Earlier this year, sibling pop trio AJR released “Burn the House Down,” their first single since their hit 2017 album The Click. Little did members Adam, Jack and Ryan Met know that the song would end up becoming part of a greater cause. The energetic track, meant to reflect the current American political climate, has been adopted by the March for Our Lives campaign, appearing in the announcement video for the organization’s ongoing Road to Change tour.
“We wanted to write an AJR political song, and it comes with a lot of insecurity,” Ryan tells RS of the track, which chronicles an internal debate about whether to take a stand against injustice or simply “keep it light.” “We’re not leaders; I’m not going to lead a resistance. But me as a twentysomething is trying to figure out where I fit in [and] how much of a voice do I actually have.”
The brothers began answering those questions 13 years ago, when they took their passion for music out of their parents’ NYC apartment to perform on the street for the first time. “We went out to Washington Square Park, put out a hat, sang a bunch of covers and we made enough money to buy all this equipment,” says Ryan, 24, pointing to the band’s living-room studio in the same apartment where they grew up. “We brought it back here, and we’ve been writing here ever since.” Ryan and Jack, 20, still reside here while Adam, 27, lives across town in his own place. Even as they’ve attained viral fame, the band of brothers – all of whom play multiple instruments and sing in the group – have maintained their initial homegrown spark.
With their distinct blend of pop, hip-hop, electronica and folk, AJR have evolved into a quirky group that finds inspiration in the members’ own childhood nostalgia. Their songs cover everything from calling their dad for comfort (“Call My Dad”) to feeling vulnerable (“Weak”) and their love for The Office (“Netflix Trip”).
AJR recently spoke with Rolling Stone about their street-performing start, their sibling bond and linking up with March for Our Lives.
What was it like to see “Burn the House Down” become the soundtrack to a vital new youth movement?
Ryan: That was very cool. We wrote the song observing this strange thing happening in our generation where regular people have so much power. Regular people can get TV shows shut down, and they’re making amazing political change as well, thanks to Twitter. … We wrote “Burn the House Down” from a very personal, honest place. Then March for Our Lives reached out to us and they saw a connection between their cause and what we were writing about. Now it’s their theme song, which is really cool.
Jack: It’s so amazing that they would choose us, and I think that does speak to the song. But we’re not the biggest band ever, and this cause is so amazing and so huge. So the fact that they would choose us is crazy.
Still, your popularity has been growing steadily. How have you managed to cultivate your fan base so quickly?
Ryan: For a while we were very folky, for a while we were very theatrical and then we were hip-hoppy or EDM. We settled on a style that is now a combination of all of those genres. Very recently in those three or four years, we decided that we wanted to write a lot of songs about things that hadn’t been written about before, which is a weird endeavor. It’s a little bit liberating, but also a little bit constricting. I think people just cared about that. I think that was the big shift for AJR that people started realizing, “I can related to these songs about things I never heard songs about.”
Jack: That was sort of the time in our career where we went from being able to bring in 20 people to being able to sell out a venue like [New York’s] Terminal 5. “I’m hearing these relatable songs, and I kind of want to see the faces of people who are saying those things to me and be able to connect to them in person.” I think that’s why people have been showing up.
You put on a very entertaining, theatrical show, with a strong narrative element that draws on your family history. What inspired this approach?
Adam: The other piece about the show is there are so many reasons now to stay at home and not go to a show because so many videos are now posted on YouTube. For the show we wanted to put together, it was an experience where people would shut off Netflix, shut off YouTube and get something that you wouldn’t traditionally see in a concert space. Every time we get to play bigger venues, we want to expand and show something different even if [fans] have been to those venues before.
Is being in a band with your siblings challenging? Have you ever hit a breaking point?
Jack: No, we’ve never hit a breaking point. It has been challenging at times. A lot of people expect us to say that we fight all the time, but it’s really not true. We grew up in one bedroom around the corner there – for 15 years. We all became close, so we all developed the same vision for a band. If there ever is a disagreement, it’s very small. We really just want what’s best for the band.
Adam: Each of us have really clearly defined roles of what we excel at and we all respect our domains.
Tell me how your most recent album, The Click, came together.
Ryan: The Click is this metronome that keeps reappearing throughout the album and it’s a metaphor for us trying to figure out who we are versus who society wants us to be. Should we follow our own metronome, or should we go for clicks and virality? I think kids our age can relate to that on many different levels.
Jack: There’s an age gap between us but we were all in this hump of in or getting out of college or about to be adults – we all needed to figure out what path we were going to take in life.
Jack and Ryan, you guys write for other musicians. Who are some of the artists you’ve worked with?
Ryan: We wrote a couple of Andy Grammer’s singles, “Good to Be Alive” and “Back Home.” We wrote for Rivers Cuomo, Ingrid Michaelson and Max. It’s an interesting challenge because as writers we have so many eclectic things we want to write about, but as AJR it’s a very specific sound we want to go for. If we come up with a concept that is a totally new idea that hasn’t been written before, then we’ll want to put it on our album. If we put a concept that isn’t that, then we’ll want to give it to someone else. It’s been fun to put ourselves in other people’s shoes.
What did you learn working with Rivers Cuomo?
Jack: He writes in the complete opposite way we write and pretty much anyone else writes. He knows it and he prides himself on it.
Ryan: We want to say exactly what you would say in a conversation, and he would say exactly the opposite. He goes only by feeling and emotion. I think he told us, and I saw it in an interview, that if he can tell you what the song is about, then he doesn’t like the song. He wants all of the lyrics to be totally ambiguous.
Jack: So we had this song “Sober Up” almost finished the whole song but the bridge – and Rivers wrote to us on Twitter saying he loved our song “Weak” and we wrote, “Thank you so much. Is there any way you’d want to collaborate on something?” Expecting him not to respond. He said, “Absolutely. Send me any songs.” We sent him “Sober Up” and asked him to write a bridge. He sent us four different options: one was in Spanish and one had made up words. And it was like, of course Rivers Cuomo would send this.
Who else would you love to collaborate with?
Ryan: We’d love to work with Wes Anderson. We kind of wanted to be the Wes Anderson of music. He doesn’t make comedies. … There’s this scene in Isle of Dogs where the dog’s guts spill out and the audience laughed. But it wasn’t funny; it was because the audience had never seen anything like that before.
How do your parents manage having a studio in their living room?
Jack: Oh, I think they’re used to it by now. We spend all day here if we’re not touring, so there never isn’t music playing in the house. Our dad is the one who got us into music in the first place, so he loves it. It’s just music playing in the background for him. With this setup, we can wake up at any time during the night and work on music, relax and go back to sleep. I think if after 13 years nothing had happened already, they would have been like, “Enough already, give us back our apartment.”