On Oct. 5, 5 Seconds of Summer announced they were done for the year. The news came on the eve of their final gig in their native Sydney at the Hordern Pavilion, after nearly 10 months of constant touring. For 5SOS, announcing a break for the final quarter of 2016 made sense. Its members live inside and out of the boy band paradigm, which makes their fandom exist in a high-demand fashion. By saying they’re done, frontman Luke Hemmings, bassist Calum Hood, guitarist Michael Clifford and drummer Ashton Irwin can remove themselves from their professional titles and relax, however briefly.
Perhaps most shocking about the move is not that it happened, but when. These guys typically don’t take breaks, employing the same kind of exhaustive scheduling as their former tourmates One Direction. In fall to winter, when things typically do slow down in the 5 Seconds of Summer camp, they offer a different kind of attention, anything from an increase in simple social media posts to an annual fan convention — Derp Con in 2014 in Los Angeles and The New Broken Scene last year in Atlanta. Late last October, the band released Sounds Good Feels Good, their sophomore LP, after a long year on the road following their 2014 self-titled debut. In 2016, it seemed their schedule could continue the album-a-year-cycle. After their Sounds Live Feels Live tour, many fans expected a new full-length right about… now, in November 2016. It doesn’t look like we’re going to get one, but there’s reason to believe album number three is on their minds.
To figure out what’s going on, it’s best to look at the last 12 months. On Feb. 1, just two weeks before 5 Seconds of Summer embarked on their massive world tour, Ashton Irwin posted a Snapchat revealing that he was writing a new song. Later, Michael Clifford and Calum Hood confirmed the move with another vid. In the background of the latter Snap, we hear a brief drum beat — an indistinguishable cadence. A month later, some very clever 5 Seconds of Summer fans did some digging and found new songs registered to the band’s members on different publishing sites: a dozen or so unreleased tracks with apparent collaborations with everyone from longtime Katy Perry collaborator Bonnie McKee to top-dog pop-punk producer/5SOS BFF John Feldmann. In the same month, images of Calum Hood in the studio with Feldmann, DJ Steve Aoki and Blink-182 members Mark Hoppus and Travis Barker surfaced. In May, Aoki would reveal that he produced a full 5SOS song, telling an interviewer in an Asia Pop 40 interview:
Every story is different but in this case, the 5SOS story was [that] I was in the studio with them. We worked together on this idea. It’s not a Steve Aoki song, it’s a 5 Seconds of Summer song that I’m putting my production, my additional production on. Then I took what we all worked on together, brought it to my lab, my studio and added some electronic elements to enhance their production.
The move toward move experimental and electronic sounds would make sense for 5 Seconds of Summer. Their only new track from this year arrived on the Ghostbusters soundtrack, via the funky synth-rock anthem “Girls Talk Boys.” The song is remarkable for a couple of reasons: It’s one of the few on the soundtrack that is a not reworking of a classic film tune, but most importantly, it’s vastly different from anything 5 Seconds of Summer has ever done before. Its producer, Ricky Reed, wrote the song with a few buddy songwriters including “For You I Will” pop heartthrob Teddy Geiger. When 5SOS heard the track, they loved the “weird idea.” Reed told Billboard, “They kinda freaked out. They came to my studio in Echo Park and cut the vocal here and we had a great time working out the parts. They’re hilarious, awesome dudes — also really talented.”
This tells us that 5 Seconds of Summer are ready for change, something we’ve known since their Rolling Stone cover story at the top of the year. They want to be taken seriously as a rock band, and that means reinvention, scheduled breaks and keeping fans on their toes as much as possible. The move towards more synth-driven and electronic sounds is no new thing in pop-punk: think of a band like Fall Out Boy moving from the mall emo masterpiece From Under the Cork Tree to 2010s arena rock records Save Rock and Roll and American Beauty/American Psycho.
If anything, 5 Seconds of Summer has prepared us for the transition: the last song on Sounds Good Feels Good is the double-track “Outer Space/Carry On,” a massive Pink Floyd-channeling electro-epic complete with Irwin nailing a Queen-style vocal on the bridge. The song’s background featured ocean waves recorded early in the morning on a road trip writing session. In almost every element, this track was much more complicated than the “She Looks So Perfect” pop writing that put them on the map. But still, the hooks are very much in place. Hopefully they won’t abandon their knack for melody or penchant for palm-muted power chords in the future; but here’s to hoping they’ll continue to challenge the boundaries of how and where they’re instituted.
The recent commercial success of Twenty One Pilots — arguably the biggest rock band to emerge in the past two years — is further reason for 5 Seconds of Summer to push genre boundaries. Hip-hop, reggae and electro all inform Twenty One Pilots’ sound, which sometimes eschews guitar entirely. Other pop-rock singles to go top 10 on the Hot 100 — “Shut Up and Dance” by Walk the Moon and DNCE’s “Cake by the Ocean” — are driven more by synthesizer and dance grooves more than brazen guitars. So there’s certainly a Top 40 lane for new 5SOS music to work, and an album-based one as well. Seasoned artists with multi-decade careers like Green Day, Bon Jovi and Blink-182 have all topped the Billboard 200, as have more millennial-minded bands like Panic! at the Disco and the 1975. 5 Seconds and Summer shares a lineage with both camps; they’re deeply influenced by pop-punk’s legacy (Feldmann, their frequent collaborator, co-wrote Blink-182’s 2016 No. 1 California) while their teenaged fanbase looks a lot more like the crowds you’d see at a Panic! or 1975 show.
The 5SOS machine — the band, its collaborators and its fans — has a lot going for it, and 2017 at least has the potential to produce its biggest album and single yet. They’re still waiting for their first top 10 single and if they wrote such a monster, it could catapult them towards an album far bigger than their two previous No. 1s. Could they get there? Here’s to hoping they use their late 2016 rest time wisely and spend 2017 refining that balance of pop and punk that’s already taken them so far.