Propelled by the success of its standout track “Weak,” AJR’s second album The Click saw them elevate themselves to a new place within the American music landscape. Despite reservations about whether they could replicate its success, the band’s third album Neotheater saw them deliver their best and most cohesive album to date. As they’ve progressed throughout their careers, the demand to catch AJR’s exhilaratingly energetic live show has grown exponentially. The fact that their now postponed tour is going to see them headline venues such as The Greek in Los Angeles is a testament to that fact.
AJR is comprised of multi-instrumentalist brothers Adam, Jack, and Ryan Met, who’ve certainly come a long way since getting their start busking in their native New York. We spoke to Ryan Met to delve into the band’s latest single “Bang,” interweaving intimate details into anthems, their unparalleled live show, and more.
You released “Bang” back in February. Why did that feel like the perfect first release to put out after Neotheater?
We wrote the track while we were writing Neotheater. While on the Neotheater tour we were working on it but it felt very different than you hear it now. It felt a lot more evil sounding, it had a lot of minor chords… It was slower, more horn-based too. I think everything about it made it like more of a Broadway show-tune version of what you hear now.
So we knew something was cool, we knew the idea with the trumpets was a vibe and could fit well in 2020 music but we haven’t quite cracked the code of how to make it sound current. So we put it to the side, we made the rest of the Neotheater which ended up sounding more like more of a nostalgic album than what “Bang” sounds like.
When we were done with the Neotheater tour, we kind of sat back down and we got back into songwriting mode. Then, we realized we had this track that we’d been sitting on and something kind of clicked– maybe it was just the right time in the right place. We realized how to make it more modern by adding more trap elements to it, changing some of the chords around and adding that little “Bang Bang Bang” tag to it. Then, the concept just very quickly formed around it as soon as we had a track we thought was cool and mysterious sounding as opposed to evil.
Throughout a lot of your other tracks, you ponder how the process of growing up compares to both your own and societal expectations. Why do you think you’re drawn to that as a focal point?
You’re right, that’s a subject matter we touch on a lot. I’m not sure I think it’s what most that’s what fascinates me as a writer. I think often about my younger self, it’s just something that I can’t help but escape from. Like how would my younger self view me now? Is this what I wanted to be? Is this less than I what I wanted to be? Am I as social as I thought I would end up being? But yeah, my younger self, especially age 8-12 plays a really big part in who I am as a person, and therefore what kind of things I try to write about.
I think we try to chronicle each chapter of growing up, I suppose. Neotheater talks a lot about trying to hold on to your youth and not grow up and not learn the lessons that you often have to learn in your 20s. We made the whole album about that and we realized that in this fantasy world called Neotheater, which is this place where you could go where you didn’t need to learn any lesson. So we kind of created that world.
With “Bang,” we thought, okay, let’s start the next level of that. Let’s start the sequel to Neotheater a little bit where we’re forced to grow up a little bit. We’re doing all of the things that our parents did, we’re eating healthy, and we’re paying our taxes, but yet, something feels off. We don’t quite feel like grown-ups yet. But it’s inevitable it’s going to come so we’ll just go out with a bang.
I love the video for “Bang” – it has a real Wes Anderson vibe. What was the creative process behind that video?
This is probably our darkest song. We didn’t want to just do a dark video. We thought that’d be kind of obvious, like having a super dark palette. That wouldn’t feel genuine to us so we wanted to do a little bit of a twist on it. So we decided to do this kind of 1980’s Miami Casino vibe.
We dressed it all very much like a Wes Anderson movie with a very red color palette and a symmetrical frame with these very weird characters around us while we’re playing poker, or craps, or whatever we’re playing. Then we’re kind of delivering it very seriously to the camera. We wanted to do more of a quirky off-beat video more than a dark video.
I went to your last London show and it was an incredible almost sort of cinematic experience. How does it feel when you’re performing and how did the get to the stage of putting on a show like that?
Thank you for saying that. The live show is as equally important to us as the music. For a while, we just went on stage and played the songs. We kind of just followed the standard route of what a show is supposed to be. At a certain point, something clicked, and we started experimenting more. First, we were like what if we did a remix of an iPhone ringtone on stage? Oh, people react to that. Okay, what if we do a weird drum break down? Little by little, it started developing into a lot of stuff on stage that isn’t our songs. As soon as we were able to get the budget because we’ve toured and grew and grew and grew. We started throwing more and more money into the theatrics on stage.
I’m trying to think about what we did in London. I think it was a slightly smaller version of what we did in the States, but there’s a lot of interaction with the video wall. There’s Jack walking and the city is moving behind him and he takes out an umbrella because it’s raining. There’s like a making-of section where it visually shows how I produce a song – we kind of layout the Pro Tools session in a very digestible way that fits the stage. We try to do a lot. We try to do a lot of that stuff where people hopefully can’t look away. They have to look at the stage because they don’t know what’s gonna happen next.
What’s the process of deciding which songs had to have like an accompaniment? Did it all come together quite naturally?
That’s such a great question; no one has ever asked that question before. I think it’s just a gut feeling honestly. I think it’s like writing a movie where there’s no equation to it. It’s not like oh a song has to go here in the movie on the soundtrack because of certain reasons. It’s just a gut feeling of this feels like I’m on a little heightened experience.
I think we could probably just look at the way the songs sound, the way the songs have performed, like if they’re a more popular song, maybe we don’t do a theatrical that already has the element of everybody’s already singing along. So with one of our slightly lesser-known songs, maybe we give it a little push to have people not be able to look away because there’s something really cool visually happening.
You also have a section in the live show where you play excerpts of tracks you don’t play on the night. How did that idea come to be?
That idea came from now that we’re working on our fourth album, we just have too many songs to fit into a show. We’ve tapped into a very rare breed of band where they know every lyric to every word of our songs. It’s really exciting but after every show we always have fans coming up saying, Why didn’t you play “Pretender”? Or why didn’t you play this?
No matter what that’s just inevitable that as we make more and more music, there’s going to be more and more disappointment. So we thought, how do we give a little taste of that stuff? So we came up with this idea for this trumpet interlude where a trumpet player is walking in this weird matrix purple world, and he’s shooting up into clouds visually different pieces of different songs.
I think it’s probably rooted in musical theatre in the traditional overture, where, you know, in Phantom of the Opera or something they’ll play little bits of every song as musical instrumental versions, to give you a little taste of every song. I think it’s probably rooted in that, but it serves a different function because it’s in the middle of the show and they’re songs that you won’t hear again.
To touch on the ongoing situation, how does it feel to have this expanse of time and uncertainty after touring so relentlessly?
It’s very strange. Honestly, for us, we switch from touring mode to songwriting mode. So when we’re in touring mode, it’s very structural. It’s very you like you do what you’re told you. Like you go to the dressing room and then soundcheck. It’s almost hard for us to be creative and outside of the box in that situation. So as soon as we’re off tour, we get into creative mode. The silver lining of all this has been we’ve been very deep into creative mode. Basically, every day, we’ve been working on new songs. I think after all this is done, we’ll likely have something that really looks like an album. So it feels very weird to not know when we’re gonna tour this album, but it feels good to know that we’re gonna use this time productively, and we’ll have some art to show.
Neotheater is just over a year old. How does it feel to reflect back on that and the way your fans have taken to the songs?
It’s been very cool. Honestly, with AJR, it’s never been our goal to go viral in any way or like shoot up exponentially and have everybody know our name. It’s very much been like trying to make great albums and have every single album be a little bit bigger than the last. That concept has worked really well for us because every year we’re just growing and making more and more fans but in a very real way. So when we put out Neotheater it was that same kind of goal. Like it was like okay, the click did this well, and let’s try to one-up ourselves with something even more theatrical and bombastic. Then hopefully if people connect to it, we can then go and play even bigger venues. So it worked.
It feels incredible for us as a band, but it also feels incredible to watch people connect to these songs that were very risky for us. Like I said, we went even bigger and stranger. Whenever you do that you feel like you’re stepping off the cliff and you don’t know if you’re gonna land somewhere cool. So I think it feels very amazing that we actually landed somewhere cool.
Your track “Weak” explores resisting your urges in a really interesting way. That song is so popular, why do feel it garnered the response it has? In London there was such a visceral reaction to that song; people were like screaming along to the lyrics.
It’s possibly the most simple song that we’ve ever released– the hook is repeated three or four times; we don’t really have any other songs like that. So it’s interesting. It’s probably a good lesson in simplicity that if you come up with an idea that’s unique and but also really simple and digestible, it can connect to a whole range of people.
Your music is often very introspective and self-aware. During the creative process, are you ever thinking about how fans or listeners will interpret that? Or are you purely looking inwardly?
It’s a combination of both. I don’t like songs where it sounds like artists or the writers were trying to relate to me. Like writing a love song that just general enough so everyone can relate that doesn’t feel genuine to me at all. To me, that feels like something AI should have written. There’s a fine line between what’s going on in our lives that’s specific to us and how do we explode that into something that people can connect to and people can relate to.
I use this analogy sometimes of Finding Nemo. On the surface level, it’s a movie about fish swimming in the ocean and that’s specific to that situation. But in reality, it’s about fatherhood and trusting your son, and a sense of adventure. It’s about something deeper and more accessible and more general.
So if we try to look at that, let’s use “Weak” for example. We have our own vices for sure that we wrote the song about. We go into them a little bit with “one sip, one hit one kiss” part. Those are specific stories, but I think we were able to make it just accessible enough and simple enough so that everybody wants to sing it as an anthem.
I feel people are so passionate about your songs and quickly attribute their own meanings to them. Are you ever wary of explaining a songs’ origin and meanings? In the sense that it might influence sometimes interpretation.
Yeah, I think 100% takes some of it away. That’s another fine line. I really like to show the fans behind the scenes. I like to tell them that “Karma” is about Jack’s first therapy experience. We like to break down the production, as you saw, but you can definitely over-explain something. It can definitely take away some of the magic and the song suddenly becomes a little smaller, and not as far-reaching as soon as you explain it, so I think we definitely walk that line a little bit.
You said you’re working on your fourth album. How do you think that’s gonna be different from the previous albums you’ve released? Especially given the circumstances that you’re working on it in.
We don’t like repeating ourselves – that feels very boring. Lyrically, we’ve expanded the Neotheater universe a little bit. We thought that given that Neotheater is this fantasy world, where you don’t have to grow up and you don’t have to learn lessons, where do you go when you have to learn lessons?
So we explored that world and we kind of came up with a whole new concept. I think musically, the album’s probably a little bit darker. The subject matters are possibly a little bit more extreme. Like the lows are low and they’re about very sad things that have happened to us. But, the highs are also really high.
In terms of expectations you put on yourself as a band, do you ever feel sort of pressure to emulate the DNA of previous albums that you’ve been successful?
It’s something I constantly worry about. It’s something I wake up in the morning and worry about, to be honest. It’s not productive to worry about things like, “was this moment the peak of the band?” It does nothing for your career to worry about that. All you can do is just dive into the next album and make it the best it can be. As soon as you start to try to copy yourself and be like “Oh, we did this on Neotheater so we need to do that again,” it starts to become a recipe for disaster.
How do you come to terms with the fact that success is often at least partly out of your hands?
That’s the artist’s dilemma. All I have control over is me writing a song about something that happened to me. I cannot possibly control how anybody else is going to receive that. So all I can do is be the absolute most truthful I can be and stay away from being disingenuous. Fans are smart, they can sniff that out from a mile away. That has also never worked for any artist ever. So I think all I can do is keep mining my life and diving into the nuances of my childhood and my adulthood and try to think of more and more ideas that are outside of my comfort zone.
You’ve recently worked to erase medical debt and for your birthday you encouraged fans to plant trees for Adam’s birthday and saw over 10,000 trees funded in a single day. I’d love to hear about those schemes and what drawn you to them. There are so many worthwhile causes. For me personally, it can get overwhelming to know which ones to support.
I mean, the short answer is, I think that there’s no cause but more urgent and more important than sustainability and combating climate. So that’s our absolute number one cause. It‘s pretty obvious but if we don’t have an earth to live on then none of the other causes matter at all. I think that’s always been very true to us.
We travel so much so we do our absolute best to tour as green as possible and use as many sustainable products as possible. Adam, who works at the UN at the same time, is kind of an ambassador for that. Then with the other thing, we’re all in this very tough time right now and we’re trying to figure out how can we use this platform to help people that need it. So we decided to try to alleviate some medical debt in the US. So far, we’ve alleviated $3 million worth of medical debt, which feels pretty cool.
As you progress as a band, what values do you hope to stay true to?
I hope that we can keep surprising people because all of my favorite artists at one point or another have stopped surprising me. It’s such a disappointing feeling when your favorite band put out that one album that was worse than the last one. Then it just kind of kept getting more and more like a diluted version of themselves or the person themselves that they think the audience wants to see.
I think one of our biggest values is that we want to keep surprising people by keeping one step ahead of people. I think that’s what they actually want. They want to hear what’s going on in our lives in a way that they’ve never heard of before.