Guitarist Mike Kennerty chats about the different cohesion behind The All-American Rejects’ fourth record Kids in the Street, having to restart things with every release, and maintaining passion for music.
It’s a little disappointing this week since that Blink-182 tour didn’t end up happening, but you still have Bamboozle to look forward to, so that must be pretty sweet.
Yeah, we’re excited. It was a bummer they had to cancel those dates, but shit happens. We’re still going over to Europe with them in June, so we’re excited about that.
Nice. How long is that going to be for?
Like two months. It’s a long one.
So the last record, obviously “Gives You Hell” was a huge success, but it seemed the album as a whole got a little bit more of a split reaction from fans than your other two albums before. How much do you pay attention to that stuff and did it ultimately have any effect on where you went with Kids in the Street?
I feel like whenever we put out a record there’s always been a very split reaction, where people love the last one but hate the new one. By the time another one comes around, the tide has changed a little, and people actually like the last one and then hate the new one. With When the World Comes Down, I think maybe was a little more split than the other ones.
For us, we make whatever record we’re feeling. The songs just come and we go with them. We never worry too much about making an album in any particular style or trying to appease anybody but ourselves, so that’s kind of what we kept doing with Kids in the Street. It is funny because I’m proud of the fact we’ve made four records that all sound pretty different from each other, but I can see why some fans would get frustrated with that. We always seem to survive and wade and get new fans while we lose fans, and then some fans come around eventually. It’s a weird thing, but we just keep looking forward and do the records for ourselves mostly.
This new record, as you were saying, is pretty stylistically different from your other three, and the hooks aren’t as in your face as your big singles have been. How did you approach making this one and what did you set out to do?
We always just set out writing songs. With this one, the only strategy, I guess, came with the actual recording. Most of the songs were written to embrace being a little more spontaneous and raw, for lack of a better word. We recorded a bunch of the songs live, and worked on not being as precise as we usually are in the studio. We’re usually way too critical and way too obsessed with production perfection. I feel like in the past we’ve sacrificed some pride by doing that. This one, we really wanted to make sure we had fun with it and didn’t worry about if something wasn’t absolutely perfect. Usually that will actually add to some mood or whatever. That was our main concern when we were recording.
With the songs themselves, we just write a bunch of songs until we feel there’s a record there. With this one, we ended up with this variety of songs. We don’t know how, but they all work together very cohesively, probably better than most of our other records. I don’t know how that happened, but we’re really proud of that fact. This record, from start to finish, has its ups and downs, peaks and valleys, but it’s a cohesive record. It’s probably the best one to actually listen to, start to finish, than any other record we’ve done.
Talking about that cohesion, one of the things you’ve brought up before is there’s almost a story from start to finish as well. Can you talk about that?
With Tyson, he writes the lyrics, and I think with this record he had more to pull from than all the other records. When we got off the road after touring When the World Comes Down, we had a pretty insane touring cycle because “Gives You Hell” was so big. It was really big internationally, which was a first for us, so when we came off we took a couple months to relax.
At that point, he sort of had this realization that the band had become his entire life. He had nothing that was his personality outside of the band when he came home and was trying to live outside the band. He definitely took some time to try and find himself in good and bad ways. It led to this moment in his life and this catharsis that left him with a lot of material to write about. Whereas before there was always a search for material to write about, with this one he was overflowing with stuff. It was all very personal and made a snapshot of the year-and-a-half of writing that we had. So yeah, it tells a story about himself when we first came off the road, to figuring himself out by the end of the record.
Do you feel that maybe some of the band’s less obvious influences came out more on this record than they have in the past?
As we’ve made each record, we’ve evolved as people and as musicians and music fans. We’re not as afraid to try different things. I think that comes through in the songs and doing different styles. I don’t know if there’s necessarily stuff we can pinpoint, as being this is a specific influence for this, especially since the four of us listen to such massively different stuff from each other.
The way it all came together, and the way we all said, “Fuck it,” and went with whatever style fit the song the best, that helped us make things sound different. It probably sounds like there’s all these different influences all over the place. It’s funny because when we’re working on a record, we actually don’t listen to any music. We take these silent drives to and from the studio because we’re so burnt out on music by the end of each day.
Doing something different on each album comes with its own set of challenges. Was there any particular aspect on this one that was the trickiest to nail down?
There’s definitely something nerve-wracking about recording live, especially with the song called “Affection.” We had this big 30-piece orchestra and decided we were actually going to record live with them, which is not only nerve-wracking but ridiculously expensive to have that kind of setup to play. If we fucked up at all, it was costly. It was stuff like that that really pushed us, but you feel the energy in something like that of being really fucking nervous and knowing you have to get it right. It’s a really fun challenge. Doing a lot of stuff like that was the toughest.
I heard you recorded somewhere around 25 tracks. What can you say about the rest of those and will they be coming out anytime soon?
It was more we wrote around that. There’s demos. We actually recorded 13 songs, so there’s two b-sides that didn’t make the record. One of them I think already ended up on one of the special editions. The other one we were kind of bummed on how it turned out, so I don’t think that will end up on anything. I hate that when we turn in a record you have to have just as many bonus tracks as there are on the album. I fucking hate that.
There’s already a bunch of demo versions out. It’s funny. We’ve never been a band that looks back at old, unused songs and uses them. I don’t think we’ve ever done that. I think it’s because we always try to be in whatever moment it is we’re working on. Unless the songs get released as demos, I doubt they’ll show up as anything else. We’ve never done that. We’ve never used old material, although some of it is pretty decent. We probably should.
It seems to be, at least on Absolute Punk, this record has been getting a pretty positive response. A lot of people think it’s some of your best stuff, but as a whole it’s been flying pretty under the radar and hasn’t done that well on the charts so far. Is that frustrating for you to see happen?
We always take so much time between records, it’s almost like we’re starting over every time we put out a record. We’re this oddly invisible band. People know our songs, but don’t know who we are or who does the songs. We always expect we have to start from scratch as if we’re a new band every time we do a record. This one is no exception.
Especially now with radio, pop radio is literally just pop music now. There’s no guitars to be found, so we kind of saw that coming. It’s a different place and we made a different record, as you were saying. It’s not like a singles record. It’s actually a record. That was our concentration from when we were recording. We knew we were making a fucking record. Fuck the normal system of singles and all that stuff.
Obviously, it’s going to get worked by the label, but we wanted to make something we were proud of as a record, first and foremost, and we did that. We’ve had great responses from kids, and like you were saying on Absolute Punk. I was reading one of those threads and it was really cool to see people enjoying it. We can still go out there and tour and do that, so shit, we’re happy.
One thing I find really fascinating about you guys is your first two records came out right at the time of pop-punk’s mainstream heyday, which that style of music has definitely tapered off in recent years. You are now one of the last pop-punk bands left on a major label. What has that been like to see happen over the last 10 years and what perspective do you take away from that?
We’re grateful to still be doing it and still be on the label we’ve been on. It’s crazy. It’s crazy to watch everything change and still remain where we are, watching a lot of other bands come and go. I don’t know. We’re grateful to still be around. It sucks that at the moment mainstream music is not very guitar-related, but the trends come and go. We’re just going to keep going and have no plans on stopping, no matter where we fall into what mainstream music is. We’re still having a blast. We still have that urge.
I think a lot of bands that have been around as long as us, they start to lose the passion for it. They start to phone it in a little. For us, when we went to make Kids in the Street, we’re still tearing out our hair everyday, stressing like motherfuckers over every little detail. I can’t see us getting to that point where you’re doing it to make the rounds. I feel like that’s what’s kept us around more, ignoring stuff like, “Oh, shit. We need to put out a record to capitalize on success.” Anything like that. We only want to make songs that are really good, because if you make good songs, the fucking cream rises. That’s always been our attitude. As long as we have that passion, we’ll keep doing it, and hopefully still be successful enough to do it as a job.
Have you ever been approached to add electronic elements to your music, or Auto-Tune, or heaven forbid dubstep, or do any weird collaboration things? Have those offers been made to you guys?
We’ve never really pursued that kind of thing. There’s some stuff that’s come up, but we look at all these collaborations that are happening and they seem so forced and contrived. They’re capitalizing on the names, rather than thinking, “Oh shit, this is what would actually be best for the song.” That’s always been our thing. Nothing’s made sense for us to do some collaboration like that.
Even when we did Kids in the Street, we had some parts that were for girls to sing, and everyone at our label was pitching every famous singer you could think of. None of that made sense. We looked and looked for who felt right and ended up finding Audra Mae, who’s a fellow Oklahoman. Her voice fit perfect and just worked, and that made sense. We easily probably could have gotten some big name, but that would have been contrived to do. I don’t know. If something came up that seemed right, we’d do it, but nothing’s seemed right yet.
Another thing that has changed for you is the live show, where Tyson usually doesn’t play bass now and you’ve added a couple touring members to fill out the sound. How do you feel that has changed over the years?
I think it’s made our show better. For most of the time we’ve been a touring band, we’ve always had a keyboard player with us. After each album, we’ve expanded the arrangements of the songs, and need more folks to actually help us pull it off live. With Tyson, he wanted to be able to run around more and be a little more free onstage. He kind of splits his time playing bass in the shows. He still plays bass on all the older songs, but I think it adds variety to the show.
I actually feel like our shows now are by far the best we’ve ever done. I think we’ve really honed in on what it means to put on a good show and what it takes. It’s so funny because I’ve seen old fans get upset about him not playing bass and it seems like such a silly thing to be upset about. We’re still playing the songs. We’re still singing them. We don’t have fucking tracks. That would be something to get upset about. We got Matt from Taking Back Sunday, he’s playing bass instead of Tyson, and that’s bad? I don’t understand.
As long as Tyson’s still playing bass on the records, that’s all I care about.
Yeah totally, and he does. That’s something that will never change because he loves playing bass. He loves being a showman, too, so it’s trying to find that middle ground.
In the band’s downtime I know you like to stay busy, and you have Edmond Records and stuff like that. How have those other things been going for you lately?
Good. I haven’t really done much at the label, I’ve done more just recording bands. That’s kind of become my off-beaten passion. I love doing that. I have this little studio setup in my house. I did a couple records last year, most notoriously for Screeching Weasel, and just with some friends that live in town. It’s great. I love doing that stuff.
So what do you have coming up for the rest of the year and where do you see All-American Rejects heading in the future?
We’re just going to keep touring. For us, the record’s still very fresh and we’re still real excited to play it. We’ve been touring for four months so far this year and just got done. Actually, we got prematurely done because of the Blink dates, and we all felt like the rug was pulled out from under us because we’re still amped to be out on the road. We’re going to keep doing that and start working on more singles and videos, all that stuff, doing the rounds. We’re super excited. Before Kids in the Street came out, we hadn’t toured for almost two years. It was kind of driving us crazy, so we’re excited to be on the road like mad men.
Being from Oklahoma, are you a Thunder fan?
I have become one. I was never really a sports fan, but it’s infectious when you live here. Everyone goes fucking crazy. I’ve never been a sports fan, but last night I was so entertained. It was so damn close. It was crazy and amazing.
Yeah, I’m a huge Thunder fan, so I’m really hoping they pull it out this year.
Oh, nice! Yeah, I hope so. I’m crossing my fingers for them.