Pete Wentz On Fall Out Boy, Fatherhood And Fragility
Pete Wentz has come full circle. When we meet on a rainy Friday afternoon, at a swish Shoreditch hotel, it’s the eve of Fall Out Boy’s show at the O2 Arena. As he sits sipping coffee from a glass mug, wearing a fluffy brown jacket that makes him look like a stuffed toy, life is good. Really good.
Professionally, his band are back, and achieving things they didn’t manage on their last go around, like headlining Reading & Leeds. This current run of UK shows have easily been their most accomplished yet, offering obscenely good production and an even greater appreciation of their new record M A N I A.
Reverse that circle nine years to the month, however, when Fall Out Boy played the O2 Arena for the first time, and the bassist was in a very different place. Fourth album Folie À Deux – which was underperforming commercially – had not long come out, and eight years of being the poster boys of emo had left the band a wreck. Relationships had turned from being that of best mates to strictly bandmates, and Pete’s fame (and marriage to popstar Ashlee Simpson) had begun to overshadow his day job. The Chicago quartet had two options: take a break or implode. Seven months later their hiatus was implemented.
The time off was tough for Pete, whose entire identity was wrapped up in the band, and things got tougher still when his marriage ended in divorce. He found himself with no band, no relationship, and had to start again from scratch. ‘I lived so much life, lived so much life, I think that God is gonna have to kill me twice’, Pete wrote on M A N I A single Young And Menace, and it sums his somewhat rollercoaster existence up pretty well. It’s been eventful…
Let’s start with little Peter Lewis Kingston Wentz. What was his childhood like?
“Um, pretty normal I think… it was uneventful. We grew up in the suburbs where all John Hughes movies take place and they’re just boring. The only thing that was a little weird is our family is mixed race, and it was a super-white neighbourhood, so it was like, ‘Oh… I don’t look like any of the people that I live near in this community.’ But there was no great sadness to it. If anything, it made me be like, ‘Well, I’m just who I am.’ It gave me armour.”
And what were you like as a kid?
“I don’t know if I ever had an imagination as good as my kids have. I liked to hang out by myself. I just sat and thought about stuff. I think I was working [life] out in my head a lot. But I also grew up in a time that was perfect for my personality, with He-Man and all that stuff. I felt like that world was created for me, so I have fond memories of childhood.”
What about as a teenager – did you have a rebellious phase?
“Sure I did. But, like, diet rebellion; rebellion lite (laughs). I skateboarded and smoked cigarette butts. I missed a bunch of school and I ended up going to this boot camp [for wayward kids] and I got there and I was like, ‘These people are all fucking maniacs and I’m not…’ Then I got into punk rock and that’s where you discover a community of like-minded people. There were times when I was too much for my parents. I had the volume turned up on my personality all the time. Looking back on it, that was a lot. Also they were thinking, ‘Is my kid gonna end up in a band? Or is he gonna end up in the gutter?’ There’s no-one manning the launch tower saying, ‘This is gonna be a success.’ God bless my parents; my dad would come to all my punk rock band shows, in a tie. And I was super into graffiti at that age and my dad would walk around and look at graffiti and be like, ‘Is that good graffiti?’ Which is so weird because my dad doesn’t know anything about graffiti.”
Were they relieved when you went off to college to study political science?
“I think that was the only option I had as far as they were concerned. I was also the first kid. With the first kid you don’t really know which way the water runs, so you try to keep them more on a path, whereas when you’re one or two kids in, you’re like, ‘It’s probably all gonna end up alright.’ What was my career plan?! It’s very funny that we could even say I had a career plan. I was like the guy in [1999 movie] Office Space who’s just like, ‘I wanna do nothing.’ I went into political science because I had a history teacher in high school who was one of the only teachers I really liked – Mr. Randolf – and that’s what he studied, so I was like, ‘I’ll do this, then I could end up a lawyer…’ There was no good, airtight plan.”
And in the end you dropped out of college to concentrate on the band…
“We were doing 40 hours of work on the band, and 40 hours at school and it was just not compatible. We looked at what the hair metal bands did, so we went out and pasted fliers – which was weird because nobody did it then, everyone was on MySpace. So my parents were like, ‘You can have a year to do this…’ and that year just expanded. I tried to go back [to studying]. I tried about five years ago, but it’s hard to make yourself do it online.”
The first time the band came over to the UK you weren’t with them because you’d made a suicide attempt – which you wrote about on 7 Minutes In Heaven (Atavan Halen). How do you feel when you look back on that?
“I look back on it through the prism of Lil Peep [the American rapper who died of an accidental drug overdose in 2017, aged 21], and it’s a different thing, because there was more drug addiction [with him], but it seems he had so much more to say… and I’m like, ‘I don’t know if people would have said that about me…’ I just didn’t ever think I’d be happy again, and then you just are one day. It’s really scary to think about it. Because it was super traumatic for everybody involved… even thinking back on it, I block out – not the memories – but the feelings attached to the memories, because they’re really painful. When I was going through all that stuff I wasn’t hearing anybody. I would put a blanket over my head and I’d just be like, ‘This will be what it’s like when you’re dead,’ and I’d just lie there for half an hour. Mental health is super stigmatised, but it was even more stigmatised back then – less so than 50 years prior, but still pretty stigmatised. People didn’t really talk about it. I have to say that everybody in my life was super helpful and understanding.”
You also went through a public divorce. What did you learn about yourself from that?
“I learned everything about myself. I didn’t just get a divorce, I got a divorce in the most public way you really can. So everybody knows everything about you, but all the wrong information. And then I didn’t have a band. The band becomes your identity, so all of that was gone. In some ways it was great because I burnt the prairie. It was burnt to the ground and I just started over again and hung out with two-year-old Bronx all the time. Our relationship is so tight to this day because of that, and that just forces you to not only get up and go through the motions, but be the best version of yourself. It forces you to become an adult, because when I was in Fall Out Boy, if I wanted to do anything I just talked to the tour manager and then a car showed up. I didn’t really interact with anyone besides my kid, so we would do everything, and I was like, ‘This is how you go through the airport…’ In some ways, it made me a more compassionate, empathetic person. The whole period made me realise that everybody has struggles, and it was kind of healing. I also didn’t have an outlet to really go through it. I was doing that band Black Cards with Bebe [Rexha] but, but it was escapist music, so I was not tackling it head on.”
What was the hardest thing about the Fall Out Boy hiatus?
“A big portion of why I do this thing is because I believe in it, so [the hardest thing was] not working on the thing you believe in. To me, it felt like the band was going to be forever, so that was a little bit hard. Actually, that was a lot hard; just thinking it was gone. In some ways it was good, because I was able to process what happened in the past eight years, which was hard to do when you’re ‘in it’. It was really strange, like, a weird time.”
Was it a turning point in your life, perhaps?
“It was weird, because I got happy without the band and without any of that stuff, so there was a little bit of hesitation from me to do it again, because I felt at peace. Right before we put out My Songs Know What You Did In The Dark (Light Em Up) I was like, ‘Maybe we just shouldn’t do this.’ In the way this thing meant so much to so many people that if we come back and it doesn’t mean something to them, do we scar that legacy? So I was super stressed about that. But it worked out. It’s funny how life is; it works out differently than you expect.”
You run your own record label, DCD2, and always seem to have a million projects on the go – does your mind ever switch off and take a break? It looks from the outside that the cogs are always spinning…
“No… it’s always spinning and I need to spin it in the positive, or else I can go to the negative. I just overthink everything. I just think and think and think, and I don’t really process out loud, so no-one knows. How do I quiet my mind? Meditation. That’s helpful. Another one that’s good for me is being with my kids because you gotta be present. If you’re just doing [band/work stuff] you’re not present – it’s another version of being on your phone, and you’re just doing it on the internal hard drive.”
Where’s your happy place?
“My parents have a cabin in Vermont, and there’s no phone service, and it’s just nature. I’m not even a nature person – I’m not a really big camper, but I like feeling disconnected and I feel like I’m at a different time there, it’s just simpler. I like that. And I like hanging out with my kids, because they’re just insane. The stuff they say and think is just so mind-boggling.”
Looking back on your life and career so far, is there anything that you wish you had done differently?
“Um… there’s stuff that I would do differently now, but I think that everything you do gets you to where you are. I think I would be a kinder, more patient person. I would also tell myself not to sweat the small stuff so much – I just think I used to worry about everything all the time, and I’m sure 15 years from now I’ll be coming back and telling myself something else then too.”
There’s a line in M A N I A track Stay Frosty Royal Milk Tea that goes, ‘The only thing that’s ever stopping me is me’ – in what ways do you think that you hold yourself back?
“I have a lot of big ideas, but I don’t execute them all well. It’s a little bit frustrating. Either Kanye [West] or Patrick [Stump] said this, ‘It’s a bit like I’m standing in front of a canvas, with all this paint and no brush.’ Sometimes I just can’t do it, and when I describe what it is to people, sometimes it ends up right and sometimes it doesn’t. I also think that my friends are sometimes like, ‘He’s too bold,’ but inside I’m like the most fragile person of all time. So it’s just weird… but I process it all on my own, in my head, so I think people don’t always know.”
Does that make you feel like you could just fall apart at any time?
“I read somewhere that everyone in the UK – I think – is two bad decisions away from being homeless. The message was ‘have empathy for homeless people’ because you don’t know what’s going to happen. So I think in that way maybe I could fall apart, but I think more so now, I feel fine being myself.”
Does that sense of fragility make you hard to be around?
“I’m probably hard to be around in the same way that [Curb Your Enthusiasm creator/star] Larry David would be hard to be around. When I was watching Phantom Thread [movie about a fashion designer, starring Daniel Day-Lewis], there’s a moment in it when he is having breakfast, and the person he’s having breakfast with is buttering their toast and it’s so loud, and I just see it grating on him, and I was like, ‘I relate to that.’ Also, any design that I don’t like drives me crazy. I was putting Bronx to bed a month ago and I had to change his sheets because the little brother peed on the bed on purpose (laughs). So he had different colour sheets on and he was like, ‘The blue is bothering me too much…’ and I was like, ‘We’re definitely related,’ because that’s how I feel when I look at certain things. These things are definitely irrational.”
Finally, do you have a retirement plan, or do you think you will be onstage in your 70s?
“Jeez… I didn’t even think I’d be onstage by the time I got to the age of 30! My fantasy is to go somewhere where no-one knows me, and just disappear. I would go to that place in Vermont, or a beach anywhere. The thing that’s hard for me is that if there are kids, adults, whatever you wanna call ‘em, who are like, ‘I believe in this thing, it’s helping me,’ then it’s hard for me to not just go, ‘Okay then, let’s just do it for another year…’ I think the only way to not do that is to just go. Like, poof! Gone! How would I live out my days? I would really like to do something else eventually, and maybe not even something that I have a lot of skill at, like be a chef. And not a famous chef. Just a guy who works in a kitchen somewhere. There’s a bit of normalcy in that kind of life that I definitely crave. I have plenty of friends that work in offices and they’re like, ‘You don’t [want a normal job] really. The thing you have is better than that,’ but there’s definitely a part of me that craves that.”
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