Nickelback looking for some love from Arkansas

Nickelback, performing Sept. 25 at NLR's Simmons Bank Arena

Submitted photos
Nickelback, performing Sept. 25 at NLR's Simmons Bank Arena Submitted photos

TORONTO -- Nickelback knows you might hate them.

It's in the title of their new documentary, "Hate to Love: Nickelback," which they commissioned. But, as a rejoinder, they've got the 2,300 people who showed up in Nickelback shirts to attend the movie's premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival last week, and the 10,000 people who flooded the streets downtown to watch them play a free show when the festival was expecting 3,000.

And their induction into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame this year ... their current well-attended arena tour ... their 50 million worldwide album sales ... and the most-played song on U.S. radio in the 2000s -- the ubiquitous earworm "How You Remind Me."

Which, maybe, is why you hate them. But Canada does not.

People were hanging off lampposts, singing their hearts out and stacked to impassable three blocks deep for the Toronto gig, trying to glimpse the band (who hail from the farm town of Hanna, Alberta).

"I was blown away," guitarist Ryan Peake told The Washington Post from a hotel suite while grinding out interviews trying to sell the doc, which does not have distribution yet. Really? A band with 12 consecutive sold-out tours didn't expect a big crowd? "I'm not trying to be, 'Eh, we don't know if we're popular.' I just never take that for granted so I was like, 'Gosh, I hope people come.'"

"Every time we put anything on sale or make an album or a song, we hope people like it and check it out. But we never presume they are," added bassist Mike Kroeger, brother to lead singer Chad Kroeger, who was a willing participant of the documentary but wasn't made available for interviews.

When Janice James, a 60-year-old retiree who has seen the band eight times in person, heard they'd be in Toronto, she dropped all other plans. Her favorite part was the band showing up at the premiere Q&A -- "Just being that close to them," she said. "I saw them when they were like a really small band, and I've always loved them. Chad looks like my son, and I just think he's an amazing songwriter."

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Love for Nickelback seems almost impossible to imagine if you were around in the early 2000s. It was the advent of cellphones and social media and "Survivor," and Nickelback was getting more airplay than any band on the planet, including The Beatles. (Their 2005 album, "All the Right Reasons," produced seven singles and is one of the bestselling albums in the United States of all time, and that's after Napster.) Consider them pioneers in internet backlash, raking in money as the insults just piled on from the many people who didn't like their songs but couldn't escape them.

The band became a punchline for everything mediocre and uncool. A joke from comedian Brian Posehn about how Nickelback made him want to commit violence -- against Nickelback -- became a promo that ran for six months on Comedy Central at the height of Jon Stewart's hosting "The Daily Show," essentially creating a rallying cry for hipsters to rag on this rock band for normies. (Chad said in a 2022 Barstool Sports interview that he thinks that's when the hate cycle began.) Memes, also a new thing, started dropping -- Nickelback wanted for crimes against music, a rubber band with the caption "still a better band than Nickelback." Arnold Schwarzenegger did a video listing all the things that were more popular than Congress: cockroaches, herpes, Nickelback.

"The complaints against Nickelback aren't unusual: 'Their songs are formulaic.' But I think sometimes people want to hear vacuous, dumb s***," says Mike in the film.

"It used to be really bad with the way it would make me feel," says Chad in the film. "We tried to laugh it off. You can laugh off about 90% of it, and some of it, it hurts."

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I'd been warned before talking to Ryan and Mike that they've been asked so much about being hated that they find it boring. (Chad sang, "Hallelujah!" during a Q&A when producer Ben Jones said that he felt the film would put an end to those questions.)

"Oh, I don't find that boring it all," Ryan said immediately when I brought it up.

They were fine talking about it, because they didn't bear the brunt of it, like Chad, the face of the band and the only name anyone knows. It was Chad, with his very recognizable, some would say cheesy, haircut, who had to deal with people shouting "F*** Nickelback!" out their car windows at him if they spotted him on the street.

Six years ago, when the band commissioned director Leigh Brooks to start filming them, they hadn't planned on tackling the hate. They were just gathering footage for an electronic press kit for their "Feed the Machine" album, and maybe so their kids could have a history of the band. But for it to become a documentary, Brooks and Jones told the guys they'd have to address it. The joke among the band, said Brooks, was "these are the guys we pay to run away from." It took years of negotiation for Chad to agree to allow some of his more vulnerable interviews in the film.

The film doesn't go into detail about the exact origins of the hate. It's an in-house project, which means the band had final say over the edits. An exhaustively researched essay from Arun Starkey of Far Out Magazine contends that much of the hatred "is self-inflicted." They're working-class boys from middle-of-nowhere Alberta who skyrocketed to global fame from playing in punk clubs and empty rec halls, and Chad has said some very dumb things in interviews, like when he told Playboy in 2012 that he drank a box of beers and then fellated himself. He's been called a misogynist for the songs he's written (see: "Something in Your Mouth").

Ryan and Mike say it started in 2005 with the release of "All the Right Reasons" shooting them into the stratosphere and has been pretty much nonstop ever since. There's certainly some validity to the song content criticisms. "References to the stripper anthems and the [oral sex] and the party songs being a little vacuous, I don't think that's wrong," Mike says in the film.

At first, the blowback came from other musicians. They got signed to a metal label, Roadrunner Records, as the sole mainstream rock guys. The animosity was instant. Corey Taylor, frontman of the label's other biggest band, Slipknot, called Chad "Shaggy from 'Scooby-Doo.'"

They had seven singles off one album, so oftentimes on radio or MTV or supermarket loudspeakers, a Nickelback song would end, and maybe you'd have a tiny break and another Nickelback song would come on. "You couldn't turn the ... channel and get away from us, so I get it," Ryan said.

In the film, Ryan tells fans not to worry about sticking up for them. Off-camera, he's more concerned about how hatred of Nickelback has been used as a tactic to shame fans, to scare them into not being open about their likes and dislikes for fear of recrimination. It's been going on for years. In 2012, an Occupy protester held up a sign saying, "Rahm Emanuel likes Nickelback" -- essentially shorthand for saying the embattled then-mayor of Chicago was completely out of touch and has terrible taste in music. Emanuel clarified in an email that he does not like the band.

"It's like, that's the final straw. I do not like Nickelback," Ryan said.

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What does hate of that intensity do to a band over time?

"I think it created a level of fear in our group of almost every decision," Mike said.

"Intense apprehension ... ," Ryan said.

The biggest casualty was print press. "Chad just stopped," Ryan said. This seems to have happened after Ian Winwood wrote an article for Kerrang! titled "Chad Kroeger, what a c***."

"When you do a thing and every time you get smacked, you start going, 'Hmm ... maybe I shouldn't do that,'" Mike said.

But there's also something coded in the hatred that is being projected when someone gets shamed for liking Nickelback. "I think it's saying, 'You're lowbrow,'" Ryan said. "We've kind of been tagged as a working-class, blue-collar band."

"I mean, honestly, it's kind of where we come from," Mike said.

They take it as a compliment; it sounds like saying they're the people's band. "My feeling is everyone's welcome at a Nickelback show," Ryan said. "Chad's line was like, 'There's lots of room on the bandwagon.'"

The real crux of the hatred, said Mike, might be that people think they're simply too unremarkable to be this ubiquitous. "I think there is an element to some of the vitriol that I think people look at us and they say, 'Why these guys?' You know, 'Why should they be famous? Why should everybody like their music? Why do they deserve that?'" he said. "'They're just regular guys. They don't look like David Bowie. They're not The Beatles. What makes them so special?'"

Recently, though, they've been feeling a thaw. "I feel like the teeth are kind of getting put away a bit," Ryan said.

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Go to their shows, said Jones, and you'll notice a whole new demographic is there. They've seen "She Keeps Me Up," a single that went nowhere in 2015, since blow up on Spotify after TikTok embraced it. When The Lottery Winners turned "Rockstar" into a TikTok sea shanty, the band got in on the fun and recorded another video with them, which went viral. "I think it's a younger generation going, 'People hated these guys. I don't get it,'" Mike said. "They don't get it because they didn't live through it."

Mike said tickets for their 53-city North American tour -- which stops at North Little Rock's Simmons Bank Arena on Monday -- are selling well. They just announced they're performing at Stagecoach for the first time in April 2024, alongside Morgan Wallen, Post Malone and Diplo.

One theory for their resurgence is that the hate became so mainstream that liking Nickelback actually became an act of defiance. "I feel like when more people started to hate them, I started to love them even more," said Abtin Masseratagah, a 28-year-old from Toronto who came to the documentary premiere. "Me and my sister were like, 'Yo, they're sick.'"

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