When AJR took the stage at The Fillmore Philadelphia last weekend, it was with “Come Hang Out.” Although “Come Hang Out” was the final track on the original version of their album The Click, it was an appropriate start to the set: the track sees the band face the choices they’ve made and the things they’ve had to give up (namely, a “normal” social life with their friends) in order to seriously pursue their musical career. Later in the night, lead vocalist Jack Met would tell a story of their first show in Philadelphia: they played the Barbary, and 90 of the 100 people in attendance left before their set. “For the longest time we didn’t play Philly because we thought Philly didn’t like us,” he shared, “so thank you so much for showing up.” The Fillmore was entirely sold out – 2500 in attendance – and there was no question that any sacrifice they’d made was more than worth it.
Born and raised in New York City, brothers Adam, Jack and Ryan Met got their start over a decade ago, busking on the street to make money and writing songs in their parents’ living room. They released their first single “I’m Ready” in 2013 and their debut album Living Room in 2015 on a major label. After the initial success of “I’m Ready”, AJR found themselves labeled a “one-hit wonder”: though the song went platinum, no one was coming to their shows. So they set back to work, and created the album that would become The Click. As Jack would share on stage later in the night, early feedback before the album was released wasn’t positive: “Before we released The Click, we got a ton of reception from people in the music industry, and every single one of them said, ‘Guys, do not release this. This is too weird, and no one is going to get it.'”
Perhaps weird is exactly what the people want: lead single “Weak” was certified Platinum by the RIAA and “Sober Up” was certified Gold. “Sober Up” also reached number 1 on Billboard‘s Alternative Songs chart. On top of this, several shows on The Click Tour earlier this year, and on the current The Click Tour Part 2, have sold out well in advance. Released on their own label AJR Productions, The Click is one of the most interesting pop records in recent years, blending doowop harmonies reminiscent of The Beach Boys with electronic and dubstep effects – yet despite its creative approach, the songs are incredibly catchy and accessible. Lyrically, it sees the band figuring themselves out and experiencing growing pains we all experience, though there’s no angst here: throughout the album, they maintain a positive attitude and excitement about life in general. Even when performing slow and meaningful tracks like “The Good Part”, the brothers had a goofy dance style that you couldn’t help but love; Jack would later note that “We’ve played probably a thousand shows and I used to think I made the weirdest dance moves… now you guys do”, and imitated an even more exaggerated version of his already goofy moves.
Following the successful release of The Click, AJR released a deluxe edition of the album this September. The deluxe edition features four additional tracks, three of which (“Burn The House Down”, “Normal”, and “Pretender”) were written while they were originally making the album, and a fourth, “Role Models”, came more recently. Discussing the choice to release a deluxe edition of the album, Ryan says, “We’re still working on our next album right now, and I think we live in a world where it’s really good to keep fans updated with what we’re doing and our artistry and stuff like that. There were a couple songs that didn’t make the cut for The Click that kind of finished the story and the narrative, and we wanted to get that out, finish the cycle of The Click, and then move on to the next album.”
“Pretender” was originally written for The Click as “kind of an acoustic guitar demo”; a “quasi-EDM” version was then produced, but neither felt quite right for the album. The song sat there for two years before Steve Aoki’s manager reached out to collaborate. “He upped the song to an entirely new level. He put Lil Yachty on it; we heard the final and we were like, ‘Wow, that’s a whole new song – sure,’” Ryan says. An acoustic version of “Pretender” is included on the deluxe edition, and Ryan reflects on the two versions of the song: “It’s funny, in the 60s, when the Beatles were making music, production and songwriting were very intertwined – ‘Love Me Do’ is just ‘Love Me Do’; there isn’t like, the acoustic version and this version, the production is the song. Now we live in this interesting world where a song and the production of a song can exist totally separate from each other.” Adam adds that “People are fans of different genres of music, in this day and age…. Somebody who’s a fan of the Steve Aoki version could also be a fan of the acoustic version or could want to hear what the song sounds like stripped down, so it gives people the opportunity to hear the song in so many different styles.”
Another new track on the album is “Role Models”, which sees Adam, Jack, and Ryan ask whether it’s possible to love the art if you hate the artist – something that, as longtime fans of artists like Kanye West and Louis C.K., they’ve had to personally confront. Ryan admits that “the discussion is hard, because it’s like – as soon as you find out that someone that made incredible art was kind of a shitty person, do you go back in time and look at all these 17th century artists that were also like, pedophiles, and say, ‘We can’t appreciate any of their art anymore?’” AJR don’t have the answers, but “if we can start some kind of discussion, then we’ve done our job.”
While much of the album features complex and multi-layered production, “Role Models” is stripped down, centering simply around guitars. The process of taking a song from the idea to demo, to finished recording, varies; Ryan notes that “Three Thirty” sounds almost identical in its demo and finished versions, “which means we were producing and writing at the same time.” For “Role Models”, they went into the demo with a stripped production, and although they tried changing it up by adding electronic sounds, “it all took away from the purpose of the song, which is the lyrics. So we thought, ‘Let’s just do one that’s stripped down and try something new for AJR.’”
Like The Beach Boys – who the Met brothers have often cited as their biggest influence – AJR writes songs that hold up just as well on a single acoustic guitar or piano as they do with their full production. Adam believes that what makes these songs truly great is “the fact that everything, production-wise, can be stripped away and you can have one instrument and melody and lyrics and it still resonates with people.” He says they focus on emotional qualities in songs, and that “we tend to pick uninteresting and unimportant topics and try and turn them in to something that feel really emotional, and if you can do that through production and if you can do it just through melody and lyrics, I think you’ve really accomplished the job that you’ve set out to do.”
This was evident in the performance of “Don’t Throw Out My Legos”, an unreleased song they played that night, which people already knew how to clap along to. It’s even more evident in “Netflix Trip”, which sees them wax poetic about The Office, from remembering having “my first crush in season two”, to hugging their mom “the way Michael did” when their grandfather passed away. In the green room before the show, both Ryan and Adam sat with their legs crossed the way Jim Halpert always did. Adam shares that the show came at a formative time, and “we almost saw those characters – even though they were fictional – as role models for us, and we would base interactions and physical – the way we sit and things like that – on those characters.”
Even if you haven’t watched The Office (although you probably have), chances are you relate to having a TV show to turn to and grow up with. Ryan also feels that growing up watching The Office shaped their personality, and that “we can kind of trace back our life and all these events that happened in our life and pin it with – ‘Oh, that was during Season 5; that was when I was up to this episode in Season 2’ – and it just shows that a lot of our culture is a little bit being raised by Netflix now; whether that’s good or bad, it’s something interesting to point out.” At the end of the live performance of “Netflix Trip”, the three brothers – plus drummer Chris Berry and trumpeter JJ Kirkpatrick – lined up at the front of the stage, as they concluded, “But who I am is in these episodes / So don’t you tell me that it’s just a show.”
With the money they first made street performing, Adam, Jack, and Ryan bought an SM-58 microphone and began recording in their living room, starting with “Pro Tools and a mic and a big idea”, as they sing on Living Room’s “Big Idea”. On stage that evening, Jack would split the crowd in to three groups and lead them in creating the beat for “Bud Like You”; later, for “Burn The House Down”, the band gave the crowd a step-by-step taste of how they build and create their beats. In the years since they bought that first microphone, Ryan tells Substream the recording process has barely changed: “Honestly, I would say the only change is now we don’t record the vocals in the living room – we record it in a closet – so that’s our vocal booth now.”
For the most part, they use the same equipment they always have. So, what has changed? “The only thing that’s upgraded is our ideas; we’ve just become more excited about taking risks and trying to put trumpets where you don’t expect and violins – it’s like all the ABCs of music, but flipping them around and trying different things.” In “Come Hang Out”, AJR asks themselves, “Should I go for more clicks this year / or should I follow the click in my ear?”. It’s a question we all find ourselves facing: should we do what will be popular, or should we do what our heart tells us? But it’s exactly this experimenting and following what they believe to be true that’s allowed them to get where they are today.
This fall, AJR released an animated music video for “Turning Out” – a love story that also touches on what it’s like to feel you’re growing up, but you haven’t grown up just yet. When asked if they feel they’ve figured themselves out anymore in the year and a half since The Click was released, Ryan laughs as he admits, “No, honestly less.” Their shows have gotten so much bigger, and while that’s really fun, it “makes you so much more self-conscious about every little thing you do on stage, starts to be – “is that the right thing? Are people liking this?” – so honestly, to be honest, way less. And that’s even more what our next album is gonna be about – now, how do we figure ourselves out in front of everybody?”
With a crowd of people watching, AJR may not be able to sing “I’m Not Famous” much longer. Adam, Jack, and Ryan Met are normal, if not somewhat nerdy, guys from New York, and they’re figuring themselves out just like we all are. They may not have the answers, and in their own words, they’re “still turning out” – but that’s okay. If the past year and a half of their career is any clue, they’ll turn out fine.
AJR are currently on the road for The Click Tour Part 2; head to AJRbrothers.com to see the dates.