Ashley Osborn

All About Timing with All Time Low

The first time I, the author of this feature, saw All Time Low live, I was 15. I had just discovered guitar driven music and was infatuated with the ideology of counterculture. Eight years later and this is my life. I got to see them in Philadelphia last month when it was 23º outside and Alex Gaskarth’s breath turned into fog as he sang into the microphone. It’s been almost a decade since they came into my life and the emotions are the same. It was a blast – dynamic and impactful. With them, pop punk really is forever. 

All Time Low has just released their ninth (!)  studio album, Tell Me I’m Alive. A cosmic mix of all the catchy pop punk that the band is known for alongside some new elements, even the most hardcore fans will find themselves enjoying the direction of the band. It’s unfamiliar and surprising, yet also unyieldingly ATL. There are piano notes laid under almost every song, synths that never distract from the crunchy guitars, and some of the most memorable performances we’ve seen from the band so far. This is a group that has always played with pop tendencies in their rock music, but we can’t help but feel this is the record they finally nailed the balance on. It’s also, at its core, the most fun the genre can be. 

The Aquarian had the chance to catch up with longtime friends Alex Gaskarth (guitarist and frontman) and Jack Barakat (their lead guitarist) about the new record and the tour that they are embarking on tour this summer with Mayday Parade (emo veterans) and Games We Play (emo newcomers). For all of our local NYC/NJ readers, they’re playing the Sherman Theater in Stroudsburg, PA on June 10.With so much happening with the band right now and a new sense of self, it’s an exciting time to be a fan.

We’ve got to talk about the new record. I feel like this is the most amount of piano I’ve heard on an All Time Low record. Tell us about that process. 

Alex: For sure! I think it’s something we leaned into as a new creative device and there is a slight theatrical [element] to some of the music that we didn’t shy away from. It had to do with the fact we have this guy, Dan [Swank], who now tours with us as our aux player on stage and he’s great at piano. It kind of started allowing us to lean more into some piano vibes on stage with our back catalog. We thought, “Now that we have this ability, why don’t we introduce that to new music?” We even wrote a few songs with Dan involved in the writing. It was just a fun thing… 20 years into making music you’re always looking for ways to excite things and bring new energy to the songs. It was really just something we didn’t want to shy away from and it lent itself to making some cool tunes.

It still feels like All Time Low. It’s not just 12 piano ballads that are super slow. You still have that energy that we associate with you guys and it is so incredible how you’re able to weave those together musically.

Alex: Right on! Thank you! The inspiration was a lot from The Beatles, Elton John, and Queen – artists who were sort of doing rock and roll with piano incorporated and it didn’t mean it had to be ballad feeling, down feeling, or slow tempo. There is a lot of energy that can be captured in piano. It just sort of became this device that continued to push the energy forward but with a different sound.

Jack: Even as more recent as Jack’s Mannequin/Something Corporate. Andrew McMahon is someone we grew up listening to and love and always appreciated how he would rock, kick ass, and still have a piano – really cool.

I totally agree with Andrew. Seeing him live, you see them bring out a piano and you’re like, “Jeez, I wonder what this is going to be,” and then he just nails it! It’s unbelievable.

Jack: He goes crazy!

Another thing about this record, there’s a lot of synth in it. You guys played around with synth on Last Young Renegade (2017), but this feels more naturally incorporated.

Alex: I think so. Last Young Renegade was very much experimental in a lot of ways. It was us playing with these new sounds and trying to do some really different things with All Time Low. There’s a lot of…I don’t want to say growing pains, because I love that record so much and I think the songs are amazing. I’m biased. At the same time, though, it’s us actively growing while trying to figure out how to use those sounds. This time around we were able to approach it from a standpoint of like, “We know what we loved and what worked from that record. We know as writers what we didn’t love so much and what we didn’t feel like worked as well.” I think we were able to lean back into playing with those sounds in that sonic bed in a bit more of an informed way.

Jack: I think that doing it with Zack Cervini – who I consider the perfect producer for our band, who grew up as an All Time Low fan – who knows what he loves about our music, saw the marriage of the two as the perfect combination.

He knows the band so well he was able to harness just the right moments.

Jack: Exactly!

I know with Wake Up Sunshine the four of you just got together in a room and wrote those tracks. With this new album was it the same thing? Or was it more sending ideas back and forth?

Alex: This was a little bit more disjointed than Wake Up Sunshine because in Wake Up Sunshine there were two very specific writing moments that culminated in the bulk of the record; whereas this album, because we were in lockdown for some of the writing, it was spread out over time. We wrote songs here and there. In a handful of songs, I found out what worked, then found out what wasn’t working. It was probably a year-and-a-half before we went, “Ok, it’s time to really put an album together.” When we did get together, kind of sat under one roof and wrote some more songs, we realized we still [needed to] feel out what the overall vibe was with the music we were making. That’s when it really took shape, because there are songs on this record that were written quite a while ago. 

Jack: It was a few weeks/months after Wake Up came out in April of 2020; by July we had written “PMA” and “Once In A Lifetime.” By that fall we had written “The Sound of Letting Go.” Pretty soon after that record was released, a lot of these songs had been written already just purely out of not being able to tour. We didn’t go back and finish the record until like… a year ago?

Alex: Yeah!

You guys are not a stranger to writing songs and putting them out as singles, but not putting them on the record. I think back to “Everything Is Fine” and “Birthday” being on their own. Same thing with “PMA” and “Once In A Lifetime.” Every time you do it, is it a conscious choice?

Alex: I think with “PMA” and “Once In A Lifetime,” it was really just more a matter of timing. We had those songs written, but we weren’t ready to put out a full album yet. [In] this day and age, it really doesn’t matter. Albums are still really important and bodies of work are still really important, but you do have the flexibility to be a bit more selective with songs just living as singles. They perform just fine that way. They still have the same kind of reach that an album does.

Jack: Definitely a sign of the times – a sign of the streaming times.

Alex: We’re ok with putting music out that way. I think the big thing is, if it doesn’t feel like it connects to the body of work we are working on, it’s fine to just let it live on an island. We didn’t feel any pressure to go back and make those work.

Jack: And, truly, I feel “PMA” and “Once In A Lifetime” could be on this record. It just felt weird to put them on after they’ve been out for years.

Alex: Kind of felt like it would be cheating the listener.

Jack: Yeah!

Alex: If two of the 13 tracks are songs that have been out for two years and people are already very familiar with the songs, it’s like, “No. We’d rather give something completely new.” 

I really appreciate that. I love the single format, but that can be a middle finger when you realize you’ve already heard half the record after it’s been announced. 

Jack: Yeah, totally!

Even going back to what Jack said, the sign of the times, if you had just dropped a one-off single in 2007 you would not be able to open Wembley Stadium with that song. Now, you just opened with “PMA,” and the whole crowd was screaming back. 

Jack: It’s funny you say that because I literally thought that on stage when we did it! I was like, “This is so bizarre.” Every time we open with that song, at least once or twice that thought will cross my mind. “This is just a random song we put out. We didn’t even do a music video for this.” It has just connected in such a way we didn’t expect. That’s such a barometer of our success. “Are our songs connecting live?” That’s really what we care about the most. That’s the most important thing.

Obviously you guys are known for stellar live performances. It makes sense that when you’re writing you’re thinking in the back of your head, “How can I make this perform live? How is this going to resonate with people?”

Alex: Always the priority, for sure.

Jack: Yup.

We’ve touched upon it, but I want to dive in: Wembley Stadium. An enormous show that was livestreamed on record release day, March 17. Tell us about how that process came to be. This isn’t your first time playing Wembley, but I imagine it never gets old.

Alex: Yeah, that venue has sort of become a staple for us. There’s just something about it that feels special. It feels so connected to big moments for All Time Low. We shot a DVD there and that was the first time we played there. It was this amazing realization that the band had grown so much. It kind of felt right to start this record cycle there with a big celebration. It was very nice we got to livestream it and make it the kind of thing that felt like a global event – even if people couldn’t attend. It’s just such an iconic place, a great venue. It’s a great spot for a show. It feels massive and epic, but it doesn’t feel disconnected like some big rooms can. You still get this sense that even though you’re playing for 10,000 people, those 10,000 people are right there with you. You want that when you’re playing new music and trying new songs out for the first time. You want to have that barometer of, “Wow, I can see people are really loving this.”

Jack: At the time when we did it, we filmed our DVD [Straight to DVD II, 2016] It was our biggest headliner at that point. It does hold a special place in our heart. It felt like the perfect time to release that record.

I know we did the livestream, is there going to be a DVD of this new one? Is there going to be Straight to DVD III? Can we expect it?

Alex: That’s a great question! We never say never. There’s always a place and a time for things like that. The DVDs are so funny because they act as these cornerstones in this band’s career. We’ve been a band for 20 years so whether or not there’s another chapter or story to tell… when that chapter comes, it’s very much a possibility. There’s no definitive plans for it yet.

Jack: We film everything. We always have someone on tour with us filming. We have a lot of footage. It’s just, “What’s the story? What differentiates Straight to DVD III from II?”

Coming back to talk about this cycle, this is your third record with Fueled by Ramen. How’s that partnership going?

Alex: Fueled by Ramen has been an amazing label. They’re great partners, and what we love so much about working with them is, it’s sort of a full circle thing. They were one of the first labels years ago that we ever showcased for. At the time, it didn’t quite work out. We spent many years looking across at what they had going on and really loving and respecting what they did with their artists. We’ve always been a fan of a lot of their artists. When it came back around with an opportunity for us to sign with them, it was for all the right reasons. They were fully embracing the fact that we had been a band for a long time. We were already established. We kind of had the way that we like to do things and they were cool with not only that, but they were also cool with the creative directions we wanted to go. There are a lot of labels we came in and presented the idea for Last Young Renegade to, and Last Young Renegade was a very different record for All Time Low. The fact that they didn’t balk at that and say, “No, you need to go make something that sounds exactly like Nothing Personal (2009) because that’s what we need from you,” was big. It was big they embraced where we were moving creatively and what we wanted to do at the time. That’s always how you know the sign of a great partner. They don’t push you into doing things you don’t want to do.

Jack: What you want, like Alex said, is people that let you be who you want to be and also understand your band; where you come from and where you want to go. It’s really just about finding that partner and we feel they’re that. That’s why I think it’s been such a successful relationship.

Putting yourself in their shoes, it’s a tricky ask! Future Hearts, at the time, was your biggest selling album. Then you say, “Great! Now I want to make a night-core record.” I see why having a partnership where they’re like that – open and accepting – is so useful.

Alex: It was great! They embraced it and were willing to take a chance on that. I think we’re all better off for it. It led us to not only getting that record, which has informed so much of our songwriting since, but has led us to Wake Up Sunshine and “Monsters.” “Monsters” is on that record which ended up being one of our biggest commercial hits that we’ve ever had. Healthy relationships like that breed good things.

“Monsters,” being your first No. 1 Alt Radio hit and “Sleepwalking” off the new record being your second… clearly this partnership with Fueled by Ramen is doing something right.

Alex: For sure! We’re trying!

I’ve got another question for you: the album cover for Tell Me I’m Alive is very minimalistic. It’s just the words and this little smiley face. I feel like for a band like All Time Low, where all your record covers are so detailed, it’s different. I mean, look at Future Hearts! It’s got little doves hidden in the background. Look at 2013’s Don’t Panic! with its massive collage. How come on this record you toned the cover down a bit?

Alex: That was very much an intentional choice. This record is about the details of words. It’s not about decoration, it’s about direction – being direct. I think the music is the focal point. I would say the artwork was really just meant to be this symbolic embodiment of how isolating I think the music feels and the place that this music was coming from. It comes from a place of loneliness and uncertainty, getting through those difficult times. All of the record was written while being informed by what the whole world just went through. Visually, we needed to speak to that, as well as this sense of isolation and floating in the ether. 

That’s a beautiful way to put it. Just the smiley with the little heart monitor mouth – it speaks to what we’ve all been through.

Alex: The record is kind of a pulse check on yourself. It’s me sitting here going, “Am I still here?” Wait, yes! Yes, I am. I’m still here.