What would All Time Low do? It's a question the band held close during the recording of their eighth outing, 'Wake Up, Sunshine'. They've thrived embracing the cavalier, carefree attitude that comes with youth, but after nearly two decades together, what next?
"You start to have that identity crisis of you either become R.L. Stein, writing another Goosebumps book; where you just end up churning them out and simply change some names of the characters," singer and guitarist Alex Gaskarth muses, chuckling.
"Not to say that there's anything wrong with that. But it's a very fine line to walk where you're either regurgitating the same thing that you've done a million times, or you're going completely off on a tangent at the cost of maybe alienating some of your fans.
"We've built something up over 16 years, and there's an expectation for what people want from this. It's finding that space and meeting those expectations while also staying true to ourselves as artists and not just regurgitating another Goosebumps novel."
After the touring of 2017's 'Last Young Renegade', which saw them explore different territories both sonically and conceptually, the good ship All Time Low needed to dock.
"We should be clear about this, too: there was no, 'Alright guys, it's time for a break'," drummer Rian Dawson dazzles with his Hollywood smile. "It was not a hiatus. It was more, 'We don't need to do anything this year, we've earned a vacation."
Just as Rian says, the time off wasn't for any need to escape each other. The core of All Time Low, finished by guitarist Jack Barakat and bassist Zach Merrick, has always been the teenage bond that still runs as strong today; with the four of them sat around a bar table with Upset, at ease, and a clear air of 'friends before band' and smiles never wavering.
"I remember Alex told me about Simple Creatures," he motions to his bandmate. "We've been in the band for fifteen-plus years, and we've never really talked about side-projects at all. I remember the call, he's like, 'Hey, so I've been writing with Mark [Hoppus, from blink-182] a lot, and we're thinking about doing this thing'. And it was just same with Jack [and WhoHurtYou, his band with singer/songwriter Kevin Fisher] - there was nothing but excitement. There was no resentment about it or anything like that. We were all very much in contact."
"It was really nice to have some time to ourselves," Alex agrees. "You know, we all got to do various things; whether it was just spending some time at home with our families, which is always great and very welcome, or whether it was diving into new projects new endeavours. Jack started a new thing, and so did I. It was kind of a way to reset, get some headspace and clarity and just move away from All Time Low world for a minute. We'd been on tour for so long too."
"Fifteen years!" Rian laughs. "Everything just kind of fit into place in the discourse. There was zero contention, zero anxiety about that. No, 'But what about All Time Low if you're doing that, and you're doing that?!'" He continues.
"It was just like, 'Okay, yeah, you guys flex that creative muscle that you need to, and then when we come back, we'll be able to focus in on what we need to do next."
"It definitely refocuses you to take that year off and to be able to do whatever creative processes you want to do on your own maybe. And then it also just made me realise at least like 'Fuck, I really miss it' in a very good way," Rian says.
"It's like coming back to school, except you like school, and you like everyone there, and you actually enjoy it!" Jack laughs behind sips of gin.
When it came to the four of them getting back in the classroom, or studio, it had to be something special. While they did drop the double A-side of 'Birthday' / 'Everything Is Fine' out of the blue back in 2018, "At this point, we didn't feel like we needed to do that again," Alex says for their decision to go all-in on an album.
"We'd done that, and it served its purpose. The big thing with those two tracks was that we felt as though 'Last Young Renegade' was tapering off record cycle wise, and we had a lot of touring left to do. So, we felt like it needed some kind of injection of a new excitement. It was a nice little transitional moment to wind down that record cycle, but without it feeling like we dragged it out."
So, endeavouring to keep everything barebones, they took themselves away to a house in the desert, where the band set up shop with one simple purpose in mind; to be All Time Low.
To do this, they stripped things back to basics, no rigid timescale, just living and breathing what they love. No one was aware a new record was being made, it was just the four of them - and a producer, Zakk Cervini - hanging out, pushing away any of the bullshit that can crop up from being a band for so long.
"We're in a unique position because we've made a lot of records," Alex ponders. "This is record number eight for us, and I think, to be honest, there are advantages and disadvantages to both. Sometimes having a more rigid timeline and needing to deliver on time actually pushes you to make something great in the constraints of what you're working with.
"But at the same time, it's all cyclical, and sometimes that can be too much. The beauty of this album is that the break and a lack of pressure came at the right time. It came at a time when we needed that to make a record that truly represents what All Time Low is in 2020."
While all four figures of All Time Low were present, and doing what they do best, it was the addition of producer Zakk that helped Alex, Jack, Zach and Rian bring it all back to that question; what would All Time Low do?
"Zakk is the first producer we've ever worked with who was a fan first of our music," Alex says. "He said to us before that he grew up listening to All Time Low, so it's pretty cool to make a record with a 100% professional and insanely talented producer, but also with that added caveat that he grew up on our music.
"You don't often look back and reference your own music when you make new stuff. But in his mind, he was able to know where the energy is, and what he wants to unlock from you and that made for a really interesting time again."
Having met Zakk after Alex worked with him on the Simple Creatures EPs, "He was someone that was fresh in our mind to do our record," Jack says. "I think that had a lot to do with it as well. Alex liked working with him a lot, and we knew him personally, but All Time Low hadn't worked with him a lot."
"Speaking personally, creatively, Simple Creatures gave me an avenue to do something that was very different and off the wall," Alex says of its marks on 'Wake Up, Sunshine'. "There were no expectations tied to it, and it was nice to be able to go do that and then come back with an almost even more focused sense of what All Time Low is and should be. It should sound like what we are trying to do."
The moments in their career that haven't kept the same timeless sparkle as the cough that introduces 'Dear Maria', or the positivity laden chugging guitars that welcome 'Weightless', are still ones that have a story. There's no animosity to anything they've touched so far ultimately because it's helped shape 'Wake Up, Sunshine', and the All Time Low of 2020.
"I wouldn't use the term like, not worked out," Alex reasons on any past endeavours. "But I would just say that, in the context of this album, doing it in this free-flowing way felt very appropriate. It felt like having that freedom was the best way to get this out, it created a great environment for us."
"If it wasn't working we were like, let's just swim for two hours," Jack pipes up, confirming the relaxed nature with another chuckle.
"And what's cool about [having no expectations] is that wasn't the intent really," Rian says. "Again, after taking some time off and exploring other avenues, we all came back because we all knew what we wanted to do for the next record without even discussing it. Which shows how genuine it is; how it feels, and I don't think that would have happened if we didn't take some time and reassess to figure out where all the pieces lie."
"It wasn't a board meeting record where you sit down, and everybody goes, 'What are we gonna do?!'" Alex eludes to past experience.
"The beauty of where we sit with it is that I'm still a fan of all the music I grew up on, and the music I grew up on is what moulded the sound of All Time Low - for all of us," he says, met with resounding nods around the table.
"So, because I'm not ashamed of our roots and our beginnings, and where we came from, it's very easy to still exist in that space and feel comfortable doing so. We're not looking at ourselves and being over-analytical and going like, 'Oh, we're fucking 30, we can't write fast songs anymore. They have distortion! It's like we've got to grow up and make moody analogue, with clean guitars', you know what I mean?
"Not to say that there's anything wrong with that either because our last album, we very intentionally went a different direction and made a more synthy, weird album, and at the time, that just felt right."
"It felt like it had been kept in for a while. We just needed to write that, and get that out there," Rian adds.
The lesson that these toe-dipping exercises brought forward was predominantly self-belief. "It's our name on it, forever," Rian reasons. "So we have to be proud of it, even if it's at the expense of some fans sometimes. If we're not stoked on it, then it becomes a case of to not mention it, or to play it live. We connect with our fans very much in a live setting, so if we're playing songs that we don't love or do feel regurgitated or anything like that, it'll show through pretty easily with us."
Admitting that they've made records with the compromise of songs being written, or put on them, as "what's beautiful" about where they are now is proof that the All Time Low are a band that are still yearning to develop. They're still the four boys that formed a band in high school, where opportunity called, and they aren't letting it get away.
They take losses on the chin, and break down the essence of what those missteps may have been, to lead to them making 'Wake Up, Sunshine'. And it's this balance that keeps Alex's words of "we didn't want people to see through it; it's not just us that end up feeling - there are songs we never play for a reason," echoing through those carefree desert days and nights.
"There are some songs we don't play anymore because we didn't really vibe with them to begin with, and then on top of that, when we did play them you could tell that the fans didn't even buy-in because we didn't either in our hearts."
"Even we didn't buy-in," Alex continues his admission. "So at this point for us, the biggest thing is it has to feel so rad in the moment. We all have to be stoked on the energy that occurs right when you create it, because that thing is the magic moment. Eight months later, you might hate the song, but remember how you felt in the first five minutes when you were first writing? And if everyone in the room was jumping up and down going 'Fuck yeah!' That is what's going to translate at the show, right?"
It's this energy that propels through the London underplay show they play while they're in town. Alongside every classic track from across the All Time Low arsenal, the likes of 'Some Kind of Disaster' and 'Get Away Green' slot so naturally alongside that Alex's next exclamation is beyond agreeable.
"Those are both songs that had that energy about them. It just felt like this is quintessential All Time Low - but in the here and now. I had those moments where I would listen to the songs, and I'd be like, 'I feel like I've heard these songs 5000 times and they're still career-defining - but [the album's] not even out yet!" he smirks.
When asked what their favourite moments on 'Wake Up, Sunshine' are, given it's a fifteen-song strong effort, the conversation ends up snowballing into the band naming every song with its merits, not a single one forgotten. "This is going to sound douchey to say, but there was just no fat to trim - I've listened to it so many times, and I'm just in love with it," Rian sparkles.
Last year marked the tenth anniversary of 'Nothing Personal', undoubtedly the album that cemented All Time Low's place in the pop-punk canon, where they tacked a more focused view on growing up with the acceptance of their success and the voices they were speaking for and to.
Celebrating their seminal effort brought with it various facets, and for Rian the hunger was there to keep going. All Time Low have always been the kind of band that revels in the chaotic madness that comes from the electric energy of a gig.
This little break from the break to honour this chapter should have had an effect on 'Wake Up, Sunshine', given its return to their roots, right? According to Alex, not as big a part as you'd think.
"I think they helped for a lot of reasons, but I wouldn't say that the shows, or even the 10-year tribute; I don't think that they had any bearing on it because most of the music was written at that point," he shrugs. "But I will say that from a reinvigoration standpoint, it definitely got us thinking about our beginnings and being appreciative for the fact that we were where we were."
"Seeing how excited people were at the shows and realising how meaningful that record was to people," he continues, "I think really amped up this new record because it feels to me like it's going to fit in as a very classic All Time Low record. One that, three or more records from now would be like, 'Oh, that's a top three or whatever else'.
"I just think that it speaks so much to what All Time Low is - it feels very much like this band's record, you know? Which is weird to say because it makes it sound like I value other records less or differently. But it's just like, this feels like such a culmination of everything we've ever done slammed into one thing, and you don't always get that magic."
"It was also playing those shows and feeling that connection with the audience while playing those songs. When we were writing new music a lot of the time all I could think about is how is this going to be live… but how are we going to do this live? And every single one of those songs just makes sense live like there's no real thought process of how it will work the crowd.
"It's like all this work, and I feel like those 'Nothing Personal' shows, like you said, reinvigorated that sense of that fan-band connection - we're all in this together and all of these songs I believe will have that connection, which isn't always the case. Sometimes you need to prove it, but with these, it's just like, 'Oh that'll work'."
"We found that out real fast playing 'Some Kind of Disaster'. The first time we played it, we were like, 'Ooop there it is!" Zach says, amazed.
"That was one of those moments in a band where you're like," Rian says with his mouth agape and wide-eyed. "And that was definitely one of 'em. Even 'Get Away Green', when we did it at Slam Dunk - that was out of nowhere. We just played a new song. It was Alex's idea we were like, 'No, we're not doing that'," Rian chortles.
Jack adds, laughing: "Yeah, I was so against it, but it ended up being really good!"
"And then by day two, everyone's singing along!" Rian marvels. "I was gonna say the opposite happened when we took that year off. I was just like, I wanna play more shows! I mean, finally, we did at the end of last year, when we did those 'Nothing Personal' shows. I remember on the last Jersey one we were texting, and I was like, 'Can we just fucking keep going?!'" His excitement palpable.
"Sometimes we have to step away from something to realise how much you take it for granted," Jack adds.
"Yeah, you not so much take it for granted, but it's like, 'Okay, we're doing another tour'," Rian reasons.
"I take it for granted!" Jack jokingly retorts.
"[It was an] autopilot of like, 'Okay, this year is set', and then it goes away and it's just like, 'Oh my god!; like, halfway through the year I was just so ready to get back on the road."
The bare essence of All Time Low can no doubt still be heard echoing from the concrete of Rian's parent's basement when they first began, chaotically rattling through blink-182 covers. So, it's fitting that this should be the sentiment that rounds off All Time Low Mk VIII with 'Basement Noise'.
"That song was written in a moment of reflection and looking back on the very beginnings of this band and what it was all about," Alex says.
"I think what's interesting about that song, and how it frames and ends the record is that it very much describes what we were feeling while making this album because it was reminiscent of how we started making music in Rian's parents' basement. It was very much a callback to those feelings, those emotions and so exploring that in that song felt very…"
"It's very meta!" Jack quips.
While love, yearning, and the inevitable heartbreak, are the bread and butter to all music genres, in pop-punk the angst that thrashes around, hoping for someone to understand, does have a life-span. Often, bands that start out in this world fall into the trap of being proper adults still trying to process those thoughts that do change with time, through no-longer-youthful eyes.
Alex's reasoning for how All Time Low adapt to this pitfall continues the trajectory of self-awareness and knowing how to balance being true to processing what he needs to while ensuring the factors that drew the world to the band stay.
"A big part of it is that it's all the lens that you're looking through," he says. "Even when there are songs that feel reflective of our older material, it's all being done through where we are now as people and as friends and as, you know, encounters that we're seeing in our 30s or whatever.
"At the end of the day, it would feel insincere to be writing about the things I was writing about when I was 20. We're not forcing it and being like, 'We've got to sound like we're still 21 years old', it's more about just casting the right net and getting the thought out of it, whether they're memories or whether their experiences or whatever and then putting it putting it through the lens that feels right."
Which is why 'Wake Up, Sunshine' does genuinely feel like the next great All Time Low album. It dabbles with the future, while deeply rooted in that understanding that the action-packed tunes, and the minds that created them, are in this with us. Exposing the main trend for the album, even its title feels like Alex talking to himself, reminding he and his bandmates of the fact they're living their childhood dream.
"A lot of the album is very reflective," he says, eyes focused. "Like a kind of self-reflection, but there are a lot of parallels between talking about the band, and fanbase, and how we've all come up as a unit together."
Of course, the All Time Low fanbase - including their own official Hustlers Club - is an important factor behind the band's success, but they're also the ones who whip the tide of creative change into a confusing mess of stillness and wary adventure. But for All Time Low, they know they know they have a responsibility to evolve, as referenced on 'Melancholy Kaleidoscope' which sees a rousing chorus ending with "Can't be 100 if you're only giving 95."
"[That is] a perfect example of a line that does speak to the band. You're never going to be your best self if you're not giving your best," Alex says.
"That is how, at least I, personally, felt at the end of the 'Last Young Renegade' cycle, you know? I think we were just a little burnt out," Jack adds.
"Sure. That's why we weren't ready to go make a record," Alex continues. "But for me personally, that song is also about being okay mentally. You can't begin to fix what's going on with you, or whatever, if you're not invested in starting to fix yourself. It was kind of that song for me. It was a wake-up call for myself to say, 'Hey, like, you know, you can feel better'."
There generally tends to be three components to growing as a band, and in the vast majority of cases, most only get the choice of two; success, founding members or longevity. But somehow All Time Low have all three. What do they put that up to?
"I think the brotherhood of this band is what has kept this band going," Alex muses, "and has kept the band feeling fun and fresh and like we want to do it. And I think the reason you see a lot of bands over time dis-band is that it does become a job."
"As much as that sucks to say because you're doing the coolest thing in the world, it's true. You know, there are people that do get to a point where they're like, 'I can't fucking stand being around this person anymore, I need a break'. I need to go do something for myself, whatever it is, and in this case, we've never had them. I feel like whenever we're off tour for a long time, we're always texting each other being like, 'I fucking can't wait to be on tour again'."
Now All Time Low is a bonafide name that can pull headline slots and arena tours, the fact bands they grew up listening to, and formed their sound around, haven't lasted as long with such success, with no line-up changes is remarkable.
Even blink-182, the band that gave them cause to start scrappily covering pop-punk songs, succumbed to a 'hiatus' after side-projects became involved, and had line-up changes after less time than All Time Low to boot. All told, they're a band who are a solid form of just what it means to be a band.
"I mean, it's pretty wild when thinking about that, we, sixteen years into a career, still get to make albums and they still feel great to us, and people are still engaged." Alex beams. "They want them and want to hear what we have to say and do next. Beyond that, it's just cool to see this band grow and change and evolve and shift with, you know, sort of what All Time Low is and what people perceive us to be.
"We've always operated within a wheelhouse of All Time Low. It's always been fun to kind of push the walls and the envelope what that is and what we sound like," he continues.
"With every record, we hone and enhance and change that style a little bit. But to me, especially with this album, it very much feels like a quintessential All Time Low record. And this is going to be one that you know, ends up feeling very classic in our catalogue."
Hours after Upset's interview with All Time Low, they head off to a BRIT Awards party where afterwards Jack posted a band selfie on Instagram with the caption; "You know how they say don't start a band with your friends? That's why I started a band with my BEST friends."
There's no more proof needed. They may have taken the odd detour, but the lost young renegades are once again found.
Taken from the April issue of Upset. All Time Low's album 'Wake Up, Sunshine' is out now.
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