Falling in

April 8, 2007


A few hours before showtime at Metro on Valentine's Day, the members of the chart-topping pop-punk band Fall Out Boy were gearing up to treat their hometown to a second buzz-building, under-the-radar club show celebrating the release of their fourth album, "From Infinity on High."

The first had come 11 days earlier as part of a much-hyped daylong blitzkrieg inspired by their label president, rap superstar Jay-Z. Then, they'd played a morning show in New York, an afternoon gig at Chicago's House of Blues and an evening concert on a rooftop in Los Angeles, with an MTV camera crew trailing them every step of the way.

The Metro show was greeted with just as much media frenzy: The record company thought it would be a good idea for journalists to see the group in its old stomping grounds, and the musicians spent several hours before the show talking to writers who'd flown in from England, Europe and South America. By the end of the month, the quartet would also appear on the covers of Spin and Rolling Stone magazines.

"Dude -- a familiar face!" one of the musicians said when I finally got my turn for an audience, and we reminisced about the first time I interviewed them, as they were hauling their amps offstage after a sparsely attended showcase at the South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin, Texas, back in 2003.

The group has come a long way since then: It is now the most successful and famous rock band that Chicago has produced since the Smashing Pumpkins in the mid-'90s.

  • Fall Out Boy's 2005 breakthrough, "From Under the Cork Tree," sold 3 million copies.
  • Its new disc debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard albums chart
  • Eight weeks after its release, it was certified platinum with a million copies sold, and it has yet to fall out of the Top 10.

    Nevertheless, for the first 15 minutes, all the musicians wanted to talk about was how, the morning after the Grammys, they managed to catch a short performance by the Police during the press conference announcing that band's summer reunion tour.

    "That was unbelievable -- the best thing ever!" 22-year-old guitarist Joe Trohman gushed.

    "Joe, [drummer] Andy [Hurley] and I somehow snuck into the line for that press event, and there was [Roots drummer and R&B producer] ?uestlove standing there, so we said to him, 'Come with us!' " recalled singer Patrick Stump, also 22. "None of us were even supposed to be in there, but somehow we got to stand right in front of the stage, and no one came to kick us out. Afterwards, we were eating dinner with ?uestlove, and he was like, 'Wow, man! I can't believe we did that!' And we were like, 'No kidding! But we can't believe we're sitting here with ?uestlove, either!' "

    Of course, it isn't all glitz and glamour. "Yeah, but we also went to the Clive Davis [Grammy] party the other night," Pete Wentz reminded his bandmates. "We didn't have enough money for the valet, so we parked four blocks away. We rolled in wearing hoodies, and we didn't stop to think that it was a black-tie event. They let us in, because we bombarded our way through the red-carpet people. But it wasn't long after that that we got asked to leave."

    Leave it to the band's 27-year-old bassist, lyricist, designated heartthrob and perpetually brooding poetic soul to keep things in perspective. The four members of Fall Out Boy may now be superstars, with Wentz by far the most recognizable. But one of their charms is that they still have the aura of scrappy punks who've crashed a party where they don't belong, and part of their appeal is that they're taking fans with them.

    Fall Out Boy's story starts in suburban Wilmette with a combination hard-core punk/thrash-metal band called Arma Angelus that featured Wentz on growled Cookie Monster vocals; at various points, Hurley and Trohman were also members. Stump was drumming in another band back then, but he wanted to sing, and in 2000 he and Wentz formed a new group to play a more melodic brand of hard-core punk.

    The story goes that the band didn't have a name when it played its first gig, and it asked the audience to provide one. Somebody shouted "Fallout Boy," after an inside joke on "The Simpsons," where the character is the sidekick of a superhero called Radioactive Man. It stuck, and the quartet recorded its first thoroughly generic and generally lousy album in 2003, "Fall Out Boy's Evening With Your Girlfriend."

    Stump was still playing rhythm guitar at the time, and the debut featured a different drummer. The group now erases that disc from its history by saying that the band didn't really start until Hurley came onboard for the second album, "Take This to Your Grave," issued later in 2003.

    Here, the Fall Out Boy sound as we now know it began to take shape, with hard-driving rhythms and melodic, anthemic choruses distinguished by Stump's rich baritone and Wentz's witty and literate lyrics. The wordy puns and metaphors are what prompted some critics to brand the band "emo," but that tag never really fit: Though Wentz can be as dark and overly sensitive as any of emo's bedroom bards, he's always had a piercing sense of humor, and the band boasts more speed, volume and melody than the most rambunctious emo band.

    Playing through the pain
    In 2005, Wentz, who'd struggled with emotional problems as a teen, attempted suicide with an overdose of the anti-anxiety drug Ativan. He has told the story often, and it provides another clue to the band's appeal: Fans living through their own turbulent teenage years relate to the bassist as someone who's been there, emerging to not only talk but laugh about it all.

    Recorded while Wentz was climbing out of the black hole through therapy, and with cover art depicting a van accident that beset the group during its constant touring, "From Under the Cork Tree" is an album about persevering in the face of trying times. The song "7 Minutes in Heaven (Atavan Halen)" stands as the most obvious reference to Wentz's overdose, but it was another tune that hit hardest: "Sugar, We're Goin Down." Both that single and the follow-up "Dance, Dance" peaked at No. 6 on Billboard's singles chart at a time when hip-hop, R&B and dance-pop ruled the Top 40.

    "I like proving people wrong," Wentz said as we talked in Smart Bar below Metro. "I remember when the label came to us about 'Sugar, We're Goin Down' -- and it was the same with 'Dance, Dance' -- and they were like, 'This is never going to be a hit. This is never going to cross over into Top 40; people will not be able to understand these lyrics.' "

    "We didn't have a plan with 'Sugar, We're Goin Down'; it was just a song we liked," Stump said. "We didn't have a plan with 'Dance, Dance; I just really dug that song. So when those records did as well as they did, it was really kind of scary in that all the sudden, people had all of these expectations from us."

    'A snapshot of a moment'
    The band members don't deny that those expectations weighed heavily when they returned to the recording studio. "I would say that there was less fighting on this record than there was on the last one, but the fights were much more serious," Stump said of making "From Infinity on High."

    "I treated this record like some people treat college: I never wanted to leave, because the rest of it seemed too much like the real world," Wentz confessed. "I kind of got caught up in an Axl Rose thing, where I wanted to keep recording and recording, changing it and changing it. At some point, you have to walk away and say, 'This is the snapshot of a moment; it doesn't have to be your last record or your best record, it's just a snapshot of a moment.' But that was a really hard thing for me to come to grips with."

    Nevertheless, Fall Out Boy didn't shy away from taking chances. While most of "From Infinity on High" was produced by Neal Avron, who'd crafted the hits on the preceding disc, the band also reached out to an unlikely collaborator for two tracks, working with superstar R&B producer Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds.

    "I'll tell you the most insane thing: I walk in the door and there's the platinum record from 'The Bodyguard' soundtrack on the wall with, like, 24 million copies sold," Stump said. "I thought I should just turn around and walk out again. This past year has been full of moments where we would walk into places and wait to get kicked out!"

    But the band stayed; Edmonds became a fan -- "Patrick is one of the baddest dudes I've seen in a long time. ... He has a great voice, very soulful" the producer said of Stump in Rolling Stone -- and the result was an album that builds on the familiar pop-punk anthems of the past by adding more subtle and nuanced dance grooves, as well as unlikely touches such as strings, horns, grand piano and even a snippet of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah."

    Unlikely partnership
    Many of the recent articles about Fall Out Boy focus on Wentz's extracurricular activities and cult of celebrity (see sidebar), and that's part of the story. But the real reason for the band's success is the undeniable craftsmanship of its songs, the result of a unique partnership between the flamboyant bassist, who's the de facto frontman onstage and off, and the chubby, sideburns-sporting singer, who's generally silent except for when he's crooning his bandmate's lyrics.

    "At this point," Stump said, "I'm much more confident singing his words, because I know that he spent a lot more time on them than I would if I was singing my own words. I'm a rhythm man -- I play drums, that's what I know -- and I know that he doesn't give me words unless he's thought them out. So I don't have to think about that, I can just sing and come up with a melody, and at this point, that's second nature for me. If there is anything I'm really unsure about, I'll tell him about it. But I think we're at a point where there hasn't been a lot that we've turned down from each other."

    "We're both like clockmakers who do different parts of the clock," Wentz said. "I don't tell him how he does his job, and vice versa. We have that sense of things with each other, and I don't have that with other people."

    'We're as surprised as you'
    The partnership between Wentz and Stump may be unprecedented; I can't think of another rock band where the bassist writes the words and commands the spotlight while the lead singer pens the melodies and embraces the shadows. But clearly, it works.

    "I look at who I am in the mirror and I'm like, 'Dude, it's insane that we have a No. 1 record!' "

    Wentz said. "I know who we really are: 'S---ty dudes from the suburbs of Chicago.'"

    "Right!" Stump laughed. "That was the first thing that dawned on me when I saw that text message: 'The dudes from Arma Angelus have a No. 1 record? What?' You could have not possibly picked less likely dudes in the world to have ended up ... here, where we are. We're as surprised as you are."


    [SIDE BAR]

    Pete Wentz: The busiest Fall Out Boy
    Personnel file | Whether it's an apparel line or, ahem, amateur videos, band's bassist does it all

    Until recently, Fall Out Boy's bassist and lyricist lived in his parents' home in Wilmette. But Pete Wentz now has an apartment in Los Angeles -- though it's hard to imagine he has any time to spend there: In addition to the whirlwind of activities surrounding his band, Wentz is closing in on Paris Hilton when it comes to celebrity scandals, and he easily approaches the most industrious rapper in terms of his varied entrepreneurial endeavors.

    Pete the Lover-Man

    At various times in the last few months, Wentz has been linked to singer Ashlee Simpson, actress Michelle Trachtenberg ("Buffy the Vampire Slayer") and professional car crash Lindsay Lohan. "I'm attracted to creative people and train wrecks, and there's no shortage of that in Los Angeles," Wentz told Rolling Stone, though the magazine maintained that he's smitten by his longtime girlfriend, Jeanae White, a 20-year-old Chicago hairdresser.

    Pete the Porn Star

    In March 2006, a series of photos from a show-all striptease that Wentz conducted in front of a Morrissey poster spread across the Net; at one point, he reportedly topped Pam Anderson and Paris Hilton in an AOL poll of the most popular dirty-picture Web searches. In a post on the Fall Out Boy Web site, he insisted the pictures were hacked from his PDA, but he noted that after "feeling badly about this for about 24 hours, I am now ready to get back to laughing."

    Pete the Fashionista

    Inordinately fond of hooded sweat shirts, Wentz has started his own company, Clandestine Industries, to sell these and other accoutrements of punk anti-fashion. (Some items are adorned with the same bat-and-heart logo visible as a tattoo just above his, um, no-longer-so-private part in the photos mentioned above.) The company has a production and distribution deal with DKNY.

    Pete the Record Mogul

    Fueled by Ramen was the indie label that launched Fall Out Boy's career, and Wentz has joined with that company's co-founder, John Janick, to start a new label called Decaydance Records. Currently home to Cobra Starship and Gym Class Heroes, among others, it has scored its biggest hit with Panic! at the Disco.

    Pete the Author

    With a title inspired by the Smiths and illustrations by tattoo artist Joe Tesauro, The Boy with the Thorn in His Side was Wentz's first book, self-published in 2005 and based on his recurring nightmares. A novel titled Rainy Day Kids is slated to be published this summer. Wentz is also a logorrheic diarist, with several blogs, online journals and MySpace pages.

    Additionally, the bassist has a film production company called Bartskull, and he recently designed a custom bass to be manufactured by Fender. He makes no apologies for these extra-band business interests.

    "I don't care what other people say about me -- and they say everything -- but I do care about the other three people in my band and how it affects my band," Wentz told me. "The celebrity thing is the most dangerous place to be on the planet. I'd like to end up like Leonardo DiCaprio: This guy had everything after 'Titanic,' but he wanted a career, and he picked his roles very carefully, playing weird characters and avoiding pretty boys. It's awesome, and you can tell he loves doing it. I feel like as a band, we have to make those decisions and tread this ground very carefully."