Pete Wentz Plays The Long Game

He’s got a new Fall Out Boy album, a new mission to “do the sh*t you want,” and a new love of beating Hollywood's A-list in tennis. We hit the court with the pop-punk icon.

Written by Carrie Battan
Photographs by Frank W. Ockenfels III
Styled by Jan-Michael Quammie

For members of the celebrity class, the appeal of tennis is simple: These are people accustomed to receiving preferential treatment and flattery in so many facets of their lives that they might enjoy the thrill of a little objective, low-stakes humbling. That neon-yellow felt ball always tells the truth, even when you’re going viral on TikTok or receiving an endless stream of accolades for a performance. “Tennis, what it does for me personally, especially playing singles, is that it’s this equalizer,” says Fall Out Boy bassist and pop-punk legend Pete Wentz. “You’re out there alone and you have to figure it out. When it’s going wrong, you still have to figure it out. And when it’s windy, you still have to figure it out. You know what I mean?”

We’re standing on the private backyard court of Wentz’s tennis coach, Chris Crabb. When he’s not at home hanging out with his three children, at the studio recording a new album with Fall Out Boy, or mentoring one of the young artists on his own record label, Wentz can be found here several days a week, grinding it out with whomever is around. The front gate of Crabb’s home is a revolving door of celebrity tennis enthusiasts — Steve Carell, Dave Grohl, Zach Braff, to name a few — all of whom Wentz, once hailed by GQ as the “king of the L.A. tennis scene,” has played against or alongside. (“Pete’s an excellent player. Way better than I am,” Steve Carell writes me in an email later.) This court is such a hub for amateur Hollywood tennis enthusiasm that when I arrive to Crabb’s block to meet Wentz, I’m able to identify the correct house when I see Survivor host Jeff Probst exiting the premises, toting his racquet.

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“Pete is probably the smartest player I work with,” announces Crabb, describing the thoughtful and holistic approach that Wentz brings to his game. Last fall, Crabb brought Wentz along to a charity match, where he played doubles alongside top women’s player Aryna Sabalenka. He was hitting the ball so well that everyone involved, including Sabalenka, suddenly realized this would not be a typically breezy exhibition outing. “I think when we won the match, Sabalenka was like, ‘Thanks for the memories,’” he says, a reference to the 2007 Fall Out Boy single, whose music video featured none other than Kim Kardashian. “I was like, ‘Oh, that’s funny. A little Fall Out Boy joke.’” It’s a testament to the enduring and wide-ranging reach of Wentz’s musical legacy that a 24-year-old Belarusian professional athlete can make an offhand reference to a song that his band released 15 years ago.

For almost two decades, the Fall Out Boy bassist has been the leading man of the American pop-punk ecosystem, but he’s also just a guy people like to be around. “He makes you a better player when you partner with him,” Carell explains. And it’s true: Wentz is such a friendly and accommodating court companion that after just a few balls, I forget that I’m across the net from pop-music royalty. He’s genuinely enthusiastic about a good rally, intense and focused without being over competitive. He gracefully adjusts his level of play to match whomever he’s playing across without making them feel condescended to.

After a round of low-stakes hitting, Wentz has an idea. Compact, spritely, and super fit, the 43-year-old seems to have the natural boundless energy of someone half his age. “Do you want to play a game?” he asks, before explaining the rules of a deceptively tortuous and addicting exercise called “dingum.” It’s a kind of finesse-oriented minigame where each ball must be hit only into the service boxes, and no forceful shots are allowed. It sounds like gentle schoolyard fun, but because it’s a game of sharp angles and trick shots, it requires a ton of sprinting and direction changes. It’s basically running suicides, but with tennis racquets. “It’s a really barfy game,” Wentz says, grinning. He knows this because he once played it so intensely and for so long that he actually barfed. “The only way you can get the impossible dropshot is to have this sheer will,” he says. “There’s a depravity to tennis that you shouldn’t apply to the rest of your life.”

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You get the sense that Wentz would play until the sun went down if nobody stopped him, so I prompt us to take a seat after about an hour. He takes off his hat, revealing a look that in recent years has made him the object of intense internet affection: a bleached, ‘90s-Agassi-style ponytail, with salt-and-pepper roots creeping into the platinum. It’s an appropriate, if a little obvious, visual metaphor for the current phase of Wentz’s career: a scramble of nostalgia and forward momentum, youthful energy and wizened experience.

This summer, Wentz will head back out on tour in support of Fall Out Boy’s new album, So Much (for) Stardust, out this Friday. It’s the band’s first record since 2018, and the beginning of Fall Out Boy’s third decade together as a band — a new chapter that finds the group in a curious position. They are veterans of the scene who reached their commercial peak in an era when most people were still listening to music on their iPods. But now, thanks to a newfound fascination with pop-punk and emo among some of music’s youngest and trendiest stars, the members of Fall Out Boy suddenly find themselves at the vanguard of music culture.

Wentz knew the carousel of nostalgia, which often moves in 20-year cycles, was circling back his way when Post Malone shouted out the band on “Wow,” a song from 2018: “I got a lot of toys/ 720S bumpin’ Fall Out Boy,” Post sang. Then he started to notice that one of his old touring buddies, MGK, was bringing a guitar around. “I was like, ‘Oh, well maybe this is going to have a moment,’” he says. In the airport, a kid came up to Fall Out Boy drummer Andy Hurley and expressed his adoration: “You’re a legend! I started playing drums because of you.” It was a jarring moment of cognitive dissonance. “In my head, I still see Andy as this 15-year-old kid that I met,” Wentz says. “I’m like, this is so weird that they think you’re a legend.”

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Wentz came up as a teenager in the hardcore scene of the Chicago suburbs, and formed Fall Out Boy alongside guitarist Joe Trohman. They were soon joined by lead singer and guitarist Patrick Stump, whose melodic wail quickly became an instantly recognizable signature of the Fall Out Boy sound. The band’s maturation perfectly dovetailed with the genre’s commercial hey-day, when bands like Blink-182 and Good Charlotte were regularly dominating TRL broadcasts. Though Wentz was the band’s bassist, he was also its enthusiastic public ambassador: “A lot of other people remained mysterious, whereas he would pour his soul out, even on a blog post,” says longtime friend Johnny Minardi, vice president of A&R at the band’s label, Elektra. “Pete really broke down the wall between fans and artists. At shows, he would stay forever and meet everyone.”

“Whenever artists I love say that something is a ‘return to form,’ I’m like, ughhh! People think they want that, but if we do it, you won’t like it.”

Fall Out Boy’s success, along with Wentz’s relationship with MTV princess Ashlee Simpson, brought Wentz into an echelon of celebrity that was practically unheard of for a suburban hardcore kid who played the bass. “When we first went on TRL, there were two years where we were super famous, almost like One Direction-level. You couldn’t go anywhere or do anything,” Wentz remembers. “The transition just happens, so there’s not even anything you think about with it, because there is no time.” By 2013, Fall Out Boy were performing at the Victoria’s Secret annual fashion show alongside none other than Taylor Swift, who joined them on stage to gamely belt the lyrics to “My Songs Know What You Did in the Dark (Light Em Up).”

Even at its frenzied crest, however, pop-punk and its studious stepsibling, emo, were never quite cool. “It was so deeply uncool that there were places we went to, be it magazines or whatever, that were like, No, no no. We don’t do bands like that,” Wentz remembers. Now that the sounds of his young adulthood have permeated every corner of modern pop — from the SoundCloud rappers who love guitars to the chart-dominating angst of Olivia Rodrigo — Wentz sometimes finds himself doing a double take. “Listen, I have a deep appreciation for people thinking that any of it is cool,” he says. “But at the same time, I feel a little bit like that James Franco meme of, ‘Is this your first time?’... There’s a part of me that wants to be like, ah, f*ck it, this kind of sucks.”

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But bitterness of the “ah, f*ck it, this kind of sucks” variety is not really in Wentz’s DNA. Part of what’s allowed him to easily move through each successive era of his career is a natural good-naturedness and willingness to take a bird’s-eye view of culture that usually brings him to the side of optimism. In conversation, he often excitedly launches into broader theories of pop culture, connecting the dots between eras of music history. “To me, when Metallica put out ‘Enter Sandman’ and that was on every radio station, that was cool as f*ck as a Metallica fan. Because this is my band! And now you have to watch them,” he says. “Kids who go to emo night [now] because they were too young and missed it originally, I think it’s f*cking cool.”

It’s also brought about a welcome shift in the Fall Out Boy trajectory. For the last two or three albums the band has released, the cultural stock for rock bands was down. From Wentz’s perspective — even when they were able to book legacy tours alongside Green Day and Weezer — it was difficult to drum up buzz for rock music. “There were no bands on the radio, no guitars anywhere. We were just existing,” Wentz says. “And we were like, ‘We'll figure it out, get some songs playing during college football.’” But suddenly, as the tides of influence shifted back towards the sounds of Wentz’s youth, there was frenzied interest from outsiders in new (and old) Fall Out Boy music.

“Life is so short, maybe you should try crazy sh*t because it will break you out of the feeling of nihilism.”

“I had a friend who was like, ‘This is the perfect time to just do, “Sugar, We’re Goin Down” again! When We Were Young Festival is still big!’” Wentz says, referring to the alternative-music celebration whose 2022 edition was headlined by many of the band’s peers. Fall Out Boy’s absence on the lineup struck fans as a glaring omission, but Wentz says they are “definitely down” to play in the future: “I’m like, dude, if there’s any festival we should play, it should be this one.”

Still, for Wentz, things weren’t quite so simple as just catching the wave and making a throwback record. 2020’s lockdown had struck the bassist with a newfound desire to be at home with his family. (In addition to a son with Simpson, he also has two kids with partner Meagan Camper.) “I was like, I don’t really know if I want to tour anymore. The mental part of leaving is much more difficult,” says Wentz, who was not alone in those thoughts: Trohman opted out of the touring part altogether, announcing recently that he’d be taking a break to focus on his mental health. Plus, the idea of making a pure throwback record left Wentz with a bad taste in his mouth. “Whenever artists that I love, filmmakers and bands that I love, say that something is a ‘return to form,’ I’m like, ughhhh. He’s a multi-millionaire, how is he going to make speed metal?” Wentz says. “People think they want that, but if we do it, you won’t like it. And it’ll feel inauthentic.”

Every couple of months over the last few years, Minardi was “literally dragging Pete to breakfast” to catch up and check in about new music. “The guys knew what they wanted: ‘If we were going to do this again, it had to really matter,’” he says.

The songs that became So Much (for) Stardust ultimately split the difference, pulling off big, arena-ready anthems while incorporating some of the more modern or futuristic stylistic experiments they’ve explored over the years. For the record, they called upon producer Neal Avron, with whom they hadn’t worked since their 20s — a time during which Wentz says he served as the group’s “Boy Scout leader” and kept them from being at each other’s throats. It was Avron, in fact, who ensured them that the record would steer clear of cynical back-to-basics territory. “He kept saying, ‘I do not want to make a throwback record,’” Wentz says.

Louis Vuitton Men’s clothing, Stetson hat, Cartier rings, David Yurman black ring

One crucial aspect of Wentz’s enduring star power has been his generally upbeat disposition in a music scene that is, at its core, built around the sounds of youthful angst and melodrama. Speaking with him, he gives off the sense that he could weather any professional tumult by sheer force of being grounded and well-adjusted. Wentz, though, is not immune to life’s pushes and pulls. He tells me about one particular crossroads in his life: In 2010, he was 30, raising a toddler and headed towards a divorce from Simpson. Fall Out Boy had decided to take a break. He’d spent most of his 20s in a whirlwind of escalating fame and near-constant travel, but he was also so stunted in some aspects of his life that he didn’t even know how to navigate the airport without following one of his handlers’ backpacks in front of him. “My life was just like… a bomb had gone off in it,” he says. And yet he was grounded enough to recognize what his mission was: “You’ve atrophied all of these life skills. I was like, ‘Oh. You have to figure out how to be happy as an adult.’”

“I’m in a friend group with Dave Grohl, and I wonder if he knows I’m in a band? It’s Dave Grohl!”

To hear Wentz tell it, the last few years represented a similar crossroads — or at least prompted an intense period of self-reflection and growth. Wentz leaned into the slothfulness of the lockdown, getting in the worst physical shape of his adult life. As he came back out of the other side, he was filled with the impulse to experiment in a way that resembled a more wholesome, premature version of a mid-life crisis. “Why don’t you just do the shit you want to do?” he asked himself. “Life is so short, and it’s so long, that maybe you should try crazy shit because it will break you out of the feeling of nihilism.”

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You can feel that spirit on the stylistically freewheeling Stardust, but it also applies to the smorgasbord of activities he sampled during this time. He doubled down on tennis, sometimes playing up to six hours a day. He got into golf. He tried ketamine therapy. (“I did a bunch of stuff where I was like, ‘Why would you not do it?’”) He did baking and pottery. (“I don’t have the mind for baking.”) Later, he decided he would try to read 52 books in 52 weeks. (“I think I’m already behind,” he says. When we hang out, he’s carrying Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings with him.) He went to the San Diego Zoo and met the rhinos. Perhaps most daringly, he showed up at local comedic institution the Laugh Factory, without telling anyone in his life, to perform at an open-mic night. “There is no aspect of me that is a comedian,” Wentz confesses. “Five minutes felt like eternity. The whole time I felt like I was going to barf… and I don’t know if I was successful, but it was one of those things where I was just happy to get out unscathed.”

I ask Wentz if people at the Laugh Factory recognized him. He tells me he wasn’t really trying to hide — in fact, he announced to the audience who he was and told stories about being in the band. Wentz occupies a very niche echelon of contemporary superfame, where most people will recognize him but many won’t quite be able to place who he is. He recently rode an elevator with an older woman and felt compelled to reassure her that she had no reason to be spooked by his tattoos or long hair. Sometimes he’ll be confused for one of the Madden brothers, of Good Charlotte fame. Even in his circle of tennis buddies, Wentz wonders if people aren’t quite sure what to make of him — this extremely youthful 43-year-old bassist of a veteran band at the brink of a resurgence. “I think about this a lot!” he admits when I ask him where he situates himself in the broader LA circles he runs in. “I’m in a friend group with Dave Grohl, and I kind of wonder if he knows I’m in a band? It’s Dave Grohl!” One time he heard Grohl refer offhandedly to Wentz playing baseball stadiums. “I was like, ‘That’s so cool that he knows that!’”

In many ways, this sounds like the most ideal form of fame — the kind that allows a guy like Wentz the latitude to do whatever he pleases. It’s a kind of notoriety that applies to Fall Out Boy, too. These days, he likes to refer to the band as a kind of longitudinal “art project” — not the object of ruinous obsession, but something that evolves organically and allows new entry points to each successive wave of fans. “Listen, I think the goal when you’re a band like us,” he tells me earnestly, “is to be like the cat from the Flintstones credits. Fred Flintstone throws the cat out, and the cat sneaks back in, and he keeps throwing it out. The goal is to keep being the cat who comes back into pop culture.”

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Top Image Credits: Giorgio Armani suit, AMI tank top, David Yurman necklace and ring, Cartier watch, Stylist’s own socks, Giuseppe Zanotti shoes

Photographs by Frank W. Ockenfels III

Styling by Jan-Michael Quammie

Set Designer: Edward Murphy

Grooming: Caitlin Krenz

Talent Bookings: Special Projects

Video Director: Samuel Schultz, Samuel Miron

Photo Director: Alex Pollack

SVP Fashion: Tiffany Reid

SVP Creative: Karen Hibbert