An Interview with John Nolan of Taking Back Sunday

Words by Nick Hodgins

It’s been over a decade since Taking Back Sunday broke out of the Long Island music scene and exploded into the world as one of the most notable alternative bands of their generation. With six albums, four labels, countless tours, and a handful of talented musicians along the way; in 2011 the quintet found themselves right back with the lineup that started it all.

Shortly after reforming, the crew launched into a countrywide tour to celebrate the ten year anniversary of their debut album Tell All Your Friends. From there, they released what would be that lineup’s second album together which they promptly dubbed a self-titled.

Their latest release Happiness Is, is the groups first album since TAYF that had no involvement from their record label. This permitted the band to write and record the album as they envisioned it. The result is a bright, optimistic and well…happy album.

Lead guitarist and backup vocalist John Nolan has gotten around a bit since his departure from Taking Back Sunday back in 2003. He formed the band Straylight Run and would later release a solo album before eventually teaming back up with Taking Back Sunday.

I had a chance to speak with Nolan about Happiness Is, his songwriting and his return to Taking Back Sunday.

How’s the tour been going now that everyone has sort of had a chance to digest the new album?

JOHN: It’s been good! The reactions to the new songs have been great. It seems a lot more immediate than our last record and seeing that response from the crowd has been exciting. The tour’s been great too, every show has been sold out so you can’t really ask for much more than that.

I understand this was first album since TAYF that had no involvement from your record label; did this allow you to take certain liberties when writing and recording that you might not have been able to do otherwise?

JOHN: Yeah, I think it does. I mean, I’m not sure what it was like for the other guys with all the records on Warner Bros because I wasn’t there, but with the self-titled there was definitely this kind of sense that they were looking over your shoulder and checking in. They were generally pretty good about everything, they never tried to force anything on us, but you just have this sense that you know that they’re very nervous and hoping that you’re going to write a hit record and they try to give input that they think will help lead to a hit record.

I think all that with the self-titled just made us kind of self-conscious and second guess ourselves more than we needed to. So with this one, it felt good to just have every decision that we make be based around, ‘well what do we think about this, does this make us happy and do we think this is cool?’ and not have to consider anything beyond that.

You’ve been busy since the early days of TBS, with Straylight Run and putting out a solo record, has your songwriting style changed over the years? What has impacted it?

JOHN: It’s gone through a few different changes. When I did Tell All Your Friends with TBS that was an extremely collaborative experience, even if there was a song where I had more input than other songs, or was based around a song I kind of came up with on my own, it still ended up going through this whole process and becoming something very different than I would have done on my own — and that’s one of the really cool things about working with TBS.

After that, when I did Straylight Run stuff it was based more around me bringing a song to the band and everyone would have their input, but their input was more based on adding their parts to a song I had made up. So that was a different experience and caused me to write a little more differently.

I think taking that to the next place of doing things on my own completely, obviously with that I wasn’t answering to anyone or having any outside input hardly. So all those things change your approach I think, but I guess for me it’s mostly been based around how much of myself only is in it and how much I’m going to bring to other people and let get involved in it, but that does make a big difference in the way the songwriting plays out.

You mentioned how recording TAYF was a very collaborative effort, was writing Happiness Is done similarly?

JOHN: It was actually very similar in the way the songs came together. As soon as I came back to TBS it was pretty much back to the same way with doing things, where everybody has a hand in it and even if there is a song that someone brings and they have a pretty good idea of what the song is going to sound like, everybody still ends up kind of shaping it and making it into something different. The songwriting process didn’t change much at all from TAYF to when we got back together and started writing again. We kind of have this way of working that seems to make sense to all of us, so we got to go right back to that.

Did you spend much time on preproduction or was a lot of it written in the studio?

JOHN: We spent a good amount of time on preproduction, but compared to the self-titled it didn’t seem like much. On the self titled we went so far as to basically record what could have been a finished recording of almost every song before we recorded the real version. We really worked everything out down to the last detail before we went and recorded the studio version of songs.

With this one we did a lot of preproduction but it was kind of different, it wasn’t as extensive and it was kind of more like there was three phases — we would get together and work out the basic idea of the song and record a very rough version on our own. Then we would go into a studio and record a slightly better demo version where we changed some things. Then in the studio the song would still be worked on down to the very end of it, so it was almost like the work in the preproduction on the songs continued all the way up until the song was just done being recorded, kind of a different way of doing things for us.

What does that first version of a song usually look like?

JOHN: Well the songs would generally start with the guitar part that someone in the band will come up with and then some we’d record an instrumental track that we didn’t have ideas for lyrics or melodies yet, so then it would stay in that form for a while until we could add more to it. And then other ones came together quickly and were pretty set even in their rough form — they didn’t change that much. It just depended on the song.

Did any song in particular give you guys a hard time or stand out as taking longer than others?

JOHN: Oddly enough, the song “Stood a Chance,” which ended up being the single, that one gave us some problems in terms of figuring out the arrangement of it. It had a few different guitar parts that came and went and it was more figuring out how to fit the guitars together in the right way. That one did give us some problems, but I felt like at the end we really got it to a good place.

You also recorded a music video for “Stood a Chance,” is that something you enjoy or is it more of a publicity thing?

JOHN: It depends on the video and the shoot and everything. There’s something really fun about it and it’s exciting to see it come together, but it’s also a little scary too because there’s always that possibility it’s not going to work out well and that you might not enjoy the final product and a lot of time it’s out of your hands. I think generally though, we enjoy it. It’s just a little bit of a nerve-wracking process.

You’ve worked quite a bit with producer Mike Sapone, on early TBS, Straylight Run and your solo work, what does he bring to the table that appeals to you?

JOHN: Mike has this way of working that I think is very unique, he’s very laid back and he’s not very forceful, and sometimes it seems not even very opinionated when it comes to what you’re doing– but he has this way of kind of getting involved in the process and helping shape the songs and make them into something different than they’d be without him, but he does it in this way that’s just so organic that it’s like you barely even notice it until the song is finished, and then you look back and you’re like ‘oh my god, he helped direct the song to a whole new place.’ I think that’s pretty great because sometimes producers can be too heavy handed and sometimes they can be a little too laid back and just let you do whatever and he really finds a good balance between that I think.

You also worked with Marc Hudson, what does bringing on two producers do for the band?

JOHN: With this album I think it just worked out pretty naturally because we had been demoing songs, some of them we ended up doing with Marc Hudson at his studio in Michigan because he was our sound guy and tour manager throughout the whole tour up until the record came out, so sometimes we’d end up at his studio working on a song, sometimes we’d be in Long Island and we’d get together with Sapone. It just seemed natural, ‘well we demo’d these songs with these guys and they all sound good,’ so rather than try to take them away from one producer and give them to another let’s just stick with the guys who made them sound good.

You released a B-side track, “How I Met Your Mother,” which was one of the heavier of the new songs, why did it get cut from the album?

JOHN: When we were putting together the track listing we were very conscious of two things, we wanted the record to be cohesive and feel and sound like a little journey that you can take if you listen to the whole thing beginning to end and we wanted everything to fit together and just feel like a cohesive album. At the time we were putting it together we felt like that song didn’t fit exactly, even though we really liked it, and the truth is we could’ve been wrong about that, it might’ve had a good place on the record and we just couldn’t see it.

Is there any song you’re super proud of, maybe more than others?

I’m really proud of the song “It Takes More.” It’s a really great song, it doesn’t sound quite like anything TBS has done before and I love the outro part that kind of just developed. Actually the producer Mike Sapone had a lot to do with shaping that outro, he kind of developed that all on his own and we had no idea what he was going to do. That one really stands out to me, it’s really cool and that whole outro thing is so interesting I think.

Taking Back Sunday is currently on tour with The Used, check out dates here: | New York City