Maybe we’ve all been wrong about the All-American Rejects.
The Rejects, lead by songwriters Tyson Ritter (vocals) and Nick Wheeler (guitar), were always a bit hard to categorize. After all, though their emo-ready looks made them instant Alternative Press pinup stars, the sound of AAR was always closer to pop than rock, as if the band just couldn’t resist a good melody when it hit them. When recording their eponymous 2002 debut, Wheeler & Ritter often used tinny drum machines to flesh out their dual-guitar attacks, soon expanding into the full-band format with 2005’s mega-hit Move Along, a soaring guitar-pop disc that spawned hits like “Dirty Little Secret” and the title track. Now, with their new album When the World Comes Down having come out in December of last year, the Rejects are ready to once again conquer the charts and possibly the world.
When the World Comes Down
(Geffen; US: 16 Dec 2008; UK: Available as import)
There’s only one problem: they don’t really care.
When interviewing guitarist Nick Wheeler, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. When I mentioned burgeoning alt-rock acts like AP-darlings Forever the Sickest Kids, Wheeler responded simply: “I was gonna say ‘Who?’ but then you said AP and I’m like ‘Oh—yeah, I don’t really give a fuck anymore.’” Instead, he got excited by the mention of sugar-pop maestros Fountains of Wayne, noting that FOW bassist Adam Schlesinger wrote the Oscar-nominated theme song to the 1996 Tom Hanks film That Thing You Do! Instead of trying to categorize himself into any particular genre, all Wheeler would admit to is that “I like upbeat rock music that you can sing along to: that’s it.” Even when I asked him if he felt like he was selling out given the Rejects’ multitude of cross-promotions with the likes of Pepsi and Honda, Wheeler said that he didn’t care what people thought, instead asking, “Who wouldn’t want to design a Pepsi can and get 500 million of ‘em out in fuckin’ every Wal-Mart across the country?” With his celebrity, he’s presented with opportunities that most of us will never have, and instead of worrying about his standing with the rock community, he instead seizes every once-in-a-lifetime moment that he can, never once looking back with regret. When you take all of this into account, the band’s acoustic cover of Britney Spears’ “Womanizer” starts to make sense.
Though this interview was conducted a few weeks prior to the release of When the World Comes Down, it didn’t stop Wheeler from discussing how the band is terrible at picking out singles, how little he cares about matching the commercial success of his past albums, and how he’s only now overcoming his sudden and inexplicable two-year loss of love for music.
I think you’re at an interesting point right now, as you have an album coming out at the end of the year, and yet you’re still doing shows, fans themselves getting treated to a bunch of new tunes that they’re not necessarily familiar with. What’s that experience like?
Playing new stuff at shows is tough because we definitely feed off of the energy of the crowd, you know? So usually when you play a new song ... I mean, you go to shows of bands you like and a new song [comes up]: “Oh, I’m going to get a beer.” “I’m gonna take a piss.” You know? [Laughs.]
Yeah, right: exactly. Unfortunately that’s not the case with us: [the fans] actually want to hear those [songs], but that’s the problem. They stop moving around and doing things and they just listen; so it’s hard to really feed off of that, you know? You just have to go with it. But we’ve kind of figured it out: you kind of gotta to ease the new tunes in, and then when the record comes out it’s all new stuff.
I was reviewing the book Bit of a Blur by Blur bassist Alex James awhile back, and he noted how when the band had a new album in the works, they wound unleash a few new songs during some of their concerts; whichever one the crowd was singing along with before the end would be picked as the lead single. So, with that said, do fans responses during live shows ever change the development of your songs?
Um ... I don’t know. I mean, as far as singles go, we’ve never really been really good at picking them. [Laughs.] We wanted “Move Along” to be the first single last time around—I think it was the smarter choice to go with “Dirty Little Secret” and then hit ‘em with “Move Along”. Same thing this time around: there are some songs on the record that we like a lot more than “Gives You Hell”—which is the new single right now—but it’s got a great hook and it’s pretty undeniable and it’s a little different for us so that’s a little bit of a leap. I think last time around, “Dirty Little Secret” was kind of a nice little bridge between the first two records. It’s quite a detour—the sound of this one.
I have the feeling that—correct me if I’m wrong here—you guys sometimes get unfairly typecast as emo-rockers in the vein of the Drive-Thru Records stable and whatnot. There’s always a bit more of a pop edge to you guys. Do you ever feel that you guys get roped in with the likes of Forever the Sickest Kids or whoever is gracing the cover of Alternative Press at the time?
[Laughs.] I was gonna say “Who?” but then you said AP and I’m like “Oh—yeah, I don’t really give a fuck anymore.” But I don’t really care about getting categorized. Music is music, and I think that the categories are very broad. I like upbeat rock music that you can sing along to: that’s it—and I like to think that’s what we do. I mean, you know, if people have to compare us to fuckin’ sell us to their friends of whatever—that’s fine, I don’t care. We have, in the past, been lumped in with whoever was hot at the time, you know? First time it was fuckin’ Yellowcard and Good Charlotte. Last time it was Fall Out Boy. This time around, we just hope to fuckin’ lead the pack and not just be lumped in with some other new band. ‘Cos you know what? We’re still the band that’s still fuckin’ around.
In recent interviews, Tyson has mentioned how he doesn’t really care—at all—about matching the success of Move Along. He says that he’s confident that When the World Comes Down is filled with nothing but great songs, and that’s all you need. Do you share that same view? Would you be horribly disappointed if Move Along was your big album and now you’re in the same vein as Alien Ant Farm or some group that had some hits then faded off?
You know, I know that these songs are better and I know it’s a better record. It’s a really fuckin’ tough time for music right now, and I don’t know if something’s gonna just step up and just create some new revolution, you know—or if people are just going to lose interest altogether and just keep stealin’ music and buying one song at a time. You know Best Buy is selling vinyl—that’s a good sign. I think something needs to happen and I think something is about to happen ... but you can’t bet on that. At the end of the day, fuckin’ 20 years from now, I’m still gonna know, I’m gonna still believe that this is the best album we’ve ever done. Tyson’s right: that really is all that matters. I mean, right now, while we’re livin’ it, yeah of course we want it to match or beat the success of Move Along. But, you know, if it does it does. If it doesn’t ... it’s still the best record we’ve ever made.
That actually brings me to When the World Comes Down—plain and simple: why the title?
It’s actually taken from a song—it’s a lyric in a song—called “Mona Lisa” which is an acoustic song; you can probably find it on YouTube. We’ve played it a lot, actually, in the past year or two, and it ended up making the record. But the sentiment of the song is a much more hopeful outlook. The cover art and the title [of When the World Comes Down] is really negative and it fits for the times right now but when you actually get into the album, it makes a little more sense. It’s more saying [that] when the world does come down—whether it means [that] everybody’s biting the big one or it just means that you got fired today or it just means somebody fuckin’ shit in your cereal, I don’t know—when your world’s coming down, you have something or somebody there, ya know, [to] love, to make your life worthwhile and be happy ... even through all the shit.
Well that explains why you have crayons burning on the cover as well, as if all your childhood whims are now gone: you’re grown up now, so deal with it.
Which reminds me: I remember when your first album came out on DreamWorks, and there was the “9/10 score from Alternative Press” on a sticker plastered across the front of it, you guys suddenly be accepted into pop-punk community with a decent amount of credibility to boot. Then Move Along came out, and suddenly you guys are on TRL and doing cross-promotions with Pepsi and Anarchy Online and Madden NFL and so on and so forth. You seems that those albums courted very different fan bases: I know there are some purists who feel that you’ve sold out since your debut disc—does it feel that way at all to you? More importantly: do you even care?
Not really. I think truly selling out would be doing something that you don’t want to do or doing something on purpose that you know would “better your situation”, you know? I mean we’re still writing the songs we want to write, we’re still here fuckin’ working our ass off, we’re doing the same thing we’ve always done—we’re just way busier now. I don’t really feel the difference. I mean, we’re still having fun doing it and we’re still doing what we want to do because we want to do it. Every offer that comes in, we’re like “Do we want to do this? Yeah, it sounds like fun—yeah, sure! Let’s fuckin’ design a Pepsi can.” Yeah, who wouldn’t want to design a Pepsi can and get 500 million of ‘em out in fuckin’ every Wal-Mart across the country, or whatever? That’s cool—we got to do that. Then there’s some shit ... “Hey, do you want to put your song in this fuckin’ stupid teen romantic comedy?” “Meh.”
I have a feeling you’ve turned down a few of those.
Heh, yeah. Several. Some of them we even watch, went to the screening of, and we’re like “Nah, I don’t really feel it—let’s not do it.” We still pick and choose and we just do the stuff we want to do. We’re in a cool position where we do get a lot of great opportunities, like we’re doing the Honda Civic Tour next year and we get to design a fuckin’ car—that’s awesome! And we get a sweet deal if we want to buy one!
Going back to “Gives You Hell”, it strikes me as so very different from your other stuff, with the plain keyboard and simple beat—it’s almost minimalist. Why choose this as your leadoff track?
Like I said before, as far as picking singles, we’ve never been good at it. We weren’t 100% behind “Swing Swing” or “Dirty Little Secret” when they came out, you know? We didn’t know what should be the single. I think “Gives You Hell” is kind of a little homage to what we used to be about, when we did start [as] just me and Tyson and a drum machine. It’s very similar to where we began, where that first album came from, but then at the same time, it’s a different approach to it. It’s taking real instruments and making a more organic sound to it; I think the whole thing of this record has been keeping it real—and I don’t mean like “Keep it real!”—I mean like just keeping the sounds real and having fun with it, because honestly this song could’ve been anything. We could’ve made this song sound like it could’ve been on the last record, but why would we want to do that? It’s just having fun and not getting bored, you know? It’s always [about] keeping it fresh for ourselves and for our fans—hopefully they get it and they enjoy it. That’s what we got to wait and see.
It sounds like that if you wanted to make the same album over and over again, you’d just change your name to AC/DC.
[Laughs.] You know, it worked for them—that might not be a bad idea ...
Given how pop-oriented your material is, what can we expect next from Nick Wheeler? Are there going to be pop collaborations? Introverted solo albums? Deft turns into classical composition?
I love music, and doing it for a job can sometimes be really ... it can make your priorities shift. It’s really scary. I just want to get back on the road and get lost in playing music every night and love it again, ‘cos we’ve been working really fucking hard the last two years on this record. There were some really good times [and] there were some really depressing times, but that’s what makes the record such a great journey. I just want to fall in love with music again and, you know, do it for the rest of my life. Whether that means with this band, whether that means between records [I’m] producing other albums for other bands, yeah, or fuckin’ working on a score for a movie or a musical—whatever it is! It’s all I really ever knew how to do and it’s all I ever really loved doing. So it would be a shame not to continue anything like that, really.
Not to jump on what you just said too much, but it sounds like when you were working on this album, there was a point where you fell out of love with music, like there was something between touring and recording that just got to you. Am I reading that right?
Um—yes and no. I mean, when I say I want to fall in love with music again, I haven’t listened to any music in two years. Literally, I just shut everything out—even the shit that I love. It’s all just background noise to me. It’s really depressing. On the road, when I get off the bus and go walk to find the fuckin’ Starbucks, that’s when I would listen to tunes, you know, and I haven’t done that in two years. It’s a big bummer, man. I used to fuckin’ put on music and fall asleep—I don’t even do that anymore .... I think it’s just been that I’ve been so absorbed in our music and making When the World Comes Down that I haven’t really let myself open myself up to anything else. I think that can be a good thing. I think that always leads to the most original ideas. You’re not just being like, “Oh hey, I heard this cool thing: let’s try to recreate that.”
Well, this in fact brings me to the last question: in your career thus far, what has been your biggest regret, and—conversely—what’s been your proudest accomplishment?
Biggest regret ... I don’t know if there are regrets, man. Makin’ this whole record—each time we do this, it’s totally different, and I think every time it’s a learning experience, and each time we learn something new, we do something different. There’s been no wrong turns: there’s just been detours, and that’s what makes the journey and listening to this record such a fuckin’ trip. It’s a journey, and every song takes in a different direction. That’s pretty much what this whole experience has been, playin’ music and doing it for a living. I think proudest accomplishment—there’s been a lot of cool shit, man. I mean, between [the] VMAs and the [VH1’s] Rock Honors we did with Def Leppard, like, those are all fucking amazing moments. I think right now, the four of us, every single one of us, would say—hands down—[the] greatest accomplishment is this record right now, because we are so absorbed in it. We love nothing more than this right now. We’ve got families and girlfriends who haven’t seen or heard from us in a long time, and we just got the final master yesterday, and it’s going to be really fucking weird when it’s over. [Laughs.]