Music is My Life: Episode 052

AJR Brothers Jack and Ryan on ‘Bang,’ Concert Livestream, and Tour Tips

AJR members Ryan, Jack, and Adam Metzger

AJR is comprised of three brothers—Adam, Jack, and Ryan Metzger. Their first initials are where the name comes from. Their music career began on the streets of New York City, where they would busk together for hours at a time for years. The two brothers who take part in this interview—Ryan and Jack—say that years of trying to get people’s attention off the streets was formative to their work ethic and the constant need to one-up themselves in songwriting and their live show.

“Writing a lot of bad songs, it’s really just a totally okay thing to do,” says Ryan. “It’s frowned on a lot, especially now in a culture where everybody’s interested in going viral RIGHT NOW. Like, ‘Wow, this is the first song I ever made and it went viral on TikTok!’ Okay, but now you don’t have any of the tools to make a follow-up. … Us writing probably a thousand bad songs before ‘I’m Ready’ has equipped us to fail well, ya know, when we’re writing songs now.”

“I’m Ready,” AJR’s breakout hit came in 2012. The band credits the success of the song in no small part to Sia, who was one of many musicians they admired that they sent a link to, out of the blue when “I’m Ready” was ready. Sia also hooked them up with their current manager, Steve Greenberg.

The Metzger brothers said “I’m Ready” becoming a hit was misleading in a way, because subsequent success didn’t immediately follow. So they regrouped and came back stronger with more personal statements in their lyrics and experimental production techniques.

The year 2020 has been a big one for AJR, starting with a “Bang,” their first single of the year, which they recently performed on a float at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

As far as what they are thankful for, the brothers discuss gratitude for their parents, especially their father, who is a huge music fan, but doesn’t quite have the musical gifts his sons do.

“He’s been playing the drums for 30 years, and he’s as good as he was on the second day he started playing,” laughs Jack.

They’ll be capping off the year with an event called One Spectacular Night, which they are billing as an “immersive concert livestream.”

Check out the trailer below.

Ryan: I have a lot of memories of the Beach Boys, I think. Our dad used to play us a lot of Beach Boys. I have memories of being in the car on the way to the beach, listening to “Surfer Girl.” I remember that being one of the first moments I thought, “Oh, this is catchy, this is a melody that elicits some kind of emotional response.” 

Do you remember Adam as a role model influencing your musical tastes and what you’d listen to or was it mostly your parents at that time?

Ryan: No. I think it was just our dad. He was an ultimate music lover. Classic dad with thousands of records, that whole thing. He was dying for us to love music, to at least pass that on.  

Jack, what are your earliest musical memories? 

Jack: It’s got to be the same thing, honestly. I remember just singing along to that stuff and learning how to first harmonize with Ryan and Adam. I think for some reason people are just born with better understandings of music and why it sounds good. I think we, the three of us, were. Then there was a fun moment when we first started, we would listen to the Beach Boys or Frankie Valli, and then the three of us would go like [singing] and harmonize all three together. It was like, oh my God, what an amazing feeling. We would just spend hours on the car ride just harmonizing together and practicing that skill. 

Now obviously, you’ve collaborated before, but have you ever tried singing with people who aren’t your blood relatives and noticed the difference? 

Jack: Yes. It doesn’t sound as good. [LAUGHTER] Yeah, we’ve done a few collaborations. We went on tour with Ingrid Michaelson, and me and her would sing a song on stage together. I think it sounded really good. I watched back the videos. But I remember it just feeling weird because we did it for so long just with my brothers. It felt weird to go anywhere outside of that circle.

It’s interesting to think about, like you said, your dad imbued you with music history. Which band of brothers do you relate to most? 

Ryan: Probably the Beach Boys. 

Jack: Yeah. I guess it has to be the Beach Boys. We’ve seen every documentary and biopic and everything. Their closeness and excitement behind making the music obviously in their good times, I know there were bad ones too. But that most closely resembles how we feel when we’re writing.

Tell me about the extended family. Is there any sort of Mike Love in the periphery who wanted to get in on the action? 

Jack: No. We don’t really have a very big extended family. It’s very small. It’s really just been the three of us. That would be funny though if we did have that person. “I want to be part of that too!” 

Just to watch all those disagreements they have now in their current incarnation. It’s just so sad. 

Jack: We just heard about the most recent one about Mike Love and Brian Wilson saying, “Yep, that’s not us.” 

How did you take it from harmonizing in the back seat to realizing that this was something you really loved. Was busking the very first thing you started doing from there?

Jack: It was the very first thing. It was really the only thing we could do. We didn’t really know anyone in the industry. A lot of people are like, “Yeah, I’m famous.” How did you get there? “Oh, my uncle works with this label.” That just wasn’t the case with us. We had zero connections. We didn’t really have any money either to go out and buy anything. The only real option to kill two birds with one stone, money and practice, was street performing. We would go out every single day for four or five summers straight.

We would just basically sing covers and do little dances to people who are walking by and we would get a dollar every once in a while. At the end of each day, we would basically take all the money we had and go buy something from the music store. One day we would make 30 bucks and we’d buy a ukulele. One day we’d make like 200 or 300 bucks and we’d go buy some recording equipment. Then from there it was, okay, let’s start actually practicing writing original songs. That was really just eight years of hard work, of failing a lot. Then finally got to the point of okay, we’ve gotten good enough that people start caring. 

What neighborhood were you performing in? Would you go all around? Would you go near home?

Jack: Yes. It was three main spots. It was any of the parks. It was Central Park, Washington Square Park, or Union Square. Usually Washington Square was where we got the biggest draw.  

How many street performances do you really reckon you did up until that point? Wasit hundreds?  

Jack: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. We would do it every summer. Maybe four or five summers in a row. Every day was about six to seven hours straight just constantly in parks. We would do our set which was probably an hour, so probably five or six times throughout the day. So yeah. Hundreds.

Wow. Would your folks go with you?

Ryan: Oh, absolutely. Our dad was always photographing us from across the park and he would sit there for hours and people would be like, “Hey, if you’re going to photograph them, you should at least give them money.” He would go, “I’ve given them more money than you can imagine, my friend.” [LAUGHTER]

That’s great. Did he play anything as well?

Jack: My dad doesn’t really have a good sense of music, like playing. He’s been playing the drums for 30 years and he’s as good as he was on the second day that he started playing it. [LAUGHTER] He’s not that kind of guy, but he just is in love with it and he will keep doing it forever. He’s that kind of a person.

That’s terrific. Would he give you some guidance, aside from just playing stuff that he enjoyed?

Jack: Oh, yeah. He can’t help but still do it, in terms of other music and commenting on our own music. He still hears songs and he’s like,”No, that’s bad, fix this, fix this.” Once in a while he gets it right, but usually, he doesn’t really know what he’s talking about, but he’s 100 percent sure of it. It’s so sweet. We always want to keep him in the circle because he just loves it so much and he was actually responsible for starting out a lot of it. 

It doesn’t sound like we have a Murry Wilson on our hands.

Jack: We make that joke so often where he’s going to steal all of our publishing and sell it, yeah. 

What business is he in?

Jack: He’s an architect. 

That’s amazing. I’m not quick enough with math to figure out how old you are based on your birth dates but if you could just tell me, how old are you now? 

Jack: I’m Jack and I’m 23. 

Ryan: Ryan, 26. 

That’s great. This is your first band and this is the only band you’ve been in both, right?

Ryan: Yeah. This is all we know. After the street performing, we did that for four years, four summers. Then just continued to build the craft, it was just like going back to the living room where we could now, because of street performing, afford some of this equipment and just writing songs every single day. Every day after school, coming home and just bam, bam, bam, working on new types of songs, new genres. Trying out what is it like if we do an African song? What is it like if we do a folk song? Just like really experimenting.

Then probably eight years after that, we ended up with this song called “I’m Ready” that at the time it was the best thing we had written. It was probably the first song that we had made that really sounded like a real song. Right, Jack? 

Jack: Yeah, I think there was a moment where Ryan played the final mix where I was like, “Wait, this is different here.” Everyone hits that moment of “Okay, this is the one.”

Ryan: Now we know what we’re doing. We ended up in a last-ditch effort of “Okay, the only people that care about this band are our high school friends.” I was in class one day in college at Columbia. I was tweeting the video of “I’m Ready” to all these different celebrities. I was like, “Alright, if this doesn’t work, I don’t know what will work.” 

Sia ended up retweeting it and writing to us. We ended up meeting her at her hotel for brunch in New York City. She just fell in love with the song and introduced us to people in the industry. That’s where we met Steve Greenberg, who’s still our manager to-date. 

Who were some of the other celebrities on that mass tweeting campaign?

Jack: It was @ Justin Bieber, @ Miley Cyrus. Anyone we could think of that was on the radio.

Was there anybody that you would have been, well, I guess, it’s not shocking based on the talent, but it must have felt like a shock when Sia did respond. But was there anybody that you were like, these people will never respond.

Jack: All of them. [LAUGHTER] When Sia did respond to me, if you think about it, it was eight years of nothing. It was eight years of honestly nothing and people telling us, “We’re going to make you big, kid.” It was the classic cliche line from the movie and it would turn out to be some guy scamming you and stealing all your money.

We were conditioned to believe that we would never make it and that there’s such a great divide between us and anyone that can actually help us. It turns out that that was not true. Sia couldn’t have been nicer and kinder to us and it was pure luck honestly that it appeared on her feed at that time. 

During those eight years, were you all basically teaching yourself how to play these instruments and learn the recording software or are you taking lessons?

Jack: A hundred percent self-taught, honestly. It might be the way we learn the best. Watching YouTube videos and just figuring it out. 

Ryan: Yeah. I think even more than YouTube videos, just like figuring it out, just writing and producing a lot of bad songs. It’s totally an okay thing to do and I think it’s frowned on a lot, especially now in a culture where everybody is really interested in going viral right now. Like, “Wow, this is the first song I ever made and it went viral on TikTok.” Okay, now you don’t have any of the tools to make a follow-up. If that was your fluke, you don’t know what it’s like to write a bad song and try to save that bad song and turn it into something good. You don’t have those tools in your toolbox. I think us writing probably 1,000 not good songs before “I’m Ready” has just equipped us with this ability to fail well when we’re writing songs now.

That’s a really good way of putting it. When you did transition from busking, and just recording on your own, to this ability, you had failed enough times and it was your chance to not fail, talk to me a little bit about that transition.

Ryan: Yeah, we got discovered by Sia. She introduced us to her manager. A big reason we were drawn to our manager is, she introduced us to three different labels, Sony, Universal, who are obviously the two major labels, and then this guy, Steve Greenberg, who had an independent label and by the way, decided he didn’t even want to sign us to the independent label. He said I want to be your manager instead. 

The reason why we went with Steve is because he said, “You guys are right the way you are. The songs you’re making are great. ‘I’m Ready’ is a hit song waiting to be heard,” as opposed to, the two major labels that we met with, Sony and Universal, both said, “Yeah, ‘I’m Ready’ is fun, but let’s put you in a room with Max Martin,” or whoever the big songwriters were at the time, “Let’s really flush out your sound.” That was less enticing for us. We were like, “No, let’s go with the guy that’s excited about who we are right now.” That proved to be the right decision, I think because even since then, now he’s been just our closest, he’s just really in our court. 

Jack: Our biggest asset.

Ryan: Our biggest asset. I think that’s a good way to put it. Yeah. He’s so experimental with how he thinks. He did “Who Let The Dogs Out,” he did “MMMBop” by Hanson, he did “Stacy’s Mom.” Over the last 30 years he’s done all the weirdest hit songs. We’re like, “Let’s go with that guy!” Let’s go with the guy that’s thinking outside the box instead of, “We’ll make you into the next, whatever band was big at the time.” 

Instead of stuffing you into a box. 

Ryan: Yeah, exactly. It’s more fun to be outside the box.

The live show now, it’s a big production. Talk to me a little bit about making that a reality. 

Jack: Yeah, so that was interesting. Now, I guess a little bit of backstory is after “I’m Ready” did its thing, it blew up and it sold, back when streaming wasn’t big, it actually sold a million songs on iTunes, and it ended up going platinum. We were sure that then we would be able to tour, we’d be selling out thousands of tickets every single night. But that was absolutely not the case and we were stunned. It was a bit of a situation where wow, are we a one-hit wonder?

There was two years of flat no success after that. We were wondering what happened? We realized, and this is something that we still use today in songwriting, we realized that “I’m Ready” was a simple song about partying. It was just about having a good time with a weird sample period and that was it. No one really cares about the person that’s singing that. No one wants to go see that person’s face in concert. No one wants to pay money to see that person. 

We realized that the people that they do want to see are people that they can relate to and people that they’re like, “Oh, I feel that too.” We started to write songs from a really honest place of insecurities that we had, weird thoughts that could almost even be like memes that we’re discovering we write full songs about. We realized that fans actually started showing up.

First, it was like we were selling at a 150 capacity, then the 500, then the 1,000, and now it’s getting up to 5,000 to 10,000 people a night. It was really just because of our lyrical change. People wanted to come see the face that was singing about being weak and weird insecurities they had growing up. Basically, that’s the backstory. 

Then when it got time to actually put a real show together, we thought, let’s try to do something different here. A lot of shows, almost all shows, there is production, but it’s really just the artist on stage singing their music. I’m in no way shitting on this. That just didn’t quite appeal to us just to do something that simple, and I think it came from the street performing days of needing to overcompensate and win over people. 

What we did was we created this show that was basically half concert, half Broadway show, half magic production, weird thing. What we did is we made our songs and we also included these weird pieces of production and strange effects behind us, and interactive features to really try to surprise the audience. 

We ended up creating the show that is actually pretty talked about among fans and we’ve managed to sell out Radio City and Red Rocks. That’s definitely been the other half. I mean, equally as important as the music for us is the live show. 

I mean, the “Chim Chim Cher-ee” part comes to mind.

Jack: Yeah. That’s one of the first things we did was, okay, how can we do something new? It was, okay, “Let’s start remixing old Disney songs and see what people think of that.” We did it on our opening slots and people were like, maybe I should come see this band again. That’s weird. 

Yeah, the initial run you had with some of the acts you are opening up for, sometimes it seems like strange bedfellows. Other times it seems like it’s a good match, but tell me about that period.

Jack: That was really important. Seriously, opening is so great, especially for an up-and-coming band. It’s like street performing. We’ve opened for people who are a perfect fit, and like you said, we have no business opening up for and people were talking through the whole set. The Ingrid Michaelson tour, I brought it up before, was probably one of the changing moments in our career. The first show, we went out on stage and everyone was talking through the show and we said, “Okay, how are we going to appeal to this crowd?” It was a little bit older than us.

Then we did, and we made a show around that. What we did was, kind of an interesting story, we never told this one before. We said, “Okay let’s see how we can bring these people back to a show.” What we did was we announced a headline show, and we decided to play every single market that we played on the Ingrid Michaelson tour and announced those dates one at a time on the night of the Ingrid Michaelson show.

What we would do was we would plan a show for Columbus, and on the night of the Columbus Ingrid Michelson show we’d go, “What’s up, guys. We are AJR.” We do our show, we say, “Hey, we’re actually announcing a Columbus show right now for two months from now, buy tickets now.” Basically, all of Ingrid’s fans bought tickets there and filled the 100-person venue, which led us to sell out the next tour, which kind of started a roll. “Okay, who’s AJR? Wait a sec.” And then it kind of went from there. So that was super important. 

That’s great. So even if you went on your website, people would not be able to find out that you’re playing in that venue. 

Jack: Exactly. It was cool because fans were actively watching which city’s going to be next. It’s definitely something I’d advise a lot of smaller artists to do. It’s a cool trick when shows open back up. 

Was it exactly the same tour route and itinerary as the Ingrid Michaelson show? 

Jack: Pretty much. I think there was a couple dates that we knew that we could sell, like New York, obviously where we’re from, LA and Chicago. We’re probably the only ones at it, but pretty much it was by that date. It was pretty straightforward.

That’s really smart.

Jack: It was something we had never seen another artists do, and afterwards we were wondering like, wait, why don’t artists do this? It’s so easy for someone to get on their phone and quickly buy $10 tickets just to go see a new unknown band.

Right. Then if they’re having a good time, then they’ll be right there, and they would say, “That was fun. Let’s do this again.” 

Jack: Yeah, and everyone wants to be that first person to say, “I saw them in the room of 50 people, I saw him in a room of a hundred people.”

That’s interesting too, because you mentioned Ingrid Michaelson’s fans are a little bit older. How do you keep those fans while appealing to younger fans as well?

Jack: I think it really is something that we started not to think about at some point, and it kind of just happened naturally due to how quirky the music is. When we have our headline shows now, and there’s a good amount of people there, my friends always say, “Jack, I was watching the show and to my left there was this eight-year-old kid singing every lyric, and then to my right there was this 50-year-old woman singing every lyric. I can’t believe how wide your demo is.” 

I don’t think it has so much to do now with appealing to a certain age. I think our biggest age is the college age, but I think it just has to do with the songs. If you can relate to, “I’m weak and what’s wrong with that?” You’re going to come see our show, and that could be anyone from a nine-year-old struggling in middle school or elementary school to a 50-year-old woman struggling at work. So I think it really just has to do more with the music now.

Yeah, I’ve got to tell you, I have a seven-year-old son and he had a bad day at first grade and I played him “100 Bad Days” and he loved it.

Jack: That’s amazing. Perfectly proving my point. 

Which is a good segue to my next question because he’ll always do the deep voice portion. How do you figure out in your songwriting process like those fun production choices you make?

Jack: I think we always say the phrase “why not” when we’re writing music. “Why not” is something that comes up in every single song, and it’s because we got a little experimental in our first album, Living Room, which didn’t have a ton of commercial success, but what people really liked about it, probably the only thing, was how weird the production was, and how strange it was from one song to another.

We realized, wait, people like a lack of consistency among an album. They don’t want to get the same thing over and over again. So whenever we’re making a song and it’s a demo, it’s a piano demo. It’s a really exciting moment to go “Okay, what’s the weirdest thing we could think of to put it in here?” Like that low voice, I think it was originally supposed to be me just going “100 bad days” and we’re like, let’s pitch it down. Who is this new character? It makes you think a little bit. 

The production choices are all still the three of you, right?

Jack: Yeah. Ryan is the one that actually physically gets on the computer and produces everything from start to finish. But yeah.

You just recently released the new single during lockdown, but what other sort of lockdown activities have you been up to? Aside from well, there’s the drive-in concert too, right?  

Jack: Yeah. We did the drive-in show which actually went really well, a lot better than we thought it was going to go. 

Ryan: The live show is such a huge part of AJR’s whole brand and our whole thing. So it feels like we’re a little neutered here working on this album because it’s so tied in with whatever the next tour is. But we’re planning something in the virtual concert space that I don’t want to talk too much about yet. We’re trying to lift that to a new level of production value because I get a little upset if I’m paying money for a virtual concert and then they’re just sitting there with a guitar. It’s like, come on, really entice me. We’re trying to take that to the next level a little bit, so we’re working on that right now.  

It is interesting how nobody’s really taken it to the next level yet. I watched one last night. It was the Lemonheads at the Mercury Lounge or something. I mean, it was fine. The sound was good.

Jack: It’s interesting because you can easily look up a YouTube video of that sort of thing. So we’ve figured if we’re going to charge people money to watch something on their computer, let’s go way over the top of that. I think since we’re really young and starting a band, we have a really big fear of people being like, I guess I just won’t be a fan anymore. Like really needing people to like us. So I think that’s actually been sort of a benefit in creating shows. We really want to go over the top and overcompensate as much as possible, and that leads to these bombastic things. 

It’s interesting and it all seems to tie back to the street musician and wanting people to stay and listen, but not totally caring if they don’t, right?

Jack: Right. I mean, it’s not a good feeling honestly, to watch some business guy look at you, shake his head in disgust and walk away. Your mind immediately goes to, “Oh no, this guy is mad at me. What did I do wrong? How can I make them stay next time?”

You listen to the music and it’s definitely fun, and like you said, there’s a certain vulnerability to it. On your website there’s the social consciousness element of getting people to contribute to the Black Lives Matter movement. What do you think is the most serious song you’ve ever written?

Ryan: Wow, great question. Probably “Burn the House Down.” 

Jack: If you mean serious in terms of that then absolutely. 

Ryan: Yeah, we wrote “Burn the House Down” as kind of AJR’s version of a political song, where it’s not, “Come on everybody, let’s rise up and stand for justice,” because that’s not something I would say, that’s not our personalities. 

Jack: We’re not leading the fight. 

Ryan: It’s more of a song about like, “Is it okay for me to write a political song? Will they let me sing this on TV? Will I lose fans?” I think that was more of an actual headspace that we were in at the time. What’s cool is to watch a song like that become the theme song for March For Our Lives, the gun control movement, to watch so many people relate it to the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s like, yeah, totally, of course this can be for you. It feels like, maybe one of the more important songs we’ve ever written in terms of world impact.

It’s interesting too, because it feels like not enough people are lending their voices to movements these days as they were in the 1960s because of this fear of corporate sponsorship rejecting things. I think there was an Onion headline about Bob Dylan the other day, it was really funny, it’s like, “Bob Dylan not exactly rising to the occasion as far as current protest music.” [LAUGHTER]

Ryan: Yeah, I think it’s such a bigger conversation, but our country is so split right now. Everybody is just hearing the artists they want to hear and we’re only headed more in that direction with Twitter. Twitter, its algorithm is made so that you see people that you agree with. We’re all kind of becoming in our own bubbles more and more. I think it’s an artist’s job to break that bubble, it’s an artist’s job if we have any fans that don’t agree with us, it’s our job to tell them how we feel because maybe we can make the world a better place or what we think the world is as a better place.  

Ryan, you have synesthesia, right?

Ryan: I do, yeah.  

Tell me a little bit about that. I mean, as much as I know about it, it’s just from that Pharrell Williams, Maggie Rogers exchange a few years ago and then well, I mean, just LSD. [LAUGHTER] But tell me a little bit about how that frames any musical choices you make.

Ryan: Yes, I’ve had this and since I was really young and I think I just recently discovered that not everybody [LAUGHTER] also has this. It’s basically the wires in your brain getting a little crossed. Some people can eat citrus and then see orange, the color. I have it where, if I hear a certain sound, specifically musical sound, I will see a color or shape. 

I’ll give you an example for something like “Weak,” while we were working on it, the kick I see is this big, dusty, brown, bumpy, semicircle shape. Then I see a lot of the strings as these like long, legato, purple waves. While we were making that song, I thought “Okay, what’s the right snare drum for this song? Is it this big ‘80s rock snare? No, because that I see like a big metallic sphere. No, it’s going to be like a tight, little snare that fits into the painting that I’m making essentially.” 

We went with a snare that when I hear it, I see this little wooden, spiked, half sphere. That to me fits better in the painting of the song. This sounds very weird, and probably makes no sense to most people. Yeah, it helps us build the songs out.

That’s really cool. Does it also influence any of the band’s visuals? Because, I mean, your visual identity is definitely a unique thing.

Ryan: Yeah, a million percent, yeah. But I mean, “Bang” has always been really red for us so we knew the video had to be red. 

The album art is really important to us, and so for something like The Click, we looked at all the songs and we thought, okay, a lot of these songs feel purple, blue to us. A song like “Three-Thirty” and “I’m Not Famous,” feels more amber, gold color. Let’s make the album cover purple and gold. Let’s really use these colors, whether or not it means something directly to a fan. I see purple too so I like this album. Obviously, that’s not what they’re thinking, it’s more of just a subconscious continuity.  

Do you all discuss these things with each other?

Ryan: Yeah, I think a lot of times me and Jack are pretty aligned with the colors that when we think of “Three-Thirty,” we both think of white and gold, that kind of thing.

Yeah. Jack, tell me a little bit about when Ryan shares them with you, is it sort of, well, “whatever you say brother” or is it kind of, “yeah, I get it.”

Jack: No, I definitely have it to a degree as well, which is actually really helpful for creating diversity among the album and I think that’s honestly why Ryan and I work so well together. We do really align in terms of all of those thoughts. I think it has to do with the fact that we worked together for so long. It’s what makes it a really smooth process. I think that if I didn’t know what he was saying and I was, “yeah, just go ahead,” it would be kind of frustrating to work together. 

When you are working together, you’re brothers, you must have disagreements, what are most of the disagreements about? 

Jack: I mean, we write and produce everything together and I guess when a problem comes up with writing, it’s never really an argument, it’s more so, “I think this is a catchier thing, I think is a more relatable line.” We share our case and then we say, “Okay, let’s try it out.” Eventually, down the road, it ends up revealing that the person was wrong. [LAUGHTER] Something happens, we’ll play it for a couple of people and they’ll all say, “I don’t like that” and we’ll be like, “Okay, I guess you’re right, let’s move on.” But there’s never like an all-out shouting match. I think it gets resolved pretty quick. It’s also just due to [the fact that] we’re definitely perfect writing partners. We’re really on the same page a lot of the time.

When you are building a song, what do you normally start with? Is it the chords and just singing?  

Jack: Yeah, it really is so random for us, it’s truly anything. I’d say, the most success we’ve had in terms of hits, all of them have come from a concept first. Like “Weak,” the first thing we came up with was “I’m weak and what’s wrong with that?” Same with “Sober Up.” “Won’t you help me sober up? I want to feel something again.” That’s when we’re like, okay, let’s write a song around that. That’s definitely in terms of hit songs or radio songs that we’ve had. But it really can be anything.

We’ve written songs just based on a snare drum. We’ve written songs just based on a catchy melody, which is probably the hardest thing to do, because it’s like fitting lyrics into a da-da-da-da-da, which is difficult to do. But it really can be anything. It can be a movie we just saw. Like, “Wow, this Coen brothers movie is super weird and it made me think in this way. Let’s write a song with that feeling.”

You mentioned “Sober Up.” How did Rivers Cuomo get involved in that one?

Jack: Rivers was a big fan of our song “Weak,” which was a single before that, and he heard it on Spotify, I think. He wrote to us, he followed us, he’s like, “Hey, I like the song.” I think that was where he expected to leave it and us being big Weezer fans, we couldn’t really leave it there. We had to shoot our shot of asking him to do something together, so we did, and he said, “Yeah, that sounds good, let’s do it.” 

We sent him over “Sober Up,” which was almost all written, everything except the bridge. We said, “That’s perfect.” It doesn’t really sound like a Weezer song, but if we were to pick one, it’s definitely the most Weezer leaning. We sent it to him and loved the song, and he sent back a bunch of options for bridges, because we said, “Take a left turn” and he really did. He took a left turn for sure. A lot of the other options he sent were pretty wild and definitely wouldn’t have fit in the song. 

But the final one that he sent was “My favorite color is you.” We were like, God, that’s just a match made in heaven. So we plopped it in and that was pretty much it. He’s probably the most genius, nice guy we’ve met in the industry songwriting-wise, he’s just on another level. 

It’s interesting too how we were talking a little bit about, how anybody of any age could relate to some of these songs, and maybe it’s just because your first hit had Spongebob on it. But it felt like, there’s a youthful energy, but you’re also not afraid to deal with adult problems and talk about alcohol and drugs in an honest way. Talk to me a little bit about that.  

Jack: Yeah, I think that juxtaposition and irony is something that we found, is really kind of untapped and unique in music. There’s a bunch of older artists like Loudon Wainwright, like other artists that were a little more jokey, and were willing to touch on multiple things. We thought, let’s definitely go down that road because we found it really funny and exciting to create an exciting song saying, “I’m weak and what’s wrong with that?” in the context of a party song. We thought that was actually funny and unprecedented in modern music. That’s something that we fell in love with and we really go hard with that. 

We’d like to make the fans think a little bit during the songs. A song will start out and give a certain vibe and it’ll be a sad song, and then I’ll start singing about how great my day is. It’ll be like, wait, I thought the song was about this. We want to make the fans think as much as possible during our music. 

What do you think the future holds for AJR? Have you made a commitment to each other that this is a long-term thing? Will there be solo projects?

Jack: There definitely will not be solo projects. That’s something we can say for sure. I think any of us getting up on stage by ourselves is probably our biggest nightmare.


Jack: Yeah absolutely. Ryan, can you imagine being alone on stage? We wouldn’t know what to do.

Ryan: No, absolutely not.

Jack: So much of the success I think is honestly the camaraderie that we have on stage and I think the fans see that. I think it’s one of the reasons they like us a lot. Because “Oh wow, they’re brothers, they get along and they joke around and I see myself in them.” If I had no one to do that with on stage and I was just singing songs, I’d probably clam-up. 

But in terms of other things, we do a lot of music stuff outside the band. We write a lot for other artists as well, and have done a lot of that in the past. That’s something that we love to do, to get in the headspace of a Jason Derulo, never written for Justin Bieber, but that would be fun. 

Also we write a lot of music for film as well, basically. We have a few films that are coming out with songs that we have in there, just even in the background during the credits. We’re also working on a Broadway show actually. A big producer approached us. He was a fan of our music and he asked us if we had any ideas and we gave him and we’re currently working on that.

Oh cool. Are we talking like jukebox musical or the story of these three brothers? 

Ryan: No, not our story at all. Totally new. Yeah. That’s what attracted us to the idea because wow, we could tell someone else’s story. It’s something I know we have the ability to do, but it just feels wrong. With AJR, we just want to be as honest as possible and autobiographical as possible. Here’s a chance to tell a story about, this is not what the story is, but about a guy in prison and really get into his frame of mind.

When you are writing for somebody else, how do you get in that headspace and find the balance between expressing yourself and writing something that another person can do?

Jack: If you’re in the room with the artist, it is a lot about just getting deep into a therapy session with them honestly, and trying to create a very comfortable environment. If they can’t be comfortable to get real with you, then you’re probably not going to write a very good song, or be pretty generic. 

A lot of the songs that we’ve written for other artists have come from, “Hey, what are you feeling now? How are you doing? How’s your family?” If they’re stressed out. Okay, great, what are you stressed about? That’s money right there. That’s a song, we already have it. 

There’s that side, and then also we used to for a long time you just pitched songs to hundreds and hundreds of artists. We would write songs specifically for Jason Derulo, and that’s just like straight up fun. That’s just like Jason Derulo, let’s do a little bit of research. What’s his life like? Where does he live? What does he do? What is he probably thinking about now?

We’re trying to get that mindset and just write the ultimate Jason Derulo song. We have so many songs on our hard drive that eventually will end up just like probably putting out and being like, “Check out this song we wrote for 5 Seconds of Summer!” [LAUGHTER] Let’s see what fans think. But that was such a hilarious part of our career back then.

Tell me about the first time you did end up working with him. After all that writing of fan fiction basically [LAUGHTER].  

Jack: We never ended up working with him in person. We actually had a song that he was really interested with at the label that he actually didn’t end up cutting. [LAUGHTER] Actually he said, we wrote what we thought was a great Jason Derulo song and then we sent it in and his label was like, “Yeah, I love this, but he would never say this thing in the verse. That’s totally not Jason.” I guess I don’t know Jason Derulo at all. [LAUGHTER]

Ryan: Yeah. But we have a bunch of songs that came out from other artists. We wrote a bunch of Andy Grammer’s singles. We wrote for Max. 

Jack: We had a couple of songs with Meghan Trainor. 

Ryan: Yeah, and those are really fun. It’s really fun to be in the room with the artist too. Like what Jack was saying, it’s really fun to be on your own, but it’s also fun to just play off of them and try to nudge them in a certain direction. Like, “What if you tried being a folk artist or what if you tried putting this hat on of being more hip-hop sounding?” It’s fun to be their life coach for a second a little bit. 

Who was your first session with that you were in the room with?

Ryan: It was Andy Grammer. I went to LA, actually stayed with Andy Grammer at his house. I was 19 at the time and it was fun. I’m proud of myself. I was very nervous, but I feel like I was very brave to just go. I’d never really come into contact with a celebrity before, like anybody that was in any way famous. 

Something I did that was really great is that I wasn’t just like a yes man. I wasn’t just like, “What do you want to do? Okay, I’ll do that.” I think I came in with a lot of weird ideas and a lot of them he didn’t like and some of them he did like. That’s probably something I would recommend to other co-writers. You’ll be remembered more and you’ll be invited back if you’re the guy or the girl that came up with interesting, weird ideas, even if they were too weird for the session. You’ll be invited back because it’s like, “What other crazy, quirky ideas do you have?”

That really is good advice. If you weren’t doing music what would you be doing?

Jack: Definitely film. Ryan and I both went to a film school at Columbia. That’s definitely where our mind is. I’ve been screenwriting for a really long time. We also have an agent that’s in the middle of working on a TV show, actually, that we wrote about touring from our experiences. Definitely something in that arena and hopefully is going to come out soon.

That’s really cool. Hopefully it’s better than that Roadies show. Did you see that?

Jack: That’s so funny. I never saw the Roadies show and every time someone reads the script, this is so annoying, it’s really just my friends and the agent, say something like, “Oh, this is definitely better than Roadies.” [LAUGHTER] Because our whole crew watched Roadies and they were like, “Yeah, Roadies was wasn’t realistic interpretation of touring, but we’ve been doing it for such a long time. We included all of the minutia of, oh yeah, totally been through that, so hopefully we got it right.  

What is it that keeps you in music so firmly as opposed to ditching it all and pursuing the screenwriting?

Ryan: Oh, we have a lot of fans. [LAUGHTER] 

Jack: Yeah, we love it honestly. It’s a scary thing to think about music just getting so conformist, and just everyone putting out the exact same sound over and over and over again. That’s a really scary thing. So we really want to just try to be artists, there’s definitely a few out there, that just keeps putting out something weird and something newer and trying to keep music from becoming so solid and one-sounded. That’s really important to us.