switched on pop

How a Broadway-Inspired Banger Took Over the Pop Charts

Illustration: Iris Gottlieb

The Met brothers, Adam, Jack, and Ryan — better known on a first-initial basis as the trio AJR — started playing gigs a decade ago on the streets of their native Manhattan, where the sidewalk hustle taught them how to grab the attention of the least-forgiving audience. Now, on their fourth studio album, OK Orchestra, they’ve honed an ear-turning sound that brings Broadway bombast to 2021 pop. Their platinum-certified single, “Bang!,” pairs a carnival-evoking horn section with skittering trap hi-hats. And yet this strange coupling has produced a hit — peaking at No. 8 on the Hot 100, the song is their strongest commercial release so far despite sounding like little else on the chart. It is a coming-of-age celebration for your 20s (“I’m way too old to try, so whatever, come hang / Let’s go out with a bang”) with lyrics that lament the pedestrian parts of adulthood: eating healthy, paying taxes, and remembering your passwords. In the spirit of theater, “Bang!” takes little moments and makes them sound larger than life. On this week’s episode of Switched on Pop, co-host Charlie Harding speaks with Jack and Ryan Met about the making of “Bang!”; their latest single, “Way Less Sad”; and the show tunes that influenced OK Orchestra.

Charlie: On a recent episode of Switched On Pop, we offhandedly called “Bang!” post-rock polka carnival trap and received blowback online. But the major influence here appears to be musical theater. Is that fair to say?

Ryan: We’re huge fans of musical theater. It’s kind of ingrained in us; that was our first love of music. [The style] can be so unabashedly genuine. We write songs for other artists. A lot of what’s thrown around is “No, that feels too genuine. It feels too sincere.” Like we’ve got to cloud it in some kind of irony. I think what we love about musical theater is that when the lead character sings the “want” song, it’s just like, “I’m not going to apologize for it. I want this!” And so for us, “Bang!” was kind of like when the evil villain walks in. We thought, How do we take that vibe and make it palatable for people that listen to the radio and listen to Spotify playlists in 2021?

Charlie: What’s the story in “Bang!”? Who are the characters?

Jack:  It’s about that exact moment from being a kid to basically having to be an adult. We’ve moved out. It just really doesn’t make any sense anymore for us to keep living as children. It’s time to mature. So if we’re going to do it, then we should do it with a bang; we should try to be positive and go out in style.

Charlie: How are you able to translate Broadway clichés into a contemporary pop production?

Ryan: You have to dress it up a little bit. If you have this Broadway sound, you have to dress it in clothes that appear like they belong with everybody else. “Bang!” was originally more of an acoustic kind of drum set, and it literally felt Broadway. Having the trap beat, the rolling hi-hats and trap snare, immediately makes you say, “Okay, now I understand this could only be made right now.” It sounds very [modern], even though it’s juxtaposed with something that was popular like a hundred years ago.

Charlie: What is it about Broadway that can be both so over-the-top but also perfect at communicating an individual intimate moment?

Ryan: I think it’s the same reason we love movies so much and we both went to film school. It’s kind of in the same world. It can be really specific and very considered and apply to just one story, and yet it can be accessible on an enormous level.

Something like Finding Nemo, right? It’s technically a story about fish in Australia, but in a way bigger sense, it’s about fatherhood and losing somebody you love. I think the best Broadway songs, the “One Day More!”s of the world, are really good at doing the same. There’s this specific story about the French Revolution, but also it’s “one day more” until whatever you want it to be. And you can relate on any level.

I think a lot of people sometimes make the mistake in pop music of thinking the way to be most relatable is to go the broadest. And the most broad thing you could say is “Don’t leave me” or “I love you.” And I think often we try to stay away from that because the most relatable stuff can be the most specific stuff if you strike the right nerve.

Charlie: The song seems to reflect some internal self-doubt: You sing, “Pretend you know this song, everybody.” Did you have any feeling that this song would go platinum and go to No. 8 on the Hot 100?

Jack: We have a different mind-set than other writers. In every interview, we watch writers or artists say, “I’ve never, ever tried to write a hit. That’s the way to not have hits; you can’t try to write a hit.” Ryan and I are the absolute opposite. We absolutely try to write what we think will be a hit. But the answer is no, we did not. We never, ever think anything is going to get popular. We went nine years with zero success. No one knew our music. So we’re kind of conditioned to think that there’s a big chance this will fail.

I was skeptical in terms of a single, yeah. It was the weirdest production that Ryan had ever brought to me. He literally just had the horns, “dum-dum, dum-dum,” and I said, “Ryan, when it’s time to make a Broadway show, that’s the first thing that’s going in.” And he said, “No, I really think this can translate.” And as soon as he put the trap drums over it, I was like,Oh my God, now I’m imagining a party. Now I can see people dancing to this — this is so sick.”

Charlie: Your next single, “Way Less Sad,” takes a different turn from “Bang!” in its contrast between very sullen moments and then very joyous moments. What role is it playing in OK Orchestra?

Ryan: The story of this song is interesting. It started eight years ago with a sample that we found from “My Little Town,” by Simon & Garfunkel. At the very end of the song, during the fade-out, it’s this horn line. And we remembered hearing it growing up; it was one of our favorite songs.

Jack: We had to turn the volume up at the end of the song in order to actually hear our favorite part.

Ryan: And so at a certain point, eight years ago, we decided to make a track where [that sample is] the main hook of the song. We made this disco track and then we kind of forgot about it for some reason. Then fast-forward a few years, [the DJ and producer] Kygo and his label reached out with a track that Kygo made asking if we wanted to write a song over the melody. And that’s when we ended up writing, “Don’t you love it? No, I ain’t happy yet, but I’m way less sad.” And we sent it back, and they were like, “Ah, no, that’s okay. Wait, we don’t want it.” And we said, “Okay, that’s fine, we’ll take it for our collection.”

Fast-forward a few more years, Cardi B’s label, Atlantic [Records], reached out because she was looking for a new single. And that’s when we pulled out that Simon & Garfunkel sample and turned it into more of a hip-hop song. For some reason, we thought Cardi would want that.

Jack: Personally, I thought it would be really funny if she cut the song and in interviews [had to say] that [her producers] sampled Simon & Garfunkel.

Ryan: She ended up putting out “WAP” instead, so we realized we totally missed the mark. They didn’t want it, and so we took this Kygo chorus, this Cardi B track, married them together and then made it actually about something.

Charlie: How did you approach making a conceptual album for an era of streaming singles?

Ryan:  I think it’s good to look at Hamilton. [The album] has a crazy amount of streams; that makes no sense in the streaming age. Why would Hamilton have so many streams? It’s because there’s a story that you can follow through. There’s a payoff. There’s a reason to listen to it in order. And I think we really consider that when we’re making albums; we started the album with an overture, and it’s like an electronic version of a pretty standard Broadway overture, where it samples songs and it creates a whole new original piece of music. And then it ends in a way that relates back to the rest of the album. I think we really think about it as one cohesive thing.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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How AJR’s Broadway-Inspired Banger Took Over the Pop Charts