Nickelback’s Attorney and 604 Records co-founder Jonathan Simkin and his good buddy, Canadian country music sensation Dallas Smith are the co-creators of “Sticks and Stones”, a podcast that combines their love and knowledge of all things music and hockey related. The two friends sat down with 519 recently to talk about the podcast as well as the interesting story behind their twenty year friendship.
You recently started a podcast called “Sticks and Stones”, which is all things hockey and music, and for people that can’t figure that out, hockey sticks and The Stones right. What gave you the idea for this podcast?
Jonathan Simkin: One of the divisions of 604 is a division called Comedy Here Often, which does comedy records and that division started a podcast. And it wasn’t a network at that point, it was just two people doing a podcast but it started to get popular and then other comedians started approaching us and saying, “Hey, we have a podcast idea, could we maybe go on your YouTube channel?” and it just kind of grew organically. Suddenly we had a podcast network and at that point I had been thinking about doing something.
I remember a few times calling Dallas and saying, “Man, we should really do a podcast.” and one weekend, I was just sitting in my office and came up with the name and threw it off of Dallas and he said, “Yeah, I like it.” and it just kind of happened.
It’s very laid back, just two guys talking over beers and you do tend to lose track of time, too, don’t you?
Dallas Smith: Yeah, I’ve heard you say this before, Jonathan. Our intention is we’re not going be super in depth with analytics and stuff. We’re above casual fans I would say as far as knowledge, but our podcast is mostly about that relaxed sort of sports chat and how it intersects with music. A lot of our stories individually and how they come up, how we’ve known each other, they just come up as these conversations happen with people.
Speaking of how you know each other. I think it’s fascinating the chain of events. Let’s start from the beginning, Jonathan, how you got into this business in the first place. You started out as a criminal lawyer and then became the attorney for Nickelback.
JS: I actually started out as a criminal, and I’m not even kidding. I was a juvenile delinquent and had a real substance abuse problem that led me into a lot of hot water and I actually got into trouble as an adult, but it was the best thing that ever happened to me because I had court ordered rehab and psychiatric care.
That’s when I was 17 and I’m in my 50’s so it’s a long time ago. But that’s what kind of got me interested in doing criminal law because I wanted to help people so when I was in law school at Osgoode Hall, all I did was take mostly criminal courses. When I came back to Vancouver I opened a practice that was basically a poverty law practice, criminal law, refugee law. My wife’s also a lawyer and she joined me at some point and that’s what we did. The entertainment thing was a complete accident.
I moved into an apartment building in ‘92 or something and my neighbors were in a band that was signed to Nettwerk Records and not a famous band, but I started hanging out with them. I would go to parties with them and meet all these musicians and Network was at the time a really happening label so Sarah McLachlan, Skinny Puppy and Grapes of Wrath, I’m meeting all these bands. Typically some guy at a party would be like, “Hey man, are you really a lawyer? You don’t look like a lawyer, that’s cool man, I got this contract.”
And I would always be like, “Dude, Here’s my card. If you get busted for pot or you get busted for drunk driving, give me a shout. I don’t do that kind of law.” Over time people kept asking and I guess I was able to relate to artists. Finally I said, “You know what, maybe this is God’s way of telling me there’s something else I should be doing with my life and the first artist I took on in that capacity was Matthew Good.
Somebody gave me a tip, you should go check out this artist, which I did, and I loved him. I said, “Hey man, I don’t know what I’m doing, I’m the first to admit it, but I think you’re great. Give me six months to get you a record deal and if I don’t get your record deal, then you don’t have to pay me a dime and I’ll put it in writing.” I got him a deal and then all of a sudden, I was Matthew Good’s lawyer. Holly McNarland called and then The Age of Electric, and so on. It’s kind of a crazy story because it was very accidental, but that’s how it led me to the entertainment business.
And then at some point, you met Chad Kroeger, I guess, and became their attorney.
JS: Yeah, because that’s when I was just starting to become the guy on the West Coast, the lawyer. They actually went to a different lawyer and that lawyer was very expensive like most lawyers are, so they went to SOCAN and said, Hey, we went to the lawyer you recommended but he wanted $1,000 just to even talk. Is there anybody else you know who might be more cost effective? And apparently the woman said, “Well, there is this Jonathan Simkin. He’s a bit of a loose cannon but seems pretty smart.” and that’s how I met Nickelback. They came to my office with a contract that they had been offered by a manager and that’s how the relationship started.
Now you’re their lawyer and this is where Dallas comes into the picture. Chad was doing a little side work when the band wasn’t working, right?
JS: That’s right. They’d be touring for 10 months and come off the road and everybody else would dive into their domestic life and Chad’s idea of time off was producing other bands. One of those bands was a band called Shock the Day, which was the precursor to Default and Dallas wasn’t involved in that band but at some point Dallas joined the band. I papered up this little deal for Chad and Shock The Day and as usual, nothing happened because usually back then nothing happened and I remember Chad called me maybe three or four months later and said, remember Shock The Day?
Well, they got a new singer and apparently he’s got an amazing voice and he’s real good looking too. He said, “They’re playing Studebaker’s tonight, do you want to come?”
Studebaker’s is this famous dive on Kingsway in Vancouver, great place but a typical rock’n’roll shithole. So Chad and I went and saw them play, and as nervous as Dallas was that night, I still remember how nervous he was, we were like, Hell, yeah! Great voice, great songs. And so we did a deal with them to help them.
DS: I’ll bring in your wife again Jon. She would take us out and we would do some shopping and style us a little bit, right? So we did up this deal and we worked on some songs and at that point, Chad and Joey Moi, they had this duo-tang with a presentation that they were going to sit down with my folks and all the guys that were in the band and present them with like, could you loan us some money, here’s what we’re going do with it.
So my mom said, “Hey, we don’t want to be the ones that don’t make the connection if something cool happens. They didn’t have a lot of money but they got some money from somewhere and they gave us each a loan for five grand a piece and it paid for studio time and Chad and Joey’s work, production and all the engineering and stuff. I think it was $25,000 and it came with a little bit of marketing, here’s what Chad’s going to do, he’s going to try to shop the songs as he goes across radio, and all that stuff.
At that point “Deny” was a song that Chad had submitted to Rob at CFOX-FM’s CD contest. It was a local band contest and the winner would get onto this concert and compilation disk, and we ended up winning it that year with “Deny”. I think that’s when Jonathan got some calls from a few people.
JS: Yeah, that was a different time in this business. At that point in my career I was mostly making my living getting Canadian bands US record deals and there weren’t very many of us doing that in Canada. There was me, Chris Taylor and maybe Chip Sutherland out on The East Coast.
So if you were a band from The Maritimes, Chip was probably your lawyer. If you were a band from the middle of the country, Toronto, Manitoba, Chris Taylor was probably your lawyer, and if you were on The West Coast, I was probably your lawyer.
Once in a while we would steal from each other like, I got Len – Steal My Sunshine, somehow, and Chris got Nelly Furtado, that’s what we did. So we did this deal with Default and I started sending the disc around to people I knew in the industry and we ended up getting them a deal with TVT Records which was shocking and we ended up getting a massive worldwide hit. In a funny way it was the genesis of 604 because Default was never on 604 but it got my brain turning.
“Oh man, if we had structured that deal with Default a little bit differently, we could have made way more money or we could have had four records worth of rights.” So when Chad met Tyler Connolly from Theory of a Deadman a few years later and came to me and said, “Hey, I met this band and here’s the cassette, what do you think?” and he said, “You know, if you like it we should do like we did with Default.” I was like, No, this time we’re going to do it differently. We started a company, signed Theory to a production agreement for four records, we weren’t really thinking label at the time, and the rest is history. That was how 604 started.
It seems like you’ve just kind of fallen into everything.
JS: In a weird kind of way, it’s true. I think if there’s a lesson to my career, it’s to be open to things. I think the keys to my success in the industry have been understanding when to seize a moment, understanding an opportunity that’s right in front of you, and number two – understanding the value of leverage. Those are really the two main things of my career.
For example, when “Call Me Maybe” blew up, we took the opportunity of having the biggest song in the world and right away my mind was on how can I use this to benefit the label as a whole and to benefit all of the artists? My career has been funny that way, it’s been more a matter of reacting to things. I didn’t sit there when I was young and go, I’m going to own a record label. I didn’t even know that was a job.
Dallas, you had that experience with Default and then you reinvented yourself. Tell me a little bit about that. How did you decide that being a solo country artist was the way to go after being in a band like Default?
DS: It wasn’t a switch that just turned on, I was actually working on some of the first record while we were working the last Default record, not knowing that was going to be officially the last Default record. Also, when we were doing the back end of the touring, four or five years leading up to my first trips to Nashville, I was going out doing rock shows but I was vocally warming up to Keith Urban records and Rascal Flatts. It just happened slowly. The guys knew while we were touring that I was up and down in Nashville and working on something else. It wasn’t a conscious “I’m going to do this now”, it just kind of happened. I just made a record with Joey and this is where it led me.
Now you’re more involved in 604 Records in a managerial way, right? You’re managing a couple of contracts.
DS: We both are. We both work together managing Andrew Hyatt and Jojo Mason who are both on 604 as well.
JS: It’s not under that umbrella though. Dallas doesn’t work for 604. Dallas has his own management company, I’ve got my own management company, and we partnered on those two acts.
Jonathan, I have to ask you another question that I’m sure you’ve been asked 100 times. How do you feel about Nickelback being the most hated band out there? Me personally, I think it’s just bizarre how people love to hate things like that but I’m thinking that it’s almost a plus in some ways.
Of course Nickelback is the biggest selling musical group of the last 20 years. They’ve sold more albums than Coldplay, they sold more albums than U2 in that period of time. That always sort of counters the hate thing. Obviously some people really don’t like them but obviously a hell of a lot of people really do love them, so I don’t know, it’s complicated and we’ve been living with it for 20 years.
I think it was more hurtful for them early in their career. I think they probably stopped caring about $700 million ago and it’s not just about the money. I’ve been asked so many times how to explain it and I don’t have an explanation. I think part of it is people like their rock stars tormented, people like their rock stars to be drug addicts, people like them overdosing and being brought back to life. I mean, that just seems to be how people like they’re rock stars, they like them dead and Nickelback are shockingly normal.
Chad gets interviewed and here’s a guy who’s happy, he’s happy doing what he does for a living. They all are shockingly down to earth, normal guys and I think that’s got a lot to do with that. I think that gets misinterpreted as Chad does an interview and he’s just a happy-go-lucky kind of guy and people are like, what a douchebag. How was he a douchebag?
I’ve got to tell you, I’ve never seen a guy who cares more for his fans. I’ve been at dinners where we’re getting interrupted every ten minutes and I’m getting pissed off and said, “Chad, you want me to tell them” and he’s like, “No buddy, that’s how I make a living, this is why I live the life I’m able to live.” He’s so conscious of that, he cares so deeply about his fans. Even their shows, they don’t do these big crazy rock shows with explosions just for the hell of it. They do it because it matters to them that their fans leave a show saying I got my money’s worth.
DS: And it costs them a lot of money to do that. Default did a ton of touring with Nickelback in the early days and that was one of the bigger things I took from it was how down to earth all those guys were. In a different environment we could have been an absolute mess, but I’ve always really admired their approach to how they deal with fans and just everybody in the industry in general.
I’ve tried to model myself, the band, and the guys we use to put on my show with that same environment, it’s important.
JS: Well, it could be worse, they still have a huge legion of fans. They’re actually recording right now which is great, I’m excited. I just think it’s one of those things. Funny enough, there’s a documentary coming out about the band next year and it deals with that a lot.
Why do people hate on them? A lot of people weigh in on it in this documentary and it’ll be interesting to see what their reaction is to that. But I think the guys personally are sort of over it.
Even their crew, once you’re in with Nickelback, it’s very hard to be fired because they’re not like that. I think the only thing that gets you fired is cocaine. Like, if they find out people were doing those kinds of drugs, you got to go. Other than that, I’ve been their lawyer for 25 years, they recently parted ways with their manager, but he had been their manager for 21 years.
Most of the crew have been there for over a decade, some of them two decades. They’re very loyal guys and that itself is so rare in this business.
How’s the response been to your podcast so far?
DS: It’s been good. I get a lot of interactions on social media about it, I’m not looking for the validation but it was a lot of family members and friends that I come across who send me messages of parts that they liked of each episode, so it seems to be going over well.
What’s your most memorable moments so far?
DS: Having the ability to sit down with the Canucks color man for the AM radio station, Brendan Batchelor, just being a Canuck fan and being able to sit there and actually talk to the guy whose voice you hear and connect with them in that way and hear some funny stories, that was probably one of my most memorable experiences so far.
JS: The Brendan Batchelor one for me was pretty big too, and it’s funny because I’ve had big rock stars on and all sorts of people but I’m used to rock stars, those are the people in my world. It’s not like I take that for granted, I have so much respect for musicians, but when we’ve dealt with people in hockey, we had Kole Lind who’s a Canucks prospect, played a couple of games for the Canucks this year, I was nervous for that. I did my research, I really wanted to impress him and be like, Hey, you know, I did a little work here to find out who you are. Same with Brendan, that was a thrill, when Brendan came into the soundstage and just introduced himself, I’m so used to that voice because he’s the play-by-play guy for the Canucks and to hear him right across the room for me was a thrill because you feel like you get to know someone when you hear them so many times on the radio. That one was a real thrill but I liked them all.
You said something earlier that it sounds very casual and that’s the biggest compliment I get from people, you sound like you guys are sitting around having a beer and I guess I forget sometimes our lives are different than most other people’s. I am not saying they’re better or worse, just different and I forget that sometimes.
I have so many people say wow, that story about you and Chad doing the deal with Island Def Jam to start 604, that was amazing. It just doesn’t seem that amazing when you’re the one in the middle of it, it just seems like what you do for a living. But it’s been interesting for me to hear people react to that and say wow, what a fascinating life you’ve had, and I’ve had to kind of step back and go, yeah, I guess I have.
Are you going to take a summer hiatus with the podcast or do you think it’s going to be more music oriented during the off-season?
DS: I’m hoping because the playoffs will be over fairly soon and we can get the gag order off of some of these players so we can actually talk to a lot more of them over the summer instead of musicians.
Yeah, that’ll be interesting.
JS: I think it’s going be more about Dallas’s schedule at a certain point, because once touring starts opening up then obviously he’ll be on the road and part of the reason it’s worked out is because of the pandemic. That was part of the reason I think for me at least why I decided it was a good time to do it. It’s like, what the hell else are we going to do?
We’re all stuck in our houses anyway, we might as well do this now or else, we’re never going to do it.
Obviously if Dallas is on the road for three months, that’s going make it pretty hard to do it.
DS: But I’m only a laptop away, right? So there’s always a way if we wanted to do it.
JS: We said to each other at the beginning that as long as we’re having fun, we’ll keep doing it and so far, we’re having fun.
DS: There’s still tons of people I want to talk to so yeah, we got a ways to go.
How have you guys been for the last year and a half, as far as dealing with the pandemic. And I’m hoping I don’t have to keep asking this question and eventually we stop talking about the pandemic. I think it’s been a good year for both of you, hasn’t it?
DS: The touring side and the artists that we both deal with and their careers, the live side is devastated. So there’s that part of it. But as far as Jon can speak to this, I have some ownership in some of my music and I’ve benefited off of that on the record side. So yeah, the record business is just screaming.
JS: Boy, I could talk about this for an hour. It depends what we’re talking about. From a business perspective, it’s been great, which I feel weird saying because I know how many people are suffering and how many people are all screwed up right now.
DS: It’s fine to say that, I’ve got a buddy of mine, Steve, he does a lot of renovations and builds and he’s never worked so hard and made so much money in his life, right? It’s weird how it affects so many people in so many different ways.
JS: I feel bad for the people whose livelihoods are completely dependent upon touring and that doesn’t just mean artists, that means booking agents, that means venues, it’s been horrible for them. Maybe it’s just a Jewish thing, the feeling of guilt.
DS: A lot of them are your friends, right? That’s the thing.
JS: A lot of them are and that’s been hard, but for us from a business perspective, we’ve done great this year. And I mean, we’re lucky in a few respects. Number one, after “Call Me Maybe”, I built this facility in Vancouver that has a soundstage and studio so we’ve been able to keep going throughout the pandemic, obviously at a greatly reduced capacity because of all the protocols, but still, we’ve been able to continue making videos, continue making records.
So, thank God I built that place a few years ago. Obviously I didn’t know a pandemic was coming but really, that part really saved our ass in a lot of ways. Streaming has been really good. We actually have hired five people during the pandemic and then of course the big irony of it all is I haven’t met any of them.
From a personal perspective, it’s been hard. I don’t think I realized just how much my social life was tied into my work. I always thought of myself as anti-social because I don’t go out a lot at night. But then the pandemic has really taught me, no, I am a social person, it’s just that the social stuff I do is the stuff at work. I mean, I would go to my office and the first thing I would do is walk around the building, Hey, what are you guys working on?
Hey, what’s going on here, walk into the studio, see if something’s being recorded, It has really gutted me, the part of not having that anymore.
I think it’s been hard mentally on everyone and I totally get the whole feeling bad because you realize so many other people are struggling. I think it’s interesting that you say that your record company is doing really well on that end, but it seems like the ones that are really hurting are the ones that can’t get out and play because for artists themselves, and you could probably collaborate on this a little bit Dallas. They depend a lot on the revenues from shows, right?
DS: Oh, yeah, like I was touching on earlier, there’s no shows, there’s no guarantees, the musicians in my band, the techs that we use, the agents, the whole ecosystem on that side, fencing companies, stage companies, sound companies, you name it. All the vendors that go and make their money for the year at these events every year, selling whatever they’re selling, you know, it’s a whole ecosystem there that is completely gone. So it’s coming back, thank God, so hopefully this is the last interview we’ve got to talk about this stuff.
Check out Sticks & Stones Podcast here.