After years of watching their friends catapult to unlikely stardom, THE ACADEMY IS… have created a bold new record that could very well turn them into mainstream darlings. The future might be unwritten, but if it’s anything like their past, it’s going a wild ride.
Story: Trevor Kelley
William Beckett looks worried. Standing near the ledge of a building in midtown Manhattan, the 22-year-old leader of the Academy Is… stares out at the rows and rows of skyscrapers that surround him and lets out a deep sigh. Anything could be going through his head right now. He could be distressed about his band’s second album, Santi, which, at the time of this interview, is still a few weeks away from release. He could be fretting about the next year he’ll spend on the road promoting it, and how that will inevitably keep him away from his family and friends. Really, it could be any number of things troubling the toothpick-thin singer, as he stands 14 floors up, gazing at the city in the distance.
But as it turns out, what has really gotten to Beckett at the moment is, well… his hair.
“That’s perfect,” the photographer says, peering out from the other end of the camera. “You look great.”
Beckett and his bandmates-guitarist Mike Carden, 22, drummer Andy “The Butcher” Mrotek, 23, new guitarist Michael Guy Chislett, 25, and bassist Adam Siska, 19-are standing on a NYC rooftop today, being photographed for this month’s cover. This shoot is one of the many matters of business the Academy Is… have attended to over the last week in New York. In that time, they’ve also played a show, granted some interviews and turned up at some meetings-all manageable stuff until now. Because as Beckett continues to step toward the front of the shot, a chunk of long brown hair keeps blowing across his face, and it appears as if it might be crushing a tiny part of his soul. As another gust of wind breezes through, Beckett glances at the small group of people on the other end of the cameras and shrugs his shoulders in defeat. Along with the rest of his bandmates, he goes back to striking the kind of serious rock-band poses that seem to match the music that the Academy Is… are making.
With the release of Santi, the Academy Is… are in the midst of a rather serious career transition. Like many of the bands they came up playing alongside, (Fall Out Boy, Panic! At The Disco), the quintet now find themselves entering the mainstream. They have a new album, a new sound and a new opportunity to reach millions of new listeners, just like many of their friends have during the past year. If that will actually happen, however, remains to be seen. But certainly, many have begun to wonder: Will the Academy Is…-like most of their idols and some of their peers-become the kind of band that can fill arenas and sells millions of records around the world? Or will they merely get to look like that kind of band on days when they’re being photographed for the cover of a magazine?
These are some rather heavy questions, to be sure. But in the last year, no one was more interested in the answers to them than the five guys who are currently trying to keep their hair out of their faces.
In a way, the members of the Academy Is… have been waiting for this moment their entire lives. When Beckett and Carden first formed the band in the Chicago suburbs some five years ago, the influences they would discuss were hardly the kind of bands you’d catch playing at your local Knights Of Columbus Hall on a Saturday night. At the time, Beckett and Carden would pore over legendary groups like U2, Pink Floyd and Queen, all of whom excelled at the kind of bravado you need when you’re trying to fill a stadium.
“That’s always what they aspired to be,” insists Plain White T’s drummer De’Mar Hamilton, a friend of the band who has known several members since high school. “When we would talk about music, I could tell that they wanted to be a real rock band. They were always listening to Led Zeppelin. That was the vibe.” But as Hamilton will admit, it would take the members of the Academy Is… years before they would get close to accomplishing such a feat.
In the beginning, TAI hadn’t quite developed the same proficiency as their heroes. Their first real release, The Academy, a six-song EP on local indie LLR Recordings in 2004, sounded more like the work of a screamo band than a classic-rock act. Most of the band members hate to talk about that disc now, and even their friends seem to dismiss it. “When they had that whole era, I wasn’t into it,” Hamilton says. “But one day, [Beckett and Carden] came to my house and played [an early version of] Almost Here, and I was just like, ‘Holy shit.’ It was a complete turnaround.”
Written over a three-month period in which Beckett and Carden shared a bedroom in a crummy Palantine, Illinois, apartment, the band’s 2005 debut, Almost Here, was filled with hooky emo anthems, earning the Academy Is… not only the respect of their peers, but a generous audience worldwide. More than 200,000 fans bought it, and you can safely assume nearly that many got it passed to them by a friend over IM. But last year, when the band started talking about their next album, they began to think bigger.
Five days before the band’s AP cover shoot, Carden finds himself sitting in an overpriced restaurant called Serafina near Times Square, explaining why that ambition took over while writing Santi. “During these years, so much changes,” he says, while picking at a basket of focaccia bread. “At 18, I was like, ‘Okay, I [want] to go around the world and be in a band.’ But now your goals change. You adjust. You start to think, ‘Okay, what’s next? ‘Well, I want to make great music. But why do you want to make great music?’ And for me, it’s because I love all these great bands.”
With this in mind, Carden and his bandmates headed to L.A. last November, where they entered the studio with renowned producer Butch Walker. Walker was an obvious choice for several reasons; he was a longtime friend of the band and at 37, he was actually alive when most of their favorite artists were still putting out decent records. Perhaps most important of all, Walker saw them as the kind of far-reaching rock band they have always strived to be.
“The problem a lot of bands have, especially emo bands,” Walker begins, “is that they cite all these people-like Led Zeppelin- as their influences. But they don’t sound anything like them; they sound like Hawthorne Heights. Nothing sounds like Robert Plant with his shirt off. But with these guys, I actually get that feeling. I get that timeless feeling.”
Whether fans and critics would get that feeling, however, was something the band worried about a great deal while recording. Over the last year, no one was feeling this anxiety more than William Beckett.
Make no mistake about it, there’s really no other job William Beckett is better suited for than being a rock star. When he arrives at the Belmont Lounge in Union Square a few hours after AP’s lunch with Carden, he’s wearing a snug leather jacket and boasting the kind of skintight jeans that would make Nicole Richie look plus-sized. During our conversation, he will admit that, at one point, he was a star baseball player who was an exemplary talent on the playing field. But that aside, it’s impossible to picture him today as anything but the lead singer in a popular rock band.
Yet last year, things began to break down for Beckett. He admits there were several moments where he began seriously doubting his abilities as a songwriter and an artist. “While we were recording, that was probably the most stressed out and down on myself that I’ve ever been in my life,” Beckett says. “I was doubting everything. It was a really dark place for me.”
Beckett’s concerns about whether or not “he was cut out for this,” originally surfaced after the TAI’s early-2006 winter tour with Panic! At The Disco (who, believe it or not, were actually opening for them at the time). From the outside, the jaunt seemed like a career highlight. Nearly all of the shows sold out in advance and, at the L.A. stop Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page showed up to say hello to Beckett backstage. For a guy who probably went to sleep every night with a Houses Of The Holy poster over his bed, this chance meeting should have been reason to celebrate. And it was-just not for very long. Instead, over the next few months Beckett often found himself sitting in the back of a tour bus, anguishing over what would become Santi.
One of the reasons for his anxiety was he and his bandmates had hit a wall creatively-despite his desire to create something “special” that could possibly reach a broader audience. Simply put, the songs weren’t there, and though Beckett had already told several people (most notably in AP 210, The Most Anticipated Of ’06 issue) he’d written dozens of tracks for the album, that wasn’t exactly the case.
“The reality was we didn’t have any songs,” Beckett says, cringing. “We had 20-second pieces [of music]. There’s a big difference. I guess that was my way of telling myself that it was all right, when it wasn’t. I think I had convinced myself, or seemingly convinced myself. But on the inside, I was a mess.”
With the pressure to write a second TAI record mounting, Beckett says he began questioning his ability to carry on. Over the next few months, he became withdrawn from his bandmates and eventually went too far with his partying on the road.
This was particularly true during last summer’s Warped Tour, a grueling three-month trek in which the Academy Is… played a string of dustbowl parking lots, alongside a roster primarily made up of aggressive screamo bands and old-school punk acts. As it dragged on, Beckett began drinking every day, occasionally to the point of blacking out.
“He got a little out of control,” Mrotek admits the following evening, when he meets AP for drinks in a swank penthouse bar in midtown Manhattan. “On Warped Tour, that was the height of it. There was one night in particular where he got especially drunk, and that was where I was like, ‘Okay, this guy has got to take it easy.’”
Want the rest of the story? Pick up a copy of AP 227.
Click HERE for the offical AP review of Santi.