The world’s politicians could learn a thing or two from Fall Out Boy. Things not going to plan? Don’t style it out, and don’t lie about it. Just own up, then work harder.
I was originally supposed to sit down with the Chicago rock quartet’s dual figureheads: singer and chief songwriter Patrick Stump, and lyricist and extensively tattooed bass hunk Pete Wentz, back in September. That’s also when their seventh album, Mania, was meant to be released.
But instead of 10 new songs on September 15, fans got one long apologetic tweet on August 3. “I know we’re supposed to come up with some really exciting story to spin in pull quotes about how the studio exploded and I ran in to save Pete’s bass or something. Or like aliens stole the master tapes. That would be fun for sure but the truth is, we just want the record to be better than we can make it in the next couple weeks and it will require a little more time,” Stump wrote. “Thanks for understanding and really sorry to keep everybody waiting.”
Today, at last, it’s here, and the band are still just as open about the fact that they botched its arrival. In retrospect, it was a mistake to allow the album’s first single to be accompanied by the announcement of Mania’s September release date and a long autumn “Mania Tour” of US arenas. Young and Menace came out last April, on Stump’s 33rd birthday, and according to Wentz, that was when “the fuse was lit”.
“We knew we had to dynamite the place but a lot of the songs hadn’t even been written yet,” says the bassist, 38. “In August we got to the day where they were saying, ‘We need the next track now or the album doesn’t come out.’ And the machine was going. We had the photoshoots set up, the interviews set up.”
Stump picks up the story. “I try to be a problem solver. It’s a thing that I do. So when we arrived at a date I was truly going to try and get it done. Pete calls me up about two days before we were supposed to turn everything in, and I was scrambling. He says, ‘Hey, so, I dunno, does it feel rushed at all?’ Yes! Tremendously! We were definitely rushing in the end.”
Perhaps they were feeling overly confident after their 2015 album American Beauty/American Psycho, which was written in haste and succeeded anyway. In the US it became their third number one and their fourth platinum seller. “Rock bands don’t generally turn around their records really quickly. They slog it out,” says Stump, noting the way that hip hop artists can throw out albums and mixtapes at far greater speed. “We were trying to see how quickly we could make a record and were really pleased with the result.”
This time, however, inspiration came less swiftly. “We had Young and Menace, and a couple of other really neat songs, but there wasn’t a lot of connective tissue between them. It didn’t really feel like an album,” says the singer.
In fairness, that first song was a tricky one to use for setting the tone. Young and Menace is bonkers, quite frankly, a moody slow-builder that quotes Britney Spears and then explodes into brain rattling blasts of digitised guitar and chipmunk vocals on the chorus. “It was polarising for the fans, for sure,” admits Wentz. “I think it was a palate cleanser, but we knew pop radio wasn’t gonna play it.”
We meet just before Fall Out Boy take to the stage at the Electric Brixton venue, a small show for them that acts as an early excitement builder for the most dedicated fans. Previous albums have been preceded by intimate London shows at the Islington Assembly Hall and the Camden Underworld. Here, so difficult to replicate is Young and Menace’s kitchen sink production, Stump performs it as a solo piano ballad and leaves the chipmunks out all together.
The rest of Mania isn’t quite so out there but still straddles the worlds of rock and pop with supreme confidence. There are crunching guitars and Stump’s familiar powerful vocals, but also shiny modern production, nagging melodies and bold electronic sweeps. Church features clanging bells and a gothic choir. Hold Me Tight or Don’t, which they consider the real single, has whistling and finger clicking and could be Maroon 5.
It’s a wildly varied collection from a band who once struggled to escape from status as figureheads of the emo scene, with all the floppy hair and ludicrously lengthy song titles it entailed. Wentz describes their early career as the rock equivalent of today’s star YouTubers: “Every kid knew who we were and no adults knew.”
After a hiatus between 2009 and 2012 and various unsuccessful solo projects, they returned with the desire to compete with anyone else in the pop charts. “There was some serendipity for us in the way people started listening to music. Genre means less than it probably ever has,” says Wentz. “That was great for us because we were always that band saying, ‘How do we get Jay-Z on the record? Where can we find Babyface?’” Back in 2007 the band’s third album, Infinity on High, featured an introduction from the rap kingpin and included two productions from the R&B veteran. “We were always on that trip a little bit and now it’s so much more wide open.”
“People started to be more receptive to the idea that you can step out of whatever box you’re supposed to be in,” says Stump. “I used to work in a record store and file the albums by genre. You don’t seem to need to do that any more. When we came back, we had to become an island.”
That broadening of their sound has also helped them to avoid repeating themselves, seven albums in. “We’ve never been a nostalgia band,” says Wentz, who has vowed previously that they’ll never do one of those tours where a band plays their most popular album track by track. “But if you say you’re not gonna do the old stuff, it forces you to put out work that you think is your greatest. Otherwise you’re talking out of both sides of your mouth.”
They’re also painfully aware that every new song added to the gig setlist forces out an old favourite. “You never want to say, ‘Here’s a new song,’ and hear an audible groan from the audience,” says Stump.
It’s a tricky balance, and they’ve admitted that it took them longer than anticipated to get it right this time, but they still seem to understand better than most how to succeed as a rock band at a time when rock can feel like a minor sub-genre. “In the playlist era, you have to be a band that has casual listeners, but also you’ve been around for 17 years and people still want to buy your albums,” Wentz explains. “So your casual listener songs have to be amazing and stellar and be able to travel across the globe, but your album songs need to have a depth to them, a quality, and show a progression from your last album. Last year we were doing neither of those things. We were doing everything in the middle.”
Now, finally, they have something worth sharing. No one could accuse them of making it look easy, but Fall Out Boy are on the rise again.
Mania is released today on Virgin EMI. March 31, O2 Arena, SE10 (0844 824 4824, the02.co.uk)