This week, Billboard is publishing a series of lists and articles celebrating the music of 20 years ago. Our 2001 Week continues with Nickelback’s Chad Kroeger taking us through a look back at his band’s breakthrough smash “How You Remind Me” — one of the biggest hits from a very different time for rock music in the pop mainstream.
Without question, 2001 was the year Nickelback broke.
The Canadian grunge band had formed in 1995, originally a quartet of frontman Chad Kroeger, his brothers Mike (bass) and Brandon (drums, though he left in 1998), and guitarist Ryan Peake, self-releasing an EP, 1996’s Hersher, and two full-length albums, 1996’s Curb and 1999’s The State. It was enough for the band to build a small, but devoted following as a touring act.
“When I first heard [1998’s] “Leader of Men” and saw them play live in a Vancouver club, the whole room was singing along with lighters in the air,” remembers Ron Burman, former A&R at Roadrunner Records. “I got goosebumps and knew I had to sign them. They had that special IT quality [and] fortunately, they proved me right.”
Still, they spent the first half-decade of their career like any DIY punk band, “playing for no money, sleeping in vans, not showering for three days at a time,” Kroeger tells Billboard of building an audience through word of mouth. “You had to really want to be out there. And Canada isn’t like America — you can’t just drive for two hours and be in another city. You’re doing nine–hour, ten–hour, sometimes 16–hour stretches.”
If it sounds like another lifetime, that’s because it was – in 2001, Nickelback would sign to EMI and Roadrunner Records (Slipknot, Sepultura) and release Silver Side Up that September 11. The group’s third full-length album was recorded in just five weeks, and led by one of the biggest rock radio singles of all time: “How You Remind Me.”
The song, a mid-tempo power-ballad about a relationship on the outs – a far cry from the album’s other singles, like “Never Again,” a metallic treatise on domestic violence, or “Too Bad,” which centers absent fathers – was an instant hit, peaking at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 that same year. In 2002, it was Grammy nominated for Record of the Year. Eventually “How You Remind Me” became the most-played radio song of the entire decade — spun over 1.2 million times since its 2001 release — regardless of genre. The band moved from clubs to arenas, passenger vans to tour buses. They had made it.
From there, the ascent to stardom was swift: Silver Side Up ultimately went 6x platinum — largely thanks to the ubiquity of its lead single, but also the album’s moody melodies and chunky chord progressions. which proved to be Nickelback’s calling card in later singles, like “Photograph” (which peaked at No. 2 on the Hot 100) and “Rockstar” (No. 6.) But it all started with “How You Remind Me.”
“To be honest, I got chills when the band played it for me,” Burman says of hearing “How You Remind Me” for the first time. “It was a first listen, and I remember saying, ‘Damn, that’s a big song, it is going to be a hit.’ Little did I know how big it would ultimately become. I mean, HUGE!… There was a period I would get in the car and almost any station I’d hit on the radio you’d hear the song, whether it was rock, active rock, alt rock, hot AC, AC, pop, etc. I think even some urban and country stations played it.”
Over Zoom from his home in Vancouver, B.C., Kroeger spoke to Billboard about “How You Remind Me,” Nickelback’s career-defining hit, the rock music landscape of the early 2000s, and just what it is like to become the “longest overnight success in the world,” 20 years removed from that “night.”
Rumor has it [bassist] Mike [Kroeger] wanted “Never Again” to be the lead single instead of “How You Remind Me.” Is that true?
That’s why we don’t let Mike pick singles. [Laughs.] I think the first three songs that were in the category for first single were “Too Bad,” “Never Again,” and “How You Remind Me.” We sent them to the label and there was an unequivocal ,“It’s going to be ‘How You Remind Me’ first. We think we have something special here.” And everyone just kept saying, “Your life’s about to change.” We had no idea how much, but they were right.
What a different career you would’ve had! “Never Again” is so heavy in comparison.
Yeah, but that’s where Mike’s taste lies. He likes really, really heavy music. He loves [extreme metal band] Meshuggah, everything in that vein. It makes sense that he would want to go with the heaviest song as the leadoff single. The label and his bandmates had other things in mind.
Do you remember writing “How You Remind Me”? Where did you write it?
I had the first four lines of the song written down in this black leather book that I was constantly jotting ideas into. I was living with a girl [in Vancouver] at the time. We had been living together for a while, something like two-and-a-half years. We got into a fight about something stupid, like what most people fight about. I went downstairs [to the basement] and I turned on my PA system.
I would sing into a PA — there was an actual microphone in front of me — I wasn’t just singing into the room, so it felt like I was really delivering the song. I wanted it to be really loud so she could hear everything I was saying. I had written the second verse, the whole “Cause living with me must have damn near killed you,” [and] when it got to that part, I really wanted her to hear it. Even the chorus… I thought that [song] was my best revenge after a really s—tty argument.
Instead of her getting the point, she turns to me and goes, “Whatever song you’re working on downstairs, it’s great.”
“You kind of missed the point here, but I’m glad you like it.” And she was like, “Yeah, I liked it.”
It’s funny, even if it was meant to be some kind of revenge, it doesn’t sound that way. The song is never vicious.
It wasn’t supposed to be a vengeful anthem; it was supposed to be what it was. I think it always felt like that in the moment, because we just had an argument, and I felt like striking back. But I find it to be a sarcastic look at relationships. [Like the line] “Are we having fun yet?” That’s full sarcasm. And then I say “Yet, yet, yet, no, no.” A lot of people think I’m saying, “Yeah, Yeah, Yeah,” but I’m repeating “Yet.”
The folklore is that you wrote “How You Remind Me” in ten minutes. Is that just a juicy rock and roll story?
It was probably a little bit longer than ten minutes, but it wasn’t some six–month labor. It was very quick. The only thing that wasn’t really there [right away] is the outro. We flipped the chords around at the end; we played them in a backwards order. That’s an idea [guitarist] Ryan [Peake] had. And then there’s the big stop in the third chorus—“For handing you a heart worth breaking”—that came to fruition during the pre-production session before we went into the studio to record. So, not too much of a change, but a couple little tweaks that definitely made the song better. That big, climatic break, I think everybody loves that one.
Other than that, it was done in the basement. Somewhere between 45 minutes and an hour, I had the whole thing fleshed out: lyrics, melody, chords, the whole nine yards.
I’m amazed that the break was a last minute addition — it’s the hardest hitting moment. It’s, like, sternum shaking. Who is responsible for that?
That’s the one that gets you! I think it was our drum tech, Morgan.
[Laughs.] It’s like, “Well that’s disappointing!” In pre-production, you play things over and over and over again. You want to make sure everything is perfect because when you go into record, studio time is expensive. You don’t want to be pissing around with arrangement changes, melody changes, lyric changes — it’s just way too expensive, and we didn’t have the change. And when you’re playing it that many times, every single time you play it, someone’s got a new idea. “Try this, try this, try this.” Some of them would work; some of them wouldn’t work.
At some point Morgan — I’m pretty sure it was Morgan — said, “You guys should just do a stop right here and sing that line.” The second we tried it, everyone was like, “All right. That’s fantastic.” And that stayed in and made it through to the recording process. Now you get to shake your sternum while singing along to it.
You said you wrote the four opening lines first. “Never made it as a wise man/ I couldn’t cut it as a poor man stealing/ Tired of living like a blind man/ I’m sick of sight without a sense of feeling.” What’s the meaning behind that?
Because the song is “this is how you remind me of who I really am” – it’s pretty self-deprecating, right? It felt great to start off with “never made It as a wise man,” because it is almost as though you are repeating the words that [a soon to be ex is] saying to you. It’s almost like, “You’re not that smart, you couldn’t even make it as a thief, you’re walking through life blindly without really understanding the way you should be living your life.” That plays into “I’m sick of sight without a sense of feeling.”
It’s almost like, “love, life, happiness — you’re not living life the way you should be, and all those things… “here’s more of a void in your life than there are those things.” So when it gets to the end, “This is how you remind me of who I really am,” it’s like you’re holding up a mirror. You’re pointing out all the things you don’t like about yourself, and the last thing that you need is someone else doing it for you.
It’s very clever — even the “sick of sight without a sense,” after “blind man,” because sight is a physical sense… it’s like a poetic device.
Thank you. I’m also a big fan of alliteration — the three “S”s.
How about “Cause living with me must have damn near killed you”? You were living with your partner at the time. Did you end up moving out?
I had just purchased the house with my first publishing check, so thankfully I didn’t have to move out.
Do you consider “How You Remind Me” to be the signature, landmark Nickelback song?
It really does depends on who you are talking to. You could be standing in a conversation and someone will say, “Nope, hands down, ‘Rockstar,’ 100 percent.” Ten minutes later, you could be in a conversation with someone else and they’ll say, “No, it’s ‘Burn It To The Ground.’” It just all comes down to what your favorite kind of music is, because we do write and record a lot of different styles of music, from ballads all the way into metal.
That’s a tricky one. I’d say, if you’re standing on the street corner with a microphone, doing the late–night talk host questionnaire, just stopping randoms, it would probably be “Rockstar” or “How You Remind Me.”
How do you view the song? Is it the pivotal, career-making moment where everything changed?
Yeah. That’s absolutely it. We went from playing clubs, playing half-sold out theaters to a sold-out, worldwide arena tour. When you start traveling around the world, and even before the tour starts [your label] says, “What do you want to do production–wise? Because you can do anything you want, because the tickets are already sold,” that’s a wonderful feeling. All of the sudden, the wheels start turning, the band gets together in the dressing room and everyone starts rubbing their hands together quickly, going, “Okay. What do you guys want to do?”
And the first thing I said was, “I want pyro. I want huge lights. I want everything. I want a very entertaining show. I want people to show up like, ‘I thought the music was okay before I got to the show,’ but I want them completely entertained by the time they leave. I want every single person that leaves to have a smile on their face, saying, ‘That was way better than I thought it was going to be. They’ve absolutely exceeded all of my expectations and I will come back and see that band whenever they come back to town.’” I’ve always wanted that to be the case.
Who came up with the music video for “How You Remind Me”? At the end, you’re seen playing in a small venue or warehouse or something, and by the time it came out, Nickelback was already playing arenas. Was it an homage to those early days?
That one, I can’t tell you. I have no idea. There’s this girl, and she’s constantly disappearing. It didn’t take us long before we were like, “Let’s start coming up with our own treatments.” So many of our songs lend themselves to these little mini movies. The stories tell themselves for any director to get behind the camera and shoot the thing. I always find that when we come up with stuff ourselves, we tend to get the best moments. Especially if you have the ability to go for that tear-jerker moment. I like going for that every single time. If you can evoke an involuntarily emotional response from someone, in your music or your video, then you’re absolutely doing your job as an entertainer.
You wrote the song to have some emotive quality, why not do the same in a new medium — a narrative music video?
Yeah, I don’t think there’s a tear-jerking moment in the “How You Remind Me” video. [Laughs.] But it is what it is. I’ve got my very long hair, as people called it “my Jesus Christ look,” my long curly hair. It was something. It was definitely… something.
Have you spoken to the ex who inspired the song/disappearing woman in the video?
I have bumped into her very, very infrequently. It’s just “Hi, how are you?”
So you would say she does not remind you of who you really are… anymore.
Nope. It was 22 years ago. [Laughs.] Not the girl I dated for a while 22 years ago. I’ve lived no less than three-and-a-half lifetimes since then.
Was there a moment when you realized “How You Remind Me” was massive?
The epiphany moment came when we were traveling overseas. We’d go to Japan and watch all these fans singing the words back to us. That’s when it really starts to click in, “This song is everywhere.” When a song like that starts to break records and people are telling you, “Oh, you just broke another record with this song,” it’s an indescribable feeling.
Was there a particular record you broke that stands out?
When they said that “How You Remind Me” is literally playing continuously throughout the United States because every time the song stops on one radio station, it already started on another radio station in the country. It was continually playing for something like six or eight months. I can’t remember. We killed a lot of brain cells, whenever the song reached some goal like that. You’re cracking a lot of champagne. There are a lot of hooray moments, for sure.
At the time, maybe even prior to recording “How You Remind Me,” did it feel like your band was at a crossroads? There’s some mythology in a third album: the first is your intro, the second has the pressure of sustaining whatever interest the first created, and the third is catharsis; it’s the moment you and your music has arrived. Obviously for Nickelback, it was the moment you exploded globally.
I don’t know if I had the “it is now or never” moment [with Silver Side Up] – we all had the “we only have five weeks to do the best we can.” We believed in the songs; we believed in what we wrote. By the time it was all mixed and mastered, we were looking at each other and going, “This is by far the best work we’ve ever done,” because that was the first record we ever made when we were no longer independent. It’s just head and shoulders above everything we had ever recorded before.
As a creative person, that was a moment of “Okay, this is just the tip of the iceberg of what we can create.” I couldn’t wait to get at the helm and start producing our own records, and never having to say, “Okay, good enough, we’re running out of time.” I absolutely detested that. I wanted everything to be great. I didn’t want good enough: “Good enough” is a term you never want to use when you’re recording music, or when you’re creating something that you already deem as very precious to you.
I actually bought all the studio gear from that studio. I bought the board, everything. I built the studio at my house, so we never, ever had to do that again. And it drastically reduced my commute. [Laughs.]
What was the rock landscape like around the time of “How You Remind Me”? In my mind, 2000 was the year of Creed and 3 Doors Down. Did you feel like an underdog? For many, that era was dominated by pop and, like, Eminem.
I still feel like an underdog, it’s funny. The early 2000s were a great time to be making rock and roll, in the same way the ‘70s were a great time for rock bands. Labels just couldn’t stop signing rock bands. Rock festivals were gargantuan. It was a great time to be a singer in the rock band. And there were a lot of rock bands. Rock was at a pinnacle. Country music was nowhere to be seen and nowhere to be found.
And how cyclical is music that now, rock bands are just dying on the vine left, right and center! Rock stations are folding up shop and switching to talk radio or sports radio. Country music is the biggest genre in the world right now, it feels like. But at the start of the 2000s, it was the complete opposite, and rock was totally dominating.
Your album was released on September 11, too, which is unfortunate timing. Do you remember there being concern at the label, or in the music industry in general?
We woke up that day and we were glued to the TV just like everybody else was across the entire globe. We were on the tour bus, driving through Pennsylvania an hour and a half South of where one of the planes crashed. Then someone on the tour bus said, “Holy shit, our record came out today.” It became a complete afterthought. It wasn’t at the forefront of anyone’s mind. Everyone just thought the world was ending.
It was a very, very strange feeling that day. But, for some reason, and I’ve heard this a lot, people seem to latch onto [“How You Remind Me”] as some sort of an anthem – even though it had to do with relationships – probably because the song has an anthemic quality to it. I’ve heard, countless times, that it’s helped someone get through a hard time around then. That always feels good, when you can help someone like that.
That makes sense — there can be something empowering about muscular, high-octane, really alive rock music, and “How You Remind Me” delivers that. I heard it a lot on U.S. military bases overseas in the years following. Do you ever tire of playing it live?
No. I look at that as a great sing-along moment. By the time we get to that big, climatic pause that you and I have referred to in this conversation, the entire crowd is screaming at the top of their lungs. I don’t even have to sing it. I can just point, and the lighting director will light up the whole crowd, and they do their thing. It’s amazing, to hear people screaming your lyrics at you. It’s the best feeling in the world.
How do you feel about “How You Remind Me” as a song today?
When you have a song that grows into what “How You Remind Me” did, it really does take on a life of its own. I hear it now and it doesn’t feel like it’s mine. It belongs to the world. And the world has heard it so many times. If you were The Eagles, and you started with “Hotel California,” you can’t just sit there and be like, “This is mine!” It’s like, “No, that song belongs to everyone. You wrote it. You gave it to the world.” The fans know every nuance of it. They know every aspect. When I hear [“How You Remind Me,”] I feel like I listen to it the same way anybody else does. I almost don’t think it’s me, to a certain extent.
It’s just part of pop culture consciousness now, having become so ubiquitous. What do you think of the ways it’s been interpreted in the years since? There’s the Avril Lavigne version, it’s on Guitar Hero… in 2018 Saturday Night Live did a delightful parody where Melissa Villaseñor plays a character who is about to die and all she wants to do is sing along to “How You Remind Me” and everyone in the room joins in, because they realize it rocks…
…I’ve never seen the skit.
Someone told me about it, and I was like, “Do I want to see it? Or do I not want to see this?” And they said, “No, no, it’s super positive.” But I still haven’t seen it.
You have to see it! Part of the joke is that everyone knows the words to the song — and this is a joke that aired 17 years after the song came out. There are so few things that are like that, right?
Ha! When a song permeates into other pop culture, it takes on a life of its own. It really does. I’ve enjoyed every aspect of it. I think about “Call Me Maybe,” Carly Rae Jepsen, that song took on a life of its own. Everybody starts doing these videos. Celebrities sing it into their phones. Those videos are all going viral. It impacts every single part of everyday life. And I’m just incredibly thankful to have had a song like “How You Remind Me” in my career, because I know so many people go their entire careers without having something like that. And so, to be lucky enough to write and record one of these things and have everybody in the world know the song, I just feel very fortunate.
What do you make of the song’s continued legacy? Did you ever expect it to be something that, you know, hangs around two decades later?
When you get those songs, it’s a great feeling. I want “Photograph,” I want “Rockstar,” I want “Burn It To The Ground,” I want all those songs to be as impactful as they can possibly be. I want people to enjoy those as long as people are going to be listening to music. I hope that music sticks around for as long as it possibly can. I’m associated with it. I don’t have children. This is as close as I can get to having a child, releasing these songs that mean a lot to me to the world.
And as long as people keep karaoke-ing “How You Remind Me” and anything else we’ve put out, that also makes me very happy. You know, I’ve gone out with celebrities I thought would never know my music and they’re like, “Let’s go karaoke!” And I’m like, “Really? Why don’t we go hit a street corner and do some acting?” [Laughs.] Then I’m sitting in the corner of a karaoke bar as people are trying to drag me up to the stage and they’re just sitting there rocking “How Your Remind Me” into the microphone.