Before breaking out with their single “Weak,” brothers Adam, Jack and Ryan Met of AJR had their fair share of bad days. With many failed label meetings and empty bars under their belts, the band now looks back on those days as wonderful fuel for the future.
“We realized that there is a common theme in a lot of songs these days that, ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’”, Ryan Met said. “After everything we’ve seen we thought that’s not always true. What doesn’t kill you doesn’t always make you stronger. But what doesn’t kill you always makes you more interesting and gives you better stories.”
AJR has its fair share of stories following a busy 2018 with their breakout album, The Click, and a full year on the road The album was largely influenced by earlier failures that motivated the trio to begin writing about what the brothers believed in rather than what anyone told them was going to sell records, Ryan and Jack Met said in a recent phone conversation.
“Should I go for more clicks this year?/ Or should I follow the click in my ear?” AJR sings in “Come Hang Out.” The click itself refers to the sound of a metronome keeping time, Ryan Met said. It represented the heartbeat of the album for the brothers as they were writing.
“There was the constant question in our minds of, ‘Should we follow the click in our ear which is what we really want to be doing separate from society, or should we be looking for more clicks online and just do what everybody wants us to do?’” he said.
The Click peaked at No. 61 on the Billboard 200 and single “Sober Up” began to get extensive radio play nationwide. “Sober Up” features Weezer frontman Rivers Cuomo, who previously reached out to AJR to let the brothers know he was a fan of earlier single “Weak.”
The brothers were huge Weezer fans growing up, and had hoped to someday work with Cuomo. They jumped at the opportunity to ask him, Jack Met said.
The three brothers of AJR, still attending college part-time at Columbia, were working on “Sober Up” at the time and had yet to write a bridge, so they sent Cuomo the track and waited. He wrote three alternate and vastly different bridges, but all oh-so Weezer.
“It was the coolest experience ever because all the options were so different and so bizarre,” Jack Met said. “All we said to him was, ‘We want to take a left turn melodically.’”
One of the options was written in Spanish. The second had made-up, nonsensical words.The third had the now-icon fan singalong: “My favorite color is you.”
Cuomo then let AJR in on one of his oldest writing techniques, which the brothers credit as the best part of the experience: Cuomo uses an Excel spreadsheet organized into categories based on beats per minutes, syllables or amount of words, and randomly generates lines for his songs. AJR was inspired by the creativity.
The brothers also used film as an inspiration during the writing process. In particular, director Wes Anderson was a big influence on their style. They connected with his beautiful and quirky combination of worlds, and tried to combine the world of their own personal experiences with the world of music.
Adam, Jack, and Ryan Met are still attending classes at Columbia whenever they’re not on the road or in the studio. They revealed that, in going back to college after focusing on their career for a number of years, they have found new realms of inspiration that they didn’t have before.
“Jack and I are studying film and Adam is getting his Ph.D in human rights law. We like doing a lot of things at the same time and we believe that everything we do informs the music,” Ryan Met said. “I took a class on the evolution of human origin and when you take a class like that you start to think about society as this strange thing—‘Why do we have money? Why do we have country borders?’—and then come up with really unique song ideas and appeal to everybody’s weirder side.”
The weirder side of music is what AJR focused on for its sophomore album, April’s Neotheater. Ryan Met described the album as a concept album, with each song tightly knit into each other. The band looked for inspiration in MIA’s lo-fi sampled hip-hop production as well as music that most pop artists wouldn’t even know about or focus on, such as Israeli production techniques and 1940s choir music.
“[It] sounds very alien in 2019 but there is a certain way that they use harmony to evoke nostalgia that we were really into juxtaposing with these dirty hip-hop beats,” he said.
AJR again wants to push the expectations of its listeners. The band wanted to diverge from what fans had come to expect with The Click, Jack Met said.
While they credit authenticity as the lifeblood of their writing process, they also see innovation and development as equally important to their success as artists.
“Everyone asks us if we’ve grown as songwriters and I don’t think that happened,” he said. “We grew sideways. What I mean by that is that we’ve ventured lyrically, melodically and production-wise into a kind of new world. I think the lyrics have gotten a little bit deeper, a little bit stranger. ‘Why not?’ became the motto of the album.”
AJR is gearing up to take that “Why not?” mentality on the road this summer with a number of festival appearances, including BottleRock on March 24. Beyond the summer, a large fall tour is already in the books, with a headlining show at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium. One of those two will surely become the largest crowd to which the band will have played.
The band writes songs with live performances in mind, Jack Met said. Not only do the brothers create songs with a vision of how they will look on stage, but they make sure that each song plays off of the next, both in terms of sound, emotion and visual aesthetics.
“We like to do a lot of weird, cool stuff with transitions to make audiences confused about what’s going on, while also hyped and sad,” Jack Met said. “If you can feel those three emotions in one of our concerts, then I feel like we’ve done a really good job. We’re trying to think about it as if the album is the soundtrack to the Broadway show that is the tour, so you’ll have to listen and see both to get the whole story.”
Follow writer Piper Westrom at Twitter.com/plwestrom.