Sometime during the Fall of 2002, I remember driving passed the legendary dive venue formerly known as Birch Hill in central New Jersey and seeing the words 'Taking Back Sunday' advertised on the marquee for an upcoming show. This sign helped me discover some of my favorite artists, as I always kept a mental note of the names that stood out. Months later, I came across this band with a cool sounding name after I saw the video for "Cute Without The E" on the now defunct MuchMusic channel.
Once Nirvana and blink-182 resonated with my teenage angst, Taking Back Sunday's "You Know How I Do" made my musical dreams seem realistic. For a generation of New York and New Jersey outcasts, the poetic outpouring in the lyrics "We won't stand for hazy eyes anymore" helped us find comfort that we weren't alone in expressing those feelings of resentment through music. A certain hometown pride came in knowing that these five kids from Long Island went from playing the tiny tri-state area clubs all the way to chart topping success worldwide.
Flash forward to April 21, 2014; I am a college student pursuing a career as a music writer and covering the last show of a three-night, sold-out stint featuring Taking Back Sunday and The Used at Best Buy Theater. The spectacle of a homecoming Taking Back Sunday show in New York City illustrated itself in the audience's generational gap that ranged from high schoolers to those hardcore local listeners in their 30s.
Co-headlining a tour with The Used might initiate those warm nostalgic thoughts of the early 2000s, however, Taking Back Sunday's show on Monday night illustrated a peak performance for a group playing at its best in the present. As much as this sold-out tour celebrates the early days of both artists, the music listener that ignores Taking Back Sunday's latest LP Happiness Is is missing out on some of the band's finest work to date. With the definitive lineup completely in synch, this manifested energy just poured itself onto a starving audience of over 2,000 people.
Inside, the subconscious of my 13-year-old self took pride on a professional level when I recently sat down with Adam Lazzara and John Nolan at Baeble HQ this past week for a compelling conversation about the band's latest LP Happiness Is. On an early Wednesday morning, my memories of blasting Tell All Your Friends and Where You Want To Be on my Walkman came full circle with my writing career.
With your last record, there were some heavy expectations with the Tell All Your Friends lineup rediscovering that chemistry again. For Happiness Is, could you describe the experience of writing without that added pressure?
Adam Lazarra: I think it made for better songs and not to discount anything from the self-titled record because we're a fan of those songs but for us, we just felt more comfortable with one another. Like you said, we have gotten that period of feeling each other out again out of the way just from writing and recording the self-titled record and all the touring we have done. It made it a more relaxed process especially when it came to recording. It was one of those things; if Mark was tracking drums, we would be like, 'Well, we're going to go home and you just do your thing,' because we trust that it's going to be awesome. A big part of it was having that trust in one another.
Talk about going into the studio with a blank canvass. You guys were able to get back in the garage.
Adam: When we were writing and recording, we didn't have a label at all and we were just doing it all on our own. It was really freeing because we were able to have it only be the five of us. There wasn't any kind of outside influence or anyone from the label saying, 'You should make this more user friendly' or whatever. It kind of untied our hands so we could do whatever we wanted.
John Nolan: It was nice knowing that whatever we did, whoever signed us or picked up the record, it was because they wanted that 'record.' It wasn't going to be like they were signing us and not getting something they expected or worrying about that. It was nice to just go, 'This is the record and if you would like to sign us, here it is.'
You have already proven yourselves too. I'm sure the only opinion you want to hear is from the producers.
Adam: There are times when we don't even want to do that [Laughs]. With this record, Mark Hudson produced half of it and Mike Sapone produced half of it. The thing is, we toured with Mark Hudson for years so it was like we were working with a buddy of ours. And Mike Sapone produced the first demos that we ever did and we worked with him on and off throughout the years. It was like we were working with friends we really trusted over the years. The whole thing was a great experience.
It was exciting to see Mike Sapone's name attached to Happiness Is. What were you looking to achieve with he and Mark Hudson producing?
Adam: It kind of happened haphazardly because we did a round of demos in Michigan with Mark and then we did another round of demos in New York with Sapone. We were trying to pick a producer and we were like, 'These demos came out so great, why dont we just record these songs here or those songs there because thats where they came alive?'
I'd argue going back to your roots helped you rediscover something new within yourselves that wasn't there before.
Adam: Mike is kind of the master of catching the mood. He's all about the song having to feel right and to live in its own space.
John: I feel like a lot of the stuff we did with Mike was actually the more different types of songs on the record or songs that don't sound like what you would expect Taking Back Sunday to sound like. I noticed after the album came out that a lot of people, especially with "Flicker, Fade" and some of the other ones, actually would talk about it sounding like old Taking Back Sunday. I guess like you said, having that energy. I thought that was interesting because I kind of expected a lot of the stuff we did with him for people to be like, 'Wow, this is kind of weird and different' [Laughs]. And people were like 'No, this is what I want to hear Taking Back Sunday doing,' which is nice.
Your lyrics were always personal but I feel Happiness Is took it a new level of barebones honesty.
Adam: I think John and I were both trying to be a lot more direct than we had been the past. For a long time, I thought that in order for folks to connect to a song everything had to be very cryptic. That's what I leaned towards on past records. When I was younger, the more cryptic it was, the less chance I would have to explain myself. For this one, we decided to throw it out there and take a more direct approach. Even though you feel a little more vulnerable and a little more naked by giving that to strangers.
On tracks like "Beat Up Car," and "Better Homes and Gardens," could you go in-depth about the messages in those lyrics?
Adam: What's interesting especially about "Better Homes and Gardens," is that it took years to come to the surface. It's funny how when you're going through something, I know for John and I, it's not until sometime later that it will come to the surface and you could start to talk about it on paper. And that's what "Better Homes and Gardens" was about. "Beat Up Car" was kind of the same thing; it was this idea of getting out of a situation or a place thats bad for you or too small for you.
John: It's weird how it works. When I was younger, I used to try to sit down and say, 'Man, what I'm going through is really something I want to talk about. I have all these things I want to say and I'm going to try a write a song.' It never worked for me. Sometimes, month's later and even years later, it winds up coming out. I'm not sure why it works that way. It seems like for both of us, this stuff has to get processed before it could come out in a song.
Adam: It's like a good chili; you have to let it simmer [Laughs].
John: Let those emotions simmer [Laughs]!
Adam: Leave it in the crock pot all day and everything will be good [Laughs].
John, if you could talk about working with Eddie again. This album featured plenty of new guitar effects and tones. How have you grown as a guitar tandem since the beginning?
John: When we started out, we definitely kept things pretty straightforward. I think on Tell All Your Friends, I think I used a delay pedal a couple of times [Laughs]. Other than that, it was pretty much just clean or distortion.
Adam: Your pedal set up was delay, tuner, and distortion pedal [Laughs].
John: Actually, I don't even think I had a distortion pedal. I think I always just used the volume pedal and that was it. Clean goes down and it gets dirty. Eddie and I both experimented with a lot of different pedals and sounds in the studio. Especially with Mike Sapone, he just has this whole variety of different pedals and he will get this idea and go rummaging through his pedals and connect this crazy setup. Sometimes it will be awesome and sometimes well be like, 'Ah, that doesn't work' so we'll go get some other ones so yeah, that was a really fun part of making this record.
Adam: With Hudson too, he has this crazy collection of gear. I think Mike Sapone and Mark are really similar in that way to where they will both be like, 'Oh, what if we run it through this amp and then we will use this microphones and then we'll use these pedals?' And it's all to get the right feel.
You guys also experimented with orchestral backgrounds and symphonic tones on "Flicker, Fade."
John: That's Dylan [Ebrahimian], man.
Adam: If you listen to the live records, both the acoustic and the full band playing, Dylan was playing the violin with us for that so I think that kind of opened the door to bring him in on this record and let him go.
John: The thing that was nice about that, since we had toured with him, everyone was comfortable with him and had gotten to know him. He's just a musical genius, I think, compared to us at least [Laughs].
Adam: He is extremely talented; he is so good.
The panther on the cover for Happiness Is, I saw Eddie mention the whole band has the panther tattooed on them as a sign of brotherhood...
Adam: Yeah, Eddie had it first on his arm. And then one day, we just kind of decided, 'That's going to be our thing! We're going to go with the panther.' We started incorporating it into our artwork, merch, and things like that. So yeah, then we all got the panther tattooed. When it came to this record, it was funny, when we started talking about the cover; the only thing we all agreed on at first was that there needed to be a panther on it. It came out great and I think it's one of our best album covers. It just feels good; it feels timeless and has a timeless feel to the cover.
John: It's funny how it worked out too because we had a backdrop with a panther on it for a while and like Adam said, all this merch and stuff before the album even came out. It almost seems like we planned it [Laughs]. But really two years ago, we were having a conversation about Eddie's tattoo and how it didn't mean anything and then Adam was like, 'We're going to make it mean something.' That was as much of a plan as we had [Laughs].
Coming off the ecstatic fan reaction after celebrating the 10-year anniversary Tell All Your Friends, do you think that energy translated into the new songs?
Adam: I think with that tour, especially because we were playing the first record all the way through, I think it helped us when it came to writing. Not as far as what came out in the songs but as far as how we were interacting with one another. It was a crazy thing every night to play songs off that record and see the reaction each one of the songs received. I think it helped with our competence and also just our idea of how we looked at one another.
John: Another thing I think was good about that tour was when we did those acoustic shows and we sat down, we rearranged all the songs. I think it was totally a different type of show for us, but it was a good experience because we had to play together in a different kind of way. It was a little bit out of our comfort zone for us to play a full-band acoustic set like that. I think some of it probably helped on Happiness Is, some of those kinds of arrangements wound up coming into the songs on the album.
I wanted to ask about the experience of fatherhood; how has it rubbed off on the music? Do you see yourselves having a greater appreciation now for this band?
Adam: As far as the music, it's starting to kind of creep up. Like, on Happiness Is, there are these love songs, which we had never done. I also think it's something hard to do because you're kind of walking a thin line. It could either be very good, or really sappy, or cheesy but of course, I think ours lean towards the good side because we wrote them [Laughs]. I think with family life we could credit that to those kinds of songs popping up. On the other side of things, for us to be supporting families by doing something we love, it's literally the best thing ever and a dream come true.
John: Yeah, I think I've appreciated that more since we had our son. I maybe took it for granted for a while; what an amazing thing it is that this is what we do for a living. When you see it, you're providing for your family and having a very good time doing it, that's a pretty amazing thing.
Watch Taking Back Sunday go acoustic at the Baeble HQ.