Billboard Cover: 5 Seconds of Summer Says 'People Our Age, We All Feel Like Shit About Ourselves'
On Aug. 19, after a 10-day rest from an 80-plus-date stadium-headlining tour, 5 Seconds of Summer was playing to more than 20,000 in Auburn Hills, Mich., when guitarist-vocalist Michael Clifford started to mumble into the microphone. “I was fixing some problems with my mental health,” he offered. “I just saw a therapist on the break we had.” He sheepishly cut himself off before charging into another song, but clips of his digression immediately popped up on social media. Soon the hashtag #WeLoveYouMichael trended worldwide. Two days later, on Good Morning America, the 19-year-old was asked about his therapy on national TV.
“I wasn’t expecting that reaction,” admits Clifford more than a month later. He’s the most gregarious of the four 5SOS members, the one whose hair is always changing color. “But it’s cool. Sometimes you just need to get it out.”
That seems to be a theme of 5SOS’ forthcoming album, Sounds Good Feels Good, out Oct. 23. In lead single “She’s Kinda Hot,” a life-affirming pop-punk anthem co-written by Joel and Benji Madden that won Song of the Summer at the 2015 MTV Video Music Awards, one focal point of attraction is the narrator’s shrink. “She put me on meds/She won’t get out my head,” belts bassist-vocalist Calum Hood, 19. “She’s kinda hot though.” By the chorus, the impish infatuation has flipped into a sad-kids’ manifesto: “We are the kings and queens of the new broken scene,” declares the band. “We’re alright, though.”
5SOS is an anomaly in 2015: a Generation Z guitar band that sells records. As four Australian boys fashioning themselves as ’90s-alt nostalgists, their 2014 self-titled full-length album entered at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, moving 259,000 copies in its first week and marking the biggest debut release for a group since Daughtry in 2006. Now, in a year when EDM delivers post-teen-star salvation and the reigning rock smash is Walk the Moon’s feel-good yell-along “Shut Up and Dance,” Sounds Good Feels Good seems even more anachronistic than that first record: Here come four baby punks in black skinny jeans wailing about psychotherapy and trying to ignite a youth movement.
“Look at top 40 radio,” says drummer Ashton Irwin, who at 21 is the band’s outspoken elder. “No one is writing music that highlights what everyone is scared to talk about -- which is that everyone is sick and depressed these days.” Irwin once drew a butterfly on a fan’s wrist so she would stop cutting herself there. “People our age, we all feel like shit about ourselves,” he continues. “We wake up and we look at our phones and there are a thousand opinions on who we are -- or what we are. It’s destructive.”
It’s early September, and Irwin is backstage at the 15,000-capacity Nikon at Jones Beach Theater in Wantagh, N.Y., where 5SOS will soon headline the second of two sold-out shows. His girlfriend, 22-year-old model Bryana Holly, sits nearly cheek to cheek with him at an outdoor table, sharing a plate from catering. Hood is sequestered on a small deck, smoking a cigarette and gazing at the water. Guitarist Luke Hemmings, 19, who is nervous and sweet offstage, occasionally pokes his head out of the band’s dressing room. A fluorescent sign on the door reads “5 Seconds of Summer Sex Dungeon.” Clifford, meanwhile, is wandering around shoeless.
The fans waiting in the seats are almost exclusively young women. Ever since 5SOS opened arenas for One Direction -- first in 2013, before a record deal or a full-length, and again in 2014 -- the four high school friends have become teen idols, breathlessly covered in celebrity pinup magazines and featured prominently at the 2015 Teen Choice Awards and Nickelodeon’s Kids’ Choice Awards. The 1D connection was so beneficial it became a formal partnership. Now 1D owns a financial stake in 5SOS, and the two acts share the U.K. based Modest Management team.
But that alliance has unfairly cast 5SOS as another boy band, just one dressed head-to-toe in Hot Topic. The act is extremely marketable -- good-looking, easefully charismatic kids with torn T-shirts and messy hair whose mere appearance onstage makes young girls cry -- but the members also write their own music (with all-star collaborators) and play their own instruments.
“They’re 100 percent, absolutely a real band,” says Good Charlotte guitarist Benji Madden, who co-wrote four tracks on Sounds Good Feels Good and the No. 16 Billboard Hot 100 hit “Amnesia” from 5SOS’ debut. “They are one of the better young bands I’ve ever seen.”
One Direction was formed on reality TV and 5 Seconds of Summer in school, but there are similarities. Both bands sing about girls. Neither act has an official frontman. Both present themselves publicly as egalitarian artistic partnerships, even though Twitter keeps a running tally of the favorite (25.6 million followers for 1D’s Harry Styles; 6.41 million for 5SOS’ Hemmings). Both bands have inspired kiss-off songs by famous exes (Taylor Swift’s “Style” is about Styles; Abigail Breslin’s “You Suck” is directed at Clifford) and made poor choices with stray nudes. (After Hood sent a Snapchat nude to a girl who uploaded it to Vine, he tweeted, “I’m still just a teenage kid learning from mistakes.”)
Both bands have new releases this fall, and both are at a crossroads. One Direction wants freedom, 5 Seconds of Summer wants authenticity. As successful as the latter has been -- Nielsen Music tallies total album sales at 734,000 -- there’s still a sense that, as Irwin puts it, “People get a little confused as to what this actually is.” With Sounds Good Feels Good, 5SOS would like to solve “this” once and for all: It is a real rock band.
That’s not only how 5SOS identifies, it’s also smart business. Teen idols usually have a shelf life of four years (one generation’s time in high school) and peter out when their audience becomes old enough to vote. In order to achieve the kind of multi-album career the group is envisioning, 5SOS will have to transcend its fickle Gen Z foundation and convince a broader audience that four young guys with loud guitars and feelings matter in 2015.
“They’re genuinely nice guys and they’re good musicians,” says Fall Out Boy guitarist Joe Trohman. “I’m rooting for them.”
5 Seconds of Summer set out to be pop-punk but betrayed a teen-pop reflex. Enthusiastic guitar riffs gave way to sugar-sweet vocal harmonies. Lyrics sketched an underage universe of friend zones, fake IDs and amorous tropes (boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy admires girl wearing his American Apparel underwear). On Sounds Good Feels Good, the guitars thunder more and the vocals are more nasal and whinier. “They were teenagers and they’re men now -- they’ve grown up before our eyes,” says Capitol Music Group chairman/CEO Steve Barnett. “They have been successful enough to make the record they want.”
The band members already demonstrate a distinctively punk resilience. On June 13, the second of three sold-out nights at London’s Wembley Arena, Clifford’s hair caught fire when he stepped in front of onstage pyrotechnics. He suffered first-degree burns and nearly lost sight in his left eye but returned to the stage the next night. Perez Hilton, whose gossip site tracks 5SOS closely, roared: “Now that’s rock’n’roll!”
5SOS hails from Hawkesbury, a ticky-tacky suburb of Sydney. “Our culture is working-class, like, f—ing violent,” says Irwin. “You can’t afford shit. You take public transport. You buy $5 McDonald’s meals. It’s just epic, depressed suburbia.” The rest of the guys nod silently in agreement. “I don’t think we ever verbally said we want to do this to get out of our shitty little town,” says Clifford. “But it was a thing we all kind of knew, and that’s why we stuck with it.”
As an adolescent, Clifford was a computer nerd, more into Guitar Hero than actual guitars. Hood was really into sports; then he heard Green Day’s American Idiot. Raised by a single mom, Irwin saw Green Day as an escape and singer Billie Joe Armstrong as a role model: “Home was sometimes a really horrible place.” Hemmings’ first show was Good Charlotte. “We couldn’t really afford concert tickets,” he says, explaining that his dad liked the band, so they scraped together the money. “I remember looking at the stage and saying, ‘I want to do that.’ But it wasn’t really an option.” 5SOS would later play that same arena.
“It’s not part of our world in Australia to join a band -- you’re a plumber, you’re a bricklayer, you mow lawns,” explains Irwin. But local legends like INXS, Silverchair and AC/DC were part of their world. “There’s that raw aggression and love for a massive, distorted guitar that already exists in our culture,” he adds. “But then we also loved California-punk melodies.” Green Day, Blink-182 and All Time Low were 5SOS’ holy trinity.
Irwin was the last to join the band but the first to have a clear vision for the project. In addition to being a drummer, he was a kind of manager, motivational coach, babysitter, traffic controller, lion-cub tamer. “I felt like I had a whip,” he remembers. “I’d be like, ‘You have to come to rehearsals because we sound like shit!’ ‘Where the f— is Calum?’ ‘Michael, get off the computer!’ ‘Luke, what do you mean your mom wants to pick you up now?!’ ” The others absorbed his focus and drive.
“To sell out arenas and play ball on that level, you’ve got to have an insane work ethic -- otherwise it doesn’t last,” points out Good Charlotte singer Joel Madden, who co-wrote “She’s Kinda Hot” with his brother Benji. “Most bands want to smoke weed and play video games, and they don’t.”
The 5SOS guys bristle at the suggestion that their ascent was especially rapid. But it did happen pretty fast. In December 2011, 5SOS played its first show at a Sydney pub called the Annandale Hotel to 12 people. About a year later, the group was on the One Direction tour, all without an album or a record deal.
5SOS was excited to open for 1D -- many of the kids in the crowd had never before seen a rock band. But the feeling wasn’t always reciprocated. “The first couple of gigs, people were like, ‘What the f—, guitars?’ ” remembers Irwin. Social media was ruder, Clifford recalls. “There were shitloads of people being like, ‘F— this band, these guys are all shit-ugly dipshits. What are they doing on tour with One Direction, my perfect babies?’ ”
“They had maybe three songs out, and I had no idea what to make of it,” remembers All Time Low lead vocalist Alex Gaskarth, 27, who had been asked to join a co-writing session for 5SOS’ debut album even though he had never heard of the band. “I get there and there’s 50 kids waiting outside the house and I’m like, ‘Oh, sick, how did people find out I’m here?’ Then I got out of the car and maybe two of the people waiting were like, ‘Oh, hey, it’s Alex.’ Inside, the [5SOS] guys are there and I’m like, ‘Wait -- are those 50 people outside for you?’ They were like, ‘I guess so.’ They were super confused and humble. I was like, ‘Who are these punks?’ ”
5 Seconds of Summer was assembled in chunks, mostly while on the road. But the band wanted to make Sounds Good Feels Good “properly, like Green Day,” says Clifford. “The label was like, ‘Hey, f—ing go and make a real record, because that’s what you keep talking about!’ ” jokes Irwin. Gaskarth and the Madden brothers co-wrote tracks again, along with first-time collaborator Deryck Whibley of Sum 41. But for the most part it was four band members living together in a Malibu house for three months and going to the studio with producer John Feldmann every day. “I love it,” says Irwin about the finished product. “Sometimes we go on the bus, have a beer and just listen to the whole album together,” adds Clifford. It is louder, with a strong alt-rock influence (like on brooding new alt-anthem “Jet Black Heart”), layered harmonies and the London Symphony Orchestra.
It’s also a “new broken scene” manifesto, an inclusive admission that 5SOS is suffering too. “The fans feel like they know us, because they do,” says Irwin. “We’re here together in 2015, and we’re experiencing the same issues.”
“I really, truly believe that this band’s story could be different than any other,” says Benji Madden. “We’re all kind of watching.”