Compromising Me: An Interview with William Beckett

The last time William Beckett graced the stage at Warped Tour, he was fronting emo pop-rock act the Academy Is… in 2008 and was finally on the verge of the big mainstream breakthrough so many fans assumed was inevitable. Instead, the Academy Is… stands as an example for many as to what major label politics can do to a promising indie band, as the group parted ways in 2011 under continued pressure and frustration to deliver radio-worthy material.

In its wake, the band left some of the most classic and revered music the scene has known. Although The Academy Is… was no more, there was never a doubt that Beckett was done creating. Indeed, he emerged last year with three new EPs as part of his new solo endeavor before being signed to Equal Vision Records and recording what will be his first full album as a solo artist. That album, Genuine and Counterfeit, maintains the heart of what fans have grown to love from Beckett, but explores new sonic territory as a brave, forward-thinking pop record.

Beckett spent the summer on Warped Tour’s acoustic basement stage, playing songs both new and old, and was kind enough to meet up and chat with PopMatters about his past, present, and future endeavors as one of the most well-known vocalists in the scene.

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The last time you were on Warped Tour was back in 2008 with the Academy Is… What’s it like being back now as a solo artist?

Well, it’s sort of like playing NBA Jam, you know? You take a step away and then once you get it again, it’s like, “Yeah, okay I remember this.” Not like riding a bike, which is what people usually say in this circumstance. Honestly, being solo on this tour for the first time, I’ve experienced a lot of new things. But at the same time, I know what it takes to survive on Warped Tour. I love Warped Tour. Being a veteran, I feel like I’m conditioned for it, so I don’t get the fatigue as much as maybe some first timers are.

But it’s cool, man. I’ve made more friends, seen old friends, rekindled old friendships, new fans, old fans — it’s just been really great. Number one for me is interacting with my fans and I’ve been doing that every day in every city, so it’s just been really fulfilling and successful.

What has the response been like so far to the new material?

It’s been great. I’m in the Acoustic Basement tent, and every single day I have one of the biggest crowds there. I didn’t know what to expect going into this tour. Today for instance, in Cincinnati — it’s not a city where a lot of people are like, “Yeah, Cincinnati is my best place to play and so many people come out.” But it was one of my biggest crowds on the whole tour. It’s just been really great to see people embrace my evolution as an artist as well as… we’re all growing up, we’re all getting older, and our tastes are changing, so I’m just embracing what my tastes are and they just so happen to coincide with what a lot of people are responding to.

I also play an Academy Is… song during my set because I think it’s important, especially for a lot of people seeing me for the first time on this tour as a solo artist. I think it’s important to respect the past and honor what we accomplished and what that meant for so many people, including myself. So yeah, it’s been a really great tour.

So with the new album coming out, how are you feeling as you get closer to the release?

I’m excited, man. I worked extremely hard on the album. It’s by far my favorite that I’ve done so far, including my band. And a lot of those feelings in the beginning of starting my band, I’ve reconnected with, because in most ways, I’m starting over again as a band or an artist. I’m not the Academy Is… anymore, I’m just me now.

So it’s a full band album — it’s a live band, big and swirling and dynamic and there are peaks and valleys. You know, I care more about the fans, but so far the press on it and the reviews have been really overwhelmingly good, so I’m stoked on it.

I remember that towards the end of your time in the Academy Is…, there was a lot of pressure on you as far as your writing goes. What’s been the biggest difference this time around, writing for your solo project?

That’s a good question. I think the biggest thing that we were running into when writing the fourth record for Academy was fishing for the singles. Being on a major label, that’s all that really matters to them, and when it comes down to it, it’s about having a single that you can push to the masses. So we were writing a bunch of stuff for a year that we thought was amazing, and we showed it to them and they were like, “Oh, we don’t really hear a single.” So we went back and went back and went back.

For me personally, I felt like I was completely drained — I wasn’t writing for the right reasons, I wasn’t writing from a true place in my soul anymore. I was just writing to please a label and to please everyone else except for me. So my writing was struggling big time. I was not writing anything close to what I am now. When I was able to break free from it all, immediately I went on a creative tear and I wrote something like 40 songs in 45 days.

From those, I chose 13 to record and that’s when a bunch of labels started to approach me, after my EPs. Obviously I did my EPs and then we expressed interest and wanted to partner up with a label and a bunch of labels started talking to me. Then Equal Vision called me and it was a no-brainer. After one conversation, I knew. They heard what I was working on lately, which is what my new album is, and they were just blown away. So it was a really great opportunity and a really cool partnership to release this record on this label.

For everyone that got excited about the EPs you put out, what can people expect as far as the full album goes? Is there a carry over in general direction?

I think it’s more of a conceptual and lyrical carry over. I’m essentially picking up where I left off as far as trying to make a relationship work so that the EPs are sort of like the early days in a relationship. Everything’s fun and there’s these little challenges here and there, but then the record really picks up and expands on that concept of the full arc of a relationship and how truly difficult it is to keep something together — even if it’s a relationship with your family, your friends, or even yourself or your own self confidence.

It’s very much a roller coaster, emotionally. Sonically, when you listen to the EPs, it’s clear that I’m experimenting and trying different things for different songs and different EPs. But I really honed it in with my producer Marc McClusky and it’s a very cohesive sounding album from front to back. I think it’s more epic than any of the EP stuff was.

You talked about playing an Academy Is… song in your set today. The Academy Is… was a band that had a very defined fan base. You obviously want to gain new fans, but as with any situation like this, you’re going to be bringing over a lot of those older fans. Is that something that matters to or concerns you?

No, it’s like anything like that. If you’re a fan of Genesis, you’re going to go see Peter Gabriel when he goes solo or Phil Collins. I know all of those dudes wrote the songs, so of course I’m going to go check them out because it’s the same songwriters just expanding upon a new chapter in their creative life.

So for me, I think it makes sense. On the other side of that, I think sometimes people are dismissive when a band breaks up and the singer does his own thing, or when any of the band members do their own thing. But I combat that with just having songs that are better and songs that relate better and are true. I think it’s clear, even if you listen to the last Academy record compared to what I’m doing now, it’s a much more mature sound.

So talk about the plans you have going forward after Warped Tour, supporting the new album.

Sure, my album comes out August 20th, so I’m going home and doing a bunch of press in August and then I’m going to Australia with Anberlin and the Maine in September. After that, there’s a tour that I can’t talk about yet because it’s in the works, but it’s going to be a full U.S. tour and I’ll be supporting a really awesome artist and that’ll be the next step.

When you have time during the day at Warped, is there a particular band or artist you go out of your way to see?

Yeah, I’m doing a bunch of cameos and stuff. I go up and sing on Never Shout Never’s set, which is where I’m going from here. I sing with a few other people, but my stage, the Acoustic Basement stage, and not to take anything away from any other stage on this tour, but it’s the most diverse and has the highest concentration of talent and individuality. You can’t hide behind tracks and you can’t hide behind a wall of guitars and drums — it’s just you, your voice, and your instrument and you need to just kill it. And if you don’t, people know how bad you really are or how good you really are if you excel in that environment. And I excel in that environment because I love playing and performing for people, so it’s a high priority to do it well.

So other artists like Billy the Kid or Vinnie Caruana, who’s in I Am the Avalanche and the Movie Life, are on our stage. Charlie Simpson is a U.K. phenom and he’s here for the second time ever and is just amazing. It’s also cool to see bands like Chiodos and Craig Owens be able to do his set with his band that’s like a rock ‘n’ roll set and then go and do the Acoustic Basement stage each day and show a different side of himself. I think that’s just really cool.

For those of us who grew up in this scene, there was probably tunnel vision for a lot of us where we didn’t listen to things outside of this scene a lot. I love how you covered Ryan Adams today — is sharing some of these influences and artists with your audience something that you value now?

I think, for sure. I mean, really, my influences are just my influences. I don’t overthink it. We used to overthink it so much. I don’t even think it was tunnel vision — but maybe it was because we thought we just knew it but no one else knew. We had it figured out and no one else had it figured out. And that’s a problem, because there is a very, very short ceiling for that sort of thinking. You know, some of these bands are going to figure that shit out in a couple of years. They’re going to figure that out the hard way.

If you don’t have an open mind and don’t try to expand and advance your art, I think you’re the one that’s going to suffer the most, and then your music, and your fans are going to notice and it’s going to be over. For me, it’s just embracing all of my influences, from my classic rock influences to my ’80s pop and new-wave shoegazer influences, to early ’90s and modern music like Metric and the Killers. And that’s influenced by Bruce Springsteen, and it’s a cyclic thing. You know, it’s a never-ending recycle of influence and I feel like when you take one of the corners of a triangle out, it’s going to fall apart, so that’s how I feel about it.