5 Seconds of Summer: “We wanted to slay this shit. So we did”

5 Seconds Of Summer have been at the top of the game for more than a decade, but as they prepare to release their fifth album, they're only looking to the future.

5 Seconds Of Summer have been at the top of the game for more than a decade, but as they prepare to release their fifth album, they’re only looking to the future.

Words: Abigail Firth. Photos: Andy Deluca.

“I appreciate you saying that you don’t want to talk about the past too much,” says 5 Seconds of Summer’s Michael Clifford at the front end of our chat. It seems like a moment of relief for a member of a band who are a decade into their career and have spent a lot of that time talking about the start of it.

With the release of their fifth album, conveniently titled ‘5SOS5’, they’re entering a new phase in their journey together, one where they can both reflect on the past ten years and keep pushing themselves further. For 5SOS, there isn’t an end in sight.

When we catch the boys – that’s Luke Hemmings, Calum Hood, Ashton Irwin, and the already introduced Michael Clifford – it’s in Rogers, Arkansas, at the final stateside stop of their ambitious ‘Take My Hand’ world tour that began in the UK in April and has so far spanned Europe, Mexico, the US and Canada, and will eventually wrap up in their homeland Australia in December. And they look, bluntly, fucking knackered.

Amidst prepping for their last show, they take an hour to sit down with Dork, but it’s clear a proper rest is due. A couple of years off touring and being thrown back into a three-month worldwide slog has taken its toll. Ashton (who recently suffered extreme heat exhaustion at their Houston show, resulting in the event being cut short) understatedly nods that it hasn’t been easy on the body.

“A decade of touring really makes you aware of the fickleness of your physicality,” he explains. “It’s very, very difficult. We’ve had to get on the path of attempting to observe and master how to look out for ourselves out here if we really want to do this for a long time.”

“A decade of touring really makes you aware of the fickleness of your physicality. It’s very, very difficult”

Ashton Irwin

“Having not toured in about two years, it was definitely a bit of a shock to the system,” says Michael. “So we’ve been adjusting and relearning how to tour again, but really we’re just super grateful to have this many people come and see us on this tour. It’s been way, way bigger and better than we could have ever expected.”

It’s the biggest tour they’ve been on in a long time. Beginning as the one for fourth album ‘CALM’, it ended up being postponed for so long that they wrote another album in between, and rebranded the tour to encompass the new tracks. It’s also the first time since before their debut album that they’ve been playing unreleased tracks live.

“I think it’s our best show yet,” says Calum. “The set flows so well, and takes you on a journey throughout the last 10 years of our discography, which is cool. It’s quite a difficult thing because, you know, especially with us, we want to kind of bend the different genres, and have opportunities to keep evolving as a band and our sound, and we have done that for such a long time.”

Evolution is perhaps the best way to describe how 5SOS have moved through their career. Beginning as a pop-punk group who found their feet supporting One Direction at their height, the first two records – a self-titled debut and 2015’s ‘Sounds Good Feels Good’ – were indebted to that sound. After a couple of years away, they returned in 2018 with ‘Youngblood’, a fresher, more mature sound that reintroduced the world to 5SOS, and by the time 2020 record ‘CALM’ came around, with its moodier, more experimental takes, it was hard to believe they were the same boys who debuted with a song referencing American Apparel underwear. 

Now at a point in their career where they’re looking back on the journey so far (an insane thing to say about a group of 26-28-year-olds), the pandemic gave 5SOS a chance to properly reflect and process the lifestyle that consumed most of their teenhood and early 20s. What came out of those reflections is their biggest – in both length and sound – and boldest album yet.

The group obviously look back on their formative years fondly (they wouldn’t still be playing songs from even their earliest EPs like ‘Disconnected’ and ‘Amnesia’ live if they didn’t), and as Michael explains, there are fans who’ve been through this whole journey with them too.

“It’s funny that we’re in this period where we get to play songs like ‘She Looks So Perfect’ and ‘Amnesia’ and stuff. It’s like those songs are living in this strange, nostalgic era for people now,” he says. “Even though the songs came out eight years ago, it definitely doesn’t feel like that long, but it also feels like a lifetime ago. It’s a really interesting thing for us to see how people react to it. People are singing those songs louder than ever, because of what they meant to them eight years ago, and it’s been amazing to watch it all unfold.”

Calum adds, “The last two years have given us space to reflect for the first time properly and have time to be able to articulate how we truly feel about those experiences and how they interact with the people we are today. It actually gave us a great opportunity to be able to put those into words and hopefully resonate with the people that shared that journey with us.”

One of ‘5SOS5”s leading tracks, ‘Take My Hand’ unpacks the story so far from the boys’ perspective. It’s a slow burner that sees Luke ground himself, lyrically noting the blur of their first few years with the pre-chorus that goes, “shut my eyes right at seventeen / open eyes right at twenty-three”. ‘Carousel’, which comes directly after, echoes a similar sentiment, delving into the chaos but reiterating that they’ve no intention of stopping.

Explaining how these themes came into the album, Ashton talks of the collective therapy 5SOS were going through with one another while writing this record. 

“The combined experience that the four of us have had is kind of shocking and traumatising to some extent. So who am I going to talk to about my combined experience? Oh, there are three other guys that have been through the same thing. So when you isolate us, we kind of look at each other and go, look how far we’ve come. You’ve got wrinkles on your face, you look older, you’re a fucking man, and we’re kind of held in this place of nostalgia because we share such a unique experience.

“There are not really many people on earth that have done what we have done together,” he continues, “and we praise that, we try to understand that together. We try to form positive mentalities on how to move forwards even though the past might be heavy. And we try to believe in ourselves. When people just want to talk about ‘She Looks So Perfect’, we want to talk about what we’re doing today. You know, talking about the past is a really weird thing when it’s not really the past you associate it with. Like, we associate the past as working really hard together, writing songs together, doing all these things, but there’s a projected past that’s made up by people that perceive us. So when we’re just isolated together, we enjoy the shared experience.”

‘5SOS5’ largely came around by accident. As their legend goes, the four of them travelled out to Joshua Tree towards the end of 2020, deflated from the pandemic, riding out the comedown of finally stopping for the first time in years, and lacking inspiration for writing new 5SOS material. Initially, there was supposed to be an additional producer/engineer coming along with them, but after his car broke down, 5SOS were left to their own devices. As luck would have it, Michael had spent his lockdown months learning sound design and production techniques, so took the reins. With no real end goal, they just let loose. 

“A big thing for this band is just letting go of what other people think”

Calum Hood

“It’s interesting when it’s like, ‘Michael produced’ because it doesn’t necessarily feel like that,” he explains. “It’s done by all four of us. Obviously, I was the one behind the desk doing the things, but there’s no way I would have been able to finish songs if it wasn’t for the three other guys, you know what I mean? I’m so critical of myself that I can barely even get past making the first couple of track ideas. I know as well as the other three do exactly how this band functions and what type of music we want to make, what type of music we like, how to apply that in ways that are a compromise for all four of us. It was a really freeing experience. It’s harder to say to a person who’s a third party, ‘hey, I don’t like this’, whereas, with our process, it was really easy for everyone to just be like, ‘you know what, that’s not great, let’s try something else’. It really helped not only speed up the process, but get to the most genuine version of the songs we were trying to create.”

The album sonically reflects the process. It sounds wide open and sprawling, the group releasing their grip and indulging in both enormous arena-ready belters and more intimate, personal numbers. When it comes to post-pandemic albums, it veers on the brighter side; even when the lyrics feel darker and more introspective, the sound looks outwards and upwards. 

The tracks feel oxymoronic at times. ‘Bad Omens’ details struggling to let go of a lover, slowly blooming into something almost gospel in its final third; ‘COMPLETE MESS’ flips its title lyric to ‘you make me complete’; ‘Flatline’ is one of the bouncier tracks, elevating higher with a head-voice chorus and grounded with a heavy bass line. Oftentimes the record feels more like the huge 80s ballads of U2 or The Police than something a TikTok algorithm would cook up, but the boys’ ability to write a fucking fantastic topline saves it from being any kind of dated.

“We’ve written a lot of songs since we were just wee boys,” says Luke, “so this was kind of the culmination of many years of hopefully getting better at songwriting. It’s hard to really say; we just made what we wanted to make, which is kind of an underwhelming answer, but really is just the case. We came into the studio as just the four of us, and it’s just sort of wherever it took us.”

There’s a particularly sincere love song on the record titled ‘Older’, where Luke enlists fiancé Sierra Deaton to join in a piano-led duet of sorts that’s really unlike anything they’ve done before. 

He says, “We haven’t had that many female vocals on songs, and that one obviously lends itself to that storyline, but it just needed something else. She’s got a really beautiful voice, so we thought we would utilise it for that song. We started that idea a couple of years ago, and it’s grown into this beautiful, strange song. It’s such an interesting outlier on the album.”

Although separated for this interview – Cal and Mike in one chat, Luke and Ash in another – they’re pretty in tune with each other in terms of how they speak about the band. While Calum and Michael joke that it’s because they can’t do interviews together anymore, Ashton, later on, likens their relationship to a brotherhood and notes that it’s not necessarily that they like everything about one another, but that they’ve come to accept it.

There’s a very obvious amount of love and dedication between the four that shines through on the track ‘Best Friends’, which employs a very pop-punk melody, perhaps as a nod to their roots, but backs the power chords with a whole string section. 

On the eve of ‘5SOS5”s release, they’ll play a special show at London’s Royal Albert Hall, bringing in a whole orchestra for the performance. It’ll serve as a geographical signifier of their growth, as the group used to busk and host fan meet-ups across the street from the iconic venue in their earliest days, but 5SOS give the impression that they never doubted for a minute that they’d make it to that stage.

“It’s such a risk to choose this, and you don’t fuck around,” says Ashton. “When you choose a risky job, like being a musician, or starting a band, leaving your family, leaving everything you know, and moving to a place like England, you’re not messing around. Like, you’d be a fool to. We wanted to slay this shit. So we did, and we continue to manifest this thing that we started on over a decade ago. And I feel like we would be letting down our fans to say we didn’t think this would happen, because they convinced us that it probably will happen. And if it did, I like to think that if people did support or do support this band, they feel like they chose the right people to support. Because we didn’t take this like it was nothing.”

And although they’ve spent the last couple of years and a whole album cycle looking back, it isn’t with regret. Yes, hindsight is 20/20, but their vision for the future is crystal clear too.

“A big thing for this band is just letting go of what other people think and focusing on what we have,” says Calum. “The internal opinions of the band is kind of what means the most in terms of if we’re trying to grow. But I don’t think we’re scared; it’s awesome to be able to see the amount of growth that we’ve been through, and to see the kind of differentials that our career has displayed. That’s such an amazing thing, and we’re better for it.” ■

Taken from the September 2022 edition of Dork, out now. 5 Seconds Of Summer’s album ‘5SOS5’ is out 23rd September.

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