Staring down 30, the beloved band opens up about keeping fans happy while diverging from the sound that made them huge
author: Brittany Spanos
In 2007, the four members of All Time Low hadn’t even hit the legal drinking age when a couple of boyishly goofy songs about girls began to push them beyond their local scene. Signed to the taste-making indie label Hopeless Records, the Maryland quartet released their scrappy but hopeful sophomore album So Wrong, It’s Right, and suddenly pop-punk had a new band of skinny-jeans-wearing heroes with frosted, side-swept hair.
A decade later, the band sits around a table in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, settling in for a late-afternoon round of bowling at the dive-y Gutter. Clutching beers and fresh off a day of press for their new and seventh album Last Young Renegade, the group of longtime friends – singer Alex Gaskarth, guitarist Jack Barakat, bassist Zack Merrick and drummer Rian Dawson – talk over each other with polite excitement and the type of easy comfort that comes with having been performing and writing with one another for nearly 15 years straight.
“It’s kind of crazy how adult we’ve become,” Barakat reflects. Between tours, the members have each found time to move away from the suburb of Towson, Maryland, where they grew up; currently, the four are spread between Hawaii, Los Angeles and Baltimore. With brief brushes of tabloid fame behind them – Barakat was most famously linked to Playmate Holly Madison and actress Abigail Breslin – the rockers are beginning to settle down. Gaskarth married his longtime girlfriend Lisa Ruocco last spring, while Dawson proposed to country singer Cassadee Pope earlier this year.
Even as they approach 30 and launch new families of their own, the experience of spending their twenties in the limelight makes the band feel as if they’re stuck in a “maturity purgatory,” as Barakat describes it.
“You’re thrown into situations at a young age that people that age usually aren’t exposed to,” Gaskarth explains. “So on that hand, it kind of matures you, sometimes before you’re ready for it. At the same time, as you get older, there’s less expectation for you to act mature. So you get stuck in this limbo between growing up and not having the same kinds of responsibilities as people who don’t live life on the road.”
All Time Low’s maturity purgatory comes with some perks: They can release their most “serious” album yet and still relish every minute of pre-release anticipation. Bowling against one another allows them to indulge in a bit of the harmless chaos that made them stand out in the first place. They pose obscenely, rib each other lovingly, and even though they’re keeping tabs on the scores, they prioritize having a good time over actually winning (though, for the record, Merrick, the band’s quiet jock, racks up the night’s highest score).
When it comes to sales, too, numbers aren’t everything to the band. Though, for the record, their previous album – 2015’s Future Hearts – debuted at a career-high Number Two, while Last Young Renegade marked their fifth Top 10 debut, a hot streak for any artist.
“The chart stuff is great, but we don’t rest everything on it,” Dawson says. “We care more about the career span, so to think about one day as a make-or-break, or anything like that, would be silly for us.”
“But I still think about it every day,” Barakat jokes.
“We’re not gonna be the people at the Oscars that are like, ‘Oh, no, we don’t care about these awards at all,’” Dawson adds.
“Oh, we want those awards,” Barakat chimes in again.
“We’ll take an Oscar,” says Gaskarth as the group erupts in laughter.
“An Oscar … can we?” Barakat offers innocently.
In the mid-aughts, All Time Low were part of a boom of young pop-punk bands becoming boy-band-level icons for even younger listeners in search of equal parts angst and irreverence following the success of Fall Out Boy. With So Wrong, ATL provided exactly that: Two of the most popular songs from the album are a tune about a stripper (“Dear Maria, Count Me In”) and a moving breakup power ballad (“Remembering Sunday”).
Onstage, the band was rambunctious, mimicking the lovable immaturity of their heroes Blink-182 by making dick jokes, climbing up to theater balconies and displaying bras on their microphone stands. Their combination of confidence and cluelessness made them both awe-inspiring and relatable to the even younger kids moshing in the pit. At first, the naughty banter was a defense mechanism for a young band that feared an empty room as much as they did a sold-out one.
“When there’s 25 people at a VFW hall and only three of them are there because they like you and the sound is terrible and the songs aren’t that great, you have to figure out ways to get people to look you up later on MySpace or PureVolume,” Gaskarth says of their early stage style. As crowds grew and they began to expand outside of the United States, the naughty-joke mentality aided them more than ever when they would play in front of “30,000 Rammstein fans” at European festivals. “It’s like, ‘OK, what can we do besides play our show that will maybe have these guys be like, “This band isn’t that bad”?’” Dawson continues.
In the time since that magical pop-punk renaissance from which All Time Low emerged, most of their contemporaries have broken up, reconfigured or moved on entirely. All Time Low, on the other hand, have only gotten bigger.
As the band gets older, their fans remain the same age, with hordes of teenagers filling out theaters around the world. New rock overall has become increasingly less prevalent on radio and the charts, though young pop-punk acts still generate buzz and cult followings. Many of the new generation of young, spunky rock acts – such as 5 Seconds of Summer, SWMRS and Waterparks – cite All Time Low as their biggest influence.
“I’m not just saying this to sound nice, but we’re never going to get used to people saying they started a band because of us,” Dawson says. “Whether it’s a high school kid or a 30-year-old saying Jack inspired them to play guitar or whatever it is, it doesn’t quite feel real.”
“You know that never happened, Rian, but thank you for making me feel good,” Barakat jokes.
For Last Young Renegade, All Time Low have settled into their version of adulthood. Off Hopeless again, they’ve joined Fueled by Ramen, a label with a roster that resembles an Avengers-style lineup of mid-2000s rock mainstays who can still fill arenas and top the charts, like Paramore and Panic! At the Disco. Much like those two bands, ATL have found a way to broaden their sound without jeopardizing what has made them so appealing to young listeners for more than a decade. A bit darker than their past work, the quartet’s seventh LP sounds like one of their most carefully curated statements yet. Gaskarth’s writing and singing are at the sharpest of his career, and the songs overflow with big pop hooks. His personal improvement is a product of years of heavy touring and and a tight album-release schedule, with the band having issued new LPs every other year since 2005.
“We kind of know what we’re doing now,” the singer says with a laugh. Recalling the sessions for So Wrong, Gaskarth notes how songs often arose out of random moments and spurts of inspiration. Matt Squire, who produced So Wrong, would refuse to let the singer back into the studio until he had lyrics to go with the sketchy instrumental arrangements that would come out of their spur-of-the-moment sessions. Now, the band has more focus and vision than ever before.
“It would be unfair to ourselves and unfair to our fans to not push ourselves to try and change and do things that people wouldn’t expect and haven’t heard before,” Gaskarth continues. “Sometimes the easy road is to keep repeating the pattern.”
Touring with bands like Green Day and Thirty Seconds to Mars inspired All Time Low to pursue more of an atmosphere they can reflect in a live show. For the mood of Last Young Renegade, they looked back to move forward: Instead of reverting to the youthful, party-centric vibe of their early releases, the band reflected on their lives and careers as well as the road they took to get to this point. The concept of nostalgia weighed heavily on the band while writing their new material. Gaskarth dug even deeper into his history and cites pre-band childhood memories – watching Ghostbusters and John Hughes movies, for example – as just some of the early moments from his life he used as inspiration.
“A lot of it became about that vintage feel of [my childhood],” he notes. “I thought that would be a cool way to present that emotion musically and sonically, so what we ended up doing was go back and find these analog synths and weird pedals that we dug out of strange equipment rental spaces.”
A year of major musical losses also served as inspiration. The band went back to listening to Prince, David Bowie and George Michael and studied the sounds and qualities that made those artists such icons both in and beyond their time. “We’d key in on a sound or a pad and just a tone and try to take that and pop it in [one of our songs] and see what happened,” Gaskarth explains. “It ended up transforming all the songs into what we ended up with on the record.”
All four members of the band knew that fans would likely be shocked when they heard new singles like the sobering “Dirty Laundry.” All Time Low came of age when social media was still nascent, and have been quicker to adapt to the changing ways musicians can interact with their fans than most artists who weren’t necessarily raised on the Internet. So when the song was released, they kept a close watch over the online response.
“I remember seeing a comment that was along the lines of, ‘Ah, I’m not sure if I like the song, but that last chorus is great,’” Gaskarth recalls. “In my head I was like, ‘That’s the part that feels familiar.’ When it gets big and goes loud, that’s what feels like All Time Low from 10 years ago. That was safe.”
Gaskarth has continued to keep tabs on what fans write about them on Twitter and other platforms and claims that the same person tweeted him a few days later to say that the song had grown on them.
“I’ve been like that with bands, though,” Barakat admits. “Even with the new Paramore, at first I was like, ‘Ah, I don’t get this.’ Then a couple listens in, I’m like, ‘Alright, this is fucking catchy.’ It sometimes just takes a second to comprehend.”
Dawson cites his initial disdain for Green Day’s slowed-down Warning, and all recall being taken aback by Blink-182’s contemplative self-titled 2003 LP, each being thrown off by their favorite pop-punk legends easing into adulthood without a fight. Eventually, all have come around to those two albums with time.
“It’s really important to have those moments where you kind of take the fan base and shake it.” –Alex Gaskarth
“I think the biggest thing when talking about Last Young Renegade is that we wanted to present something fresh,” Gaskarth returns. “I don’t want this band to stop, and I think if we went the safe road and kept making album one and album two over again, it would peter out. It’s really important to have those moments where you kind of take the fan base and shake it.”
Appropriately, All Time Low found camaraderie with a similarly cult-favorite band that has taken huge creative risks in recent years. Tegan and Sara are Last Young Renegade‘s sole guest stars, appearing on the synth-y, atmospheric “Ground Control.” The track is one of the more blatantly Eighties-inspired moments on the album, a reflection of Tegan and Sara’s own foray into big-hook synth-pop with 2013’s Heartthrob. Both acts felt a mutual admiration, and their collaboration yielded a delicate, melodic feel unlike anything All Time Low had pursued before.
“It’s nice because that chorus is all three of us singing,” Gaskarth says of his harmony with Tegan and Sara. “We’ve never done anything like that as a band, so it was fun.”
“Ground Control” is Last Young Renegade‘s penultimate track, followed immediately by what the band describes as their “best impression of Phil Collins,” the slow-burning “Afterglow.” Instead of building toward familiarity, like on “Dirty Laundry,” here the band strips away any trace of the uptempo pop-punk that made them famous.
“It leaves you with that cliffhanger of ‘Well, what’s the next movie going to be like?’” Gaskarth says of “Afterglow,” claiming it as one of the band’s most John Hughes–ian moments. “You wanna end on him with a boom box over his head. Or they’re all walking down the hall, and he throws his fist in the air.”
The band takes a moment to riff on this idea, and suddenly a character named Johnny is walking down the hallway of a school in a made-up film before a final-scene freeze frame. Barakat, in his best movie-trailer-voiceover impression, closes out their goofy, brief interlude:
“And Johnny was never seen again. …“