The Mississippi-based post-grunge band 3 Doors Down burst onto the scene in 2000, with the release of the song “Kryptonite,” a slick post-grunge anthem that showcases the texture and range of Arnold’s voice and helped usher in the post-grunge era that ruled the early 2000s. The group has since released a total of 5 albums, with their most recent record, Us and the Night, having been released in 2016. Now, with the pandemic waning enough to allow live shows to return, 3 Doors Down is back on their 20th-anniversary tour for The Better Life, their first record, which was postponed in 2020. Read on for our interview with 3 Doors Down frontman Brad Arnold, where we talk 3 Doors Down history, songwriting, and new music.
Bringing it back to the very beginning, what initially drew you to songwriting and performing?
Brad Arnold: You know, I think what got me into songwriting the most was I used to enjoy writing poems. We had to take an elective in high school of creative writing, and I took that and I just really, as soon as I started writing little poems and stuff, I really enjoyed it. You can take your mind off somewhere and you can just get to narrate. I’ve always loved music. I can’t remember not beating on the drums and playing on the pots and pans when I was a kid. I’ve always enjoyed playing music. And really, the lyrics to a song, it’s just a poem with a repetitive chorus. It’s just a natural progression to it when I started playing music with my buddies when we were trying to write songs, that it was pretty easy to fit words to songs. And sometimes, they even had to be written at the same time. That’s what got me into it.
3 Doors Down has had a lot of pretty enormous hits over the years, starting with “Kryptonite” and then the list goes on—what’s your relationship like with those hits now? Do they ever become tired for you, or is it always interesting to go back and play them?
Arnold: It’s actually interesting to go back out and play them, and see how the perspective has changed, for me. The songs grow. It’s interesting to see how the sounds of them change, because when you record a song when it’s new, you’re kind of recording a little baby. As you take a song on tour and play it more and more, it develops and grows muscles and gets bigger and parts change and evolve. On this tour, we’re playing the whole Better Life record, front to back. We wanted it to be the same, we wanted it to sound more like the record. It actually took me going back and taking a little bit of the ad-libs that I had started accumulating over the years and taking those out to where we went back to playing the record, not the new versions of a bunch of 20-year-old songs.
You find yourself taking these fancy spots out. Even for “Kryptonite,” over the last couple of years, we got tired of playing the little breakdown at the end, so we started doing it reggae-style. Had to go back and take that out and put it back like it used to be. Just for continuity of the record. It is interesting to look how those songs change, not only the sounds of the songs, but the perspective of who I am now as opposed to who I was when I wrote those songs. The things that you’ve seen. You get wiser. Honestly, some of them mean a lot more to me now than they did then.
Which songs have had that shift in meaning for you?
Arnold: You know, even “Kryptonite,” the song, it’s a skippy-little, cooky-little song, but it was written about my friends in high school. It’s basically saying “if I’m up, will you be there for me, and if I’m down will you be there for me?” It’s an important question for a high school-age person to have, but that can take on a lot of different meanings as you get older. You start realizing more and more that people are a lot more willing to be there for you when you’re down than when you’re actually doing good. Everybody’s willing to be there for you and pat you on the back, but see if that same person is there for you if you’re doing better than them. It changes things.
What does your creative or songwriting process look like? How do you find an idea and turn that into a completed song?
Arnold: I don’t really search for an idea for a song, because I used to and it drove me crazy. The hardest part to me about writing a song is something to write about. It’s probably why I don’t write an absolute ton of songs. But when something hits me right and I want to write about it, it moves me emotionally, it’s not so hard to write. The hardest part is finding something to write about. But when something’s there to write about, sometimes I can sit down and write it right down. And sometimes, it’ll build in me over months. I really don’t have a set way, except I just can’t sit down in a studio and write a song. I can, but it’s not going to be the same kind of song—I write songs better when I’m out working in my yard, or riding my bike—something the farthest away from music. You always have that song in your head. When an idea gets going in there, when it occurs, thankfully now we have our phones and I can open up my audio recorder and record a little snippet idea where I used to have to remember it until I could go write it down. Now I can just hum the little melody and sing the lyrics into my phone and you have that to build off of later. It’s funny where the ideas get you. I think for me it’s detrimental to sit and try to write a song.
Does your background in drumming influence the way you think about putting a song together? Do you think very rhythmically?
Arnold: I do. It’s always kind of aggravated me that I never played the guitar. There’s something about it; I can’t wrap my head around it and I can’t make my fingers do it. People always ask me, “playing the drums and singing, that’s crazy.” To me, playing the guitar and singing is crazy. But I’m thankful that I play the drums and write lyrics because it lends itself to writing rhythmic lyrics. You’ve got your foundation of the song and you’ve got your roof of the song connected. Everything else around that is dressing. You can put a lot of different dressings on that and still have a solid structure. It’s been really valuable for me, of being a drummer. And Greg says it, too. I love Greg, our drummer. He’s a way, way better drummer than me, but we think alike. He says it, too, “I can tell you’re a drummer writing lyrics. I play along when you sing it, as much as I play along with the guitar.” It lends itself to each other.
A lot of 3 Doors Down songs are very guitar-centric, with iconic riffs and melodies—are those elements that get added in when you put the song together with the band or do you kind of hear them in your head when the idea first hits you?
Arnold: Sometimes I’ll have a general idea of it, but that’s the awesome thing of writing as a group. That’s all them. And the cool thing about writing with people like that is that a song never winds up sounding like I thought it was going to sound in my head. It’s always better. I think it’s really important to write with people that you identify with. Every songwriter speaks their own language, but we’ve played together for so long that we know what each other is saying. Matt and I were like that because we learned how to play together. Matt and I wrote “Kryptonite.” “Kryptonite” was written around that little drum beat. I didn’t write it on the drums, I wrote it on my desk in algebra class, just tapping on the desk. I sang it out; the first time I played it on the drums I played it in front of Matt. I sang it through, one time, I said “you think you got something for that?” And it never changed. It stayed that way. It’s the first time we played the song through; we got done and we were like “man, that’s a pretty good song there.” And that was only the fifth or sixth song we ever wrote. We weren’t songwriters; we were teenagers.
You’ve got one of the most distinctive rock voices of the early 2000s, with such a high level of range, texture, and control—when you’re going to lay down vocals for a track, how much thought goes into the way you sing a song? Do you just sing it the way it feels?
Arnold: It depends on the song. I like to get in the mood. I don’t like to sing a bunch of vocals in one day. If I am going to sing more than one song in a day, I want it to be a very similar mood to the other. Man, I try to get in there and sing it a couple times and maybe get warmed up to it, and then give it three or four good times through and then let that be. I really try to feel it. People will ask sometimes, “do you get tired of playing this song or that song?” I really don’t. It takes you back. Songs mean something to me. All those songs mean something to me. Sometimes, it’s a little bit exhausting when you get done playing a show, because you just traveled to where you were in every one of those songs. Sometimes, you don’t feel it like you do some other times, but sometimes you’re on stage and you feel like you went on a journey back to where you were when you wrote that song. I just try to put everything into it; just make it honest and put everything into it that I can. I just try to imagine a person laying in bed at night with their headphones on, listening to you. And being able to convey what you’re feeling. And treat each song as though it’s going to be the one song that represents you to people. But at the same time, not overthinking it. Just letting it be honest, I think is the most important thing. Sing what you feel. Sing honest.
I’m not dogging on the whole genre, but some new country guys try to sing really, really country. They try to have that accent. Well, you can hear how I talk. Until you hear me talk, you don’t think that I sound like this, ‘cos I don’t sing like this. Your accent goes away when you sing, and so when those guys talk proper, but then they sing country, it’s like, many that shit is fake, dude, stop, man, just keep it honest. Thank god I don’t sing like this.
How do you maintain your voice over 20 years of tours and albums?
Arnold: I try to rest a lot, now. As I got a little bit older, I had to take better care of it. Honestly, I don’t know how I used to do it. I used to smoke cigarettes and I used to drink. I quit drinking five years ago and I quit smoking cigarettes probably three-and-a-half years ago. Those are the two best things that I’ve ever done for my voice. They were the best things that I’ve ever done for my life, in general, but they were acutely present in my voice. Now, I drink a lot of water. I try to rest my voice on the days I have to sing. My speech pathologist told me some cool tricks—one of the best little tricks I’ve found when I have a sore throat and it’s really bad is just melting 10 or 12 Haribo gummy bears in hot water and then cooling it off where you can drink it, they make your throat feel so much better, man. Generally, I just try to stay on top of it, because once you get beneath it, it’s hard to get it back.
Acoustic versions of your music are scattered around over the years, the most recent case being the Acoustic Back Porch Jam EP—does reimagining these songs acoustically change what they mean to you?
Arnold: I don’t know that it necessarily changes them for me, but it’s really fun to go back and do them like that. Most of our songs were written acoustic. Probably at least eight out of ten of them is we’re sitting around with acoustic guitars before we ever break out an electric guitar. Because for us, we’ve always subscribed to the way of thought of, “if a song can’t be played acoustic, it’s got too much stuff going on.” Not every single song, but for rock songs, if you can’t break it down and play it acoustic, you need to rethink it. I’ve always enjoyed those acoustic ones and I enjoy those acoustic tours we do because it gives you a chance to talk about the songs. It also gives you a chance to focus more on performing the songs rather than performing a song and putting on a show. You’re just standing there; it’s really intimate and we try to make it feel like we’re at band practice. So I really enjoy those acoustic things.
In 2020, you released your first solo single, and it’s also been five years since Us and the Night was released—are there any plans to work on a new album (either solo or with 3 Doors Down) anytime soon?
Arnold: I think that after we get done with this tour—I used to say “man, we’re gonna write some songs on tour.” We never write on tour. We wrote one song ever on tour, and that was “When I’m Gone.” So, it’s been a minute. But I think after we get done with this tour, we’re gonna start writing some songs. Not focusing on writing a whole album as much, it’s probably writing three or four songs and putting them out in little packages. It’s more about getting on the streaming services now. It’ll allow us to put out more little groups of songs without waiting as long to do it.
You can check out 3 Doors Down here.