‘I don’t think we’re the biggest band in the world, but any time you’re in a band, you’re in a bubble. People appreciate you, or are paying attention to you, at the very least,” says Fall Out Boy’s Patrick Stump. “When you get out into the world, though, you’re just like everybody else.”
But the local band has always stood out from the crowd — Fall Out Boy is among Chicago’s biggest music success stories of the previous decade. Named for a “Simpsons” character, the band was formed in Wilmette in 2001 by hard-core scene vets Pete Wentz, Joe Trohman and Stump. The trio’s sound was very much inspired by Green Day’s catchy, snotty punk and rapid tempos and by The Get Up Kids, a ’90s-era band from Kansas City that headed up the second wave of what some call “emo” — a punk sound that marries controlled rock aggression with emotional vulnerability.
FOB released its first indie full-length album, “Take This To Your Grave,” in 2003, then signed to Island Records for 2005’s “From Under the Cork Tree,” which went multiplatinum in an age of otherwise slipping sales. Stump and Wentz emerged as the leaders of the band, with bassist and lyricist Wentz becoming an unlikely alt-punk heartthrob for MTV’s “TRL” set. He nearly overdosed on anti-anxiety meds during the making of “Cork Tree,” and by 2008 had married pop singer Ashlee Simpson (they divorced in 2011).
As quickly as they’d risen to fame, Fall Out Boy began a descent. The band’s fifth album, “Folie á Deux,” expanded their sound palette, but was a commercial disappointment, despite guest spots from Elvis Costello and Lil Wayne. In late 2009, the band issued a greatest hits album and announced an indefinite hiatus, citing the strain of Wentz’s celeb marriage on the band. It appeared that this Boy’s life was winding down.
“It is really important to have to sit there and pay your bills, mow your lawn and do some dishes,” says 28-year-old lead singer/guitarist/tunesmith Stump (married in Chicago this past September) on the band’s time away from the spotlight. The growing-up time, he contends, made his excitement about a new record possible.
But in the three years before their hush-hush reunion in late 2012, neither Stump nor his bandmates gave up on music. Quite the contrary: Wentz, 33, made electro tunes with Black Cards; guitarist Trohman, 28, and drummer Andy Hurley, 32, played in metal projects like The Damned Things; and Stump released a solo album, “Soul Punk,” in which he played all instruments and experimented with styles that guitar-heavy Fall Out Boy would never touch.
Until now. The quartet’s new album, “Save Rock and Roll,” ventures into uncharted territory, favoring the clubby end of the radio dial. Synths and electronics propel tunes such as club anthem “My Songs Know What You Did in the Dark (Light Em Up),” while “Just One Yesterday” recalls Adele, of all people. Despite the title, the album is largely devoid of the rock guitar layers that usually form the skin of a FOB tune. Stump’s solo album, it seems, indicated a new direction for the band — which was his strategy all along. “I wanted to do a record and get out some of these ideas so we could force it into the band,” he explains.
A “return-to-form record,” as Stump calls it, would have probably easily pleased the faithful suburban emo kid. But rehashing the band’s fervent and cathartic punk was not an option that Stump seriously entertained.
“There’s a Picasso quote, something along the lines of, ‘Even plagiarism would be preferable to repeating one’s self.’ ” he says. “Repeating one’s self as an artist is a negative thing, unless you can find a valid reason for it. We looked at ourselves and said, ‘Is there any reason to do this thing again?’ ”
To hammer that point home, the band announced the album by posing for an Instagram photo, taken in snowy Chicago, in which they are burning their previous albums. And to nail down the new sound, FOB reconvened (a difficult feat, considering Stump and Wentz spend most of their time in L.A., Trohman in New York and Hurley in Milwaukee) and began work with producer Butch Walker, whose credits include Pink, Weezer and Taylor Swift albums, at his Santa Monica studio.
On top of all that, they didn’t tell their label what they were up to. “The ability to make this album in secret was great, because there weren’t expectations,” says Wentz. “It allowed us to take our time — and we could throw it out if we wanted to.”
There were false starts: Wentz and Stump (who fuse the former’s lyrics and the latter’s compositions by way of adjacent studios) tossed out tunes that either didn’t make sense in the Fall Out Boy anthology or sounded too much like classic Fall Out Boy. Wentz’s latest lyrics, he thinks, benefit from his time taking a break from the machinery of fame and from FOB’s reflexive, drawn-from-a-diary personal viewpoint.
“Sometimes when you broadcast so much, it becomes white noise. [Being away] allowed me to home in on what I thought was important,” he says. “In the past, I’ve written a love song like, ‘This song is vaguely about the perils of celebrity,’ or stuff that people can’t relate to. On this album, it was about trying to make concise statements that are relatable to more people, because that’s what we attempted to do with the band when we began.”
Previous album collaborations featured everyone from Jay-Z to Debbie Harry, and “Save Rock and Roll” has star turns from Courtney Love, rapper Big Sean and Elton John. The guest spots seemed to materialize serendipitously, says Stump. “Elton John reached out to us and said, ‘Hey, I just wanted to say I really like the single.’ We hadn’t finished mixing the album, so we said, ‘Hey, you’re a fan, would you be interested in working together?’ ” Elton was on board to sing on the title track.
The most surprising bit about “Save Rock and Roll” is not that it exists, or that it is an of-the-moment pop album. It’s that Fall Out Boy has the mettle to take a risk and shed the youthful skin that once made it a staple for high-schoolers and tweens. “Save Rock and Roll” is an audacious album that positions rock not as a fixed sound, but as an attitude, and an adventurous record that the guys say they had to make to even consider giving FOB another turn. But it seems that sense of adventure is what fuels Stump and Wentz.
That and their influence on youth. Wentz says he relishes “the possibility that this album could reach somebody the way that ‘Dookie’ by Green Day reached me, and let me know it was OK to be this weird kid at my school. If this record could be in any way like that, could in any way inspire those kids or unlock that in them, that’s what we’re inspiring those kids to do.”
Wentz on the music business: “When you become successful in any industry, how well you do becomes attached to quarterly sales performance. These guys who are like, ‘How your record does is going to affect how our company does.’ That’s fine in a lot of industries … but it doesn’t really work in art, know what I’m saying?”
Wentz on his divorce: “When somebody used to ask me questions about it in interviews, that would drive me crazy. I would have a fit about it. Now, if you don’t react to it, it goes away. I still get asked the same questions, when we’re doing morning radio. If I don’t react to it, then it doesn’t become a big thing.”
Stump on being emo: “Anyone active in the indie and rock and punk scenes in the Midwest knows that emo was a thing, emo was an actual scene that actually existed that had a defined movement and a lot of defined bands. And we were NOT welcome in that world. When we got successful, people started throwing that word at us. Well, cool, but in my understanding of that word, we’re not that. We’re always trying to be ourselves.”
Wentz’s Chicago haunts: “I like to go to the Shedd Aquarium at night and look at the dolphins swim. I like to hang around my parent’s old neighborhood and kind of remember what it was like growing up. In the summer, I go to the beach, go to shows at the Metro, go to Pick Me Up Cafe (at left) and maybe Strange Cargo and Angels & Kings in the Hard Rock. I hang out with old friends, mostly.”
Story by John Dugan | Photos by Diana Scheunemann