Have you ever wondered how many varieties of secret sauce can be packed into one delicious three-minutes-and-20-seconds burger of a song? Ten months after the Jonas Brothers’ comeback smash, “Sucker,” came out and finally took the trio to the top, it’s still tickling our ears… and, frankly, slightly puzzling our brains, as we try to unpack exactly what’s going in the deceptively not-so-simple tune.
Fortunately, we have Variety‘s Hitmakers songwriter of the year, Ryan Tedder, as our official unpacker, at last. “It was like playing the largest game of Jenga you can imagine, and if you pull out the wrong block, the whole thing kind of falls apart,” says Tedder, who co-produced the number with Frank Dukes, and co-wrote it with Dukes, Louis Bell and the three Jonases. He explained to us how he managed to give the song the kind of repetition required of a pop earworm but also pique interest by making sure no eight bars of the song sounded exactly the same. Here’s Tedder, explaining how he played the world for a “Sucker,” or at least found a way to play “Sucker” for the world:
DARK CHORDS, SWEET TOPLINE
“Frank Dukes likes weird chord progressions. He doesn’t like anything to sound clean or normal. So his contributions to the song with his unique chord changes in that chorus really set it apart. I remember the moment he played me those chords, and I think the first thing out of my mouth, literally, was, “Wait, I have an idea: ‘I’m a sucker for you, say the word’… I needed those weird chords. You take a melody like that that’s really pop, and you put it over normal pop chords, and it’s too pop. It’s too much. It’s like eating cake stacked on cake, and you can’t have that. You need bitter with the sweet. You need dark with the bright. And the dichotomy of that chord movement with the pop topline is what made it cool.”
THE COLD START… WITH STEAMY LYRICS
“I remember after the session was over with Frank and Lou, I went back the next day and I told them, ‘Guys, I don’t think these lyrics are quite there.’ So I went through and rewrote a lot of the lyrics the next day. There’s a little bit of edge: ‘I’ve been dancing on top of cars, and stumbling out of bars, I follow you through the dark’ … Like, they’ve grown up. The Jonas Brothers, they sure as hell didn’t say that 10 years ago. You know, Nick couldn’t get into bars!
“The opening line, ‘We go together, better than birds of a feather, you and me…’ It’s a cold start. It just brings you right in. We’re not giving you this whole intro thing. It just pulls you in vocally, so you’re automatically landed inside the song the moment it starts. That might be a byproduct of the last three years, of everybody having ADD, and you can’t get away with these 30-second intros that you had in 2007 and ’08. I used to do OneRepublic songs and we’d have 30 seconds before I’d sing one word, and you can’t do that anymore. People are just skipping it. So there is a little bit of calculation. You could have a hit record and if you don’t get the first five seconds right, you lose it. Like, what’s the most engaging way for these first five seconds to land?
“I’m looking through a mono-lens of my own aperture. So what would me, Ryan, who is ADD and always doing 20 things, need to grab my attention as a listener with all the stuff I have going on? What’s going to stop me in my tracks, musically, is the first thing I think about when I’m putting together a song. How does it open? And when you walk into hotels, what’s the most important thing in a hotel? The lobby. You walk in and that’s where a hotel is flexed. Half the hotels in New York have the most impressive lobbies, like tons of money, and then you go in the room and it’s garbage. But that lobby is just incredible and it sucks you in. So the first five or 10 seconds of any record, nowadays, that’s your lobby. You better flex in that moment.”
A FOUR-BAR MAXIMUM ON KEEPING ANYTHING STATIC
“The chord structure in ‘Sucker’ is not just four bars looped. I’ve had plenty of those records. There’s an actual chord change, a departure, a temperature change in the chorus from the verse, which I think is a breath of fresh air. But every four bars in that song, I’m introducing something new or taking something out, even though the listener is not thinking about it as it’s going along. ‘Why am I constantly engaged for three minutes?’ It’s because I’m feeding you new information. It might just be a high hat. It might be a deviation from the melody, or a whistle or a clap or a guitar thing. But I was really focused on changing it up every four bars.
“When you get into verse 2, I brought in like two or three different guitar parts. I have a session guitar player out of Nashville that’s signed to me, a No. 1 country writer, Andrew Roberts. I threw him the song and I said, ‘Hey, throw me every guitar idea you have for verse 2. Give me ear candy.’ He’s a better guitar player than me, so he shot me five things. I kept one or two of them, and l can point them out on the record, but unless I point ‘em out, you wouldn’t know they’re there. But when you get to the second verse, you don’t get bored, because I’ve introduced two or three things at the same time that did not exist in verse 1, and they’re chugging along in the background, providing this ambient texture and tension and momentum.”
LIVE DRUMS… SORT OF
“Originally it was just a drum loop. And the band needs to be brought into the picture. It needs to feel live and human. I could only think of one drummer alive that would get this song immediately and do it justice. And so I got Homer (Steinweiss) from the Dap Kings, you know, the band Mark Ronson used on Amy Winehouse’s records. He tracked just mountains of drums, for hours, doing seven or eight different takes on the song. After that I was sitting in a hotel room in Saudi Arabua, probably for two days, combing through drum tapes, trying to find the exact different moments of his drum takes for each moment of the song. There were 10 tracks of 10 microphones recording his drums, and I had to go through and edit all of them. And because that song isn’t perfectly on a grid, I had to go beat by beat, like literally snare by snare, kick by kick, hat by hat, for the entirety of the song to line up the original drum loop with the live drums.
“I distorted the hell out of those drums that Homer played to make them crunchy and compressed and in-your-face. At a time where nothing at top 40 felt live, to have it feel like an actual band playing? If I’m thinking about the spring of this year, nothing else sounded like it. And when you have 40,000 songs coming out a day, you better make damn sure that you look and sound different than the other 40,000.”
BRINGING BRIDGES BACK
“I hate to say it, but any professional songwriter knows in 2019 that for the last couple of years, bridges (have disappeared). I used to do long bridges. If you think of, taking it way back (to previous Tedder production efforts), Kelly Clarkson’s ‘Already Gone,’ it goes to this big, super-emotional breakdown bridge, or Adele’s ‘Rumour Has It’ goes to this entirely different place. The bridge is like almost a minute, and it’s a completely different song. And for whatever reason in the last few years, and I think it’s streaming, bridges have just fallen out of favor. And a big part of that is dance music. You have a chorus, you have a drop. You get to the second chorus, you have a double drop. And by the time you get done with that second drop, the song’s pretty much done. And so I got to the bridge in ‘Sucker,’ and…”
WHISTLING PAST THE TUNE-YARD
“…and then you get to the middle eight. I remember getting to that moment going, ‘Crap. I have no vocals here. I don’t really have any other lines or lyrics that make sense. I don’t want to take away from the theme of the song.’ And I knew that that was the whistle moment, and that’s me, whistling, actually. I suck at whistling. That bridge took me an hour of whistling. I had to drink a bunch of water because I was too dehydrated for my lips to actually whistle, and I had to put on Chapstick.”
SETTING BUDDY RICH LOOSE
“The bridge has got a drum solo, and I can’t think of the last hit record or No. 1 where you have an actual drum solo. I told Homer, ‘Dude, just go off in the bridge. You know James Brown ‘Funky Drummer’? I don’t want to copy that, but I want to hear that level of breakbeat, that level of funk. I want to hear you just dig in.’ And he went nuts and just like that gave me five different versions of that bridge. The version that’s in the song as it exists is a compilation of two different takes. That was my favorite moment of producing that record, when I got to piece together that bridge. Because something about funk is just soul-satisfying.
“I remember, I called Wendy (Goldstein, Republic Records’ president of west coast creative, and the Jonas Brothers’ A&R point person) from Dubai and I said, ‘Hey, I’m sending you the song, but I’m giving you a disclaimer. There’s an eight-bar drum solo in the bridge. No real words.’ And I’ll never forget, Wendy goes, ‘Really?’ I go, yeah. She goes, ‘That sounds f—ing awesome.’ And I was like, wow. Any other A&R would be like, ‘I don’t think that’s gonna work.” Because on paper, hey, it’s your first song back in almost a decade — what do you think about a drum solo? If I just pitched that to an artist or a label, they’re going to say, ‘Absolutely not. You’re crazy.’ Not Wendy.”
STICKING THE LANDING… JUST AS WEIRDLY
“Once we got into the final chorus, I double-timed the guitar. I took the main guitar riff and duplicated it and pitched it an octave down and an octave up. So all of a sudden, you’re hearing that same rhythm, and it’s following those chord changes, but you’re hearing it an octave up and an octave down, so it just explodes. It maxes out the frequency of what that pattern is doing. It’s another thing that a listener would not know if I didn’t point it out, but it’s loud, and it’s making that last chorus manic, and there’s this frantic-ness and controlled frenzy. And I love doing that. In the final chorus of a song, I love controlled chaos. And that final chorus has that — it almost goes off the rails, but it doesn’t.
“And then it gets to the final eight bars, where it’s just the whistle and the drums again. At the last minute, I took the drumbeat and the drum loop, and I don’t know why, but I opened up a reverb. I have this reverb modeler that sounds like Ocean Way Studios in Hollywood, which is one of the famous studios where the Beach Boys and a lot of artists back in the ‘60s and ‘70s did their biggest records. I have this reverb that was recorded at Ocean Way, and it’s modeled on that room, which is one of the best drum rooms in the world. So I was like, you know what? I kind of want to send the drums into Ocean Way for like four bars. And so at the very end of the song, all of a sudden you hear the drums get big and reverb-y out of nowhere.
“And it sounds nuts, but I told you, I’m kind of musically ADD. The song is done and you’ve already been satisfied. There’s only like four bars left, but already at the end, I’m getting bored. So I tried 10 different things. I was freaking out over the last few bars of the song. I’m like, what the hell do I do here? I can’t do more words. I’ve started the pattern of changing it up every four bars, and I need to change it up again. What if I just kick these drums into a giant drum room at Ocean Way for like two seconds? I was waiting for Wendy or somebody at the label or the band to be like, ‘Hey, there’s a mistake at the very end of the song. The drums get all weird for a second. What’s going on?’ Nobody said anything, so I left it.”
“On YouTube, all these kids do these listening videos where they’re listening to the song and you’re watching them react to it. And this guy was talking through every few seconds of the song and he gets to the end and he’s like, ‘Ooh! Ooh! The drums just changed! They got all big and like red!’ And then I was like, okay, you know, mission accomplished. I just made some YouTube guy geek out — I think that was the right call.”
FROM MICROMANAGING TO FREEWAY BLUR
“So that’s kind of me walking through the entirety of the song. I wish I could go into that level of detail on ‘Songland’ and let people actually understand how many decisions are made for three minutes of just something that whizzes by you or you hear coming out of somebody else’s car as you’re driving down the highway. There were 20,000 little tiny decisions made over a 30-day period to affect those three minutes.”