The right question acts as the ultimate motivator, because action immediately follows the ask.
Multiplatinum New York trio of brothers AJR—Adam [bass, vocals], Jack [vocals, guitar], and Ryan [ukulele, piano, vocals]—pose a creative query at the heart of their third full-length, Neotheater [AJR Productions/S-Curve/BMG]. This question unlocks a world where forties-style technicolor choruses co-exist in glorious harmony with beats indebted to Israeli hip-hop under highly shareable social commentary on the universal conundrum of growing up.
These musical and lyrical ponderances stem from a question…
“We asked, ‘Why not?’ as opposed to, ‘Why?’,” recalls Ryan. “It’s about a mindset; not a sound. We were like, ‘Let’s experiment. Let’s find sounds you don’t hear. Let’s write about topics that aren’t usually discussed. Let’s wrap it all up in a package accessible to a five-year-old and a 95-year-old.’ We’re thinking about an artist’s purpose and place in the world. We’re wondering what it means to grow up in 2019 and how frightening it can be. In order to hold on to youth, we’re peppering unfamiliar modern sounds with sonic elements we’ve known forever. We’re maintaining this urge to jump on the bed and play games, because that’s our favorite place in our minds. It makes us AJR.”
It’s also what brought the boys to mainstream ubiquity. By 2019, the group earned RIAA platinum certifications for breakout singles “I’m Ready” and “Weak” and gold certifications for “Burn The House Down” and “Sober Up” [feat. Rivers Cuomo] as well as for their 2017 sophomore effort The Click. Not to mention, they generated upwards of 1 billion streams worldwide and 120 million YouTube views for the latter in less than two years. The band also landed two songs, “Burn The House Down” and “Sober Up,” on Billboard’s “Top 10 Alternative Songs of the Year.” Beyond selling over 100,000 tickets for the 2018 Click Tour, they graced the stages of festivals such as Forecastle, Reading, Leeds, and Bumbershoot. They garnered features from Time, Nylon, Paper, and Billboard in addition to performing on Jimmy Kimmel LIVE!, Good Morning America and TODAY, to name a few.
Amidst this whirlwind, the musicians pieced together what would become Neotheater’s twelve tracks. During breaks, they recorded in the Harlem apartment Jack and Ryan share. On tour, they turned hotel rooms into de facto studios. Along the way, they welcomed a wider swath of influences than ever before. Not only did they immerse themselves in rap straight out of Israel a la Static & Ben El and Jordi, but they also dove into the catalog of The Mellomen—who lent their swooning voices to animated Disney classics such as Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, and Lady and the Tramp, to name a few.
In order to conjure the wonder and whimsy of those close choral harmonies, AJR actually tracked on old-fashioned rotary telephone microphones from the forties.
“We thought, ‘If we’re going to use this sound and recreate it, let’s do it right’,” Ryan continues. “We spent a year researching The Mellomen’s entire discography and figured out every nook and cranny of how they harmonized and pronounced words in order to reimagine the vibe perfectly. We took all of that and combined it with dirty modern hip-hop beats,” he smiles.
The single “100 Bad Days” introduced this chapter by way of a catchy and clever hooks and boisterous production. Within two months, they performed the tune on Jimmy Kimmel LIVE!, and it clocked over 20 million cumulative on-demand streams and attracted acclaim from Rolling Stone, People, and Billboard, among others.
“100 Bad Days” set a precedent as the song broke a spell of writers’ block, and the guys clung to a staunch and stern decision to eschew the recruitment of outside writers.
“It’s this idea that, ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you more interesting’,” Ryan goes on. “Every bad date, every bad label meeting, and every crazy experience is more fun to tell people about than stuff that went well. It sums up this horrible writer’s block with a positive twist and opened up the process for us.”
Elsewhere, the album threads together ruminations on the trials and tribulations of becoming an adult. The follow-up single “Birthday Party” drops the “weirdest lyrics about being born” sandwiched between a sample from David Lynch’s Eraserhead and wild horns. As cinematic orchestration entwines with a hummable bass line, they speak candidly on moving out from their parents’ place on “Don’t Throw Out My Legos”—with a plea to mom and pops, “Can we keep my legos at home? Cuz I wanna move out; I don’t wanna move on.”Then, there’s “Karma.” The latter sees Jack open up about his own struggles with anxiety in confessional, yet quirky verses set in a therapist’s office.
In the face of everything, Neotheater represents a safe place.
“We conceptualized a world where we wouldn’t have to learn any of those life lessons and just pretend instead,” admits Ryan. “The Neotheater is the new theater where you don’t have to grow up. We wrote the songs about this place we were imagining. We needed this, because it’s been an emotional year for us. A lot happened with the band, but we also moved out for the first time. On tour, Jack was dealing with these panic attacks, so he had to reset and take care of himself emotionally. The first half of the record is about being naïve and innocent. It’s what most kids believe. The second half is a little more cynical. You’re in your twenties and you realize things don’t come easy, people aren’t nice, and love can be hard to find.”
Fittingly, Neotheater opens and closes on the sounds of choir via the bookends of “Next Up Forever” and “Finale.” In order to nail the orchestration, AJR tapped the talents of composer and arranger Bruce Healy renowned for his work with none other than The Mellomen.
They brought this unbelievable sound to life at Sunset Sound in Los Angeles.
“It was a trip,” beams Ryan. “It was probably the coolest recording thing we’ll ever do. It was the opposite of our normal D.I.Y methods. Bruce and the choir killed it.”
In the end, AJR’s question doesn’t beg an answer as much as it incites a conversation.
“Our purpose isn’t to give an opinion, but it is to pose a question,” Ryan leaves off. “From there, it’s up for interpretation, so everyone can talk about it. That’s our one job, being AJR.”