Christopher K. George


Taking Back Sunday’s John Nolan On Twenty Years Of “Tell All Your Friends”

Celebrating two decades of “Cute Without the ‘E’”

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In case you haven’t heard, emo is back. Over the past year, we’ve gotten reunions from the likes of My Chemical Romance, Paramore, and Midtown — many of which will perform at October’s When We Were Young festival. But some bands never stopped. Enter Taking Back Sunday (also on the festival’s lineup), who have been consistently putting out music since they first formed in Amityville, New York in 1999 — and it all started with “Tell All Your Friends.”

Released in March 2002, the record was the first studio album from the band, then made up by lead vocalist Adam Lazzara, lead guitarist and vocalist John Nolan, drummer Mark O’Connell, guitarist Eddie Reyes, and bassist Shaun Cooper. Over the years, the band’s members have shifted (Nolan left the band in 2003 and returned in 2010; Reyes most recently departed in 2018 leaving the current lineup as Lazzara, Nolan, O’Connell, and Cooper) but the sound on that first album is still Taking Back Sunday at its core: cheeky turns of phrase, unexpected breakdowns, songs you want to scream along to.

To celebrate the milestone anniversary of the album, the band is reissuing the classic, due out May 27th on Craft Recordings. The rerelease will include newly remastered audio, new liner notes, and four previously unreleased original demos. Here, Nolan reflects on the album’s legacy with NYLON.

Did this 20-year mark sneak up on you, or did you have it on the calendar?

We were, I would say, generally aware that the 20th anniversary was coming up. But definitely not to the level of it being on our calendar; we were aware that it was coming, but the actual arrival of it sneaked up, especially when it was time to really get stuff ready for this rerelease. It was like, "Oh, wow, it's happening already."

How did the plan for the rerelease come about?

With it being the 20-year anniversary, it seemed pretty natural to do a release to celebrate it, especially since we knew we weren't going to do a tour around it. We did a 10th anniversary tour where we played Tell All Your Friends every night. And then we did a 20-year anniversary of the band in 2019, where we played Tell All Your Friends and Where You Want to Be and Louder Now every night. So we didn't feel like it made sense to go do another tour where we were playing the album again. Things like those liner notes and the packaging that we are all record collectors and that stuff is really interesting and exciting to us. We tried to put the things into it that we would want to see from the bands that we are fans of and when we're buying their records.

Thinking back 20 years, what are the memories you have from recording this album?

Well, it was very exciting. We had, I think, only just been signed. We got our record deal with Victory Records maybe two months before we went into the studio. And that was always the dream, to get signed to a label and be able to have some support and go on tour and get an album in stores. It was literally a dream come true. It's pretty crazy looking back on it. We were all working day jobs at the time, so everybody's taking days off of work to go into the studio, going back and forth from New Jersey to Long Island. We just made the trip every day back and forth and worked it into our work schedules and it was not glamorous. But we were incredibly excited.

Generally, as we were recording it, I think we all felt we were onto something and that it was something that was coming together extremely well. But we had no concept of it being any more popular than the average band on Victory's first album. We had no sense of it being something that would be talked about in 10 years, let alone 20 years. As much as we were excited about what we were doing, we didn't even think about it on that level for a second.

What about it made you have that feeling of being onto something?

We definitely had an innate self-confidence at that point that we knew what we were doing was good and we were not afraid to say that. Before we recorded, we had had all the songs written and they were ready to go. And we had been playing a lot of them live for probably close to a year before we went into the studio, and some of them we demoed a long time before that. We knew the songs really well, and our goal was to just bring the energy that they had when we were performing them live into the studio. That was probably one of the only clear goals, to maintain that energy and excitement and not lose that in the studio process.

What were the songs that you had been performing before making the album that were already hits with the audience? And did that change for what eventually became hits from the album?

Yeah, that definitely did. So at that point, “Great Romances” was the big song for us as far as the audience reaction. It was also the first song that came together with this lineup of the band and was really the first one we knew immediately, so that one always had a special place for us. “Cute Without The 'E'” was one of the songs we had finished more recently before we recorded. So when we would play that one at shows no one really knew it yet, since we hadn't put it out as a demo or anything. It got a good response, but it wasn't until after we had recorded it and the decision was made somewhere along the way that it would be the single, that it became the popular song. We had no sense of that until that point.

Do you remember that discussion of why it would be the single? Was anything else was considered?

I don't really remember that. I think at that point we were just so excited to be putting out a record and doing anything on the level we were that I don't totally remember how it got decided. I feel like it literally could have been somebody at the label said, "We think this should be the single." And we're like, "Yeah, great.” We had very little sense of what songs were going to be the ones that took off. It's even funny now looking at the track list, I think “You’re So Last Summer” is the eighth or ninth [track] on the record — not that if something's towards the end of the record, it is necessarily a bad thing. But I think if we had a sense that it was going to catch on with people the way that it did, we would've put it in the front half of the record.

When did you start realizing that certain songs like “Cute Without The ‘E’” were catching on?

Fairly immediately. We were touring very consistently when the record came out. It was maybe two months after the record came out that we started to see, around the country, that kind of response to that song. Generally I remember people going insane for the entire set. I don't remember there being many lulls or points where people were not singing along or just jumping all over each other and going crazy. “Cute Without The 'E'’ stood out a little bit more, but generally the response just got progressively more and more insane to everything from that album as we were touring.

That song is also a great example of what makes you stand apart from some of your peers, with very sophisticated, tongue-in-cheek lyrics. Are there any lines that you look back on now that you’re particularly proud of?

I don't think about it that much anymore. I definitely went through an opposite phase where I was embarrassed about some of my lyrical contributions. I don't know if Adam had a similar thing or not. There were always ones that I was proud of, and then other ones that I felt a little more cranky about. But now that I've gotten to this age and can look back on it with more distance, there's a lot of things I'm proud of.

I think one that I had to wrestle with for a while is the “you could slit my throat” line for “Your So Last Summer,” because that was my line. At first I was really proud that people responded so much to it, but then I went through that phase where I felt like, "Oh, this just become such a stereotypical emo thing to say." I got embarrassed about that for a while. Now I think I can take it for what it is. I do know that I thought it was a pretty funny line that I was proud of. And then I think part of what made me feel embarrassed about it is that people took it very seriously as this over-the-top, emotional declaration. I meant it to be a funny exaggeration of a real emotion. There's been a whole process of coming to terms with the lyrics.

When you're playing them live now, do you feel removed from the songs?

I find that I will channel a lot of the emotion of what I'm experiencing currently into those songs. What I'm feeling might not necessarily be directly connected to the lyrics, but I can still channel my emotions through the songs, which is nice because I do think that it could be possible with certain songs for that not to work anymore. I'm glad that still does, and it can still be an outlet to me. Lyrically, I'm not connecting in the same way I did 20 years ago, but I can connect to the emotion.

The response from the crowd, hearing the voices of the crowd, and seeing the reaction that people have, that brings a lot of emotion and excitement to a song. We've joked before there are certain songs that we're not going to play at practice when we're getting ready for a tour because we know them inside and out and we’ve played them a hundred times and if there's not the excitement of a crowd there, there's no reason to rehearse it at practice. Then you put people in the room and it becomes a whole different thing, it takes on a whole other life.

The crowds themselves are also interesting because they span from people who were teenagers when the record came out to people who are actual teenagers now.

That's something that makes me really happy. I feel really proud of that. I think we all do. And seeing, especially, people coming with their kids and they're not necessarily coming with little babies anymore. Now some of our audience is showing up with preteens who are legitimately into the band. It's not like they're dragging their kid along. It's the parent and their kid, both psyched to be there.

Are your kids old enough that they've discovered your music?

My son is nine and my daughter is six and they know the band. They've been going to shows their whole life. My son has gone through different phases when he was really little and discovering what I did where he was really interested and excited. At this point, I feel like in a lot of ways, it's like, "Whatever." It just something that's been happening his whole life. And it's my job. So he's not that interested in it. He'll listen to it and enjoy it, but he's not super excited about it.

In terms of new music that you guys are working on, especially now as you're looking back at where you started, what do you think defines a Taking Back Sunday song?

It’s still a little hard to define, but it's definitely the combination of what the four of us bring to it. Adam's voice is a huge part of what makes Taking Back Sunday recognizable as Taking Back Sunday. His vocal styling, and the types of melodies and phrasing that he just naturally does is very much ingrained in what people recognize as Taking Back Sunday. Then Mark and his style of drumming, I do think in a lot of ways, those two elements are at the core of what Taking Back Sunday is. It also makes sense since they're also the two people who have been doing it the entire time. They're the only two that have been there for every single song on every single album, so I think they have defined it in a lot of ways. And I think what we're realizing now is that we can do a wide variety of things and it's still going to sound like Taking Back Sunday because of those certain elements.

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