Nickelback bassist talks family ties and marking 25 years as a band
Exclusive interview with FBPO’s Gary Graff
November 23, 2020
Fifteen years ago was a “Right” time for Nickelback. All the Right Reasons, the Canadian group’s fifth studio album, topped the charts at home and in the U.S. and has sold more than 19 million copies worldwide since. It spent nearly two years on the Billboard 200 chart and spawned five Top 20 singles on the Mainstream Rock chart, including “Photograph” and “Animals” at No. 1, while the video for “Rockstar” featured an all-star list of friends from music and sports lip-syncing the song. Nickelback was planning to celebrate the album’s 15th anniversary with a tour, playing it live in its entirety. For now, however, we have to be satisfied with a new edition of the album that adds some B-sides and acoustic performances, as well as a live recording from 2006 in Sturgis, N.D. We found bassist and band co-founder Mike Kroeger at home in Hollywood rather than on the road, still pondering all these years later why things went so “Right” for Nickelback at the time — as well as the impending 25th anniversary of the band’s formation.
FBPO: All the Right Reasons was such a massive success for Nickelback. With the benefit of hindsight, what went so “right?”
Kroeger: I don’t know what the hell happened. [laughs] We had done well with The Long Road album before that. And when we got off the road touring that [album], we felt pretty good. It was still a time where a rock band could be played on all kinds of radio, when radio mattered—on pop, even country, which is weird, but it did happen. We were just trying to really, really focus on doing the best album we could for our fans, ’cause we realized that we now had fans globally and we had to think of them and give them what they wanted.
FBPO: Do you have any particularly strong memories from that album as far as bass playing?
Kroeger: The song “Rockstar,” playing the bass for that was kind of unusual. Because when we first started to put the music together for it, my brother [frontman Chad Kroeger] brought in an organ player, like a funky kind of keyboard organ player to kind of add some texture and feel. That kind of led me in a certain direction to play something kind of slidey and unusual. I had never really played that way before. It was really undiscovered territory for me, especially in the verse of that song. Coming up with that part took awhile and took a lot of imagination. We went through a number of iterations of how the bass could be done in that song, and what we ended up with was pretty good, I thought.
FBPO: How did you wind up playing bass for Nickelback?
Kroeger: Chad started playing guitar, if I’m not mistaken, when he was 13. I thought guitar was OK, but my grandfather was a bass player—he and my grandmother played in a band together, she was a drummer—and there was a 1978 Precision bass around the house with a big combo amp. So the bass was there. Rather than being another guitar player, ’cause everybody wanted to play guitar where we lived, I thought I’d try bass. It just spoke to me.
FBPO: What kind of playing philosophy did you grow into as you were learning?
Kroeger: That it’s not about the bass, it’s about the band. I err on the side of less is more. I’ve never really been that interested in being really flashy or really out front; I just want to listen and understand what the song needs and support the vocal and make the band sound as huge and heavy as it can be in the rock songs, and on the more ballad/love songs I want to have that warmth and that feeling. Bass doesn’t need to be a lead voice. It needs to be complementary and foundational, not lead.
FBPO: There’s a subtlety required to make it work right.
Kroeger: There is. The difference between a band with a bass player doing it right and not doing it right is nobody can really put their finger on something’s wrong—but you know it’s wrong. The booties on the dance floor don’t’ shake and the band doesn’t sound good. But when somebody’s really doing it right, most listeners don’t recognize it specifically. You never hear, “Holy crap, did you see the bass player?!” You don’t know what’s right, you just know it’s there. That’s not really what happens. But when a band doesn’t have that right kind of flow between the bass player and everyone else, you can tell the difference.
FBPO: How does the sibling thing work with you and Chad? You don’t hear Oasis or Kinks or Black Crowes type of stories about Nickelback.
Kroeger: Y’know, we have our disagreements for sure. We don’t make them public. I don’t see how our brotherly squabbles should be public. There was a time, actually, in a hotel room in London when one of the guys at our record company … I guess we were looking for a little edge in the PR world, and I remember this guy saying, “What would be really cool is if you and Chad got into a fist fight publicity. That would be really great!” And we were like, “Eh, that’s really gross.” So, yeah, we’ve had experience with people wanting to fabricate conflict between me and my brother, but we’re not gonna go there.
FBPO: Was All The Right Reasons an easy album to make? Hard? Time consuming?
Kroeger: All of that, I guess. We had a pretty tight operation between us and Joey [Moi], our producer friend. We had a pretty well-designed system at that point, so we went into the studio and just said, “Hey, we’re not gonna leave ’til it’s done and it’s done perfectly.” And that’s obviously not the easiest challenge to set up for yourself, but that was the mentality we went in with, and we kind of stuck to it. We did drive each other crazy. [laughs] There were moments of spontaneity—like the song “Animal” was written, recorded and finished in one 24-hour period. But there were other songs, like “Savin’ Me,” for example, that was just an odyssey. It took six or eight weeks to make that song. So it was kind of mixed in that way.
FBPO: Was there a moment of epiphany during the album cycle when you realized just what a monster All the Right Reasons was becoming?
Kroeger: Y’know, we put out “Photograph” and that was successful, but it wasn’t really blowing the doors out. It was just consistent, and then it just kind of kept going. Before that we would release a single or two, maybe a third one, and then it would be time to move on. And on this one we had seven. It was crazy! It really just kept chugging along. We’d be like, “OK, let’s release another single” and four weeks later it’s like, “Holy s***, it’s doing it again.” We were having problems with our singles competing with our other singles. So it wasn’t like there was a breakthrough moment. It just never stopped—a good problem to have, really.
FBPO: The album’s success was what really brought out the Nickelback haters, too. Must have been weird to deal with that at the same time as all the success.
Kroeger: It sucked at the beginning, but I really believe that having seven singles had something to do with it. You couldn’t get rid of us! [laughs] But that didn’t come out of nowhere; people wanted to hear them. I’m sure there were plenty of people who had heard enough and they were vocal about it, but the majority really couldn’t get enough.
FBPO: Living well is the best revenge, as they say. Next year will mark the 25th anniversary of Nickelback’s formation. What accounts for the longevity?
Kroeger: Twenty-five years is such a weird thing to say, man. I think, really, we don’t want to do anything else. This is what we do and what we want to do. We want to make music. We want to make records. We want to tour. In the beginning there was plenty of opportunity to quit. Anybody who’s been in a band will tell you there’s tons of really, really good reasons to quit, especially early on when you get knocked down a few times. But this is such a family affair—my brother [Chad] and I, and Ryan [Peake], who we’ve known since he was in sixth grade. We’re really close. It’s a lot easier to quit a band when you’re in a band of strangers or people you’re not really that closely tied to. But when it’s your family and your closest friends, you just work stuff out.
See Jon’s blog, with key takeaways from this interview here.