It’s not hard to figure out where 5 Seconds of Summer is staying while on tour in Milan: Just follow the screams.
Ten floors below the hotel penthouse where 5SOS — “five sauce,” to devotees — is gathered for a Billboard cover shoot, a crush of teenage fans nervously paces the sidewalk on a blustery afternoon in late June. Converse sneakers slap the pavement. Piles of colorful rubber bracelets quiver on the arms of girls running back and forth between the lobby doors and rear exit, iPhones at the ready, to catch a cherished glimpse of the Australian pop-punk quartet.
The giddy teens better not blink — these guys are on the move.
In four hours, 5SOS will open for One Direction at the sold-out San Siro Stadium, the 80,000-seat home of A.C. Milan football. But first the band has to finish the photo shoot, sit down with management, hug fans at a backstage meet-and-greet and oh, yeah, share a preshow dinner with 1D’s Niall Horan. Then the group will hit the stage for a short but intensely energetic set before heading straight to Malpensa Airport, where it will fly to London to promote the U.K. release of the band’s long-awaited first album, 5 Seconds of Summer, which has now made its U.S. debut at No. 1 on the Billboard 200. With more than 250,000 copies sold during the week ending July 27, it’s the third-largest bow in 2014, behind Coldplay’s Ghost Stories and Eric Church’s The Outsiders.
The album’s impressive launch has been propelled in part by the runaway success earlier this year of 5SOS’ She Looks So Perfect EP, which peaked at No. 2. (The single of the same name topped out at No. 24 on the Billboard Hot 100 in June, the band’s first top 40 hit.) But first-week sales were no doubt ignited by the act’s appearance on Today and Jimmy Kimmel Live!, where the group tore through “She Looks So Perfect” before thousands of screaming fans and millions of viewers.
Back in the Milan penthouse, guitarist Michael Clifford, 18, grabs an acoustic guitar and begins serenading the room with an impromptu ditty that cracks up his bandmates: drummer Ashton Irwin, 20; bassist Calum Hood, 18; and guitarist and de facto lead singer Luke Hemmings, 18.
“Please buy our album,” Clifford croons with wide-eyed, mock earnestness, the kind of self-effacing charm that only a cute teenage boy can muster. “Listen to me, please, we’re not a boy band!”
The quickie tune, like most of the group’s songs, boasts an infectious melody and cheeky lyrics. It also neatly sums up the challenge facing 5SOS as it attempts to simultaneously build a career and duck the unwelcome label of “pop-punk boy band,” a tough moniker to avoid when you’re touring the world a second time with the latest boy-band juggernaut, One Direction.
“Some people think, ‘Oh, they’re just another boy band. They’ll have a thing and then disappear,’ ” says Irwin. “But we’re challenging that thought. We’re so proud of the music we make — we love it — and we’re fearless. If anyone puts us down, we don’t care. Isn’t that somewhat punk — not giving a damn what people say?”
The band aligns itself not with the vocal stylings of, say, Boyz II Men and Backstreet Boys, but with the brash, guitar-driven rock of pop-punk pioneers like Blink-182, All Time Low and especially Green Day. Irwin just picked up his favorite group’s latest DVD, Cuatro, and has been playing it virtually nonstop during whatever spare time he can muster on this tour.
The fact that 5SOS has been lumped in with boy bands past and present is more a reflection of its age and audience, not its music. “People get confused because we’re young and we have a female fan base,” says Irwin, whose fervent admirers freaked out on Twitter recently when he was photographed chatting with an unknown woman. “But so did Fall Out Boy. Pete Wentz was the Justin Bieber of 2007. Girls loved him, they obsessed over him.”
True, Wentz was praised for his “sexy ‘guy-liner’ ” in People’s Most Beautiful issue that year. But Fall Out Boy in its infancy was never in line to open for ’N Sync. The ascent of 5SOS to the world stage has been helped no doubt by the band’s association with Modest Management, which also guides One Direction. Clifford, however, is quick to point out the rock credentials of 1D’s manager, Richard Griffiths, who started out as a booking agent for AC/DC in the mid-1970s.
Capitol Records chairman/CEO Steve Barnett, who signed 5SOS in the United States, says the band’s success is all about the music, not its connections on- and offstage. “Obviously, the association with One Direction is integral to what’s happening for them,” says Barnett. “But an opening slot on a major tour doesn’t come with a guarantee that the headliner’s audience will embrace you.”
Judging from the capacity crowd in Milan, Barnett can rest easy. One Direction fueled the sellout at San Siro, but the 5SOS fan base is thoroughly represented. The much-coveted general-admission section is riddled with homemade, Sharpie-scrawled 5SOS white T-shirts. During the preshow vamp, the stadium echoes with cheers as fans sing along to the “Heyyy-eh-ey!” chorus each and every time the sound system cranks out “She Looks So Perfect.” As the lights go down, the half of San Siro that spots the foursome en route to the stage erupts in screams that would rival those heard when A.C. Milan scores a goal.
John Feldmann, who produced 5 Seconds of Summer, says the scene is proof of a fundamental change in the pop-punk demo. “In the first wave of Green Day and Blink-182, [the crowd was] 98 percent dudes, with circle pits, stage diving and punk-rock sing-alongs, bro-style,” says Feldmann, whose band Goldfinger was an integral part of the late-’90s ska/pop-punk scene. “Now, I would say it’s 80 percent girls” — right in the 5SOS wheelhouse.
It has been less than three years since four teens who grew up in a rough neighborhood in Sydney bonded over music. Hemmings, Clifford and Hood were attending suburban Norwest Christian College in Riverstone, where Hemmings uploaded an acoustic cover of Mike Posner’s “Please Don’t Go” to his YouTube channel. “I got a few views,” he recalls, and Clifford approached him with an intriguing proposition. “He came up to me at school and said, ‘Do you want to do one together and, like, maybe make a band or something?’ ”
After recruiting Hood to play bass, Clifford reached out to his pal Irwin on Facebook, persuading the drummer to join them by claiming that 200 people were coming to their next show at Sydney’s Annandale Hotel.
“It was 12, actually,” Irwin points out. “But I still say it was my favorite gig ever: Magic Day, Dec. 3, 2011. I remember what we were wearing, the first band photo. We had amazing emo fringes.”
The swooshy hair may have been memorable, but it was Irwin who made everything click. “He was the missing piece of the puzzle,” says Clifford of the one member with any previous band experience. “He kind of drove us — literally, he drove us, because he was the only one who could drive.”
The band’s DIY aesthetic also was evident in its early, sometimes grainy and usually poorly lit videos. “Everyone else was doing these really clean-cut, amazing edits of popular covers, and we just had an iPhone,” recalls Irwin. “We used to wedge it on the mic stand and start filming.
“Calum didn’t even have a bass,” he adds. “He played the top string of an acoustic guitar.”
The four friends would insult each other, hit sour notes, screw up and laugh. Hemmings playfully sported Bieber’s then-signature bangs for their rendition of Bieber and Chris Brown’s “Next to You,” which received more than 600,000 hits and is often credited with putting 5SOS on the map.
But amid the jokes, cover songs and one-string basslines, the band began writing its own music — a fact that often got lost, much to the members’ collective chagrin, in the buzz of “YouTube Cover Band Scores Record Deal” headlines.
“That’s the biggest thing that annoys us,” says Irwin, “when people go, ‘Oh, so you guys got your popularity off the ‘Next to You’ cover.’ It means they haven’t done their research.”
For the record, 5SOS released its first EP, Somewhere New, and single (“Out of My Limit”) in 2012. A year later, the self-penned “Try Hard” caught the attention of Feldmann, who wound up producing and co-writing all but one track on 5 Seconds of Summer. “They’re real writers and talented musicians,” he says. “There was no formulaic Simon Cowell-finding-a-bunch-of-handsome-guys. It’s just 6-foot-3 dudes from Australia who loved the same kind of music and put a band together.”
“5SOS is a band in the true sense of the word,” says Capitol’s Barnett. “They’re highly proficient musicians who write their own songs.”
That original material earned the band a gig opening for Hot Chelle Rae’s Australian tour in 2012. Griffiths, who co-manages 5SOS with its longtime manager Matt Emsell, then brought the band to Capitol Records U.K. president Nick Raphael, who checked out a show in Dublin.
“One-and-a-half minutes into their first song, we said to Richard, ‘We are in!’ ” writes Raphael in an email to Billboard. “They were infectious from the minute they walked onstage.”
“Infectious” is the perfect word to describe the band as it went viral in late 2012, thanks to 1D’s Louis Tomlinson, who tweeted a link to a YouTube video of the 5SOS song “Gotta Get Out.” “Been a fan of this band for awhile,” he wrote, triggering an avalanche of international interest and more than 76,000 retweets.
Thousands of those early fans were inspired enough to contact local DJs, demanding to hear the music of a band that had yet to step inside a recording studio. ‘We were getting tweets a year before 5 Seconds of Summer even had a major-label deal,” says Mike Biddle, assistant program director at WPLW Raleigh, N.C.
The awesome Aussies now have nearly 4 million followers on Twitter and their YouTube account has racked up more than 94 million views. While some bands spend all their downtime partying, 5SOS is more apt to post silly videos and selfies on Vine, Instagram and Facebook. In one viral clip that netted more than 700,000 views in three days, the band members pretended to be Target employees who directed wandering customers to an exclusive edition of their new album. They’re especially obsessed with Twitter, which exploded in real time during the group’s U.S. TV debut at the Billboard Music Awards in May. Their official account, @5SOS, was mentioned a whopping 451,000 times that night. Together with each member’s personal account, 5SOS received more mentions than every other performer combined.
But the band’s clout is extending far beyond social media, the charts and airwaves. As Billboard recently reported, a lyric from 5SOS’ biggest hit — “She looks so perfect standing there/In my American Apparel underwear” — has prompted a 10 percent boost in the retailer’s sales of men’s briefs. “No one at the company has even sent us an email,” says Hemmings with a smile. “They’re playing hard to get.”
So too are pop-punk purists who don’t want any part of a boy-band phenomenon. Some rolled their eyes with disdain when Hemmings wore a Misfits T-shirt onstage at the BBMAs.
“People were saying Glenn Danzig would roll over in his grave — and Glenn Danzig is still alive,” laughs Feldmann, who’s not the only major pop-punk personality to stand up for 5SOS. Good Charlotte’s Joel and Benji Madden co-wrote and produced “Amnesia,” the brokenhearted ballad from 5 Seconds of Summer, which quickly shot to No. 1 on Billboard’s Trending 140 chart, following the release of its lyric video on July 1, and has bounced in and out of the top spot ever since. And All Time Low’s Alex Gaskarth co-wrote the amped-up “Kiss Me Kiss Me.”
The way 5SOS sees it, the band is helping usher in a new wave of pop-friendly punk, while paying tribute to idols like Green Day and paving the way for future connoisseurs. “If a kid picks up drumsticks because of our band, job done,” says Irwin. “Just to have guitars on the radio again is nice.”
Other long-term plans include branching out into A&R through Hi or Hey Records, the 5SOS imprint distributed by Capitol. “A girl version of us would be cool,” says Hemmings.
For now, the band is focused primarily on the business at hand: opening for One Direction on a tour that will cross the United States until early October. “We need to respect that we’re here to warm up the crowd for the headliner, which has sold out the stadium,” says Irwin.
That’s the kind of mature attitude not always embraced by seasoned acts, never mind a bunch of teenagers riding the crest of a chart-topping debut album. While their stage performance essentially remains unchanged — “We do punk jumps and all that,” says Irwin — they’ve tempered their language to accommodate One Direction’s decidedly younger fan base. “We just don’t ever say ‘f—’ onstage.”
“At our own show,” says Hemmings, “we talk a lot of shit.”
It won’t be long before the bandmembers get the chance to expand their vocabulary as legit headliners. More than 10,000 tickets were sold in one day to a Nov. 15 show at the Los Angeles Forum. Next spring, 5SOS will be the main attraction on the Rock Out With Your Socks Out Tour, starting May 4 in Lisbon, Portugal. The group will play 26 more arenas throughout Europe and then return home for its first headline tour on its native turf, a five-night Australian swing that wraps June 29 in Perth.
If all goes well, 5SOS may soon boast the earning power of One Direction, whose five members will reportedly earn more than $23 million each this year.
So let everyone else fret over the fate of boy bands who never seem to grow into man bands. 5 Seconds of Summer is too busy living in the moment — and loving it.
“Ask any bar band, ‘Would you rather go from this to flying first class and staying in nice hotels?’ ” says Clifford. “I guarantee every single one of them would say, ‘Hell yeah!’’