All Time Low isn’t new to this. Now in their 20th year as a band, the veteran rockers released their 9th studio album, Tell Me I’m Alive, last week, capping off the release day with a sold-out show at Wembley Arena in London, England. The date was the second last of an 18-stop cross-Europe tour that brought them to 12 countries in the consonant and the UK.
Just hours after the group landed back in Los Angeles from England, frontman Alex Gaskarth and lead guitarist Jack Barakat chatted with me over Zoom to discuss the new record, how covid changed things, who they are listening to right now, and how they are navigating their first ‘normal’ release cycle in almost six years. When the band’s PR reached out to offer this interview with a group that has been a stalwart in my annual Spotify Wrapped summary year after year, I had to fight the urge not to reply to the email with “Dear Maria, Count Me In.”
Everyone’s tired of covid. In terms of lyricism on this album, you guys obviously are too. Talk to me about how making a pandemic album changed your creative process.
Alex: I think the biggest shift for us was that this came on the heels of our last album. We sort of switched right back into creative mode, we didn’t have access to touring the way that we usually have in the past, which has been putting out an album and getting right out on the road and touring for two years and sort of really not even thinking about what the next creative process is going to look or feel like.so I think a big thing was just we never switched out of that mindset. We took a few months to promote Wake Up, Sunshine in any new and original way that we could but outside of being on the road, we kind of said ‘let’s get back to writing.” So I think, you know one of the interesting things about this record is that the very beginnings of it started not long after Wake Up, Sunshine came out. Some of those songs ended up coming out a little prior to the record; there was “PMA,” and “Once In A Lifetime,” and those songs kind of acted as a bridge. But they lead us into songs like “Sound Of Letting Go” and “I’d Be Fine” and “The Way You Missed Me” – pretty formative songs for the album that came shortly after. We didn’t really miss a beat, we didn’t have this period of remembering how to write again. For that reason, we stayed in this great creative flow. When it came time to make the album and decide to consciously say ‘okay we’re going to put a record together’ there was this massive batch of songs to choose from that had already been in the works. We already knew what we wanted to hit on – there was already a clear theme, the messages and concepts of isolation and loneliness and what something like the pandemic did, not only in the global sense but what it did to individuals, and coming back into the world as it normalized, seeing things like relationships and love and connection and loneliness and loss through the lens of everything we all had just lived through.
Jack: The way Alex explained it was perfect, in the sense of when we went and tried to round out the record, decide the track listing – some of those songs had been written two years ago, and some were written two weeks ago. So that definitely was the hardest part, to make it all cohesive. I feel like we did a good job of picking the songs that felt right together.
Going back to The Party Scene album in 2005, the time between Wake Up, Sunshine and Tell Me I’m Alive is the longest stretch between ATL albums, topping the 1036 days between Last Young Renegade and Wake up, Sunshine by 42 days.
Jack: Is that true? Wow, I didn’t even know that. Thats wild.
How much of that is a byproduct of Wake Up, Sunshine being released during lockdown and thus a delay in normal post-release activities like touring? Or is that you guys wanting to ensure you have a fully normal release cycle?
Alex: I think that was definitely a part of it. Another big part of it was us making up for the lost time when touring did become a factor again. Once we could get back on the road, it felt like we had a lot to make up for. Even later into things reopening we still weren’t able to get over to places like Europe and Australia on that record cycle. We were trying to get as much in as we could while still feeling like we were in that world of Wake Up, Sunshine before we moved on. That record had a lot of moments for us despite the pandemic. We had one of our biggest songs off that record connect. We didn’t want to do that song and that record a disservice by breezing past it and going “okay, here’s new music.” We weren’t ready to let it go from an in-person and a performance standpoint just yet.
Jack: Yeah, Wake Up, Sunshine came out in April of 2020, and we didn’t get to start touring it until August 2021 – about a year and a half after the release.
Alex: Because typically by that time we are thinking about making an album.
Jack: Because touring didn’t come back until late summer of 2021, that really set us backwards.
You’ve really leaned into online social media video content outside of music videos. Sometimes it’s in-studio videos of you guys recording songs, sometimes it’s skits. Talk to me about the strategy of expending energy on that medium beyond traditional music videos.
Jack: That’s a great question. Personally, for me, I grew up watching blink-182 documentaries, blink DVDs – bands used to put out DVDs of them being in the studio and writing songs and creating the music. I used to love that stuff as a fan growing up, but it was really hard to find back then. You were just on Youtube or Napster trying to find these videos. It wasn’t readily available to us back then. I think it’s super cool and unique to watch that side of being in a band. Watching Alex record vocals now, back then I was obsessed with watching Mark Hoppus record vocals. So every time we are in the studio writing, I’m filming. Every time Alex is tracking vocals or guitar or someone doing drums, I try to record all of it because I think it’s so special and such a cool way to bring fans into that world and show them something they don’t get to see very often. Not only tracking but writing – sometimes Alex will be singing stuff that isn’t what goes on the record and I think that’s even cooler.
I crunched the Spotify numbers, and aside from the pre-order campaign singles doing well, the tracklist performed well over the weekend. Do you get caught up at all in the stats and figures of a release like this? Or do you have personal metrics for success, like cultural impact?
Alex: Good question. I try not to concern myself with too much with the metrics of everything, because if I did I would become a little obsessive. My tendency would be to overthink it and look too much into ‘why isn’t this song working?’ To me, it’s such a natural process – making music and putting music out. I have to emphasize so much to myself in the creative process, as I go through the ebbs and flows of loving something and then hating it than loving it again. I have to rely on my own sensibilities to go ‘I remember the moment I loved this song, as we wrote this in the studio. That’s the part that’s important. If I get hung up on the fact that a song came out and it’s only the 5th highest performing song on the record then I’m like ‘oh no, next time we go in and write a song that there’s any kind of hesitancy around, I’m going to overthink it to death. I really try not to get tangled up in that stuff. The big thing that matters to us is the latter part of what you said, and the noticeable effect that it has later on our fanbase, and fans in general. When songs put their hands up and take hold in the… I hate using this word… but the zeitgeist of All Time Low culture. Whether it’s a “Dear Maria (Count Me In),” “Some Kind Of Disaster,” “Weightless,” or “Therapy” – none of those songs and at any given moment did we expect to have a bigger grasp or reach than anything else. I love that payoff down the line of going ‘okay, this means something to people’ and it connected in this broader sense, but beyond that, I try not to focus on it.
Jack: That’s a great way to say that, but it reminds me of a song we have called “Dark Side of Your Room” which was never a single, it never streamed high, it was not even a standout track, but we play it live at every single show – it’s one of the biggest songs we do.
Alex: And since then, the streaming has actually trended up.
Jack: Because people at the show are checking it out. I feel like that, to us, is more important to us is how the songs are connecting live. That’s what we gauge when it comes to metrics.
I love that in that answer you didn’t mention my favorite song, “Six Feet Under The Stars.”
Alex: That’s another one that’s become a massive staple in our catalog because as a song and a concept it’s very localized in that, we’ve always really embraced being a Baltimore band. That song itself anchors itself in our hometown. There’s a creative appeal to the fans in that one. It’s an important part of the narrative arch of All Time Low.
March 17 is the earliest in a calendar year that All Time Low has released an album. Talk to me about the significance of the timeline of this release cycle.
Jack: I feel like we’re learning more in this interview than you are. *laughs*
Alex: That’s actually really interesting. Part of it is just us wanting to get these songs out as fast as possible, with the realization that we wanted a little extra time to tour Wake Up, Sunshine. Going into 2023, why wait? Let’s get our record out at the top of the year, let’s hit the ground running and get back on the road. It felt like coming out of the pandemic, by then we would probably going to have a pretty good grasp on how things stand globally. Whether or not we could tour, etc. Whether countries are opening their borders back up, all of that. Even in 2022, there were moments we weren’t sure if we would be able to get to Europe or Japan.
Jack: These shows are booked 5 or 6 months in advance, when they were booked as Alex said, we weren’t sure if countries would allow us in. You kind of book them and hope and pray.
Alex: We didn’t want to go too early with new music and find ourselves in another position where we couldn’t play all over Europe. It was that meeting up with just wanting to get something out as quickly as possible.
Jack: We booked the Wembley Arena show and the timing made sense to make that a special night to release the record – it ended up working out perfectly. It donned on us that was the perfect time to do it, in a city that’s embraced us so grandly.
Speaking of the aforementioned Wembley gig last week, you played a few songs off of the new album. Which other Tell Me I’m Alive tracks are you excited to test out on the road?
Alex: We’ve been having this conversation a lot. That’s always the biggest thing going into the release of a new album. We don’t like to inundate crowds with 10 new songs in a set, because it feels a little overbearing, and nobody wants that. There is always that balancing act of wanting to promote new songs, we want to familiarize the audience and get people used to what we are doing creatively now, as opposed to what we were doing 15 years ago. I’m very excited to play “Are You There” live, “English Blood // American Heartache.” “Kill Your Vibe” could be a really cool one live. Ones that feel very energetic and All Time Low cornerstone songs, staples. Outside of that, the ones that push the envelope sonically and creatively for us in a musical sense, “New Religion”, and “Calm Down” we’ve only played a few times so far – introducing that to the set really adds something that’s pretty cool.
You’ve had features on each of the last couple of albums. What have you picked up from those people and instituted in your own creative processes?
Alex: That’s an interesting one. I think with all of the features, the focus is always to do things that are unexpected or outside of the box. Like Tegan and Sara, blackbear, Teddy Swims, they’re all not really from within our genre, they’re not our direct peers across the lane. That always adds something special creatively and musically, because they bring something that isn’t in our nature as writers. blackbear’s instincts and what he did rhythmically and sonically with [Monsters] is so different from anything I would have conceptualized or written. Obviously, those kinds of experiments can go wrong, but in these cases, we’ve been really lucky that that line of thinking has taken the songs to a new level. It was the same with Teddy Swims, he came in with these different sensibilities. He’s a much more soulful singer than I am, the way approaches things, it’s not just fast and loud. While I’m trying to be more dynamic as a singer, my delivery is always going to come from a place of energy and anthem. Teddy is coming from a place that’s more soulful. What he introduced to that song definitely informed me of what I take away from it. Now I’ll think, whenever I’m writing a song, ‘What would Teddy do?’
Jack: Every single take [Teddy] would do, he would do a different melodic run. It was kind of interesting trying to figure out which was the best for the song.
Alex: It’s exciting when you work with someone like that because it was the same with Demi [Lovato] when we did the remix of “Monsters” – there’s so much talent and ability there, so with every take you can go, ‘okay great, try something different’ and it’s not about staking ten takes of the same thing to try and get the perfect take. Instead, you find these nuggets of gold at every single pass, and that was really cool to watch with Teddy.
Other than creating, how did you guys fill your time during the pandemic?
Both: A lot of video games.
Jack: Luckily I was in Los Angeles where there’s a lot of outdoor stuff to do, so I was going to the beach, and hiking a lot. We’re big gamers though.
Alex: It was equal parts staying inside and writing music and playing video games and binging movies. But nature was very grounding in those moments when it was so easy to get cooped up and there was a lot of fear of even going outside.
Jack: I was hiking with a mask on. There was so much fear in how it spread.
Alex: I understood the not wanting to be around people and the need for isolation, but at the same time, being separated from people didn’t mean you had to stay inside. I definitely sought out stuff like walking in the woods which was really good.
Who are you listening to right now that doesn’t have enough ears on their music?
Alex: The two artists we just had with us on tour – it’s not just my bias because I love them as people, they are really solid artists. Games We Play is making really rad new pop-punk music, and Lauran Hibbard, is a great British artist with who we’ve worked on some songs. Her record is phenomenal, front to back, really cool, great vibe. I can’t recommend it enough.
Jack: It’s the new age of artists.