Taking Back Sunday: “Why not try something new and different?”

Stop us if you’ve heard this one before, but this is the reinvention of TAKING BACK SUNDAY. Check out our latest Upset cover story.

Words: Alexander Bradley.
Photos: Ashley Osborn.

It was sometime last year, possibly around Thanksgiving, and Adam Lazzara was standing on his driveway talking to his Taking Back Sunday compatriot John Nolan on the phone. The band had a couple of shows lined up for in a few weeks’ time and, what would usually be a source of excitement, was causing the singer some worry.

“I was getting real frustrated going, ‘Why do people think we’re just this fucking pop-punk / emo band? Like what the fuck!?'” he recalls, before adding that there is nothing necessarily wrong with being in a pop-punk or emo band.

He continues, “But, for us, that’s not a good representation of who we are now, and I was just getting really upset that people didn’t see us for who we were.”

And for John Nolan, on the other end of the line, it was his job to be the voice of reason. “Well, Adam, we haven’t put anything out since ‘Tidal Wave’. We haven’t shown them that, so, of course, they don’t know,” he responded.

For Adam, the lightbulb clicked on. He knew John was right. They’d be living with the new and improved Taking Back Sunday in their head for years. It had been six years since they’d released their last album and even longer since they’d written and recorded that. A lot had changed in that time, not just in the world but in the band. Heck, even Eddie Reyes, founding member and integral guitarist, has been pretty much out of the band since 2016. They’d spent 2019 on the road celebrating their debut album that was about to turn 20 years old, and When We Were Young festival hadn’t helped stop nostalgia being draped over their band like some bed-sheet ghost of their youth following them around for a few years. It was no use standing on the driveway moaning that nobody understood Taking Back Sunday when nobody had yet had the chance to hear them.

The phone call ended, and they got to work.

Now, seven years on from ‘Tidal Wave’, your old friends Taking Back Sunday are ready to formally cordially invite you into their world.

So, stop us if you’ve heard this one before, but this is the reinvention of Taking Back Sunday. They’re ready to be new again, as the song goes, but they’ve already had a self-titled album back in 2011 when they returned to their classic line-up and refocused as a straight-up rock band. And you only get one shot at a self-titled record, so here we are at ‘152’, the eighth studio album and third iteration of Long Island’s finest.

One-five-two or One-fifty-two (they don’t care how you say it) has been ingrained in Taking Back Sunday since the very beginning. As synonymous with the band as Adam’s microphone-swinging antics, the number is, in reality, nothing more than a truck stop. But as they were growing up, it was the place where Adam’s home in North Carolina and his friends in Long Island would intersect. The exit sign is pop-punk heritage as the image of the overpass on their debut album ‘Tell All Your Friends’. From then on, it’s popped up here and there in their artwork as a continued nod to their roots.

And ‘152’ is all about those roots. What is at the core of Taking Back Sunday? Who have they grown up to become? Can you still identify the bones of this band if they’re wearing an outfit you don’t recognise?

It is a departure, that’s for sure. They have the pandemic to thank for that.

“It took the pandemic for us to stop. We typically keep moving, moving, moving,” Adam says, gesticulating with one hand the shark-like quality of the band. “It forced us to reassess who we wanted to be and what exactly we were chasing,” he adds.

They’d spent most of the year before on the road, playing two hours a night on the anniversary tour. “We were really burnt out,” he admits.

They then went straight from touring into the studio and were demoing ideas as 2020 began. The enforced break gave them a chance to take stock.

“If that hadn’t happened, I know a good bunch of the songs that ended up on this record wouldn’t have ended up on the record,” John reasons.

Continuing, he adds, “I think it would have probably been more in line with traditionally what our other albums have been. I don’t think it would have been the same kind of departure. We were aware going into this record that we wanted it to be a statement, and we wanted to make some kind of departure and make something better and unlike anything we have before.”

So post-pandemic, recharged, Taking Back Sunday were ready to start afresh. There was no “we’re Radiohead now”, as Adam describes, but there was a clear vision to mix things up. “No mediocre ideas are going to stay,” was the message.

They may not have been Radiohead, but their inspiration was coming from a pretty left-field place. After working with the DJ legend Steve Aoki on the track ‘Just Us Two’, the band had been exposed to a whole new world of music. They were not in Kansas anymore.

While working on that track, they met Tushar Apte, a producer working with Aoki. Watching those two at work, how reactionary and quick it was, their approach to songwriting and arranging while coming from a completely different world in terms of music, it was “a stake in the road” according to Adam. “That informed everything moving forward for ‘152’. We weren’t actively running away from our instincts; we were expanding them, and ‘152’ is the result,” he adds, discussing the impact of watching the producers at work.

The band enlisted Tushar for ‘152’, a producer with next to no knowledge of Taking Back Sunday. He had no context of the band’s impact over the last 20 years. No affinity for pop-punk. He would undoubtedly still MakeDamnSure he did a good job, but that reference would be lost on him. For the band, that was exactly what they wanted.

“Most of the producers we’ve spoken to or even worked with are very familiar with the band’s music and tend to approach it like, ‘This is my vision of what I can do with Taking Back Sunday’s sound. Take this and make it into this’,” John explains.

“He had basically no familiarity with what our music was, so he was just approaching it as, ‘I want to make these songs the best they can possibly be’, with no connection to the past. And that’s what we really needed. Just getting away from that idea of this is what Taking Back Sunday does, and this will be this version of Taking Back Sunday. We needed to get rid of that completely.”

“I was getting real frustrated going, ‘Why do people think we’re just this fucking pop-punk / emo band? Like what the fuck!?'”

Adam Lazzara

One of the biggest impacts Tushar had on ‘152’ was challenging the band on the belief that “bigger is better”. Instead, the producer was intent on stripping songs down and building them differently.

Adam is first to admit, “A lot of our approach in the past has been we’re going to throw everything at it, and if it’s not working, then we will throw some more stuff at it.” This time around, between the producer and the “no mediocre ideas” mantra, the approach was to take apart the songs and try something new. If it still didn’t work, then it could get in the bin.

Tushar was the most ruthless when it came to hacking parts away. John recalls, “One of the big things that he started to, which we had never done, was have the first chorus of the song, have the drums drop out or the drums aren’t there for the whole verse and the first chorus. And, in the past, what we have always done is have a lot in on that first chorus because we want it to hit hard, but then, by the time you get to the third chorus, it’s like, ‘How do you make it bigger?'”

“Add eight more guitars!” Adam answers, laughing.

“Yeah, and you’re just finding ways to make it bigger. And sometimes that works, and sometimes it doesn’t. But that approach that Tushar had was kind of the game changer of realising we can hold back a lot longer before we really start bringing stuff in,” John adds.

Tushar, whose previous credits include working with the likes of Demi Lovato and Blackpink, brought those modern neo-pop approaches to making the songs and, in turn, helped revolutionise the sound for ‘152’.

The best example of his influence comes at the front of the record, on the opener ‘Amphetamine Smiles’. With its bright acoustic guitar and delicate strings, it isn’t kicking down the door the way most TBS albums do but rather offering a polite knock. But that was the point.

John was first to champion as the track as the first foot forward for ‘152’. He sees it as a marker for listeners to know “they’re in for a different kind of album.” For Adam, it took some convincing. “It took me a little while to come around to that because I was like, ‘We need to come out real strong and in your face’, and then I got a thinking, ‘Man, we’ve done that every time, so why not try something new and different?'”

“And the thing that is cool with ‘Amphetamine Smiles’,” he continues “is the way that it’s building. It’s easing you into this thing, and by the time the whole band comes in, that’s where the smack in the face is. It’s a little bit like delayed gratification.”

It might only seem like a small change, but it’s rewriting years of programming for Taking Back Sunday. They’ve questioned everything they’d normally do and put it through a filter, a producer, who is planets apart in terms of “scene”.

So what is recognisable in ‘152’ is what is left of Taking Back Sunday. It’s the raw elements. The core. The bones.

Songwriting-wise, the equal measures of the poetic, swaggering and biting Adam Lazzara remains. Both ‘The One’ and ‘I Am The Only One Who Knows You’ feel destined to become a part of the wedding playlist for elder emos tying the knot worldwide, something the singer hadn’t initially spotted when bringing the album together. “I kinda noticed… there are a lot more thoughtful love songs on there where, typically, we’re a lot more mean. Not on purpose,” he corrects. “Just ‘cos we don’t like confrontation in real life, so it’s easier when you’re alone to write about it.”

Sandwiched between those tracks is the more aggressive and forward-leaning ‘Keep Going’ while ‘Quit Trying’, which comes later on, is destined to be played during the post-game montage of your favourite team’s comeback win. It’s all part of balancing out this album and straying away from being stuck focused in just one direction.

It helps give a sense of freedom in ‘152’. It’s a freedom they’ve revelled in. “We are very aware there is a pre-conceived notion when folks hear the name of our band,” John states, and what they’ve done on this album is challenge those ideas and prove a lot of them wrong too. They’ve not made the album they were expected to make.

Adam describes, “I feel like we spent years knocking on doors and cold calls, ‘Hey, you want to listen to this? Can we come in?’ Trying to get into other people’s lives, whereas now, I’d much rather invite people into mine. And into ours,” he reasons. “Because there are a lot of really great things happening and cool things to see. All you’ve got to do is come over.”

It took some wrestling for the singer to reach that moment, though. Between what he thinks he does, what he does well and what people expect, there was some conflict in his own identity. They’d all just spent a long time reliving their youth on the anniversary tour. The struggle was to not get trapped in that nostalgia.

“I feel with this it was real important to establish and let people know, ‘Hey, when we were younger we wrote ‘Cute Without The ‘E” but now we are a little bit older and holy shit have you heard ‘S’Old’? Have you heard ‘The One’? The main point is, I don’t want to be the guy that was. I want to be the guy that is,” he explains.

John takes it one step further, hitting the nail on the head. “I think there is an assumption that we are as nostalgic for those times as people that actually are,” he points out.

“We are totally fine with those times and those albums and everything, but there is nothing in any of us that is actually nostalgic. None of us look back and go, ‘Those were the days’.”

“In our day-to-day lives and in our creative lives, we are much much happier than at any time in the past. There has just been an assumption that we are as nostalgic as a lot of other people are.”

They both acknowledge how easy it is but how extremely unhappy they’d have been making a pastiche pop-punk album on the back of 20 years of ‘Tell All Your Friends’. They could try it, but they’d quickly check out as a band, and the lack of heart would be evident. Nobody wins in that scenario.

Instead, ‘152’ is authentically Taking Back Sunday in 2023. It is a snapshot of who they are now. The sonic leap from ‘Tidal Wave’ comes from time more than anything.

‘Tidal Wave’ featured Eddie Reyes, and, unfortunately, he’s been away from the band for years now. In fact, John has pictures from in the studio, holding his daughter as a baby. She turns eight years old before the end of the year. We’ve had a massive global pandemic in between, too. Obama was still president. A lot of time has passed since then. We’ve all changed.

“There wasn’t a ‘What’s the opposite of ‘MakeDamnSure” or ‘What’s the opposite of ‘Cute Without The ‘E”,’ it was more of, ‘How do we honour these people we have grown into?'” Adam considers.

So, welcome to ‘152’. They’re not teenagers anymore. They’re older. Wiser. Maybe they spent too long looking backwards in the last few years. Luckily, they’ve shaken free from the shackles of nostalgia that have hung around the band. On ‘152’, they’re firmly looking forward. ■

Taking Back Sunday’s album ‘157’ is out now. Follow Upset’s Spotify playlist here.