Fall Out Boy is back with their first record in five years, and although the musical landscape has changed dramatically since the pandemic and the rise of TikTok, “So Much (for) Stardust” returns to the classic sound many fans grew up on. While recent records like 2015’s “American Beauty/American Psycho” and 2018’s “Mania” were successful, Fall Out Boy took on a pop sheen that was a far cry from their punky hits like “Dance, Dance” and “Thnks fr th Mmrs.”
For “Stardust,” the band — singer and guitarist Patrick Stump, bassist Pete Wentz, guitarist Joe Trohman and drummer Andy Hurley — worked again with Neal Avron, who produced the band’s biggest rock records, 2005’s “From Under the Cork Tree,” 2007’s “Infinity on High” and 2008’s “Folie à Deux.” The result isn’t a nostalgia trip, but rather a return to the group’s core strengths, with big riffs, huge singalong choruses, and lyrics that are in-tune with the woes of modern life. The band is also headed on a world tour this year, playing for the first time without Trohman, who is taking a break from the band to focus on his mental health.
Variety spoke with Stump and Wentz about embracing classic sounds to find a new direction on “Stardust,” their place in the current Emo Renaissance, the ways pop culture influences their music, and how to write a perfect song title.
How did you land on the sound of “Stardust?” Joe has said that he stepped back a bit on “Mania” because it wasn’t his vibe. Did that influence the more guitar-heavy direction you went in this time?
Wentz: I feel like our thoughts on “Mania” were taken a little out of context. Two records before, we were making albums in a landscape that was not particularly friendly to bands, and so we were just trying to figure out how to survive. It was like “’The Last of Us’: The Pop Radio Version, starring Fall Out Boy fighting the zombies that do not want bands existing.” I think “Mania” was a direct response to all that. There’s a frustrated sound on there. I think it’s intentionally noisy, semi-intentionally polarizing, and the sound we landed on for “Stardust” wasn’t. I don’t think it was a reaction to any of that. I just think being with Neil and wanting to create something that is tangible and that we took our time with was super important. The record spans the whole gamut of things that we’re into.
Stump: It was only a reaction insomuch as I wanted to do a different methodology. It really wasn’t so much conscious of rock or any style or stylistic choice. To me, I felt like I had gone down this road of experimenting with technology and that was really fun and fulfilling. But we did that for three records and really culminated with “Mania.” I was kind of like, “I had my fun with that. Now I want to see what happens with strings and horns and guitars and harmonies,” and those kind of things, really tangibly.
The story when Fall Out Boy first came out was that Pete would write the lyrics and Patrick would write the music. But since 2007’s “Infinity on High,” all credits were shifted to Fall Out Boy as a unit. What is your writing process these days?
Wentz: At some point we came up with the notion of the best idea wins. We talked about it like the [N.H.L. Detroit] Red Wings back in the ‘90s: They imported all of these Russian players that were unplayable by the American NHL because they played this style of hockey called “In Service of the Puck.” Your job was just to get the puck moving. We approached the band in service of the songs. So at some point we just said “Everything by Fall Out Boy” because it doesn’t really matter, but there are still specific roles which Patrick can talk about.
Stump: Around “Folie,” I had gotten tired of trying to retrofit my melodies with Pete lyrics and Pete had gotten tired of trying to push melody ideas. It became a thing of, “What’s most important to you?” Well, I like the music. What’s most important to you? “I like the lyrics.” So I stripped it down to before I have a melody, before I have anything, I turn to Pete’s lyrics. That’s really still the center of the band, but nowadays, we’ve definitely opened it up more to Joe’s ideas. We’ve always been open to Andy’s ideas, but he loves interpreting. He doesn’t really want to write.
It’s funny: I’m a drummer sometimes, and he the other day he said something about a “Patrick fill.” He said, “There’s just a way that you think about fills that is different to me,” and he showed me. He loves the challenge of that, adopting voices. He’s always figuring out different ways of playing. But really, it’s about Joe and Pete musically having space. And I can’t write the music that I write without them. I think the conversation we have is a huge part of it. But on some level, there’s still the foundation of Pete’s words, my music.
Patrick, when you write, do you ask Pete what the lyrics are about?
Stump: It’s very passive, like I’m reading something. I have ADHD and when I read it’s very difficult, especially something like fiction. You get through a sentence and halfway through there will be something that just jumps out at you and then you’re off…your brain is thinking about that and daydreaming. When I experience Pete’s lyrics, it’s all rhythm. The way he writes is so different than the way I would process that I can’t help but find rhythm in it. So pretty quickly if I’m just reading it I have something and I just follow that. It becomes the tangent, just finding the syntax and the little sub-rhyme schemes and alliteration. A lot of times, I’m not even paying attention to what he’s saying until maybe after I go through it and find the melody.
Pete doesn’t really write in poem form. It’s not like stanza, stanza, stanza — it’s very free form. So you’re finding the rhythm of it. Sometimes the meaning eludes me for a while. I’ve been in the in the dressing room before thinking about a song we’ve played for two years and said, “I just got that entendre, Pete.”
Your album cycles have a very deliberate approach to the visual elements: the cover, music videos, live performances, etc. When does the vision come to you during the recording process?
Wentz: For the visual side, I want it to be cohesive to the point where it was cohesive on “Mania.” It wasn’t always working, but I personally wanted it to feel like you could have a theme park around your album, you understand the 20 rides we’re going to put in here and I know what the food is going to be like. I want you to be able to walk into an album of ours. On my side, I can’t start the process until there is at least the beginnings of the visual component that goes with all the rest of it. But usually I’m starting to build it and then plays the songs and you’ll be like, “Oh, I thought it was supposed to be this color.” It’s constantly changing.
Like many of your records, “Stardust” touches on movies frequently: You’ve been releasing parody movie posters on TikTok, you quote Jordan Peele’s “Nope” in the lyrics of “Heartbreak Feels So Good,” and sample an Ethan Hawke monologue from “Reality Bites.” How does pop culture influence your music, and how did you decide what you wanted to touch on for this album?
Wentz: A lot of times we don’t have the same musical references with each other, but we do have a lot of the same cinematic references. Even if it’s not your favorite thing, we’ve all watched them and grown up on them. When you’re traveling this much and you’re not a party band, you’re watching a lot of movies. There are a lot of references that I think, cinematically, are a sweet spot for Fall Out Boy. And then there’s stuff that’s at the edge of it. I would say John Hughes is part of the DNA because of where the band comes from [Chicago]. And then we have an “Akira” poster. Some parts of “Akira” are on the edge of what Fall Out Boy is. I think on this record it made a lot of sense to look at film for inspiration. Also, Patrick had been scoring [Stump is the composer on the cartoon series “Spidey and His Amazing Friends,” among other projects], so there are scoring elements within the music. They marry each other well.
Stump: I think the most overt would probably be “The Pink Seashell,” where the original Ethan Hawke scene is this off-the-cuff monologue at a beach and the water is just overpowering. We were able to take out the audio of just this dialogue without the water, and in doing so it felt like I was scoring that moment and the grandeur of that existential, massive, no-Santa Claus moment.
Did you talk to Ethan Hawke directly to get approval for the sample?
Wentz: We sent him a letter asking if it was cool.
Stump: I was sure he was going to say no. It was very cool of him to say yes.
Can you describe to me the art of titling a song, and how you determine if it’s going to be very straightforward (“I Don’t Care”) or something seemingly random (“I Slept with Someone in Fall Out Boy and All I Got Was This Stupid Song Written About Me”), or a blend of both (“I’m Like a Lawyer with the Way I’m Always Trying to Get You Off (Me & You)”)?
Wentz: Back in our rebellious days, we’d come from the hardcore scene, where titling is another art unto itself. And so we were making up the titles, and a lot of times, I’m the only one who cares about that and the rest of the band is like, “This title is so stupid.” But then we were on a major label and there were a couple times where they said, “Well, you can’t legally call it this.” And we’re like, wow, now it’s gonna be this title. Or we were told the title’s gotta be really short, so for “Thnks fr th Mmrs” we removed all the vowels. These things are like a little goofy, but they’re just fun. I feel like one of the things about Fall Out Boy is trying to get the recipe right where we take the art seriously, but it’s also fine for us to poke fun at ourselves.
We’re in something of an emo music renaissance. Why do you think the music and culture came back in such a big way right now?
Wentz: The pendulum swung so far the other way, away from guitar music, the emotional core of the lyrics. Also I think there’s something to be said for the actual, cyclical nostalgia. My kids are dressing like it’s the ‘90s and the early 2000s. I feel like we’re at a time now where people can discover art themselves. There’s a renaissance of all these different kinds of art and music because people go and discover it for their first time. To me, a counterculture, whether it’s hip-hop or pop-punk or punk rock or emo or goth music, always builds and swells, especially in times when the monoculture becomes so heavy-handed. You saw it during Reagan.
There are also a couple of artists, like MGK and Lil Uzi Vert and Willow Smith, that are new to playing rock music. The planets are all aligned perfectly. There was probably a group of kids that were just a little too young to have gone to see My Chemical Romance when they came back, or emo night. And they can go now — it just all lined up perfectly.
Is “emo” a designation that earlier in your career you rejected? What is your relationship with the term these days?
Wentz: It was a catch-all for these bands that played shows together but weren’t super similar. At the time, it felt reductive, but more so in the way that we would always try to explain that there are these bands like Rites of Spring and Endpoint, and people were like, “We don’t care.” And then in “real” adult culture, with the editors of magazines and people who invited you to award shows, it was a term that was used to let you know your thing was a little unserious to them. In that way, it was frustrating. But now it’s been interesting to see, as always, those gatekeepers now are a younger generation who grew up with it and they’re like, “No, this is cool — to me you guys are legends.” With time that the term has changed. I don’t feel like we feel any way about it now. I understand that it’s a descriptor for us, so it’s fine.
When you’re finishing a record, how do you designate between what’s going to be on an album and what’s going to be a B-side? From there, which B-sides see the light of day?
Stump: The ones that see the light of day are the ones that are fully completed. The other question is a little bit more difficult. What songs make the record? There’s usually a vote and a lot of times one of our favorite songs is the one that gets cut. A lot of times we do that process before we actually go in to record. So we have all these demos and it’s almost like making a film, where you do your storyboard, but you’re not going to shoot it. You’re not going to shoot everything, you’re editing down a lot of the things. By the time we go into the studio, we’ve pared down what songs we’re going to do and it becomes a plan. We’re not necessarily like, “Well, this will be the B-side,” but ‘Well, we should record these songs, and I think these are our strongest contenders.” It’s usually then on the record.
There’s a song, “The Kintsugi Kid (Ten Years),” that didn’t make it. That was recorded almost the entire time through. We were like, this will probably be a B-side. Everybody was kind of feeling that. And then when it was finished, it just felt so great. We collectively looked around like, “We we need to do this song, right?” So sometimes there are things like that, but it really has to be all agreed on. We don’t like to utilize it that often, but each guy has a veto where it’s like, “No, this has to happen.” You get one per record.
Wentz: I think also I’m way more open to the idea of people hearing B-sides or demos. For example, with the last “Star Wars,” “The Rise of Skywalker,” there’s this scene they shot where they filmed a spider on top of a baby elf head that talks to Kylo Ren…I just want to see it. I know it exists and I just want to see it. I know it’s not in the film and it won’t change how the story is or anything. So I’m open to the idea of people hearing demos as long as they didn’t make the record for a reason.
Fall Out Boy and Panic! At The Disco have a long history together. Did you talk with [Panic! frontman and sole original member] Brendon Urie about his decision to end the band?
Wentz: I didn’t end up talking to him about it. He seemed pretty decisive. Knowing Brendan, he’s the type of person when he gets to the top of the mountain, he’s not looking for another mountain to go to the top of. He’s just like, “I guess I’ll just walk down.” But I think in this case he truly just wanted to focus on being a dad and this is how he wanted to approach the process. As a father, you can’t tell anybody else how to do it. This seems the best way for him, which I appreciate.
How do you think being parents has changed you as artists?
Wentz: I think being a parent changes the routing that everything comes through, every conversation you have, everything you do. With this record, one of the things that we talked about is how time is the most important thing, so we have to make great art, because if we’re going to be away from our families it has to be for something we really, really, really believe in. Otherwise, what’s the point? I don’t really want to tell my kids I’m going to fly halfway around the world for a record that I’m just like, “Yeah, it’s OK. It’s a new record, I guess.”
I wanted to ask about one of the most impactful songs on the record, which seems to be a thesis statement of sorts: “What a Time to Be Alive,” which is a really dark song lyrically about the pandemic and feeling hopeless, juxtaposed with one of your poppiest melodies ever. What message were you trying to convey?
Stump: When I read the lyrics, there was something about when I got to that phrase “What a Time to Be Alive.” There’s such a sarcasm in it. I really wanted to write the kind of song that the DJ puts on at the wedding, but the wedding is happening in the middle of the apocalypse.
Wentz: It’s like a New Year’s song for the worst year that has ever happened.
Stump: I think some of my favorite pop music has been when people are singing along without catching what they’re singing, that “Born In The U.S.A.”-kind of thing.
Wentz: It’s always funny when you have the realization that, “He’s saying the exact opposite of what I thought he was saying.”