The art of music production is as varied as the number of people partaking. Some release demo after demo, track after track, almost indiscriminately. Others, like the New York City-based trio of brothers AJR, are more reserved and meticulous. In one sense, it may seem that the fewer songs a band releases, the easier it is. But for AJR, it’s the opposite. The group combs over its music, finding the right sound here and the right one there.
The band has a mantra—Given that no one is perfect, therefore everyone fails. But the brothers work to “fail faster,” meaning that they endeavor not to linger on their errors, get past the inevitable junk as quickly as possible to better locate the gems. Since its inception in the early 2010s, the trio has produced a great many hits amongst the 50-something formal releases. The brothers’ newest offering, the forthcoming LP, OK ORCHESTRA, is set for release on March 26, and should produce more fans for the already popular family project.
“We want every single song to be a concept that nobody’s ever talked about before,” Ryan Met tells American Songwriter. “We try not to copy ourselves. I think to cope with that, we just say, ‘Let’s go deeper. Let’s mine even deeper into our lives.’”
AJR, which is comprised of brothers Adam, Jack and Ryan Met, produces sticky, concise and melodic music. Much of it could be considered pop. Officially, that’s not necessarily the trio’s aim. Growing up, each of the members was exposed to music early on. At four-years-old, Ryan remembers hearing the Beach Boys’ song, “Surfer Girl,” and somehow already feeling nostalgic. Jack remembers seeing a Paul Simon concert early in his life and feeling almost mystified at the prowess and magic of Simon wowing a crowd of thousands. The radio was always on in the house. So, in that way, contemporary popular music was always present.
“I think we just got there naturally,” says Jack, who is AJR’s lead vocalist. “We went through so many different genres —Broadway, Hip-Hop, whatever you can think of. But we got to a point where we got good at writing melodies.”
Today, much of the band’s music often begins with the piano. Whether that initial lick stays in the song is another thing. But if one of the brothers finds a piano line that stays in their collective heads, then that’s usually a good place to start. An example of this is the band’s new platinum single, “Bang!” The track begins with a thick piano line played in the bass clef, almost sounding like an early KRS-ONE song before Jack’s voice lifts a few octaves to belt a bouncy, confident chorus. That the group can create such meaty, popular tracks is a testament to the hours and years of time spent working with sounds and equipment.
“In the beginning,” Ryan says, “when I first got Garage Band, I’d be in my mom’s closet every day after middle school working on it. Like, what if I made a folk song today, what if I made a super Broadway song today? I had no plan for anybody to listen to it but I just looked forward to it after school, experimenting.”
Later, as the brothers realized they had mutual multi-instrumental skills and could collaborate compatibly, they began to work together on songs. For five summers in a row, they’d busk around New York City, in Washington Square Park and Central Park, working to earn money for new equipment. When they had what they needed, they began to make music in their Big Apple living room, which is where they continue to record it today. Other hits on their new album include the retrospective, “Bummerland,” and triumphant, “Way Less Sad.” But while the group’s music is often big, bombastic and thought out, it benefits from the trio keeping things personal, specific and accurate. And if they’re able to pinpoint what’s on their audience’s mind in the process—all the better.
“We really need to be one hundred percent vulnerable,” Jack says. “Something shifted for us in 2015 where we realized that we got a lot more positive reception and reception in general when we started being more honest and weird with our lyrics.”
Today, perhaps more so than ever, the group’s hard work and dedication is paying off. For years, they’ve worked to grow a large fan base. At the same time, AJR wasn’t necessarily getting the same attention from the established tastemakers as those groups with similar followings. While the fact never deterred the guys, it was perplexing and frustrating at times for a group already with millions of listeners. But with recent performances on Ellen and prestigious late night shows, AJR has landed in a new era of personal and professional appreciation.
“To us,” Ryan says, “that’s really satisfying. It was a long time coming.”
To be an artist means many things, one of which is the requirement to walk a line between creative sovereignty and working to appeal to an audience. Not an easy task. For AJR, what their fans enjoy and think is very important creates a new precedent and pressure for the band, while also allowing them the freedom to keep creating the music they love to make.
“So many artists say they really don’t care what people think,” Jack says. “I can confidently say that we are on the other side of the spectrum. I extremely care what people think. We put out music for the fans, as well as us. We try a great deal to make them happy.”
If one is to judge by the millions of streams that AJR has amassed over the past few weeks just from new releases, it would see that the trio is doing rather well. They are achieving their goals. The brothers are threading the near impossible needle of creative success, audience adoration and critical appeal. Nevertheless, their attentions never leave the fundamental reason why.
“I love that music can transport you back to another time in your life,” Ryan says.
“It’s the ultimate distraction,” Jack says.