It didn’t take long for The All-American Rejects’ first record to become a staple in high schools all over the place when it was released in 2002. And while a lot can change in ten years, including an industry turn upside the head, a few things have remained the same for AAR: they’re still dead-focused on making music, they’ve kept their feet on the ground, and that impossibly catchy melody of “Swing, Swing” has stayed pretty much timeless.
Alter The Press spoke with guitarist Nick Wheeler about how the last ten years haven’t aged the band, but have pushed them to stay relevant in the next decade.
Alter The Press: So it’s been ten years since the release of your self-titled. What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think about that?
Nick Wheeler (lead guitar): It’s one of those things that seems like it was so long ago, that in time it doesn’t seem like I’ve been doing this for so long, because I don’t feel like I’ve grown up 10 years of life, or matured in any way. It’s crazy, though. It’s one of those things that still hasn’t sunk in. We’re still in go-mode. We’ve never really stopped, we’re always doing something whether it’s touring or writing. We’re always living and breathing this band and these songs. So it’s kind of like one of those milestones that we don’t want to stop and acknowledge.
ATP: But don’t you want to celebrate it?
Nick: Oh yeah, absolutely. We kind of did, actually. It’s been longer than that since Tys [Tyson Ritter, lead vocals, bass] and I have been writing songs for the All-American Rejects. It’s 10 years since the four of us have been together, meaning Tys, myself, Mike [Kennerty, guitar] and Chris [Gaylor, drums]. Chris’s first show with us was the record release party of our self-titled album in Oklahoma City. We didn’t know him when we made the record, we just made it, Tyson and myself, and we played everything and sang everything on it, and we made glorified versions of our demos, basically. And after we made the record we thought, now we need a band. So we took on these other two Oklahoma guys. Mike started playing with us the summer before it came out, and Chris, like I said, his first show was the record release show. That’s the 10 year celebration that we just had on our last tour. We played a couple old songs that we hadn’t played in a while, and on the actual day we had a day off in Indianapolis. We went to this old-school classic steakhouse and we everybody in the whole crew was there. Which is tough to do on the road. Everybody knows it’s hard to get a big group of people together, but it’s even harder when you’re on the road and you come to a day off and everybody’s supposed to lay around and do nothing. But everybody was really into doing it and we celebrated and we all went out and had a lot of beers and a lot of meat.
ATP: When the album was first released, you guys released it on Doghouse Records. Then you guys got signed to DreamWorks and it was re-released. Can you give me a little rundown of how that process happened? And, knowing what you know now, would you have done it the same way again?
Nick: Absolutely. I don’t think it’s possible to do it that way again because the music industry has changed so much in the last 10 years. That’s what makes it seem like it’s been a long 10 years, because when we made our first record we didn’t even have a website. There was no such thing as MySpace or Facebook or YouTube or anything like that. We were one of those bands that got lucky and somebody listened to us and the tape that we mailed to a record label. So I don’t think it could happen like that again. That was Doghouse, that basically pulled our record out of the trash and took a chance on s. And that was before we had written the majority of our first record. When we got signed, I believe the sonly songs we had written were “Your Star,” “Too Far Gone” and like “One More Sad Song,” maybe “Don’t Leave Me.” I don’t know, just four or five tunes. We had never written any of those singles, even. But they believed in us. They took a chance. So that was the summer of ’01 I guess, and we spent the next – I’m gonna refer to this time as a ‘semester’ because Tyson was finishing high school – we spent this next semester me sleeping in, because at this point I had dropped out of college – I had a freaking record deal, I didn’t have to go to college, right? – So I quit school, I slept in and I’d come over after he got out of school. He was a senior at this point. He was going to graduate early. And we spent that semester writing a few more songs. That’s what it was. It was, alright, you got 5 songs, make a record. That’s when we got “Swing, Swing” and “Paper Heart” and “Last Song” and stuff like that.
We worked with the only guy who was interested in us, it was Tim O’Heir, and it ended up being an amazing experience. I mean, it was an indie label, so of course we had stars in our eyes. We made the first record for $10,000, which, living in New York and recording for 6 weeks, $10,000 doesn’t go far. We were sleeping on Tim’s floor eating, like, veggie hot sauce, whatever we could get our hands on. Boiling hot dogs, and surviving on that. And it was a great time, and I think I always say we’ve experienced a lot in the last 10 years, and we’ve experienced a lot of things over and over in the last 10 years, so it’s always those first things. Recording our first record. Getting our first bus. Those are the things that I remember the most. Making that first record was a trip because people would come in – we even had a couple publishers come in and listen – no major label guys yet, but people who were in the industry and who could start a buzz came in and freaked out, especially about “Swing, Swing.” We were just there doing all we knew how to do. We didn’t know anybody, and it was just word of mouth.
After we made the record, it was surreal, because we left New York 6 weeks later with a finished record in our hands, and we drove back to Oklahoma and when we got here we went back to our one bedroom apartment that cost $175 a month, the four of us slept in it, two bunk beds, and there was this whole weekend warrior thing again. We were like, what’s changed? We’re on a record label and we made this album and we were just in New York where people were kissing our ass and now we’re back in Oklahoma playing for $100 every weekend. But something started to happen. We started getting phone calls from managers from labels and from publishers and this is when I said, I don’t think this is happening. We were one of the last bands to experience getting wined and dined and taken to strip clubs and we just had whatever we want thrown at us. We were never really big on drugs or anything like that, although we probably could have gotten it if we wanted it. But every other weekend we got flown out to LA or New York for these lavish dinners and taken out and put up in these nice hotels and we got pretty much whatever we wanted. And we made sure to take full advantage of that. That whole summer was a trip, man. It was so funny. This is what it was. It was literally us staying in a one bedroom apartment and going to thee insane vacation weekends and taking our extra steak or whatever it was from dinner and carrying it on the plan with us back home and eating it for dinner the next day. Like I said, we were still on a little label, and we took full advantage of everything we could.
In doing so, we met a couple guys over at DreamWorks…and they didn’t do any of that shit. They took s out to dinner or whatever, but they weren’t all about the show, they weren’t blowing smoke up our ass talking about how big this record’s gonna be. They were just like, ‘Hey, we like your music and we want to sign you.’ For some reason the fact they were just so down to earth and real…something clicked. [The self-titled] got re-released on DreamWorks, and Doghouse was involved for the first three records. And then from that, that’s when we actually got a manager, we got a booking agent, and we got on still not-awesome tours but we released songs from home. We were like, dude, you should see how we live in Oklahoma, we don’t want to be here! Don’t let us come home! And that’s when we went out on the road and that’s when it all happened. We made the video for “Swing, Swing,” got it on the radio, and it kind of blew up. And it just snowballed from there. Then we came home – well, actually when we came home I lived with my parents. But eventually! Eventually we didn’t come home to Oklahoma.
ATP: And just for a point of reference, which this whole snowball effect happened, when all of these managers were calling you and taking you our and spoiling you guys, how old were you at this point?
Nick: Tyson would have been 19 which made me – you know what? I wasn’t 21 yet and I didn’t turn 21 until we were already on a bus. We were 18 and 20. And like I said, we pretty much had whatever we wanted. We were just two underage guys being taken to bars and clubs. It was insane.
ATP: And you mentioned this when you first stared talking about how you feel it’s weird that it’s been 10 years, because you don’t really feel like you’ve aged 10 years. But looking back, as such a young kid going through that experience, do you look back on yourself and think, Oh God, what as I doing? Or do you think, yeah, I was just a kid living in the moment, and I loved it?
Nick: That’s exactly what it was. We were just kids and we didn’t give a fuck and we got whatever we wanted. I say I’d do it again but I think I’d have to be 20 to do a lot of that stuff again, but I definitely wouldn’t change any of it. It was pretty magical.
ATP: So let’s turn back to the record real quick. You and Tyson recorded the album yourselves. Did it get re-recorded once it was re-released on DreamWorks, or was it the same recording?
Nick: No, not at all. It was what it was. It cost them nothing and they put it back out there and it definitely sounds unique, I think, the way it was recorded because of the budget. I wouldn’t say we cut corners, we did a lot of really cool things on that, but the fact that the string arrangements didn’t actually end up getting played by a string section. We did a lot of those things later like on the next record, but I think the fact that all those string arrangements came off my keyboard, I think that’s what gives the record its charm and I think that’s why people like it.
ATP: That brings me to my next question: if you were to record your self-titled over again, would you change anything? For example, would you get an actual string section to play the arrangements?
Nick: I don’t know, I think it would cheapen it. As hard as it is for me to commit to a part when we’re writing and demoing songs, I think once you get to the studio that’s the end of the lin. This is it. What you do here, this is final, and the song is through. I think it captures that moment in time. I think obviously the lyrics are capturing where we’re at at the moment. I think for me it’s that final, put the bow on it in the studio, and that’s i. And I don’t think I would want to change it. You hear bands play the older, classic songs live now-a-days where you see them play it with a big orchestra. They play it different and they sing it different and it’s just not the same. I think there’s something to be said about the way it was captured, that I wouldn’t do it again. I think it’s perfect the way it is.
ATP: After writing those songs so long ago, do they still mean the same to you today as they did back then?
Nick: I mean, what they mean is they were what got our foot in the door and allowed us to make 'Move Along' and so on and so forth. IT started what were. It started what we were able to do for the last 10 years. And I really am proud of t. I really respect it. We’ve grown a lot, and we’ve changed a lot. Four records in 10 years, and we still take those songs very seriously. Although we don’t play many of them anymore, the ones we do play, we still really take pride in playing those and getting those across. A lot of bands abandon the early stuff because they believe they’ve evolved and become a different band. I get that, I can respect that as an artist. But there’s something to be said of really embracing where you started and not letting people down, because they still do really wanna hear the early stuff.
ATP: The way a lot of people look at you is as a staple of that time in their lives 10 years ago. I know you guys just finished a really long tour and earlier this year you were supporting Blink-182 on their 20th anniversary tour.
Nick: Yeah, we went to the U.K. and Europe and did two months over there with them.
ATP: So you guys are part of this community of bands who mean so much to so many people, and a lot of you guys are hitting these major milestones. How does it make you feel to be part of that community?
Nick: There’s two sides to that. I’m really fortunate and thankful that I’ve been able to do this for 10 years and I’ve been such a big part in a lot of people’s lives. It’s always great when people come to shows or the meet-and-greets afterwards and they tell us things like, you got me through a really tough time. Or, you were the soundtrack to my high school. The other side of it is here we are 10 years older, and a lot of the bands that we came up with or were compared to or toured with, they’re all gone. They’re no more. So although it feels good that we outlasted that and that we’re timeless to some people, it’s also a challenge and it makes us want to stay relevant and be able to do this for 10 more years. I know a lot of lifestyle bands or scene bands, once that scene or whatever goes away, the band kind of does, too. It’s a little depressing at times but also inspires us to keep creating and keep trying new things and keep pushing ourselves to not do the same things over and over, because those bands that have been around for a while and are still doing it, they’re just doing the same thing. They sell less records and they play to less people. But they’re still doing that. It makes us want to strive to keep bettering ourselves as musicians and as songwriters and to be able to do this 10 more years, and in 10 more years to have hopefully accomplished, I don’t know, something else, still talking to people like you who want to hear about the record we’re doing now. I hope that didn’t make me sound like an asshole!
The All-American Rejects' self-titled debut album was originally released on October 15th, 2002.