Taking Back Sunday is sitting upstairs at a swanky midtown Manhattan sports bar.
Singer Adam Lazzara, guitarist-singer John Nolan, bassist Shaun Cooper and drummer Mark O’Connell don’t exactly look comfortable. And not just because they are cramped into a table in the back surrounded by happy hour revelers and tourist families.
But after a day of interviews earlier this year promoting their 20th anniversary tour — a yearlong journey that has taken them to six continents and will finally touch down on Long Island on July 18 when they headline the Great South Bay Music Festival — the logistics of the location won out.
Their waiter overhears enough of their conversations to guess they are a band and asks where they are from.
“Long Island,” O’Connell says.
Without missing a beat, the waiter says, “That Billy Joel isn’t as much fun since he stopped drinking.”
“Actually,” O’Connell says, with enough Long Island directness to stop the guy from saying another word and send him off to take someone else’s order, “he’s a great guy.”
They would know, having met Joel for the first time a few months back, when they were inducted into the Long Island Music Hall of Fame as the institution’s youngest members.
“He didn’t have to take a minute to say anything to us,” Nolan says. “The fact that he did makes him cool.”
“And he called us ‘real rock ‘n’ roll guys’ to his daughter,” adds Cooper. “I was like, ‘All right!’”
“Was that the actual term he used?” Nolan asks.
“Yeah!” Cooper says.
Nolan says they should put a sticker on their next album that says, “‘Real rock ‘n’ roll guys’ — Billy Joel.”
“That’s what we should call the album,” O’Connell says.
“Done!” says Lazzara, laughing. “We don’t have one note written, but now we have a title.”
Oddly enough, that is how “real rock ‘n’ roll guys” react. In an era where rock bands are in increasingly short supply, ones like Taking Back Sunday, run like a democracy rather than a support system for a frontman, are even rarer.
Though they are celebrating the band’s 20th anniversary, they were formed the way bands were formed 50 years ago in the classic rock days. They were friends of friends — all from Long Island, except Lazzara, who moved from North Carolina to join the band — not people put together by a management company or a marketing team. And their ongoing success — maybe as strong today, selling out multiple nights around the world, as when they had consecutive Top 3 albums and rock hits like “Make Damn Sure” — is unusual because they have stuck to their rock and roll guns, rather than blending it with hip-hop or dance sounds the way their early-aughts contemporaries like Fall Out Boy or Panic! At the Disco have.
The response to their current tour, where they play the classic “Tell All Your Friends” album in its entirety followed by either all of “Where You Want To Be” or “Louder Now” depending on a coin toss, has been overwhelming for them.
“There's a million things that came together,” Cooper says. “I think people stopped being so ashamed to like the kind of music we make and have grown old enough to say, ‘Yeah, I really liked this because it's good’ … Then with streaming becoming a thing, people that liked our band were in tune with that and started diving into those platforms. I think it brought us back — whether it's playlists or YouTube or I don't know.”
Cooper says the band’s most recent album “Tidal Wave” also helped. “I think it was a strong record,” he says. “And we did a whole tour playing that record front to back and it reminded people that we're still capable of making good songs. It's not just nostalgia. There's more to us than just that. That’s my theory.”
“That’s a good theory,” Nolan adds. “I subscribe to it.”
Lazzara says that wondering about their success is not really new. “Since we've been a band, I don't think we've ever known the reason,” he says. “But I think one thing we've been smart enough to do is not question it and just to embrace it.”
“We just feel so lucky,” adds O’Connell. “We’re very appreciative of all of it.”
Taking Back Sunday shows that appreciation a few weeks later. They are at a different bar, but one that feels more like home.
The tiny RJ Daniels American Bar and Grill in Rockville Centre is packed with people for the band’s surprise concert, a benefit for the Tommy Brull Foundation. It’s not far from the Vibe Lounge where they played their early shows or O’Connell’s parents’ house where they used to practice.
“That felt amazing,” Lazzara says after the show, where he spent a lot of time leading scream-alongs of the band’s hits while standing on the bar or jumping around in the middle of the mosh pit.
It’s that connection with the fans that keeps Taking Back Sunday going. “It's hard to put into words what it is like,” says Lazzara, thinking of the band’s shows in Japan this year. “I know it sounds hokey. But I just think it's like a testament to the power of music, you know? And then to think that there's folks that are so far away from where we’re from and to have them connecting? To see that it's doing the same thing for them that it does for us? That's just a really rewarding thing.”
Cooper says that the band’s shows in Manila have really stuck with him. “We've been there three times and every time it's gone up a level,” he says. “It’s more than we could have ever expected in a place that 10 years ago I didn't really know very much about. I had heard of the Philippines. I had heard of Manila, but I didn't have any perspective on what the country was like. I knew it from [boxer] Manny Pacquiao … But then we played our first show there and it was like, ‘Wow, these kids are very similar to us. This is weird!” We’re in a culture that's so different than everything we know and these kids get it. That was a really special thing … They were so loud and so passionate and it's clear they've been looking at our band for a very long time. To think that our little band that started out in the basement in Rockville Centre and in Baldwin made it all the way to the complete other side of the globe and have that kind of response. It’s so amazing.”
Jim Faith, co-founder and producer of the Great South Bay Music Festival, says the reaction Taking Back Sunday got the most recent time they headlined the event (2017) was so powerful he couldn’t wait to have them back.
“With them celebrating their 20th anniversary, we just felt that, as a Long Island event, they should be here,” says Faith, adding that the 2017 show drew the biggest crowd in the festival’s 12-year history. “It’s going to be great.”
Faith even asked the band to curate their day of the show, which Lazzara says the band was excited to do, adding Glassjaw, The Menzingers, and Frank Iero & The Future Violents to the show. “It feels like we're putting on our own show in a way, just without all the logistical headaches that go along with putting on your own show,” Lazzara says. “It's such a good lineup. And I think that that show will be good for us, not only because we'll be on Long Island, but also because it'll be a break from what we'll be spending the year doing.”
Iero says he was happy to return to Shorefront Park for the show. “I've known those guys for so long,” says Iero, who has known them since his days in My Chemical Romance. “We’ve toured together so many times. It never gets old. It just always feels like a reunion of sorts and they're just so talented and just such amazing people, it's a pleasure to get to play with them whenever we get the opportunity. And we get the ability to get to watch them then as well.”
Taking Back Sunday’s Great South Bay Music Festival appearance will be the final show in the first American leg of its anniversary tour. They will take some time off and start work on their next album, before the next leg begins in September and runs through Nov. 16, when it plays Terminal 5 in Manhattan.
Though the band has always written its own songs without help from the outside songwriters that so many rockers employ these days, O’Connell points out that they would be willing to make an exception on the new record.
After hearing that P!nk collaborated with Joel on a new song and decided not to use it, O’Connell was quick to make a promise. “You tell Billy that whatever he wants to contribute to a Taking Back Sunday song will be welcomed and loved and nurtured and we will use it,” says O’Connell, adding that he has already written Joel a letter asking for help. “I said that Gaslight Anthem did a song with Bruce Springsteen for that Jersey pride thing and that he should do the same thing. It would be a good look. We need that Long Island love.”
WHO Taking Back Sunday
WHEN|WHERE 8:45 p.m. Thursday, July 18, Shorefront Park, Patchogue
INFO $45; 888-512-7469, greatsouthbaymusicfestival.com