Photo: Ryan Russell

Going Forward and Looking Back with Taking Back Sunday

The original lineup is still back, and Taking Back Sunday happily tell us about their Long Island origins and the real subject of "There's No 'I' in Team".
Taking Back Sunday
Happiness Is: The Complete Recordings

Taking Back Sunday has accomplished a seemingly impossible task: reunite a beloved original line-up which doesn’t merely rely on nostalgia, but creates new music that resonates with old fans.

Guitarist/vocalist John Nolan and bassist Shaun Cooper’s 2010 return to the band was a cause for celebration for fans who felt Taking Back Sunday had lost their way amidst a never-ending series of personnel changes. Happiness Is, the second record since the reunion, reached number one on Billboard’s Top Independent Albums chart. This February, the album was rereleased with previously unheard b-sides and acoustic tracks.

Taking Back Sunday is in many ways the face of the early ’00s explosion generally labeled, and often dismissively, as emo. That scene was always associated with teen angst and adolescent fervor, yet Taking Back Sunday’s new records combine the rollicking spirit of their old catalog with a new world-weary sensibility. John Nolan spoke with PopMatters about getting the band back together, their Long Island origins, who they’d love to tour with, and the real subject of “There’s No ‘I’ in Team”.

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How did the idea of rereleasing Happiness Is with the b-sides and acoustic songs come about?

This tour that we’re doing right now is going to be probably our last full U.S. tour in support of the album and we wanted to have something new to go along with it. The b-sides that we recorded for the album, we really loved every one of those songs, but we had really tried to make the record something that really felt like a complete piece and kind of took you on a journey from start to finish. We ended up leaving the songs out that we left just because we didn’t feel like they were … you know, they just didn’t seem to fit in the right places for us. But we really wanted people to hear them, and so we figured let’s put them all out and rerelease the whole thing.

The acoustic tracks are all songs that were from the original album Happiness Is. How do you think those songs benefited from getting that pared-down acoustic treatment?

Well, there’s one song in particular that I feel like works really well, it’s a song called “Like You Do”. Actually, after we recorded it, we kind of felt like it would have been a better version to have on the album. But in general with all the acoustic songs we did, we just like giving people that other side of the band and, you know, kind of showcasing the songs in a different kind of way. We like to do that whatever we can.

Happiness Is was the band’s first label on an independent record in a decade. How does that influence the final product?

Well, we made the album without any input from any label. We actually recorded it before we were signed. So that was kind of a different experience than the self-titled record. The label would want to hear things along the way, and would occasionally give some feedback on things. We had ended up not feeling very good about that process when we went through it on the self-titled album, so we wanted to just do something that the only influence came from the band and the producers. And I think it ended up making the album a little more true to what we naturally do.

What were some of the challenges you had with the process of recording the previous album?

One thing about it was that we had just gotten back together when we put that album together and I think we all clicked in having worked together so much in the past. But, there was also sort of a learning process that happened during that album of us learning how to work together and the way that the band had been making records was very different than what Shaun and I were used to coming back into it. That was definitely like a process of reworking things and then, you know, like I said, I think the label at that time was pretty nervous and unsure about what was going to happen. And I think we tried not to let that affect us too much, but I think it definitely had some affect when you know the label is sort of behind you worrying about what you’re going to do and how it’s going to sell.

Tell All Your Friends and Where You Want to Be were seminal records for a lot of teenagers and people in their early 20s. Those fans that have stayed with you, do they look for you to mature with them? Or do they want you to rekindle those old youthful emotions?

I think a lot of our fans have stuck with us since then. We talk to a lot of people who have been coming to see us live for like ten years or more. We feel pretty fortunate for that and you know I think that people have grown with us. There is always that challenge of people wanting to kind of relive something. I think that the way we’ve worked with it is that when we do a live set, we try to give that to people as much as we can, like that reliving some of those old songs and those old emotions. And as far as like recording and writing, I think we look at that as a place where we have to be very true to where we’re at right now and hope that people can get into it with us.

It seems like an uphill battle for any band that was ever labeled as emo to be taken seriously. Do you think the initial success you guys had has altered the way people look at your newer music?

I’m not really sure. Like I said, I think there’s a couple of things that happened because of the Tell All Your Friends success. I think it meant a lot to a lot of people, and I think, like I said, that they will sometimes expect something from us. I think there are people who somehow want us to do that again. And I don’t think that that’s possible at all. I don’t know if everybody understands that. And then I think there’s other people who heard Tell All Your Friends and hated it and probably never gave us a chance after that, that probably if they did they might be surprised at what they hear and that they might even like it.

You guys are associated with Long Island more than most bands are typically associated with their hometown. Why do you think that is?

Well, one reason is because there was such a scene on Long Island. It was not like we just came out of Long Island alone. There was a scene going back, really like a decade before Taking Back Sunday came along. There was this groups of bands, there was a ton of different things, like hardcore bands, punk bands, whatever, that all created this whole thriving scene. When we came along, that sound that kind of had been developed in that scene was starting to get a lot of attention outside of Long Island. And then when we took off, I think the fact that a band like Brand New who was also from Long Island, who was also taking off at the same time. It was kind of like people were starting to look at that place and be like “Well something must be going on there.” I think it got people’s attention that it was happening on Long Island, you know.

What was the moment when you personally realized that Taking Back Sunday wasn’t just going to be a hobby or a fun thing to do as a young adult, but was actually going to be a big success and a big part of your life?

There was a tour that we did, it was probably the summer after Tell All Your Friends had been released and things had been going well, but we were still in a van and we didn’t really know how well things were going. I think things were actually going better than we understood, but that was the tour that we started to see it. I remember shows were getting sold out so quickly, they kept moving us to bigger venues and that bigger venue would sell out. And then we were getting bonus money for every time that happened. And it was the first time we actually came home and had money, like we made money from the tour. Up until that point it had really been like, you take off work and you hope that you can get through the tour and then you get back home and start working again. And so that was a really big one for me, like coming home and being like, ‘Wow, I’m not like just struggling to get by right now, we are actually kind of making a living doing this.’

You guys just kicked off your US tour. You’re putting a lot of dates in a pretty compact timeframe: 32 shows in 46 nights. What prompted that jam-packed schedule?

Well, it’s tough on us, but I think the thing that we always feel like is if we’re going to be out on the road and we’re going to be away from our families, we might as well be working. It feels a little bit weird to us sometimes if we have like two days off every week or something. It would be relaxing, but at the same time, we’re away from home, we’re out here trying to do what we can to make a living to provide for our families. So taking a lot of the days off and just kind of hanging out doesn’t really seem to make sense. So we usually try to do it this way almost every tour. You just do as much as you possibly can and rest when it’s over.

Are the crowds still as wild as they always were, or have things calmed down a bit?

It’s extremely loud every night, it’s amazing. It’s one of my favorite things about the shows, is hearing the crowd sing back. We have in-ear monitors that we use now, so it deadens the noise in the room a little bit. But every night, at least one point in the set, I’ll take them out so I can just hear everybody singing as loud as it really is, and yeah, it’s great, I love it.

Who would you guys love to tour with? Either as a headliner or an opener?

I just went out last night (we had a day off) and I got to see Cursive play. They were just so good, it’s been so long since I’ve seen them, I kind of almost forgot how good they were. And I was thinking, I would love to take them out on tour. I don’t know if they would ever be interested in something like that, but for me as a fan that would be amazing.

A big one for us to be taken out by would be a band like Pearl Jam. We all kind of look up to that band and have been fans for a long time. Again, that’s not really something that I see happening, but that would be amazing for us.

Can you address the rumors that the lyrics to “There’s No ‘I’ in Team” are really about your feud with Tupac?

[laughs] That’s a very good question. I can. It’s all true.

Splash image: press photo by Ryan Russell