Maroon 5: At the Corner of Hollywood & Heartbreak

How a band that argues about everything comes together to create unified music

Adam LEVINE and MAROON 5; L- R Matt Flynn, James Valentine, Jesse Carmichael, Adam Levine, Mickey Madden, The Netherlands, August 25th, 2007. Credit: Paul Bergen/Redferns/Getty

Rock bands have been known to argue about almost anything. Maroon 5 are different. They argue about everything. Sometimes the debates are substantive. They had a heated battle over where their second album, It Won’t Be Soon Before Long, should fall in the sonic spectrum between polished R&B and the chaos of energetic rock. (They compromised, and the record includes both — part of why it debuted at Number One.) More often, their arguments are meaningless turf wars between five highly opinionated, stubborn men. "It's a high-ego band," says lead singer Adam Levine.  

Among the disputes that continued on Maroon 5's tour bus for far too long (sometimes months): the pop-punk influ­ence on Pink's first album; the prospects of Howard Dean before he screamed; whether the movie Wild Things had a sense of humor; whether psychedelic mushrooms provide an escape from reality or a different perspective on it.

The most epic quarrel, however, centered on Lenny Kravitz's "Where Are We Runnin'?" video. The band saw it on TV in a Brazil hotel; Levine and guitarist James Valentine proceeded to argue for hours about whether Kravitz sheds a tear in the final shot. "I have never seen two people get more into it about something so com­pletely unimportant," says bassist Mickey Madden. The clash extended from the ho­tel lobby to the venue, paused long enough for an acoustic performance, and then continued through a meet-and-greet ses­sion, climaxing with the statement "Star Wars was not filmed in space."

Finally, Levine and Valentine bet $500; the wager wasn't settled until the group visited German MTV and got them to roll the video. No tears: Valen­tine won the bet, although Levine never actually paid up. "In my twisted mind, I am always right," Levine says.

To argue with that intensity, you need to be with your worst enemies or your closest pals. Maroon 5 are a group of best friends: Three of the five started playing together at age 12. "Adam and I would talk on the phone all night about Pearl Jam and Nirvana," says keyboardist Jesse Carmichael. Fifteen years later, the band draws less on grunge and more on R&B, especially Prince, and on pop rock, especially the Police.

From a distance, Maroon 5's music can seem like it's all surface: catchy melodies and R&B production that lets the band fit on pop radio seamlessly between Rihanna and the Black Eyed Peas. Up close, Levine's pained, yearning vocals give the music more emotional weight, as does the fact that the band is a gang of friends living childhood dreams. That makes the battles more intense, the victories sweet­er, the celebrity encounters more surreal. And it made losing a founding member taste just like a mouthful of ashes.

After midnight on Thursday, the five members of Maroon 5 have gathered at Levine's airy, modern house, built into one of the Hol­lywood Hills. While the band drinks red wine, Levine pulls out his iPhone to show off Hawaiian-vacation pictures. "The most luxurious, amazing trip I've ever taken," he says. He had his first pina colada and, more worrisome, his first golf lesson.

Madden shares an elaborate dream he had where Carmichael was wrestling a 20-foot manta ray: "Its crazy ten­tacles came up and wrapped around you and you pulled it onto the balcony. We were sitting there in total awe."

"I have boring dreams," says Levine. "I had one in Hawaii that [Lakers owner] Jerry Buss came to my grandparents' house, and I showed him around room by room. I woke up and said, 'Really?'"

Levine suffers from an advanced case of Lead Singer Disease, always taking over the conversation, perpetually harassing his bandmates, rarely getting called on his own shit. Fortunately, he's funny and genial, so nobody seems to mind. Madden confides, "Adam's been the exact same dude ever since I've known him. Fame kind of justified his personality."

Perhaps inevitably, the band starts playing video games. On the tour bus, af­ter a particularly vicious round of Halo, Levine and Valentine will sometimes not talk to each other for days. "There's rage that you wouldn't be able to understand," Levine says. "I'm a really prideful son of a bitch. I have to work on that." The game tonight is Guitar Hero, so he just watches. "I hate Guitar Hero. I get pissed that you don't play it like a real guitar."

Valentine and Carmichael plug in and are soon rocking out to "Them Bones," by Alice in Chains. When they fluff a section, Levine hoots, "You guys suck! Jerry Cantrell is really upset with you right now." He once met Cantrell. "I spilled my soul about how I thought he was amazing, and he didn't give a shit. Nor should he. I never put myself out there like that, so when I do, I get bummed easily."

The song ends; Valentine edges out Carmichael. The game announces his win with a fake newspaper front page.

"TRIUMPHS IN GREAT SHOW," drummer Matt Flynn reads. "When have we ever had a headline like that?"

Levine grew up in West Los Angeles. His father owned a chain of women's clothing stores, but he says he got his artistic side from his mom, who was busy raising him and his younger brother but who had majored in graphic design at Berkeley. His folks split up when he was seven. "I barely remember them together," he says.

"I wouldn't let him listen to kids' music in the car," says Levine's mother, Patsy Noah. "I was playing the Beatles, Paul Simon, Fleetwood Mac. His favorite when he was four was Hall and Oates — although he called them Hone and Oats. Adam was always a jock: He wanted to be Magic Johnson. He made it to the JV basketball team in high school. In 10th grade, he realized he didn't have enough time to play basketball and play in a band, and sat me down to break the news: 'I have to choose one passion, Mom.'"

Levine was attending the posh Brentwood High School, along with Madden, Carmichael and their pal Ryan Dusick. They barely passed their classes, though, because they were all in a hard-rock band called Kara's Flowers. ("It wasn't music at first," Noah says. "It was noise.")

"I had really bad acne as a kid," says Levine. "I say bad, you think bad — 10 times worse than you think. I was really awkward around girls until I was 15 or 16. And then I grew my hair long, I had the band, and my problems were over."

Kara's Flowers progressed musically, until they were selling out local rock clubs like the Whisky and the Roxy. They signed with Reprise Records and put out one album (The Fourth World), in 1997, their senior year of high school. The record belly-flopped, and they got dropped from the label. "I knew Adam was going to be great," remembers Rob Cavallo, who produced the album. "He just hadn't had enough life experience yet — his lyrics were fantasies."

Out of stubbornness, the group re­fused to break up, floundering around for a new sound, mimicking Oasis one week, Phish the next. "We were all over the place," says Carmichael. "We got into a country phase. We had reggae songs."

Nothing clicked until they discov­ered R&B and hip-hop: classic Stevie Wonder, plus contemporary music by Jay-Z and Aaliyah. Levine explored his voice's upper register; the band recruit­ed Valentine, a lapsed Mormon from Nebraska, to play guitar; they renamed themselves Maroon 5; they got a new record deal. Songs About Jane, an album filled with soul-flavored tunes about an ex-girlfriend of Levine's, came out in 2002. Three years later, after constant touring, the band won a Grammy for Best New Artist. The album sold more than 10 million copies worldwide. "I'm not a kajillionaire," says Levine, "but I am a jillionaire."

Producer Mike Elizondo says, "I was working with Dr. Dre the first time we heard 'This Love,'" the band's break­through single. "We said, 'What's this?' The piano part's very reminiscent of a Dre piano part. I was a big fan."

Looking to toughen up their sound, Maroon 5 hired Elizondo to produce their new record and veteran British en­gineer Mark "Spike" Stent (U2, Depeche Mode) to mix it. They set up camp in the Houdini Mansion, the historic house in Hollywood owned by Rick Rubin, where the Red Hot Chili Peppers recorded BloodSugarSexMagik. All five members were planning to live there, but persis­tent reports that the house was haunted meant that most of them found other places to sleep.

Levine had written most of Songs About Jane with the band; this time, he composed more of the songs by himself. His lyrics remained focused on romantic relationships, with tunes about jealousy ("Wake Up Call"), reconciliation ("Back At Your Door") and animal lust ("Kiwi"). "I sat down and wrote a political song, but it didn't work — because I hate poli­tics," Levine explains. "You miss the mark on a love song, fine, you wrote a cheesy song. You miss the mark on a political song, you're an asshole."  

The pressure was on to deliver an­other big album, both because the band members wanted to prove they weren't one-hit wonders and because their re­cord label, Octone, was trying to engi­neer a new deal. (Universal eventually paid $35 million for a piece of Octone, largely to get Maroon 5.) "Everybody was stressed, and nobody wanted to ad­mit it," says Flynn.

"We tracked 17 songs for the better part of eight months," says Elizondo. The record company wasn't de­lighted with the results, he recalls: "You think you've produced the next Thriller, you turn it in, and you get semi-bashed."

"It was a real bitch toward the end," Levine says of their year in the studio; they ended up recording additional tracks with two more producers, Mark Endert and Eric Valentine. "You start second-guessing decisions: 'Oh, maybe we should recut this song with this guy.' It started to turn into Fleetwood Mac." He takes a beat, realizing what that means other than long hours in the studio. "We weren't fucking each other, though. Thank God. That would have been really confusing."

The whole time, Levine knew he had one surefire hit in his pocket, "Won't Go Home Without You." He had written it back in 2002, as Jane came out. "I was su­per-hung-up on this girl, and I just could not get her to pay attention to me. I was in the driveway, having just gotten home from some rejection, and I said, 'I've got to write a song that's going to make this girl like me.' And the minute I sang the hook, I thought, 'There it is. I will have a career beyond the first album.'"

The unbelievably catchy song dis­plays an obvious Police influence, with a thrumming guitar part on loan from "Every Breath You Take." Levine jokes, "We thought we'd throw the Police in there — they're not going to get back to­gether. The bastards."

On one level, "Won't Go Home With­out You" was a failure — Levine never played it for the girl he wanted to im­press. "She doesn't know it's about her," he says, and grins. "I wound up dating her best friend for a year and a half."

The other members of Maroon 5 know it's a mixed blessing to have Levine soaking up most of the spotlight. "I can get away with a lot more," says Valentine. "I could do blow off a dead hooker in the middle of Sunset Boulevard and no one would care. That said, it stings when Rolling Stone crops me out of pictures."

Carmichael is the band's crunchiest member; when I visit his home, he picks fresh peaches from the tree out front and serves them with coconut ice cream. He exudes calm: If Maroon 5 ever took a yearlong break, he'd like to go to Boul­der, Colorado, to take some yoga-teacher training classes.

Flynn had a journeyman career previ­ously, drumming for the B-52's and Gavin DeGraw. He has two young children — at 37, he's the oldest member of the band by a decade. The other mem­bers often remind him of the age gap: "We played with the Stones," Madden says, "and everyone was asking Matt, 'So what was Keith like at school?'"

Madden is the band's vegan. ("They're all pretty carnivorous," he says of the others.) He's the quintet's biggest aes­thete, choosing to spend his money on things like a $5,000 monograph by Ital­ian graphic designer Franco Maria Ricci. His favorite celebrity encounter was backstage at Madison Square Garden when he met both Bruce Springsteen and Jay-Z within five minutes.

Maroon 5 are successful enough that they regularly hobnob with stars rang­ing from Tommy Lee to David Hasselhoff. They've been around the world of Hollywood from a young age — Madden's father wrote for TV shows like Jake and the Fatman — but they still find it bizarre. One memorable night, Prince and his band came over to Levine's house to jam. "They commandeered our equipment and played for 10 minutes," says Levine, "blowing us out of the water, of course." But Prince was offended by the amount of feedback and moved the party to his own house, where the music continued until 5 a.m., with duets on Bill Withers songs and blues tunes. At the end of the night, Prince offered them pancakes.

The way to make a member of Maroon 5 stop short is to men­tion Ryan Dusick, their former drummer, who suffered severe enough injuries that he had to retire from the band. He was a founding member, dat­ing back to Kara's Flowers. "It makes this whole thing bittersweet," Levine says. "I love Matt Flynn, but the bottom line is I wanted to do this with Ryan. It will never be precisely what I wanted."

In the middle of the Jane tour, Dusick's body started to give out, due to a combination of stress, sleep deprivation and an old baseball injury. The band told him to go home and get better — but every time he tried to make a comeback, he quickly regressed.

"I'm in better shape than I was," Du­sick says. "But I don't know if it'll ever go away. I've got tendinitis in my right shoulder and left wrist, and some resid­ual nerve problems. Some carpal tunnel. And there's some tear in my right shoul­der that's not showing up on MRIs."

When the band started work on the second record and it became clear Du­sick wasn't physically able to handle it, Maroon 5 sat down for a meeting. Dusick says they were worried that even if he made it through recording, he wouldn't be able to handle the rigors of touring — and that by then, his regular replace­ment on tour, Flynn, would have moved on to another job.

"I would be lying if I said I was totally happy with the way the band handled it," Dusick says. "I wish the agreement that we came to for me leaving could have been more open-ended. But once I got over the initial shock, it was a relief."

"That was the hardest thing we've ever been through," Valentine says of Dusick's departure.

The band asked Flynn to officially join. Dusick was named musical director and kept coming to the studio, but the situation proved too awkward, and he stopped. He has enough money to retire, but he'd like to be a producer and is also writing songs. He says he's doing OK now. He doesn't even have to flip channels anymore when Maroon 5 come on TV.

On a perfect Los Angeles afternoon, Levine is wearing slacks, a white V-neck T-shirt and sunglasses, and cruising around town in his vintage Mercedes convertible. He knows it's not the most fuel-efficient car around, but he's gone from L.A. so much, he figures the environmental impact of driving it once a month is minimal. (He buys carbon offsets anyway — Maroon 5 try to run as green an operation as possible, down to the biofuel for their tour buses.) At a red light, the driver of the car next to us shouts, "What year is that, bro?"

"'71," Levine tells him, then observes, "The car is more famous than I am."

Levine heads through Los Felis, showing me the orange-and-white house where he and Carmichael lived when they wrote and recorded Songs About Jane — home to many parties and cutthroat Scrabble games. Another band lives there now. Driving through Hollywood, he turns up the Creedence song on the radio and points out the clubs where he used to play, before he was old enough to drink.

"I really wanted to make it," he says. "I thought, 'God, we're so much better than all these bands. We should be a huge, famous band and sell millions of records.' I was a borderline asshole, and only now can I realize it's time to be humble."

What do you think people get wrong about you?

"People get me at this point," Levine says. "They think I'm a bit full of myself, which I am. But hopefully in an endearing way, not a total-prick kind of way. You'll probably say something like that."

That's about right.

"OK," he says agreeably. "There's an over-earnestness that our band has ad­opted over the past few years, reluctantly. And that's just not who we are. We're a bit darker than 'She Will Be Loved,'" he adds, referring to a mawkish ballad on the first record. He makes a turn and pulls into the Chateau Marmont hotel.

When Maroon 5 finally finished the three-year-long Songs About Jane tour, Levine came back home a changed man. He had once been a shy kid who performed with his back to the audience, but he had learned the confidence that comes with crowds screaming your name. Levine had left Los Angeles in a van as part of an unknown band. He came back a rock star who could get into any club in town — but he had no house to live in. So he checked into the Chateau Marmont and spent the next few months "drinking and playing poker and ordering grilled-cheese sandwiches at three in the morning." This was around the time he started to appear in the tabloids, linked to a dizzying ar­ray of starlets: Lindsay Lohan, Kirsten Dunst, Maria Sharapova, Paris Hilton and Jessica Simpson, whom he alleg­edly bedded while she was still mar­ried (and then broke up with via text message). The New York Post dubbed him "man-whore."

"It's funny how they latch on to you," Levine says. "By 'man-whore,' they mean '28-year-old guy who fell into a good situation and had fun.'" (Not the most obvious definition of the term, perhaps.) "I was dabbling, hanging out, partying, drinking, giving hugs, doing other things we won't talk about. It was the hedonistic part of my brain. But was I seriously dating anybody who was a famous person? No. It was flattering, but I got credit for a lot of things I didn't do."

We're sitting in the Chateau's garden, eating chopped salads. Levine looks wistfully at the window of his old room. "It started escalating," he says of his tab­loid coverage, "and I thought, 'All right, it's time to get the hell out. You don't want to be a permanent fixture in these fuckin' magazines. I want my friends back.' So when I moved into my house, I hung out there. I did not go anywhere for a year, and that made it go away."  

OK — but did you ever break up with anyone by text message?

He laughs. "All nonsense. Come on, I'm a gentleman."

For the last year, Levine has been dating Becky Ginos, whom he met in Las Vegas. She's blond, sweet and mellow. "We were casual at first," he says, "and it turned into something amazing. She just wants to en­joy my company and love me. And I love her. It's really simple and beautiful. When you're younger, relationships thrive on dra­ma. And if there's no drama, you're bored and it ends. I'm not into that anymore.

"I know more about myself, which pre­pares you to figure girls out." He grins. It's the smile of a man who's figured out a few of the world's secrets and shared them with his friends. "I guess I should start calling them women now, huh?"