The bandmates in the indie-pop group AJR — brothers Adam, Jack and Ryan Met — have just about mastered blending supremely catchy hooks and samples with guitars, synths and AutoTune. But they aspire to do more than just record radio-friendly pop hits from their New York City apartment. With the October 18 release of their music video "Turning Out," which Jack and Ryan wrote and directed, the Columbia University film school students are hoping that their ability to tell a captivating Pixar-style animated story about two astronauts meeting and falling in love in space will propel them toward bigger and better film projects.
Ahead of AJR's show at the Fillmore Auditorium on November 13, the brothers spoke to Westword about the challenges of directing "Turning Out," working on a followup to their breakout record The Click, how they envision film and music intersecting in their careers, and advice for new bands.
See the video for "Turning Out" below and then read the band's take on it.
Westword: The first time I watched the “Turning Out” video [seen below], I was concerned that it wouldn’t end well for the main characters. Why did you decide to make it an animated music video?
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Ryan Met: We knew when we made the song about two years ago. We knew it deserved a Pixar short-style video that brought out the emotion in a strange metaphor. I think we knew early on that we wanted to do a sort of love story between two astronauts that were isolated — kind of an awkward love story between them and what happens on the moon. People seem to have had a really good reaction to it.
What about space and astronauts and the moon felt like the right fit for this story?
Adam Met: There’s so many situations where you can depict people falling in love, and we thought it’d be cool to put them into very isolated space. I feel like it was cool to start off the video with her having no clue about his intentions or even who he was, and just them developing that feeling between them — literally just them two with no outside influence.
Ryan: The song is kind of a lonely song. Like, who do I turn to? Do I have nobody to tell me what to do at this point? And space kind of connotes that. How more alone can you be than in the middle of space?
That isolation is probably why I haven’t seen Gravity yet. It seems like a haunting idea.
Adam: [Laughs.] We actually haven’t seen it, either.
What was it like directing an animated short?
Ryan: It’s something that we’ve been interested in for a very long time. We’re also film students at Columbia University, so it’s definitely something we wanted to get into.
Animation is funny. There’s so much more you can do, essentially, than live-action, and that lack of restrictions is actually really difficult. You’re at the point of like, "Wow, I can create anything. This can be any character doing anything." The only limitation is your imagination.
It can be a little daunting at times, but honestly, it was really enjoyable, every step. We created this storyboard, and we knew what each shot was going to look like, and we ended up working with these animators that were fans of the band.
They came to a meet-and-greet in Salt Lake City and were like, "Hey, we’re big fans, and we’re animation students interning at Pixar. Have you ever wanted to do an animated music video?" We were like, "Oh, my God. We literally just storyboarded out a music video. What a coincidence!"
We ended up working with them, and every process was so cool, of modeling the actual characters and setting that connote an emotion out of these inanimate objects.
Jack Met: 3-D animation has this really special thing — I’m honestly not sure why it does this — but every expression conveys some sort of really strong emotion in 3-D animation. Even the simplest smile from a character conveys pure happiness and makes you start tearing up right away.
When they’re scared, it’s just the most basic form of fear, and you start tearing up. And I honestly don’t know why, but Pixar 3-D animation really conveys that, and it’s fun to try make your audience really feel something strong.
How many different iterations of the actual animation did you go through?
Jack: It was always the style that we wanted, but the phases to get there were so, so many. Like starting with the 2-D renderings, then they just jumped into the hair, then what the eyes look like, and then it looked a little bit more realistic. I think probably six or seven passes before saying, “Let’s get these characters to move.”
It was a very complex process.
Jack: From start to finish, from the conception of the idea, it was two years — which is insane for making a four-minute video.
What, specifically, are you guys studying in film school?
Jack: We’re taking a variety of classes. Everything broad that has to do with film: indie-cinema courses, screenplay courses, dialogue-writing courses.
Ryan: And we try to bring all this film knowledge to the music and to the live setting. For our entire tour, we tried to think about it like a movie, where the live show feels like it has reveals and ups and downs.
I think to just go on stage never really interested us. Some of the best bands of all-time — like the Beach Boys — do that, and that’s amazing. But I think for us, we wanted our live show to feel like a show that hadn’t been done yet.
Do you anticipate music and film always being intertwined for AJR? Do you see yourselves eventually leaning totally into one or the other?
Adam: I think we don’t really know the answer to that question. But for right now, each medium helps us get better at the other. The whole reason we got into film was for the music: Thinking about what songs would look good in what visual context.
And then when we think we have a great idea for a movie or music video or something, it helps us formulate music, like how can we make the music this good? I think right now, being in two different mediums really, really helps us.
What’s the last great movie you guys watched?
Jack: We just saw BlacKkKlansman, which was incredible. That was just such a great movie. We also just saw Eighth Grade, and it was one of the best movies we’ve ever seen. This year has had some really great movies.
I’ve heard Eighth Grade perfectly captures the fragility of being in eighth grade.
Ryan: It’s maybe a perfect movie. It's the realest depiction of middle school I’ve ever seen.
How do you feel about "Turning Out" being the last big release of The Click?
Jack: Albums are so honestly difficult to make successful in this age of music. People are so singles-focused, and people rarely care about the album, and this album did well. We’re going on our third certified single, and every show has been getting bigger.
It felt like this was definitely a success, and we wanted to finish it off with one last cool piece of content.
Are you psyched to get out of the album cycle for The Click and to start doing things for new material?
Jack: We’ve played The Click, that show, hundreds and hundreds of times over the past two years, so it’s always fun to start learning new material. But there’s that balance where, if an album does really well, fans want to see those songs over and over again. It’s a question of how different we want to be on the next run or how much we should change.
Navigating that balance seems like it can be tricky.
Ryan: It’s a different process. Because when we made The Click, we had almost no fans. We had few fans. We had a song called "I'm Ready" that went platinum five years ago, but it didn’t really get us fans. It was more like a viral single.
We made this using a part of our brains that was like, "Oh, let’s just do what we want to do, and it doesn’t matter who’s listening," and now that a lot of people are listening, it’s interesting: Do we try to access that part of our brain again, or do we try to access a new part of our brain, where it’s like, "Everyone is listening. Let’s show them that what they want they may not even know yet."
Have you already started determining what your approach will be?
Ryan: Yeah, yeah. Our next album is probably about half-done. The way we think about albums is like, "What’s the concept? What are we really trying to say lyrically? What can we do sonically that will not sound like anything that’s been done before?" Once we kind of land on that, we try to orbit around that idea.
We know what that nucleus is, and we’re about halfway through filling out the rest and making it a cohesive piece of work.
What's been the most exciting part about working on a new album?
Ryan: We have a lot of orchestra and choir, a lot of live instruments on this next album, and we’re not going to be used to doing that because we grew up making all the music ourselves in our living room on a shoestring budget. We’re used to sampling a lot and using synthesizers and working really hard to make them sound like live violin sounds and stuff.
Now we’re in this cool situation where we have the actual stuff at our disposal, and that’s honestly been the most fun dream come true — being able to record that live stuff.
This all sounds like it would tie in well with your interest in film and possibly trying to develop a score for a movie one day.
Ryan: Yeah, definitely. Real instruments are the most important thing to AJR’s sound. If I could describe AJR’s sound, in our production, it’s putting real instruments in a strange electronic context, such as using a messed up trumpet as the drop or the cello in “Sober Up.”
Something about a live instrument, like a live orchestral instrument, just cuts to the core of you as a human. It’s the most basic emotion that you can feel, and I think that’s why it’s used in film so much.
Were you guys naturally drawn to incorporating orchestral sounds and instruments into your music?
Ryan: We’ve been a band for about twelve years, and for eight of those years had kind of zero success at all. We went through a lot of phases.
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We went through more of a hip-hop phase, more of a folky phase, and then more of a theatrical Broadway-ish phase. We ended up landing on this sound and think this sound ended up being sort of a combination of all the phases we had gone through throughout middle school and high school. We just kind of pieced together all the things we liked about those phases.
I think if I could give advice to a band, it’s that do the thing for a very long time. It’s kind of impossible to be like, "All right, I’m going to be an artist. What’s my sound?" To pick it right away and for it to be anything worth saying is kind of really against all odds.
The way you achieve something great, I think, is failing at something over and over again and honing your craft.