The Idolator Q & A: William Beckett Of The Academy Is…

Two weeks ago, I caught an acoustic show by The Academy Is…—well, really just lead singer/songwriter William Beckett—along with hundreds of adoring teenagers, some of whom were camped out four hours ahead of showtime in the venue’s lobby, hoping to catch a sight of Beckett in person. The show itself was good, although as fan of the group’s most recent album Fast Times At Barrington High, I feel like I would have enjoyed it a bit more as a full-band spectacle. It’s not that I didn’t appreciate the Jimmy Eat World cover or the banter, but the screaming-girl contingent and the acoustic guitar took me back to a very uncomfortable memory of Dashboard Confessional halfway through the set. Still, hearing his more recent power-pop stripped down makes it obvious that Beckett has the goods as a songwriter, regardless of what direction his career ends up taking. Before the show, Beckett was kind enough to discuss the tour, the state of radio, and where his career goes from here.

DG: So, an acoustic tour…what was the impetus behind promoting the album this way?

WB: We had done so many full scale tours, it was just that the idea came about to do some in-stores at Hot Topic at stores on the east coast, tied in with a radio station promotion. What I really feel in love with on that stretch was that on some of the off days we booked some shows at smaller venues, coffee shops and bars that I would play at on certain nights for a small audience and something about the shows basically rekindled the old flame of creativity and inspiration for me. For me, this is what it’s all about, if you can strip the song down to play it acoustic, if you can expose yourself in this way, and you can still stand on your own two feet, you know, that’s when you know you have a good songs. For me, the vulnerability that I feel when I play shows like this, it feels like it opens my heart to what music should be doing, which should be inspiring and fulfilling. That’s my selfish outlook, but also an intimate show is for the diehard fans, which isn’t an environment you get every day.

DG: Are you playing a mix of the three albums? What is the setlist like?

WB: The setlist changes every night, which is fun for me. Another benefit of playing solo is that we don’t have to debate and argue all day about what songs we’re going to play, I can choose the songs and play them. It’s a pretty steady mix between the three albums, but I haven’t played much from Santi, because the songs translate less well to acoustic. I’ve been played a few covers as well, actually I’ve been playing a couple covers a night. I mix it up, like I’ve learned a few songs today that I’m going to play on stage. It’s always fun to learn and adapt someone else’s songs, especially in the case of tonight I’m playing a song by Fields, which is a band which is quite unknown in the mainstream circles, I guess. If I can open up, if I can do a song through this vehicle, and people connect to it and like that song, I think that it’s fun to promote some of the music that got me here and fuels me every day.

DG: I noticed that with the blog, and the song of the week. Is that a connection to how you discover music? How did that come about?

WB: Basically, it came about because I was sick of reading message boards and reading MySpace comments that had nothing to do with music at all. You know, I wanted to create an environment where people could talk about music, and were encouraged to talk about music, talk about their favorite bands, and lyrics, and things that affected them with other people that comment on the blog. For me, it was definitely fueled by the frustration and disappointment in the lack of musical interest. There has to be a point where allowing a forum for people to talk about art and music is a lot more beneficial to allowing them free rein to talk about the Jonas Brothers or how hot this guy is or how steamy their personal life is.

DG: Being the subject of that message-board world, do you think the audience has changed? I’m certainly older than you, but when I was in high school, it seemed there was more distance between band and fan. I guess some of being a fan has changed because of the internet…

WB: Yeah, it’s strange.

DG: Do you think that’s just changing as part of our personality-driven entertainment culture, in a way?

WB: I’m comfortable with being part of that culture because I think that I do have a lot to offer people, and that I’d rather people be talking about music and movies and things like that than wasting their lives on the internet in, I guess, less stimulating ways. It’s very interesting that you mention that because when I was growing up going to shows, there was never that need or want to even meet or speak to the artist. There was a barrier, that I don’t even think exists anymore especially directly in correlation to how the internet has changed social situations forever. The barrier, the “rock star”, doesn’t exist anymore. While I believe there is a personality-driven society, it’s ironic how little of a barrier there is. There are certainly good things about it: for me, it’s helped to keep me level-headed because if I’m going to be someone’s role model, I’d rather it be for who I am, not for how famous I am or anything like that.

DG: When I talk to some people about the band, it seems like there’s almost a dismissal of what you’re doing as being sort of a teen band, almost as a sort of genre classification. In the long-term range of the band or where you go as an artist, with that passionate fanbase, and a mob of teenagers waiting in the lobby this afternoon making sure they don’t miss the chance to buy a ticket, where does that take you as you mature as a songwriter or an artist?

WB: It was always my goal, and as the band, to evolve with along with our audience, to mature with them. Especially with an album like Fast Times… where I revisited a lot of times in my life where I was inspired by things around me, which is interesting… the title sounds like a teenybopper album, but for us, it was about breaking the boundaries of age and youth, where age and youth aren’t in direct correlation, where you can be youthful and live a youthful life without being eighteen years old or sixteen years old. You know, I’ve met a lot of miserable 16-year-olds, but I’ve met a lot of youthful and energized 40-year-old adults as well. That was more the idea behind the album, but definitely the next album will sound different. Where ever we go with it, I definitely feel more comfortable with it and my songwriting and I’m not afraid to put myself out there for who I am and what I believe in. In my life, there was definitely a moment of clarity after this album was released.

DG: With the moment of clarity, how does that make you feel about the album now? Do you feel it’s connecting with people? The album is really well reviewed, but I mean, the singles haven’t caught fire on radio or anything… does that affect how you think about it? Do you live on a sort of island about that stuff?

WB: As much as I try to not stress about things I can’t control like radio or if a song is going to catch, it’s something that weighs on you as an artist or as someone who has ambition as an artist to want their music to be heard by everybody, not just scenesters or teenagers. It’s something that causes questions, like maybe the thing is that my voice isn’t what’s right for radio right now. I mean, I don’t sound like Chad Kroeger or anything, on the other hand, I don’t sound like Justin Timberlake.

DG: It’s a weird place for acts that you would think naturally would fall under the alternative label right now, where there’s too many hooks for alternative radio, but…

WB: Not poppy enough for top 40.

DG: Yeah.

WB: It’s definitely interesting, to see where radio is now, I see more exciting music happening on pop radio stations, than on a lot of the modern rock stations that have recycled the same old shit. They’re playing STP and Pearl Jam—and I like STP and Pearl Jam, but give me a break, don’t tell me you’re playing new music when all you’re playing is the frog in throat voice hillbilly bands. For me, on the same token, “About A Girl” is a big hit in Chile, and we’re flying down there to play a huge festival where we’re one of the big billed bands. It’s definitely crazy to see that the song and the album do have the ability to reach a mainstream audience but for some reason, it just hasn’t happened in America.

DG: Do you think there are too many rules here, of what goes into what category musically?

WB: Maybe. I think a lot of it has to do with trying to fit into a mold. Radio stations have reputations, radio stations have taglines, and a rock station, they might be called a bunch of pussies if they play one of our songs, or a pop station might be called too aggressive. As much as it is frustrating, I do want to have song that people remember, where people think back, and they say, “That song reminds me of 2010, when we used to drive around aimlessly on summer nights.” Every songwriter wants that to a certain extent, but I’d rather have this strong foundation underneath me than trying to be on my tiptoes trying to reach something I might not be able to.

DG: I think, especially with the tribute videos synced up to the songs, it seems like the album really does resonate on that “Summer of ’69” sort of sound. Do you think that sort of evocative feeling might the secret to a youth culture band crossing over to a more adult audience?

WB: A lot of what makes a song go or make a song sink is what’s happening at that moment. Nobody could have foreseen the Panic At The Disco song hitting. It’s not a traditional pop song at all, it’s like a novella lyrically, but it came at the right time, and people responded to it. A lot of it is luck, it’s just how things go.

DG: Is there a songwriter, an artist, where you say that’s how I want my career to go?

WB: Definitely, I look at Conor Oberst and how he’s not afraid to write a lot of songs. Ryan Adams is that way, where he’s not afraid to release three albums in a year, and he records everything he writes good or bad. I also look at film, because I’m a huge film fan and a director like Woody Allen, where even at his age, he puts out an album every single year.

DG: I feel like I’ve bought into a brand with Woody Allen, where I just have decided that I’m going to see every movie he makes, hoping that’s it’s the good one. You kind of sign on to something.

WB: I think that people buy into a brand like that, like I’ll buy any Conor Oberst album, I’ll buy anything he does on iTunes. Same thing with a band like Cursive, even if they haven’t gotten the recognition they deserve, I’m a fan. I pull for them. As much as I feel—and this is going off on a tangent—I don’t understand the mindset of keeping a band a secret, I never understood that phenomenon, like I want to keep a band for myself. Whenever I saw a great movie or I heard a great band or read a great book, I never wanted to keep it to myself, I told everyone. Even people I didn’t know, I would grab someone in the hall and tell them to listen to the Cure, they’re really good. I swear you’ll like them, but don’t judge me for the way I look. Just because it’s not Dave Matthews, doesn’t mean you can’t like it. That always fascinated me, but I think that’s something that might be changing as well. The sense of entitlement, ownership of a band or a sound. There’s such a cesspool of bands. You and I could record something and put it up on MySpace and be a band.

DG: I guess as someone in the business of listening to bands and stuff, I miss the filter that a label I liked used to provide, like when I was in junior high, I would buy everything on Sire, or in high school, Merge. The label, maybe Saddle Creek for you….

WB: Yeah, I was totally a Saddle Creek kid.

DG: So, in that case, Conor and his label were like a filter for you. Do you think being a part of a filter that kids now are setting for themselves with the Fall Out Boy/Fueled By Ramen thing, do you think the instant audience, has it been a mixed blessing or primarily that’s been a good thing for you?

WB: I think it’s been primarily a good thing. I think ultimately what you do with your music and your songs is what’s going to define you in the long run. I’ve not worried about these bands that are popping up and becoming big instantly. I’m not worried about it, because I know what I love and am passionate about. It’s what I’m good at basically, so I know I’m going to be doing it for a long time and my music that I put out with define me, I’m not going to be defined friends with Pete or Ryan Ross. There are other bands that are riding the coattails, and I feel like that’s their only real appeal. I think that Fueled By Ramen and Decaydance have that level of branding and filter, and people going on to those Web sites and buying everything is as much of a thing as it ever was. I think, though, that you’ll start to see bands emerge as lifers and career bands, not just a bag of popcorn, freshly popped.

DG: So, thinking of like Conor Oberst, do you see yourself releasing music under your own name?

WB: It’s definitely something that I’ve thought about. I think that eventually it’s inevitable that I’ll record a solo album but at this point, there’s no reason that both that and the band can’t coexist.

The Academy Is… [Official site]The William Beckett Blog