INTERVIEW | AJR long for the past but push to the future with new album

“It’s funny to think about the roller coaster that we’ve gone through,” says Ryan of the journey through their new album.

They have more than 270 million streams on Spotify, but AJR swear they’re not famous. At the very least, it makes for a good hook. On the band’s second full-length DIY studio album, the expansive and zippy The Click, the three-piece–brothers Adam, Jack and Ryan–flesh out their quirky, big-band beats with more intimacy, avowing “I’m Not Famous” on one of the more polished compositions, using a vocoder for “Call My Dad,” a rather achingly sweet a cappella number, and later framing their obsession with television for a coming of age narrative (drenched in sappy nostalgia, naturally) on “Netflix Trip.” What 2015’s debut Living Room lacked in urgency, the trio clearly grew and explored, made some mistakes and corrected their course, became different people but yet somehow remained the same–funneling the strange, confusing and grueling journey every 20-something must navigate sooner or later. “It’s a scary thing to be really honest with people. It’s terrifying to not put up a front and not act cool and the way society wants you to act,” Ryan shares with Popdust over a recent phone call.

“It’s been working for us. We’ve had a really great year. I would attribute that to…we stopped caring what people thought of us. We became exactly ourselves,” he continues. “If you want to be a little kid while you’re an adult, be a little kid. If you want to admit that you’re weak, admit that. If you want to look back at yourself in a reflective way and find these TV shows that made you who you are, do that. Be exactly who you are.”

The Click is saturated with looking back, being OK with not being OK and longing for the days of childhood, when the world seemed much larger and far less intimidating than it actually is. “Let’s take it back and take in every moment. Who am I to tell me who I am?” they send up a rallying cry on “Netflix Trip,” an unlikely emotional wallop. “Now, the finale is done, and I’m alone. I’m on a Netflix trip here on my phone, but who I am is in these episodes. So, don’t you tell me it’s just a show,” they then surmise, a poignant and indispensable morsel. Then, they pay homage to blustering summer camps, crackling fires and camaraderie with “Bud Like You,” a hip-hop-intoned, drunken flicker which pushes the envelope of their maturity and transition into full-on adulthood. “It’s been two years from the first song we wrote on this album to the last. It’s funny to think about the roller coaster that we’ve gone through,” says Ryan. “The whole idea behind the album is we wanted to really work on lyrics.”

While Living Room served as a testing ground to present their funky and fresh production style, the new record (out now) aims for far more depth. “We thought about lyrics and how to write the most personal, honest, blatant, almost unpoetic lyric we could possible write. I remember when we heard ‘I Took a Pill in Ibiza’ by Mike Posner, we though ‘oh my god, what an amazing lyric.’ In the most unpoetic way possible, he is saying exactly what happened and exactly what he felt. He doesn’t disguise anything to make it politically correct or poetic. We thought ‘let’s just make an album of that, let’s go even further than him and make something that is really risky and include a lot of topics no one talks about,'” Ryan details.

Adam, Jack and Ryan reflect, at length, on who they are now and how far they’ve come, the biggest roadblocks they continue to face in their careers and marijuana. Dig into our exclusive Q&A session below.

What were some of the roadblocks you encountered during this process?

Adam: I think because we’re an independent band, there are naturally a lot of roadblocks. In terms of money, that’s a big thing. When you’re signed to a major label, you often have an influx of cash, so money is not really a worry. But with us, we have basically been using our street performing money, our money we made from “I’m Ready”–just basically all of our self-made money, we’ve put it back into the band and upgraded our equipment and used it to tour and for promotion. That has been one of the biggest roadblocks over the last two years.

How did your vision (sound, feel, stories) evolve as you worked on this album?

Adam: Some of our favorite bands, like fun., when they start an album, they know exactly what the concept is going to be and know “hey, this is going to be track one and I know how track seven fits into the story.” That wasn’t really our process at all. We just started by writing a lot of honest songs. We weren’t really sure what we wanted to say. It took those two years of writing in order to figure out what that was. It ended up being a lot of songs about growing up and being in your 20s and being in college and trying to figure out when is the right time to grow up–how can we stay young in this world where we’re surrounded by adults who want us to grow up and get real jobs. How can we stay doing what we love?

That was a major theme we realized that with every song we wrote had hints of. That is best exemplified in “Come Hang Out,” and it has the lyric “should I go for more clicks this year or should I follow the click in my ear.” As soon as we wrote that, it really resonated with us and the fans in a really profound way. The idea behind that line is “should I go for more YouTube clicks and get instantly famous or should I do what I really want to do and be who I am.” We realized “yeah, the album has to be called ‘The Click’ and we need to surround the album with metronome and the idea of following your own path.”

Did that particular lyric come down like a lightning bolt?

Adam: I remember the moment we wrote that. While Jack sings that line, there’s a metronome going. As soon as we came up with that idea that there should be those clicks, we thought “oh, no, we need to have this many more times throughout the album. This needs to be a motif.” It occurs two other times in the album, in “No Grass Today” and the “Overture.” In addition to the metronome, the lyrical theme shows up in nearly every song.

What did you learn about yourself in this process?

Jack: As we write more songs about growing up, I feel like one of the best highs you can get in life is being brought back to the place you were as a little kid. We were walking past the old playground the other day that we used to go to. That moment, of “oh my god, I want to go back there,” is the greatest feeling in the world. If we can communicate that through music, it would have been such a feat for us. We just learned we really want to stay young and keep a young mindset.

Which song do you connect to the most?

Jack: I think I connect with “Come Hang Out” the most. It’s definitely the most personal song. It’s directly about our story. There’s a line in there, “I can’t complain, I won’t be mourning ’cause I skipped on prom for Elvis Duran in the Morning.” He’s the biggest DJ in New York City, and I actually skipped prom because we had to go to an event with him. It’s that kind of song that’s very specific to a time in our life–we gave up having a real childhood and real college years, for the music.

Ryan: “Netflix Trip” is the one I connect to the most. It’s a song about ‘The Office,’ the TV show. That was the first song we wrote for this album, actually, two years ago. We name checked a lot of things and tried to go places with the music that hadn’t been done. We’re enormous fans of the show and have been for like 10 years. The song is basically tracing different moments in my life–like my eighth grade graduation and when my grandpa died–and equating what season I was on in that moment in my life and how the show molded me.

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Adam: The song, for me, is “Three-Thirty.” The generation we are growing up in is so schizophrenic in its likes and dislikes, with social media and having content thrown in our face so much. Even music, people are constantly putting out music. We have so many things we can listen to. The song is called “Three-Thirty,” first because it’s three minutes and 30 seconds long, and that’s the optimal time that radio wants you to have a song. But also, the song changes so many times throughout. It wants to keep up with that schizophrenic idea of this generation. It goes from saying something very specific to a very general chorus to an EDM-style drop and untraditional, non-chorus at the end, talking about Ed Sheeran writing our songs, and if he writes our songs, will we finally top the charts? The goal was to throw as many different concepts into that song to replicate that idea.

How did you know which moments in your life you wanted to write about on “Netflix Trip”?

Ryan: I guess, I thought back through a lot of my mannerisms and realized that so many of them were based on TV shows. I literally cross my legs when I sit because I saw Jim from ‘The Office’ do it when I was young. It made me who Ryan is. When you start thinking like that, you start dissecting who you are as a person and realize how much of you is influenced by things you watch growing up.

How did “No Grass Today” come together?

Ryan: We really wanted to give a different perspective on marijuana and legalization. We found that there were songs that either glorified it or condemned it. Our perspective is one that’s not talked about it enough. I used to smoke a year or two ago. I tried it and it wasn’t for me and stopped doing it. The idea is who am I to tell other people that they can’t do it. As soon as we put it out, a lot of fans came to us and were like “that’s exactly how I feel.”

How do you maintain meaningful relationships with friends and family?

Adam: It’s definitely harder. As you get more and more successful, you put a magnifying glass on your friendships, and the friendships that were OK but not great kind of fizzle out because they lose interest or you just don’t make time. The friendships that really matter start becoming more and more important. It exaggerates the relationships and friendships we had before.

Another standout moment is “Call My Dad.” How did you come across using the vocoder effect?

Ryan: I can’t remember how we discovered that effect. I think I heard a friend use it or something. I thought “oh, maybe I can hook this up to the keyboard and make it an a cappella song without any other instruments.”

What inspired this song?

Ryan: I was in college and feeling really homesick. The worst thing to do is go out to a party. It just gets worse and worse. At the end of the party, I wrote this song because I wanted to feel like a little kid again and wanted to be tucked in by my parents and not be with all these strangers and having to smile. As soon as I came up with that concept, I thought “this really fits with the theme of this album.”

Earlier this year, you released a remix EP for “Weak.” What is your favorite remix from that collection?

Ryan: It keeps changing. If I had to pick my favorite now, it’d be the Party Pupils remix. The DJ duo call themselves future funk, and as soon as they did it, we thought “oh, that is so unique.” It’s really hard, especially in EDM, to come up with new sounds. The tendency is “this sound is working, so everybody copy it.” Like this year, it was the Chainsmokers. Every other DJ is copying that sound, and it starts to get a little tedious on the radio. But as soon as someone can come up with something new, it’s so refreshing.

Listen to the trio’s new album below:

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