Whatever he means by it, Arnold has one thing right: It certainly sounds as if the Mississippi quartet has logged quite a few hours listening to what others have been playing and then applying it to its own brand of faceless, new-millennium rock. Making matters worse, 3 Doors Down's first single, the lumbering "Kryptonite," has spent several months atop the Modern Rock chart, which in turn has ignited sales of its debut album, The Better Life, propelling it into the Top 10. That's led to talk of the band being among a new breed of 21st-century rock stars, saviors of sorts from the shallow wasteland of teen pop. But if this is where rock and roll is heading, give us Britney, the Backstreet Boys, and Christina any day.
The 3 Doors Down story begins in Escatawpa, Mississippi (it's near Biloxi), where four lifelong friends (singer-drummer Arnold, bassist Todd Harrell, and guitarists Matt Roberts and Chris Henderson) "just got together and jammed."
"We've all pretty much known each other forever," Arnold says. "Me and Matt went to grammar school together and played tee-ball together. Todd used to go out with my sister in high school. And Chris has been friends with Todd throughout his childhood. We played a little bit of everything at first. Because we were a local band, we had to play all these four-hour shows. So we had to throw a few covers in there too. We did some old Metallica, Van Halen, and Bush. Just a lot of rock and roll. And we played them over and over again."
A local radio station picked up on a demo recorded by the band in 1997, particularly an early version of "Kryptonite," and according to Arnold, "It eventually went to number one as the most requested song." Things grew from there. Word got out, and before you could say "faceless corporate rock sucks," 3 Doors Down had a record contract with a major label.
Arnold, who uses exclamations like "right on" with creepy intensity, describes the music on The Better Life as "straight-up rock and roll, man." Truth is, it's closer to a puréed version of late-'90s rock and roll, devoid of the passion and intensity that usually earmark return-of-the-rock revolutions and revolutionaries (think Nirvana at the beginning of the last decade). Simply put, the music has no discernible heart. It's automatic alt-rock for people who like their radio tunes in disposable and entirely forgettable chunks.
"I think people just want to hear some of that ol' rock and roll, just straight-up rock and roll with a little bit of melody," Arnold counters. "I really hope we're now getting back to the real thing. All that rap rock almost falls into hip-hop. There should be some separation there."
That would be fine, if there were something distinctive about 3 Doors Down. Perhaps a little too tellingly, Arnold provides the origins of their monster-sized, Superman-influenced hit, "Kryptonite."
"I wrote the words to that song in my high school algebra class," he says. "So it has been around, but it's just now getting out. I'm glad people like it. It's not about anyone in particular, though. It's just a thought. It's about living up to people's expectations and such."
Most of the songs on The Better Life fall into a similar pattern: The themes strike a balance between low self-esteem and invincibility. There's no middle ground in the 3 Doors Down universe (just check out "Kryptonite"'s follow-up, the sulking "Loser").
"Our songs are inspired by things I see in the world and people and things around me," explains Arnold, who's the group's chief lyric writer. "I guess some of it is a little bit personal, but I can't say all of it is. I just hope somebody gets something good out of our songs."
Still, Arnold adds, he and his bandmates are genuinely surprised by their success.
"I can't say that we expected any of this," he says. "You gotta hope and you gotta believe, but you never know."
Currently on tour with the equally bland and repetitive Creed, 3 Doors Down will have hometown buddy Richard Liles filling in on drums while Arnold plays the rock and roll frontman at center stage. Riding the wagon while the trail is still hot, the band will head to Europe for a tour in the fall and then return to the States for more touring.
"There's a lot less time at home now," Arnold points out. "I still live at home with my parents. Or at least I did, before all this. But I don't need a house right now, because when would I ever be there? But it's definitely great to be away."
Spoken like a true leader of the new rock revolution.