Like a Silver Lake “West Side Story,” rival packs of bearded and mustachioed hipsters are squaring off in a dance battle — and All-American Rejects frontman Tyson Ritter’s caught in the middle. As the band’s new single — “Beekeeper’s Daughter” (out Jan. 31) — blares from a PA, the flannel-clad actors push and toss the lanky singer out of camera range. Then they do it again.
PHOTOS: On The Set With The All-American Rejects
It’s an oddly symbolic moment in the shoot for the alternative act’s “Beekeeper’s Daughter” video, which is otherwise cluttered with colorful silliness (red-painted she-devils, a barbershop quartet wiggling jazz-hands, a particularly tan Wayne Newton). After all, the quartet have never been underground darlings: they made their chart debut with 2003 single “Swing, Swing” and have climbed the rankings ever since, peaking in 2008 with “Gives You Hell,” a single from their third album, “When the World Comes Down.” The track blazed all the way to No. 4 on the Hot 100 and landed the top spot on the top 40 chart.
The Rejects had become a rock band with a radio smash — a rarity even in the months before Lady Gaga helped usher a new era of dance music onto the airwaves. “Kids in the Street,” due March 27 on Interscope, is their first release since. Many would’ve tried to chase the success rather than go dark for three years; instead, the band says they shrugged off label pressure and took the opportunity for a breather after three back-to-back albums.
“I’ve been in a time capsule since I was 17,” Ritter told Billboard.com on the “Beekeeper’s Daughter” set, his blue eyes brightening the overcast Universal Studios backlot. “In a bus. In a venue. You don’t really grow up.”
To kick off their mid-20s, Ritter and guitarist Nick Wheeler moved to Los Angeles, a leap into adulthood that came without an instruction manual. “I just pushed everything away and lost myself to this crazy city and bad kids,” Ritter said.
“It hit him hardest,” guitarist Mike Kennerty added. “[It was] a little bit of a spiral of quote-unquote fun. That was the catalyst for a lot of the songs [on the new record].”
No one mentions drugs or alcohol, but Ritter got himself out of town, moving (or in his words, “escaping”) to New York. When it came time to start the next album, the band looked for a collaborator who’d let their raw edges show. “Greg Wells was like a spiritual awakening for this band,” Ritter said of the producer, whose previous work includes Adele and OneRepublic.
With Wells helping to reconcile the group’s technical and improvisatory sides, “Kids in the Street” was built less on marathon rehearsals and more on feel.
“We definitely in the past have been so preoccupied with technical perfection that maybe it got in the way of the vibe a little,” Kennerty said. “We strived to capture vibe first and foremost.”
That meant opening up to finishing songs in the studio, a first for the previously well-prepared quartet.
“There’s a song called ‘Walk Over Me,’ I didn’t even have a solo for it… I had to have everybody leave the room [to record],” Wheeler said, laughing. “I was like, this is weird, I can’t fucking do this with everybody watching me.”
The new music ranges from “Someday’s Gone,” the album’s edgy opener, to the dancier, synth-aided title track. Mika, Audra Mae and Sleeper Agent’s Alex Kandel all contribute guest vocals, further broadening the band’s palette. Still, longtime fans can expect the candy-sweet melodies and energetic sound the band’s known for.
“We’re best being a rock band,” Wheeler said. “We incorporate on this record a lot of synths and other flavors but we’re still a rock band. We’re doing whatever we can to get guitars back on the radio. So hopefully that happens.”
Three years later, it remains to be seen if the pop charts are ready to be given “Hell” again — a question Ritter thinks has helped keep many of their peers from matching their longevity.
“[The] music climate has changed so much for bands, especially bands with guitars in their hands… Our contemporaries, our colleagues, have burnt themselves out, it seems,” Ritter said. “The great thing about our position as a rock band on a major label, we’ve had this confused place for so long, that 10 years later, we’re still sort of making people scratch their heads going, ‘Why am I still loving this band?'”
To that end, the band’s taking a word-of-mouth approach to the new release. They tested the waters last month with a homemade video for the album’s first track, “Someday’s Gone.” It received over 45,000 YouTube views in its first month, leaving the teaser track room to catch up with the 14 million-plus of “Gives You Hell” and 2005’s “Dirty Little Secret.”
They’ve also launched a Tumblr blog, where they’ve asked fans to submit their own nostalgia-tinged stories of being “kids in the street.” Some of the answers have surprised them.
“We’re now at the age [where with] some of our fans, there’s a generation gap,” Wheeler said.
But a decade in, their maturity mostly embraced, the group’s still hip to the latest trends: as Ritter shimmies with a parade’s worth of dancers under the clock tower Doc Brown and Marty McFly made famous, Wheeler and Kennerty huddle over their iPhones, talking about Instagram and Words with Friends. There’s no going back, but the All-American Rejects seem ready for the future.
“I’m so freaking nervous for our first show next week and I haven’t felt that in so long,” Wheeler said. “I really feel alive right now. It’s great.”