Interview: AJR

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It's hard to be unique in the music industry these days but AJR has achieved just that. Comprising of brothers Adam (bass & vocals), Jack (guitar & vocals) and Ryan Met (guitar, piano & vocals), AJR has rapidly risen to prominence, winning over everyone with their single "I'm Ready", which features cartoon icon SpongeBob SquarePants.

They've conquered the Billboard chart, the Top 40 and The Today Show. And the best part? They're all D.I.Y. According to Ryan, with whom we had the pleasure of speaking, the Met bros write, record, produce and mix all of their music in their NYC living room! Last year, Sia took notice of AJR after she watched their music video for "I'm Ready", helped kick-start their music careers and the rest is history.

Following the unanimous success of their five-track EP I'm Ready last year, the band is now gearing up for the Sept 30 release of its debut album Living Room. Learn more about AJR, the band's upcoming record, street performing and more in our interview with Ryan below!

Tell us a bit about AJR for the benefit of those unfamiliar with the band.
We started out street performing in parts of New York City and that was about eight years ago. We went out with a ukulele, did covers and some originals and we ended up making enough money to go buy ourselves a microphone, pro tools and a studio set-up. We brought it back to our living room and we’ve been recording everything in the living room ever since.

What is one thing you miss about street performing and one thing you don’t miss about it?
[Laughs] I’ll start with something I don’t miss: it’s probably the most nerve-wracking thing you can do because you’re performing for all these people that don’t really care what you’re doing and you have to kind of win over a lot of businessmen that are on their way to work and stuff. Miss: there’s a big community in the park. Like in Washington Square Park, there was a guy who would do break-dancing and we became friends with him. It was a nice community of street performers.

You guys have a really big hit called “I’m Ready”. What was the inspiration behind it and why SpongeBob?
The SpongeBob idea was actually Jack’s idea—he’s my younger brother. He came to me with the idea and he said, “Skrillex or David Guetta or Avicii or one of these EDM guys should use that sample—the “I’m Ready”—with a big bass drop. And at that time, I heard it and I was like, “Yeah, maybe.” I do a lot of writing and production for the group so a few months later, I was working on a song and I had my claps down and then I had a lot of the “I’m Ready” parts and I realised at that moment, “This was our shot, I’m just gonna put in this hilarious sample and see what happens!”

Before you released “I’m Ready”, did you ever envision that it would be as successful as it is today?
It was definitely different from what we’d been doing before. I guess before “I’m Ready”, we had more of a retro throwback from the ‘60s sound. We had a lot of that doo-wop stuff going on. And then, on “I’m Ready”, I threw in dubstep and tempo changes and a lot of weird elements that all come together to make “I’m Ready”. I remember hearing the feedback from my brothers. They were like, “Okay, this is enormous. We just have to figure out how to get this out there so that as many people as possible can hear it and they’re gonna like it.” At that time, I just had fun doing it and I didn’t really envision where it was going to take us. I just wanted to make it and I thought it’d be funny. [Laughs]

AJR will be putting out its debut album Living Room next month. What can we expect from the new record and how will it be different from the I’m Ready EP?
It’s definitely gonna show growth. It’s very diverse and it’s very surprising. That’s what we really wanted for the I’m Ready EP and that’s what we actually wanted with “I’m Ready” in the song! There’s doo-wop, dubstep, little piano parts and clapping. At every moment, you think it’s going to go a certain way but it doesn’t. We really draw inspiration from Kanye West and a lot of hip-hop artists—every album is better and cooler than the last album. So yeah, in Living Room and in all of our work, we just really wanna surprise people and say, “You thought you knew who AJR was? Oh okay, we’ll show you something that’ll surprise you.”

Since you mentioned that Kanye West was one of your inspirations, is there any chance that we might get to hear you guys rap?
[Laughs] No! I don’t think you’ll want to hear us rap. The inspiration we draw from hip-hop is more of the difference in production and the innovation.

Is there any particular song on Living Room that you’re excited for fans to hear?
There’s a song called “Alice by the Hudson” that we’ve been performing live a lot. It has a lot of doo-wops and yes, it sounds like it can only be made right now in 2014 because its production is very hip-hop-influenced and very electronic. I’m really excited—I think it’s got a great hook and it’s a really beautiful song.

AJR has performed with big acts like Demi Lovato and The Wanted. If given a choice, is there any artist you’d like to work with in the future?
I think Lorde would be really cool. I think what Lorde has done in the last year is really amazing. Like I said, she’s really surprising people, the way her songs are so minimal and weird... I think Lorde would be a great person to either tour or collaborate with.

Describe Adam and Jack.
In terms of music, I would say Jack is really good at hearing hooks. When he hears a chorus or an instrumental that’s really cool, he can identify that really quickly and he often shows me new music that’s coming out that’s quite crazy and innovative. Adam is the intellectual of the group. He’s a big fan of Simon & Garfunkel, Leonard Cohen and classic songwriters and he adds that to the music—he makes sure that the music makes sense on a deeper level. But I really think that in terms of the music, we wouldn’t have the sound that we have now if it wasn’t for all three of our input.

What would you say has been the highlight of your career so far?
I would say it was probably the moment that Sia retweeted our video for “I’m Ready”. We tweeted it to a whole bunch of celebrities and it was kind of our second year of no success—it was just us street performing and trying to get our music out there in any way possible—and we tweeted it to Justin Bieber and all these big celebrities. The last one we did was Sia and she ended up retweeting it. She met us for breakfast and introduced us to who would be our manager. She really changed our lives in that one instant.

How did you react when you saw that Sia had retweeted your video?
I’m trying to remember... I was in class at Columbia [University] and so was my other brother Adam—he was in his last year at Columbia—when I saw it and I just couldn’t believe it. My brain was racing, I was like, “What do we do with this? How can we figure out how this can change our lives?” And then we ended up having a friendship with her, which is really awesome because she’s such a talented songwriter and singer.

Before you guys named the band AJR, were there any other names that you were considering?
No! [Laughs] No, not really. We always knew we wanted to be something with a name that made us stick out. We wanted to also make a name that sounds like it only could have been around right now in time and not like a band that could’ve been around in the ‘60s. We threw around JAR and a couple of other ones but we realised that AJR kind of rolled off the tongue.

You mentioned earlier that you were attending Columbia University. Was it hard juggling college and the band?
Yeah, it was really difficult. I did my freshman year in Columbia and the whole time, I was just really into music and I was basically recording our album in my dorm room and then going back to the living room so we could lay down vocals and stuff. It was really difficult so I took the past year off. I’m going to take another year off to do what I love—which is music— and then I’ll go back when I have the passion for it and I’ll get my degree.

You produced two tracks off Andy Grammer’s new album. What was it like working with him?
Yeah, I actually just saw Andy Grammer today—I went to see him perform live at The Today Show. He was performing the song that we co-wrote, “Back Home”, and it was really cool to see how the song really took on a life of its own! I went to write with him and we wrote two songs that ended up on the album. He couldn’t be nicer and I’ve stayed friends with him.

What is your favourite thing about performing?
Watching the fans grow. I’ve always loved those documentaries of bands, where you can see them do a show where six people come, and the next month, twenty people come and it just grows. I feel like I’m watching that first-hand and it’s really crazy to see how many people actually care about what we’re doing. And like I said, we make our music from our living room—we write, produce, record and mix everything there—we feel a sense of ownership over our music and when people support it, we feel incredibly proud of it. So I would say it’s really interesting to see more and more people come each time.

So can we expect an AJR biopic in the future?
I don’t know! I don’t think we’ve been filming enough to make a documentary. That would be really cool though. We’ll try to figure out how to do it in a really unique way.

What’s a typical day for you and the band like?
Right now, a typical day is basically doing a lot of shows. We’re on a radio tour and we’re back in the city right now for two days and then we head out to New Hampshire and it’s just going from city to city, doing acoustic sets at different radio stations, a lot of driving, sleeping when we can and hanging out with friends. The coolest thing about this is that we went to Myrtle Beach yesterday and we got a hundred people. It was an amazing crowd. We’re so grateful for everyone that comes out to these shows.

Have you had any weird or interesting fan encounters?
Most of our fans are just really chill people. I think they know that we’re not really into the whole crazy fan-girl thing and they realise that we just like having conversations with them about music, their interests and our interests. I wouldn’t say that there’s been any weird encounters!

Photo credits: Pamela LittkyShervin Lainez

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