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Tonight Alive: There’s no limit

With their new album ‘Limitless’, Tonight Alive are reaching for the sky.

Tonight Alive: There’s no limit
Tonight alive

Cover story


With their new album ‘Limitless’, Tonight Alive are reaching for the sky.

Words: Ali Shutler. Photos: Kane Hibberd.

Tonight Alive are going to change the world,” starts Whakaio Taahi. “Everyone who leaves one of our shows is going to walk away and live a positive life.” After the longest break in Tonight Alive’s eight-year history, Jenna McDougall, Cam Adler, Matt Best, Jake Hardy and Whakaio are back with third album ‘Limitless’. Bold, daring and provocative, it sees the band put their positivity front and centre. In a few hours they’ll take to the stage of Barcelona’s Sala Apolo for the second date of a world tour (and somehow, their first show in the city). Halfway through the show Jenna McDougall asks the audience to put their phones away so she can speak to them directly. “You always have a say,” she tells the room. “Say it with me, ‘I always have a say’,” and the crowd follows her lead. It’s moving stuff. Leaning down to someone in the front row, Jenna asks for the Spanish translation to make sure everyone gets the message and before she’s had a chance to stand back up, the entire room is chanting “Siempre tengo algo quei decir.”

From their scrappy debut EP that offered ‘All Shapes & Disguises’, through the buoyant cry of ‘What Are You So Scared Of?’, and out ‘The Other Side’, Tonight Alive have always come loaded with reassuring messages of hope. However, it’s on ‘Limitless’ that they finally cut the ties of everything holding them back.

“I just want people to fucking hear it,” explains Whakaio from their dressing room. “I want people to understand what we’re trying to do.” Lifted from the album, there’s a worry the singles don’t make sense yet because of how removed they are from people’s expectations. “That’s frustrating and I’m an impatient person anyway,” he ventures. “I think people will understand when they have the whole album. We were very finished with ‘The Other Side’. We were very finished with what the band was at the time so this has been a complete rebirth of us, of what we want to do as people and as what we want Tonight Alive to stand for. It’s such a progression.”

The band didn’t set out with a rebirth in mind though. Work began on their third album pretty much as soon as ‘The Other Side’ was recorded so within a month of that touring cycle winding down, Jenna and Whakaio went to a cabin just north of Sydney. They wrote fourteen songs they believed would be their new album and when they showed the rest of the band, everyone agreed “this is great.” They showed the “really punk rock” record to one of their team and the question was raised, “this is really good, but do you just want to do the same thing again?” “Jenna and I just looked at each other. Fuck.”

This sent Jenna and Whakaio “on this two year journey” that saw the pair engaged in numerous writing sessions. “We started to broaden our horizons. Jenna and I write everything together and if we don’t get an outside view, we’re just going to keep doing the same thing. How else do you learn?” They went in with the approach that “maybe we won’t use this song but maybe we’ll learn something from this person. When we would write together after a trip, we’d always write an awesome song.”

“We got angry, but we got angry in-between ‘The Other Side’ and ‘Limitless’. We got angry on those songs that never made it onto the record,” explains Jenna. “There’s a heap of lyrics that I had to write. I went through my own self-therapy with things I was pissed off about.” Listing the music industry, business fuck-ups and the world at large, Jenna was left with a choice. “Am I going to write about that and put that negative energy out into the world or not? I don’t want to live like that. I wanted to write a Rage Against The Machine album with Alanis Morissette vocals and that would have easily made me so happy, but that wasn’t the path for the band.”

It’s not a new perspective that’s given Tonight Alive this new direction. It’s the five-piece giving in to themselves. “The reason it’s different is because we’re being true to ourselves. Let’s stop being afraid of everything we were writing, because we wrote heaps of stuff that didn’t make sense at the start,” starts Jenna, before Whakaio adds, “We’ve always written songs that have been discarded because it wasn’t Tonight Alive. There were songs for ‘What Are You So Scared Of?’ and even the first EP that were left because we said ’this isn’t Tonight Alive’.”

“Who are we to say what Tonight Alive is and who are our fans to say that,” reasons Jenna. “It is what it is and we have to stop controlling that. We have to forget the word control even exists because you don’t have control. Just let it be what it will be. In a lot of ways we wrote the record, but it also wrote itself. It was almost like this being that resisted every time we tried to say no or yes. The record made the rules, we didn’t.”

‘Limitless’ is the sound of a band fully realising who they are. In order to do that though, they first had to understand “what we were and why we were important to other people.” The band asked, “what was it about our album that made all those people sing along and connect to it as they did? Once we figured out it was what Jenna was saying and the message she was portraying, we wanted to facilitate it in a way that more people could understand. I think with having drums and screaming guitars, it really allocates that towards a smaller group. Now, anyone can listen to it and get Jenna’s message. They can understand it, not be afraid of it and accept it.” There was a quest for space.

Inspired by a conversation with David Bendeth during a writing session that ended up with both Jenna and Whakaio “crying and trying to realise what we were doing,” the band swapped guitar for piano during the creative process and suddenly “everything became better and more inspiring.” This in turn led to Whakaio exploring his love for movie scores, in particular Hans Zimmers’ grand minimalism. “All the parts were so simple and so small but it sounded huge. To make something simple but still make it sound engaging and constant is the hardest thing in the world but that’s where my mindset was at the time. They were big influences, the small simple sounds.”

“But they each had their own voice,” continues Jenna. “They weren’t competing with each other and everything sounded very characteristic but theatrical.” This considered space allows each moment of ‘Limitless’ to breathe, gifting it room to soar. Everything ended up in its right place, including the band.

“It was a journey of constant self-reflection,” Whakaio says of the past few years. “The hardest thing in the world is to look at yourself and say ‘my best isn’t good enough’ and then ‘what am I going to do about that?’” “And be ok with that,” adds Jenna. “Not complacent but accepting, then creating a solution.”

“The record made the rules, we didn’t.”

That desire to be better is obvious on lead single ‘Human Interaction’, but it’s a message that goes right back to the band’s roots. “That’s what brought us all together as people,” starts Jenna. “My friendship with Whakaio and Cameron was based on that attitude they taught me as a 14-year-old. You’re lost but we don’t feel sorry for you. ‘How are you going to change your situation?’ That was really tough love as a teenager but that’s what we’ve built everything on. That’s why our songs constantly talk about that.”

Those relationships within Tonight Alive meant there was absolutely no resistance or hesitations about the band’s new direction and “that was a huge thing for us. Jenna and I were going off, doing all this stuff and growing but we would come home and they would all be so excited about where we were going. To have their support was really important.” It also helped once they returned to David Bendeth to record the album.

“I love reflecting on that time,” offers Jenna. “There were so many painful moments, a lot of it was just unpleasant but big things happened every day. Realisations happened every day. It was exhausting how emotional it was because every day mattered. It really levelled you. It was intense but even just the lifestyle we had in New Jersey, I loved it.” The band lived in a family home, had their own car and every morning started with the band cooking before they went to the studio. Their time recording was less idyllic though. “You can’t understand how hard it was to constantly beat yourself down in that place,” explains Whakaio. “Twelve to fifteen hours of feeling like you’re not good enough and it was so emotionally and physically draining. So many times we’d drive home and no one would speak.” Once back at base though everyone would chill out, smoke weed, eat vegan ice cream and watch videos together. ”It was so important that for all of us. What mattered was we were all together. We just had to centre ourselves before the next day happened.”

“The album wouldn’t have been what it was unless we were really as low as we could go as humans and rise above,” Whakaio adds. “It’s ironic that the songs are so high, elated and stuff like that,” offers Jenna.“I think it takes you hitting the bottom to know what’s important to you and you can hear that in the music.” It turns out what was most important to Tonight Alive was each other. “It’s everything,” exclaims Jenna. “The core of the evolution is that we are so solid as a group of people and we all know exactly who we are now. I think it can take until your midlife to realise who you are so we’re really lucky that we’ve had this fast track growing process as people. That’s totally affected our music because anything else would have just been us satisfying our high school, teenage selves or our fans.”

“I want people to take away whatever they need from ‘Limitless’,” Whakaio offers. “If they need a really emotional thing to help them get through something or if they want something uplifting to help them feel better, I want this record to be that. We’re such bipolar people being Geminis and our album is such a wide spectrum of songs, I really feel like there’s something for everyone no matter what mood they’re in. I hope that they realise that and can take that away.”

“And in that way, it’s an empowering record because it allows freedom to find your place with the record, whatever stage in your life, or whatever person you are.”

In order to fully explore the empowering elements of their music, first Jenna had to “find my own sense of power. I really had to look at myself and ask what are my strengths and my weaknesses are. The lyrics are so reflective of where I was at the time, and I never want to feel obliged to help other people, but I do find it really important. I know it’s really important. I know we’re in a position where we really affect people but the way we do that is by me being honest and true and expressive in that way, so I try not to let anything dictate the direction of the lyrics.”

“It feels good to make a statement. I want to provoke people. I want to evoke people. I want to challenge them. There are moments in life that you don’t enjoy at the time but you’re so grateful that they happened and it’s pretty cool that we can use our music as that platform.”

From the growing pains explored on ‘The Other Side’, ‘Limitless’ sees Tonight Alive explore “the adults that we’ve become by choice, the lives that
people we want to influence in a positive way. We’ve always been about hard love. We’re not going feel to sorry for someone unless they’re doing literally everything they can.” No matter how much Tonight Alive grow and evolve, that punk spirit of just going for it rages on. “The whole thing about Tonight Alive is we promote positivity. We want people to be the best that they can be, do what they want and live their lives but we won’t feel sorry for those who don’t take that upon themselves. We hope that with ‘Limitless’ we give them the power to be able to do that. We’ve taken that on ourselves and we’ve got to live what we teach.”

“It’s funny how the rock stars of days gone by would encourage drink, drugs and getting fucked up while Tonight Alive promote positivity and healthy living.” “It’s a different time now,” Whakaio reasons, before Jenna expands, “It’s a time to live consciously and with good intention. Our record is the sonic reflection of that.”

“Once you become conscious of small decisions you make in your life, like being a vegetarian or understanding your anatomy and ways of controlling your physical and mental health, you start realising you can make conscious changes that affect other people and your environment. Once you become aware, emotionally and energetically, you can become aware of all kinds of things that are huge and unfathomable.” That interconnected worldview is threaded throughout ‘Limitless’ and sees the band address the desire for a global shift in their music for the first time.

“What we’ve done is risky, it’s literally make or break.”

“We didn’t want to touch on to those things until we fully comprehended them.” Numerous trips around the world have expanded the band’s view, though, and now they feel comfortable with songs like ‘We Are’, which loudly and proudly declares, “They’re not going to change the world, we are.” It’s a unifying call to arms that reflects the community their live show crafts. The band are still learning but one thing they do understand is the people before them. “We’re not politicians, we don’t understand any of how that fucking shit works and we never will because we don’t think like that. However, we will promote positivity and we will be our own politicians, musically because we are in a position where all these kids are listening to us. What the fuck are we going to say? That song is literally about these kids coming to the show and listening to what Jenna has to say.”

“But you can apply it to any scale you want,” expands Jenna. “I’m saying, ‘waiting on a miracle, thinking it will save us all’ and, ‘hoping if we close our eyes, we’ll make it all invisible.’ I love those lyrics because we always depend on somebody else to fix our problems. We also turn a blind eye to refugees, animal cruelty, poverty and all these things that don’t directly affect us but people are suffering all around us. For me, I don’t feel like I can make a difference physically yet but if I can sorta make a mental and spiritual difference to people in the way that they look at it, then eventually we’ll cause a shift in the way that we think. That’s all I want. I love that I can touch on that idea. I love the idea that our generation has power. The older generation and all the people in power have their own agenda and they’re stuck in an old-fashioned way of thinking. How can we trust the politicians when they are the people who got us into this situation in the first place? I don’t have the answers and I have so many questions.” But that doesn’t mean Jenna is going to stop asking.

The band believe that if you’re in a position of power, no matter how big or small, you have an obligation. “If you’re in this situation where kids are listening to you, you have a responsibility. Whether you like it or not, you do and we’ve realised that and our responsibility to these kids is to promote a better lifestyle.”

“But I don’t feel obliged. I don’t feel like I have to be a role model and I don’t feel like I have to have responsibility,” interjects Jenna. It would be all too easy to ignore it but with everything, Tonight Alive is built on positive decisions. “It’s always going to be there over your head so I’m going to grab onto it and make something of it. That’s the choice I made and I’m happy for it. That’s how we found music and that’s what we loved about music. It gave us that sense of belonging and understanding.” It’s not all world views and social politics though. “If it comes down to something really cool, I love when I hear people say they started a band because of you because that, to me, is the biggest compliment in the world. I started a band and I started to play guitar because of the bands I loved. If we can be that for someone, that means the world to us.”

“I used to get really embarrassed about the fact that we weren’t one thing. That I wasn’t one thing,” says Jenna. “’Why can’t I always be pissed off and dressed like a grunge chick from the nineties?’ ‘Why can’t I be this one thing?’ But you’re just not, so stop resisting it. Accept that you have a lot of different things to say, a lot of different emotions to convey and you’ve got a lot of different images to work through.”

“There are so many corners to Tonight Alive,” ventures Whakaio. “Instead of a box, we’re a seven pointed star” – “I like that imagery,” smiles Jenna – “and I think that’s because of the people we are. We like all these different things.”

“That’s what we love about our fanbase. We’re not trendy people. We never had an image that people could attach themselves to. I always felt like we could relate to each other because I was never the cool girl. I always did things to try and fit in but I really like that about fans. They’re just real people who connect to an emotional expression.” It’s an everyone is welcome grounding that Tonight Alive want to expand on with ‘Limitless’. “The album itself is such a huge spectrum and why wouldn’t it be the same in our lives? This is a huge, bold statement but for this record, we just want to start our own genre because where do we sit? Where does Tonight Alive fit in?“ It’s a question they’ve always been asking themselves.

On ‘Limitless’, they have their answer. From the defiance of ‘To Be Free’, through the shuddering ‘How Does It Feel?’ and upwards with ‘Power Of One’, there’s a sense of discovery. Taking the unity of ‘We Are’, the closing flourish of ‘The Greatest’ sees the band realising that “I’m happiest when I’m surrounded by the best of my friends and that’s as simple as it gets.”

“That song is a about a handful of different things; finding your purpose in life, being satisfied with simple things, having everything you need and being so confident and grounded in where you are, nothing could ever take away your happiness or your peace of mind. It’s just about becoming, I don’t want to say a solid person but you’re not fragmented. People can’t come and steal things from you, including your energy. It’s dynamic and is just about finally being at peace in life, finding your purpose and knowing your importance.” It’s such a powerful song for the band that, after hearing Matt’s drums under a rough demo of the vocals, they cried. Jenna has “never been moved by percussion before.”

“This album has been a complete rebirth.”

Despite the exhausting journey the band have been on, they’ve come out the other side ready to change the world. That starts now. “I am already thinking about how it’s going to be next time we’re in the studio and the type of freedom I want to experience in that,” explains Jenna. “When we were making ‘Limitless’ everyone was asking these questions and making these demands of us. Next time I think everyone’s just going to put their hands up in the air and say ‘we trust you. You can do whatever you want to do’. That’s exactly what I want to achieve as an artist.”

“Hopefully we do make another record after this because honestly, for me, if this doesn’t work, then there’s no point in it,” says Whakaio, for “the simple fact we’ve given it absolutely everything we possibly can. If it doesn’t work, I can’t do any better.”

“We’re pretty confident in it though,” reassures Jenna.

“We couldn’t have given it any more. I hope that people can understand that and really latch on to that. They’re good fucking songs. I think it’s the right time for us. We’ve spent so long getting our live show together that if it does take off, we’re ready. We are who we are and we will always give you that. It’s either going to work or it’s not. It’s such a risk. What we’ve done is so risky, it’s literally make or break. People are going to like this album or they’re going to fucking hate it.”

“I think that’s a really cool metaphor for who you are as a person,” offers Jenna. “I don’t want to be a people pleaser. I don’t want to go into every situation feeling like I could be friends with that person.”

“If we did the album we wrote at the start, that would have been a people pleaser for the fans we already have,” continues Whakaio. “But we wouldn’t have reached anyone else with this message. We’ve taken the risk. We’re making a statement and we’re not playing it safe. I love being controversial. As soon as you don’t play it safe, people will talk but we’re doing this. This is what we believe in and we’re okay with people not liking it. We’re okay with people having their own opinion.” It’s a record out to provoke yours.

The band never wrote a statement of intent for ‘Limitless’. A friend of the band told them, “Great art doesn’t answer questions, it asks them,” and it’s an idea Tonight Alive have taken to heart. From the reaching image on the front, to the affirming, compelling and emotional messages within, Tonight Alive “want people to look at this and think ‘I feel a human, earthly connection to this’. Where’s my place in this? Am I reaching or am I controlling?  Am I lost or am I found?” Across the record’s ten tacks, Tonight Alive explore those questions. Their journey’s end comes with the realisation that they always have a voice. They can use it to change the world. Now, it’s your turn. [icon type=”fa-stop” size=”icon-smallsize” ]

Taken from the March issue of Upset. Order a copy here. Tonight Alive’s new album ‘Limitless’ is out now.

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