Photo: Jim Metzger
Exclusive: AJR On Busking, "Sober Up" With Rivers Cuomo & More
Brothers Adam, Jack and Ryan Met of AJR found their unique sound the hard way, by cutting their teeth busking on the streets of New York City. A decade later, the band has just wrapped a 32-date sold-out North American tour, sharing their special brand of indie-pop infused with radio-hit hooks set against the kind of performance dynamic you can only learn through persistence and experimentation.
AJR have since become pop music juggernauts, flipping the proverbial pop script to explore production and songwriting from a new angle. On their second full-length album, 2017's The Click, the band came clean by tackling topics in an earnest way rarely seen in the genre. This is exemplified, for example, by the fresh approach on the effects of fame — or lack thereof — in "I'm Not Famous."
"That was probably the first song we wrote and released for The Click," says Jack Met. "With that song, we sat down and said, 'OK, we've done production, now let's see if we can really say something that no one has said before,' and that's where 'I'm Not Famous' came from. It's a song about why it's great to not be famous. We put that out and everyone just started really reacting well to it."
"We wanted to say something that hasn't really been said before in music. And that was really the main theme of The Click. It was just strange lyrical concepts." — Jack Met
Despite the benefits of not being famous, AJR still find inspiration — and aspiration — from another member in the entertainment industry who has made a huge name for himself with his innovative and emotional storytelling.
"We want to be the Wes Anderson of music," adds Ryan Met. "When you watch a Wes Anderson movie and you laugh, not because it's funny — it's not a comedy — but you laugh because it's so blatant, and … so, 'Wow, I've never seen that in a movie before. …' It's so wry and so honest, but it's also emotional. So I think we think about that a lot, and that's really come to be AJR's voice."
Collectively, AJR's cinematic aesthetic and musical street smarts have yielded some magical moments. "Sober Up," their latest single from The Click, features a guest appearance from Weezer's GRAMMY-winning frontman Rivers Cuomo, the perfect fit for the infectious left-of-center pop tune.
"I think we wrote the song in probably 30 minutes, just starting with that idea of sober up, and wanting to use it as a metaphor for wanting to be young again," says Jack Met. "Rivers Cuomo is a completely different story."
He goes on to explain that Cuomo followed the guys on Twitter and sent a DM to the band praising their previous single, "Weak." Understandably excited by the endorsement, AJR went for it and asked if Cuomo would want to collaborate on a future track together. To their surprise, Cuomo said yes and wrote the bridge for "Sober Up."
Earlier this month, AJR branched out even further, collaborating with GRAMMY-nominated DJ/Producer Steve Aoki and GRAMMY-nominated rapper Lil Yachty on the song "Pretender," which started as a song that just missed the cut for The Click.
"It didn't fit into the flow of the album, and we ended up sending it to Steve Aoki's manager," says Ryan, who thought it would be the perfect fit for an EDM vibe. "The song is about being insecure and it's about trying to figure out how to fit into a friend group and just emulate other people. … Steve Aoki did a crazy amazing job with it. He literally turned it from a sad song into this really just monstrous banger, and then Lil Yachty came on and his verse is awesome."
"I think it's a very cool juxtaposition of us from the alternative pop world, Steve Aoki from the EDM world and Lil Yachty from the hip-hop world." — Ryan Met
With nothing but momentum behind AJR, the group is experiencing a fan response like nothing they've seen in their musical lives. From the Kanye West-inspired production-heavy approach to their 2015 debut album, Living Room, to their quirky pop breakthrough on The Click, their sights are now set on enhancing their live show.
"For a long time our band was basically only about making records," says Ryan Met. "The last two years or so, our live following has exponentially been increasing. … Our goal was, 'Let's just really surprise people. Let's try and create a spectacle and try and bring the theatrical element of Blue Man Group or a Broadway show to the live concert setting.'"
The result featured bucket drum breakdowns, remixes and a lot of crazy lights, vaulting AJR from playing to crowds of 300 in clubs to larger venues of 1,500 to 3,000 people. Ryan also reveals the band's plans to play 4,000- to 5,000-person venues, doubling their audience size yet again on tour this fall while also working on new music for their next album. There's no shortage of creative energy buzzing around inside the Met brothers.
"We are also releasing a deluxe version of The Click at some point this summer, and it'll have some new songs and some re-imagined versions of songs," says Adam Met. "We really just want to keep feeding the frenzy of fans that has kind of grown over the last year. We want to keep sharing new music with them."
And while the brothers Met still may not be considered by all to be "famous," AJR have come a long way from busking in Washington Square Park.