You know 3 Doors Down. Even if you think you don't, you do. You probably hear one of their hits every time you turn on a radio. First breaking the sound barriers with "Kryptonite," a song the unschooled masses still associate with Superman, these guys have been screaming along with an enormity of success that is mind-bending.
It is also of note that several of the songs off that same first CD were drummed up - literally - by a 15-year-old Brad Arnold. Delving more deeply, the very question inherent in "Kryptonite" can be viewed as a prophecy of sorts. Intense stuff.
On the day we caught up with Brad, he had left his serious facade in a cupboard, broken out the hometown Southern lilt, met us with a genuinely endearing humor and personality, and gave us a candid look into the semi-charmed life of a rock star.
Shawna Ortega (Songfacts): Hi Brad. How are you doing today?
Brad: You know what? I'm actually down in Mississippi today. I'm down here and just got done cutting up tuna. (laughing) Me and my bass player, we went tuna fishing yesterday and I caught a 150lb tuna, and I've been cutting it up all day long. That was a big fish.
SF: How hard was that to haul in?
Brad: It took me an hour and 40 minutes to reel him in. And you know what? I was done. When he was done, I was done.
SF: My God.
Brad: That's what I said.
SF: (laughing) I'm just trying to picture 150lbs - that's bigger than me.
Brad: It's almost bigger than me. (laughing) That's what I said in the boat, I was like, “Where did it come from?” You catch them in about 300 feet of water, and they're the best divers. And they'll come up and you think, Oh goodness, somebody catch him! Because you just hook ‘em and pull ‘em in, and there's like a hook on the end of a stick. And... just out of reach… and he'd dive, I mean, he'd take another thousand feet of line. I was like, I gotta reel this thing - and you don't just reel it in, and it ain't like it just takes a little while to reel that much line in. You're fighting to get three feet of line, and then he takes 5 feet. And you're like, "this is going backwards." (laughing) It's so hard. But it's so fun when you finally get him in there.
SF: I just can't even imagine. What do you do with all of that meat?
Brad: I live up in Nashville and I don't get to come back down here that much, but my parents still live down here on the Pascagoula River and I have a little camp down here beside theirs. So tonight we're going to have a big grilling of it, and me and another buddy of mine, we cut it into big pretty steaks. Big ole pretty steaks. And I just vacuum seal ‘em. You put ‘em in the freezer and they'll last for months. I like sushi, so I always let them thaw out, and just come in at night and chop it up real thin, put me some wasabi and some soy on there and go to town.
SF: A man that can cook! Congratulations on that catch.
Brad: Thank you. You know what? By the time I reeled him in, I felt like somebody should tell me congratulations. (laughs)
SF: Yeah, you should have a whole crowd waiting for you on the docks, on their knees bowing to you.
Brad: No, they're all out on the docks wanting some meat. (laughing)
SF: They're holding their plates out and their forks. Nice. (laughing) Okay, Brad, I've got to confess, I'm surprised that you have such a Southern accent going on. I did not expect that.
Brad: (laughs) Thank you. I'm from about as far south as you can go without getting wet. I'm from a town called Escatawpa, Mississippi. And that is about 20 miles east of Biloxi, and maybe 20 miles west of Mobile, Alabama. Right down on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. But I live up in Nashville.
SF: Nashville is the place to go. In Nashville you can walk down the street and you don't get mobbed by people.
Brad: Yeah, you don't. So many people live there, I'm more likely probably to go up and ask somebody for their autograph then have somebody want mine. (laughs) You know, it's such a good place. It's full of artists, and it is absolutely full of talent. And I'll tell you, I love living up there. You can write with a different person every day, or you can not write at all. And it's good people there, it's just a good vibe. It's a city without being so city-like. I tell you, it works out, also, to be a big advantage when we're on tour, because it's a lot more central than south Mississippi. You've got 2 or 3 days off and you're in southern Ohio, you can slide down to Nashville for a couple of days, easy, and spend ‘em at home. It really helps to break up those two or three month tours if you can just come home for two or three days every two or three weeks. That's fine with me.
SF: Did you ever consider doing a "writers in the round" at the Bluebird or a place like that?
Brad: I would like to do that. But I like going and hearing those things a lot more than I like doing them, because those guys just smoke me. I can't play the guitar, so I'd either have to have my guitar player there, or I'd just have to sing a capella. Unless they have a drum set or something. But those writer-in-the-round things are amazing.
SF: Okay, down to business.
Brad: I think I can handle it.
SF: I think you can. You sound very energetic. Can we talk about “Loser”?
Brad: “Loser” was about one of my buddies growing up when I was a teenager. I actually wasn't telling him he was a loser, but me and him come from a good family - and I love my family - and he was from an equally… well, I ain't gonna put ‘em equal with my family (laughs) but he was from a good family, too. But when we were teenagers, he got kind of mixed up in cocaine and stuff. And that song wasn't me calling him a loser, but it was how I think he viewed himself through the cloak of that drug. It's kind of like his own self doubt. And thankfully he's doing a lot better now. I get a lot of people that really can identify that song with their life in some way. And I think everybody feels like that every now and then.
SF: Does he know this song is about him?
Brad: No. I didn't tell him. I would never tell him. I wouldn't want him to think I was calling him a loser.
SF: Do you guys still talk at all?
Brad: You know what? I haven't probably seen him in 10 years or so. I haven't seen that boy in a long time.
SF: Maybe it's better that way.
Brad: It might be. I think he just moved off and I don't think he comes around anymore. But the idea of the song - breathing right away and all that - it's really in the chorus, talking about the physical act of doing the drug, and how the physical act makes you feel. I could identify with it, because I've done it a couple of times when I was a teenager, I just never did it like he did it. And I wouldn't ever do it again. So I knew how it made me feel, and that was always one of those things with me that I could feel that monkey pulling, and I was like, Uh-uh. And a lot of people just couldn't. The verse is really about the physical act of taking the drug, and the choruses are kind of looking for the outcome, the inevitability of sooner or later it's gonna kill you.
SF: Okay. Let me ask you about "Be Like That."
Brad: "Be Like That” is strange, because I wrote the verses and the choruses at two completely different times, and I couldn't think of the verse for the chorus, or the chorus for the verse. I always sing in my vehicle on my way home from band practice, and one night I was sitting there singing, and I put those two together, and I was like, Duh. And like I said, I don't play guitar at all. But I can just like sit down and chicken peck a note out or something. I went home and got a three chord structure going for the melody of it, and took it to practice the next day. I asked Chris to make something out of it, and he came back the next day and he had it, and it just went from there. But that song is just really about following your dreams. And I know everybody has ‘em. It's not just about following your dreams, though. It's a little bit about dreams that you've missed, and a little notion of regret, also.
SF: The very first verse in that, you're talking about how he spends his nights in California watching… and then at the very end of that first verse, “he looks up with a little smile at me, and he says…” That sounds like somebody that you know, that you're talking about somebody that you know who looked at you and said that. Is it?
Brad: No. It's just kind of an idea. And it's kind of weird. Maybe it doesn't have a perfect string full of lyrics in that first verse, and for me I've never thought it had a perfect one, because it's almost suggesting that it's an older person, but in a lot of ways it's kind of suggesting it's a younger person. But I left it like that because I want things to be like that. I want it to be interpreted a lot of different ways. I used to do that when I would write lyrics - I don't do it so much anymore, but I tried to do every line to where it could be taken more than one way. And my thought process behind that was, Well, if I can get two meanings out of it, then there are countless meanings out there for somebody else to apply it to their own life.
I've said it a million times, but it really is true: the difference in a good song and a great song, to me, is the difference in a good book and a good movie. They're both telling you the same story. They both have the same outcome. But whereas the movie is telling you exactly what to see and be heard, the book lets you see whatever your mind comes up with. And it makes it a lot more applicable to your life in a lot of ways.
SF: Let's go back into the past. And I know that you've talked about this one a lot. “Kryptonite.” You wrote that in math class?
Brad: I did. I think I was actually 15 when I wrote that song. And that's like the third or fourth song I ever wrote, like, period. That skippy little drumbeat was just me beating on my desk. That's the beat we almost played, too, just kind of drumming, just skipping along with it. And I was so bad in math. (laughs) I'm telling you. Thank God for the little dude in front of me. That dude deserves a credit on the album. (laughing) But my teacher knew I was not good, not paying attention, but he just kind of let me go. But yeah, I wrote that song, and a few more in there. I believe I wrote the lyrics to some others in that same class. “Life Of My Own,"… I wrote probably about half of that Better Life album in that math class. That song, seems like it's really just kind of like asking a question. Its question is kind of a strange one. It's not just asking, “If I fall down, will you be there for me?” Because it's easy to be there for someone when they're down. But it's not always easy to be there for somebody when they're doing good. And that's the question it's asking. It's like, “If I go crazy, will you still call me Superman?” It's asking, “If I'm down, will you still be there for me?” But at the same time, “If I'm alive and well, will you be there holding my hand?” That's kind of asking, “If I'm doing good, will you be there for me? Will you not be jealous of me?” That's the basic question that song's asking, and maybe throughout the years of singing that song, I might have come up with more meanings for it than it actually might have originally had. (laughing)
SF: That sounds exceptionally deep for 15.
Brad: But you know what? That's something that's always stuck with me: every 15-year-old has those questions in their head. They might not know quite how to say it, or they might not feel like it's acceptable to say something. And the biggest thing that I've had as an artist is to be able to say something, and after I say it, it's okay. After an artist says it, if a rock star says it, okay, it's fine. That really boils down to why music inspires pop culture so much: because artists push the envelope. They go out on a limb to say something else. But it also comes with responsibility, you gotta watch what you say, because kids listen. And I try to watch what I say, too.
SF: Do you have kids?
Brad: I don't. Not yet. I have a lot of nieces of nephews, but not kids yet.
SF: Well, I do, and I appreciate that attitude.
Brad: I think more artists ought to do it, personally. They shouldn't just blurt out whatever comes to their mind.
SF: The line in “Kryptonite,” the dark side of the moon, is that a reference to the Pink Floyd album?
Brad: It wasn't. That is just a happenstance line. That song is so little about Superman. It's just really about that question. That's just something that everybody can identify with. And it's got that line in there, and all it was, was Superman - I'm not sure which part Superman it was, it might have been the first one - and they're talking about something going to the dark side… he's fighting these people in space, it's like they're going around to the dark side of the moon. And I was like, “What?!” And it was after I wrote that song. That was weird.
SF: People go really deep into your songs.
Brad: Sometimes I've been thoroughly surprised how deep people go.
SF: Yeah, but you like it when people interpret your stuff differently.
Brad: I definitely do.
SF: I think that's really cool. Which is actually a good seque… I was gonna ask you about “Pages.”
Brad: Off the new record?
SF: Yeah. And by the way, I did a lot of research on you, Brad. I probably know more about you right now than you know about yourself. (laughing)
Brad: Awesome. I hate when somebody asks me, “Could I just ask where you got the name of your band?” Look it up on Wikipedia. You know what I mean? (laughs)
SF: (laughing) Oh my God. You're human. I like that. “Pages” is exactly that, it's about your writing, and then people interpreting it?
Brad: It is. It's about pouring your heart onto a page, and how it leaves you there just vulnerable. How it leaves you waiting for somebody to maybe even care to read what you wrote. And then if they read it, do they really see it? And if they see it, do they relate? And is it comfortable for them? Or is it a crutch for them? It seems like sometimes you hold up a lot of weight with what you say. I mean, you're obligated to. But that song is kind of griping about being a songwriter in a way (laughing). But it's a beautiful thing that we do: you pour your heart out for everybody to see it. And I don't mind anybody looking at my heart. A lot of people like that song and that introspective view.
SF: Have you ever been frustrated when you have read things that people may interpret about any of your songs?
Brad: Not so much. Sometimes they're right and wrong… but sometimes they're a lot closer to right than they are wrong, without actually knowing what the song is about. And I always just find it really, really interesting.
SF: But you've never read something and gone, “Oh, my God, you're kidding. They actually thought that?”
Brad: (laughs) Not so much. My nephew - he was a lot younger then - but when we were on tour for the Better Life record, I'd be standing there singing "Loser" trying my best because I'd heard him sing it once, and his words to it were, "you're getting closer to pushing me off the lobster legs." So I'd be standing there for the next 6 months, I mean, every time I played that song, I'm trying not to sing "you're pushing me off the lobster legs." For six months. That's the more frustrating interpretation that I'm talking about.
SF: (laughing) That's hysterical! How old was he when that happened?
Brad: Oh, shoot, he was probably 3 or 4. He's always been a little cat like that. He's just the funniest little dude.
Rock stars: they're just like us. With the noted exception that when they get married and divorced, they write hit songs about it. Then they get to re-visit those harsh memories every night on stage in front of thousands of adoring (if unknowing) fans. When it's what you do for a living, it's all in a day's work. Slap on a smile and ride the wave.
There's also the necessary perk of getting to go undercover at Wal-Mart.
SF: I wanted to hit a couple of your big hits. You've got so many hits.
Brad: Thank God for it.
SF: It's crazy to me, because a lot of times I will hear your stuff on the radio, and I don't even know it's you.
Brad: I get that more than you know. And I like it, because I care absolutely nothing about fame. I like the fact that we can go out and be successful, and we can still go to Wal-Mart. Like, in my hometown, I think, Okay, that's one Wal-Mart I can't go to! Pull the hat down and like, “Argh!! I don't see you! I don't see you!” (laughing) But I like the fact that people sometimes don't know me, and then if they say, “What band do you play for?” And I tell ‘em. And they're like, “Oh, what songs y'all singing?” And they might or might not know “Kryptonite” and some of that stuff. But you throw out “Here Without You” and things like that, they're like, “You sing that?” I'm like, “Yup.” They're like, “Wow.”
SF: Talk to me about “Here Without You” then.
Brad: “Here Without You” was a song that I wrote for my now-ex-wife. I didn't write it for her, I guess, she was just mainly the inspiration for the thought process. And it was really kind of about all of us, in a way. The song's about being away from someone, or missing them. And it really doesn't matter if you're here without them for all day or all month. It's about the loneliness and missing of somebody. But in a way, people take that as a little bit of a sad song, and I kind of meant it as a happy song, because it's talking about being here without you, but she's still with me in my dreams. And tonight, it's only you and me, so the song was really about that dream. And being in a state of peace, because you've got that person there with you in your sleep. In that way I kind of meant for it to be a little bit of a happy song.
SF: I've always interpreted it - there we go, interpretation - I've always heard it as a positive thing. I've never heard it as a negative song.
SF: Interesting. Can you tell me about the line, “And when the last one falls, when it's all said and done…” What does that mean, “the last one falls”?
Brad: When everything is over here, when the world falls apart, I'll still be loving you.
SF: Oh, got it.
Brad: And, boy was I wrong. (laughing) That's so bad. That is so bad.
SF: You're funny. We've all been there, though. It's okay. Talk to me about “It's Not My Time.”
Brad: “It's Not My Time” is a song about being resilient. It's a song about going against the grain and going against the world when the world's trying to push you down, or take you out. It's about never giving up and not letting it get you down and just going through it.
Do you remember the movie Poseidon that came out a couple of years ago? With like Fergie in it and all them? Well, I wrote that song for that movie. It was gonna be a track on that movie, in that they're trying to escape their death, and there's a ship sinking. They showed me like a 30-second clip of the movie, and I went and wrote that song from it. They wound up not wanting it, so I was like, Cool! We'll keep it. And that's actually the second song off a film like that. I wrote “Let Me Go” off of Seventeen Days for Spiderman, and they didn't want it, so we kept it.
SF: Too bad for them.
Brad: I'm glad. I had no problem with it.
SF: Can you tell me where the video was shot?
Brad: That was shot in Cincinnati, Ohio. Because Cincinnati has a big city look and a lot of different cityscapes, but at the same time without a lot of the big cities' kind of red tape. You try to shoot that video in New York it'd take you a month and cost you ten million dollars. But in Cincinnati we shot it all in three days. We shot our part in one day. But normally it's a lot harder, because normally you have a story line, but you just have one video set up that the band's performing in. But we shot six places that day, and it didn't wind up showing all of them. But that guy - we had it easy - that guy, all the stuff he's doing, there's no special effects, and there's no pads. I mean, when there was a pad, it was like a little pad. All the flips and stuff, he had to do them three and four times. And those camera guys, they're like, that dude is 35 years old, he is not gonna be walking. They said it was hard core.
(click here to see the video in a new window) SF: It looks it.
Brad: Yeah, it makes my knees hurt just watching it.
SF: I've noticed you guys seem to be really into making videos. I'm talking put-together nice little movies for all of your songs. And I know a lot of songwriters, a lot of bands out there just hate that aspect of it. Do you guys do that because you're told to do that? Or do you say, “Wow, I love making these little movies, this is great”?
Brad: You know, I think it's just been a blessing to us that we've been involved with a lot of good directors that have had that vision, because honestly, I am so bad at coming up with these things, like “Away From The Sun” is the only video treatment that I've ever written. I wrote that one and I got on the phone, and I had a vision in my head of what I wanted to see in that video, and the director just made it happen. That kid in the “Away From The Sun” video is actually my nephew. He's never done any acting before or since. But he did a great job on that video, and I'm proud of him. And he got the stuff at school, like the next school year: "Ha! You made a video!" It was funny. And you know, the “Citizen Soldier” stuff and Antoine Fuqua, who directed Training Day, directed that video. Antoine's great for all kinds of stuff. You could really see the difference in a real movie director doing it. It was just a great experience, and it turned out to be in a great project.
SF: That particular one - we're talking “Citizen Soldier” - my first experience with that was on the big movie screen.
Brad: Yeah, that's what we wrote the song for. They wanted like a Minority Report video that showed the future of the National Guard, it was an original video treatment. I wrote the song “Citizen Soldier” kind of to it, and they wound up changing the video around to go with the song more. Antoine did that, and he did a real good job on it. I've never seen it in the movies, as much as it's played. I've seen it once, at like the little premiere party we had for it. That was it. That was on a pretty small screen, actually. I always tried to get there early and stuff, and I always miss it. (laughing)
SF: “When I'm Gone.”
Brad: “When I'm Gone”...it's really kind of about when I'm gone. And it's asking a question, just please love me when I'm gone. And not just like when I'm dead and gone, but when I'm gonna come back. But at the same time it's about unconditional love. It's a lot of different statements, it's asking of the person in that song. And it's like the fulfillment of those different needs for every situation that it mentions. So I guess that song is about needing someone to be there for you unconditionally, and when you're gone.
SF: What's an education x-ray?
Brad: You know what that's talking about? Like, when kids… their mom and dad's quick to take them to a psychologist or something, and it's like talking about their education x-ray trying to look into you. It's like, “if your education x-ray cannot see under my skin, I'm not gonna tell you a damn thing that I wouldn't tell my friends.” You know what I'm saying?
SF: Oh, that's perfect! I would have never guessed that. I like that.
Brad: Thank you.
SF: Okay, you brought up that your nephew was in “Away From The Sun,” you did the video treatment for that. Can you tell me about that song?
Brad: “Away From The Sun” is just about those days. A really important little phrase is at the beginning of the chorus, it says, “Now again I found myself so far down.” It's like, yet again I've fallen. It's not like just once you're in a hole, it's like, here I am again. You watch the kid in the video, it's over and over he's at the bottom again. It's like every time he crawls back up someone just pushes him down. And for about a two-to-three year period in my life, I really felt like that. I didn't even feel like climbing up the hill anymore, because every time I climbed up somebody was gonna push me back down it. That song is a reflection of that time period in my life. And thank God it's over. But I just felt away from the sun.
SF: And when was that time period? Was that during your divorce?
Brad: No, it should have been. (laughs)
SF: Onward! “Pop Song.”
Brad: Oh, “Pop Song” was just like a good angry song. “Pop Song” is one of the most angry songs I've ever written. It's, “I just can't go on with you, because I can't get up, you keep knocking me down.”
SF: That's not directed at like a management company or a record producer, a label?
Brad: Um, no. (pause) Maybe a little bit of the idea of it could be just kind of aimed at whoever…
SF: Okay, we won't get you in trouble. Are you guys fixin' to come out with another CD soon?
Brad: We've got the self-titled one (released May, 2008), and I know it's kind of a little bit confusing, because it's self-titled. Most people have their first album be their self-titled one. That's the one with “Not My Time.” But it's been out since last May, and we are going to actually start writing a new one this coming-up month, but then we're going to tour off this last one throughout the summer. And then after summer we're going to go back into the studio and record that one, and just try to never skip a beat of touring, really. A lot of bands go on tour to promote their records. We just make records so we can go on tour.
SF: I've got a question that I've been wanting to ask somebody, and you seem like a perfect person to ask.
Brad: (hesitantly laughing) All right.
SF: Artists/writers say, “The band is gonna get together and sit down and write for this record,” or “as we were writing for this record…” But I find that a lot of songs come from years ago. So how does it work that you just go and sit down and write for a particular record?
Brad: You know, we just go sit down and write songs. We've never really written a song for a record. We just try to make all the songs on the record different. Not all about the same thing. Although because they're gonna tend to be directed in the same vibe or thought process a little bit, because you're in a similar place, or you're in a particular time in your life, the songs tend to follow that vibe. I love when they all don't sound the same, and I love when they're all a little different. But we just sit down and write and however it comes out is how it comes out.
SF: But a lot of times you bring in stuff that you've had for a while, right? And you present it, and say, “How about this one?”
Brad: We used to do that, and then we kind of stopped. But like with “Citizen Soldier,” that music was written during the Away From The Sun writing process, years ago. But that's the one time that we've brought something back. And typically, if we don't use it, we just say, “If it was really good, we would have used it.” We don't throw it away, but we'd rather use something new.
SF: Right. Well, I've got an idea for a song for you. (laughing) I was just reading in my Newsweek about the Pakistani proverb about three cups of tea, have you heard this?
SF: On the first cup of tea you have together, you are a stranger. On the second, you are a guest. By the third cup, you're family. I said, “You need to write a song about three cups of tea.”