LUKE HEMMINGS looks bushed. It’s not the bed-hair, which has become a trademark of his band 5 Seconds of Summer. It’s not just that the band has been on a gruelling race around Australia. It’s just that the number of days they have had off in the past year could be counted on one hand. On the one hand he loves it but he looks like he could use five minutes to catch his breath.
Right now, he and his band mates have just gotten up, flown to Sydney, avoided another posse of hundreds of girls and are about to play the second of two theatre shows at the Enmore. Somewhere somebody has squeezed in a couple of TV interviews and some press.
Hemmings (18) with his spikey blonde hair has a day’s stubble in patches on his face. He’s wearing a Misfits tee and seems, as usual, pensive. On stage, Luke is the perfect front man, working the audience and completely in his element. Today, he seems a little pensive. We’re joined at the table of some Newtown hipster hotel by bass player Calum Hood (18) who is very upbeat despite lack of sleep and Ashton Irwin (19), who is the oldest. Always cheerful, Ash seems to fall easily into the big brother role. Then there’s Michael Clifford (17) who doesn’t seem to take it too seriously as though being a rock star just comes naturally.
It’s about two years since we first met. I had heard about a band of teenagers in the Western suburbs of Sydney who were making waves on social media and out of curiosity, an editor asked me to go and check it out.
The band was based in Riverstone in the semi-rural western fringe of Sydney. It’s not by any means a bad area — miles and miles of suburban blocks but lots of trees and open spaces. Nestled in a little corner was a small industrial estate with a few rehearsal rooms leaking noise into the suburban quiet. A bunch of older people stood outside and I assumed they were related to the band.
The 5 Seconds of Summer manager Adam Wilkinson showed me into the band room where the boys were taking a break.
It was clear even in those early days that there was chemistry here. Calum seemed the most serious of them, especially about his song writing. Michael was determined, even then that he was going to be a rock star — he had already dropped out of high school. “I’m pretty much looking for the first opportunity to drop out and do this full time,” he said to me when we first met. Ashton was very much the new boy, not quite in on the jokes and not fully accepted into the crew then. Luke was the quietest of the lot; more contemplative than the others and also more aware that as the front man, he carried the greatest weight.
It was Luke’s idea to post YouTube clips of he and Calum and Michael singing pop covers of Blink-182 and Mayday Parade songs. Their acoustic version of Chris Brown and Justin Bieber’s ‘Next 2 You’, earned tens of thousands of views.
Even then, you could feel that the band was not just mucking around. They were their own harshest critics and they only had a half dozen gigs under their belts. But when they did get together and play there was something there — the indefinable quality that is at the heart of any successful music band.
They had a long way head of them.
In fact, the first 5SOS gig was in December 2011 at the Annandale Hotel in inner Sydney. That was the first time that three of them had ever been in a music venue and their support band was the first band that Michael Clifford had ever seen live.
That first show was not a great success. Undaunted however, more shows were booked. There was even a short tour to Melbourne and Brisbane playing sold out club dates. Right from these early days in 2012 screaming girls was following the band. There were girls fainting at airports and others chasing them down the street. Even at that stage though there was seriousness to what they were doing — as well as maintaining schoolwork for Calum and Luke (Luke’s mum is a teacher and sometimes came on the road with the band).
With less than a dozen gigs under their belt they were the victims of a genuine teen hysteria. There was something in the air over the past few years since Justin Bieber burst onto the scene, followed by One Direction and to a certain extent 5SOS have filled that bill in Australia. They’re aware of that but from the start they have been determined to write their own material and to define their own sound.
According to their high school music teacher Adam Day, “I started teaching them music in year seven, and they excelled in all the practical activities of music but were very quiet and shy and reserved — they were very much closet musos,” he said. “I wrote on their reports back then that it would be good to seek performance opportunities to develop their confidence. They’ve certainly done that — more than any other student I’ve ever said that to!”
For most of 2012 the band rehearsed and wrote four days a week. By the middle of that year they were stating to have record companies make the trip out to Riverstone to talk with the band and their families. Three major record labels put offers to the band. However, their management — Wonder management — advised them to sit tight. They signed a publishing deal for the right to their songs to SonyATV to fund the rest of the enterprise. Then Wonder and One Direction’s management, Modest, started talking. Modest agreed to take the band on — they were a perfect complement to One Direction and they clearly had something.
The band spent much of 2012 developing song writing skills and working in the studio with the guys from local band Amy Meredith. There was a national tour with Hot Chelle Ray. They were careful not to rush into things and to wait until they were really prepared. An EP with Gotta Get Out was released mostly just for the fans. That went to the top of the iTunes charts without any promotion. To celebrate its release and say goodbye to Australia the band undertook another quick tour. Their sold out show at the Metro theatre in Sydney on November 25, 2012, was sloppy in a kind of rock & roll way but it was a million miles more advanced than their previous gigs.
For the first time the band appeared to be fully in control of the stage and confident with their material. They were no longer just relying on pop covers but were starting to develop a clear sound of their own. On stage their personalities came through; Ashton’s drumming was always authoritative, it was energetic and up beat and held the show together. At the left of the stage, Michael held down the guitar part with a few instrumental freak-outs. Meanwhile Luke and Calum brought most of the songs home. For the first time this really looked like a band.
Shortly after the Metro show, 5SOS were on their way to London. Wonder management had hooked up with Modest who manages One Direction and it seemed logical that the bands would tour together. Once in London, 5SOS were thrown into the end of the One Direction world, hanging with the boy band socially and also hanging out in the studio a little.
And so it was that only a few weeks after packing up their Sydney show to 800 fans that 5 Seconds of Summer walked onto the stage at the O2 Arena in London in front of 12,000 One Direction fans to kick off the Take Me Home tour. “I was scared,” Luke admits. “We probably weren’t ready for it but sometimes the best way is just get thrown in at the deep end. They definitely could have hated us, there was potential for the whole tour to go horribly wrong. But the fans really took to us.”
In fact they pulled it off. The Australians were not an immediate hit with this new audience of die-hard 1D fans; but they held their own.
As the tour wended its way around Europe 5SOS gradually started to collect fans. Their Facebook and Twitter stats climbed steadily. Meanwhile their stage show improved exponentially.
The easiest thing to do would be to stick 5SOS with a legendary producer and a bunch of professional writers and bash out an album ready for sale as 5SOS supported the hottest tour of 2013.
Sensibly no one did that. The Australian band met up with a number of producers and co-writers who helped them find the sound they were looking for. “Australia is home but we are based in England and I think it helped us develop our sound,” says Michel. “If we would have stayed in Sydney and work with some people here our sound would be completely different.”
“It was amazing,” says Ashton, “how many people we met who were amazed that we played our own instruments and that we wanted to do that.” “When the tour was on we hadn’t written a lot of the album songs,” adds Luke, “and that’s what’s going to make the difference between us and every other band out there. So it just had to wait.”
In the end there were more than 100 songs to choose from and the list was whittled down to just 25 or so.
“I think we have something to say, definitely” says Luke. “It’s been a bit of a journey for us we have the last two years have been such a weird and crazy experience for us so we have something to say and we like writing.”
The band also wanted to respect the sound of music they loved from bands like All Time Low, Boys Like Girls, Blink 182, Busted, Nickelback, Good Charlotte. It’s this pop punk fusion that defines 5SOS and also makes them different from the legions of boy bands that have sprung up in the wake of Bieber and One Direction.
“We get the boy band thing, says Ashton, “and we wanted to make a pop record but we wanted to say we’re 5 Seconds of Summer and we’re different!”
In the end, they mainly worked with three producers — John Feldman Steve Robson and Jake Sinclair — and mostly with Jake Sinclair. The band has been furiously writing material. All four of them write songs in various combinations — whatever works for the track is the way they roll. They have co-written with people outside the band as well. Basically they’re four teenagers who have been thrust into the centre of the music industry and have embraced a very fast learning curve.
The band inked a deal with Capitol records in the US and for the rest of the world. The first result of that partnership is ‘She Looks So Perfect’. The song raced to number one on the charts in Australia and the UK and entered the US charts at #2 with sales of 140,000 copies in the first week. It also topped the charts of more than a dozen other countries. “Some of those countries we didn’t even know existed,” said Calum. “It’s crazy. We could never dream of this in a million years.”
When asked what a #1 record was like Calum described the feeling as “like waking up on Christmas morning when you’re eight!”
The band’s profile in the US was sufficient that they could put on their own mini-tour of 2000 seat venues and sell them out. They have a similar level of success in Europe. Over the past year since they left Australia, the band has played 170 gigs; many of them in arenas to tens of thousands of people as well as their own smaller shows and showcases. “It’s amazing how much better you sound after 100 gigs”, quips Ashton. “We have honed our craft in arenas which is a weird thing. It’s a strange way to learn how to perform. It was intense man. We wanted to be seen and not just be the band before the headline and we wanted to be just as good as the other guys live.”
The band now bears some of the markings of a seasoned rock act. There’s some ink appearing on the skin. Luke has his lip pieced. Michael has changed his hair colour about fifty times — notably with the “reverse skunk” of a few months back.
On stage at the Enmore Theatre in Sydney they completely own the space. The dress circle of the old theatre heaved up and down with the sheer energy of the thousand fans singing along to almost every word. The band confidently dominates the room as they run through the hits. The high-energy show just keeps amping up as it goes along. The quality of the playing and the vocals are at a new level.
The energy level on stage is almost as palpable offstage as we talk just before the gig. After an amazing year the band has five days of holiday before going out again with One Direction and importantly dropping their self titled debut album on June 27.
“This album started two years ago,” says Michael. “It’s been song by song. With the next one we want to have a signature like a stamp which is just us and do it all in the space of a month or two months”. They’re thinking about the next album already and they’re working on pushing the writing harder.
“We want to make an album that’s a real game changer,” says Luke and he’s confident that this band has what that takes.
“A lot of bands have to change what they sound like, but we are exactly the band that we want to be: a pop band, definitely, but we’ve got a rock and punk edge,” he says. “We’re not trying to be anything that we’re not. We’re not the new anything. We’re the first 5 Seconds Of Summer.”
© Toby Creswell, Rolling Stone Special: 5 Seconds of Summer, June 2014