“There’s not a lot of room for nostalgia”—Taking Back Sunday on ‘Happiness Is’ live and the future

March 10, 2015
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Nostalgia act? Please. Taking Back Sunday are busting just as many eardrums as they did 10 years ago—and winning over new generations of fans as they do it. Cassie Whitt caught up with guitarist John Nolan to talk bonus tracks, solo projects and a fabled Temple Of The Dog cover. Catch TBS on tour with letlive. and the Menzingers through April 4.

You are a couple weeks into the tour, and I hear from some fans that you have this crazy, cool new light show happening.
JOHN NOLAN: Yes, that is true. We actually have video screens behind us, and the drums are on a giant riser that also has a video screen in front of it. It’s a lot bigger of a production than we’ve ever done before.

I’ve been going to TBS shows for years, and I’ve never really seen you incorporate something like that. What inspired you to bring in that element?
We’ve all seen a ton of bands live throughout our lives and different bands do different levels of production. I think whenever we’ve seen that kind of big thing done right, it’s something that we’ve said to ourselves, “Man, it would be cool to do that someday.” Really I think the only reason it hasn’t happened before is logistically, it’s very difficult, and we wouldn’t have been able to do it without the crew we have right now. They really worked hard for months before the tour to plan this thing out and get it right.


You’re also playing some songs that haven’t typically been on the setlist.
Yeah, we’re actually playing two songs that we’ve never played before. One is “How I Met Your Mother,” which is a B-side from Happiness Is… that we just released with the re-issue, and the other one is “It Takes More” from the [same] album. There’s some older ones, too, that we’ve played before but haven’t played much, and we’re incorporating those.

What were you thinking when putting together the set for this tour?
We’ve done a lot of touring this year—this is our third U.S. tour in one year. I think we just felt like it was important to change the setlist up and add some things to keep it fresh and exciting. We don’t want people to see the same show over and over.

You just re-released Happiness Is with three B-Sides plus acoustic songs. How is “How I Met Your Mother” going over with the crowd?
People seem to be into it. Obviously most people don’t really know the song that well, but it’s a pretty good live song. It’s one of those where even if people don’t know it, they still kind of move to it. It’s pretty exciting.

“How I Met Your Mother,” to me, falls on the rougher, more raucous side of the TBS spectrum. Is that a sound you’re trying to capture more?
I think one of the reasons we didn’t put it on the record was that it just seemed to kind of stand out as something really different than anything else on the record. What we were really looking for was to have the kind of record that was cohesive but had unique moments and could kind of take you on a journey from start to finish and really be listened to as a whole. As far as it being more rough-around-the-edges, I feel like that was just something that happened pretty naturally.

Was there a determining factor besides that cohesion? Did any songs bump these off?
It’s hard to say what took what song’s place. I don’t really know about that. [Putting] together the tracklist for this record was really hard for us. We do it very democratically, so there’s a lot of different opinions, and we went through all these different phases of, “All right! This is it! We’ve got it now!” and then a week later, we’d totally change our minds on things. At one point, we were just going to release every single song and it was going to be a 13-song album, but that was mostly because we couldn’t figure out which songs to leave off. So then in the end, what we went with was what felt most like an album—like a group of songs that worked well together and complemented each other.

It’s a good problem to have to like all your songs so much that you don’t want to sacrifice any of them.
Yes, for sure.

The title of the re-issue is Happiness Is: The Complete Recordings. Are these really the complete recordings, or were there other tracks that never even made the cut?
No, that’s everything we recorded. The only other potential thing we had was a cover of “Hunger Strike” by Temple Of The Dog. We had actually recorded drums and bass for it, and then just didn’t follow through because it was during the recording of the entire record, and we felt like we wanted to focus on the original songs. That idea was just to have something that we would have released outside of the record, just on its own. That was the only thing that really no one is hearing right now.

You and Adam Lazzara recorded the acoustic songs separately. What went into deciding which songs you would re-record acoustically?
Well, “Like You Do” is one that we knew we wanted to do [acoustically], because the way it was actually originally written was Adam with an acoustic guitar, and we kind of took that and made it into what you hear on the album. But we felt like it worked really well in its original form and we wanted people to hear it [that way]. With the other ones, we felt like those were ones that translated really well and that it was an interesting way to the hear the song—just a different way to listen to it.

Right now, is the band thinking at all about future music? Are you going to record that cover?
[Laughs.] I don’t know if we’ll follow through on that or not. We are getting to the point where touring is going to be slowing down, and then we’ll start writing again. We’re not very good at multi-tasking when we’re on tour, we just have a hard time focusing on writing. So what we usually do is everyone gets their ideas together on their own when they can, and then when the time is right, we all get together and start sharing those ideas and working on them together. We’re getting close to that time.

Have you had any individual ideas?
Yeah, there’s always stuff, you know. I have a lot of things where it’s just a really small part of a song, like just one guitar part, or a couple lines of lyrics. I have these things kind of scattered around either on my phone or on my computer at home, and when it comes time, I’m going to have to sit down and compile what I’ve got and see what stuff is even worth showing to the band.

Does a lot of it kind of die on your phone?
Yeah. [Laughs.] That happens a lot, especially with recording. Sometimes I’ll just have a melody idea, like, late at night, and I’ll sing into the phone or one guitar part idea, and I don’t really think about it much, and then I’ll go back and listen to it, and sometimes it’s like immediately like, “Ugh, that was not a good idea,” then other times it’s like, “Oh! Yeah, that was actually good. Cool.”

Do you have a definite idea of what’s going to be happening with the band next, after your current tour and the U.K. one that follows?
Right now, we have some festival shows here and there through the summer and into the fall. Some of them are still being worked out. A lot of them haven’t been announced yet, so we can’t get too much into it. In between, there will be a lot of off-time, so I think during that time, we’ll have our first big writing session.

Going back to the tour: It’s been almost a year since Happiness Is came out. Now, when you’re playing those songs have they changed at all for you in the way you approach and think about them?
It hasn’t really changed what they mean to me, but one thing that’s been great about touring as much as we have is that when we were first playing these songs, I think they were… When they’re new to you live, you’re not as confident in them and they’re more challenging. Now we’ve played even the new songs so much that I feel like I have the same confidence and familiarity in playing them as I do a lot of the older ones, which is cool.

This year is AP’s 30th anniversary, and we’ve been asking every artist we talk to who they think is the most influential artist of the past 30 years. Who is that for you?
One band that comes to mind is the Flaming Lips. Overall, culturally, I don’t know how far-reaching their influence has been, because they’re not the biggest band, or the most widely known. I think that for how long they’ve done what they’ve done, and how they’ve been true to who they are but at the same time how they’ve changed and they’ve changed with it and their fans have changed with it—that’s  pretty amazing to me, and it’s very inspiring. TBS has been around for about 12 years or a little more, and that feels like forever sometimes. Like, “Oh my God, we’ve been doing this forever. And how long can we do it?” But then you look at a band like that, and you realize it’s all relative. We, hopefully, are just getting started. I think that’s a good way to look at it. They’re really inspiring in that way.

If someone were to cite TBS as an influential band, what mark would you hope to have made?
That’s the kind of thing that we try not to think about too much because it’s a pretty big question, and it’s also something that you can’t necessarily control, I don’t think. It has a lot to do with how people perceive what you do. You’re never really going to be able to control that or necessarily know it. In general, I think we’d like to be looked at as a great rock band that was inspiring to people.

I’ve read a lot of recent interviews you and Adam have been doing. A lot of publications outside of this particular music community have been approaching TBS as a sort of nostalgia act. It’s interesting, because you’re very much active and doing new things and always evolving. What are your feelings on this nostalgia fascination lately?
I think I understand the appeal of it. There’s always something comforting about a time in your life that was special to you or fun or whatever that you can look back on, and you can relive it in some ways through music. That’s one of the great things about music, but as a band, I don’t think there’s a lot of room for nostalgia if you want to remain creative and active and doing something exciting. I think the idea of us being this kind of band that just plays the same 10 songs that everyone wants to hear over and over again and doesn’t put out any new music and just relives the past with every show—that seems pretty horrible to us. We try to find a balance to give fans some of that nostalgia that they’re looking for, but also say, “Hey! This is what we’re doing now. Come on. Check it out! This is exciting. This is cool. Get on board.”

It’s at this point where you have completely different generations of fans.
Yeah! That’s really cool. I hope we start to see more of it! We’re already starting to see people come with their kids to the show, and a lot of times it’s not even like they’re bringing a two-year-old. They’re kids that are probably going to be old enough to come to the shows on their own in a few years. It’s really cool to see that crossover between parents and kids being fans.

One of the recent times I saw TBS, my friend and I, who started seeing your shows as young teenagers and are now in our 20s, were sitting next to girls who were 14, like, “Wow!” It’s just as exciting for them, and it’s still exciting for us.
Yeah. That’s another really cool thing to see the people who have been there since they were teenagers who are still there, and there are also new kids there. It’s not like our audience is becoming just people our age. That’s really cool.

You currently have a crowdfunding effort for your new solo album. Between touring and writing with TBS, when are you going to get around to focusing on that?
Well, it’s already been worked on, which is kind of crazy. We had time off in between our last tour and this one. Not a lot, but there was a window there and I went for it. I went into the studio for two weeks. Everything is recorded, and it’s actually being mixed right now. So, while I’m on tour, I’m actually getting mixes and stuff and sending notes back. It’s kind of crazy that right now it’s all going on at the same time. The idea is that if I get the record done now, then by summer when TBS’s touring is slowing down, I can focus a little more on releasing my record and maybe doing some shows around it. ALT

Written by Cassie Whitt