March , 2012
By David Huff
3 Doors Down
Finding Fame Without Losing Ground
An Exclusive Interview with Singer Brad Arnold
Over the years, you hear countless stories from artists on the unusual circumstances that led them to create an iconic song that would change their lives forever. The fact that a life changing composition would come together in a high school math class is literally ‘one for the books.’ As 3 Doors Down lead singer Brad Arnold recalls, the fateful moment occurred while he sat in his algebra class, bored to death with a subject he cared little about. His thoughts were with his new no-name band he had formed with two classmates, Matt Roberts and Todd Harnell. The three of them often dreamed of making it big in music one day, but coming from a town of 4,000 in tiny Escatawpa, Mississippi made that hope a daily exercise in futility. Then one day it just happened. In his math notebook, Arnold wrote down the word ‘Kryptonite’. He placed it above a line he’d just scribbled down, “If I go crazy, will you still call me Superman?”
From that moment on, the world changed forever for Arnold, Roberts and Harnell. Doubt was replaced by confidence. The Escatawpa trio even expanded their line-up to include Chris Henderson on second guitar. From that point on, the momentum just kept on building. A series of adventures finally saw the band release their 2000 debut album, an appropriately entitled The Better Life. The debut would go on to sell an incredible six million copies worldwide. Its follow-up two years later, Away From the Sun, sold an equally impressive four million. By the time the band members had reached the age of 25, they were bonafide superstars.
Despite selling over twenty million albums over the course of five albums, fame is the one thing that hasn’t gone to anyone’s head. The band created a charity, The Better Life Foundation (TBLF) in 2003. The goal of the organization was a simple one - give as many children as possible a better life. Since its inception TBLF has supported numerous charities nationwide, as well as providing aid and assistance to the Gulf Coast region of Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina hit. Recently, founding member Matt Roberts had to step aside due to health reasons. The band is currently on the road with ZZ Top and Gretchen Wilson in what has been called the Outlaw Tour.
In the following interview, Roberts goes back to the beginning of 3 Doors Down to reminisce about the extraordinary journey that started in a classroom, and ended up on stages around the world.
How did some good ol' boys from a small Mississippi town learn to trust people, and not be taken advantage of, when you start flirting with the big leagues?
Brad Arnold –We were really, really fortunate in picking the right people to represent us, and work with us. Everything just seemed to fall into place once the ball started rolling. Universal Records, Indigo, our management company, and The Agency, which books our shows, they are three of the heaviest hitters out there, and together they really helped break this band. Again, we've been really lucky.
I got the impression that the lyrics on your first album were very personal. Was making that album therapeutic in a sense?
Yeah, in a way it was. The songs on The Better Life weren’t always about how I felt, or how I saw other people and how I thought they might feel. I was very fortunate that the lyrics I wrote were words people could relate to.
When you were writing the album, a kid in Pearl, Mississippi shot his classmates. Does something like that affect teenagers in Escatawpa?
Oh yeah, it affects people everywhere. That did hit close to home. I have some sisters that live in that area, and that's something you never expect. It just let's you know that there are problems everywhere, and it just isn't the big city.
Is everybody childhood friends?
Yes, me, Matt and Todd have known each other for years and years. I've know Chris for a long time too. All of us are from the same little area.
I'm always asked by local musicians if there's a key to catching the break to get your foot in the door of this business. My reply is always the same. There’s no one set way a band breaks in. From what I've read about 3 Doors Down, you four played your asses off for 3-4 years before your break came along. What do you tell local musicians who inevitably asked you the same question?
We were a band for five years before things took off for us. I told musicians along the way you have to work hard and you have to get along with your band mates. This business is hard enough as it is without fighting with your band mates. Now we've all known each for so long, that's one problem that never came up. The best tip I could give was concentrate on building up your local following; then figure out a way to get your music on the radio. That's what did it for us.
How instrumental was WCPR in Biloxi, Mississippi in breaking the band?
Our town is about 20 miles from Biloxi. We made a CD back in 1997, and we just played around at different shows in the area. We did pretty good drawing people, and over the course of about a year or two, we sold about 1,000 CD's at our shows. It's a small market, but we built up a pretty good fan base down there. WCPR has a homegrown show, an hour of local music. We played on there one time, and the program director heard "Kryptonite" on the radio. He called up the producer of his morning show to have the song ready for him play the next morning. From there, that song became the most requested song ever on that station. Some record company guy was reading a tip sheet, and saw the report from the station about the song, and came down to investigate.
Did you write the "Kryptonite" song after an experience you had in chemistry class?
No, I actually wrote "Kryptonite" while sitting in my high school algebra class. I'm not too good at algebra, and I had to sit through that class after lunch every day. For some reason though, while I was in there, I could think clearly, and I wrote a lot of our songs in there. You know, I could walk into English class and write an “A” paper tomorrow, but there was just something about math, particularly geometry, trigonometry and algebra, that I just never liked.
Can you hear music in your head while you write lyrics?
Definitely! For some reason, by the time I sit down to write lyrics, I've already heard the music, and it's just a matter of putting the words on a piece of paper. You know, a painter can see a picture in his head, and capture that on canvas perfectly. In a sense, I can hear the music before I put lyrics to it. I know it sounds strange, but that's just the way it happens. Listen, I don't completely write songs, but I can sketch enough of it out for the rest of the guys to come in and fill it out. Sometimes Matt or Chris will have a guitar riff, and I'll write lyrics around. I think a lot of songwriters will tell you that for some reason, they can hear the finished product before it's ever made.
It's very rare for drummers to step out front. Did the other guys have to coax you out front, or were you just the logical one to sing your songs?
We had thought about finding another singer, but it basically came down to a mutual decision between us and the record company. They wanted me to do it, and I was fine with it. I'm glad I've done it too. It's a lot more fun being out front than sitting behind a drum set just playing. Now don't get me wrong. I love the drums, but I like being out front a lot better. It gives me a chance to interact with people from the stage.
You went from clubs to festival settings almost every other week when you first toured. How was that transition?
Each one had its advantage. In the festivals, you're playing in front of a tremendous amount of people, and exposing them to your music. That's a great adrenaline rush. When we played the clubs, it was a lot more personal and you could really get up close to the people. There's more interaction, and you know that audience is only there to see you. Each of the different type of shows we did back then had their advantage.
How did you end up at the CBGB thing in New York?
That was a showcase thing that Republic Records flew us up to play in. We also played before Doug Morris, who was the head of Universal Music Worldwide. That was a great experience. I remember sitting in his office, like in awe of the situation. I couldn't believe we were sitting there. Here I was, a 20-year old kid from a small Mississippi town, sitting in ‘the man's’ office. Matt and Chris picked up a couple of guitars in his office and started playing acoustic while I sang. He just tapped his foot along with the music, and man, it was something else.
Just like that?
Just like that. We all walked into his office, and there were these two beautiful handmade guitars. There was no paint on them and a little bit of a varnish finish. The guitar body was made out of different patterns of wood, and one of them actually had his name pearl inlaid in the neck. Matt and Chris were playing on his guitars, and he said, "You know, those guitars have never been played." They freaked out and started to put them back, and Doug says, "No, no, go ahead and play them. Its fine, they need to be played." Right off the bat, he put us at ease, and I sang about three songs for him, “I Need You”, “Not Enough” and “Loser.” After that we played CBGB and they signed us. To this day, I still don't know how we did at that show. I was so nervous, , I don't remember anything about it.
How did they become aware of you?
Our name kept showing up in the CPR reports from the radio station, and someone from Republic came down to talk with us.
Who came down?
Actually, Monty Lipman came down, the president of Universal. He came down to talk with us. We hit it off with him right away. They were great people.
How much of a difference has growing up together, as friends and as a band, made in keeping a level head with all the whirlwind activity that has gone on around you?
It helps out in more ways than you could ever imagine.
What was it like working with one of your musical heroes, in this instance I’m talking about Alex Lifeson of Rush?
The record company hooked that one up for us. I remember going to his hotel to pick him up the first day. I knocked on his door, he opened it, and the first thing I thought to myself was, ‘Oh my God! It's Alex Lifeson of Rush!’ He was the nicest guy you'll ever meet in your entire life. We got to the studio, and honestly, I could not play the drums I was so nervous with him being in there. When we first arrived, Todd and I were just messing around, kind of warming up. All the sudden Alex picks up a guitar and starts playing with us.
You didn't break out into any Rush songs did you?
Oh no, not us. Alex did play some Rush songs acoustically. It was something else. He was awesome. His musical knowledge is incredible. Matt and Chris were about as flipped out as I was. But you know, once he started playing with us, I was totally comfortable. We ended up working with him for about five days.
What were you guys called before your fateful trip to Foley, Alabama?
We actually didn't have a name. We didn't play that much before then, and we actually saw this sign on a window, 3 Doors Down, a day before that show. We figured why not. I mean, our first show had been a party at a friend's house. Then we played the following week at a local club in town, and maybe knew five songs or so. We practiced a lot after that and then took off for Foley. But you know what? You have to start somewhere. I'm sure the Rolling Stones were a local band at one time or another.
What did you guys do for a living?
I worked in an electric motor shop on outboard motors, then bush-hogged one summer. Todd used to be an electrician and Chris worked for a company that put hi-tech coatings on manifolds for race cars. Matt used to work on outdoor motors as well.
If your bus breaks down, I guess you're in pretty good hands?
We're not too worried about it, believe me. We can fix almost anything.
Most bands I talk to live with songs on their first album for a long time before they actually get recorded. I’m assuming this band had the same experience.
About half of them were three years old, and the rest of them were written after we signed. Fortunately, the music we wrote years before out signing to the label was something people could identify with.
I read somewhere you initially planned on going to college after your first album was released. Was there some boring math class you were thinking about taking for inspiration?
(Laughs) No, but it might not have been a bad idea. Listen, there’s no way a band can duplicate the circumstances and experiences, that created the songs on your first record.
Maybe hiring a math tutor would have been a better option?
Hot for teacher.
How has your hometown changed toward you guys?
They treat us like the same old boys we were before all this happened.
What about your families?
They've always been supportive. All our parents are really tickled as much as we are. I grew up playing the drums, so you have to have special parents who understand you love music, otherwise they wouldn’t tolerate the noise. Mom and dad never tried to keep me from playing the music I love. Even when we started out playing these little dive bars, they never once objected to what I was trying to do. Honestly, I think they are surprised and very happy, that all that those years of me banging on the drums actually turned into a job I can do something with it.
From what I've read, you come from a rather large family. How did your siblings react to your rather unusual job profession?
Everyone in my family is really proud.
What was the first thing about the road that bothered you when 3 Doors Down actually started touring?
Not being able to take a shower after a gig was the worst thing about the road. Most the places we played didn’t have any type of facilities. So, you dry off as much as you can and put on some clothes that hopefully won't stick to you. If we traveled that night, we’d always check into a hotel the next day so we could clean up. When you’re out promoting your record, and getting the word out about your band, you basically do a club tour across the country. It’s a great way to connect with people, and that alone makes up for whatever troubles you encounter along the way.
You’re debut sold an astounding six million records. Were those songs all experiences you saw in high school and growing up in Escatawpa, Mississippi?
It wasn’t all necessarily high school, but stuff I saw everywhere, really.
Do the problems of the big city schools - drugs, guns, gangs, racial tension - exist in tiny towns like the one you came from as well?
Definitely they do, but the thing is, in smaller towns you find more trust than you do in big cities. Everyone is a little closer, because you are more isolated. There's more a feeling of safety growing up in a small town than there is in a big city. The same problems do exist, but they aren't as severe.
It's nice to be seen as a good ol' boy, and it makes for a really good story of hometown boy makes good. But here’s the thing. You’re in a business that takes no prisoners. There's always going to be another 3 Doors Down waiting somewhere in the wings to be discovered. Have you all talk about the problems that exist out there, and how being naive doesn’t really get you anywhere? Did you take steps to make sure the right people are looking out for you?
Let me tell you something. The first thing we did was get ourselves a good lawyer.
Where did he come from?
He's from Jackson, Mississippi. Everyone that we're working with right now, from management to the record company to our booking agent, told us to make sure we had a good lawyer. He's the one person that really helped us learn to trust the people we're working with right now. Believe it or not, we are aware of the pitfalls that can trap bands, like ourselves, in the music business. I encourage every band that is fortunate enough to get as far as we have to make sure they have a good lawyer representing them.
How did you find this guy?
To be honest with you, he's about the only one in the state that specializes in entertainment law. We had a meeting with him, and he turned out to be a great guy.
Do you feel kind of weird sometimes knowing that all of you are businessman, as well as musicians?
Yeah it does. I try to avoid that part of the business as much of it as possible. You can’t turn a blind eye to the business side of music, because that's what it really is, a business. But you know what, that's why we have managers. That's there job, to take care of the little details and look out for our best interests.
When you write, can it be anywhere?
I just need to be in a quiet place.
Looking back, do you ever pinch yourself to make sure you aren’t dreaming?
Quite often I do. Heck, all of us do whenever we really think about it. I still remember when WCPS was just starting to play “Kryptonite” on the radio. We all got really excited that our music was finally being heard. I never would have dreamed that one day it would be the No. 1 song on rock radio in America.
What was it like hearing your algebra song on the radio?
Oh dude, it was incredible. The first few times, it sent shivers up my spine. It really hit home when we started traveling around the country and we’d hear the song on radio stations wherever we played. I can't begin to describe the feelings I had inside when we heard "Kryptonite" played I even get more amazed when people would actually start singing the words while we played the song in concert. Everywhere we would go, when people start singing "Kryptonite," that was like the highlight of my day. The further we got away from home, and heard people sing that song, the more amazed I was. I mean, that was a tune I wrote, while bored in a math class, and it was having an impact all over the country.
Did your down home, Southern boy charm help break down the barriers between the band and the audience, where people would consider you a friend?
We're just normal people, and sometimes it is funny to see how people react to us when we meet them. It's like they think our heads will spin around when we see them. After we spend some time with then, they usually respond like, "Wow, you're normal." That's how it should be. People should regard us as their friend. I don't see how any rock band can sit back and try to separate themselves from there fans. Listen, we're normal people with the same problems that everyone else has. We just happen to play music, and some of the music we wrote, people really like. That's what it's really all about. What you see is really what you get when you come to a 3 Doors Down concert. We just thank God we're fortunate to be blessed with the opportunity to live out this dream.