Fall Out Boy is seated in an NBC golf cart, being ferried from its dressing room on the network’s Los Angeles lot to the set of The Voice, where it will soon perform. It’s a triumphant moment, though not without its unease.
“It’s strange for us to be here,” says bassist Pete Wentz, 35, before the taping starts. “Not at The Voice, exactly, but in pop culture at all. We’re not put-together. We’re a little bit off, and we’ve felt that everywhere we’ve ever gone, from TRL to now.”
There was a time when teens wanted their idols to play guitars, and Fall Out Boy’s members were the “it” boys of that scene — four emo-punks from the Chicago suburbs who stuck a tap into their damaged hearts and juiced the results with anthemic hooks. Heartthrob Wentz wrote the lyrics and provided the charisma. Singer Patrick Stump, now 30, coaxed out the band’s intense grooves. Rounding out the quartet: guitarist Joe Trohman, 30, and drummer Andy Hurley, 34.
A lot has changed since Wentz’s 2008 marriage to Ashlee Simpson made the band a tabloid concern (the two divorced in 2011, for one). But new single “Centuries” will feel comfortably familiar when Voice finalist Matt McAndrew shouts out its monstrous chorus on TV. The high-energy mashup of arena rock and trap-style beats hails from American Beauty/American Psycho (Island/DCD2), the quartet’s sixth album, out Jan. 20, and its second since being reborn. Potential next single “Uma Thurman” immediately jumped to No. 1 on Billboard’s Twitter Trending 140 when it was released Jan. 12.
“For a long time I was waiting for the band to fall off the rails so I could just go do whatever real thing I was supposed to do with my life,” says Stump. “I assumed I’d go back to college, maybe end up teaching, and just do music as a hobby.”
Wentz and Stump have always held side gigs. Wentz has moonlighted as a fashion impresario, with his now-shuttered streetwear company Clandestine Industries; as Sonny to Bebe Rexha’s Cher in the electro-pop duo Black Cards; and as a bar owner, of the New York nightspot Angels & Kings. Stump, meanwhile, released a well-received solo album, Soul Punk, in 2011, and can currently be seen as a judge on NBC’s chipper a cappella competition The Sing-Off.
In fact, beginning in 2010, the Fall Out Boy members spent a few years apart, pursuing solo projects and getting healthy. (Stump dropped 60 pounds; Wentz went back into therapy after abusing anti-anxiety medications following his divorce from singer Ashlee Simpson.) They emerged from hiatus in 2013 with a new LP and a grown sound. That record was called Save Rock and Roll, and at very least it saved them. The return single, “My Songs Know What You Did in the Dark (Light Em Up),” went triple-platinum, and they went on to tour arenas for 18 months. What’s more, they started writing their newest album while on the road.
“It doesn’t feel like anything is a given in today’s music climate,” says Wentz when pressed about the band’s new breakneck pace. “If you aren’t contributing to the conversation, people can forget you pretty quickly.”
“Fall Out Boy have persevered more than anyone would’ve thought,” says Lisa Worden, music director of influential alternative radio station KROQ in Los Angeles. “They’ve kept their base while adding new fans. They’re smart, and they’ve evolved.”
The vision for their latest began with the feeling that “rock needs a Yeezus,” says Stump, referring to Kanye West’s sonically jarring 2013 album. He also cites pop’s recent obsession with raw, emotive vocals (“I love that Hozier‘s winning”), while Wentz points to French dance music as an influence.
“How do you cut through the noise?” asks Wentz. “It has to be strange, abrasive. It has to hold a gun to your head and say, ‘You f—ing listen to this song.’ “
Even the album title demands attention, combining the title of a 1999 film about a sexually frustrated suburban dad (American Beauty) with that of a darkly comic novel (and movie) about a Wall Street serial killer (American Psycho).
“Both depict this obsession with an idea of perfection and imply we might be bad underneath,” says Trohman. “I also like the repetition of the word ‘American,’?” Stump chimes in. “What does it mean to be American? I think a lot about how awesome it is here, and how horrible it is, too.”
Tenuous legacies and crumbling facades are a theme, thanks in no small part to the Occupy movement, the Arab Spring and the death of Trayvon Martin. Wentz says “Novocaine” in particular speaks to the numbness that tragedies like the lattermost can inspire. He also mentions the police killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.
“I look at this little guy here,” he says, lifting his chin in the direction of Bronx, his 7-year-old son from his marriage to Simpson, happily eating snacks from craft services. “There’s a hard dialogue to be had when unarmed teenagers are being killed in a country we consider to be a bastion of freedom. What is the world going to be for him?”
Wentz and model girlfriend Meagan Camper had their first son, Saint Laszlo, last February, and he’s not the only Fall Out Boy with reason to ask big questions. Stump and wife Elisa Yao welcomed their first child in October, Declan, following Trohman and wife Marie Wortman Goble, whose baby girl, Ruby, arrived in April.
How does fatherhood affect a band that has suffered from burnout before? “In a way I don’t care about how I’ll be remembered now because it’s not about me,” says Stump. Still, it feels like they’re everywhere these days. “Oh, I don’t take for granted that we get a second chance. It’s like someone took out the video-game cartridge, blew into it, put it back in and started over again. The glitches are gone.”
This story first appeared in the Jan. 24 issue of Billboard.