Fall Out Boy's caravan of SUVs has been barreling down Interstate 95 in Florida for about two hours when Pete Wentz realizes he doesn't know where the band is headed. "Are we going to Tampa or Orlando?" Wentz asks his road manager. "Because if we're going to Orlando, I want to go to Harry Potter Land." The manager tells Wentz that Fall Out Boy are playing Tampa tonight and Orlando tomorrow, but with an acoustic radio show in the morning and an electric one at night, they have no time for an amusement park. This is news to Patrick Stump. "What acoustic show?" says the singer, from the back seat. "We didn't even practice that shit! We literally don't know how to play 'Centuries' acoustic."
Things are going really fast for Fall Out Boy right now: They are in the middle of a run of playing 15 radio-station festivals in just 20 days, stopping everywhere from Oakland to Duluth, Georgia. "Centuries," the band's new single, has climbed to Number 22 on the charts and racked up more than 30 million plays on Spotify. Fall Out Boy just finished their sixth album, American Beauty/American Psycho, due January 20th, and also have a song, "Immortals," on the soundtrack to the Disney animated movie Big Hero 6 (that one's climbing the charts too). Which means that, along with Maroon 5 and Imagine Dragons, they're one of the very few rock bands in the world capable of competing with the likes of Taylor Swift and Meghan Trainor in the Top 40.
Nobody could've predicted this kind of comeback, least of all the band members themselves. Fall Out Boy ruled the hearts of emo kids in the mid-2000s, scoring a half-dozen Top 40 hits in the process. But when they returned in 2012 after a three-year hiatus, poppy punk rock was dead as a mainstream sound, and dance was ascendant. "We thought that was the end of radio for us," says Stump, 30. "We thought we would go out, play some shows and, you know, whatever. This is a disco era, so to hear our songs on the radio is kinda surprising."
Wentz, the band's 35-year-old bassist and lyricist, is delighted Fall Out Boy can still make hit singles. "We'd survive without radio," he says. "Batman can go out and fight without the fucking cape. But when he shows up, people want to see him wear the fucking cape. My mission statement has always been, 'I want to be the biggest.' Patrick's has always been, 'I want to be the best.' At some point, we realized they were two different versions of the same thing."
Fall Out Boy were in a bleak place after their 2008 LP, Folie à Deux, failed to generate a big hit. The paparazzi hounded Wentz and his new wife, Ashlee Simpson, and the group members were fighting with one another. "I literally spent my twenties as the most selfish person that I know," says Wentz. "I didn't have the capacity for understanding other people's time and empathy for what other people thought about things." After the final gig on their 2009 tour, Fall Out Boy went their separate ways, barely speaking to each other for several years.
The low point seemed to come in 2012, when Stump, who had gone solo with 2011's Soul Punk, posted a shockingly frank letter on his personal blog, in which he revealed he was too broke to continue a solo tour and was getting taunted by fans saying, "We liked you better when you were fat." "People genuinely thought it was a suicide note," he says. "Every part of me wishes I hadn't written that thing." The note inspired Wentz to reach out to Stump. The pair rekindled their friendship and, soon, their band as well.
Fall Out Boy didn't want to do a quickie nostalgia exercise. "We asked ourselves, 'What would we want if the Smiths or someone like that reunited?' " says Wentz. "We'd want a new album, new song, a tour right away and don't just go play state fairs." Instead of touring, the bandmates returned to the studio and found they still had monstrously hooky songs in them. Their comeback single, "My Songs Know What You Did in the Dark (Light Em Up)," hit Number 15 on the Hot 100 in 2013.
The band spent a year and a half on the road behind its next LP, Save Rock and Roll. While on tour, Fall Out Boy began fiddling with a track built around a live sample of the refrain from Suzanne Vega's "Tom's Diner." They fleshed it out into the anthemic "Centuries," and were so psyched with the results they rushed into the studio and squeezed out American Beauty/American Psycho in three weeks.
At heart, Stump and Wentz are still pop-culture geeks. They spend the four-hour trip to Tampa debating topics like the difference between Ridley Scott's Alien and James Cameron's Aliens. ("One is unsettling and leaves you uncomfortable, while the other is a giant popcorn movie," says Stump.) When I mention the 2007 video-game documentary The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, Stump and Wentz spend several minutes trading lines from the film.
Soon, FOB arrive at the 97X Next Big Thing festival, where they're headlining a bill that features Young the Giant, Alt-J, New Politics and other groups that are, on average, a decade younger than they are. Fall Out Boy are shepherded into a meet-and-greet tent, where 50 fans, almost all teen girls, squeal with delight. "I hear from kids on social media that I inspired them to pick up a guitar," says guitarist Joe Trohman. "Hopefully what it does is pave the way for other bands to do the same."
When Fall Out Boy take the stage at 8:45, they're greeted with an eardrum-shattering roar from the young fans. The loudest cheers are reserved for the new songs, and security can barely keep up with the flood of crowd-surfing fans pouring over the barricades.
Fall Out Boy are dripping with sweat and buzzing when they come offstage after a final encore of "Saturday," from their 2003 debut, Take This to Your Grave. "That felt really good," says Wentz as he changes from his stage clothes into a tattered Metallica shirt. "It's crazy how young everyone was. Two circle pits broke out during a song that nobody knows from our first album. It occurred to me onstage that maybe we aren't on an island if there's so many kids like that out there. Maybe they're the movement now."
Right now, Fall Out Boy are booking a summer amphitheater tour. In the meantime, they remain an anomaly in the pop universe. "We aren't the last rock band," says Stump. "But we're the last rock band that doesn't think that pop is a four-letter word."
Stump, who just became a father, has been in Fall Out Boy since he was 17. The singer knows full well what haters think of his band – and doesn't care. "We've been saddled with several disparaging genre things," he says. " 'Oh, they're this fucking pop-punk band,' or 'They're this fucking emo band – these guys suck,' or 'They're this fucking stadium-rock band – these guys suck.' Nobody can decide why we suck – to me, that means we're doing the right thing."