Two Decades Under the Influence of Taking Back Sunday

taking back sunday
John Nolan and Adam Lazzara from Taking Back Sunday | Peter Garritano/Thrillist
John Nolan and Adam Lazzara from Taking Back Sunday | Peter Garritano/Thrillist

The members of Taking Back Sunday are well aware of what you're likely thinking right now, and no, they can't believe they've been doing this for 20 years either. To celebrate this unlikely milestone, the pop-punk band is taking a victory lap, embarking on a 38-city tour in North America, just having released a career-spanning compilation record, simply called Twenty. 

Forming on Long Island in 1999, back when "emo" was tantamount to a four-letter word, Taking Back Sunday rose from the crop of bands that you would find playing Warped Tour in the summer and became a major player in defining the punk scene of the early-to-mid 2000s. You'd find their first records, Tell All Your Friends (2002) and Where You Want to Be (2004), in the CD collections of any teenager or twenty-something who considered themselves a part of it. As those same people grew up and took out their eyebrow piercings to enter the workforce, Taking Back Sunday kept doing what they do best: Writing music that spoke to tons of people, touring relentlessly, and swinging microphones around on stage.

By now, they've outlived just about every one of their contemporaries. Where many bands are now cashing in on the reunion show circuit, Taking Back Sunday has released albums at a surprisingly even cadence -- about every two years -- and the group's shows still draw sell-out crowds in huge venues. Their most recent non-compliation album, 2016's Tidal Wave, cracked the Billboard 200 top ten. Thrillist recently sat down to talk with singer Adam Lazzara and guitarist John Nolan about longevity, icky sentimentalism, and whether they've met fellow Long Island Music Hall of Fame inductee Billy Joel.

taking back sunday
Courtesy of Keeyahtay Lewis

Thrillist: Almost everyone that I've mentioned that I'm talking to Taking Back Sunday has been like, "Whoa, throwback!"
Adam Lazzara:
"Throwback?" Nah man, we haven't gone anywhere. Where have they been?

Is that an attitude you encounter often?
Lazzara:
Yeah, it happens. We just put out this 20 year retrospective thing, so we get a lot of people asking about Tell All Your Friends, songs like "Cute Without the E." I mean, anytime someone lets you in or their music spoke to them in the same way it spoke to us, that's really great. That was the idea, to let you know you're not alone. The thing is, maybe it's because we're stubborn, but we haven't stopped or taken a break. And I understand over the years, your life goes in different directions. But on the flip side, there are a lot of people who have stuck with us, and I feel like we've grown up together, so that's a special thing. But yeah, I guess we do. That does come up from time to time.

To be fair, that sort of millennia nostalgia that's associated with some of your earlier work has turned into this canonized mythology that's been weirdly commodified through things like Emo Night, which is a trademarked "brand." Does that... even register?
Lazzara:
Well, it's a strange thing because -- and I've said this before -- "emo" is a word we used to use to make fun of our friends with, and then eventually people just started saying, "I am emo." And I always just thought it was the funniest thing. We've never considered ourselves an emo band, but I do understand why people would. We never really cared as long as they were listening.

I went to an emo night in Raleigh, North Carolina. They asked if I would go, so I was like, "sure," and I went and it was cool. But it's so strange to me because they had these guest guys there from bands that aren't bands anymore, and they would be on stage and playing this music and they'd have the microphone, like there was a band behind them, and everyone's going crazy. So it's great that everyone's enjoying the same thing at the same time, getting lost together. But it was also something about it felt very strange.

taking back sunday
Peter Garritano/Thrillist

Were people live-karaokeing any of your songs?
Lazzara:
Yeah, that did happen, which was pretty bizarre. We wrote them so long ago. And then you gotta wonder, like, has people's taste changed that much or are they still in a place in their lives where they're like, gotta be looking for the next cool thing? I don't know. Or it has to be "new."
Nolan: It seemed like something happened whenever the "emo revival" started. We started getting asked in interviews what we think of the emo revival and we're like, "What... is that?"
Lazzara: "What the fuck are you talking about?" [Laughs]
Nolan: But it seemed like something happened where it went from people being into emo bands and sort of embarrassed to being very outspokenly enthusiastic about it. And i don't know why that changed, but it seemed to change in the past five years.
Lazzara: Honestly, I haven't put much thought into it. Because for us, it's like, if we hear about something like that, or hear about people doing that, it's like, "Cool. OK, so what's next -- but for us?" Even with this tour that we're doing, it's kind of in the spirit of celebration because who gets to do this for as long as we have? And so, In that same spirit, yeah that's awesome they're celebrating that. And I hope they come to the shows and see it for real. Because it sounds so much better than it did than those recordings.

In a natural transition, I actually went to the 10th anniversary of Tell All Your Friends in 2012 with the Menzingers and Bayside at the PlayStation Theater in New York by myself, and had a very strange night.
Lazzara:
Go on.
Nolan: Why was it so weird?

So, first off, I was a real piece of garbage back then. The show itself was awesome, but... I was alone and had just moved to the city, so I was drinking a bunch to mitigate that anxiety, while also being the bulky backpack kid pushing my way around the crowd. I got kind of hostile with some groups of bros, saying shit like, "Do you even go to punk shows?" to their faces. Probably because I had a pretty specific, probably stereotypical, expectation of who I was going to see at your show. As you've grown up -- and that was a very long-winded way of asking this question -- have you noticed a shift in your audience at your shows over time?
Lazzara:
At first when we started out it was just our friends, and then people we didn't know started to show up. And it was kind of around Louder Now where we noticed people you wouldn't expect to see started to come. Also, too, that's the thing -- you realize, "I'm just judging the book by its cover" by saying, "Wait, what are you doing here?" Because the whole thing is people are just people. We're just trying to get through it.

One of the things I've become most proud of is shows now, where it'll be anywhere from teenagers to people in their 40s. Everybody's at a different stage in their life. You're not the same person when you're 24 when you were 14, so on and so forth. But to be able to bring all those people together, they're all getting lost together at the same time to the same thing. I think there's something to be said for that. It's funny because when the show starts, you'll see pockets of people, and then by the time it's over, it's just one big mass. Everyone's in it together, and I'm proud that we can do that.

Listening through Twenty, you can hear how you've changed since you started -- Adam, your voice has matured, the instrumentation has become more complex...
Lazzara:
Well, we've gotten better at playing [laughs]. Like, if you start riding a bicycle when you're 12 and you do it every day, eventually you're going to be able to do some sweet tricks. Like, jumps. Before you know it, you're gonna be riding without your hands on the handlebars. It's the same thing of anything else.

Are you cognizant of your goals or what you want to do differently from album to album?
Nolan:
We don't really think about it that much, or plan that far ahead. I think that part of that, with writing songs, is at least the way we look at it, if you do too much planning, too much "Oh, we want to go in this direction," I feel like I can be contrived. It can very easily lose some of its authenticity.
Lazzara: Or it takes all the heart out.
Nolan: I think every time we go into the studio, we want to come out with something we're proud of and that we enjoy listening to. And that just naturally develops and changes over the years.

You're saying you're not going to put out a Sonic Highways, then.
Lazzara:
Well, that depends, unless we get an HBO deal or not.

You guys have also had a bunch of lineup changes over the years, and I'm wondering what's motivated you to stick with it versus being just like, "Fuck this, I'm done now."
Lazzara:
If you quit everything when it gets difficult, then you're not going to accomplish much. For us, this is the only thing we've ever wanted to do since we were kids, and we realize how lucky we are to be able to do it. That's always a thing, even when things are rough, that is very much in our mind, and I think that's why we haven't been like, "Alright. Fuuuuck this, I'm out." And, we don't know how to do much of anything else. Like, I don't. [laughs]
Nolan: I don't either. We have no backup plan. So far so good. [laughs]

taking back sunday
Thomas A. Ferrara/Newsday via Getty Images

Have you met Billy Joel?
Lazzara:
Yes. We met him in November of last year, and him and I joked about Alec Baldwin. It was really great. It was at this Long Island Hall of Fame event, and he came in and we thought he'd just get ushered through, but we ended up getting stuck with one another. 
Nolan: He took a picture with us. Talked to him for a couple minutes.
Lazzara: Yeah, like he said something about--
Nolan: "You don't want to date yourself by taking a picture with an old guy like me." Something like that.
Lazzara: We were like, "No, we absolutely do. Mr. Joel."

I want to ask about your tastes in general because I feel like I've never read anything where you've expressed, like, what movies and TV and music you're into.
Lazzara:
Ah, well. I'm a big fan of low-brow art -- like Juxtapoz, you'd find it in that magazine, or High Fructose. Kidrobot toys. As far as art goes, that's some of my favorite stuff. John and I, when we shared an apartment together, we'd come into the city to the Angelika Film Center. We saw Memento there.
Nolan: We used to go to the movies all the time.
Lazzara: Yeah, when we weren't playing music, that's what we'd do. That one was great because they'd always play the indie films.
Nolan: Really up until I had kids, I'd usually go to a movie at least once a week, or twice, sometimes. Now, not so much.
Lazzara: I saw Lego Movie 2 last weekend.
Nolan: I saw The Favourite recently.

And?
Nolan:
It was really good, but very unsettling. 
Lazzara: Yeah, I don't like feeling like that.
Nolan: You definitely walk out like, "I don't know how I feel!" But it was great, an excellent movie.
Lazzara: It reminds me, John used to love Magnolia--
Nolan: Paul Thomas Anderson is one of my favorites, and I used to make people watch Magnolia, and nobody wanted to watch it with me.
Lazzara: I tried to like it so hard, and I just don't. It makes me uncomfortable.

What about music? Are you up on "cool bands"? Do you tend stick to what you already know and love?
Lazzara:
It's a little bit of both. 
Nolan: We find out about some stuff. The new Phosphorescent album, we've been listening to that a lot. Big Red Machine. I think it's kind of like old-guy rock. It's, like, made for men in their 30s and 40s.
Lazzara: We just did this radio thing and they were like, "Hey, could you cover a current pop song?" I looked at the Top 40, and I'm like, there's not one band on here! I know who Post Malone is, but I didn't know… Maroon 5 was on there but they don't really count as a band anymore because they don't really… play instruments.

It's the Adam Levine show at this point.
Lazzara:
Yeah. Which -- handsome guy. Great singer. [Producer] Eric Valentine worked with him and he just went into do overdubs and Eric was telling me, "Man, this guy… nailed it. Got in, got out of there." So he's very talented, but yeah. To me, that doesn't count as a rock band anymore. I just thought that was really interesting, and it honestly made me feel like, "Oh my God, I don't know shit about shit right now."

Wait, so what song did you end up doing?
Lazzara:
We ended up just adding this part from this guy called Juice Wrld. Which is crazy, because he spells "juice" normally, but then he spells "world" without the O. It's like, I don't get -- man, you already used all these vowels. Did you have a limit? But I did learn that "Sunflower" song by Post Malone, which is really great. I mean, it's a good song. It's funny, I was telling John, every time I listen to Post Malone, I'm like, "fuck, I love this."
Nolan: "Dammit."
Lazzara: Again, this is judging a book by its cover and just how he's portrayed, he just seems like a caricature sometimes. And I hate that for him, because he does seem to really care about what he's doing.

I gotta say, he killed it at the Grammys, performing with Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Nolan:
I saw that!

Yeah, they sounded awful, but he was really good!
Nolan:
Yeah, and he actually played the guitar! Which is exciting to see someone playing an instrument.
Lazzara: Other than that, what have you been listening to, John?
Nolan: Better Oblivion Community Center. I keep talking about that everywhere I go. It's excellent. Immediately, I was like, "I'm in."

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Leanne Butkovic (@leanbutk) is an entertainment editor at Thrillist.