The first time you ever heard the Academy Is… was probably when they were opening for your favorite band, but rest assured, their rise to fame has been anything but calculated.
In the course of an hour-long interview with AP, William Beckett will be interrupted three times. First, by the sound of his bandmates in the Academy Is… shooting fireworks at an abandoned school bus outside the venue in Oklahoma City; second, to be asked by a prospective concertgoer if it’s OK if he goes to the band’s show drunk at 5 in the afternoon; and, finally, by a female fan asking to have her breast autographed (an offer Beckett respectfully declines).
While an average 20-year-old would jump at the chance to engage in any of these activities, the Academy Is… frontman is too engrossed in our conversation to pay any of these incidents a second thought. But, then again, no one ever said the Academy Is… were your average rock band.
TAI… were born when Beckett and guitarist/high school scene rival Mike Carden bonded at a local Chicago punk show over a mutual love of bands such as Cursive and Death Cab For Cutie. However, that wasn’t the only catalyst for their collaboration.
“We had the same gripes and the same ambition for what we wanted to do artistically that we weren’t accomplishing on our own at the time,” Beckett explains.
The group enlisted a few friends to back them up, recorded a screamo-tinged five-song EP for their friends’ label, LLR, and early last year began playing shows with then-relatively unknown peers such as Fall Out Boy.
“Sometimes, when you see a band or a person, you can just see it,” FOB bassist/singer Pete Wentz says. “I’m definitely a word person, and [Beckett’s] ideas are absolutely amazing.”
Wentz hooked the band up with Fueled By Ramen’s John Janick, who came up to Chicago, hung out with the band for three days and—on Wentz’s insistence—signed the band to the label. “I called John every day for two weeks telling him to sign the band: I was pretty much the most annoying person ever,” Wentz says with a laugh. “I think he maybe signed ’em to get me off his case.”
With a record deal but no songs (or even a trailer) to their names, Beckett and Carden moved into a shared room in a Palatine, Illinois, apartment, where they spent three months writing their debut album, Almost Here.
“A lot of [Almost Here] is about making the record,” Carden explains. “I think when I look at it now, it was a metaphor for our own pressure we put on ourselves. At the time, a lot of our friends weren’t taking these big chances. They were going to school and doing their normal thing, and everyone was frowning [at] us, going, ‘What are you doing? Why are you two shacking up together? What are you baking?’”
What they did resulted in a brilliant collection of gems that combine the duo’s indie- and classic-rock influences with an upbeat and deceptively straightforward pop-punk sensibility, landing TAI… on high-profile tours with Something Corporate, Straylight Run, Motion City Soundtrack, Matchbook Romance and Armor For Sleep—all prior to Almost Here’s release.
“I think they’re the first band we ever really took out that didn’t have an actual record out [at the time],” Tony Thaxton says, drummer for Motion City Soundtrack. “I didn’t know if kids were going to respond to them or not, but they went over great.”
For anyone who’s seen the band live (or caught their video for “Checkmarks”), that shouldn’t be a huge shocker. Beckett is a natural frontman, prancing around the stage like a maniac and swinging mic cords—and stands—like lassos, while the rest of the band—bassist Adam Siska, drummer Andy “The Butcher” Mrotek and guitarist Tom Conrad—are equally animated, banging their heads and engaging the crowd with their onstage antics.
“That’s the best, man,” Carden explains about the band’s live set. “For that half hour in [our fans’] day, they’ve been waiting to be with you, and they’re singing along. I’m not thinking about anything but playing the song—and a lot of the crowd is doing the same thing. We’re in a moment.”
Speaking of special moments, this all brings us to the aforementioned boob—and the fact that, despite their headlining status tonight, it’s probably not a frequent request made of, say, someone in Mae.
“We’ve always wanted to focus on the songs and the message and what we’re trying to convey, but at the same time, we’re a rock ’n’ roll band. And there’s a certain element of a style and a swagger that go into that,” Beckett says when pressed on the fact that much of the band’s press—and message-board threads about the band—focuses either on his waifish good looks or the band members’ ages (Siska just turned 17). “It’s not something I’m particularly comfortable with yet,” he admits. “I mean, the attention and seeing, ‘Oh, he’s so hot’ as opposed to, ‘That song is really great.’”
“People think we have this grand plan in our heads, but as far as press photos and things like that, dude, I’m genuinely telling you, it is what it is,” Carden stresses emphatically. “I’ll be honest: If someone comes up to us and really likes the record for what it is, that’s wonderful, man. That’s the best feeling I could ever explain. But on the same token, if someone comes up to us and goes, ‘We saw your picture in AP, and we really like the way you guys look, and we came to the show,’ what should I say? I wish we had a better story for it, because it’d probably be cool, but I guess we’re not cool, you know?”
However, despite fawning girls, “next big thing” claims and the band’s rapidly expanding fanbase, TAI… aren’t content to slow down or—it seems for Beckett, at least—have a detectable sense of contentment with their current rise. In fact, the band already have 18 songs written for their next full-length, and they’re embarking on a Japanese jaunt followed by their first proper headlining tour this fall.
“It’d be very simple to grow big egos now: ‘Yeah, we fucking made it, man,’” Beckett sneers. “But no, we didn’t fucking ‘make it, man.’ Every time I feel a shred of ego or accomplishment, I remind myself that you’re not hot shit. You haven’t done anything substantial yet. You haven’t met your goals. We’ll pop in U2 and be like, ‘This is what it’s all about. You’re not Bono yet.’ It’d be very, very easy to get lost in all that shit. But it’s a part of the game, and if I said I didn’t expect it to happen, I’d be a liar.”
But the question remains: If Almost Here was the band saying they still have a ways to go, when will the Academy Is… finally, well, arrive?
“When I envision that place,” Beckett begins, “I envision myself retired with a wife and kids, focusing on being a good father or maybe producing and doing things purely for happiness. But right now, I’m just too damn young. I can’t see any end in the next 15 years where I’m going to be comfortable just writing these types of songs or just playing to these people. I’m always trying to expand, and maybe that comes from my upbringing and not ever feeling like what I’m doing is enough—that I’m always capable of more.”