Why Taking Back Sunday have left their emo past behind

Taking Back Sunday
(Image credit: Nick Siemens)

Formed in 1999, Taking Back Sunday cut their teeth in the Long Island emo/hardcore scene, coming to international attention with the release of 2002’s debut full-length Tell All Your Friends. A visceral barrage of wounded pride, broken hearts and impassioned desperation mixed with unhealthy doses of bitter jealous and vengeful thinking, it became a staple of a scene that it very much helped create. But now, in 2016, with the band’s full-length out in the shops, it’s very clear that that has all changed.

This is now the third record that the line-up who made that very first full-length – vocalist Adam Lazzara, guitarist Eddie Reyes, lead guitarist John Nolan, bassist Shaun Cooper and drummer Mark O’Connell – have made since reuniting in 2010, and it marks a dramatic shift in both theme and tone for the band. In fact, this record is their most complete and full transformation to date. The culmination of many years of deliberately walking away from the pigeonhole they found themselves stuck inside, Tidal Wave is a determined evolution of who the band are, yet one made with the full knowledge of who – and what – they once were, as Adam Lazzara explains.

Taking Back Sunday have been slowly breaking free from the emo label for a while. It really sounds like Tidal Wave is a conscious effort to leave behind the past…

Adam Lazzara: “Yes, it is. This is record number seven for Taking Back Sunday. We were trying to learn from other people’s history, because there’s a bunch of other bands we’re into, and if they make it to LP seven then they’re kind of fixed in what they do – they just do their thing and put out the records and do a tour and that’s it. We were really conscious of that and we wanted to not make something that we’ve already made before. We asked ourselves how to make each song better, and how to take it out of somewhere that we would typically go and into the realm of something that’s more in line with what we’re all just listening to now.”

I have a friend who has a tongue-in-cheek theory that all punk musicians end up playing country music. He’s not entirely serious, and you’re certainly not Garth Brooks, but these songs are more mellow and more nuanced. Do you think that’s just age?

“I think as you get older you grow as a person. You have all this life experience to draw from. Not only that, but you’re introduced to a bigger world – the blinders start to get peeled back. As far as punk rock guys becoming country guys, I think it’s because, for a lot of them, and even ones I’ve talked to, they couldn’t deal with being in a band anymore, but they don’t want to spend a whole lot of time learning how to play the guitar better, so it’s just easier to do that. [laughs] But speaking for myself, and speaking for the rest of the band, too, there is a great big world out there and I think as we grow we’re introduced to more and more of it. I think, when we’re younger, we’re just focused on whatever scene we’re in and whatever music was happening then. Like when I got a little older my dad was like ‘You have to listen to this Steppenwolf album’ and I’d be like ‘Dad, I’m just not ready’ and then lo and behold I turned 25 and I’m like ‘Holy shit! Why haven’t I listened to this sooner?!’ So as things like that start to introduce themselves as time goes on, we’d be letting ourselves down if we weren’t writing to our full potential and just sticking with the formula that makes Taking Back Sunday Taking Back Sunday. I also think that that would be the easy thing to do, but the reality is that each one of us are way better players than we were last year, two years ago, three years ago, and so on. I feel like the easy road would be to play what people expect from us, because people expect a certain thing from Taking Back Sunday. If we just went and did that thing and put the record out, that would be a half-hearted thing because we wouldn’t be acknowledging our own potential.”

With that in mind, I was going to ask what loyalty you feel to the band you used to be, as opposed to the band you are. Obviously Tell All Your Friends and Where You Want To Be were important albums within that – in inverted commas – emo scene, and they mean a lot to a lot of people…

“The hope is, though, that we’ve grown together. Because I think that one of the things about those records is that they hit people when they were at a certain point in their lives. Like, we’re on two separate paths, but right then, for some reason, we were on the same path as a lot of folks and that’s how it resonated. And then as you grow, just the way it is with any old friend, one of you goes one way and the other goes the other way for a while and then eventually, somewhere along the line, you meet back up again. Because the person that says – and I read this shit on the internet all the time – the person that says ‘I wish they would write another Tell All Your Friends’ is full of shit, because it’s not going to mean the same thing to them all these years later, because they’re a different person. They’re looking at it through a different filter, a different lens. You looked at things much differently when you were 18 than you do you right now, you know? It’s that whole thing. So the hope is that we’ve grown with folks and that they’ve grown with us and hopefully they’ll like it.”

Was it weird, then, to go back and do the Tell All Your Friends anniversary tour, because you’re playing these songs that meant one thing when you wrote them but the meaning of which now is presumably very different?

“I think we may have talked about this before, but even now we’ll play songs like Cute Without The ‘E’ and they take on this life of their own and they start to become bigger than, like, what I think about it or the place where I was coming from, because there’s this fire that gets turned on in the room that’s out of our control. But going back and doing that tour was this cathartic thing – it was like looking back through an old photo album and saying ‘Oh man, look how far we’ve come and look at all this.’”

Right. Because there’s such an expansive sound on this record. You haven’t gone down that simple, country route – these are complex songs. Homecoming sounds almost Arcade Fire-esque…

“Oh man. I haven’t heard that yet, but I’m going to take that as a compliment. I really like that band! For us, it’s funny, because we’ve kind of embraced this idea that no song’s ever going to be done. Because even after we record it, when we go out and play it, little things are still going to change. With that one, we started with the original version of it, which was awesome, and then the version that’s on the record, which I think is even better, we had this idea that if we stripped everything away and had to play this acoustically, I want it to feel like we’re hanging out in my backyard or in John [Nolan]’s backyard, because that’s what we do – it gets to a certain point of the night where someone pulls out a guitar and we trade songs, and we wanted to have that feel. And then Mark [O’Connell] came up with that beat, which we ended up looping and it just worked out.”

This is the third record that the original line-up has made since you got back together and you definitely sound very comfortable playing together. Do you feel that?

“Yeah. Also, it’s the first time in Taking Back Sunday history that we’ve made three consecutive records with one line-up, which I think is pretty funny. But we’ve learned how to work with one another very well, and we’ve also gotten to this point where we understand the writing process is going to be a democratic thing and everybody is throwing their two cents in – and you can tell when someone has more of a vision or idea than another person, and that’s when that person knows when to step back and let that person take it. So they go as far as they can take it, and then you hop in and things like that.”

(Image credit: Greg Hunter)

How do you feel, at the age of 34, about being the frontman of a former emo-punk band or whatever? What does age do your perspective of being in this band and writing songs, especially now that you have two kids? Everything’s changed in terms of who you are compared to when this band started.

“And I think that reflects in the music, too. I take it much more seriously, and I already took it very seriously. I didn’t think it could go up a notch, but now we handle things with a lot more care. It used to be that we’d need twelve songs, so we’d work the shit out of them but then at some point we’d be like ‘Fine, put it out!’ Now – and I think you can hear it on Tidal Wave, and it’s a crazy thing to even say out loud – but we’ve had talks about the fact that this is going to be our legacy, so that this needs to be the best shit we’ve ever done, or why else are we doing it still? And that’s how we approached it.”

But do you feel as stimulated at this age? Your direction is very different, the visceral angst of early TBS doesn’t exist anymore and you’re happy, you have a family and your inspiration is very different.

“Yes it is. But I do think that angst is still there, and I think it’s something that’s always going to be a part of me. It’s in my personality. Especially with having a family, I’m reminded that it’s a part of me a whole lot, and it’s one of those things where it’s like ‘Okay, in this situation, I’ve really got to keep this in check here because these are my people.’ And that’s where the band comes in, because I have the outlet for it. And now I also understand other things like the approach. I used to be really concerned with what other people were doing and things like that, and now I could really care less. It’s just ‘What are we going to do and how can we be the best that we can possibly be?’ That’s just kind of where the focus has shifted, and I think that’s something that’s happened with everyone in the band.”

What’s the significance of Jacksonville? You sing about going back there on Homecoming, and your previous US tour finished there. Was that just coincidence?

“So our buddy Mike Pepe engineered this record and we recorded again with Mike Sapone, and Mike Sapone is real big into everything happening for a reason, that there’s no such thing as coincidence. Even during the recording process, if he saw something that was similar to a lyric from one of the songs he’d like ‘It’s too crazy, right?! This was meant to be!’ When we were wrapping up recording it, that’s when the offer for the Jacksonville show came through and we were all like ‘Oh my God! It was meant to be!’ We haven’t really played in Jacksonville a lot over the years so just the fact we’re putting out a record with a song that speaks about going back there and then all of a sudden this random show comes up…it was pretty funny. But that song, I think, means something a little different to everyone in the band, especially John and I. I was looking at it from the point of view of having done all these navy tours, where you go to different bases where troops are stationed and you play for them, and during that process you hear a lot of crazy stories from talking to people and having conversations, because it’s a completely different life than the one that I’ve led. So one of the motivations for me with that song was just taking that stuff, which was so heavy, and trying to get those feelings out. But also, having a family and touring and being gone, I was always the guy in the band that was like ‘I don’t care for home, keep us out playing.’ Whereas now I’m like ‘Well, we need to be home for this time – we can go out here and here.’ So that’s changed, and there’s an element of that in this song that I relate to greatly. But then I felt I was being too much of a princess complaining about having to do this awesome job of entertaining people. So it was putting those two things together.”

I remember us talking about the idea of living the dream back then, 10 years ago. So how has that dream shifted for you? How has it changed?

“Well, I thought very early on – and then for years – that one day you would just arrive and things would get really easy and cushy. And that is not true! And I don’t know why I had that idea in my idea – I guess it’s kind of how I looked at things as a kid, and it’s how I looked at adulthood, like it was this thing where you reach an age and you just know how to do shit. Or you reach an age and you just know how to do all the things that need to be done, so everything just takes care of itself. And I guess that’s a testament to having great parents, because that’s how my dad made it look. But looking back, that’s not the case. You have to stay hungry, to put it real simply. Even now, there’s a part of me waiting for that feeling of having to work everything out just goes away, but it’s not ever going to go away. That’s the hard thing to realise.”

Taking Back Sunday’s Tidal Wave is out now. The band are currently on tour.