Nick Wheeler of The All-American Rejects
It has been a decade since The All-American Rejects emerged with "Swing, Swing," their hyperkinetic debut single on Doghouse Records that got these Oklahomans a deal with DreamWorks. Even though lead singer Tyson Ritter was still a teenager, the label plied them with fancy dinners and trips to strip clubs because that's what record companies did with promising pop-punk bands before the internet busted their business model. Most bands in this position quickly succumbed to infighting and sonic limitations, but here is AAR - the same 4 guys - thriving on their dynamic tension and building up an impressive discography as they mature.
Their songwriters are Ritter (lyrics) and guitarist Nick Wheeler (music). For most of the band's existence, they both had steady girlfriends, so the drama in songs like "Dirty Little Secret" and "Gives You Hell" is manufactured. The songs on their 2012 album Kids in the Street are more personal - Nick tells us there was plenty to write about, but it took some courage for Tyson to do it.
Their sound stays fresh because they keep pushing their boundaries. Instead of creating watered-down variations of their hits, they get out of town, turn off the cell phones, and get to work. What comes out are songs like the first single "Beekeeper's Daughter," complete with a horn section and a title inspired by something they found in a kitchen during one of these songwriting excursions.
Nick takes us back to that 2002 record deal and explains how they've held on to their mojo for the last decade, even when things got sketchy with Tyson. You'll listen to the songs in a whole new way when you when you hear his stories behind them.
: Rarely do I get to do interviews about actual songs.
Dan MacIntosh (Songfacts)
: Well, the first thing I wanted to ask you about was on the new album, my favorite song right now, I think it's called "Hearts Slow Down"?
: "Heartbeat Slowing Down."
: Yeah. Because, as I understand it, when somebody is near somebody they love, their heartbeat picks up the pace. And this seems to be suggesting that actually the opposite is happening. Am I understanding it the right way?
: Yeah. I guess. A little backstory on the song is the way Tyson and I always write. We like to go to a neutral location, whether it be completely in the middle of nowhere in a cabin, or a condo in a city that we're not too familiar with. We just like to get out of our comfort zone. And some people might think, Oh, you get to travel and see stuff when you write. Well, no. We go to these places that we're unfamiliar with just so we can draw from what we see out the window. We don't let ourselves out of the house much, we actually buckle down and go try to work.
This particular song was written on a trip we took to Portland, Maine, and there happened to be a cabin in the middle of nowhere. We were up there for three or four days. There's usually some growing pains each time we get settled in and try to get in the groove, but this was during an exceptionally long period of time where we hadn't really come up with anything, and we started to freak out a little bit, thinking the well was dry.
But what we learned in writing this record is we just really had to push ourselves even harder. Lyrically, Ty had to dig way deeper than he had before. We've been doing this for a decade and we've had lots of life-changing experiences, both personally and professionally, and there's plenty to say, there's plenty to write about. It's just, in order to air this stuff out in public, it takes some digging, and some confidence, and a lot of bravery, and lyrically he really stepped up on this record.
Musically, it's kind of the same thing. We had to push each other to think outside of the box and leave our comfort zone. Because we know how to write a catchy song. We could write a B-rate version of "Gives You Hell" and "Move Along," and just borrow the tricks that we used in those songs, but we've never been about that. We've never tried to capitalize on songs and just try to ride the wave. It doesn't last when you do that. For "Heartbeat Slowing Down" we definitely pushed each other to really make this something special. And I do think it's the best song on the record. I'm really stoked to hear you say you like that song.
: Do you know where Ty got the idea lyrically for the song?
: I do. I don't want to divulge too much, just because it's his personal life and that's for him to give up. But this whole record, as a matter of fact, is very autobiographical. We both went through big changes in our personal lives, touring the last record, When The World Comes Down
, and this one. And I think that's kind of just uprooting some feelings and it's kind of an apology to somebody in the past.
: I read somewhere that you had a debate about putting horns on some of your recordings and that he finally gave in with "Beekeeper's Daughter." Is that a true story?
: Well, we started playing in bands in the '90s, and a couple of them were ska bands. (Laughs) So horns kind of have had a stigma to them, at least in our younger years. It's like ska happened, now it's over. So then being exposed to more music, there's more out there than just pop, punk and ska, like the bands we were playing in in the '90s. So we dabbled a little bit on the last record, a song called "Real World" had quite a big orchestra section, including a trumpet solo. This time we really wanted to put on a sassy, Chicago-style horn section, and we both came to this realization at the same time. Some of the best ideas are the ones where we finish each other's sentences, or one of us says something, the other's like, "I was just thinking that same thing." And the horn thing was kind of like that. But it turned out to be really cool, and when we do live TV - like the other night on Jimmy Kimmel - we get to bring in live horns. That song, "Beekeeper's Daughter," is a lot of fun. It has a lot of life to the song.
: Is that a play on the Farmer's Daughter theme?
: Actually, it's a complete coincidence. This was on another one of our writing trips. We were up in the Sequoia Grove forest in Northern California. Again, cabin, middle of nowhere. It sounds really creepy, but we really just like to get away where nobody can bother us. Sometimes there's no cell phone service, and even if there's nobody we know and there's nothing to do, we like to stay inside and buckle down. This was one of those trips, it was the first one we took. Ty was still coming down off the whole "Gives You Hell" ride, and we both moved to Los Angeles. He got mixed in with the bad crowd and kind of thought he was on top of the world - thought he was bulletproof and all that. But that's where the lyrical sentiment came from. He's being an asshole, especially to women, but he doesn't give a fuck, he only cares about himself. That's exactly what the lyrics to the song are from.
But the words, "You're a pretty little flower, I'm a busy little bee," all these references to bees and flowers and stuff, whenever we weren't working, we were eating or drinking. So we're cooking breakfast one day, and this kitchen is stocked with these kitchen staples. There's a bottle of honey in the cabinet called Beekeeper's Daughter brand. And it was simply to amuse myself, I titled the demo "Beekeeper's Daughter."
Another one, up at that writing trip in Maine, was this really bluesy riff that turned into the song "Walk Over Me" on the record. I called that "Maine Bluesberry Jam." (Laughs) That one didn't stick. We changed the title of that to "Walk Over Me." But "Beekeeper's Daughter" we couldn't shake. So it's a complete coincidence. We've heard like, 'Did you get that from a Sylvia Plath poem,' like, 'Who's Sylvia Plath?' (Laughs)
: That's a great story.
: Right on.
: Let's talk about some of your bigger songs. "Dirty Little Secret," as I imagine, you've probably gotten some interesting interpretations of that one, as well. Can you clear up any misconceptions that people have about that one?
: Well, if you're speaking from a lyrical standpoint, I know in the past Tyson has more written stories. We come from a small town, and until now we've both had steady relationships. So, you know, sometimes there's not enough drama or turmoil to write about, so he simply writes stories. And that's where the lyrics come from.
But I guess something interesting I can say about "Dirty Little Secret" and "Gives You Hell" and even "Beekeeper's Daughter," collectively, is those are all songs we've been scared of, I guess, when we write them. When we're writing, sometimes we follow through on a lot of ideas that don't end up working - they're terrible ideas and they're not good songs. But those songs stood out in an "I'm scared of this song" way, which doesn't mean it's a bad song - it's a good kind of thing.
"Dirty Little Secret" was just an acoustic guitar and a vocal, that's all it was. We put off getting the full band in and coming up with the arrangement until the very last second. We were literally less than a week away from going into the studio, and we all four started jamming and tossing out ideas. We had the arrangement down within an hour and that was that. We ended up recording it and couldn't get the motherfucking thing out of our heads. So it turned out to be a good thing.
And kind of the same thing happened with "Gives You Hell." We recorded it with Eric Valentine. The whole time, we were like, What is this? Like, Is this us? Why am I having these mixed feelings about this song? It turned out to be our first #1 song, so I'm glad we ended up putting it on the record.
"Beekeeper's Daughter" was kind of the same thing. The demo was really acoustic driven, this beachy-jam sounding song. We were just like, ekk, kind of turned off by the treatment of it. It took Greg Wells, our producer, to get us to go, "Let's try this song. We should at least try it, it's catchy, I think it's going to be a good one." "All right." So we all get in the room, come up with some really interesting guitar tones for it. We put this horn section on and then at the end of the day it turns out to be our first single.
So some of our most successful songs have been the ones that we're the least confident about and the most scared of.
: Are some of your hits ones that came easier?
: Yeah. "Swing, Swing" just really came to us, and we knew that was special. We wrote it and we put it aside. That was when we were writing our first record. We'd just gotten signed to Doghouse Records, we only had five songs to our name. We're like, All right, cool. Give you a 3-album deal, finish writing the songs, let's go make the first record. Okay. So the next month, we wrote 6 more songs, "Swing Swing" was one of them. We knew that was special, but we were on a little label that didn't really talk to radio or MTV, so there really wasn't talk of a single. Turns out it turned the heads of a lot of publishers and label people, and we got to go on this incredible ride because of that song a little over ten years ago. This was when record labels still flew bands out to LA and New York and they still signed, they weren't dropping them left and right. They took us out to these lavish dinners, threw this cash at us - we'd go to strip clubs, it was retarded. You don't get to do that anymore. Being in a new band right now has got to be the most difficult thing. There are no guitars on the radio. It's just different right now. But thanks to that song and thanks to the fact that it was 10 years ago, it really did us right.
I guess, "Move Along" is another one. "Move Along" and "It Ends Tonight" both, we wrote those in Atlanta when we were at our wits' end wondering if we were ever going to get to make a second record. Our manager and our guy just kept saying, "Keep writing, keep writing." All we knew was, hey, man, we wrote 11 songs and that's all we had to our name when we made the first record. We have more than that, let's just go make a record. Thankfully they pushed us to our wits' end, because the last two songs we wrote for our second record were "Move Along" and "It Ends Tonight," which were both Top Ten songs. And those actually came pretty easily once it started flowing.
I came up with this delayed guitar part for "Move Along," and I sat down at the drums and just kind of jammed with Ty; he was singing and playing bass. The arrangement just fell into place. Same kind of thing with "It Ends Tonight," I was at the drums and Ty was sitting at a piano singing, and we put it together on the spot. So for us, I guess the formula is the ones that come quickly are good, and the ones we're terrified of are also good. (Laughs)
: Is it true that "It Ends Tonight" is actually about a guy, not a girl?
: (Laughs) Yeah. You know, Ty was just getting really good at telling stories in songs. That one was about a dude, but he thinks it's fun to make it sound like it was about a girl or a relationship. That time we were in Atlanta that I was just talking about, he and our guitar tech came with us. He's our buddy from home. He's been touring with us for the past couple of years, and he came just to help us out with gear and keep things in order. He's moral support - he's just a great dude to have around. But he was significantly older than us at the time, and he acts like an old man: going to bed early, really being a bum around Ty. Because Ty's a night owl. He wanted to stay up, he wanted to hang out. His roommate was just bringing him down. Mike and Chris and I were in the nonsmoking room. So we didn't really see this, but he was getting frustrated and fed up with this guy bringing things down, and we wrote this song (laughing). Ty used to introduce it, he was like, "This song's about wanting to kill your best friend." So that is true.
: Interesting. One last question: what do you think makes you and Tyson write such good songs together? If there's a secret to your success, what is it?
: I think Tyson and I are completely opposite types of people. I think we both offer something that the other doesn't. It's a pretty perfect pair. It's a dynamic that works really well and we've managed to keep going after 10 years. I don't think either one of us have kept other friends for 10 years. We both grew up listening to catchy tunes - that's what we like listening to, it's what we've been creating. All four of us, really, are completely different types of people, different personalities. We don't really fight. If we ever argue, it's usually a creative type argument and there's one way to solve that really easily: try out every idea you can, and see if it works. If somebody has a bad idea, all right, cool, let's try it. Let's show you how bad this idea is. (Laughs) So there's a really easy way to settle any arguments if we ever have any like that. We've been fortunate that the four of us have remained friends. Like I said, a lot of our other friends have fallen along the way. It's hard to keep in touch with people when you tour so damn much. But this works. It has always felt right. I know Mike's produced some records on the side, Ty's even done some other writing and some acting on the side, but this is our baby. These four opposite people come together and create this one great thing that we all agree on. I guess we'll keep doing it till it's broke, but I don't see any signs of that happening.
We spoke with Nick Wheeler on March 29, 2012. Get more at allamericanrejects.com.