Maroon 5's James Valentine Breaks Down Band's Evolution on 'Red Pill Blues': 'We're Kind of More Open to Everything'

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Michael Madden, PJ Morton, Adam Levine, James Valentine, Jesse Carmichael, and Matt Flynn of Maroon 5 attends the 87th Annual Academy Awards at Hollywood & Highland Center on Feb. 22, 2015 in Hollywood, Calif.

Maroon 5 gave fans quite the buzz-worthy tease for a new album last fall, when they delivered the irresistibly catchy and Kendrick Lamar-assisted “Don’t Wanna Know” in October. Another single dropped four months later (the Future collab “Cold”) -- but the only word about a new Maroon 5 record was frontman Adam Levine’s vague hints that it was coming “soon." Other than that, the hit-making pop-rock band remained rather mum about their sixth LP.

That is, until the bouncy SZA-featuring single “What Lovers Do” arrived on August 11. The groovy, synth-infused track served as the official kickoff to what Maroon 5 had been baiting fans with for nearly a year. And after unveiling the Snapchat-themed cover art as well as two more features from Julia Michaels (“Help Me Out”) and A$AP Rocky ("Whiskey”) the time has finally arrived: Red Pill Blues arrives tomorrow (Nov. 3).

The album includes the most collaborations they’ve ever had on one album (six!), but lead guitarist James Valentine insists that they didn't necessarily set out to have so many team-ups this time around, it’s a sign of where they’re at as a band these days. "I think [previously] we were more hesitant to put on too many features on one of our albums, because we wanted it to be a Maroon 5 album,” he tells Billboard. "And I think maybe, six albums in, we’re kind of more open to everything.”

That’s not to say that Red Pill Blues doesn’t sound like a Maroon 5 album, as the six pre-released tracks reveal that the group hasn’t lost sight of their genius hook-crafting, groovy vibe. But frankly, with Maroon 5’s now-classic debut album, Songs About Jane, turning 15 in June, it’s fair for their sound to change with the times — something that’s insinuated by the enigmatic album title.

Ahead of the album’s release, Valentine broke its story down for Billboard, including why the band took so long to release it, how they ended up with such a star-studded lineup of collaborators, and where he feels the band is at 15 years later.

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The timing

We were originally going to put the record out earlier this year, but because of our hectic schedules, we didn't feel we had enough songs [or] it was quite there yet, so we took this summer to work on it some more. And I'm really happy that we did -- I don't think we had "What Lovers Do," "Girl Like You” or "Help Me Out” yet.

One of the reasons that we wanted to take more time on it, [was] to make sure it was cohesive. This record does have a pretty consistent vibe and it listens pretty well as an album. It’s not a concept album or anything, but it’s a good collection of songs that flow into each other.

The title

We had so many different title ideas that we were kind of going back and forth up until the last minute, then Adam came up with [Red Pill Blues]. We thought it was apropos for 2017, because [it] was sort of a rough year. And sort of the word play on the red pill and the blues, because it's like, 2017 is kind of a bummer. I mean, the songs thematically aren't as much about that; the songs themselves are more about the dynamics between relationships, which is usually what we sort of tackle lyrically. But we thought it was a funny, clever thing.

The sound

We’re always experimenting and trying new sounds, and I don’t think we’re afraid to pull from contemporary sources. I think that’s been our approach from day one, and an essential part of our process. Even [the band's 2002 debut album] Songs About Jane, which is kind of what people point to as the definitive Maroon 5 sound, that was experimentation at the time. That was us pulling from contemporary elements. It’s 15 years ago, so it’s different things we were pulling from.

We like hearing the new stuff and we like trying to incorporate those elements into our music. That’s just exciting to us. We could’ve just sat back and made Songs About Jane 50 more times, and that might’ve made some people happy, but that would be boring. We probably wouldn’t be around, and be able to do what we’re doing today.

We want it to be different. If we’re not approaching it differently, then we’re doing it wrong. But the creative process has just changed a lot for us over the years. I think the most notable difference is we used to be very insulated, very insular in terms of the writing of our records. On the first three records, we were like, ‘No one from outside the group writes a note. We write all of our own stuff.’ And after ‘Moves Like Jagger,’ that became different, and we started collaborating with a lot of different songwriters. And it opened up a whole new source of creativity for us; I think really pushed us forward.

The collaborations

One of the great things about the position where we are [is], we have the ability to reach out to anyone and everyone. It’s like, “Well, who’s the best rapper around? Kendrick Lamar, okay -- get in touch, we’ll see.” That’s basically the process. “Future would be dope on this, can we get in touch with him? Yes. Does he want to do it? Sweet.” It sounds ridiculous, but it’s kind of that simple [Laughs].

In the case of Julia Michaels, she wrote ‘Help Me Out,’ sent it in [with] her voice is on the demo. She’s a fucking amazing singer, and it’s like, ‘How are we not gonna have her on this record? She sounds amazing!’ And it works thematically to have Adam sing a verse and then to have her come in. And it’s awesome to have SZA [on “What Lovers Do”], too. She sounds amazing. In the case of Julia and SZA, they’re both just in the beginning of what I think are gonna be these epic, long careers. We’re so privileged to be here at the beginning.

it’s funny, people ask, 'Oh, what was it like to be in the studio with Kendrick?’ I’m like, ‘I don’t know.’ That is technology. But I will say, it creates this awesome sort of Christmas-morning dynamic, where you send off the files to Kendrick or A$AP Rocky or something -- you get the files back, and you’re like, ‘Aw, let’s listen to it!’ Then you listen to it for the first time and of course, from Kendrick or A$AP, it’s just brilliant. To hear it is a really cool feeling.

The live show aspect

I really love “What Lovers Do.” I feel like it really embodies this sort of Maroon 5 sound, and it’s really fun to play live. A lot of these songs do rely more on electronic production, for me as a guitar player, I’m really excited about taking these songs and performing them live. The live arrangements, they develop as we take them out. We usually have a little more room to play and explore and the song sort of evolves as we go out and play them live. So I’m looking forward to that part of the process.

The status of the band

I don’t think we’re ever completely comfortable. I don’t think it’s ever a settled thing, where our sound is. I think dynamically, in terms of our relationships with each other and everything, that’s never been stronger. Creatively, we’ll see what happens and where it goes. But I think it is something that does come with working together so long. It’s a family, we have that sort of vibe. 

The older we get, the less hot-headed we are. I think when we started off -- bands are destined to fail, because you’ve got young guys just rearing to go. There was a lot more fighting in the early days, we’re just getting old and mellowing out, probably [Laughs]. It also comes from years and years of open communication, and having gone through some of that shit... there will be things that will come up with us, but we’ve been through things, so we know we can face them head-on and get through them.

 

#REDPILLBLUES

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The hope for this record

If I go back to my sort of mental state, and the band’s sort of mental state when we were recording It Won’t Be Soon Before Long or Hands All Over, there was a tremendous pressure because we had a couple successes under our belt and it was like “Are you guys actually going to be able to sustain this?” And that’s a different kind of pressure than being six albums in. It’s just different. It is a little more relaxed, there is a little more “Whatever happens, happens.” Which doesn’t mean we’re working any less hard.

The way I see it is, we somehow pulled off a career in music, and we somehow managed to sustain it for these 15 years. We’ve already accomplished the impossible — and at least for me, it kind of feels like everything that we do from here is just kind of bonus.


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