Adam Lazzara: “Sometimes you don’t want to remember the person you used to be... but it helps to make peace with yourself”

Taking Back Sunday frontman Adam Lazzara reflects on the past two decades and what he learned about himself along the way…

Adam Lazzara: “Sometimes you don’t want to remember the person you used to be... but it helps to make peace with yourself”
Mischa Pearlman
Header photo:
Andrew Lipovsky
Originally published:

In 2001, Adam Lazzara moved from North Carolina to Long Island to join a band called Taking Back Sunday. Their bassist, Jesse Lacey, had recently left to start his own band, Brand New, so guitarist and vocalist John Nolan asked if Adam wanted to step in.

Legend has it that he wasn’t entirely serious, but Adam jumped at the chance and made the move. Later that year, he put down the bass to become the band’s frontman. In March 2002, Taking Back Sunday released their debut album, Tell All Your Friends, breaking the hearts of all who listened to their unfiltered, earnest, angst-filled songs, catapulting them on to the bedroom walls of a generation of similarly-minded fans.

Now 38, Adam has returned to live in his native North Carolina with his wife and their three children. His life has changed significantly since he joined the band, but Taking Back Sunday have also gone through numerous changes, honing and shifting their sound – slightly or dramatically – with each new record, trying to shake off the ‘emo’ tag that has followed them around since their debut album.

The band – who have had multiple line-up changes over the years and who recently became a four-piece after the departure of founding member and guitarist Eddie Reyes – celebrated their 20th anniversary last year. With bassist Shaun Cooper and drummer Mark O’Connell in tow, they marked the occasion with the retrospective compilation, Twenty, that included two new songs.

Today we find Adam in a particularly contemplative, humble and philosophical mood as he takes stock of his life, both in the band and beyond it.

“It’s such a longshot,” he says of their two-decade anniversary. “We’re the luckiest people I know. So many people want to do this, but I’m one of the guys that gets to. It’s crazy.”

It doesn’t seem that long ago since Taking Back Sunday were celebrating the 10th anniversary of Tell All Your Friends, and last year you hit the big 2-0. Is there a marked difference between these two landmark anniversaries?
“Well, we’re all those years older! But I feel like with the Tell All Your Friends 10-year shows, there was a great deal of nostalgia happening. This time it feels more like a celebration.”

Is there an emotional toll to singing, say, Cute Without The ‘E’ or You’re So Last Summer live all these years later?
“I wouldn’t really say it’s an emotional toll. Those songs – and even with [2006 single] MakeDamnSure or things off of [2014 album] Happiness Is – take on their own life once you have the crowd singing back at you. It’s almost like there’s no separation. You become part of the crowd. It’s all one thing – you’re all the same electricity. It’s more like I end up getting lost in that moment, whether that’s taking me back to the time it was written or just being 100 per cent present in that moment we’re playing. It’s escapism at its finest, and I’ve never experienced anything like it – and I’ve done a lot of things over the years.”

A lot of your songs are very visceral and emotional, almost like pouring salt in wounds. To consider them as escapist now is almost a complete turnaround from their original intent.
“Yes, it is. Because it starts as this thing that is essentially helping you come to terms with your reality at that time. Later on it becomes this thing that’s helping you take a step outside of your reality. That’s an interesting thing and I’ve never thought about it like that. But it’s very true and that’s one of the things that makes it so great. One of the things that I realised when listening through everything on Twenty is that with each record it’s been this perfect snapshot of the people we were at that time. It’s like going through an old yearbook. And sometimes you don’t want to remember the person you were at a certain time, or maybe you don’t want to be that person again, or you don’t want to recognise that side of yourself, but I feel like it helps, for me, to come to terms with and make peace with myself. Like, there were dark times and there were bright times – it’s a full package deal. That’s very therapeutic.”

Listening back to those songs, are you able to relate to the person you were when you were first writing them?
“There’s definitely certain songs where I can hear my younger self singing this stuff, but I can’t remember feeling that way. But then it’s more like going through an old family album and you see these pictures from five or 10 years ago, and you look at that person and you recognise them and you know who they are, but you know you’re not the same because you’ve experienced life and a lot has happened in that time. But it’s still part of who you are now, because that’s who you were then.”

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned in the past two decades?
“That it’s okay to admit when you’re wrong. And trying to live in the moment you’re in, to be fully present. That’s still something I’m working on and probably always will be. It’s so easy to get wrapped up in what you have to do tomorrow or something that just happened or just life. To really be present and fully there? That’s where the good stuff is.”

Were there times where you weren’t present that you regret? Is there anything you would do differently now that you have the knowledge and wisdom of being older?
“Man, I don’t know about having a lot of knowledge or wisdom. Sure, there are some things I would like to have handled differently, but I don’t think I would change anything, simply because if it wasn’t for that thing happening, then I wouldn’t be where I am now. We wouldn’t be having this conversation. It’s like the butterfly effect – you change one little thing and it throws everything else off-kilter. So I don’t think I would change anything. But also, I think it’s a damaging thing – and I still do this – if you look back and say, ‘Man, what if?’ That’s not very healthy, because then you’re not appreciating where you are right then or giving credit to the person you are because you made the decisions you did.”

That sounds almost antithetical to the spirit of some of those early Taking Back Sunday songs. The Adam Lazzara of back then would be too hung up on the past, right?
“Oh yeah. And there’s also that saying, ‘If you love something, let it go – and if it comes back you know it’s the real deal.’ In a certain sense there are pieces of yourself that you let go of too, but they come back later and that’s when you realise, ‘Oh, okay, this is shaping up okay. I can be the kind of man that I want to be.’”

How has fatherhood changed you?
“That’s a really big question. It’s hard to see when you’re in it. It’s hard to for me to look at myself and be like, ‘You’ve changed this way since you’ve had kids.’ I think I’m a little more cautious. When you’re in your early 20s it’s like, ‘Fuck it, I’m going to live forever!’ and you do stupid things. I don’t do that anymore. And there have been a lot of times when I’ve called my dad like, ‘Hey, I’m going through whatever with [oldest child] Keaton right now and I can only imagine what I was like at that age, so I wanted to call to say I’m really sorry.’ And then he laughs and says, ‘Man, I’ve been waiting a long time for this call.’”

It almost seems as if Taking Back Sunday has been one big search: for true love, or something internal, like discovering who you really are. Is that a fair analysis?
“The self-reaching thing sounds more accurate; trying to come to terms with yourself and figure out that grand question of, ‘Who am I?’ Everybody’s chasing that to some degree, and that’s one of the things I’ve been so proud of with the band. When we play, the age ranges from people who are a little older than us to people who are much younger, but they’re all getting lost at that same time and all connecting the same dots. A lot of those people have grown up with us, or we’ve grown up with them, and there’s a lot to be said for that. But as for the search for true love? It’s hard to pinpoint, because I’ve never listened back to our catalogue and really wondered, ‘What am I mapping out here?’”

Going back to the subject of growing up, what were you like as a child?
“I stuttered really badly when I was younger. It still happens from time to time, but it’s gotten a lot better over the years. I think that made me stay quiet a lot of the time, although I wasn’t a quiet kid exactly. When I was around other people I would either not know what to say or simply not be able to say it. But I don’t know, I’m trying to think back to myself as a young boy and struggling. From the age of 13 onwards, I know that I started to live and breathe rock music and skateboarding. Those were the only two things I think I really cared about at that time.”

What was it that initially sparked that love of rock music?
“When I was younger, I really loved Michael Jackson. And I still do, in all honesty. But then I heard Nirvana and my whole world changed forever. Later on, maybe when I was about 14 years old, an older friend of mine let me borrow Earth Crisis’ Destroy The Machines and Lifetime’s Hello Bastards. I couldn’t really get into Earth Crisis at the time, but that Lifetime record changed my whole world all over again. Even when I listen to it now, it gives me this feeling that I can’t describe. That lead me to searching out bands on labels like Jade Tree and so on.”

When did being in a band become something that you wanted to do?
“Listening to Nevermind and thinking, ‘I want to do this. But how?’ So all through high school I was in bands, but it wasn’t until we put out our first record that we realised, ‘Wait a minute, there’s a chance that we might be able to do this.’ Because it’s such a longshot.”

Was it hard to overcome your shyness and your stutter to appear onstage?
“When I first started on bass in Taking Back Sunday, the first couple of shows I faced Mark [O’Connell, drummer] the whole time. Then I started to come out of my shell a little, facing the crowd and running around. But the same thing happened again when I started singing. I’d face Mark because I was too scared to look at the crowd. It was a matter of trying to let that part of myself go. It was almost like method acting, to get to the point where I could turn off the world and everything that was happening around me to let go. What I found through doing that was that it was a release. Once you get your first taste of that, you just want more.”

Did being part of the Long Island music scene help you establish yourselves? It seems like it was quite a close-knit community with lots of bands sharing members. Despite the infamous rivalry with Brand New, was there also a sense of camaraderie?
“Oh yeah. Ed [Reyes, former guitarist] was in so many bands – he was kind of like a Long Island legend, so everyone was always real curious to hear whatever he was working on next, which helped us greatly at the start. And a lot of the Long Island bands would come through North Carolina where I grew up, and I would go to those shows and think, ‘Man, I want to be a part of that community. I want to be in a band like that.’ And that’s why I tried to jump on that opportunity as quickly as I did and why I was willing to move and all that – because I wanted to be a part of what was going on up there. And not to go into it, but there wasn’t even a Brand New rivalry. We were listening to a lot of Jay-Z and Nas at the time, and they had their beef thing going back and forth, so we thought, ‘Man, we should do that, but with our bands.’ So that’s what we did, and then everyone else took it and ran with it. We were like, ‘Oh. Well, I guess it worked.’”

So the feud wasn’t as sincere or as real as it was made out to be?
“No. It was just this story that people took and ran with it while we were all sitting back like, ‘Sure, I’ll answer questions about that.’”

How do you feel about it now?
“I’m indifferent about it these days, honestly. Us back then, we would work and rehearse and work and play shows and work and rehearse. That’s all we did. And go to shows. We were just having a good time. It taking on a life of its own was out of our hands.”

You’ve had a few line-up changes over the years, with Eddie being the most recent. How do those departures affect you as a band?
“Each time a line-up change happens there’s a big lesson to be learned. Those are things that throughout your life will present themselves in many different ways. For us, it presented itself very publicly with the line-up changes.”

It was rumoured that John was actually joking when he suggested that you move to Long Island to join the band. Is there any truth in that or is it all part of Taking Back Sunday folklore?
“I don’t think they thought I would actually do it. Little did they know I really wanted to be a part of what they had going on. And I’m glad they took me in.”

What was it that convinced you to call his bluff and make the move up North?
“I wanted to try to be part of something that moved someone else in the same way that Lifetime and Nirvana had moved me. Because that made me feel like part of something, even if I was actually listening alone in my room. I wanted to do that, and I’ve been fortunate enough that I’ve been able to do that. It’s crazy and I still can’t believe it.”

Two decades on, is there anything left for you to accomplish?
“If this was an interview I was doing 10 years ago, I would be like, ‘Well, we haven’t achieved world domination yet,’ and that would be the easy answer. And I’m sure it would get the other person laughing at me too. But we’re still chasing that perfect song, man – we always are. And I truly believe it’s still in us. There’s a certain level that I’d like us to be operating at and we’re still chasing that too. I don’t think I could describe it to you though, because it’s more of a feeling inside of us than this tangible thing, but hopefully once we get there I’ll be able to let you know.”

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