A drone begins to swell, and you’re like, “Huh?” Maudlin strings and distant voices creep in, and you’re like, “Wha?” Then the track changes, drums rave up and crash into tense acoustic guitars, and you’re like, “Who?” And then, about 16 bars into the second track, just as the first chorus arrives, you’re like, “Oh, wait-- this is the new Taking Back Sunday,” before the bridge dissolves into baroque strings, martial drums and swirling discordance. At that point, you realize that the Taking Back Sunday you were expecting is not the same Taking Back Sunday you’ve found on Happiness Is, their latest album for Hopeless.
Happiness Is finds the veteran band—which rose from the melodic-hardcore underground of the late ’90s to the top of the charts in the ’00s—returning to the world of independent music and embracing their newfound freedom. Happiness sees the band expanding their sound beyond the rigorous constraints that both the major label system and the provincial culture of punk rock can impose, parsing out a sound that feels like both a logical extension of their prior work and a radical departure. The second album since reuniting their original lineup for 2011’s Taking Back Sunday, Happiness Is resonates with maturity, but also has the joie de vivre of a band discovering the infinite possibilities that music presents.
“The biggest difference is that we recorded with two different guys, two different producers. One being Marc Hudson, who we’ve worked with for years,” says vocalist Adam Lazzara. “[Marc] will tour with us and a few other bands, but where he really shines is in the studio. He is just this fantastic engineer, and so to be able to work with him in a studio setting instead of on tour is incredible. He’s also one of our best friends.
“And the other half was Mike Sapone, who we’verecorded countless demos and things [with] over the years, but never actually made a record with him. It was really cool. There was already this relationship, which freed up the recording.”
“One advantage is definitely the comfort level—you don’t have that time feeling another person out, [so] you can just go in there and you’re immediately comfortable,” says guitarist John Nolan. “The big thing going into this record was that when we made the last one, we’d only been playing music again for… I think that we had a little more than a year of playing together, writing rehearsing and playing shows before we recorded. And this time we had two years of touring, of steady writing on and off together and rehearsing. I think we were a much more cohesive unit going into the record.”
The cohesion and comfort are evident on Happiness Is—it’s the glue that holds the disparate parts together, the bond that allows the band to wander into uncharted territory. When the various components of the songs head off in different directions—when the bridge of “Stood a Chance” drifts off into space, when the cooing vocals of “Like You Do” swell—it’s not because the group is unraveling, but because they have this springboard that allows them to jump higher, reach farther.
“A worry I had, personally, was that it was our first time going in to make one record, but we were going in with two producers,” says Lazzara. “I was worried at first that the record might not sound cohesive, just because everyone has a different approach, but I think they both did a really great job creating a bunch of moods and vibes that represented each song well.”
“I think all of us, our musical tastes have advanced a lot since the band started—obviously, it’s been over 10 years,” says Nolan. “I think that, with the last record, we were so focused on trying to reconnect and write some really solid songs that we didn’t have the time to explore some of these more natural inclinations that we would have had in the studio, as far as different arrangements and different types of sounds. So, with this one, there was more room for that natural way our tastes have been leading over the years to come out.” “Also, we didn’t have a label when we started recording this record,” adds Lazzara. “So, that was really freeing in a lot of ways, because you don’t have someone from outside the band throwing their two cents in. I feel like this record is a really great representation of the five of us and where we are, being a total collaboration.
First we didn’t know who was going to put it out; that kind of caused personal stress early on in the process. Luckily, Hopeless found us and we found them.
“With this being our sixth record, folks kind of expect a certain sound out of us,” the frontman continues. “So, for us, when we go to write, we put that stuff way in the back of our minds and just start from scratch. So, when that stuff comes out in the song, I think that’s just a product of the five of us—it’s just what happens when we get back together.
"I think another thing about not having outside influences on this record is that there are a lot of things we could try—things we’ve never tried before—like the third song that goes all the way unlike anything we’vedone before, and I think it’s got the right tone. And it changes. Each time I listen, I kind of gravitate towards a different song.”
“I think a lot of what you are hearing is that communication between band members,” posits Nolan. “And some of it is spoken and some of it is unspoken. I think that we had some level of that at the beginning, when we did [2002’s] Tell All Your Friends, and it’s part of what made the band work, but we’ve definitely reached a new level of that. It’s like any relationship that you have: You have to put some effort into maintaining it and keeping it solid. I think we’ve tried to work on communicating with each other in a very [laughs] grown-up kind of way, and I think it’s been good for us.”
Maybe it’s because this band has already had its falling out (Nolan and bassist Shaun Cooper left after Tell All Your Friends), and its reconciliation is in the rear view mirror (Nolan and Cooper returned for 2011’s self-titled album), but Taking Backing Sunday still have a freshness lacking in many of their peers. As the imminent and seemingly unavoidable “emo revival” rallies the troops and prepares to storm the castle of pop culture again, as critical revulsion is retooled into critical reevaluation, TBS seem unfazed, uninterested in hopping on a bandwagon they never jumped off of.
“We’ll see a bunch of guys we came up with doing reunion tours, and we’re like, ‘Holy shit, we haven’t stopped,’” says Nolan. “It’s a cool thing, too, because you can see how folks have grown with us and how we’ve grown with them. After shows, when I get to talk to folks, it’s awesome to hear their stories about how they stuck with us and we stuck with them.”
It’s those folks that have kept the band going through the ups and downs of their career—from trawling the dingy basements and backwater clubs of Long Island’s hardcore scene to their commercial peak as a Billboard chart mainstay to the recent declaration of independence. The TBS fanbase is loyal, and Lazzara and Nolan are clearly determined to give them a big return on investment. But beyond fan expectations and the need to provide for their families, the band simply loves what it does and relishes the opportunity to give the fans more than what they were asking for—in the studio and on tour, even at the risk of alienation.
“Oh man, I can’t wait [to go on tour],” says Lazzara. “I feel like we’ve been done with writing the songs for so long, and now we’re in this limbo waiting to get these songs out to people, to play it for folks, to share it with them and see their reaction. Now that we’re about to kick-start the touring again, it’s just a real exciting thing because it just feels new.
“I feel like one of the reasons that we’re all still so passionate about it is that we feel like there’s so much that we haven’t accomplished yet, there’s still a whole lot that we haven’t done yet. We’ve been home for a little while over the holidays and whatnot, and I’ve gone to a few shows, and every time I go, I’ve been like, ‘Ugh, I want to do that.’ It definitely hasn’t gone away yet.”
“To me, it kind of feels like at this point, anything we do is risky,” muses Nolan. “If we make a record that doesn’t bring anything new and exciting to people, there’s a risk, I think, there, and people can just lose interest. If this is just the same old thing, I might as well just listen to the older records. Why do I want the new half-version of something I’ve heard already? I think there’s a risk in that. “And I think there’s a risk expanding the sound—part of the
reason it doesn’t feel like a huge risk to me was because so much of what happened [went down] naturally in the studio.We didn’t go in saying we’re going to
make this big change or we’re going to do this or that, take this risk here or this risk there. We didn’t really do any of that consciously. To me, it doesn’t feel risky when you do what happens naturally. That just seems like the best-case scenario.”
Best-case scenarios are rare in life, and rarer still in the music business, which makes Happiness Is an exotic beast—the album that satisfies both artist and fan expectations. Happiness Is, with its soaring anthemic choruses and vapor-like ambient transgressions, its fist-in-the-air fury and soft-spoken tenderness, is not the vicissitude that one expects when a tried and true band “expands” its sound. Rather than disappoint, rather than let you down and leave you stranded while following a selfish muse, Taking Back Sunday grab your hand and bring you along for the ride, for an adventure into the unknown.
“One of the goals with the band and for me,” Lazzara says, “was to try to give to someone else what my favorite music and my favorite bands and artists gave to me, whether it be hope or help through a difficult time or cause for celebration. Ever since the beginning, I wanted to make people feel and share that. And that we’ve been able to do that over the years is awesome.”