The Superhero Issue
Will you still call me Superman: The history of 3 Doors Down's “Kryptonite”
“As many thousands of times as we’ve played that song. It never gets old."
Since forming more than two decades ago, the band 3 Doors Down has endured more hardships than most.
Their current lineup bears little relation to the trio that set the ball rolling in 1996. Singer Brad Arnold remains front and center, the band's only remaining member, but Matt Roberts (lead guitar and backing vocals) died of a prescription drug overdose in 2016, and Todd Harrell (bass) is serving ten years in prison for possession of a firearm by a felon. An ever-changing arrangement of guitarists and drummers have passed through in the intervening years, leaving an authoritative picture of the group difficult to pin down.
But where the band struggles to remain unified, their back catalog gives them the illusion of consistency. No matter what configuration of people is on the stage, the crowd can feel the essence of the band rush back to them in the time it takes for a single chord to sound. The strongest thread linking 3 Doors Down's past to their present has been “Kryptonite.” They have played the song more often than any other and it accounts for their longevity better than any other track.
“This band is making a fortune”
Greg Upchurch, who has played drums for the band since 2005, still remembers hearing the song for the very first time. He was in Hawaii with Chris Cornell, the late lead singer of Soundgarden, and the 2000 Summer Olympics was on TV. Upchurch remembers “Kryptonite” playing in every commercial break.
“I was like, 'This band is making a fortune off of this song,'” he tells Inverse. He didn't particularly like the song himself – “It's three chords,” he thought at the time – but he could see why it was popular. The simplicity of the drum part appealed to him when he listened more closely. “It caught me,” he says. “It was different. It was just a snare drum. And that's the beauty of that song, is the simplicity of it.”
Upchurch would have been right about the money. When it was released as a single in October 1999, “Kryptonite” reached number one on the US Mainstream Rock Tracks Chart, staying there for nine weeks. (To this day, 3 Doors Down are the band with the third most cumulative weeks at number one on this chart.) It also hung around at number one on the Modern Rock Tracks Chart for 11 weeks. To this day, the song is so cherished that it is mentioned every hour or so on Twitter, where fans often opine that people don’t write songs like it anymore. When the band filmed the music video, its director Dean Karr tells me, the budget was $175,000. These were the days when rock bands could rely on making good money not just from live shows but also from CD sales.
“WILL YOU NOT BE JEALOUS OF ME?”
The song sits on the band's debut album, The Better Life, released on February 8, 2000, but it had been first released as a demo in 1997 and played on the radio to promote one of the band's gigs in Mississippi. This was where Arnold grew up and where he started the band as a teenager, in the town of Escatawpa. The band begged local radio station WCPR-FM for a year to play Kryptonite, but it took the program director two listens before he finally broadcast it on a Sunday night – the monthly slot for songs by local bands. According to Arnold, it became the most requested song in the station's history. A rep from Universal, who had been given the song but never listened to it, heard the track in his car and the label would eventually go on to sign the band.
“Kryptonite” was the third or fourth song Arnold ever wrote. The drumbeat, he tells Inverse, came to him while he was sitting in math class at the age of 15. He had creative writing just before math, meaning that while bored in the latter Arnold was able to explore the feelings that the writing class had inspired.
“We all have our weakness.” — Brad Arnold
Arnold thinks that in its long evolution the song may have come to mean different things than he had intended when he was a teenager. The song asks a question, he says — a question of unconditional friendship. It doesn't just ask, “If I fall down, will you be there for me?” like many popular songs might; it asks “If I'm alive and well, will you be there holding my hand?” This meant, Arnold said in a 2009 interview, “If I'm doing good, will you be there for me? Will you not be jealous of me?” He says, “I think sometimes we find that it’s easier for us to be there for somebody when they’re down than it is when they’re doing better than us.”
As for the Superman of it all, Arnold has always been a fan, but the character is simply meant to be a symbol of constant strength. “If I mess up, will you still look at me as someone who’s strong?” he explains. As for kryptonite: “We all have our weakness, you know. And it kinda just tied it all together — you don’t really think about Superman without thinking about kryptonite.”
“IT’S FILTHY, DIRTY, AND FULL OF HUMAN WASTE”
The job of a music video director is to take a band's music and wrap a coherent visual narrative around it. This was the challenge Karr faced when he was asked to pitch himself, against about nine other directors, to direct the video for “Kryptonite.” Usually, Karr tells Inverse, he would try to get guidance from the person who wrote the song. Here he was unable to do so. He had never heard 3 Doors Down before but he liked the song a lot. Sitting in a bar, he took the word 'kryptonite' and ran with it, writing a treatment that involved pondering the question 'Where do old superheroes go when they die?'
The director remembers meeting Mike Teitelbaum, who played the video's main character: an old man who watches clips of himself in his heyday as a superhero on TV, then chases down a pimp harassing a woman in the old man's apartment block. Karr says that, like everyone in Hollywood, Teitelbaum had multiple strings to his bow. When he wasn't auditioning for acting jobs, he was a medical doctor and a hypnotist who performed under the stage name Dr. Amazing. “I immediately fell in love with him,” Karr says.
The video was a two-day shoot. Karr remembers the band being devoid of ego and great to work with, if a little stiff to begin with. “I got them to spice it up a bit.” The band was wearing the most expensive clothes they had ever touched. “There was no attitude,” Karr says. “They were very open-minded and trusting. And that's not always the case when you have egos and stuff involved.”
Karr knew that for the opening chunk of the video he wanted to use the Rosslyn Lofts, an apartment complex in downtown LA that used to be the Rosslyn Million Dollar Fireproof Hotel. “It's filthy, dirty, and full of human waste,” he says. “It's scary there.” When they were filming in the alleyway, syringes and double D batteries rained down on them. The bar whose stage the band sings on, and which is frequented by elderly superheroes in lurid and revealing outfits, was the Cowboy Palace Saloon, 30 miles away in the valley. It was next to a strip club, to which Karr ventured with various members of his team as soon as they wrapped.
When the video came out it was “an overnight super-hit,” says Karr, claiming that it was played 15 times a day on TV. This would have been when it made its way onto Upchurch's radar. But, prior to them hiring Upchurch, 3 Doors Down had a succession of drummers: Arnold, who performed the rare feat of singing while drumming on the “Kryptonite” demo; Richard Liles; then Daniel Adair, who speaks to Inverse from his drum studio in Canada. Adair joined in 2002. His friend Jane, who worked for the studio in which the band had just mixed their second album, Away from the Sun, played them some of his stuff; they loved it and Arnold asked him to audition. He learned every note of every song on Away from the Sun and The Better Life, and they flew him down to guitarist Chris Henderson's house in Gautier, Mississippi. There, Adair had barely played anything when Arnold accepted him into the band and invited him jet skiing.
“YOU DON’T WANT TO SCREW UP THE BIGGEST SONG”
Like Upchurch, Adair wasn't in love with the song. “It's just a little too poppy for me,” he says. “Personally, you know, I'm a real B-side guy. I like the songs that other people don't like as much.” But he was similarly charmed by the drum part. Though Arnold didn’t know the term when he wrote it (he cannot read music), the song is a shuffle - ‘the heartbeat of the blues'. This would be challenging for a drummer who wasn't familiar with the genre. Adair says it was always fun to play because it's full of drum fills and drum rolls. What always annoyed him, however, was that when the chorus started, guitarists Roberts and Henderson would crash in with a different rhythm, not a shuffle. “You're supposed to all shuffle together,” he says, laughing. “It always killed my musician.”
Though he was in the band for less than three years, Adair had the chance to perform in some remarkable environments. 3 Doors Down are Republicans, and Adair — who is not — remembers playing the inaugural ball for George Bush's second term in 2005. He still has a photo of him and Bush on his studio wall. At a gig like that, he says, 70% of the crowd might never have heard of them. But when “Kryptonite” kicked in – or “Here Without You,” another massive hit — they would realize who the band was: “Oh, these guys,” they'd say. “OK, now we like them. They're cool.”
Adair remembers that over the months and years onstage, he would embellish the song to make it fun for himself. He would throw in six-stroke rolls to relieve the boredom of playing the same thing night after night. The song has finesse, he says, and allowed for this experimentation. “I always looked forward to playing that song because it was fun. And my young egotist side liked it because I could show off some fancy stuff.”
Both Adair and Arnold also remember that Roberts, who was responsible for the iconic guitar intro, fucked it up half of the time. The band gigged with Nickelback a lot (Adair is now Nickelback's drummer). Mike Kroeger, Nickelback's bassist, remembers this too. In the song's intro, Roberts picks a number of chords. On the fourth pick in B-minor, his finger would often miss its mark, sending the guitar out of tune. “He messed it up so much,” says Arnold. “I got annoyed with it. We all did. We really really all did.”
In 2005, Upchurch was ready to leave his then-band, Puddle of Mud, so he flew from LA to audition at the garage studio in Henderson's house in Gautier. “Kryptonite” was one of the three songs he played. “I did nail ‘Kryptonite’ because I knew that song had to be spot-on,” he says. “You don't want to screw up the biggest song.” (Henderson later told Upchurch that he had got the job as soon as he walked in because he was wearing a New Orleans Saints camo hat.)
“Kryptonite” is now the last song the band plays before their encore. For the last five years or so, they have slowed the song down after the second chorus to include a reggae breakdown, at the suggestion of one of their crew members at a sound-check in Louisiana. “It's not very good,” says Upchurch. “I mean, it's kitsch. It's, you know, it's something different for the fans to crack them up.” Arnold says, “I think it’s kinda time to put it back. The reason it stayed is it catches people off-guard.”
I wonder if Arnold’s delivery of the song has changed over the years. He says that if they listen to the recording after playing it live every night for a while, they will notice that a succession of “baby steps” has resulted in it sounding very different indeed. He says that live he tends to give it more energy than he did in the recording. They have always been a little conservative when recording songs, he says, so that they had some wiggle room onstage. “That way if I’m having a hard night I can do it, but if I’m having a good night I can do it, like, really good.”
“THE CROWD GOES NUTS”
The song's enduring appeal is remarkable. The music video has more than 305 million views and jumps up by about 80,000 every day. Every couple of hours, as well as saying that Arnold looks like supervillain General Zod — ironic, given the song's references to Superman — people leave adoring comments, or just write out some of the lyrics to the song. “My girl's favorite video,” wrote one on September 30. “I almost cry when I listen to it. Don't know why.” Another wrote, “This song reminds me of my father. He always did his best, even to his last days, to keep his family secure and well-fed. He was my superman. I wish we could talk once more.”
I ask Arnold whether he ever looks at the YouTube comments. He does. “It’s awesome,” he says. “I love that people do that. That’s become the thing that I appreciate the most about music, is just how wide-reaching it can be. It’s like you get to be a little part of their life. And it’s just taught me that we’re all so much alike.”
This is the appeal of a song as viscerally successful as “Kryptonite”: it means more to people than Arnold could possibly have imagined as a teenager in math class. Adair remembers looking out at a sea of people at a live show and seeing that hundreds of them had a tattoo of what would become the unofficial 3 Doors Down image: the Superman logo made bright green – the color of kryptonite – with the S turned into a 3. The song is literally etched into people's skin.
“We've never done a show without playing it. That would be a catastrophe.” — Greg Upchurch
In his 15 years with the band, Upchurch estimates that he has played the song 2,000 times. “We've never done a show without playing it,” says Upchurch. “That would be a catastrophe.” The energy from the crowd means he never gets bored. “It's an addictive thing. It really is.” Unlike in the music video, when the band plays live it’s the drums that start the song. This used to allow Roberts the time he needed to pick up his special Kryptonite guitar, which glowed green. As soon as the drums start, “The crowd goes nuts,” says Upchurch. “They know exactly what that is.” Arnold likes the song starting this way because it’s a callback to the way the song began in math class: with the drumbeat.
Because of the pandemic, 3 Doors Down haven’t played a live show since September 7, 2019. They were due to go on tour in 2020 to celebrate 20 years since The Better Life. Now, they hope to move it to 2021. “I will never take a show for granted,” says Upchurch. When they can finally play together in some iteration, some state, some venue, one thing is for sure: they will be playing “Kryptonite”.
More than any other song, “Kryptonite” changed Arnold’s life. When he’s singing any song onstage, the lyrics might transport him back to where he was when he wrote them. “And that’s not always to a good place,” he says. When he sings “Kryptonite” he often thinks back to that math class, and it still means something to him. “As many thousands of times as we’ve played that song, I stand there sometimes singing it in disbelief that I’m standing there doing that. Because we have been so blessed. It never gets old.”