AJR knew exactly what they needed to say on ‘OK ORCHESTRA’
For most of us, being locked down with our siblings for the entirety of 2020 seems like a nightmare. For brothers Jack, Adam and Ryan Met, however, it was nothing new. The trio, better known as indie-pop band AJR, already wrote, produced and recorded their first three albums in their living room, so for their fourth full-length, OK ORCHESTRA, it just made sense. Following 2019’s Neotheater, which saw the band go stratospheric, they dropped “Bang!” earlier this year before teasing OK ORCHESTRA with singles “Bummerland,” “My Play” and “Way Less Sad.”
On OK ORCHESTRA, which was fully formed in 2020, AJR expand the musical theater touches they toyed with on Neotheater into a full-blown theatrical universe. The record is joyous and light, sometimes deceptively so as the brothers grapple with underlying insecurities and growing pains. Traversing genres, themes and influences, OK ORCHESTRA is an exercise in staying still and growing up. It seems already outsized for the brothers’ living room, crafted instead for the stage they’ve spent a year away from. Basically, it’s the opposite of everyone else’s quarantine albums.
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To get the background on the writing, themes and creation of OK ORCHESTRA, Alternative Press spoke to middle brother, vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Ryan Met.
You already write, record and do everything at home together. Did being forced to stay home feel any different?
The actual process of writing wasn’t really different. Like you say, we write and produce and record in our living room. The thing that changed was the inspiration for songwriting. When we write songs, there are two halves of our brain. One half is taking in the external stimuli, like going to parties and watching movies and thinking, "Oh, this is how my friends relate to each other. There’s a song in there." The other half is inward thinking, and we had a lot more of the latter. The album ended up being very inward-facing, very introspective. It created some of our favorite music we’ve ever made.
You managed to create such a big sound at home—it’s very different from the albums everyone else is putting out.
Oh, thank you! That just comes from 15 years of making music at home. We’ve experimented with every genre. We know what not to do, [and] we know what sounds like cheap bedroom recording. We know how to fool people into thinking there was a big orchestra there. I think we got a little bit bored with just moody, depressing music. Everyone is feeling bad right now, and we’re of the opinion that it doesn’t even need to be said. Our goal is to turn your head a little bit and say, “You know what? Everybody is sad, but maybe here’s a hopeful way to look at it.”
There are definitely some similarities with the new Weezer album, OK Human. You have that big sound and those daily, mundane themes. Was that intentional?
That was a great album. Weezer have been one of our favorite bands for our entire career. We’re friends with Rivers [Cuomo]. He appeared on our song “Sober Up.” It’s so funny: Neither of us knew we were putting out albums with those titles, and he texted us, like, “Hey, big coincidence!” If you’re going to be compared to one band, Weezer are a pretty cool band to be compared to.
Do you see other similarities with Weezer?
Rivers came out in the '90s in a very similar circumstance in that there was an obvious definition of the male rock star. Rivers was like, “A nerd could be a frontman, and if you have enough to say, you can find an audience.” We’ve taken that as our mantra. We know AJR is never going to be the coolest kind of music. We’re not the Weeknd, and we’re proud of that. We don’t need to appeal to the same people that the Weeknd does. There are 8 billion people on Earth. We can find our audience of nerdy, insecure people that are willing to celebrate us.
On OK ORCHESTRA, you can really feel the nerdy musical theater influences. Where does that come from?
That’s been such an influence for us from a young age. Musical theater was our first love. We can’t seem to escape it, and with each album, we lean more and more into that. We test the waters. Like, “OK, we’re playing at our tours, and these guys in their 20s and 30s are coming to our shows singing pretty musical theater-inspired songs. How much can we get away with this?” That’s fun for us. I think OK ORCHESTRA is the best example of that.
Are there any specific musicals that inspired the album?
Les Mis or Wicked or Phantom Of The Opera. These bigger, more epic shows where somebody could just belt out a song or a soliloquy that feels really unabashedly epic and honest. I think my least favorite part of pop music is that it can often be cynical and jaded, so our favorite part of musical theater is that you can just belt out something loud and be very proud of it and not worry about being too heartfelt.
You can feel that. There are some more serious political themes here, too. Was it tough deciding to confront that stuff?
We wrote it throughout 2020, but we’ve talked about political issues in the past, too. It’s a fine line to walk, where you don’t want to sound preachy because nobody wants to be preached to, but we don’t want to shy away from it. It’s so relevant all the time. We wrote the most political song on the album, “3 O’Clock Things,” about the predicament of, “Should I even write a political song? Should I even discuss politics with my friends? Is it worth it?” Then we ended up talking about racism.
On a lot of tracks, you seem to be grappling with growing up, too. Does that feel particularly hard right now?
I think it directly affects how we write music. If you look at The Click, it was very teenage problems. It was like, “Should I hang out with my friends, or should I pursue my hobby?” That sounds so trivial, but it was so important to us. When you become more of an adult, you look back and say, "That’s not that big of a problem," but it felt really big to you at the time. I think that the different stages of exiting teenagehood have been the theme of the last couple of our albums. We can’t help but write about that and mention it. It really feels like anything you do now, in your mid-20s, is really affecting the rest of your life.
What are you hoping your fans will get out of this album right now?
I think we’re really careful and considerate with the amount of music that we put out. It’s not a song every week. It’s more, “OK, we worked really hard on these 13 songs so it lasts you a while.” I hope that fans can listen to the songs over and over again and find solace in them and realize that they are not alone. No matter how trivial and small their struggles may feel, we’re feeling them, too.