I interviewed Patrick Stump not too long ago when he played at Schuba's in Chicago, and I present here the un-truncated transcription. If you're interested in the mind of a pop song genius or two guys nerding out about Michael Jackson, keep reading. Also, his EP Truant Wave, is, as expected, weird, super-catchy, and vaguely reminiscent of Prince, so track that down.
Bottled water? Pillaging the earth of its resources?
Actually, I’m super against the bottled water. But, on this tour, logistically it was kind of rough. I was going to get the water bottles that have the filter in them. I figured I’d take water off the rider, because, even if it’s coming out of the pipe brown, if it’s going through a filter, it’s going to be fine. I couldn’t find it in time.
Consumer ethics on tour are tricky.
It’s rough, man!
Eating at McDonald’s and…
Well, I still don’t break that rule. I won’t eat at McDonald’s on tour. I will occasionally in other countries out of morbid curiosity. I just want to see what happens there.
What does happen there?
Everything is regionalized. Everything is regionalized. If you go into Canada, you can get poutine. You go to Japan, and you can get wasabi for the nuggets. They have lobster in Maine. Sometimes it’s cool to try it. Well, I haven’t done the lobster, since Maine is in America and that breaks my rule, but…
[laughs] You’ve got to draw the line somewhere.
So let’s get into this a little. One of the things that I’m very curious about is that, since you’re doing this by yourself and there’s a lot going on in the songs…is this all a fully-formed product in your head that you then pick out or do you create something then layer it?
It’s hard to describe, because it kind of is a fully-formed thing in my head. It’s just a matter of what sounds am I going to use to achieve that. Somebody like Michelangelo, you know, somebody huge….was saying that he starts with a rock…well, “started,” he’s been dead for awhile now…Anyway, he would see his finished product in there, and it was his job to get it out. It’s kind of like that, in that I know what I want to get, and I know what I want it to sound like.
Actually, you can go overboard trying to get it, too, since you’re by yourself, and there’s nobody there to stop you, and you can layer on as many things as you want. There is a lot of experimentation, but I usually have a pretty good idea of what I want it to sound like.
I imagine a lot of details like that come out in “jamming,” but you can’t really just “jam” if you’re doing it by yourself.
That’s interesting because I don’t really “jam” that well. Sometimes I have creative dreams where I’ll get flashes of it, and then I just have to figure out how to do that. That happens to me a lot. A lot of these songs are things that I heard it in my head pretty much as it is, and then I have to go back and reverse engineer it to get it that way.
Similarly, something like Prince, where that dude is just a maniac…
And I know for sure that he just does kind of screw around sometimes and he is just experimenting with things.
I think in some other interview you referenced Timbaland.
Yeah, yeah! His drums are huge to me!
So, something like that is just layers upon layers. So, you have a pretty good idea of the rhythm you’re looking for?
Yeah! I’ll know the general groove. Lyrics come last in that context. They might be written beforehand, but they get applied to the song last.
On my version of Thriller, it has the home demo of “Billie Jean,” and I was blown away because it has the little violin part [at the end of the chorus]. I was like, “whoa, that dude was planning on doing that all along!”
That’s what’s crazy, because there’s so much you think is maybe Quincy Jones. But it’s really just Michael just going nuts. Or the home demo of “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough.” You can hear him talking to Janet because she’s in the background singing harmonies, and he’s like “I need more cowbell in the phones.” But the song as a whole sounds pretty remarkably like the album version.
Speaking of which, did you hear the new Michael Jackson record?
Yeah, I did. It was a tough decision, because I was like “do I listen to this and commit sacrilege?” But, at the end of the day, it’s still a new Michael Jackson record, and that’s amazing.
“Behind the Mask” is insane.
There’s a few songs on there that I’m like “if he were still alive, that would have been a hit.” Like “Hollywood.” There’s that one song that they released first…”Breaking News,” which is just scathing.
He’s so pissed off! I was psyched on it, because it’s like hearing him yell. He’s mad. I was like “killer!”
Although he didn’t drop any racial slurs in that one.
[laughs] Next time, next time.
So, at some level, these new songs of yours sound like hip-hop, where the focus is on a beat or a groove. However, Fall Out Boy is much more melodic.
Everything has always been rhythm to me. Even in Fall Out Boy where it’s more melodic. I always kind of wrote music like a hip-hop beat where it’s kind of separate from melody. You leave space for it to be melodic, but it’s more or less thought out before the melody was there.
And sometimes it was even separate. I would read Pete’s lyrics and have a melody without any music. And I would find songs that I had already written the groove to that it would fit over. It was always different. I still rarely ever do the thing where you freestyle the melody and come up with the words later. Words are everything to me. If I don’t have the words first, then there’s no song.
One of my biggest struggles in writing songs is combining my gibberish words with actual lyrics.
That’s the thing! I find that it’s easier to take words first and make a melody out of them rather than trying to go the other way around. I kind of learned the way that I do it now by accident, because that’s just the way that Fall Out Boy wrote. It’s really rewarding for me as a writer. I’m always happier with the lyric when I spent some time on it just as words first, and then later found a place for it.
Speaking of that, Saves the Day’s Through Being Cool is really hard to sing along with because of that phenomenon. You can tell that dude had his melody, and just kind of jammed lyrics into it.
There’s a lot of strategically placed “whoa”s that fill in those gaps.
People will put on “Shoulder to the Wheel” and sing along with every word, and I’m like “how are you even doing that?”
You just love that song that much. You just know it. [laughs]
In a lot of your songs, I find the pre-chorus to be catchier than the chorus. Do you ever do that on purpose?
[laughs] Yeah, sometimes. Speaking of Michael Jackson, his choruses are almost never choruses. When you look at “Billie Jean,” it’s all about the [sings]”People always told me be careful what you do.” Also, Prince! Look at “Controversy.” [sings]”Some people want to die so they can be free” is the catchy part. There’s almost no chorus in that song.
It’s not usually conscious. I’ve tried a lot of different types of song-writing, and that’s kind of the A-B form that’s been sticking with me lately.
Even something like “Spotlight” where the chorus is kind of big, the part of the song that actually sticks with me is the pre-chorus.
And that’s what I wrote it around, too. In fact, they may have been two separate songs originally. I think I might have been singing the pre-chorus, and then just threw in the “Spotlight” at the end. And I was like, “Oh, that could be more of a hook!” And I made it into a whole song.
How did you become such a good singer? Just listening to your discography, you get markedly better throughout time.
I got less scared of my own voice. I did get better, but I also think that I was better than I was singing. I started out, and I was in this punk scene with all of these pop punk bands. I was a drummer and I always wanted to sing back-ups, and all of my bands were really disparaging of my voice. They were all like, “Ugh, your voice is so pretty.”
So, I was really scared of it. I was kind of ashamed of it. I wasn’t trying to sing in Fall Out Boy, I was trying to be the drummer/songwriter or whatever. So, when they asked me to sing, I was like, “Ok, I guess you want me to sing ‘pop punk.’” So I affected my voice a lot more. I was still really hiding behind that.
I never really sang the way I actually sing in front of them for years. I did a little falsetto at the end of that song “Saturday,” and I was just messing around, and Pete was like, “Do that! That’s awesome!”
They embraced the way I sang, and that got me to relax a bit and be more honest about the way I sing. And it’s not even like I was dishonest, I was just terrified. It’s a lot easier to do an impersonation of what you think a singer is supposed to sound like than to go out and be yourself.
That’s one of the things that my mom said when she heard this new EP. She’s like, “You finally, totally sound like you.”
That’s a good compliment.
That’s a big compliment. That’s a huge compliment. That made me feel really happy.
I’ve worked with a lot of really amazing singers in the studio, too, who have these really amazing voices, but they’re kind of hiding behind something affected. The biggest lesson I ever learned is just let it out. You singing in the shower? Do that. That’s better than all the other stuff you do.
But also the shower just has really nice acoustics.
It does! It just makes you want to sing.
What do you sing along to?
You know what’s weird? I used to sing along a lot. I used to sing along to everything. To Michael Jackson records, to R&B records, to punk records. Now, when I’m not making music, I don’t listen to music. I just relax. It’s weird. It’s a totally different thing now.
I said this once to somebody, and I was like, “You’ve gotta think that porn stars might have the most vanilla sex lives.” And this guy was like, “Actually, I know Nina Hartley and she’s very prominent in the swinger’s scene.” And I was like, “Sorrrrr-ry. I don’t go to a lot of those parties, I’ll be honest. And I didn’t know that.”
When I go home, it’s kind of quiet. I can’t be very passive, when there’s music around. It’s hard for me to watch shows, because I want to play. I can’t dance because I want to play. So, I don’t sing along anymore.
So, when you write songs, do you steal? I know I have a list of songs that I want to take an idea from, be it a chord change or…
I think everybody does something akin to that. Some people outright steal, some people pay homage…I’ve done all of it. There are songs that happen where you don’t know where they come from, and there are songs that happen that you know exactly where they come from.
There’s a song that I’ll play tonight that’s on Soul Punk, and it’s called “Everybody Wants Somebody.” And I know that I built that song around wanting to play live drums like an old Linndrum from Minneapolis. Like Prince, or The Time, or Vanity 6…something like that. I wanted it to sound like those kind of drums. It’s kind of a composite groove of the best of those drum grooves. Sometimes there will be simple things like that, and that’s what starts the song.
Everybody steals. It’s important to know…how to be comfortable with it. Fall Out Boy, early on, took a lot from Saves the Day and Green Day…some Lifetime, a couple Kid Dynamite things. Just as Green Day is fairly open about taking from The Who and The Ramones. You take from your heroes, but you’re you, so it’s going to sound different.
I also feel that the more further removed the genre is, the more comfortably one can steal.
That’s one of the things that’s funny…I was reading something about Prince. A jazz musician said he saw Prince at the show, and he did this one drum fill…a very signature drum fill that was his drum fill…and then Prince’s record came out, and there was his drum fill. And it’s like “whatever.” It wasn’t on MTV so no one knew it unless you were at that show. But everyone does it. And most of us don’t even know we’re doing it half the time. It’s just being open to the experience, I guess.
You did vocals for the new Weekend Nachos LP. Are you still in touch with any hardcore or metal?
Yeah, yeah. It’s one of those things where…it’s not one of those things where it goes away, where it’s not part of my life anymore. I was really attracted to a lot of the political bands, you know? Tim from Rise Against…I was always into all of his bands. I was really into Racetraitor. You know, I was into a lot of the political hardcore bands in Chicago.
And right when [Fall Out Boy] started, a lot of the people were abandoning it and making different music altogether, like Pelican. Then you also had a lot of the really tough guy crew hardcore bands. I always dug that stuff, but I didn’t feel as communal with it. I didn’t feel like I could hang so much.
So, it’s cool now seeing bands like Weekend Nachos. Weekend Nachos in the first place kind of started out as a joke then got really good. They weren’t taking it seriously, then got kind of awesome.
So yeah, I still keep in touch with some of my friends, but it’s hard to keep in touch with anybody anymore honestly. I’m kind of an outsider now. I’m kind of back to being a mailorder kid. [laughs] I came full circle.
Sending away to Asian Man Records.
Yes. Or what was it?
No, no. Very Distribution.
I don’t think I ever ordered from them.
Very was this giant catalogue, and it would just be full of…they had every hardcore record you could ever want in there in like five different colors.
My money all went to Asian Man, Hopeless, Lookout!, and Dr. Strange.
Absolutely. I sent a lot of money to Asian Man. I sent a lot of money to Lookout!.
So, you have a mainstream audience at this point. But you’re still someone who came out of this subcultural scene. I think this is really interesting because, speaking of those political hardcore bands, it’s like “oh yeah, all the kids in black t-shirts can hang out in the corner and be mad about stuff together.” But you get to talk to people outside of that group with your music.
Which is something of a….something of a plan. Definitely not a full on plan, but it’s something that I’m not going to shy away from. I was always attracted to making more or less pop music. But I’m still as into the things that got me into the punk community in the first place. I’m still as into the politics.
So, I get to say a lot of things to an audience…Well, I would have gotten to say these things to a punk audience, but they would all agree with me so that’s whatever. I think that’s potentially more powerful.
See, but that’s the thing. Fall Out Boy got slammed a bit for leaving politics behind. We were a vegan straight edge band when we started. There’s one straight edge vegan in the band now. We ended up not singing about that stuff as far as people know. But, we really got into metaphor, and disguising a lot of things. Especially on the last two records [Infinity on High and Folie a Deux]. They were very political…openly political. And people were like “oh, they’re talking about being famous.” And I’m like, “Fuck man! That’s not even close!” Especially on the last record.
I could be accused of the same thing when you listen to Soul Punk. On the surface, a lot of these things sound like I’m talking about girls and parties. I’m not. Ever. Everything is something else, and that’s kind of the point. And I get to do that. I get to say really extreme shit, but I’m disguising it as a girl. I’m disguising it as a drinking song. I can say pretty left wing shit.
So you are actively using your “fame?”
Yeah it’s not like…not in a contrived way. Artistically, that’s how I want to say it now. I don’t want to scream anymore. I’m tired of proclaiming it. I want to express what I’m thinking, and that’s the way that’s been cathartic for me to express it. I feel better after writing this way. Not to sound too posi. [laughs]
So, even as a celebrity…I mean how many Twitter followers do you have? When you say something, people are going to pay attention.
Yeah, well...sometimes. Sometimes they listen, sometimes they don’t. I wrote about rescue animals. I wrote something about making an effort to get rescue animals a home. I also wrote about having never seen an episode of Jersey Shore. I’ll give you two guesses which one got retweeted more.
But then again, if you blog or anything like that, you can sort of figure out how to push people’s buttons so they comment or whatever.
Yeah, and there’s definitely some psychology to it. But, I always just try to be honest and say what I’m really thinking. I never want to be full-on contrived, but I do want to say things to people.
And…this is actually one of the things that I think I’ve learned. This is a big difference between me now and me ten years ago. I used to be so angry that the only way I could handle it was confrontation. I had to confront you about what you’re doing wrong. About how fucked up what you’re doing is. Now, I’m just as pissed off, but now I’m going to empathize with you and force you to empathize with me so you understand where I’m coming from. So we listen to each other and actually get something done. Because I really do believe in this shit.
Yeah and that perspective…it’s sort of like when you’re sixteen and you get all mad about bands “selling out.” Then you get a little older and you’re like, “oh wait.”
Yeah, and with selling out…I used to believe that it was this thing that you had a choice in the matter. But you don’t! You have no choice!
I remember sending an angry letter…[laughs]
Tell it! Tell it!
I’m having a hard time speaking because this is so funny to me. I sent an angry e-mail to Thursday when they signed to Victory Records. [laughter]
The thing is…there’s perception that somehow going indie is more legit or whatever. There are dishonest douchebags everywhere. That’s another really dark lesson I had to learn. The indie dudes aren’t cool, either. They’re all trying to cheat you.
We [Fall Out Boy] didn’t think anyone was going to come to our shows. We didn’t think we were going to be a big band. You don’t really make these choices.
And the thing that fucked us up, is that on each record, we actually did try to get more and more weird…more and more out there. Because we were really scared of being this big band. And somehow we got even bigger. And I was like, “Well, shit…”
I’ve got one more thing I want to ask you. So, you have this EP. You have this LP. I assume you have years of weird backlogged material. How do you approach this? Are you releasing an album? Are you releasing a compilation of your best material?
The first thing I tried was recording my “best of.” Recording all my best songs that hadn’t been released yet. I tried that and it sucked. I was happy with all the songs, but it didn’t make any damn sense as an album. So I went back, and scrapped most of it. I picked a couple songs that made sense with each other and made an album around that.
Which, again, is why the music and the lyrics got to be so distinctly metaphorical. The songs that I thought really worked together had that vibe. There were some songs that had that angry political vibe. And there were some songs that were musically very different. So, it is very much an album to me.
And that’s the other thing is where do I go now? I have a potential second record that is totally different. Maybe more poppy. But I don’t know that any of that is ever going to come out. By the time I make record two, what am I going to be doing?