Chainsmoking and the Nickelback Effect
What do you call four men in a rock group that don't sing or play music? Join Joe and Toby as they search for the answer and throw plenty of shade along the way. These are a couple of groups that for some reason people love to hate. Don't enjoy this episode? We'll be happy to give you your Nickelback.
Joe: Welcome to Riffs on Riffs, where we explore the surprising connection between songs past and present and share the fascinating stories that make music a universal language. I’m Joe Watson and I’m here with my co-host Toby Brazwell. What’s up my friend?
Toby: I’m good man. I like the little remix you threw in there.
Joe: You were expecting Charlie Puth size, you were waiting for the drop.
Toby. Exactly. I’m good man. How are you? Actually. Let me answer that question for you. You’ve gotta be feeling great after taking the plunge and eating some meat that you smoked last weekend! How was that process?
Joe: Man, it was work! We put in some serious work in the kitchen this weekend. Thankfully I had the best of company when I got up at 3 am to get the pork in the smoker. Turned out great, especially for the first time. Let’s just say I’m looking forward to perfecting the process and eating all the yummies along the way.
Toby: That's awesome man. Be sure to save me a plate for the next time I’m in town. But enough of that let’s get into what we plan on serving up to the good people on this episode. A while back we did an episode on Kraftwerk and our listeners could tell that we were definitely not enthused about their musical stylings.
Joe: You know I tried to forget that episode. Far from enthused? That is putting it mildly. So today we decided to flip the script and research groups that for some reason yall love to hate.
Toby: In the words of Jay Z: it’s about to GO DOWN! Who do you have to start us off with first?
Joe:. First, I have a question for you.
Toby: Hit me.
Joe: What do you call four men in a rock group that doesn’t sing or play music?
Toby: Well I believe we’d need to travel to the black hills of South Dakota for that answer — Mount Rushmore, lock it in.
Joe: Good guess, but no. The correct answer is Nickelback.
Toby: That’s throwing some shade right out of the gate.
Joe: I think there are more jokes about Nickelback on the internet than hits in their catalog.
Toby: It’s true, it seems like the trendy thing to do is hate on this Canadian band. And in the midst of a pandemic, we should all show each other a little more love. You know, I hear that one of the symptoms of Coronavirus is loss of taste. So my thoughts and prayers go out to all the Nickelback fans out there.
Joe: Ouch. Wow. Here’s the other thing: I’ve heard some disturbing things about their albums. Rumor has it that if you play them backwards, you hear messages from the devil. But worse, if you play the album forward, you hear Nickelback.
Toby: Ok, ok, we could literally do this all day. How about instead you give us a little history on this band that people love to hate?
Joe: Alright. Well Nickelback was formed in 1995 by brothers Mike and Chad Kroeger, cousin Brandon Kroeger, and Ryan Peake. The current lineup is the same with the exception of Daniel Adair now on drums.
Toby: And if you’re wondering where the band name came from, it’s as silly as you’d expect it to be. Originally called “VillageIdiot”, they changed the name because when Mike was working at Starbucks, he’d often say to customers, “Here's your nickel back.”. Let me just say this; Nickleback is much worse than VillageIdiot.
Joe: That’s almost as bad as naming your band Hootie and the Blowfish.
Toby: Chad asked his step dad for $4,000 so they could record their first demo. They spent half the money on the EP, the other half on shrooms.
Joe: Oh boy. Once again, kids this is why you do not do drugs kids. It’s stupid, but then you’ll also end up sounding like Nickelback.
Toby: They inked a deal with EMI and Roadrunner records and in 2000 released “The State” in Canada, where the singles “Leader of Men” and “Breathe” became top ten hits. The album would eventually go platinum in both the US and Canada.
Joe: I hear this was actually supposed to be a form of aid from Canada.
Toby: How so?
Joe: Well we have that US coins shortage, they wanted to help so they sent us Nickelback.
Toby: Oh boy. Well I preferred it much more when they shipped us Doug Flutie and Warren Moon from the Canadian Football League.
Joe: Right? I mean at least then we got a quarterback.
Toby: You are in rare form today.
Joe: I am. They may be big in Canada, but at least I’m still big in Japan.
Toby: Not a truth. The only reason you are big in Japan is because you are 6’3” in which case you are big in most places.
Joe: I got to tell you that hurts more than a Nickelback listening party.
Toby: In 2001, the band released their third album, Silver Side Up, which contains their first hit and signature song,“How You Remind Me”. Wait a minute- I’m just getting that. Silver Side Up…
Joe: I just got that too! How funny is that. Well this is where Nickelback found their lane, and it was done with intent. Around this time Chad Kroeger began studying the specific ingredients that made a radio hit. This is a quote from them: "I started studying every piece, everything sonically, everything lyrically, everything musically, chord structure. I would dissect every single song that I would hear on the radio or every song that had ever done well on a chart and I would say, 'Why did this do well?'"
Toby: “How You Remind Me” certainly contains all of the elements of a pop hit. The universally relatable experience of romantic relationships, a few big hooks, some “yeahs” to sing along to throughout the song. You could smell the gold records cooking.
Joe: And this is one of the problems people have with Nickelback. They are often accused of being formulaic, derivative, and well, sort of bland.
Toby: Do you agree with that? I want your opinion on that.
Joe: Let me say two things. First, yes, I totally agree with that. Every Nickelback song sounds exactly like you’d expect. But let me also say, so what? It’s not a big secret that pop music is heavily formulaic- as a listening public there’s a very small window of sounds that we are fond of listening to. What’s the problem with intentionally trying to create music that people like?
Toby: I think the problem is, he said that was his intent. To me, that may have been part of the issue. People might have read interviews by this guy and thought “Oh my god he’s trying to do that”. Instead, he could have said something to the effect of “Hey, this is music I feel, blah blah blah”. And here’s the other thing, I know other cats that have broken apart songs, and the formulas, and the song ends up being horrible because they are weird; they go the entirely wrong direction. So I’m fine with this. It’s something that I can at least listen to in passing.
Joe: At the end of the day, Nickelback gets it right with another of their big hits. We all just want to be big rockstars.
Toby: The single “Rockstar” off of their 2005 album “All the Right Reasons” was certainly a smash hit. It reached #1 in multiple countries, and reached the top ten on multiple charts, including Adult Top 40, Alternative, Rock and Metal, and the Billboard Hot 100. I guess they nailed the whole “universal themes” approach to songwriting once again.
Joe: Yea and that video didn’t hurt either. Besides having a laundry list of B level celebrities, it includes Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top, who also does the spoken word verses in the song, Nelly Furtado, Lupe Fiasco, Kid Rock, Chuck Liddell, Gene Simmons, Ted Nugent, Wayne Gretzky, Grant Hill, Dale Earnhardt Jr. I mean a little something for everybody in this one!
Toby: It even has Elize Dushku on there. Do you know who she is?
Joe: I have no idea who that is.
Toby: Then you apparently have never watched “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” or “The Dollhouse” show that was out for two seasons.
Joe: Are we talking early buffy with Sarah Michelle Gellar?
Toby: Yea that’s it. So she played the other slayer. It was good to see her again.
Joe: Would she be under the “B” level celebrity moniker?
Toby: She’s in the alphabet, but I don’t know if B is quite it. This song also brings up another criticism often leveled at Nickelback- that their lyrics and messaging is all about stereotypical subjects like partying and drugs and strippers. Not really good messaging for the kids, you know?
Joe: Definitely not. At least with Rockstar, their tongues were planted firmly in cheek. Chad Kroeger had this to say about the lyrics: “It’s supposed to be sarcastic, but yet stereotypical… we came up with so many lines that were so stupid and so over the top, if they were all funny and kind of true at the same time, then they had to go in the song.”
Toby: So Rockstar is intentionally bad, but what about the rest of their catalog? You have to admit that there’s a lack of substance and perhaps even a 5th grade rhyme scheme to most of their lyrics.
Joe: For sure. I mean the whole presentation is almost a caricature of what a rock band should be. There is also no question the lyrics lack real substance or even bombast.
Toby: Wait a minute, are you suggesting that Mr. Boombastic himself, Shaggy, is a better lyricist?
Joe: Nothing of the kind. It Wasn’t Me. No, but I will say that swinging too far the other way gets you into trouble with critics, too. For example, I don’t think you get much more bombastic than the lyrics Jim Steinman wrote for the likes of Meat Loaf, or Mr. Loaf if you’re nasty.
Toby: There is no question Meat Loaf is another act people love to hate. Not me though. I Would Do Anything for Love, But I Won’t Do That.
Joe: Well done sir!
Toby: Let me also say this: If I had to complete a task to prove my love, and we had to compromise, (I only liked a couple of them), in this case, two out of three ain’t bad. Perfect dismount!
Joe: There is also a certain type of artist that music critics seem to love, and Nickelback ain’t it. As David Lee Roth- that’s the former lead singer of Van Halen to you kids out there, unless you’re like Billie Eilish and have no idea who Van Halen is. Anyway, Roth had this to say about music critics: “Most rock critics like Elvis Costello because most rock critics look like Elvis Costello.”
Toby: That’s funny because it’s true. Yes, a lot of music critics seem to fan on the more esoteric and boundary pushing artists because they are “edgy” or “provocative”. That’s been going on forever. It’s why critics like Kraftwerk.
Joe: No. People like Kraftwerk because it reminds them of listening to their dishwasher. They like a little white noise when they go to sleep.
Toby: I want to apologize to our engineer. Eric, when you synthesize Joe’s voice into a chipmunk whine for this episode, please note that I did not take unnecessary digs at your questionable taste in music.
Joe: You were doing so good right until the end. Anyway, so critics generally hate Nickelback, what about other artists and their peers?
Toby: Nope, not many fans there, either. Let’s take for example our local boys made good from Akron, Ohio, The Black Keys. Here’s what drummer Patrick Carney had to say about Nickelback:
"Rock & roll is dying because people became ok with Nickelback being the biggest band in the world. So they became ok with the idea that the biggest rock band in the world is always going to be s*** - therefore you should never try to be the biggest rock band in the world. F*** that!" Rock & roll is the music I feel the most passionately about, and I don't like to see it f****** ruined and spoon-fed down our throats in this watered-down, post-grunge crap, horrendous s***. When people start lumping us into that kind of s***, it's like, 'F*** you,' honestly." That felt good.
Joe: I was going to say, that brought tears to my eyes.
Toby: That felt really good. F***.
Joe: We are no longer doing a family show.
Toby: No longer.
Joe: Ok hold up. I’m calling flag on the play. First off, who are you to be dictating what is and what isn’t rock, or any kind of music? I get that you don’t like the music, and that’s perfectly fine, everyone has their own taste and opinions. Personally, and I know this is sacrilege in these parts, I am not a big Black Keys fan. I think Dan Auerbach has a cool voice, but I find the music to be derivative and boring. So there you go.
Toby: You know Joe, you make some really good points there. I think everyone has the right to make the music they want to make. Especially when musicians start talking about other musicians, I’m always skeptical about that. Like stand back a bit. You could receive the same type of criticism. Let the music breathe and let the fans be the judge.
Joe: Another point I want to make about this. Patrick Carney is a crappy musician. He’s admitted as much. This is a quote from him “I’m not a very good drummer. But that’s the thing: Kids that were in my high school jazz band were focused on being good. They weren’t focused on being creative, and none of those guys ever became musicians. And then all of my friends who are musicians, they were never focused on being the best.” I think that’s a pretty narrow world view, and I get tired of this notion that somehow good musicians are not creative, or not as cool. You know what else isn’t cool? Intentionally sucking because you think somehow it makes you more authentic.
Toby: Let me say this: He didn’t say that he intentionally sucked.
Joe: He has kind of said that because- I mean the only reason he started playing drums was because in their two piece they needed somebody to do it. He said I don’t want to learn how to play, I’m ok with sucking and whatever, which is fine, but how do you get off with criticizing other people who actually learn how to play their instruments and are interested in getting better?
Toby: I hear you. You make some really good points. I have nothing else.
Joe: Let’s put some Black Keys alongside the Nickelback tracks on the playlist for this episode. You know what else we need to put on the playlist?
Toby: What’s that? Please tell me it isn’t Kraftwerk.
Joe: You know we are going to put some Kraftwerk just so I don’t sound like Alvin. Nope, but we will put some Charlie Daniels!
Toby: Well that’s interesting. Why are we doing that?
Joe: Because for some reason, Nickelback just released a cover of The Devil Went Down to Georgia by the Charlie Daniels Band. Which is also fascinating because another band people love to hate, Korn, did the exact same thing earlier this year.
Toby: Wait a minute. People hate Korn?
Joe: Well maybe that’s just me. Though truthfully, Jimmy crack corn and I don’t care.
Toby: Alright out of the game. You are in the penalty box. I’m hoping that both of these bands released covers in homage to Charlie Daniels, who passed away earlier this year.
Joe: Yeah, I hope Charlie found his golden fiddle. And because we share random trivia on this show, I wanted to point something cool out. The Devil Went Down to Georgia was inspired by a poem Charlie Daniels read in high school.
Toby: That’s right, the poem is called “The Mountain Whippoorwill” and was written by Stephen Vincent Benet. It’s a pretty cool poem, and it’s easy to see where the inspiration for the song came from. So who does the better cover, Korn or Nickelback?
Joe: They are both equally, well, what you would expect. One thing you can say about Nickelback is that the production has always had a certain professional sheen to it. Whether or not you like the band, you can’t say they don’t have a crafted sound and professional musicianship. Ok, time to move on, because I’m sure you have another artist that people love to hate.
Toby: You are so right sir, but before we get to that, why don’t we take a quick break first. Riffs on Riffs will be right back.
Toby: So now let’s get into a discussion about another artist that people love to hate: The Chainsmokers. And before we discuss why people might hate them, let’s first tell you who they are. The Chainsmokers were originally composed of Alex Pall and DJ Rhett Bixler but were reformed into the duo we know them as today with Alex Pall and Drew Taggart. Pall was an art history and music business major while Taggart attended Syracuse University.
Joe: Taggart wanted to be a DJ and looked to get recognized for his artistic chops by placing songs on Soundcloud. Adam Alpert is the CEO of Disruptor records from Sony and also is a manager for up and coming artists. One of his staff members told Taggart that a spot in the Chainsmokers had opened up since DJ Bizler left the group. This was all the incentive Taggart needed to head to New York City.
Toby: Alpert introduced Taggart and Pall together and by 2013 they had released a remix of a track called ”Medicine” by a group called Daughter which reached #1 on the music aggregator Hype Machine Hype Machine is the perfect website for music junkies if you have hours to burn. It features up and coming producers who show their skills by making remixes of well known songs. I wanted to ask if you have ever been on the Hype Machine website before.
Joe: I hadn’t, and I’m glad you turned me on to it. Back in the day, Spotify used to have plugin channels like this, and I remember discovering tracks like “Thrift Shop” from Macklemore way before they became hits. There are a lot of sites that are similar to Hype Machine and they often have contests to see who’s got talent. Producers can find “stems”, or individual parts of songs separated out, and make new remixes with the tracks. It's a creative playground.
Toby: I wish I had the time to play around with stems from a well known track, and not to say that you do, but I would love to hear a son of wats remix of a track or two in the not too distant future. But let’s stay on track… I’m sure that you all have two questions. The first being how did the Chainsmokers get their name. During an ABC interview Pall had this to say: “At the time of conception, it was … it was totally just like I was in college. You know I enjoyed smoking weed and you know it was like such a ’yeah the domain’s open!’”
Joe: So you basically sum it up by saying that there was a LOT of thought put into the name of this group. I would complain about the name but honestly after some of the names we’ve seen just on this podcast alone, I am not surprised. I do feel that you can only go up from here. In fact we should do a whole episode on groups with horrible names.
Toby: You know that would be perfect. Someone needs to explain the names Toad the Wet Sprocket or Hoobastank. Or Natalie Portman's Shaved Head. Yes, all of those are names of music groups, and you can’t say that the people that came up with these names are lazy. In my opinion, you have to try to make names that bad. That’s effort.
Joe: Well let’s get back to The Chainsmokers and the 2nd question that a lot of people have which is: Why do folks love their music but dislike the actual musicians? First, let’s discuss the music. It’s undeniable that these guys have hits. Their first breakthrough hit, #SELFIE, debuted on the Billboard dance/electronic chart at #19. In two weeks they sold more than 60K downloads of this single and debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 at 55.
Toby: As of June 2014 #SELFIE has sold more than 865k copies in the United States alone and maybe that’s the reason why I think it’s one of the most annoying songs I’ve heard in a long time. If you don’t believe me, take a listen, it’s going to be on the playlist for this song.
Joe: They followed that up with more hits like “Closer” featuring Halsey in 2016. This track reached #1 on the Billboard charts and stayed there for 12 weeks. With Closer, the Chainsmokers became the first group to have 4 songs on the Top Dance/Electronic Songs chart which was a distinction shared by superstar producer Calvin Harris. It helped Chainsmokers get nominated for a Grammy for Best POP Duo/Group Performance at the 2017 Grammy awards and in 2018 this song reached diamond certification, selling 10 million copies in the United States alone.
Toby: That’s not even mentioning their other hits like Don’t let me Down and the Coldplay collab “Something like This”. Their music is obviously loved and is played on radio stations, iPhones and androids across the country. So why do people dislike them?
Joe: It might have something to do with when they open their mouths. In their interviews, there are several quotes that cast them far from a good light. In a Billboard interview they described themselves as heavy drinkers. They even joked about dying from alcohol poisoning but bragged about never being the ones that need to be carried out of the club due to just how good they were at drinking.
Toby: They went on to talk about their motivation for success, and I think this quote from Pall says everything you need to know: “Why am I trying to make all this money? I wanted to hook up with hotter girls. I had to date a model. “
Joe: Wow. These guys are like a hard pack of Camels. No filter.
Toby: Oh that’s a good one. I got another. They’re like school during a pandemic…no class.
Joe: Good one! Obviously fans reacted negatively to some of these antics but they have done nothing but embrace it. Even their bio states that they graduated from school, like hot chicks in yoga pants, enjoy a good burger and have been rejected by many venues that they now play at.
Toby: They definitely come off as cocky and to me statements like this are a cry for help. It’s time for maturity to step in. It’s time for managers to step in. I don’t care what anybody tells you. All publicity ain’t good.
Joe: They did another interview with Rolling Stone magazine about a month later and Taggart had this to say: “Honestly we’re two white guys that like to be friendly, we make stupid jokes and like funny movies, and we like to party- but so does everybody”. To me, I hear that, and it’s like a bad Steve Martin impression. “We’re just a couple of wild and crazy guys!”. In the same interview Taggart goes on to say that he and Pall don’t fight much. Here’s his quote on the subject: “We’ve fought like, one time, in Mexico and I don’t remember what. We’d just been at a strip club and we beat each other up in the back of a cab. We have a photo we took of ourselves all bloody afterward! It was just a moment of tequila driven madness.”
Toby: Note to self. Never drink tequila with the Chainsmokers. It disappoints me that talented young people miss out on opportunities like this to be a role model. I totally get being attracted to the party life and what not, but I think there’s a time and a place. I won't even say it’s just young people, I will just say people in general don’t get that stuff like this stays with you. Like forever.
Joe: So true. And that brings to mind a sticky situation they had with new comer sensation Halsey. It all started when in an interview someone asked both Pall and Taggart about Lady Gaga’s new single Perfect Illusion and they stated that they thought the single sucks.
Toby: Gaga responded a lot more professionally than I would have and essentially said hey, check out this track instead, referring to her new single at the time for her new album Joanne to which the Chainsmokers replied “Respect”.
Joe: Halsey then tweeted that Gaga was an icon and that she was a fan and excited for her upcoming project. A fan made the comment that the producers that helped her land her biggest hit made comments in complete contrast to what Halsey just said. To which Halsey replied “What does that have to do with me?”
Toby: My sentiments exactly. This is just a fan trying to start something. If we are friends or working together, our opinions don’t have to be in lock step on everything. This only makes sense. What doesn’t make sense is the way that the Chainsmokers responded. They called basically called her a bald ****.
Joe: And of course when confronted… The chainsmokers pulled a modern version of Shaggy’s previous tactic and stated that their account had been hacked. C’mon, just stop it. But regardless of what we think about their antics, their music certainly has mass appeal. Are you a fan?
Toby: I am actually. The EDM scene is one that I can’t listen to all night but when in Vegas it’s easy to fall into it for an hour or two. And Las Vegas always comes to my mind when I hear a lot of music from their catalogue.
Joe: That makes sense, because they landed a 3 year residency at the Wynn hotel in Vegas. Per the agreement they would only be able to perform in Wynn Owned Nightclubs and Encore Beach club until their contract ended in 2019. It would seem that the Vegas night life would be a perfect fit for them given their comments. It’s certainly not hard to find some tequila and a cab to fight in.
Toby: Ain’t that the truth. I just want to thank you partner for not resorting to fisticuffs on public transportation.
Joe: It’s the little things. And with that my friend, I think it’s time to wrap up today’s episode. What all did we cover?
Toby: Today we discussed a couple of bands that people love to hate, Nickelback and the Chainsmokers.
Joe: Hey, that sounds like another bad band name! Thanks again for joining us on this crazy journey, and be sure to check out the playlist for this episode on Spotify and Apple Music. Just do a search for Riffs on Riffs. While you're at it, please leave us a review on whatever platform you listen — it just might help someone else stumble upon our witty banter and bad puns. Be sure to connect and dialog with us on social, @riffsonriffs. As always, thanks for listening. We’ll catch you next time for Riffs on Riffs.
Toby: Keep listening. Huzzah.