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How AJR transform everyday insecurities and anxiety into an escapist world of theatrical magic

20 December 2023, 10:00
Words by Jen Long

On their fifth record The Maybe Man, New York trio AJR make even their most vulnerable moments sound hopeful. Brothers Jack, Adam and Ryan tell Jen Long the story behind the band’s most personal record yet.

We love making the albums but we love making the shows, smiles Ryan Met from his home in New York. “We create the tour at the same time as we're creating the album. As we make the finale to the album we go, you know what would be really good on stage? Let's have a moment here where we bow and call out the name of the city. We literally think about the album as a soundtrack to the Broadway show that is the tour.”

Calling in with brother and lead vocalist Jack Met on a Tuesday afternoon on the cusp of Christmas, it's been a little under a month since they dropped their new record The Maybe Man, their most personal and intimate work to date.

Completed by their eldest brother Adam, AJR (do you see what they did there?) have been making music together for close to two decades. The trio grew up in the heart of Manhattan, both inspired and enabled by their surrounding metropolis, their music has all the magic and drama of Broadway, an early influence that’s still close to their hearts. Over the course of their career they’ve been certified platinum multiple times, amassed over five billion streams and toured the globe selling hundreds of thousands of tickets. Yet for the three brothers, their measure of success is something much more modest.

Growing up, the trio were inspired by the influence of their father; music from the sixties and seventies and a good dose of the theatre. “It was Simon & Garfunkel and Billy Joel and The Beach Boys. So that was kind of our first love. In addition, there was all the Broadway stuff that we always used to listen to in the car which was Wicked and Hairspray and Les Mis and Chicago,” says Ryan.


As they began to get older, their tastes inevitably developed to encapsulate sounds they could call their own, embracing hip hop alongside their formative loves. They began to make music together, performing covers in Washington Square Park and Central Park. On their first go they made $60, using the cash to buy more instruments. As their earnings grew, they invested more in recording equipment and software and began to write their own songs. “I think you kind of come up with your own unique style once you're bored of emulating everybody else's style,” says Ryan. “It was a lot of us writing hundreds, if not thousands of songs. One song to sound like Simon & Garfunkel, one song to sound like Kendrick Lamar, and then you start to go, ‘What if I take this from Kendrick, but this from The Beach Boys and kind of fuse it together in a weird way.’”

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In the early 2000s, YouTube was picking up in popularity and scale and artists were reaching new audiences with their own homemade clips. Trying to make their own avenue into the industry, without any familial connections, the brothers began to upload cover versions to the platform. “We were just like, ‘None of the originals are really clicking. What's another way to do this?’” says Jack. “‘Let's start doing covers like the people that produce really high quality covers with piano, we could try to do that too.’ Really, we just gave it a shot and then I guess it started to work a little bit from there.”

Unfortunately, the downside to their growing acclaim came offline. “Doing those YouTube covers, we had to really make a decision of, ‘Do we want to bite the bullet and be successful by any means necessary, even if it means getting fully bullied at school,’” says Ryan. “Anytime we would put out a cover we would come to school the next day and people would be imitating whatever weird dancing we were doing. We had to just suck it up and keep going.”

Finally their tenacity and perseverance paid off. Posting a video for their track “I’m Ready,” Ryan decided to tweet the link to every artist he could think of, the trio believing in their work so strongly. “Honestly, even though we thought the song was so good, it was sort of like a last ditch effort,” says Jack. “We were like, after this we actually have run out of ideas.”


The final artist they tweeted was Sia, who replied straight away asking the band to meet with her that weekend. “It could have easily been a strange man pretending to be Sia, but it wasn’t,” Jack laughs. “It was her and she came out of her hotel, she was singing the song, and we're like, ‘Oh my god, this is real.’ She took us to lunch and then she said, ‘I want to help you guys.’”

Sia introduced them to their manager, Steve Greenberg, who in turn put them in front of a host of US labels and “I’m Ready” was finally realised and released. Although the single picked up strong radio support and ended up selling over a million copies, AJR still knew there was work to be done. “We put out a tour announcement and absolutely no one came,” says Jack. “We said, maybe let's sit down and think about what this band really is. Like, what do we have to say? We started writing lyrics that were ultra personal and ultra relatable and really tried to make music that was just right from our brain.”

Their next release featured the track “Weak,” an explosive rush of confessional pop. From there, things started to grow across the board. The next time AJR put a tour on sale, it sold out completely. “I guess when you're little you think the most enjoyable part about being an artist would be that everybody knows who you are, like the fame and recognition aspect,” says Ryan. “That actually doesn't really mean anything when you get there. What we really really love is making the shows.”

Perhaps it stems from their early love of the theatre, or the brotherly camaraderie that got them through their high school years, but the boys love a spectacle. Playing live to three-hundred people a night, AJR didn’t quite have the budget to bring out a full band, but still wanted to give their fans something to remember. Concerned that performing over backing tracks might look like karaoke, they got creative. “We started really small. We had buckets on stage with light up drumsticks that we got from Party City and we would put the buckets on the audience and we’d do a street performing gag. We'd have a backdrop that Jack could rip off to reveal a fabric sample machine that he'd play. Just little things, but still on the cooler side of anything you've seen in a three-hundred person venue, and then it just snowballed from there,” says Ryan. “Then when we got to thousand person venues, we're like, ‘Let's put on a show that looks like a four-thousand person venue,’ and that has been our artistic model ever since. It’s, let's give somebody something they've never seen that's way too big for the stage.”

“I also think we were just insecure about ourselves as people,” says Jack. “I think all the years of getting made fun of in high school and just how tough it was for eight years, I don't think we had the mindsets of, now we can go on stage and just be ourselves by ourselves and everyone will love that. I think that in a way we felt like we had to do so much more. We're not good enough to do this alone. We got to put all this stuff in there to make it the actual craziest night of everyone's life or else they're never gonna come back.”

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Releasing their breakthrough album The Click in 2017, it landed straight in the top 100 of the Billboard album charts. Entirely written and produced by the brothers, there was one notable exception, “Sober Up,” a duet with Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo. Longtime fans, once AJR saw he was following them on Twitter, they decided to continue their line of serendipitous luck on the platform and reach out, suggesting a collaboration. Cuomo was open to writing on one of their only unfinished tracks. “He said, ‘I'm glad we got to write this together, but you sing the bridge,’” explains Jack. “We were like, ‘Could you just sing it for reference, just so I know what it sounds like.’ So he recorded a demo vocal, sent it over and then we wrote, ‘Hey man, this actually sounds really good with you on it.’ Then he wrote back going, ‘It actually does sound good with me on it… I think I'm gonna sing it.’ We’re like, ‘Oh my god, we just manipulated the situation perfectly.’”

As the band continued to grow, they released two more full-lengths, 2019’s coming-of-age Neotheatre and 2021’s highly acclaimed OK ORCHESTRA. However, as their songwriting progressed, fans still continued to discover them through their backcatalogue, TikTok in particular the catalyst for a resurgence of previous releases. “The Good Part” from The Click caught the imagination of travelers two years ago, while more recently, “World’s Smallest Violin” has generated over ten billion views. “We're finding that that's the new music industry where it's just, let's put out a really good album and tease a lot of songs and let the fans choose which one the single is,” says Ryan. “In some ways it's a better industry now, because now a weird song like ‘World's Smallest Violin’ does get a shot that it never would have gotten, but in other ways it's a little bittersweet because there is a fun to crafting what you think is a hit single and putting every bit of the formula into it and then giving it your all and then watching it rise on radio. We long for those days a little bit.”

AJR have become experts at pivoting as their audience shifts, responding to demand and going with the flow. Their insular creative process and idiosyncratic sounds catching attention as their distinct imagery holds it. “I think that with ‘World’s Smallest Violin’ for instance, it sounded different. I think those are the songs that kind of catch your attention on TikTok now. You're scrolling and in an instant you discover that that sound, drummer, that line, is unlike something that you’ve heard before right now in this climate,” says Jack. “I think that's something we tried to do in our music, where we try to create a sound in pop that isn't normally in pop. I think the other side of it is just lyrically. We try to get ultra kind of stark and relatable.”

That element of openness and vulnerability is even more prevalent on their new record The Maybe Man. Written and recorded by the brothers while their dad was battling lung cancer, the record is both tender and strong, full of poignant observations and eloquent emotion.

Throughout the pandemic, their whole family moved to a house in Long Island, the brothers using the living room to write and record demos. After falling in love with their set up, they reached out to the owner who offered to sell. In the back garden was a small guest house that they turned into a home studio. It was here that they began to build around the demos which would become their new record. “A lot of this album was either tracks or melodies that we couldn't get to work on the last album,” says Ryan. “Sometimes it's really a curse to come up with the melody first because you're just stuck to this amazing melody and no lyric will do, and so there were a lot of those from the past album that we started in the house. Suddenly that melody made sense with a concept that we were going through at the moment.”

Their father, Gary Metzger, was the band’s fourth member, well-known and much loved by their fans and often joining the band on tour. When they were in Europe in autumn of 2022 he was hospitalised with breathing difficulties. “Then we discovered that it was a bigger issue,” says Jack. “We were kind of confused going to this album on what it was gonna be, because the other albums have sort of like this clear path that we kind of decided before. We didn't really know what this was, and then I think when he got sick and our life started getting really difficult, that's when we realised that this album was gonna be our most personal, true album that we've ever made and then the songs kind of found their way from there.”

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With an impending deadline, the band were forced to confront their feelings, their creative process becoming not only an act of catharsis, but a timecapsule of a difficult, life-changing period. “We had to collect these moments and have them immortalised forever or else we probably would have forgotten a lot of what that felt like in the moment,” says Ryan. Sadly, their father passed away on the day they released their fourth single “God is Really Real,” a track that confronts their reality from a candid perspective.

The Maybe Man is a concept record, pinned around the namesake central character who acts like a big, sad superhero, unsure of who is really is. The idea was inspired by a conversation between the brothers. “We really started thinking about who we are as people and I think it was Jack who told me that he really feels like a different human being depending on who he's talking to. It's, I'll be this for you and I'll be this for you, and how little that leaves inside of him and how unfulfilled he feels not knowing who he is at the end of the day,” says Ryan. “We really wanted to make this a concept and we really wanted to present a problem in the beginning and sort of a resolve at the end. This is the first album we've ever made where the protagonist has literally learned a lesson throughout the course of the album as we literally learned this lesson.”

Throughout The Maybe Man AJR pull on the big picture for context. Less than a coming-of-age record, it’s a realisation of maturity via circumstance. While the question of ‘who am I’ could pose an existential panic, the demands of who’s depending on you become the bigger theme. “I’m A Mess” celebrates the nihilistic moments that can come mid-crisis, while fan-favourite “Steve’s Going to London” throws the everyday realities of growing up and moving on into the spotlight.

Even if the overarching themes may sound heavy or difficult, the energy of The Maybe Man is vibrant, rich and playful. Full of upbeat tempos, bright harmonies and inventive musicality, the brothers create a world of sound that’s truly their own. The production is bountiful and the songwriting hook-driven with every lick an ear-grab.

For the brothers themselves, the process of looking after their father informed the record in strange ways. “It's really sad, but it's also really beautiful. You realise how much you could rise to the occasion and become the grown-up that you never thought you could be, taking care of the guy that took care of you when you were a baby. It's the weirdest way for your brain to expand,” says Ryan. “So I think that me, Jack and Adam all had our own paths of growing exponentially while we were writing this album and weirdly, I think that we started writing the album as kids and ended writing it as adults.”

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AJR have a strong bond with their fans, using their own experiences and emotional maturity to help forge a pathway and provide an empathetic presence for those who are going through similar life trials and tribulations. “I think that we've realised that with every album, that it's kind of our purpose on Earth to go through this stuff and feel it (even though we don't want to feel it) ten times more in order to write songs about it so that our fans can not feel so alone when they get to it,” says Ryan. “I think just with every album we write, we realise more and more that it's just more valuable than money or stream-count or notoriety. That's why we do what we do and that's why we're gonna do this forever.”

Throughout their music and their live show, their formative passion for theatre has a direct place centre stage, so it’s perhaps the wildest full-circle moment for the band to find themselves penning a Broadway musical. “The most full circle. The biggest circle,” laughs Jack. “It was an amazing moment and we're in the process of writing it, it's not written yet. This producer approached us and he was a big, Tony-winning producer who put on a bunch of Broadway shows, and he said, ‘Your guys' music sounds really theatrical - have you ever thought about writing a Broadway show?’ We're like, ‘Oh my god, before we even made a band we were writing fake Broadway songs in our living room.’”

Based on the children’s book Harold and the Purple Crayon, about a baby who draws through his problems, the brothers are continuing the storyline as the lead character grows into the adult world with all its drama and dilemmas. “There's this interesting world in Broadway that you can sort of escape into and just write these really cheesy and weird and fantastical things,” Jack continues. “We're having such a blast doing it.”

The Maybe Man is out now via Mercury/Republic Records

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