Do you guys like the South? You have any good stories about funny Southerners or anything throughout your travels?
MK: (Laughs) Yes. I do. Let me tell you about our first [tour] to the United States. Our first show ever in America, this was in 2000. We got booked for this music fest, I forget what it was called. Oh, it was Music Midtown in Atlanta. And way back, we got put on the bill with a gentleman from the South named Jesse James Dupree from a band called Jackyl. He's master of the chainsaw. He's the quintessential ambassador to the South. He introduced us to things we didn't previously understand, like what certain words mean and how you say things so Southerners will understand you. And you know, certain cultural bits — some of which I remember and others I can and can't repeat. But that show we played in Buckhead with him and his group, we basically got the crash course backstage before soundcheck about how it all works. So the South has been kind of a part of what we've done in America from the very beginning. That was our first gig in the United States — our first gig after we got a deal, our first tour. We did showcases and crap where you go and you're playing in a cocktail bar for like eight guys from New York.
JM: Oh, I've been there. I've been there til the bitter end in Greenwich Village, man, with like these Atlantic Records people just staring at ya, you know?
MK: Yeah they're just trying to figure out how they can get out of there. It's what it is. It's OK. You aren't the first and we weren't the first and none of us will be the last, you know? People will continue to struggle for that chance to work with those shady bastards.
****We're told we have time for one more question.****
MK: Is that OK? If you've got two, it's OK, we can do two.
JM: OK. So I saw this crowdsourcing campaign thing this week. Have you seen this where the guy is listening to Nickelback for 24 hours a day for like a week straight.
MK: Uh huh ...
JM: And so all the funds he's raising are going to build water wells in villages in third-world countries, right. So he's raised over 30 grand. And this is funny to me, because everyone's familiar with Nickelback hate, you know what I mean? There's a lot of haters of Nickelback.
MK: Uh huh ...
JM: But this is totally different, because it's like hate of your band, but it's like raising money for a good cause, you know what I mean? It's just like a really weird thing. How does that make you feel?
MK: That sounds pretty weird.
JM: Yeah, how does that feel, because it's like you know, you're used to haters, you know? I'm sure. But it's for a good cause, so it's like a really weird thing, you know what I mean?
MK: Yes I do. Um, we're deeply involved with providing people in Africa with clean water. We've been drilling wells for about 10 years. And we've given hundreds of thousands of people clean water in Africa on our own. You know, we don't really go on the record about that just because it's a bit self-serving to, you know, to pat yourself on the back every time you drop a check off. But we have been doing that, and frankly I'm a little bit confused about the connection between being mean and charity.
JM: Yeah, that's exactly what's weird to me. I did see a donation that said it was from Chad Kruger for $666. Do you know if that was really Chad?
MK: I can tell you with certainty it wasn't. (laughs)
JM: OK, OK. So you don't worship Satan then?
MK: (laughs) Well not openly. (laughs) That could be harmful to one's career, especially in the South, you know?
JM: Yeah, yeah. It is the Bible Belt, my man. Well thank you, Mike. I know you're busy, so I'll let you run.
MK: Yeah, thank you, I'm onto the next interview, which won't be as good as this one.