The Last Young Renegade experience left All Time Low feeling unsure of their future. A break from the band offered its members renewed perspectives, but before they could move forward, they needed to reconnect with who they truly are.
author: Jake Richardson
“If I’m being completely honest,” Alex Gaskarth begins, “our hearts weren’t in it.”
This stark admission comes as he reflects upon the culmination of All Time Low’s campaign for their last album, 2017’s Last Young Renegade. Calling it quits wasn’t necessarily on the cards, but still, the band had no idea where they were going next. Following what they describe as “pretty much 12 years straight on the road”, enthusiasm had been replaced with near-complete burn-out.
The decision was made, therefore, to put everything on hold.
“My mind was occupied by the fact that, creatively, I didn’t know what the next step for All Time Low was,” recalls Alex, the band’s vocalist, guitarist and chief songwriter. “This was the first time that we actually thought the next thing we needed to do was to take some time away, and put a pin in things. If you’re tired and inspired, it’s not hard to keep pushing, but we were tired and uninspired at the end of the Last Young Renegade cycle. If we’d sat down immediately after that campaign came to an end and tried to write a follow-up, I think the end result would’ve been terrible.
“That was the moment we realised we needed to hit reset on All Time Low.”
New album Wake Up, Sunshine, unveiled last month, is the ultimate result of that break, but its creation wasn’t one that came about purely because of recharged batteries. All Time Low found themselves at a crossroads when they sat down to begin work again last year, a situation that required consideration of what had paid off so well for them in the past, as well as reflection on the trying events of recent times. Soul-searching was needed in order to write what might be the most important album of their career.
Such a revelation might come as a surprise to the wider world. From the outside looking in, it would appear as though things were ticking along rather smoothly. Last Young Renegade had been a departure in style, leaning more on alt-pop than the pop-punk sound the quartet – completed by guitarist Jack Barakat, bassist Zack Merrick and drummer Rian Dawson – made their name with. But its critical success had pleased the frontman (“All the reviews said we’d grown up, which was great to read,” he remembers), and All Time Low managed to extend the campaign with the release of the well-received pair of singles Everything Is Fine and Birthday.
For Jack, however, it had all become too much to handle.
“I was exhausted when all of that finally ended,” the guitarist says. “It felt like we’d been at it non-stop for so long. I needed to step away and take a breather. Honestly, things have felt a little suffocating for me in the band in the past, because All Time Low has been my whole life. I’ve spent more of my years in this band than out of it. At times, that takes its toll.”
Jack, like his bandmates, welcomed the break, but rest quickly turned into restlessness. He’d been so used to the structure of his life revolving around band activities that he confesses to “waking up and not knowing what to do” without it.
“The absence of the band left me a little lost,” he continues. “I was questioning what I was doing with my life.”
The meaning Jack was searching for came from an unlikely source. Coping with struggles in his personal life as well as coming to terms with an existence without the demands of All Time Low involved, he got together with singer-songwriter Kevin Fisher and poured his feelings into the pop project WhoHurtYou, eventually releasing the EP Stages in November of last year.
“That was a period of growth and transition for me,” Jack recounts. “WhoHurtYou was me finding a path forwards and embarking on a new journey, which was really helpful and something I obviously needed. It was scary to step out like that, but I’m glad I did.”
Alex, meanwhile, had a creative itch to scratch of his own. 2019 saw the birth of pop-punk power duo Simple Creatures, a band formed with blink-182’s Mark Hoppus. Similar to what Jack was doing with WhoHurtYou, this music was a far cry from All Time Low’s core sound, the band’s two EPs, Strange Love and Everything Opposite, blending pop-rock with elements of electronica, new wave and ‘80s synth-pop. It almost sounded like what All Time Low had done on Last Young Renegade pushed to the extreme.
“What was driving Last Young Renegade was my desire to do something new, and I think that’s what you then saw taken further with Simple Creatures,” Alex explains. “Working with Mark allowed me to do something with no expectations or history tied to it, which I found really beneficial. Doing something new felt good, and it gave me a fresh perspective on All Time Low, and I know it was the same for Jack with WhoHurtYou. I’ve always been at the forefront of the writing for All Time Low, so it was good for him to step away and do something where he could be like, ‘This is mine.’ We both came back to the table refreshed and ready to go again.”
Before Alex and Jack could think about the future of All Time Low, they needed to take stock of their past. The Last Young Renegade cycle had seen them try some new things. Straying from their long-successful pop-punk formula was brave, but not everyone was on board.
“I’d be lying if I said there weren’t some uncomfortable moments,” Alex acknowledges. “Last Young Renegade was certainly perceived differently than our previous material, and that meant we questioned whether people liked what we’d done. The fan response wasn’t what we were used to, and I think some people didn’t know what to do with the songs. There were definitely times when the reaction felt disappointing, because we’d poured ourselves into making something different and it didn’t seem to connect with people right away.”
The original vision Alex had for Last Young Renegade was an even greater departure than that which fans actually received. He now admits that it was initially envisioned as a full-blown concept album set in a “Stranger Things-esque, Upside Down world.” There was even a suggestion that the band might break free of the All Time Low moniker and perform as ‘The Young Renegades’ on tour.
“I wish we’d leaned into the conceptual side a little more,” he admits now.
It’s clear that, despite it being a solid record, All Time Low’s identity had become muddled. The desire to get away from the juvenile, joker-in-the-pack image they had cultivated on their early pop-punk classics was understandable. After all, the members of All Time Low are now men in their 30s. Alex even goes as far as to reluctantly accept that there’s a “brand” around ATL built largely upon what they were doing a decade ago – something which, particularly in recent years, he’s been looking to shake.
Simultaneously embracing the past and forging a new way forward had become a challenge, but 2019’s 10-year anniversary of Nothing Personal marked an opportunity for Alex, Jack, Zack and Rian to reflect on where the band had once been, and analyse the clues it may hold for their future.
It’s Still Nothing Personal: A Ten Year Tribute, released last year, saw the quartet re-record their breakthrough third album, alongside a string of anniversary shows. Getting to grips with the material that set them on the path to stardom sparked a period of reflection, as they reminisced about the songs that put them where they are today, and looked at how the unadulterated energy of that album could inform All Time Low’s next move.
“The Nothing Personal celebrations reminded us what makes this band special,” Jack says. “It demonstrated what sets us apart, and we took that into the new material. It felt like a fitting way to end one era and welcome in a new one.”
All Time Low’s rapid rise in the rock world meant that, by the time Nothing Personal rolled around, they had producer hook-ups and co-write opportunities galore. The band went from writing in Alex’s basement to working on songs with people such as Terius Nash, a man credited on the song Too Much, who has also co-written pop hits by the likes of Britney Spears and Rihanna. It wasn’t the kind of creative environment afforded to many young pop-punk bands in 2009, but fast-forward to 2019, and off the back of celebrating the legacy of their biggest hits, Alex decided it was time to go old-school.
Hitting up Rian, he suggested All Time Low should book their drummer’s studio in Nashville, Tennessee for a month and do things the way they used to – four friends in a room with no outside influences offering input. It was there that Wake Up, Sunshine was born.
“There was no pressure or expectation, just us getting in a room and seeing what happened,” Alex recalls. “That approach continued throughout the rest of Wake Up, Sunshine’s creation. We didn’t allow any outside pressure. We locked ourselves away and jammed like you do when you’re first starting as a band. It reminded me of what making So Wrong, It’s Right was like. We hadn’t worked that way in a long time.”
A trio of exciting new songs quickly flowed. There was Some Kind Of Disaster, the upbeat yet confessional first single, as well as summery smash Getaway Green – which the band would go on to debut at their 2019 headline slot at Slam Dunk – and pop-punk rager Melancholy Kaleidoscope. All Time Low were living in the moment, rolling with whatever felt right and making music that made them happy.
“It felt good to be in a room making music with the boys again,” Alex remembers.
After hearing those early ideas, Jack also sensed a rebirth was on the cards.
“I remember hearing the initial songs and my first thought being like, ‘Fuck, I’m excited for this!’” he says. “Alex had smashed it – it was a great starting point.”
This time around, though, Jack felt he had more to offer. After acting as a primary creative force with WhoHurtYou, he wanted to be more involved in shaping All Time Low’s future.
“I had a big hand in writing a couple of the songs on this album, which was a great feeling,” he enthuses. “In the past, I didn’t have the confidence, and to be honest, the knowledge, to be able to contribute in a major way. But writing songs and lyrics with WhoHurtYou and finally being able to tell my story with that band meant that coming into Wake Up, Sunshine, I was feeling a lot more creative and confident about my All Time Low ideas. More than anything, it felt great to finally be someone in the band who was more than a performer or the guy who provides comic relief onstage.”
The song Monsters, an exciting collaboration with hip-hop artist blackbear, was one such song bearing Jack’s mark. A vibrant coming together of pop-punk, alt-pop and rap, it’s the kind of thing the band were shooting for on Last Young Renegade, yet retains the spikiness and energy that characterised the All Time Low of old. It’s a track that was written during the second part of Wake Up, Sunshine’s creative process, whereby the band had relocated from Nashville to Palm Desert in California.
“We literally drove everything we needed for a studio out to a house in the desert with our producer, Zakk Cervini [Poppy, Yungblud],” Alex says. “What made this record really special was that for the first time in many years we were living together while we were writing and recording. We’d wake up, get breakfast, grab instruments and start playing.”
Throughout Wake Up, Sunshine’s 15 tracks, you can hear that sense of rejuvenation and reconnection with All Time Low’s past. There are a couple of songs – Pretty Venom and Basement Noise – which stray more towards alt-pop territory, but in no uncertain terms this is a pop-punk record, infused with massive choruses and carpe diem spirit. Infectious tracks such as Clumsy and Safe are sure-fire anthems, the latter finding Alex triumphantly declaring, ‘Put the car in drive and don’t stop running ‘til you’re long gone.’
It sounds exactly like the kind of thing you’d expect a group who came up in the pop-punk world to be making now they’re grown men. Wake Up, Sunshine is a throwback to the ATL of old, but it doesn’t simply replicate the past, striking a key tone of youthful vibrancy throughout.
It’s a feel-good listen, but that doesn’t mean the band, and Alex in particular, didn’t get put through the emotional wringer in order to make it.
“One overarching theme that inspired Wake Up, Sunshine is that of getting better and feeling comfortable in your own skin,” Alex offers. “The title is about waking up to a new life and feeling rejuvenated, but it’s also a call to action. Coming up with the title was like me grabbing myself by the collar, slapping myself in the face and saying, ‘Wake up, dude! It’s time to do things right.’
“I’ve been through some dark times recently,” he continues. “Coming out the other side was a big thing on this record. I’ve been struggling with anxiety and my identity, and that gets both explored and put to bed on Wake Up, Sunshine. This album is me coming to terms with who I am, as well as reflecting on where we’ve been with the band and looking to the future.”
Having gone through a sticky patch collectively and as individuals in recent times, 2020 finds All Time Low returning with a renewed sense of faith in the music they’ve been making for the past 16 years, and Wake Up, Sunshine sees them wearing their scars with pride. The reception awarded to Getaway Green at Slam Dunk, and the subsequent online clamour for it to be released has given them confidence that the direction they’re heading in – one which builds on and embraces everything they’ve done up to this point – is the correct one.
The outpouring of love for Some Kind Of Disaster and its lyrics (“It’s a message from me saying, ‘Despite everything I put you through, thank you for still being here with me,’” Alex says), meanwhile, has helped him come to terms with his anxieties, flaws and mistakes.
“It’s about that first step in the process of sitting down and confronting your demons and vices,” Alex says of the openness with which he approached Wake Up, Sunshine. “Denial, dismissiveness and the feeling of inadequacy are all present. That song in particular is about acknowledging how people screw up, but that we’re stronger when we forgive, both others and ourselves. All told, this music is an ode to important people in my life, particularly the fans.”
Despite fan adoration and lyrical honesty, though, it’s the bond between the four men in All Time Low that shines brightest on these songs. The creation of this album has seen Alex, Jack, Zack and Rian grow as people and as artists, and rediscover their identity as a band. And in their eyes, it’s the friendship between them that’s holding this all together in 2020, just like it did in 2003.
“It says a lot that you can put the four of us under a roof in the desert and we can make a record without killing each other!” Alex jokes. “But in all seriousness, we grow together in this band – we’re always there for each other and act as our own internal support system. Even when times get rough, we resolve things before they get unhealthy. We’ve got such a good thing going in All Time Low, so there’s no reason to do what a lot of bands do and blow themselves apart over petty shit. When you’ve got it this good and you’re still making new fans over 15 years after you started, egos aren’t necessary.”
“The year off was a great reminder of how special what we have with All Time Low is,” Jack adds. “Being away from it for a while, I realised that I was probably taking it for granted. It’s easy to get lost within it all and feel like you need to get away to do something else. Going away, doing another project and then coming back and playing those Nothing Personal shows gave me a newfound respect for how amazing what we’ve built with All Time Low is. It’s made me value what we have that much more.”
Despite all the pressure, expectation and turmoil that comes with this life, things still feel as good as they did when All Time Low first embarked on this journey, seemingly.
“They absolutely do,” Jack concludes. “We started off as friends and we’ve been through a lot of changes in life and with the band, but I think those experiences have brought us closer together. We’re a family, really, and I see the bond between us as unbreakable now. This band, in my eyes, is together forever.”
“In fact, All Time Low doesn’t even feel like a band anymore. We’re brothers. That’s what makes this special.”
All Time Low’s new album Wake Up, Sunshine is out now via Fueled By Ramen/Atlantic.