Giving hope and inspiration to hard-working indie DIY bands everywhere, New York City-based brothers Adam, Jack and Ryan Met—collectively known as AJR—have gone in a few short years from writing, producing and mixing their own material in the living room of their parents’ Chelsea apartment, to hundreds of millions of streams, with the release of their latest album Neotheater, a Top 10 debut on the Billboard 200 chart. The collection also hit #1 on the Independent Albums and Rock Albums charts. Following their trumpet-laced, gold-selling anthem “Burn the House Down,” which has more than 105 million Spotify streams, the trio’s latest hit “100 Bad Days” is their third straight Top 10 single at Alternative Radio and has over 50 million streams so far.
The title of AJR’s 2013 breakout single “I’m Ready,” which featured samples of Spongebob Squarepants saying the title phrase, proved prophetic, achieving platinum sales in the U.S. and Australia and reaching #3 on the Billboard Heatseekers Songs chart. A year earlier, Ryan tweeted a link of the song’s video to numerous celebrities, including Sia, who got the ball rolling by sharing it with her manager, who got in touch with Steve Greenberg, CEO and founder of S-Curve Records, who became their co-manager.
Their success since, which includes three EPs, three albums, 13 singles and seven tours (including their upcoming Neotheater World Tour), is all the more impressive because, as their Facebook info page says, “they’ve done it all on their own. No pop Svengali overseeing their work. No studio musicians filling in the blanks. No Max Martin co-write. . .(and) producing all their own songs in their Chelsea living room.” Ryan (who is 25) amends that slightly now by saying, “My younger brother Jack (21) and I have moved out so now we do the recording in the bedroom in our apartment.”
Another remarkable aspect to AJR’s popularity is the fact that musically, they follow unusual muses. They make it a point not to take any influence from anything that’s currently popular, and listen instead to odd, left-of-center (for a mainstream pop band) styles ranging from the constant tempo-changing Israeli hip-hop to ‘40s choir-driven film music that is a major underlying inspiration for the songs on Neotheater. They’re always pushing the proverbial envelope, whether throwing in Spongebob samples and building a faux dubstep around it on “I’m Ready” or finding joy in the trippy trumpet earworms they infuse into “Burn the House Down.” In their universe, as Ryan says, “horn equals happy, strings equal sad.”
Here’s the video of AJR’s new hit, “100 Bad Days.”
Then there’s their unique, outside the box” lyrical themes, covering everything from pot legalization (“No Grass Today”) to their obsession with the TV show, The Office (“Netflix Trip”). “When we first started writing together, we just wanted to emulate our favorite artists and styles,” Ryan says. “We went through our Beach Boys phase, then hip-hop, then more theatrical Broadway stuff. Everything came together five years ago when we developed a sound that is a combination of all the styles we’ve worked in the past 13 years, since the time we were kids busking in Washington Square Park. When ‘I’m Ready’ took off, we made a conscious decision to write songs about subjects that most songwriters wouldn’t think about.
“We thought this could go very badly for us and make our tunes cheesy, but then again, maybe weird topics and perspectives on the world would be relatable to people,” he adds. “Our instincts there opened our music up to a large fan base who embraced that nonconformist approach. If we wrote love songs, they would be in competition with a million others, and trying to write one better than Adele would be impossible, so why not just find our own lane and cover things that no one else is writing about?”
With most of their singles, AJR tends to come up with and develop the concept first, as they did for “100 Bad Days.” Ryan and Jack, the group’s main songwriters, came up with the concept/thesis of “100 good stories make me interesting at parties,” which became the explosive, euphoric hook. “Once we figured out the theme, the other parts of the song, the story, came naturally to us. We knew we needed a verse that pointed us towards that ironic idea of bad days being good things. Jack is a great songwriting partner and we work intuitively off each other. His original notepad scribblings read, ‘a million bad days have a million good stories,’ but that is still something anyone else could have written. We had to tweak it to make it fresh and original from there. The whole time, our goal was to make it quirkier and explain why what doesn’t kill you makes you more interesting.”
Here’s the video of AJR’s hit, “Burn The House Down.”
Though AJR are truly proponents of the old songwriting adage “don’t bore us, get to the chorus,” Ryan adds that they are conscious of writing hooks throughout the song, not simply plodding along and waiting for the big payoff. “We want our lyrics to tell a story, but to us, the verse, pre-chorus and chorus should all sound like the chorus and have strong enough hooks so that people want to sing along to every part. There are no throwaway elements. That big sound we have is by design and reflects who we are as people. When we get to our hotel room, we jump on the bed like little kids—and that’s how little kids operate, just yell, have a blast. It comes naturally to us. Likewise, we make our shows as high energy and full of spectacle as possible.”
AJR’s triumph with offbeat storytelling, styles and production techniques may not make them the best artists to turn to for advice about traditional ways of gaining a toehold in the industry. Yet Ryan is earnest and straightforward when he speaks to up-and-coming songwriters about developing their craft. “There is something much more important than formulas, melodies and the little details involved in narrative and creating strong hooks,” he says. “And that is, writing your truth. It may take writing hundreds of bad songs to get to what your truth is and be able to say what only you can say, but it’s worth the time and energy you spend working at it. Trends come and go, but artists like Twenty One Pilots, Adele and Taylor Swift thrive through the comings and goings because they’ve found a sound that transcends those. For us, our ‘truth’ emerges from asking ourselves questions like, ‘Okay, how emotional can we make a song about The Office?’ Once we realized people were embracing those kinds of songs, writing on strange topics began to feel very natural for us.”
Jonathan Widran is a freelance music/entertainment journalist who contributes regularly to Music Connection, Jazziz and All Music Guide. He also has a review blog called The JW Vibe. He can be reached at [email protected].