The Academy Is…: Rock ‘N’ Roll High School
On their previous record, THE ACADEMY IS... were thrown into every quandary you can imagine, from crippling self-doubt to in-fighting within their ranks. Somehow they’ve been able to dial down the drama by visiting a place that’s been responsible for generating neuroses in most of us.
Story By: Emily Zemler
Photos: Taylor Gahm
It’s cloudy at Parc Jean-Drapeau, the scenic venue for the Montreal, Quebec stop of this year’s Vans Warped Tour. Directly behind the venue in “Bus World” (the nickname for the area where all of the bands’ tour coaches are parked), the Academy Is... frontman William Beckett is slumped on one of the benches in the front lounge on the band’s bus, sipping Budweiser out of a can even though it’s only noon. Guitarist Michael Guy Chislett sits beside the singer, tapping on a MacBook, while scantily clad drummer Andrew “The Butcher” Mrotek and guitarist Mike Carden race around the bus, gathering their belongings in preparation for a trip to Los Angeles. The band are spending their only two days off from Warped filming videos for two songs from their new record Fast Times At Barrington High, pausing only to participate in a group therapy-style interview happening in the midst of all the chaos.
Time off isn’t something the band-Beckett, Carden, Chislett, Mrotek and bassist Adam Siska-have come to expect from their schedule. They went into the studio in New York City on May 6, two days after playing the Bamboozle in New Jersey and left for Warped Tour upon its completion. They will completely miss their album release on August 19 because they fly out of Los Angeles the evening following Warped to land in Australia on the morning of August 20. The title of their album is seemingly appropriate to this lifestyle (although it actually references the seminal ’80s high school film Fast Times At Ridgemont High, substituting Beckett and Siska’s suburban alma mater), particularly today when TAI have already played to a screaming Warped crowd at 11:30 in the morning.
“Days off are hard to come by nowadays,” Beckett says warily. “And they’re not actually ‘days off.’ At least they’re days of vocal rest. We finally have these two off in between 12 shows and another 12 shows, so we’re filming two videos at once. I think the last time we had a day off was [two weeks earlier] in Houston.”
“Which wasn’t actually a day off because we did a photo shoot,” Carden interrupts.
“We’re doing the video for ‘About A Girl,’” Beckett continues, “and one for ‘Summer Hair = Forever Young,’ which may or may not be the second single, but we just want to have something ready to put out. Then after Warped Tour, we go to Australia and New Zealand, then Japan, then the U.K., then back to headline a tour in the States.”
The sighs that follow the discussion of just how busy the band are (and will be for the next year) are audible, but not defeating. The sense of group therapy stems from the way the members talk about the creation of Fast Times as if it were a cathartic experience that makes all this urgency worth it. It may also come, in part, from a proud, Alcoholics Anonymous-like proclamation by Siska (who appears midway through the interview claiming that he got left behind backstage with a “pack of wild kids”) that he and his bandmates are, in fact, emo.
Since bursting onto the scene with their 2005 debut Almost Here-the energized album that Pete Wentz recommended to Fueled By Ramen-TAI have had a few hiccups in their development. Their second album, 2007’s Santi, garnered mixed reactions from fans and loud proclamations of disappointment from critics. From the inside-joke title (a reference to a nickname for someone the band knew from their hometown) to a seemingly unclear vision in songwriting (“I just felt like I didn’t get to say what I wanted to say on Santi, personally,” Beckett admits), the disc left some people wondering whether TAI could achieve the success of Almost Here on their third album.
“I’m proud of Santi,” Beckett says. “The writing process was very different [from Almost Here]. Michael had just joined the band, so there was a lot of stuff going on. Mike [Carden] and I were barely talking at all at that point. There was a lot of pressure and a lot of stress on Santi. We were thinking so much about the last record, like, ‘How are we going to follow Almost Here? What are we going to do here?’ I could barely sleep at night because of the pressure. I barely spoke with anybody in the band at that point.”
“And now listening back on it,” Carden adds, “there is a charm you can feel in that record. There’s a vibe. Looking at it two years later, you can understand what the fuck was happening.”
Fast Times almost sounds like the product of another band. While it brings with it some of TAI’s strengths from the previous releases, the record has a clarified tone and direction, achieving cohesion in both subject matter and the music itself. The initial idea-conceived by Beckett-was to take the setting of high school and apply it to the five years that have passed since he and Carden (who attended Barrington rival Schaumburg High) graduated in 2003. Although it might seem strange for a group of guys in their 20s to center an album around high school, the concept comes across, despite the scope of their ages (Siska is 20, while Chislett is the band’s “old man” at 26).
“It’s more like revisiting the mindset,” Beckett says about the concept. “People are always going through all these motions, all these steps, leading to something more important down the line. In high school, everyone is doing all this stuff, and it’s all leading up to that time when everyone has to leave and go to college or get a job. I think a lot of people-us included-forget the importance of now and the importance of the present. I know on a personal level, living like that doesn’t make you feel free like it did in high school and when you were young. It’s a reminder to everyone that youth can be eternal.”
The lyrics on Fast Times offer a full immersion into TAI’s collective high school experience (neatly summarized by Chislett’s personal admission that, “I was never the one of the cool kids”). Although much of the subject matter that deals with being alienated in school comes from Beckett, the band insist the songs are representative of all of them, applying the feelings of their past to the present. The singer even went as far as trying to re-enroll in Barrington the way Ridgemont High author Cameron Crowe went undercover as a high school student (the school administration nixed the idea, claiming the singer would be a distraction). Sonically, though, the songs step forward, fulfilling the band’s goal to make a bigger-sounding album than Santi. Songs like “Coppertone” (the disc’s buoyant thematic fulcrum that references the album title) and “Automatic Eyes” have Almost Here’s poppy amiability, with drums and guitars seemingly destined to be played through stadium speakers.
Once Beckett had envisioned the basis of Fast Times (title included), the band came together behind the idea, writing songs this past fall and fully building their foundations in the early part of 2008. Most of the songs were finished when the band went into the studio with producers Dave Katz and Sam Hollander (Gym Class Heroes, Cobra Starship) and engineer Claudius Mittendorfer (Interpol, Muse), which Chislett says allowed the band to avoid “giving up some of the perfectionism for some of the playability” while recording. The quintet lived and recorded near Times Square for four weeks, with Beckett in one studio doing vocals and the other four in another working on instrumentals, passing hard drives with tracks back and forth by bike messenger.
“On Santi we all wrote in the same room,” says Carden, who has now joined the therapy circle in the front lounge, Budweiser in hand. “And on this one, in a weird way, it’s more of the band because everyone got to put each piece together. We trusted each other. It’s a different process, but now when we listen back to it, it’s more of us because we’re now influenced by each other completely. I don’t know if this is the right way to do it; it’s just one way to do it. The band makes records every year-and-a-half, so hopefully we’ll keep doing that. That’s a nice way to write.”
With many of the bands TAI toured with following the release of Almost Here now disbanded and a significant number of tourmates on Warped this year only on their first album, the band are slowly learning persistence and trial-and-error are what builds careers. Releasing a third album represents something fairly meaningful in today’s over-saturated music scene; particularly to TAI, who readily admit that as much as they love touring, they mostly do it to get to the next record.
“We haven’t made any money off our recordings,” Carden says. “I’ll put that on the record. We go out and tour. We bust our ass. We go all over the world and we enjoy that part of it, but it also makes us able to write the next record. We’re still learning as songwriters. That’s the biggest thing. When we came out with Almost Here we were still teenagers. The model now is to get to a second record and then a third record, if you even get to a third record. How often do you even get a chance to make a third record these days? What we’re most proud of on this record is that we will get to make a ‘number four,’ and we’re starting it right now.”
After a few jokes that the fourth album will be a middle school-themed disc (or as Chislett intones, “Fast Times In The Womb”), the band’s tour manager calls a conclusion to the therapy session and chaos again fills the bus as suitcases are grabbed and laptops are shoved in bags. The Academy Is... may be so busy they barely have time to sleep, but the external craziness no longer seems to be affecting their mindset. All five members seem to know exactly where they’re going-and it isn’t just L.A. for a videoshoot.