Nickelback's Prairie Roots

This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on October 31, 2005. Partner content is not updated.

This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on October 31, 2005. Partner content is not updated.

Nickelback's Prairie Roots

TO GET THERE you drive a two-lane blacktop 215 km northeast from Calgary, over gentle swells of prairie knotted with hay bales, down through the folded badlands of Drumheller, with its surreal dinosaur statues, then across more slanting plains and big sky, another hour of bare horizon without a blip of civilization, until you reach a sign welcoming you to Hanna, pop. 3,000, "Proud to be the home of NICKELBACK."

Chris David, 34, and her sister Tara, 37, have just come off their shifts as housekeepers at Hanna's Best Western. Sitting in Chris's kitchen with her 16-year-old daughter, Dawn, they open beers and reminisce about living two doors down from Chad Kroeger, Nickelback's lead singer, back when he had "dark spiral hair" and played in a local band called the Village Idiots. The house is a frame bungalow, with hundreds of vinyl LPs stacked on the veranda. A Led Zeppelin banner and a beaded curtain serve as the bathroom door. Gordon Lightfoot plays on the stereo.

Tara spent a summer rooming with Kroeger in the early '90s. Asked if they were an item, she smiles. "A little bit here and there." They lived off perogies and sour cream, built bonfires in the backyard, and piled mattresses against the walls of the room where the Village Idiots jammed, although the neighbours still complained. She talks about the time a kid fired a pellet gun at Chad's inner tube when he was floating on Fox Lake and hit him in the head. And she wonders what happened to that nude cliff-jumping video of her and Chad - "it will probably turn up on eBay."

Tara remembers the night Chad came to her rescue on a dark highway. She and a friend drove out to siphon gas. "But we ran out of gas - on our way out to siphon gas," she says. "It's, like, two in the morning, we're 18 miles out of town, and we see these headlights coming. It's Chad. He's just flying. He says, 'I knew you'd be out here somewhere.' " Then Chris mentions the time Chad decked Frank - her ex and Dawn's dad - for mistreating her when she was playing pool. "Now Frank goes around saying, 'I'm proud I got punched out by Nickelback.' "

The Nickelback boys haven't lived in Hanna since 1995. But when you're a working-class hero, spinning blue denim into gold, even if you've moved to Vancouver and live in a rock-star paradise of swimming pools and hot tubs, Playboy bunnies and bodyguards, it pays to remember where you come from. And after selling 17 million records, Canada's most successful rock band has tapped its hometown roots for its fourth album, All the Right Reasons, which debuted this month at the top of the Billboard 200 chart. The first single, Photograph, a nostalgic ode to a delinquent youth, is about Hanna. And much of the song's video was shot in this small Prairie town.

A hub for farmers and oil riggers, Hanna is one of those places in the middle of nowhere with not a whole lot to do. Bored teenagers get stoned and drunk and dream of being rock stars, like their hometown heroes. Not much ever happens in Hanna - until something does. Last week, there was a funeral for a 16-year-old boy, a friend of Dawn David in Grade 11. He put a shotgun to his head after coming home drunk from a Friday night party. His body was found the next day in a field. Dawn's mother says she herself has lost six friends to suicide over the years. "Well, this is my first," says Dawn.

If everyone cared and nobody cried

If everyone loved and nobody lied ...

We'd see the day when nobody died

- from All the Right Reasons

YOU'D EXPECT a band called Nickelback to be from a hard-rock mining town like Sudbury. But the name has a less classical blue-collar pedigree - the lead guitarist coined it while working at a Vancouver Starbucks, where coffee cost $1.95, and he'd always be giving customers a nickel back. Now no one in the band needs a day job, not since the phenomenal breakthrough of their 2001 album Silver Side Up, which sold 10 million copies and spawned the ubiquitous hit single, How You Remind Me. Only once before had a Canadian band scored a No. 1 hit on both the Canadian and U.S. charts - that was the Guess Who's American Woman, 35 years ago. And like the Guess Who, Nickelback's four members - singer/guitarist Chad Kroeger, his bassist brother, Mike, guitarist Ryan Peake and newly recruited drummer Daniel Adair - are another Prairies outfit of meat-and-potatoes rockers taking care of business. Earlier this month, à la barnstorming politicians, they chartered a WestJet 737 and flew across the country in a promotional blitz, hitting four cities in 24 hours.

But in a rock culture where success and sellout are often seen as synonymous, Nickelback is also one of the world's most derided bands. Like Bryan Adams, Shania Twain and Celine Dion, it's another commercial act from Canada that critics, and cooler bands, love to hate. Nickelback has all the cachet of a rock 'n' roll machine shop, punching out generic riffs and earnest lyrics, with none of the postmodern irony or political dissidence that fuel more alternative acts. Imagine a speed-metal Springsteen without the tragic conscience. Chad, the band's writer, crafts blunt, metaphor-free songs about raw sex, hot cars, rock-star dreams and love gone bad. He sings with a steadfast scream, straight vocal lines that cut through the music with a chainsaw's sense of purpose.

His lyrics stick to a well-oiled macho formula. On the previous album, Kroeger sings, "I like your pants around your feet / And I like the dirt that's on your knees / And I like the way you still say please / When you're looking up at me." On the new album, there's a burlesque rocker called Animals, in which he's getting oral sex while driving hell-bent down the highway ("It felt so good I almost drove into the ditch"); in Next Contestant, he's itching to beat up the next guy who hits on his girl before she finishes her shift in a bar ("They think they'll get inside her with every drink they buy her"). And in Follow You Home, he swears he'll stalk a girl to the ends of the earth - "cause you're my Mississippi Princess / You're my California Queen/Like the Duchess of Detroit / And every city in between."

With clichés as tall as Kansas corn, we're not in Alberta any more. But the latest album's heartland rock is laced with a new tinge of wit and self-reflection, the sound of a self-made rock star cultivating the legacy now that he's nailed down the fortune and fame. The David sisters find it a bit "mellow," a telltale sign of maturity. In the tradition of Joe Walsh's Life's Been Good and Dire Straits' Money For Nothing, there's even a satirical tune, Rockstar:

The girls come easy and

the drugs come cheap

We'll all stay skinny

'cause we just won't eat ...

We'll hang out in the coolest bars

In the VIP with the movie stars ...

If he hadn't made it as a rocker, Chad - who once spent two months in a juvenile detention centre - figures he might have become a drug dealer. "I'd probably be in jail," he once said. "I'm the type of guy who always wants to cheat the system somehow. The music business is perfect for that." In Photograph, Kroeger, now 30, sings about a break-and-enter adolescence of hanging out in the arcade, being hated by the cops, and skipping school - except to sneak in after hours ("Criminal record says I broke in twice / I must have done it half a dozen times.")

Now, when you drive into Hanna, past a truck dealership with row on row of gleaming pickups, there's not much left of the old town. The arcade burned down. The bowling alley is gone. So is the movie theatre. A "For Sale" sign hangs on the door of a cute little church. But the grotty National Hotel, known as "The Nash," still thrives. It's the strip bar where Nickelback's members played some early gigs, back when they were the Village Idiots. When Nickelback came to town in August to shoot the video, the Nash became part of the set, along with the owner's rusted '75 Plymouth, the "bar car" used to drive home drunks at the end of the night.

Bill Menard, who runs the Nash with his wife, Pauline, lights a smoke as a woman pins Halloween decorations above the stripper's stage. "We've had so many reporters come here looking for dirt," he says, when asked about the Nickelback boys. "They were just normal kids having fun, going out to the back country, drinking underage."

In Hanna, everyone's fiercely protective of the band. Chad's delinquency is passed off as a sweet diversion. Antoinette Wecker, the high school secretary, fondly recalls how she'd have to phone him almost every morning to wake him up for class. Chad, who didn't graduate, "wasn't a lot into school," recalls physical education teacher Rick Haines. "He spent the majority of his time in the hallways. But he had no lack of self-confidence." Social studies teacher Kevin Byrne remembers his distraught mother in a parent-teacher interview: "She was concerned about his marks, but said he could pick up any tune off the radio with his guitar."

The Kroeger boys came from an eminent family. Their maternal grandfather, Henry Kroeger, was a Conservative MLA from 1975 until his death in 1987. And he played bass in the Tory Blue Notes, with his wife on drums. Hanna's water filtration plant is named after him. Chad and Mike, whose father left when Chad was two, were raised by their mother, Debbie, who worked in a bakery, and later a stepfather, welder Dennis Kopetski. An amateur pianist, Debbie taught dance lessons in Hanna and bought Chad his first guitar. His English teacher, Rod Rhyason, occasionally let him bring a guitar to class. "He'd sit there and make up songs," recalls Rhyason, now retired, "If he made me laugh, I'd give him an an A, and if I just smiled, he would get a B."

As a guitarist with the Village Idiots, which had another singer, Chad played local bars. And Chris David once worked as a bartender with him at Hanna's Canada Grey Motor Inn. Chad was in charge of pouring shooters. "He was awesome at it," she says. "But at the end of the night, I'd want to close the bar, and he'd be passed out under the till."

The dissolute youth grew up to be an industrious rocker. In 1995, Peake, Chad and his cousin Brandon Kroeger, their original drummer, moved to Vancouver to join Chad's brother, who was playing in a metal band. They formed Nickelback, and after two years of constant touring, they got signed by EMI, which re-released their indie album The State in 2000. After another 14 months on the road, they recorded Silver Side Up, and never looked back. Chad, the high school slacker, remains an unabashed pothead, but he's become a diligent A-student of the rock hook. "I study everything," he told Canadian Musician. "I would dissect every song that had ever done well on a chart. There are so many things you can do to make a song stick in someone's head."

With Photograph, he's sunk a hook deep into his hometown roots. When Kroeger was in Hanna to record the video, he came by the Best Western to play it for Chris David. "We listened to it in his SUV," she says, "It was a rental, but it had leather and an awesome sound system. Photograph is such an awesome song for this town. I cried. I bawled. He's laughing, holding my hand. He'd changed his phone number, so he takes my hand and writes his new number on it."

Chris knows some friends who went to a party at Kroeger's country mansion in B.C.'s Fraser Valley. She says he asked them, "Do you want to party like rock stars?" - then had a girl lift up a keg and toss it into the pool. Later, he took a chainsaw and cut out a balcony railing so people could jump into the pool from the second floor. "One of these days," says Chris. "we're going to take a trip down to his place and knock on the door." Knowing Chad, he'll open it.

Maclean's October 31, 2005