In Conversation: AJR

Chatting their ambitious new tour, and assembling the right team...

With spine-tingling harmonies, songs deeply rooted in melody, New York indie pop trio AJR continue to stun their audiences with the polished music productions that have become such an integral part of who they are, and their creativity.   

For brothers Adam, Jack and Ryan Met, the impossibility of imagining recorded music as something that is separate to the live tours is real, as one simply cannot exist without the other, and it explains why the two are always developed alongside. 

Having discovered, and fallen in love with Broadway shows, as young children, they continue to take inspiration from the entertainment industry, with the added determination to match the passion, energy, and theatrical ingredients. 

The brothers continue to nurture their sound, and over the years, they have been jamming, writing, and honing their style, while sticking to the process. 2022 saw them embark on the biggest tour of their career as they headlined amphitheatres on the ‘OK Orchestra Tour’, performing to more than 350,000 people. 

It has been seventeen years, and as the band continue to evolve musically and personally, it only makes sense to take stock, celebrate what they have achieved, how the shows have evolved over time, what they want to achieve, considering the next step in their careers.

Clash caught up with Jack and Ryan.

Touring and playing live shows is an enormous part of what AJR do. The recently released OK Orchestra Tour documentary series provides some interesting behind-the-scenes footage. What’s like to reflect on the touring you did around the US, Australia, and New Zealand?

Ryan: It’s been amazing, the best tour we’ve done so far. To a lot of artists touring is the cherry on top, something you get to do, but touring has been in line with music for our entire career. We make our albums, imagining the tour at the same time, when we made ‘OK Orchestra’, our last album, literally every time we made a song, we’d decide what Jack would do on stage.

Jack: It actually worked out, all of our ideas came to fruition, we did exactly what we wanted to do. We always love to beat the last tour, we throw a lot out there, and hopefully, it’s better than last time, the fans seem to have had an even closer connection with it this time, which is great. We’re also excited to get to UK and Europe.

Can imagine how AJR may feel about it. It must be hard to put into words in a way, because it’s such big experience, which you put so much into. 

Ryan: Stuff like that is rare. You had to be there to feel the energy in the room, and that’s fun for us. That’s a very intimate moment where you get to tell your friends ‘I can’t even describe what this show was, you have to go’, that’s always been our goal to create that moment.

What was the highlight? If it’s possible to narrow it down to one date.

Jack: Probably New York, our hometown shows are usually the only ones I’m nervous for, any other city I’m just like ‘let’s go on stage and have some fun’. But New York, we’re pacing a lot for hours before,  hoping everything goes okay. Our friends and family are there and the industry people, I’d say because you’re so nervous beforehand, it does end up going well, and that qualifies as the best show of the tour.

How did you actually come up with the idea of wanting to capture everything by making a documentary? 

Jack: We’ve always been obsessed with behind the scenes of movies. We grew up watching ‘The Lord of the Rings Behind the Scenes’ more than ‘Lord of the Rings’ itself. It instils a higher appreciation, looking at all the miniatures they built, all the work, every little aspect, it makes you appreciate the art more. That’s always been our thought process. Let’s show as much as we can of making the album of making the tour, maybe it’ll give people an insight into how many jobs, and how much it takes to put on something. 

Ryan: Also typically with us, there’s a big theme we have in our music, not positioning ourselves as gods above the audience, ‘look at them up on that stage. They’re untouchable’. We want to show people that we’re just one of them, that’s something we touched on in our lyrics. 

The documentary, the behind-the-scenes stuff, helps. People have the notion that on tour you’re traveling in luxury, you’re partying all the time, but it’s the opposite. You have a bunch of friends hanging out in an empty room, coming up with games, making ridiculous jokes or spending time on buses. We thought showing that would make the fans feel closer to us.

In one of episodes you speak to fans, it was compelling to see how some of those relationships work.  

Jack: When we started the band, we had no idea of the connection we’d have with the fans, because we found our sound along the way. Then when we started writing more relatable lyrics, one at a time, fans would come up and say ‘this specific song did this for me’, that exploded our minds a little, we could have a friendship connection with these people, we could help them in ways, which we never thought would happen. So that’s been the best part of this whole thing.

It’s a route to changing lives, writing songs people can relate to. 

Ryan: It’s never been our goal as a band to be mainstream, try to hit everybody with something broad to say, we were more niche, we wanted to talk about things we are passionate about, and hope that this little subsection of society relates to it. We found that those fans often are the outsiders of their friends group, they’re socially anxious, they’re sometimes depressed, they need a community, that’s exactly what we were like when we were younger. So it’s the most beautiful, full circle thing that we could give them a community that they can connect to.

What’s the most powerful thing that somebody has said about your music? 

Jack: There was one on this last US tour run, I remember it was in Minneapolis. We have a song called ‘Karma’. It’s me in a therapy session saying to my therapist ‘I’ve done everything right in my life, why are things going so wrong still’, it’s that idea. 

A fan came up and said ‘I had these issues with depression and anxiety, I heard ‘Karma’, and it helped, I decided to go to school to become a therapist, all I want to do now is give back to other people the way you given them to me’. That brought tears to my eyes, that’s a beautiful moment in my life. 

AJR have a unique chemistry. The lyrics are meaningful, the songs are melodic, and people connect with them. Do you have a sense of where that sensibility or gift comes from?

Ryan: We were big theatre kids growing up, we still are. Our first love of music was Broadway, that’s the most unapologetic genre of music. No one on Broadway is trying to be cool, it’s about being as bombastic, theatrical, as emotionally raw as possible, that’s what drew us to Broadway, it wasn’t trying to disguise catchy melodies. 

We take some of that and mix it in with Kanye or some hip hop beats, but we’re not trying to pretend what we’re making is cool. We’re just gonna sing or rap loudly and proudly, and that’s fun. It’s disarming, it makes you feel like you can be myself, and we wanted to bring that unabashed realness to pop music.

Please tell me about your most recent single release ‘I won’t’ and the inspiration behind it.

Jack: We wrote it four months ago, we had tried to write another song before that, and we got frustrated, we were just stuck on a song, but we knew it had to become our next single. At a certain point we took that frustration and put it into a song. ‘I Won’t’ is the frustration about being told what to do, from social media to politics. 

It felt like there’s always some authority figure that’s saying ‘jump into this box’, we wanted to take that and write our version of a punk song. We placed it in the context of a party, why is the DJ telling me to put my hands up or raise the glass? I’m gonna do what I want to.

Most people associate you mainly with pop, a big hook and melody, so the punk dimension may come as a surprise.

Jack: We want to keep pushing ourselves, that’s fun for us, as soon as we start writing the same song over and over again it gets boring, because the last one worked, we’re going to quit being musicians, there’s no fun in that. So with every song, every album, and every tour, we want to keep stretching ourselves to see what we’re able to do as artists.

It’s the sense that AJR do not want two songs to sound remotely identical. In what way do you feel your songwriting process has been changing? 

Ryan: We’re doing something interesting with this next album. We come up with the album, often same time as the tour. For this we’re routing a tour right now and planning it out, and for next year we have almost all of it planned already, we know all of the gags, the illusions, and the magic parts of the finale. We know everything that we’re going to do on stage, half of the album is written. Now we have to go write a song that metaphorically relates to what’s going to happen on stage. It’s this backwards Broadway style of writing. 

Speaking more broadly, the two processes are separate to most bands, who will write and record an album, and then go on tour, but AJR do things differently. 

Jack: We saw potential with what a live show could be early on in our career, we thought for us, it could be more than playing the songs, we felt like that was not enough for our personality wise. If we do magic, if we do Broadway, we can have fans leaving with the same feeling they do listening to our album for the first time, thinking why can’t that happen?

Look forward to hearing how the next album is going to sound, can you give us a hint?  

Jack: It’s hard to ever describe our next album, what the sound is going to be. We start writing, and then we follow a weird path, which then leads us to another path, and then we suddenly we have it. 

There is no predicting a sound, the one thing we always say that we’ve reiterated, it’s going to sound different to the last album, we’re going to try to make songs that sonically you’ve never heard before in music, and we’re going to do our best.

Where and how do you go about finding inspiration for new material? Do you listen to new music or what does the process look like? 

Jack: I wouldn’t say we listen to a lot of current artists, a lot of it is genres that no one listens to. It’s a pretentious thing to say, but that’s where our music is, catchy melodies originating from somewhere else. If you dive into a lot of unknown classical music, you’ll find a combination of instruments, a melody, a chord progression that’s the catchiest thing you’ve ever heard. Often we’ll dive into African or Asian music, that no one has heard before and get inspiration from that.

Ryan: We like juxtapositions, taking whatever classical song and matching it up with the dirtiest hip hop beat ever. That has always felt right to us, so we look for many different ways to do that.

At the same time, you take inspiration from The Beach Boys, one of your favourite bands of all time..

Ryan: My only tattoo is inspired by The Beach Boys. It’s a lyric from ‘Sloop John B.’ “I feel so broke I want to go home”, they’ve had such an effect on us, such a range of what they’ve been able to do. They started off as surf music, then thought they were going to potentially lose all their fans in order to attempt something serious using classical, theatrical elements and make the perfect album ever with ‘Pet Sounds’. It felt very risky, it felt very Kanye West before Kanye West, the idea of abandoning fans and try something risky, and jump off that ledge.

Jack: It’s about treating your fans like they’re a lot smarter, which they are, trusting that the fans are not only loving surf music. I like this music, I’m done, and they were right, they were betting that their fans would wait, it’s like ‘hold on I will listen to a song called ‘God Only Knows’. They were right. 

Taking a step back for a minute, would you mind talking a bit about your early experience with music, and what it meant?

Jack: As children we were given an introduction to music, listening to music, our dad would play old records, and it was The Beach Boys, Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, any music that had harmonies. The first time we heard two or three voices harmonising it sparked something in us, something switched. It made us want to go to the piano and try to recreate it, it was me, Ryan and Adam, the feeling of when we did get it, it sounded good. It was like a drug. This was not just something we liked, it’s what we had to do, this was our passion. 

Jack: When we started out in music, in 2005, we had no connections in the industry. We weren’t sure how to get our name out there, we started out street performing in New York City, we did that for about five summers, straight every single day, and eventually made enough money to buy music equipment. 

That’s when we started tinkering around on GarageBand, making songs, and that was another six-seven more years, eventually we made a song called ‘I’m Ready’, and it caught people’s attention. Sia was the one that introduced us to people in the industry, that’s what gave us our start.

Did Sia introduce you to people at record companies? 

Jack: Yes she told her manager about us, her manager said ‘I’m gonna set you guys up because she likes you’. We had a meeting with Steve Greenberg, he actually said ‘I want to manage you, I want you guys to keep your AJR productions’, he has been managing us from back then. He helped us with all the singles, he’s been invaluable.

Your team appears to be this tight knit community of people that work closely together. It’s a healthy dynamic.

Jack: Honestly, as the years have gone on, we’ve done this for long enough that when we do start to garner a relationship or trust someone, we make sure it’s the right person, the one person that gets the vision and isn’t coming in not knowing what we like and want to help us achieve that vision. We’ve done a good job at surrounding ourselves with these people. 

AJA get involved in every aspect of producing the live shows, every stage. It’s a distinct approach.. 

Ryan: That comes from us early on, not knowing anybody in the industry, not having any money. I’d learn how to Photoshop for our album covers, how to mix and master, do every single job, and we never lost that. We have fire in our bellies. It’s a good lesson to smaller bands, learn how to do every single job before hiring someone, get an understanding of how to be a boss, knowing what to do, and what not to do. 

I produce everything for us. We’re not starkly against bringing someone in, but it’s not worked for us, we’ve been able to find a unique sound, and we don’t want to mess it up. Kanye West has been a big influence. He’s so good at the juxtaposition stuff I was talking about, and this distorted voice, mashing together to make something unique. 

You seem unafraid to speak out about politics. Did you always intend to channel politics through music or did that just happen? 

Ryan: Our number one goal has always been to be honest, to reveal our truth of exactly what we’re thinking about in any given moment, in 2016 we were all thinking about was politics. We shared that with the collective society. Suddenly, five year-old kids were going ‘don’t vote for Trump’. 

We were young, we didn’t care about politics, but realised we’d be dishonest to shy away from talking about it, we talk about things that we’re passionate about. We have a song addressing racism, a political song, and it always came from a personal perspective. It’s never preachy, it’s how we feel about it, and that’s allowed people to connect with it in a more palatable way. 

Jack: Also around 2016 politics became – it’s gonna get a little serious – it became about racism and about guns. At that point, when politics turned from issues to things like this, if we have a platform, it is a disservice to the world to not say something, as we need to have better gun laws, people are dying on the street, it becomes strange for someone to stay out of it, and our mindset is that we have fans, so we need to spread the word. 

It’s a natural approach, just observing what’s happening around you. You mentioned the new album, the tour that is coming up next year, you can reveal anything else?

Jack: It’s gonna be bigger than his last one. We’re starting to bring in possible magicians, consultants or special effects consultants, because it’s gotten to the point now that we’re moving into arenas, at least in the US, where it’s a little bigger. It’s exciting now to have these experts come in and give us some here’s-what’s-possible ideas, we want to take it to the next level.

Looking beyond next year, what do you want to achieve? Tell me about future aspirations. 

Jack: We’re in the process of writing a Broadway show. A producer approached us a couple years ago, who’s a fan of our music, he heard the Broadway influence and asked us if we were interested in collaborating. 

It’s called ‘Harold and The Purple Crayon’, it’s based on a children’s book. We reimagined it, the boy, who’s at least three in the book is a grown up, he’s dealing with adult problems. He still has this crayon where he can draw an alternate universe, it goes a little beyond that, but we’re in the midst of the process of writing a Broadway show, and this is more than unabashedly being ourselves, and we’re excited about it.  

Catch AJR at London’s O2 Academy Brixton on October 1st.

Words: Susan Hansen

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