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Producer Neal Avron tells Kerrang! all about the making of Fall Out Boy’s breakthrough second LP, From Under The Cork Tree.
If you’re a Fall Out Boy fan from back in the day, there’s a good chance your favourite record is From Under The Cork Tree. Released on May 3, 2005, it brought forth mega-hits Dance, Dance and Sugar, We’re Goin Down, turning the band from four regular guys living in the suburbs of Chicago, to literal poster boys for their scene, and became the first album to siphon emo music into the ears of the masses.
After modest success with debut album Take This To Your Grave, bassist Pete Wentz knew …Cork Tree had the potential to make them massive. “I was thinking, ‘You’re gonna catch the wave or the wave’s gonna crush you,’” he told Kerrang!. “And I had no idea what riding the wave would be like, or how bad crashing it could be.”
But when the four-piece packed their bags and relocated to LA to record it in November 2004, the band were not in a great place. They moved into corporate housing, where they had no friends, and hadn’t yet made a life for themselves – “a very depressing place” as Pete describes it. So much so, that in the apartment he shared with Patrick, he’d lie under a blanket and think, 'This is what it’s gonna be like when you’re dead.' It was a feeling that very much inhabited the record, with the track 7 Minutes In Heaven (Atavan Halen) even diarising a suicide attempt Pete made in a Best Buy parking lot.
While lyrical content was unabashedly heavy, Pete’s vision for the album was for them to sound heavier musically, too. Which is why they called in producer Neal Avron. Big fans of the three New Found Glory records he’d done – 2000’s self-titled, 2002’s Sticks And Stones, and 2004’s Catalyst – they wanted him to bring that same mix of heaviness and pop sensibility to Cork Tree.
Three completed albums later (Neal also produced follow-ups Infinity On High in 2007 and Folie À Deux in 2008), guitarist Joe Trohman describes him as being like the fifth member of Fall Out Boy. So who better to celebrate its legacy than the man who produced it…
You didn’t actually want to work with Fall Out Boy when you first heard them. What were your thoughts?
“I got the …Cork Tree demos from their A&R person Rob Stevenson and they were very rough-sounding. It’s not like today where everybody’s got Pro Tools and can make incredible-sounding demos. These were on cassette, or it might have been CD, but I just didn’t think the songs were great. I was at a place where I was trying to work with the best songs I could as a producer, as that gives you the best shot at having success, and I told Rob that at that moment, ‘Come back to me if they get some better songs, I’m gonna pass.’ Everything to me has always been about songs. I’ve passed on other bands before that became big – the songs weren’t there, and months later they wrote some other hits and went with somebody else, and I was like, ‘Oh, if I’d heard that song I’d have been on board…’ Any time you turn down a band, there’s always that, ‘I really hope this doesn’t come back to bite me’ kinda thing, and they write some incredible songs, and become Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame artists. But you have to go with your gut at that moment.”
What changed your mind?
“Rob sent me another CD I believe, and he put in a note that said, ‘Here’s your two smashes, let’s do this’ or something to that effect. There were four or five songs on there, and he said number two and number three, or whatever it was, were smashes, and those were Sugar, We’re Goin Down and Dance, Dance. And when I heard those two songs, I was like, ‘I don’t know if they’re huge smashes, but they sound like great songs to me.’ That’s when they flew me out to meet the band as I wanted to see them play live. We went for dinner after the show, and that’s when we decided to make a record together.”
What was is like working with them in the studio?
“I don’t remember it being anything too challenging, or different. Pete really had a lot of big ideas and plans, and Patrick [Stump, vocals/guitar] was mostly the technician, getting in there with me and working out songs and arrangements. It was pretty standard in that we did a week of pre-production in Chicago, then they flew out here [to LA] and we did another week of pre-production. Then we went in and started recording and had a really good sense of the songs that were gonna be on it. It was generally unspectacular in that sense.”
Pete was having a tough time personally during the making of …Cork Tree. Did that come across to you at the time?
“I’d love to say that he told me about all these things and I was on board and understood what was going on and we worked through it together, but honestly he kept a lot of that to himself. I found out more about that later, after working with them for many years. He didn’t come to me and say, ‘Hey, I’m really depressed.’ I did find that out of the group he was probably the most up and down. The studio we were in had a very large lounge that was separate from the control room, so he spent a lot of time there, when he wasn’t recording bass, and I assume he was talking to friends, and probably doing a lot of MySpacing.”
Pete and Patrick had a big fight over Sugar, We’re Goin Down. Patrick wanted to completely re-do the chorus, and Pete who was documenting the making of the album, stuck a camera in his face, which Patrick ended up punching… were you there for that?
“I did not see that (laughs), but I can tell you there was always tension on every record at some point. Typically, that would come in the form of Pete writing the lyrics and Patrick editing and putting them together. If Patrick sang it with Pete’s general approval of, ‘Yeah, I’m down with these lyrics,’ then after we worked really hard doing all the performances and getting it just right, Pete would come in and go, ‘You know, I wanna change this line and this line and this line…’ and Patrick would really blow a gasket, because he’d worked so hard on the performance, and the harmonies. His harmonies are very intricate and take a lot of time to develop, so he wasn’t happy re-doing stuff like that. Pete was more of a big picture guy. He didn’t wanna be in the studio for 12 hours a day. He wanted to come in with fresh ears. He’ll tell you this himself: he had the ears of a 13-year-old girl. That’s how he heard music. So I think that having that fresh perspective was helpful for him.”
It could be said that FOB’s success is totally down to the relationship between Pete and Patrick and how well they work together. Did that occur to you at the time?
“Oh absolutely. It’s rare, but it happens – Bernie Taupin and Elton John, and Rush – where different band members that aren’t the singer write the lyrics, so it’s an interesting thing, both for Pete to be writing the lyrics and for Patrick having to sing ’em and sell ’em onstage. Pete doesn’t necessarily write a whole song, he’ll write paragraphs or phrases, and Patrick puts things together. Sometimes there can be a whole song, but other times it’s, ‘Here’s some lines I really like and I think work with this song, let’s put this together.’ So Patrick can become the editor. And as you can imagine, if you write something and your editor gets a hold of it and completely changes it, you’re like, ‘No, that’s not my intent…’ then all of a sudden they’re going back and forth.”
Pete recorded the spoken-word part at the end of Get Busy Living Or Get Busy Dying… in the toilet, because he was too shy to record them in the vocal booth with everyone watching. It’s hard to imagine Pete being shy like that…
“He was shy. It was one of the last things we recorded, when I was mixing the record, and there’s a bathroom right off the control room. It’s tiny, and I mean really tiny, like an airplane bathroom. He came to me and said, ‘I wanna do this transition piece, but I don’t wanna do it in the vocal booth,’ he wanted to be in the dark and didn’t want anybody to see him, so I just threw a [mic] in and he crouched in the toilet. I’ll have to look for it, but there was a picture taken of him, just as we were closing the door to lock him in there (laughs). He’s not the most comfortable performer in general – he played all the bass on the album, but when he came to vocals I think he wanted to be shy. He didn’t wanna be in the vocal booth right where the glass is so everybody could see him. Being in the studio is already so clinical, as opposed to when you’re live in front of an audience, then literally having people watch you, it’s tough for him.”
What do you feel you brought personally to the album?
“On Sugar… when that song came to me from the A&R guy, the verse was completely different – it was slow and plodding, and to my mind, ill-fitting of the song, because the chorus was obviously outstanding. So during pre-production I asked the guys to rewrite a new verse – a lot of that came down to Patrick, ’cause he was the main music writer. We’d do pre-production in the day, then at three or four in the afternoon when I’d leave, I’d say, ‘I think you need a new verse for this,’ and I’d come back the next day and they’d have a new verse. And we went through that process for five or six days, and finally on the last day they played me what became the verse on the album, and as soon as they played it, I said, ‘That’s the one!’”
Do you ever listen back to the album?
“Not often. I still hear Sugar… and Dance, Dance on the radio quite a bit. I don’t have a lot of mental time or space to go dwelling on a lot of the records [I’ve worked on]. I listen through before an interview, just to go, ‘Oh I remember that, or this thing was fun…’ so it brings back fond memories. I remember Pete doing the vocal in the toilet, and I remember on Dance, Dance I had Patrick add vocals in the mixing room because I felt like it needed one more layer on the last chorus, and he just went in and sang it as I was mixing the song. And then I had forgotten about how the album started with the cameras clicking, and Patrick had put that together and I melded that into the first song. My son who is 25 and works in the tech world in San Francisco texted me yesterday, and it was a clip of one of his co-workers singing Sugar, We’re Goin Down (laughs). So it completely lives on in infamy, just as Pete would have wanted!”
What’s your favourite of the albums you’ve done with FOB?
“Ughhh you’re not gonna make me [pick] that (laughs). I don’t have a favourite. I guess ...Cork Tree would have to be high up on the list in the sense that it’s your first record with somebody and everything’s new and shiny and you’re figuring everybody out. Everybody’s on pins and needles, and you’ve got what you think are these great songs. And having a big hit with a band who entrust their music to you, I think is really satisfying. I feel very responsible when I’m producing an album, or mixing, to give them their best shot at having a hit record. So for it to pay off, I felt really good that they had come to me, and we were able to deliver together. But I love the other two albums as well for so many other reasons. The growth of the band, the growth of Patrick as a songwriter and expressing his more soulful chops, bringing in some of the hip-hop influences that all the guys had, and building our relationships and getting to make three records together was amazing.”
You had this little band who weren’t really anybody coming into make …Cork Tree, and they were massive by the time they came back to make Infinity On High. What was different?
“It was a little different. [Pete’s personal life] was the big deal on that record, and it also moved into the third record, but on Infinity he was [being chased by] paparazzi. I think we did pre-production entirely in Chicago partially to stay away from that, and the studio was a little more secluded for that purpose as well. Patrick took even more charge of things musically, he and I spent a lot of time together crafting the record and bringing the other guys in to play their parts. Things changed a little bit here and there, exactly how would imagine.”
Pete and Patrick described the making of Folie À Duex as “one big argument”, so how did the vibe change from Infinity to Folie?
“Yeah, there was a lot more arguing. It happened because there was a lot more telephone going on – it wasn’t the guys all in a room together, things got a little more phoned in, lyrics got sent via text, and when you don’t see somebody’s face and how they say something, texts can come across very different, and that put a lot of strain on things. Pete had a lot going on outside of studio life, so anytime he would come in and put his two cents in, it would be frustrating to me, to Patrick, and everybody who’d worked hard for hours and hours and toiled over a sound, for him to go, ‘I don’t like that.’ Or, ‘I don’t like that lyric I sent you three days ago’ – that could be very frustrating, and that was a big part of the blow-ups that would typically happen.”
The pair had another argument over how Folie should sound. Pete didn’t agree with Patrick’s vision, and Patrick rage wrote two songs as a ‘fuck you’ to Pete, which became Disloyal Order Of Water Buffaloes and I Don’t Care…
“I definitely can tell you that was the case for I Don’t Care. That was actually written in my studio. Patrick was in a terrible mood, I’d just put together a whole studio, and I had a vocal booth that I had stuffed a drum kit into. Patrick was playing, we were working on pre-production for the third record, and I think Patrick said, ‘Hold on a second…’ He was on a long phone call with Pete, then he threw one of the drum sticks against the wall, and I was like, ‘Hey! That’s my fuckin’ brand new studio you’re doing that to (laughs)!’ Then he told me about it, and then he literally wrote I Don’t Care. He literally didn’t care!”
Pete said he could feel the band slipping away, but he wrote about it anyway on that record… and said the band were tired and not communicating. How hard did that make your job?
“It was definitely more tense. I had to do a lot more mediating and [use my] people skills. Typically, when you start with a young band, they’re all living together, or they’re all from the same city, and live blocks from each other – it’s a tight knit thing and everything is ‘one for all, all for one’. Then all of a sudden, third record, you’ve had some success, people have girlfriends, people move to different states, so the challenge of writing together, being in the studio together, and being away from girlfriends who want their time, or whatever it is… there’s just a lot more outside pressures. So it’s not ‘all for one, one for all’ anymore, and it makes things a little more challenging. It’s always been that way for every band that I’ve done multiple records with, certainly if there’s success.”
Folie wasn’t really that well received, or maybe understood at the time. How did that feel for you? Or do you not care about that stuff?
“No, I did. I would say I kind of expected it to a degree… I thought I Don’t Care should have been a bigger smash than it was. I thought that song was gigantic from the minute it was written. I’d heard stories of some weird record company miscommunication with the people who do the polling on the songs, and they were getting the sense that it wasn’t reacting well at radio, and so they pulled their support of the single, but later found out that the polling data was off by a factor of 10 or 100, and by that point they’d already pulled it, so the record just kinda died. And so I think it was just a real bad mistake that ultimately got made.
“For the rest of the record, I had a gass making it because Patrick really got to explore in incredible ways that I don’t think the genre had seen really, so I was very proud of that, and all the work we did. I remember he and I went to a music store and he bought thousands of dollars of all this crazy music gear that we brought back to the studio and just started exploring. All of a sudden a guitar wasn’t just a guitar through an amplifier, it was a guitar through two amplifiers and a mega phone. So we were getting to experiment in ways that were refreshing and fun. So I’d say that I’m sad that it was misunderstood – I think people appreciate it a lot more now. It was a little ahead of its time, and it was so different than the other albums, that there’s always gonna be the core fans that just want the same record over and over. But it was a great move to expand and show off Patrick’s chops, and other great songs. So I have fond memories of that.”
Is there anything you’d like to add about any of the records?
“No, I’m really grateful that I was able to work with them for three records, and I mixed five songs on the newest album [2018’s M A N I A]. And Patrick does some producing, and I mix things for him as well, so we continue to have a working relationship. And I got to Pete’s kids’ birthdays, so I’m grateful to have them in my life. Both professionally and personally.”
And what was working on the new songs like?
“It’s very different. Back when we were making the records I did with them it was a little bit more of a rock band unit, and now it’s a lot more about ‘shoot for the stars on every song’, [make it a] pop hit, and that’s okay, that’s where they are now. So it’s a different thing. They’re in a different place in their career, and a different place musically, and that’s cool. It still sounds like Fall Out Boy soon as you put Patrick’s voice on it…”
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