5SOS are no longer a pop-punk band, and they’re no longer kids. On their first album in three years, can they reconnect with fans who've grown up, too?
5 Seconds of Summer are locked in a dead heat with Beyoncé and JAY-Z for the No. 1 spot on this week’s Billboard 200 albums chart. When the Australian quartet released its long awaited third studio album Youngblood last Friday (June 15), they had no idea -- just like us -- that the Carters were about to unleash a tantalizing collaborative record the next day. Outside competition aside, the 5SOS boys were in giddy, good spirits over breakfast in New York at their Lower East Side hotel on the morning of Youngblood's release.
They’ve got good reason to be. After promising an album in 2017 and failing to deliver, 5SOS’ first album in three years -- an interminable wait compared to their early-career output -- satisfied a frenzied fanbase and launched a new era in the lives of guitarists Michael Clifford and Luke Hemmings, bassist Calum Hood, and drummer Ashton Irwin.
“We were so comfortable in pop-punk because that’s what we grew up listening to,” Clifford says, referencing a two-year span that saw 5SOS release two LPs, tour relentlessly, and rise to international fame with “She Looks So Perfect." (Yes, the "American Apparel underwear" song.)
Plenty of bands try to outgrow pop-punk; few manage to replace its kinetic catharsis. Their bpm’s a bit slower, but 5SOS 2.0 finds its groove in stomping new wave swagger and just enough electro-sparkle to hang alongside dance producer-assisted smashes on Top 40 radio. “Youngblood,” the thunderous second single,” just jumped six spots on our Pop Songs chart and an album cut called “Valentine” sounds like Timbaland producing Panic! at the Disco and might be the first 5SOS song one could objectively describe as “sexy.”
For this album, the members of 5SOS are all over 21 for the first time. They’re all songwriters and they’re all vocalists. “We’re a rock band with a boy band fanbase,” Hemmings says. “We’re so different from anything else.” They also might have a surprise No. 1 on their hands. Regardless, they’re back in the game, and back with purpose.
After holding fans in suspense without new music last year, you actually pushed up Youngblood’s release date by a week. Take me through your process of landing on today.
Ashton Irwin: We’ve had two No. 1 albums, and we would love a third -- but for the right reasons. We’re paying attention to when people are releasing their albums and we want as many people as possible to hear our album. If we released an album in the same week as Drake and Kanye West, for instance, it didn’t seem like we were giving ourselves the best bet to really be heard. Inevitably, that’s what you want to be doing.
Luke Hemmings: We’ve been planning this album for two years. We were talking about how we wanted it out in February, but a chance to pull it back with our schedule worked better. Everything just came together.
Irwin: So today, on release day, we’re in New York. Before, we were actually going to be in Indianapolis, which was not ideal for us. We like playing there and all but...
After releasing albums in back-to-back years, you got to take your time with Youngblood. With all the evolution and scrapped ideas, was there a moment you felt you finally turned the corner?
Hemmings: When “Lie to Me” and “Youngblood” came together, that was like, “Oh shit.”
Irwin: Which was quite towards the end.
Hemmings: Which was frustrating. So the songs “Why Won’t You Love Me” and “Woke Up in Japan”… I have a list of songs -- we all do -- which are in a similar vein. And it didn’t quite work out. There was one -- it was gonna be a single ages ago -- but it just didn’t sound right. Before that, there was another album that could’ve been made. It’s like this conglomerate of two years of work. I don’t know when it got exactly right.
Michael Clifford: I think it was after we finished “Want You Back.” By then, we’d been writing for this record for so long. You could keep writing forever if you want to search for the perfect album. You have to get to a point where you’re happy and comfortable. Once we finished “Want You Back,” we were like, “We have a body of work ready.”
And when was that?
Hemmings: September, November.
Irwin: You know what I realized on this record? Our purpose as a band is very different than other bands. We’re not necessarily a one-genre band. I don’t think anybody really is anymore, but that goes back to who our influences are. When I think about Gorillaz and stuff like that, I noticed one common thing: genre-bending. They do whatever they want because it feels good. The Beatles were like that, too. They have songs in so many different realms. I think our purpose as a band is to make whatever comes whatever we’re influenced by. We’re not one set thing.
That scrapped song that could’ve been a single -- could you tell me some more about it?
Hemmings: It’s not even on the album. We had a demo of a song and we thought it was a really cool direction. We thought, “This could be a single.” The chorus was cool. The pre-chorus was cool.
Irwin: We were being influenced by our mentors, though. The people that we really respected were like, “This is your single.” But that’s where we went wrong in the past. Particularly on Sounds Good Feels Good, there are a couple of songs that we love… Were they or weren’t they a single? We don’t know. So I’m really happy we didn’t end up using it -- we knew it wasn’t quite right.
Clifford: It comes from being older and trusting your instincts more.
Hemmings: I want to tell you the name of the song, but I don’t know what's gonna happen to it yet. I’d like to leave it out.
What was the sound of these songs you wanted to move away from? Was it the pop-punk sound you wanted to grow past?
Clifford: We wanted to move away from stuff that felt traditional and complacent. For a while we were definitely in that pop-punk world. It was just us feeling comfortable in our own skin.
Irwin: The energy worked so well for what we were doing back then -- the venues we were playing, the speed at which pop-punk can be made. The desire for our music. We didn’t have time to make a record like Youngblood when all the phenomena was happening.
Irwin: For real! We needed to make our second record in 10 weeks because we had already put the tour on sale for the music that didn’t even exist. You can’t make a record like Youngblood in 10 weeks. You can make a pop-punk record in that time, though. That’s why we worked with [producer and co-writer] John Feldmann.
Clifford: We were so comfortable in pop-punk because that’s what we grew up listening to. In order for us to feel fulfilled as artists, we had to push ourselves to make something new. The best part of Youngblood for me is that everyone who went into it with these expectations left thinking, “S--t, that was not what I thought it would sound like.” That’s the best thing you can do -- be unpredictable.
After four years of heavy touring, the band spent most of 2017 off from the road. Besides making music, what did you all do?
Irwin: We started to deal with some of the repressed problems you have when you’re always touring. We didn’t have homes. We didn’t know where we would live. I wasn’t going to go back and live in my mom’s garage, so we all moved to L.A. and focused our project there. We still communicated most days because we were still focused on making the best record that we could.
Clifford: For me, a lot of it was learning how to be in a relationship. Up until then, I had never been in a proper relationship, one that was super authentic and honest. When you’re on the road, you can get so caught up in this little bubble, so I wanted to learn to reflect and be honest in a relationship. Also -- this sounds weird -- but making friends! Trying to meet people and learn what life is like outside of this 5 Seconds of Summer bubble we’d been living in for six years.
Irwin: We learned how much to give to a band. It doesn’t need to be 100 percent of your life. Even though sometimes it feels like it’s 140 percent, you need to learn how much is the most productive version of yourself. In a band that exists for a long time, you need to know who you are. Last year was about redefining who we are as adult men. That’s why we’re able to still be a healthy, on-the-go band.
Also, no one wants to hear a man’s story from a boy. No one wants to pay attention to a deep lyric when it’s written by a 16-year old. Maybe they will when it’s written by a 24-year old. Our goal for the band was to be long-term, be important to our fans, and make the right moves.
So many of your fans got into the band when they were in their early teens; now they’re in their late teens, college-aged. How do you reconnect with those people?
Calum Hood: It’s been interesting to see people who were 15 outside the hotel, at a show, and talk to them and they’re like the same age as us. It’s really cool too see people stick around.
Hemmings: We had to understand that our core demographic has grown up.
Hood: It was always going to be a risk to go away, reinvent the band, and come back and release this new stuff, which has evolved.
Being a band of all guys, what have you learned over the years from having a fanbase that’s largely female?
Hood: So much.
Irwin: A couple of delicate things, but most of it is just sensitivity. Lyrics are important to younger women who are trying to understand relationships, or just feelings in general. I grew up without a dad. I just have a mom. A lot of my lyrical process is based on seeing my mom suffer, which makes me quite sensitive towards how younger women feel. I think that’s an important thing. That took me a long time to realize as to why I feel almost asexual at times towards… I don’t really get along with men that well. It’s all because of my upbringing. In lyrics I wrote when I was younger, there’s a lot deeper meaning than I actually thought. I didn’t understand it when I was younger. When I was writing with you guys [I'd think], why do women like these lyrics? Then you get older and look at your lyrics and go, “This makes a lot of sense, why people would have liked that.”
I think where a lot of young male bands go wrong is they get caught up in women liking their band. There’s a bunch of women hanging around who might sexually desire you. That can be confusing to a young man, but it’s all just about respect.
Hood: You never want to [be patronizing towards] younger fans, in particular female, because that’s what our demographic was, and still is in large part. So in lyrics, we always overestimate our fans. The lyrics on this album are very deep.
Irwin: We don’t actually focus on who likes us that much… I really enjoy meeting male fans as well. To all my favorite bands, the Rolling Stones and stuff, the younger female fans always come first because they know what's good.
Hemmings: What makes us so different from anything else is we’re a rock band with a boy band fanbase.
Irwin: One thing the Beatles and Rolling Stones cared about, and which we care about -- now, by no means am I comparing us -- but they understood their fanbase and wanted to show them another side of music. You go from “I Want to Hold Your Hand” to “Eleanor Rigby.” You just keep passing on the torch on what you think is good. That’s what you do when you’re in a band like this.
Hemmings: The other one that comes to mind is the 1975. In my head, they have a very similar fanbase and band life to us. That’s why we talk about the Beatles and the Stones; it’s a human thing to say, “Oh, that’s kind of like us.”
Irwin: We’ve had this problem since day one in Australia. Nothing like us has ever come from Australia. In Australia, they’d be like, “What are you?” Like shut the f--k up, we just do this!
Clifford: We’re on the pop charts. We’re a rock band live. In my head we’re just a pop-rock band?
Hemmings: I don’t even know what we are.
Clifford: That’s awesome, though!
Looking forward, what are you most excited for?
Hood: When we come to the world with the Meet You There Tour, we’re trying to visualize a modern rock group, pushing it forward for that world -- the stage design, the merchandise.
Irwin: We want to make everything we do over the next two years feel like the most elevated form of whatever we’ve done.
So you’ve got a two-year cycle planned for this?
Irwin: Oh yeah. And we’ll make more music, because the way a band works these days has changed; we just needed to catch up. Now that we have a new album out, a new look, a new feel, we can start making moves quicker. We pay a lot of attention to the way hip-hop works. We’re gonna own that in our own way.
Editor's Note: Look for an additional interview with 5 Seconds of Summer in the June 30 issue of Billboard