An oral history of Taking Back Sunday: “We’re not just a band that was in the emo scene. We got past that…”

Looking back on 20 years of Taking Back Sunday with the people that made it happen: the band’s four members, plus longtime manager Jillian Newman.

An oral history of Taking Back Sunday: “We’re not just a band that was in the emo scene. We got past that…”
Mischa Pearlman
Originally published:

2019 sees Taking Back Sunday celebrate two decades under the influence of being a band. Having formed in Long Island in 1999, the group first burst onto the scene with 2002’s classic debut Tell All Your Friends, and then broke through to the mainstream with 2006’s major label debut Louder Now. Now, their legacy has resulted in emo nights around the globe named after them (much to their disdain, it should be pointed out), as well as having sold more than two million records worldwide.

It’s not all been roses, though: the band have navigated various ups and downs, from tricky record label situations to being unintentional poster boys of the early 2000s emo scene, as well as multiple line-up changes. At the end of the day, however, they’ve managed to remain both relevant and vital – a bona fide rock band with an important and impressive legacy, but who also refuse to rest on the laurels.

Instead, they’ve continued to push and evolve their sound and, even as they celebrate this 20th anniversary with a retrospective compilation – one that includes two great new songs – and an extensive tour that’s seen them revisit Tell All Your Friends (and either Louder Now or second record Where You Want To Be) in full, it’s clear they have no plans to slow down any time soon. We gathered the band’s four members, plus their long-time manager Jillian Newman, to take us through the monumental moments of their career in their very own words.

The band get together

John Nolan (guitar/vocals): “I was friends with Antonio [Longo], the first singer of Taking Back Sunday. We’d gone to school together and been in some bands together, and he knew Eddie Reyes [founding member and guitarist], who was starting a new band. Eddie already had a really good reputation on Long Island and Antonio suggested me for guitar. I went to the practice space and we worked on some ideas and they were like ‘You’re in the band!’ It was exciting to be in a band with people who I could tell were serious about making it work. Eddie had lots of connections in the Long Island scene, so I knew we were going to be playing shows to people right off the bat. But it really wasn’t until we got Mark on drums and Adam started singing that it became clear something was happening.”

Adam Lazzara (vocals): “I was living with some friends in Greesnboro, North Carolina when I went to the show where I met the guys in Taking Back Sunday. Phil Hanratty, who was in Errortype:11, was there at the show. My high school band had played a show with them and I was like, ‘I didn’t know you guys were playing,’ and he’s like, ‘We’re not. I’m filling in on bass for my buddy.’ So I stayed and watched. After the show I met them and said ‘Hey, I play the bass – can I try out for your band?’ and they said yes. A month or so later, I drove to New York and went out to Long Island. A week or so later, Eddie called me and said, ‘Hey, we have these shows coming up if you want to play,’ and I said, ‘That would be fantastic.’ So I booked the flight to New York for the shows and then just never went home.”

Shaun Cooper (bass): “Mark and I had played in lots of different bands growing up, and you could never get everyone on the same page, but this was the first time that there were five guys in the room who all had the same focus. It was something we’d never had. And we just started playing shows locally. The first one we played was literally in a friend’s living room, and then we started to see more and more people coming out to shows and it just grew pretty rapidly from there.”

Jillian Newman (manager): “I started managing them in June 2002. I met them at SXSW a couple of weeks before Tell All Your Friends came out and they really blew me away. I remember Adam had hit himself with the mic that night and when I left the show he was sitting outside on the ground with our friend Kevin. I looked at him and said, ‘I’m Jillian, it’s nice to meet you, you’re bleeding, I’m going to talk to you later,’ and that was literally our first conversation. And then I got his number and started talking to him, and they didn’t know what a manager did. I think one other person was going after them, but I just started helping them.”

Eddie might not be in TBS anymore, but they wouldn’t exist without him

Adam: “Eddie was like a big brother – he still is and he always will be. I’ve been in Taking Back Sunday longer than I haven’t been in Taking Back Sunday, so that was a very influential time in my life.”

Mark: “No-one’s happy about Eddie not being there. We all wish that that could have worked out, and it’s a shame. It is what it is.”

Shaun: “It’s brutal. It’s a really hard thing to deal with, but unfortunately that’s the way things are. I don’t want to go too deep into it because it’s really his thing to talk about, but we all do wish he was here.”

The Tell All Your Friends demo was called that for a very good reason

Adam: “We called it the Tell All Your Friends demos because we hoped everybody would tell their friends about our band. We thought we were pretty clever! So when it came time to make the record, we just thought, 'Let’s call it Tell All Your Friends.' Those were the first batch of songs we’d written with me singing and Shaun playing bass. We recorded them with Mike Sapone, and then Shaun and Mark had CD burners so they’d be at their house burning CDs and I’d go to [photocopy shop] Kinko’s late at night with artwork stuff and try to put that together. We did this tour with Northstar, and there’s this picture I found online of Jude Law and some lady kissing and that was the original cover. Later, I made a different cover on Photoshop, because we’d run out of the old one.”

The band nearly give up…

Adam: “We were giving the Tell All Your Friends demo to everybody – anybody we knew that had any connection to any kind of record label – and no-one wanted to put it out, so we were like, ‘I guess it just wasn’t meant to be.’ And then Angel, who I ended up moving in with years later, he had gone to Philadelphia with a friend of ours called Michele Logo, who took all the pictures for the liner notes of Tell All Your Friends. He rode with her to go down to this show in Philly and they were driving back up to New York and she just had the demo in and he was like, ‘Who is this?’ and she told him. I ended up getting a call from him a couple days later and it was like this moment of, ‘Oh my God! Someone is interested in doing our record. This is going to be amazing!’”

Shaun: “There were so many times that labels had thrown us a bone, and time after time it never amounted to anything. It was just disappointment after disappointment. Nobody wanted to sign or take us on tour. We were like the kid who’s always left out of the games at recess.”

…and then ignore good advice in their excitement

Adam: “We’d met Dave Stein, who was our lawyer for years, at a show and he gave me his card. He was like, ‘If you ever need a lawyer, let me know.’ He was kind of the New York hardcore lawyer. So once we started talking to Victory I reached out to Dave and asked him to look over the contracts. And he’s like, ‘Do not sign this.’ But at the time we weren’t thinking too far ahead – we just wanted to have a record out, so we did it anyway. And I don’t think we’d be where we are had we not been on Victory. They really gave us a large push and that really helped us.”

Shaun: “Even though Dave went over the contract, we signed it and suddenly we’re on the Victory Records tour and then we’re touring all around the U.S. with The Lawrence Arms and the record comes out and it does something like 2,500 copies in the U.S. in the first week. And all this was shocking! But if we didn’t make those moves when we made them, I don’t think the band would still be around. There were so many things that went right because of that.”

The success of Tell All Your Friends was a surprise

Adam: “We couldn’t believe it. We went from no-one being interested in signing us to having this record out. We did maybe two tours and then suddenly it just blew up. We were selling out these venues we’d come through not too long before and opened the show. Once it started gaining momentum, we couldn’t believe it.”

Mark: “It was literally a dream come true. And we were really young at the time, so I couldn’t grasp it. It was just happening. But now I’m 38 and looking back it’s just, ‘This is insane.’ Because this doesn’t happen. When people start a band, what happened with us and for us to be doing it 20 years down the line is not a normal thing. So it’s really cool.”

Jillian: “It was almost a perfect storm – you had to almost step out of the way to make sure you didn’t mess it up. It had its own momentum. And I can literally say that that record changed my life.”

John and Shaun leave before they make their second album

John: “There are many reasons why I left. One thing is that the band got very successful very quickly and I think we were already a volatile bunch. There was always fighting and drama and stuff within the group, and once we started to get successful I think everybody in the band started to feel like they weren’t getting enough credit for the success of the band – that someone else was always getting the attention. And a lot of the first album for me was about connecting with Adam. We had become really close working on that album and a big part of it was our connection to each other. By the time I was thinking about leaving, we were really not friends anymore. We were just in a band together but not friends, and I didn’t want to make a record like that. Plus we were touring constantly, and I think Shaun and I felt we needed to slow down and the other guys were the opposite. By the time Shaun and I started Straylight Run, Mark was the only person in the band we had any contact with, really. In a lot of ways I just tried to block it all out.”

Shaun: “The way the band was exploding was too much for me to handle. I was a young kid who hadn’t really left my parents’ house in a lot of years. I barely made it through high school because of depression, anxiety and a lot of issues with my stomach – it turned out I was gluten and lactose intolerant. So I was stuck in this rut and the next thing I know I’m on tour for two years straight and we’re having all this success. There was just so much chaos that I needed a break.”

Mark: “I did not react well. I was very upset. I didn’t want them to leave and I didn’t want there to be other people in the band. When you’re playing in your parents’ basement, there’s a realness to it. We started playing to nobody and we worked our way up to playing to thousands of people, and then having other people come in made it not as fun and less real. So I had a hard time with it. To tell you the truth, there was not one moment for me in my brain that didn’t think Shaun and John were going to come back. But I had to see what was going to happen. Where You Want To Be sold 153,000 copies the week it came out and that was not expected. I was terrified that no-one was going to like it, but that wasn’t the case.”

Adam: “Once there was momentum [with Tell All Your Friends], things got crazy for a while and we all dealt with it differently. There was a lot of internal pressure we were putting on ourselves after John and Shaun left, and there was a period of time where we didn’t know what we were going to do. Mark wasn’t sure he wanted to start this new band with John and Shaun or if he was going to stay with Taking Back Sunday, and I remember there was one day where he called me and was like, ‘Look man, I think we should keep doing this.’ And that was the point where we hit the ground running. Fred [Mascherino, guitar/vocals] reached out to us and not long after that we gave Matt Rubano [bass] a call because he’d grown up with Mark’s brother. And once all those pieces came together, we just started writing immediately.”

Jillian: “I never have a say on who’s in the band. That’s up to them. I respect John and Shaun – that was a tough thing that they did, but if that was best for them I respected them because a lot of people would stay and make things miserable.”

They sign to a major label for Louder Now

Adam: “I wanted to establish ourselves as a rock’n’roll band, so we just pulled out all the stops. We approached that record with the idea of showing people what we could do. Like, on that song Miami, there’s that guitar solo, and that was unchartered territory for us. I remember sitting with Fred and being like, ‘This is it! We’re doing it now!’ Signing to Warner Bros. was another fulfilment of the dream. I feel like before then signing to a major label was this taboo thing, because it was considered selling out, but not at all. We were able to work with the people we wanted to work with and reach a broader audience, and that’s always been one of the goals – to reach as many people as we can.”

Mark: “That was really exciting. I remember we got to fly first class because labels were trying to sign us! And to turn on the TV and see the MakeDamnSure video playing was literally a dream come true. From when I was a kid, that was all I ever wanted.”

Shaun: “I don’t regret not being in the band when they signed that deal. I always knew the band potential to do great things – I just knew it wasn’t my time to do them. I had to remove myself from the band for my own personal well-being.”

Jillian: “It was really great. I started my career at a major label and then I worked at Vagrant so I’ve seen all sides of it. There was a point where Taking Back Sunday should have been an indie band and there was a point when we needed a little more resource and to be on a major label. Even at the end of that era I felt we’ve been on the right type of label at the right time in their career to get what we need.”

John and Shaun rejoin the band

Shaun: “Straylight Run had just come to an end. People weren’t coming out to shows anymore and they weren’t buying our records. It was just done. I was kind of just happy to ride off into the sunset, having got to live my dream for a little while because that’s all I ever wanted. But Mark had different plans, and the stars aligned and we secretly flew to El Paso – it turned out the longer we’d been apart, the closer we’d grown together.”

John: “I got the call from Mark about him wanting Shaun and I to rejoin the band and it was completely out of the blue. I didn’t really think it was something I wanted to do right off the bat when he started talking about it, but at the same time I’d finally gotten to a point where I’d started to miss those guys. And there was definitely a connection from everything we’d gone through with the rise of Taking Back Sunday, even though it was only two years or something – so much happened during that time, so despite all our problems we had this bond and I’d really started to miss that and having these people in my life. And the first time we got together, in that studio outside of El Paso, it was just the band and no producers and we were just hanging out and reconnecting and playing music and it was amazing. It was immediately exciting and fun.”

Mark: “I called Adam about it first and I was like, ‘We have to do this – we can’t just keep going on like this.’ Because the only thing that would make it fun again in my opinion was having them back. And once we were back in the studio it was like nothing had changed. Everyone was excited to be there.”

Adam: “It was a real amazing thing. I think somehow we just needed that time apart to come back together again. Before they came back, the band was in a very strange place, so when they came back we almost felt whole again. We all started in the same place and we all want the same things as it pertains to the band, so to have everybody back with a hive mind was great. I think [fifth album] Taking Back Sunday was us learning how to work with one another again and then Happiness Is… was the realisation of, ‘Okay – we got this!’”

John: “I think for Happiness Is… and the self-titled, we were still putting ourselves in a box of like, ‘Well, this is what Taking Back Sunday can do and this is what Taking Back Sunday can’t do stylistically.’ And then with Tidal Wave we just sort of decided that Taking Back Sunday can do whatever it wants. And I think we started to realise pretty quickly as we embraced that idea that yes, this is different, but this is still Taking Back Sunday. It still has the same spirit that all Taking Back Sunday’s music has. And that’s really exciting for the future and for when we go into the next record.”

Jillian: “There’s an iconic poster from the Tell All Your Friends days with a green background and Adam in a striped shirt – it was everywhere. And it was my idea to recreate that photo but put bars over everyone’s eyes and we won’t say anything, just post the picture. And it crashed a bunch of websites! It was us saying what needed to be said without saying anything.”

Twenty years on those early songs are still cathartic – but not quite in the same way

Adam: “Revisiting those songs for the album anniversaries or the 20-year tour, a lot of the time the first reaction is, ‘Oh wow – I forgot about this!’ And as you remember when you wrote it and what you were thinking about then, I immediately relate my experiences up until now to then, even though the younger version of me wrote them. And it starts to take on this new meaning, so you have this thing that’s been with you for all these years, but now it just means that much more to you.”

John: “It was a really volatile time, I think, for Adam and I. We had both gone through break-ups of long-term relationships and getting into our early 20s and trying to work out what to do with your life. I had some long-term friendships that had just recently totally disintegrated. So for me I think a lot of it was drawing on the feelings of those relationships ending and being in a place in life where you’re not sure what you’re doing, where you’re going or what’s going to happen. I just remember there was lot of emotion to draw from. I was writing every day, just pages of stuff. And only a fraction of that would make it into songs, but I had a lot to get off my chest! It was extremely therapeutic and a way for us both to release all this pent-up anger and energy and sadness and happiness and everything.”

Shaun: “There’s a certain joy playing those old songs knowing they were written in my parents’ basement, in Mark’s parents’ basement, in little crummy practice spaces around Long Island and to see them living on and living up to the potential that I knew they had even when other people didn’t see it. So to see that potential realised all these years later, I’m brought back to those places when the songs were written and it’s validating to see that we were right!”

Taking Back Sunday themselves find it hard to believe they’re still doing this

Adam: “I still don’t feel secure. With each record it’s like, ‘Okay, this could be the last one. Let’s make it count!’ And it’s been like that the whole time. Something I’ve learned over the years is that there’s not a lot of stability in doing this. It could all go away tomorrow, and with that, on my part, comes a lot of worry. I just want to hang onto it for as long as I can.”

John: “We kind of got here by not really having a plan, so in a certain way it feels like we’re just going to keep doing that because that got us here.”

Mark: “When you’re a kid, being in a band as a 40-year-old isn’t the coolest idea, but now we’re all slowly approaching that! But you don’t think that far ahead when you’re a kid.”

Jillian: “Just watching how they’ve influenced so many bands and so many people is wonderful. I don’t know if they’ve fulfilled their legacy yet, because I think they’re still going to continue writing great music.”

And, by the way, they were never comfortable being called emo

Adam: “Emo is such a pigeonholed thing. To call somebody that is to say, ‘You’re that, and that’s all you are.’ And I think there’s more to us than that – and I always have.”

John: “We didn’t give a whole lot of thought to defining ourselves. It was only when we started getting press and attention that that whole thing came up. That’s when people start wanting to define it and start asking you to define it.”

Adam: “At the end of the day, people can call us whatever they want, as long as they’re listening and can find something in it for them. That’s what really matters.”

Mark: “Now, we’re not just a band that was in the emo scene. I feel like we got past that and we rose above that. Not to compare us to Pearl Jam, but I’m going to compare us to Pearl Jam, because those guys outgrew the grunge thing and they proved they’re much more than that. And I’d love us to do the same. But then, if we were just that, I don’t think we’d still be here.”

Shaun: “There was no other motivation behind the band except for creating music that we really believed in – and we’ve carried that out throughout our career.”

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