The Cover Story

Taking Back Sunday: “With each record we’ve been able to see that we’re not alone”

After a seven-year wait, emo torchbearers Taking Back Sunday are back with eighth album 152. In a world-exclusive first interview about their new era, we find the longtime friends not only taking time to reflect on their past, but using it as fuel to move forward and become the greatest version of the band they know they can be…

Taking Back Sunday: “With each record we’ve been able to see that we’re not alone”
James Hickie
Ashley Osborn

Kerrang! looks up at Adam Lazzara as if Taking Back Sunday’s frontman has just felled us with a punch and we’re lying sprawled out on the canvas – down and out for the count.

“It’s a technique that puts the interviewer in their place,” suggests guitarist John Nolan, who’s here to chat alongside bassist Shaun Cooper.

In truth, Adam, who’s more of a lover than a fighter, has set the phone he’s speaking to us on via Zoom upon the counter, hence the unusual angle. And any bobbing and weaving going on is him hurriedly cleaning the kitchen surfaces before getting down to the business of discussing TBS’ forthcoming eighth album, 152 – their first in seven years.

But first, we’re talking about weddings.

In an episode of This Is Important, the podcast presented by Adam Devine, Anders Holm, Blake Anderson and Kyle Newacheck, the stars of the cult sitcom Workaholics, talk turned to the TBS classic Cute Without The ‘E’ (Cut From The Team) and its unfailingly combustible effect upon a wedding dancefloor populated by people in their 30s.

“My first thought when I hear stories like that is, 'What did the grandparents think?'” smiles Adam. “Tell me what they were doing when it was playing, because they were probably mortified!”

Adam seems a bit of a hippy. Looking lean, happy and healthy, his hair is drawn back behind his head, with highlighted streaks poking upwards like the crest of a cockatoo. While John and Shaun are sitting indoors backed by white walls, the singer opts for his porch; drinking from a ceramic mug, occasionally craning his neck out of shot (presumably to have a cheeky smoke), while windchimes tinker lightly in the background.

Adam’s peace and love vibe extends to thinking about the reasons people listen to TBS, whether for pleasure, catharsis or accompanying big life events. “That’s a really special thing,” he says of the wedding example. “It indicates that the couple and a group of their friends have let us into their lives at a very important time. And there was something about whatever frequency we were vibing on that appealed to them, so they were on it too. That’s one of the things I’m proudest of with the band – I feel with each record we’ve been able to see we’re not alone.”

One of Taking Back Sunday’s missions with new album 152, then, is to ensure its songs soundtrack nuptials in the future. “I want people playing [new song] S’old at their wedding, or I’m The Only One Who Knows You, The One – c’mon, those are wedding songs! There are so many love songs on this record. We are so sweet!”

What's in a name? A lot, it turns out, when it comes to 152. Those familiar with the band’s discography will know that the number is included on the cover of all their albums to date.

The words ‘Exit 152’ appear to the right-hand side of 2002’s debut album, Tell All Your Friends, accompanied by an image of a highway overpass. The words ‘Next Exit 152 miles’ are emblazoned upon a road sign contemplated by a naked infant, standing in the middle of a dirt road on their second album, Where You Want To Be.

Third album Louder Now, meanwhile, breaks with the road-based imagery and features a cinema kiosk, where, the sign tells us, tickets are available for $1.52. By comparison, the inclusion on TBS’ last album, Tidal Wave, was fairly innocuous – for all the vibrancy of its oceanic artwork, the number appears in the top corner almost as an afterthought, unrelated to the overall concept.

It’s important to explain the relevance of 152 to understand the significance of its use as this album’s title. While the majority of the band hail from Long Island, the young Adam lived in North Carolina, some 560 miles away. Growing up in a smaller town, if the singer wanted to go to shows, he’d generally have to drive 90 minutes to the state’s capital of Raleigh. Given that he and his friends would all be leaving from different places to get there, they needed a place to meet and hang out before hitting the interstate. Exit 152 provided that point of convergence.

“There’s nothing really too special about it,” laughs Adam. “There’s basically just a truck stop.”

While K! had expected Adam to paint a vivid picture of this significant spot, what we get instead is a Post-it note daubing. Perhaps sensing our disappointment at the lack of poetry in his recollections, Adam ups his game in explaining why this reference continues to resonate.

“The repeated inclusion of 152 was a nod to friends back home,” he explains. “With touring and everything else, we miss a lot of things and aren’t as present as we’d like to be in the lives, from day to day, of those that we love because we’re gone. It’s there as a secret thing to let them know they’re still a huge part of who we are and what we do.”

Admittedly, in the early days, not everyone in the band was quite as au fait with the reference.

“When Adam was slapping a 152 on everything, I used to say, ‘What the hell is this?’” laughs Shaun. “Our communication wasn’t so great back in the old days, when we were 20 years old and heading down the road in a van like lunatics. I didn’t really understand what it meant to him, but over time I grew to appreciate it. The more it’s been with us, the more it’s grown to represent the band and our humble beginnings.”

“This album is more of an invitation into our world”

Adam Lazzara

When it came time to name album number eight, prospective titles were bandied back and forth. Taking Back Sunday had already telegraphed a reinvention with a self-titled record – their fifth – back in 2011, so this time around they decided to place their favourite motif front and centre, because of what it says about its authors’ intentions.

“For us, it’s a bit of a reintroduction,” suggests Adam of calling the record 152. “For a long time it felt like we were trying to get invited into other people’s worlds. But with this [album], we realised that we’d built this incredible thing, so this is more of an invitation into our world.”

This invitation, Adam elaborates, isn’t simply for new listeners who’ve not interacted with TBS’ more recent albums; either because they’re turned off by the assumption they’re an emo band or, conversely, because they’re no longer viewed as one. It’s also extended to those fans who’ve remained faithful for a quarter of a century, with all its twists and line-up changes, perceived missteps and lauded returns to form.

“Without the people who’ve been with us on this journey, none of this would have been possible,” says Adam. “To them we’re saying, ‘Come on over, guys – we’ve made some dinner, you’re gonna love it!”

Adam is right: 152 is a delicious creation. There are meaty riffs, sure, but there’s a lean economy about the arrangements. Having had their post-Tidal Wave momentum held up by the arrival of the pandemic, the band deliberated long and hard over its follow-up. In less experienced hands, that luxurious lead time might have resulted in overcooking, but 152 is the sound of Taking Back Sunday taking things away rather than piling them on.

This refinement, John reveals, was influenced by the presence of Australian producer and songwriter Tushar Apte, a mutual acquaintance of Steve Aoki, who the band worked with on last year’s single Just Us Two. Tushar has worked with everyone from Demi Lovato to Michael Bolton, though has few rock credits to his name. “He’d take a recording we’d made, sit with it, and either strip things away or highlight things,” explains John. “He’d almost create this whole new arrangement, but using things that were already there, changing what you could hear at what moment and what things would come in and out. That was a surprise for all of us.”

So, too, was what the four members of TBS brought to proceedings. “You’d think after all this time we wouldn’t be able to do things that blindsided one another, or exceeded our expectations,” laughs Adam, before praising the innovation of one bandmate in particular. “It was most notable with Shaun’s contributions. I remember sitting on the couch in the studio while he did his thing and thinking, ‘This is going to be the best thing ever!’”

Shaun’s grin suggests he’s touched by the recognition, having spent a great deal of the pandemic coming up with ideas and arrangements.

“When we finally got into the room, everyone had listened and said, ‘Let’s work on that idea of yours’. That was amazing because they always bring so many strong ideas and they wanted to work on my stuff. I leave a lot of room for everyone else to add their stuff to it because I think we’re much stronger when everyone is contributing.”

“This life comes with a lot of Peter Pan tendencies. We don’t have to grow up in the same way…”

Adam Lazzara

Opening track Amphetamine Smiles illustrates what happens when the innovation of the four men in TBS coalesces. John introduced the idea, initially an acoustic ballad on guitar, which soon radiated outwards into a stirring, bruising epic. “That magic can be attributed to us still trying to impress one another and ourselves,” Adam says of its evolution.

Latest single S’old, meanwhile, suggests there have been attitudinal shifts to go with the musical ones. With its slow-melting new wave intro giving way to galloping guitars, it’s a powerful reminder that while the lucky amongst us grow older and wiser, if we’re luckier still we retain a sense of youthful abandon we’re able to access.

“That song represents the spirit behind our band and the flame that’s still roaring inside the four of us,” asserts Adam. “We’ve made the conscious decision to chase this life. And this life comes with a lot of Peter Pan tendencies. We don’t have to grow up in the same way. There’s where we’ve come from and where we’re heading, and S’old is a really great example of those two worlds colliding. When we were younger, the opening riff is something we’d have approached with full distortion. As the years have gone by, our blinders have been peeled back further and further, so now there are more things at our disposal.”

Nostalgia, should anyone need reminding, is big business these days. Back in 2019, Taking Back Sunday were in on the act, celebrating their 20th anniversary with the release of Twenty, a greatest hits album that – you’ve guessed it – featured the number 152. They also embarked on a world tour that focused heavily on material from their first three albums.

Last October, coming down the other side of a global pandemic, TBS played When We Were Young in Las Vegas, on a bill that included My Chemical Romance, Paramore, The Used, A Day To Remember and Jimmy Eat World. Unsurprisingly, such was the demand for tickets to this emo extravaganza, the festival sold out three days of the same line-up.

Given that Taking Back Sunday have grappled publicly – including during the course of this interview – with notions of the band they were and the band they want to be, how do these moments of basking in the past sit with them? They are, after all, indelibly linked with a particular boom period in alt. music and the formative years of fans. Is it a gift to be able to compartmentalise those stages of your career, or is it limiting to go back there when you’re looking to move forward?

“I think it’s both,” replies Adam after a moment’s thought. “A festival like When We Were Young, or anything that has nostalgia baked into it, is attended by people who are expecting you to be whatever version of the human you were whenever the period of time they’re nostalgic for was.

“There’s a Saturday Night Live sketch with Daniel Radcliffe where he’s playing Harry Potter 10 years after he’s supposed to have graduated Hogwarts, but he’s still there and people are telling him to move on. I’m always very aware in those situations that I’m not that person anymore, so how do I honour that person that was while also honouring the person that is? I think that’s where a lot of the fun with incorporating the new stuff is, because on one hand it’s scary because you don’t want to bum anybody out, but at the same time it’s exciting because you can blow their minds – it’s blowing my mind we’re coming up with this stuff.”

Another track, Quit Trying, is certainly a mind-blower. The kind of huge, shiny tune that soundtracks sports montages, it feels like a vibrant new lane for the band. It was written last August, on a day off in the midst of TBS’ tour with Third Eye Blind, when they visited the Arizona studio headquarters of rockers The Maine. Alongside their touring guitarist/keyboardist Nathan Cogan, they began working up the song. As the bones of it appeared, Adam, who’d been pacing the house in search of inspiration, started tapping into how the music was making him feel.

Soon enough, the opening verse emerged: ‘Whatever you heard / It’s true / All of the worst parts / All up for auction I was a kid then / Didn’t know better / You won’t have to look far / Or hard Just up and away.’

“For me, that song represents coming to terms with the different kind of person that you could be throughout different seasons in your life… and coming to terms with the choices that person has made,” explains Adam slowly and deliberately. “How do you then make peace with the parts you’re not so proud of in that person you’ve grown into?”

“Did you write all of the lyrics that day?” a surprised John suddenly asks.

“Yeah,” replies Adam.

“I didn’t know that – that’s awesome!”

“Thank you for saying that, John. That means a lot to me.”

“It’s good to do interviews together,” John laughs. “I can learn new things about our band and our songwriting. It’s educational.”

Adam has also learned something. In the past, when it came time to work on material, he’d dig out his old notebooks in search of words that might fit the mood or metre of the music at hand. Now, however, new endeavours mean a fresh creative start. “I’m just going to sit and listen and let whatever wants to come out, come out.”

He has learned, too, that we’re all a work-in-progress. Our pasts are different chapters, but we weren’t different people back then; the central character remains the same – flawed, frustrating, but the subject of the continuous narrative arc we call life. Now Adam wants to pass that lesson onto others.

“There’s this big thing where people refer to: ‘14-year-old me’ or ‘16-year-old me’ or ‘20-year-old me’,” he sighs. “You want to remind them that they're still the same person – they’ve just seen more so have got more experience to draw from, but there’s no separation between them at those various stages.”

Whatever step you’re on this escalator we’re riding, everyone’s heading in one direction, so we might as well consume art that helps us understand the journey. “I want this new record to be taken at whatever stage people are at because we’re growing together,” Adam concludes, sunlight falling upon his smiling face. “And I feel very fortunate to be able to say that.”

152 is released October 27 via Fantasy Records – get your signed CD now

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