When writing the lyrics to their latest hit, AJR aimed to encapsulate the transition between childhood and adulthood with just one word: “quinoa.” Along with paying taxes and stocking their fridge with grainy superfoods, the New York-based trio’s February single “Bang!” is the musical product of facing the anxieties of adulthood for the first time.
Fueled by choppy production, a Wes Anderson-esque music video — complete with pink hues, wacky characters and perfectly symmetrical shots — and a consequent Hayley Kiyoko-assisted remix that arrived in August, the single is currently enjoying a new peak this week at No. 41 on the Hot 100, which is the highest mark that the group has reached in four entries on the chart to date.
Since dropping the original track back in February, the brothers behind AJR — Ryan, Jack, and Adam Metzger — have proved to be even more productive during the pandemic. “Honestly, this time has also been good for us because we have a lot of aspirations in addition to AJR,” says Ryan Metzger as he hints at “planting other seeds,” such as writing soundtracks for movies and shows.
Below, Ryan and Jack Metzger talk about the challenges of leaving their parents’ house, writing for a Broadway show, and why staying indie allows them to have “the closest connection to the fans.”
How did the single come together?
Ryan Metzger: We started working on “Bang” during the Neotheater era. We were excited about the track because it felt very unique: there were these big, bombastic horns. It felt very theatrical [though], so it didn’t quite fit on that album. Neotheater was very nostalgic, and this song felt almost evil, like the villain of the movie walking in. We sat on the track for a little bit, and when we were done with the Neotheater cycle, we dug it back out.
We ended up speeding it up and adding more trap drums. We brought it into the 21st century and into the future a little bit. And then, we came up with this concept of: “Let’s go out with a bang.” We’re in this weird transition between childhood and adulthood, and we’re doing all the things that our parents did. We’re eating healthy food and we’re paying our taxes, and yet, it doesn’t quite feel right yet.
“Bang” is about the transition between childhood and adulthood. Do you have any stand-out stories from that experience?
Jack Metzger: We didn’t really have a normal progression of a childhood. We were touring a lot. It wasn’t the natural path of going to college and getting a job. It was way more of a shock when we had to move out. That’s where we’ve been living and writing all of the music we’d been putting out, so that felt like home to us. And then as soon as we got to the new apartment, which was up in Harlem, we felt a bit rushed to grow up. The weird anxieties and fears started coming out and into the music.
What do you think is the most grown up thing you do currently?
RM: Wash the dishes? [Laughs] I don’t know! I guess we’re working harder on the way our apartment looks now. For the first couple apartments, we were still in the college mindset of throwing up some posters and tapestries and hanging some Christmas lights.
JM: We have adult tastes now.
RM: We have plants everywhere. We’re framing the pictures.
You mentioned that you started eating healthier now that you’re older. Is there anything in particular you’ve added to your diet?
RM: The quinoa line in “Bang!” is pretty apt. It’s a terrible food. It’s one of those things that we gotta start eating. It’s a superfood. When we were writing the lyrics, we were trying to figure out how to encompass adulthood in one word, and it was quinoa.
How did your collaboration with Hayley Kiyoko come together? Why was she the right fit?
JM: Her management got in touch. She heard the song and was really into it. She sent us her verse, and we got on the phone with her right away. We loved the verse. She has a great voice, and she’s a super sweet person. Honestly, when anyone connects to the song and they wanna hop on it just on their own volition, we’re happy to have them.
Did you ever meet in person?
JM: [It was] all over the phone. Even if it wasn’t pandemic time, it still would’ve been over the phone. That’s how we’ve done every single collaboration. That’s what we did with Rivers Cuomo. We didn’t meet him until after the album came out. He sent his stuff all over email. That’s how all of those are pretty much done.
How did you have to pivot as a band during the pandemic?
JM: We had two separate tours [planned for] this year: one was our own headlined tour, and the other one was this big bill with us, Quinn XCII, Hobo Johnson, and Ashe. It was gonna be the coolest thing ever. But we got rid of those, and all of a sudden, we had nothing to do. We weren’t planning on writing until the fall, but we moved it up to see if we could do it.
In AJR history, we literally never sat down and said, “Let’s write a song today.” Our songs usually come from seeing a movie, or hanging out with friends, or walking down the street. We had to change that frame of mind, and say, “Let’s write today and we have no ideas.” We thought we were gonna fail pretty miserably, but it ended up working due to the pandemic. The emotions that you feel during this time are so strange. There’s so much anxiety, fear and uncertainty about what’s gonna happen. When you have those feelings, other feelings about your past and your future start to come out, and you can use that emotion to put into your music.
How did your newest single, “Bummerland,” come together?
RM: We were planning on putting out a different song in June, but we put it on pause out of respect for the Black Lives Matter movement. We didn’t want to distract from this incredibly important global movement that’s happening. In that period of waiting, we wrote “Bummerland.” We were inspired by how the world feels right now and how little hope it feels like we have. It was a moment that reminded us why we’re not on a major label: we have the creative ability to just write a song and shoot an entire video a few weeks later. We could put it out and not have to ask anybody whether we can do it or not. That felt really good. It felt like a direct connection with the fans.
How were you able to pull off a video with COVID restrictions in place?
RM: We did it with our friends. We had our childhood friend Edoardo Ranaboldo, who went to film school, come direct it. We had our girlfriends there. Our dad was there driving us around. It reminded us of 13 years ago when we used to make videos like this, but now we’re doing it on a professional level.
Has the pandemic changed how you collaborate with each other and your team?
JM: Honestly, it hasn’t changed how we work at all. We’ve been doing this for 15 years. Every single song we’ve written has just been me and Ryan in a room, just us two. It’s just us in our bedroom coming up with weird things to write about.
RM: It’s been interesting to watch other artists put out music during this time. Taylor Swift’s album [folklore] sounds very intimate. It sounds like a quarantine record. She doesn’t have her band around her. She doesn’t have the reminder of an audience singing things back to her. You’re missing a certain energy. In those cases, you write smaller songs. You write more reflective songs. Sonically, we’ve had to fight that urge and throw the football where the player’s gonna be, not where he is right now. We’re imagining the kind of music people will want to hear when we’re able to tour again.
Do you have a studio in your apartment?
RM: It’s a computer, keyboard, and a microphone. We’ve been doing it like this for so long. It’s been 13 years that we’ve been writing and producing. With money that we’ve made with AJR, we put it back into the videos and other things. We don’t think to update our studio and have a huge soundproof room. It’s not necessary for us. For us, it takes away from the authenticity.
What are the perks of being indie artists?
RM: About 13 years ago, we started our own label AJR Productions. Throughout the last 13 years, we forged a new path and navigated this industry. We’ve been able to rent out a major label’s radio staff and rent out a certain publicity company. We put together somewhat of a makeshift label. It’s how we operate most effectively.
With cancelled live shows, how have you stayed connected with the fans?
JM: We did two nights in a row of a drive-in show in Philadelphia. When we put the tickets up for sale, we didn’t know if any cars would show up, but the thing ended up selling out. The first night sold out in a day, and the next night sold out in a few minutes. It’s truly one of the weirdest things we’ve done as a band. It’s unprecedented to have both the band and the fans doing something for the first time together. We had to get over this 20-minute hump in the show when we’re looking out and not seeing anyone dancing. Once we got past that and saw people having fun, it was amazing to give them a night of fun away from this stressful time. That’s the most rewarding thing.
How many people showed up to the drive-in show?
JM: Each night had about 900 cars, so between the two nights, about 7000 people.
How can you gauge an audience’s reaction at a drive-in show?
JM: We make a big effort to be as close to our fans as possible. We have this moment in every single show when I stop singing and point out certain people in the audience. It’s like a five-minute standup routine. During that moment, when I start talking to the audience, they start cheering. They’re smiling. They’re clapping back. It means they’re having a good time. In that setting, people did start to honk. I think they were a bit timid about it at first, but later they did start showing their appreciation by honking and flashing their headlights.
Since the pandemic, have you been experimenting with new digital platforms to keep in touch with fans?
RM: Yeah, we’re on TikTok. I’m not sure if we’re the first band to experiment with digital platforms, but we are planning something that hopefully has never been done before in the digital space. We’re planning something that’s comparable to our real show, but is online with an entirely new interactive feature. I can’t give too much information about it, but we’re super excited. We’re going to announce [it] soon.
Which digital platform has been working best for you lately?
RM: TikTok has been good to us. Three of our songs have gone viral without us having to do anything, which is pretty cool. I think YouTube is our strongest social media because we thrive in longer form content, like tour documentaries and music videos. I think that’s our highest rate of interaction.
What are you working on now?
RM: We’re working on our next album. But honestly, this time has also been good for us because we have a lot of aspirations in addition to AJR. It’s been a dream of ours to write music for Broadway. While working on the album, we’re writing music for a Broadway show and also doing some songs for movies. This has been free, borrowed time when we get to plant other seeds.
What are you looking forward to in 2021?
RM: Touring. It’s what we miss most. As much as we enjoy writing this album, it’s hard to be cooped up. It’s hard to forget who we’re making this music for. Nothing compares to seeing fans’ reactions and seeing their eyes widen when they see a show. That’s the number one thing we’re looking forward to.