By Mark Guarino
Record shops, art schools and classified ads have led to the formation of many great bands.
Perhaps as a sign of the times, add to that list a suburban Borders.
That’s where the boys of Fall Out Boy met. Singer Patrick Stump overheard guitarist Joe Trohman talking about music at the Borders in Wilmette off of I-94 and jumped into the conversation.
“I’m fairly strange and quiet most of the time, but when I get in weird moods, suddenly I’m gregarious,” he said, laughing.
Fall Out Boy blasted out of the suburbs in 2001 to become platinum sellers, thanks to the nexus of rigorous touring and Internet file sharing.
The band was conceived while suffering suburban ennui on the North Shore (bassist Pete Wentz is from Wilmette, Trohman from Winnetka, Stump from Glenview, and drummer Andy Hurley is from Milwaukee.). A demo made its way to the punk indie Fueled By Ramen, co-owned by Less Than Jake drummer Vinnie Balzano. In 2003, the label released their debut, “Take This to Your Grave.” It went on to sell 200,000 copies, a number impressive even for a major label.
The band groomed a following early, uploading their music (and for Wentz, sometimes naked photos) to fan sites. Both not only helped fill halls wherever they played, they also attracted A&R reps requesting demos. Island took the gamble two years ago. The result: “Infinity On High,” the band’s second major label album, a Billboard number one and their first to sell over a million copies.
Fall Out Boy returns to Chicago to headline the Allstate Arena, the biggest venue the band has yet to play in its hometown. Stump, a Glenbrook South graduate, said it will be particularly gratifying considering all those television spots for Funny Cars he endured while growing up. “It will be pretty cool to get there,” he said.
The singer, 23, was in town recently to cheer a friend running the Chicago Marathon, and talked about the band’s rise from its Metro days. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Q: It’s only been two years since the release of your Island debut and you’ve jumped from playing Metro to sports stadiums like the Allstate. Has the whole trip gone by too fast?
A: The thing is, Chicago especially was not fast. It’s where we cut our teeth and clawed our way up from opening Knights of Columbus halls if we were lucky, to playing the mess hall at DePaul to playing bars and all sorts of stuff to Fireside to Metro to then coming through on tour. That’s a really strange thing, coming through on tour and not being able to drive yourself to a show. But I think something Pete always says is true: that geographically growing up as a band in Chicago is a completely different experience than being on one of the coasts. That was before MySpace and a lot of bands were getting signed off of A&R guys being at their first show. We got to make our mistakes privately.
Q: You are like the Pete Townshend of the group, except even though you sing the songs you write, someone else in the band takes center focus. What got you though as a songwriter that you felt comfortable enough to let that happen?
A: One of the things I think we’re all types of nerds and if I’m any type of nerd, it’s music theory, music history. So I kind of imposed my songwriting. It was one of the things I was pushing for. Basically I was in bunch of bands where I was playing drums and they wouldn’t let me write any songs and that was really all I wanted to do, to be a writer. And so I came into the band bluffing and said, “I’ll play anything, I’ll play whatever as long as you let me write some music.” I ended up singing, which is weird now because it seems like a natural thing but I had never done it before and I never planned it. It was kind of a means to an end for me because I just wanted to write music. And I wanted to experiment with a lot of things. I definitely went into it thinking, “I want to be unabashedly pop, I don’t want to be ashamed of the fact we have pop music influences.” Anytime I see a lot of bands, ultimately they talk about formula. But if you have drums bass guitar, that’s a formula. There are so many formulas that already exist, it’s one of those things that yeah, the challenge of a writer should be to make something interesting within the confines of pop. I think it’s harder to write something interesting given a box.
Q: Has Pete’s celebrity removed focus from the band’s music?
A: I think it removes from a lot of things. I think it removes focus from Pete. I see all the stuff about Pete and I hear about Pete and I think they made him into cartoon character. The real Pete is just as anonymous if not more anonymous than I am. It’s very easy to make up who someone is. I think it’s weird, it’s a strange experiment in mob psychology. I think for the band in general, the four of us understand each other more than anyone else will. And so I certainly don’t have any problem with it. I think it’s almost like there is this kind of elephant in the room in that there’s no elephant in the room. We’re actually probably one of well-adjusted bands I know as far as how we get along with each other.
Q: As every album gets bigger than the last does that put particular pressure on you as the guy who has to crank out the songs?
A: I think the biggest pressure on me is really just making something that we like. Because ultimately, I think about the reality of a musician’s career and how short that can really be. I think about the changing tides of pop music right now. And at the end of the day are we even going to have albums in a few years? So now that we have the chance to make them, you really have to care what you’re doing. I don’t want to waste a minute of music on something that I don’t stand behind. So that’s my real challenge for me. Everybody thinks in singles and big records … but at the end of the day, the only thing I have to prove to anyone is to myself. I have to prove that I like the music I’m making because if I don’t enjoy what making than no one else should.
Q: When you decided that you would be the singer of the band, did you have any singers you immediately decided to emulate?
A: It’s weird because it went through cycles. I think I started out trying to be like my favorite songwriters who happened to be singers. I was into Elvis Costello, David Bowie, Prince. I’ve always loved R&B and so from there, I was thinking about the voice as an instrument. And you have guys like Nat King Cole and Al Green and blue singers like Big Bill Broonzy and there’s lot of great vocal performance to study. I think my voice comes from several different places. I think it’s fortunate I ended up being a singer so I can tell the singer what to do as a songwriter.
Q: Unlike most rock bands that have singers who try to sound raw, your voice is polished and smooth.
A: I started out trying to be more raw and honestly, I think it was contrived. It was me hiding, scared I had never sung before. It didn’t take too long before I settled and became comfortable with it. My band gets 100 percent credit for keeping me singing. Even early on, between trying to sing more rock and more gravelly, I also tried to get a different singer and tried being the backup guitar player, but they kept me going.
Q: Last week Radiohead released an album as a digital download and it sounds like many bands, from Nine Inch Nails to Oasis, may follow suit. Is this you would be interested in down the line considering that the industry is having such a hard time selling music to a generation that thinks it should be free?
A: I’m totally interested in it, I’m totally curious about it. I think it’s one of those things … granted, that these are venerable bands, but we’ve been looking to those bands for a lot of other things, why we wouldn’t be watching this, we would be foolish not to pay attention. I want to see how it goes. We’ve always been very much about being in charge of ourselves and I think we very much are, in our situation. But we may have gotten very lucky (laughs) in terms of how major label relationships go. I know a lot of people disappointed with theirs. But it’s interesting to me because in a few years, not us, but fans might not need them.
Q: The structure of releasing music is definitely changing. Because in a few years, you’re not going to stop writing music, so what would stop you?
A: One of the things I love about the Internet — and it’s funny because I think people have very short memory spans when they talk about this whole thing. Because they’ll talk to me about the evils of downloading but I’ll say, “we were made by downloading.” There’s no way we could have toured internationally before we had a record out if it wasn’t for technically illegal downloading. So I’m not advocating necessarily for outright theft, but I am saying, it’s not a black and white issue you can take everyone to court on it. At any rate, the thing is, when you look at how affected music as whole, personally it had a great effect. We’re experiencing a renaissance of good ideas. If you suck, if you don’t have good ideas, no one has any incentive to listen to you anymore. You don’t have the luxury to rest on your laurels because of time, the artists that are still here, have something right now.
A: Now that everything’s accessible, it’s more about the music.
Q: Right. You’re not going to have a record that sells ten million records anymore. It’s not much of a product anymore. There was a time when you really only heard what was on the radio and what they only played on MTV. And sometimes those things were at odds with each other. And you had very few outlets and it was almost like music was monopolized. You couldn’t really seek things out, things found you. Now being able to find things, people don’t have to settle anymore. If anything, that scares me as an artist because you can’t really suck ever. You have to be really on with songs that you write because there’s no reason for anyone to listen to your crap.
Q: Was there a moment in the last few years you realized that your band made the lucky leap from touring the country to a van to playing the VMA’s?
A: There are a lot of those moments. One of the biggest moments for me is going out onstage at the first Metro headlining show that people had to pay for. Because we had played a bunch of free shows and this was the first one they sold tickets. I was nervous wreck because I was convinced no one was going to show up because they have to pay to see us and it was going to be a disaster. And I walked out and it was awesome, kids danced and they sang and it was totally cool. And I can say, that was a pretty awesome experience. Other than that, there’s not really moments, but feelings. Just being in a van was kind of almost being a pirate or a cowboy. Just driving along the highway armed with nothing but a map. This was before iPods. So many things about it, so many uncharted territories. Sleeping on people’s floors. That era is best part. When you get beyond it, it’s all cool and the trade off is they give you money. But it’ll never be as cool as when you wake up and have to rush to make it to the show.
Q: Do you miss that?
A: For sure. There’s a lot of things I miss, but at the same time there have been plenty of more quote-unquote successful moments too. The first VMA’s was a huge thing for us. We got a fan voted award. That was really cool because it was a popular vote. No one in that entire building expected us to win.
Q: So many bands are raised there then for some reason, leave once they achieve a level of success.
A: Dude I’m a Chicagoan, there’s really nothing I can do about it. I’m never going to get away from it. If I have kids I’m raising them in Chicago. That’s where I want to die. My thing is, I don’t get to see it as much as I’d like to. But I would fight to the death us having the best hot dogs and the best pizza.