Taking Back Sunday has had many lineup changes over the years, but since 2010, things have come full circle for the New York rockers as the lineup featured on their debut record, “Tell All Your Friends,” reunited and released two successful albums. The latest, “Happiness Is,” sports a fitting title, as it seems they’ve discovered exactly what that is.
“When we first met back up, we went to this recording studio outside of El Paso, Texas, and they have a bunch of different studios on this big plot of land, and there’s a pecan farm as well on this land, and we had our own house and our own studio that was kind of separated from the other studios. It was just us kind of hanging out and reconnecting and writing music together. It was a really good time. We clicked back together pretty quickly,” guitarist/backup vocalist John Nolan told The Weekender in a phone interview last week.
While he brought his experiences as a solo artist and leading Straylight Run with him when he returned to the band, he feels it’s the undeniable chemistry the five members share that allowed them to snap back into place so easily. The new record, released March 18, took that relationship to a more mature level, exploring new sounds and more personal territory.
“With the self-titled album, I think we kind of felt like we just needed to write a really solid Taking Back Sunday record, and with me and (bassist) Shaun (Cooper) coming back into the band, I think we kind of had to learn how to do that again. And then with this one we were ready to explore some new ideas,” Nolan recalled.
“We also didn’t really talk about it much, but there was a point when we were demoing some of the songs and some ideas would come up that were pushing the songs in pretty different directions or making them have a sound that was not really like anything the band has done before. I think once we heard that there was a point where it was kind of like, ‘Well, are we going to get on board with this or are we going to say no, we can’t do that because it doesn’t sound like Taking Back Sunday?’ Fortunately, everyone was ready to just go for it and follow those ideas and make different kinds of songs.”
The gambit paid off, as the album received positive reviews and debuted at No. 10 on the Billboard 200, charting even higher than their last effort.
“In the past when I was writing songs, I would be very much wanting the listener to sort of be on board with me and kind of try to put this perspective out there that you want the listeners to see things from your point of view,” Nolan noted.
“As I’ve gotten older, I think I’ve taken more of an approach of I just want to put an idea out there or a thought or a feeling and just let it be and not try to push people into feeling a certain way about it, just kind of try to express it as clearly and as honestly as possible. And then just say, ‘This is something that I thought or felt and you can do whatever you want with it.’”
While all the members have kids now and most have settled into married life, the group has also connected by getting the same tattoo, a panther guitarist Eddie Reyes initially acquired that turned into backdrops, t-shirts, the album artwork for “Happiness Is,” and recent promotional material for a sold-out tour with The Used, a band that they share more than just a stage with.
Friends and ‘Enemy’
The Used formed two years after Taking Back Sunday in Utah, and while they’ve had a similar rise to fame since 2001 and a much steadier lineup, guitarist/backup vocalist Quinn Allman couldn’t believe he had made it until he had already achieved so much.
“It wasn’t really until it just happened that I realized it was going to happen or that it could happen. I didn’t really think I’d be on tour for coming on 13 years. I never, ever saw that coming,” Allman admitted in a separate phone interview with The Weekender.
“I thought we’d play Warped Tour and then things would…” he trailed off, contemplating. “I didn’t know what would happen, but here we are like seven, eight albums later. It’s pretty cool. It’s kind of rare.”
Still grateful for that uncommon opportunity, the four members are spread out across the world now, but when they come back together, they pick up right where they left off.
“We always get together before the tour about a week or so before and decide on what we’re going to play and how we want things to go. It’s like riding a bike for us. It’s good because everybody has the space they need off tour,” Allman explained.
“I wouldn’t say it was difficult recording (the new album), but as far as schedule-wise, it was kind of hard, just flying back and forth and all that, but we worked it out.”
After nearly completing it, they ended up scrapping the entire record and starting fresh, recording the vocals first and then the music.
“I think we really wanted to make a dirty and grungy album at first. Here’s the thing – sometimes when you want to do something or you set out to do something from the get-go, there’s an element of force that comes in. I think with us we sit and maybe jam out a couple songs a day, just music and kind of get a vibe for different parts and stuff. I think we were thinking about what we were trying to do a little too much,” Allman said.
“They just threw up a quick track and said, ‘All right, let’s just go with it. Let’s just make something up right now on the spot – no preconceptions.’ It kind of lends itself more to the feeling and the essence of what’s going on and what’s around, especially for me because I really started with guitar. It comes from a deeper place. It comes from a truer place when you just throw the paint on the canvas. There’s a little bit more spirit in that.”
Allman digs deep in his songwriting, crafting an “ethereal” and powerful musical presence drawn from memories and nostalgia.
“It’s like an answer to a question that you can’t ask that you wonder about, like when you miss someone or you wonder why you can’t see someone who’s passed away. You think about that realm of hurt or loss or pain, struggle – I think those things really tie into the sound that I like to create,” he described.
The result is “Imaginary Enemy,” the first record released under the band’s new label, GAS Union, striving to give musicians more creative control and monetary compensation than industry standards generally allow.
“It is just kind of about standing up, letting your voice be heard and sharing love and empathy and coming together. When people say there’s politics to everything, it’s true. It’s kind of an intrinsic thing to a lot of the matters in life, just on the matter of living with our hearts and treating others with respect and kindness. I think that comes from having an equal playing field, and I think that’s what it’s really about,” Allman said of the 11 new tracks.
“If you want to think you’re a Republican or a Democrat or you want to think you’re this or that and be put into a box, that’s fine, but this album is trying to point out that we just need to love each other and put away all the compartmentalizing and the opposition to one another and just love each other.”
He defines the imaginary enemy as “authority” – “anyone who you feel has authority over you in your life, and most likely that’s yourself.” And while political talk often leads to anger and misunderstanding, he insists the album’s overall theme is love, a feeling both The Used and Taking Back Sunday exude these days.
“(The Used) started around the same time as us. We did one of our first big tours with them, and we’ve played with them on and off through the years. We’ve known them for a long time. They signed to Hopeless (Records) around the same time that we did; they put out their record with Hopeless around the same time. It just seems like the two bands have been in a certain way side by side throughout their whole career, but this is the first time in like 10 years that we’ve done a tour together. It seemed to make a lot of sense,” Nolan pointed out.
“We said it many times jokingly between band members – why didn’t we do this sooner? Because it kind of gives everyone this sort of experience when they see The Used and Taking Back Sunday because as either a fan of one or the other you can kind of jump back to that place that you were at that time,” Allman agreed.
“That’s kind of what it’s about. It’s sort of reliving part of that glimpse in time… when we first came out and there was really nothing like it going on. It kind of creates this magic.”
Record store magic
This magic will be present on Saturday, April 19 at the Gallery of Sound in Wilkes-Barre, where the bands will be meeting fans for an autograph session before playing their sold-out show in Bethlehem – fans that largely grew up with them.
“We see a lot of hardship and we see a lot of situations where people have overcome many great challenges, people that have gone on to be very successful. Some of the most ordinary are the ones that stand out. That’s hard because I feel like the fans, the people that connect to our music, all have a story and they all have hardships of some sort. I’ve watched people that were completely suicidal… completely turn their life around,” Allman said of the fans he’s met personally.
“It’s probably those kids, the ones that are stuck wherever they are in this part of their lives and they feel like it’s just going to last forever. It’s kind of nice to turn to someone and say, ‘Hey, look, I know exactly what you’re feeling right now. It’s not going to last forever.’”
“I remember we did a record store signing and acoustic performance and this guy right in the front who was probably around the same age as me and some of the other guys had two little girls, probably like three and four or five, and they were really into it, which was really cute, and then one of gave me a little rubber bracelet,” Nolan enthused.
“I saw video the guy actually put up a couple of days later of one of the little girls singing along to one of the songs from the new album. That’s always cool to see that with little kids. We’re kind of getting more and more of it now, I think, as our fans are getting older.”
This particular event also allows both bands to show their support for an independent record store on Record Store Day, an annual event that shares the same values as they do.
“We would much rather support attention at independent record stores only – no streaming, no majors, none of that, because they don’t really have a vested interest in the cultural aspect of the music and the people and the entertainment and the art. You go to an independent record store and you’ll find an independent movie that is incredible,” Allman said.
“I think supporting your local record store is supporting a good community, and a good community is, in return, a beautiful place to live.”
“It does kind of seem like a possibility that in the future they could not exist, and I think that would be really sad. It’s important to us that independent record stores stay in business and that people recognize that they need to support them because we don’t want to see them go away,” Nolan added.
“Just the aesthetic and everything involved in vinyl recording is such magic. It’s such an art. You have to pay respect to it as you’re absorbing the music,” Allman emphasized, noting his own extensive record collection.
“When you have the option to just skip a song, it devalues the experience somewhat, I think. It definitely makes it more fun to listen to albums.”
Gallery of Sound Record Store Day schedule
(186 Mundy St., Wilkes-Barre)
Noon: Taking Back Sunday and The Used (meet and greet)
2 p.m.: Crobot (unplugged)
3 p.m.: Leroy Justice
4 p.m.: Gentleman East (former members of The Badlees and Breaking Benjamin)
5 p.m.: Abstract Peoples
6 p.m.: Three Imaginary Boys
Vinyl DJs all day.