Working with Mutt Lange on Nickelback's new album, "Dark Horse," was "a dream come true" for Chad Kroeger, the group's frontman songwriter. And the reality, he adds, was "a great learning experience."
"To be able to get into a room with him and just watch the way he does work...I learned a lot," says Kroeger, who produced the previous three Nickelback albums -- including 2005's "All the Right Reasons," which has sold more than 10 million copies worldwide and spent a whopping 110 consecutive weeks in the top 30 of The Billboard 200.
"We always said that the only way we'd let someone else really come in and start steering the ship was if it was gonna be the one and only Mutt Lange. So when he expressed interest ... you had to pinch yourself, really."
It's not hard to understand why Kroeger and his bandmates would feel that way. The Zambian-born Lange has been associated as a producer and co-songwriter with some of the most successful rock albums in history, creating explosive, large-scale soundscapes for seminal releases by AC/DC ("Highway to Hell," "Back in Black"), Def Leppard ("Pyromania," "Hysteria") and Foreigner ("4") as well as albums by Bryan Adams, the Cars, Loverboy, the Boomtown Rats and the Corrs.
Lange then brought his shimmering, polished sensibility to country with his soon to be ex-wife Shania Twain, helming the multi-platinum crossover smashes "The Woman in Me," "Come On Over" and "Up!" "Dark Horse" is Lange's first full-scale rock project since the Corrs' "In Blue" in 2000, and Kroeger says mutual friends helped to broker the deal.
"I actually ran into a friend who was working with someone who used to work with Mutt," Kroeger explains. "He called me up and said, 'Hey, do you still want to work with Mutt Lange?' I said, 'Oh God, I would love to. The dude's my hero,' and he said, 'I'm working with one of his old engineers. Would you like me to get him to give you a call?' I was, like, very ecstatic. I couldn't wait for the opportunity. For us, just being on (Lange's) radar was compliment enough.
"Then Mutt called me at the house. We just started talking, and he was really interested in how we recorded things and how we went through the songwriting process -- just absolutely everything. It turned out that we did a lot of things that were very similar in both those procedures, so it was just a great fit."
Nevertheless, Kroeger says that when he went to work on songs with Lange in March at the producer's home in Switzerland, he "thought Lange was gonna want to go straight to a ballad or something mid-tempoish. So I played him a couple things that I thought were strong, and he was, 'OK, cool, but what have you got that rocks?' And I said, 'How about this?' and he said, 'That's alright, but what have you got that really rocks?' And I'm like, 'Wow, you want to focus right off the bat on a big rock song...'
"So I said, 'OK, I've got this title -- 'You Look So Much Cuter with Something in Your Mouth,' and he was like, 'Perfect! That's perfect! Let's get started!' and off we went."
Kroeger laughs when asked if he and Lange butted heads much during the process of writing and then recording "Dark Horse," both in Switzerland and at Kroeger's studio in Vancouver.
"It's funny; a lot of people are asking that," he notes. But he says that things were mostly peaceable between Lange and the band. "I think Mutt was coming into a situation where he knew Nickelback fans were very happy with everything we'd been putting out so far. He didn't really want to change the band too much; he just wanted to bring a slightly different perspective and a slightly different influence."
As for the things he learned from Lange, Kroeger puts most of it in the category of "nerdy studio talk."
"It was leaving room for all frequencies," he explains. "Instead of dumping a whole bunch of low end on the kick drum and the bass and the guitars and winding up with this big wall of low end, he taught us to really put things in their own place and leave the guitars in the guitar range, especially depending on what key the song's in. We'd never really looked at it like that. We always wanted things to have lots of low end and be really boomy. He definitely educated us on the full spectrum of sound."
Lange also taught Kroeger and his bandmates -- brother and bassist Mike Kroeger, guitarist Ryan Peake and drummer Daniel Adair -- about making that spectrum sound bigger, too. "He likes those big gang vocals, those 'heys' and 'yeahs,' " Kroeger explains. "That was new for us. There might be six of us sitting around a microphone, just screaming the same line over and over and over for, like, 20 minutes straight, and you start stacking it up and get this huge wall that sounds like ... an arena full of people.
"That's the way Mutt pictures everything. Mutt looks at it one way and one way only -- it's you standing on stage in front of nine million people. And when it's a love song, it's you singing to a girl in the first row. And when it's a rock song, it's gotta be you singing to ever single person, with their hand pumping in the air. That's how he looks at it, and he never wavers."
Which is all well and good, Kroeger adds -- until you're the guy who has to recreate that on stage, which is what Nickelback will be doing when it starts touring the world to promote "Dark Horse" in February.
"He's not willing to budge when it comes to screaming higher and harder," Kroeger says with a laugh. "There were a few times where I would have to say to him, 'Listen, I'm gonna have to sing this live,' and he was like, 'Yeah, but we're not gonna sacrifice this record for that sentiment.' So I really just had to suck it up. You gotta figure the guy knows what he's doing."