The New Rule of 5SOS
It began with a ‘no expectations’ writing trip in the Californian desert. Now one of Australia’s biggest music exports are ready to unleash their fifth album, under a new rule.
Ashton Irwin is reversing his Porsche convertible out of the parking lot at LA’s NRG Studios when his manager Ben walks up beside him to introduce us. The top is down and his left arm is casually hanging over the car door. He flashes a broad smile and promises to be right back. 5 Seconds of Summer need a 12-string Strat guitar and his place is closest.
It’s been over a year since the band from Western Sydney inadvertently started work on their fifth studio album, 5SOS5. It began with a ‘no expectations’ writing trip to the Californian desert, and now, on this warm February afternoon 13 months later, it’s the final day of recording.
The rest of 5 Seconds of Summer are in the Moroccan Room inside the studio, Michael Clifford is on the couch and Luke Hemmings is cradling his guitar on a seat near the Neve Console. It’s the same room the band recorded their 2020 single “Red Desert” in, and where acts like Tom Petty, Fiona Apple and Korn have recorded before. Only when I meet bassist/vocalist Calum Hood do I realise how much Irwin stands out against the others today. Clifford is in a black jumper and shorts, Hemmings is in a t-shirt and an open-button shirt, Hood is in baggy grey pants and an oversized Hibernian soccer jersey, and Irwin is in a suit, dressed like he’s ready for a Quentin Tarantino casting call.
When he returns from grabbing that guitar, he tells me he’s celebrating: “I woke up today and was like, ‘Man suit up, let’s do this. Bring it home’.”
The global hitmakers have a lot to celebrate. Following eleven years as one of the world’s biggest bands (four number one albums, a place on Billboard‘s Top Artists of the 2010s Chart, over eighty award wins), 5SOS have spent the past year making the kind of career moves befitting their industry stature. But those moves have come with risk. The band’s split from both their label (Interscope/EMI) and management (Modest! Management) in March last year was widely reported. As was their signing to BMG for a global record deal; the one which sparked a $2.5 million lawsuit from management firm YM&U Group for an alleged breach of contract. The suit was filed last year, after YM&U’s fleeting eight-month partnership with the band.
Despite the legal battle, 5SOS have been bolstered by a new team to explore their creative freedom. This record marks their first self-produced album with Clifford at the helm. It’s a vast change of pace for the band, having been led in the past by star producers like Andrew Watt and Louis Bell on hit singles “Youngblood” and “Teeth”. However, this new album has come with some apprehension from the band.
“I’ve only ever heard that [self-producing] go wrong to be honest,” smiles Irwin. “Apart from like Pete Townsend recording Baba O’Riley or something. I can’t remember many that have been like, ‘Fuck yeah, glad they did that’.”
For the moment, Irwin and Hemmings aren’t needed by Clifford in the Moroccan Room, so they’re in another room off the foyer reflecting on the “really fucking long” journey of making this record.
“This isn’t the first time we’ve attempted several of these songs,” notes Hemmings.
Irwin chimes in: “Yeah, we’re re-recording a song in there for the fifth or sixth time.”
The urge for growth is hardwired into the engine of 5 Seconds of Summer. From touring five countries in five days in 2014, to being one of the first bands to release a pandemic-era record (2020’s Calm took out the top spot in the UK over Dua Lipa), to last December forking out half-a-million-dollars to produce a free 10 year anniversary sketch show for fans, the four friends just don’t have it in them to do things by halves.
5SOS’ early years are a tale of grit, determination and true friendship. As Hemmings, Hood, and Clifford navigated high school together and Irwin worked to help his mum pay the bills, the group went from bonding over their shared musical diet of pop-punk, to uploading cover songs on YouTube, to playing for twelve people at their first show at Sydney’s Annandale Hotel in 2011. Just fourteen months later, they were touring the world with One Direction.
It may be hard to believe, but the shot at joining a global tour with the British boy band behemoth wasn’t an easy ‘yes’ for 5 Seconds of Summer. On a mission to ditch the ‘boy band’ epithet , 5SOS pushed back on the opportunity at first.
“We’re like, ‘We don’t want to be that, we don’t want to be that’,” remembers Calum Hood. “And then we let go of it and it was an amazing opportunity.
“I’m glad that we had people around us that were like, ‘Look, you’ve got to pretty much pull your head out of your arse here. One of the greatest bands of this generation is asking you to go on tour with them’.”
The band only had about twenty Australian live shows under their belt before they were thrust onto global stages with the boys from One Direction. But even with this rapid rise, 5SOS have always had a small but vocal group of detractors who insist that they’re more of a ‘pop group’ than accomplished musicians. Perhaps it’s the power-pop choruses that pepper their songs, or the ‘singalong’ lyrics that everybody knows (“You look so perfect standing there / In my American Apparel underwear”), or perhaps it’s all the “whoa-oh-oh”s and “hey-ey-ey-ey”s. Or even the fact their music videos are so damn fun.
But in truth, 5 Seconds of Summer are gifted musicians who have flourished in their versatility. They can deliver a power ballad like no other (“Amnesia”, “Easier”), they are one of Australia’s most successful exports (their eponymous album hit number one in 14 countries) and they can back it all up live with with airtight riffs, crisp percussion, serene harmonies and polished grit.
Naturally, Hood agrees. “I couldn’t talk more highly of any other musicians in a band than the other three guys,” he says, beaming. “They’re so versatile. They do everything.”
You can hear the band teleport into new musical worlds on each progressive album. Some of the more fickle fans might experience their new styles and influences as sharp, unexpected right turns, but true diehard members of the 5SOSFam have loved the band’s creative evolution — although they rarely get the credit for just how far ahead of the curve they are.
The loyal fanbase has often been disregarded by music snobs as just a bunch of “hysterical” girls. In a piece written for the New York Times, Jon Caramanica wrote: “[…] they delivered these songs to the usual screaming, swooning girls: notably, both tweens and teens. When a roadie was clearing the stage of items thrown by the crowd, it looked as if he were gathering both intimates and stuffed animals.”
Sadly, many predominantly female fanbases are still being mischaracterised in this way. When young girls demonstrate their passion at concerts for artists like Justin Bieber, The Beatles or 5SOS they have been labelled ‘hysterical’. When young boys do the same thing at an AFL game, they’re just being “enthusiastic”. In a moment that shows the band’s deep maturity and realisation of their position as high profile stars, Irwin and Hood say they’ve never downplayed the intelligence of the 5SOSFam, and in particular its female members.
“The young, female fanbases know what’s good before anybody else, they always have,” says Irwin, seriously. “They make it easy for these awful people who take advantage of that,” he continues, perhaps thinking of the proverbial ‘men in suits’ whose job it is to convert fan data into sales data. “Because they [the fans] all point at this great thing and go, ‘That’s the good thing’. In a pure way. ‘We like these guys’.”
“The young, female fanbases know what’s good before anybody else, they always have.”
“[…] But you know what’s beautiful about it?,” Irwin adds. “In just my personal experience, it also helped me identify, from an outside perspective, what were good things about us. It was like..,” he pauses, taking a short moment, “look it’s so obvious, of course. The way we’re best mates — that’s the special thing. Of course anyone could go and write a song that sounds like 5SOS and release it, but it’s like we’re the guys who are actually hanging out to make that and spend the time, and live in that world together, you know?”
When I ask Hood about the term ‘fangirl’, he has the demeanour of someone who’s just cracked his knuckles before sitting down to write a biting open letter.
“I think a lot of people dismiss the taste of a lot of young female audiences,” he says. “[…] It’s an incredibly awesome thing to have a largely female fanbase. I wouldn’t trade that for anything, because they are very caring and they’re very empathetic. And they are very creative as well.
“So for me, it is an incredible honour to have a female fanbase. And honestly, having grown up being surrounded by my mum and many aunties and my sister, and many cousins, women are an incredible force that really shouldn’t be reckoned with.”
Right now, the busiest 5 Seconds of Summer member is Michael Clifford. When the band worked with producers like Benny Blanco and John Feldmann (the former leader of ska-punk band Goldfinger) he was the one taking mental notes and tinkering away in his own time to hone his own style of production. Now, it seems as if he’s battling a tinge of imposter syndrome, though it comes across quite endearing.
“Luckily for me I’m so fucking self-deprecating that I hate most things that I do anyway,” he chuckles, half-serious. “So that’s really helpful for the process, because I’m so unbiased.”
Clifford is currently taking a break from his producer duties to speak for the first time about the inception of 5SOS5. When the band drove to Joshua Tree for their ‘no expectations’ writing trip, they holed up at Rancho V in November 2020 — Hemmings and Clifford in one car, Hood and Irwin in another.
“It had these really, really crap houses on the property,” Clifford says, referring to the home studio spaces. “And I feel bad for saying that, because I hope he [the owner] doesn’t see me talk shit about it, but it was pretty rough.”
It was the first time in the band’s career that they had written without an end goal in mind; a silver lining of the global pandemic. “We were like, ‘I don’t even know if we’ll ever be able to tour again’,” Clifford says. “‘Are people still releasing music? Like, what’s happening?’”
Without the pressure of writing for anything in particular, they demoed fifteen songs. Clifford tells me they’re “some of the best songs we’ve ever made.”
“As we were driving home Luke and I were listening to the songs together and I just remember looking at each other and being like, ‘Holy fucking shit. We just started the new album’.”
The band’s desire for creative independence has become more vivid with every record. On 2018’s Youngblood 5SOS experimented with industrial pop and new wave, and with previous album Calm, the band flexed their lush-rock muscle and showed off their penchant for dark soundscapes. The themes that run through 5SOS5 expand the band’s ethos to explore concepts like mateship, unity, and growth. It also acts as their way of processing love (Clifford got married in January, Hemmings announced his engagement last June), and loss (Hood and Irwin both went through breakups).
“We’re all in such a better, different place than we were on the last album,” says Hemmings. “And you can hear that musically in the lyrics and aesthetically, it’s all sort of a bit… I don’t like to say this, but a bit freer.”
The first song the band wrote for the record is first single “Complete Mess”. It’s a big bang style smash-up of sophisticated pop and grandiose soft-rock, sprinkled with the band’s emo-indebted lyrical instincts, and a rap beat underneath. The song’s title and hero lyric (“You make me complete / You make me a complete mess”) is an inside joke the band shares with fans. Hemmings has a singlet that he’s worn onstage so many times, it became a Halloween outfit. Fans once recreated the singlet, painting on the slogan ‘You Complete Mess’ but the final two letters are smaller and in a different font, giving the illusion it reads: ‘You Complete Me’. Now, the singlet is available for purchase on Etsy under: Luke Hemmings You Complete Mess Shirt.
Clifford is grinning as he remembers how the song came about, shuffling forward in his seat. “He [Hemmings] was like, ‘Guys, this might be the worst thing ever’. He’s like, ‘This literally might be the worst thing I’ve ever done. But I have a crazy idea’.”
“[…] We were like, ‘Luke if you don’t tell us, I literally won’t sleep’. He just sang the chorus,” Clifford proceeds to sing. “Oh you make me complete, make me complete, make me a complete mess. We were like okay done, I’m sold.”
“He’s like, ‘This literally might be the worst thing I’ve ever done. But I have a crazy idea’.”
“Complete Mess” was a hit. It trended worldwide on release, and the clip (which the band had filmed the day prior) clocked over one million plays within the first 24 hours.
Following that trip to Joshua Tree, the band went back to the desert for another writing excursion, again just the four of them. After that, it was a big decision to bring on collaborators; the list of co-writers includes Australian hitmaker Sarah Aarons, Rami Yacoub, Sarah Hudson, J Hart, Mick Coogan, Sierra Deaton (Hemming’s fiancé), and Michael Pollack.
“We had to learn to want to collaborate again, you know what I mean?,” says Irwin. “Because we had learnt what, in a more mature, refined way…,” he pauses, “what our personal skills were.”
It’s odd to think that just over a decade earlier, the band were recording DIY cover videos for YouTube using a box for a drum, two guitars, and a bass guitar for Hood borrowed from Irwin’s stepdad. 5SOS grew very quickly from a makeshift acoustic band to selling out arenas. At times, mainly when they come across as overly excited or apprehensive, the band seems like they’re in the early stages of their career. As if they’re in year one, working on album one.
So what’s the secret? What’s in the special sauce that stopped them from becoming a music industry cliché or a candle burned at both ends? Why have they never even toyed with the idea of breaking up? One answer could be that they’re not a manufactured product, brought together by male gatekeepers in suits à la Girls Aloud and Hear’Say. But according to Clifford, it’s more to do with basic respect and continuous forward momentum.
“We just kind of give each other the space to do our own thing and you know, if someone’s being a dick we just say they’re having a bad day and then we move on. And by tomorrow they’re all good,” Clifford says. “[…] Things move so fast and there’s always something new happening every day, that it would be just too much effort to like, go through it all. It’s just like, move on, because something else is going to happen fucking tomorrow.”
This interview features in the June 2022 issue of Rolling Stone AU/NZ. If you’re eager to get your hands on it, then now is the time to sign up for a subscription.
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