5 Seconds of Summer: Calum Hood, Luke Hemmings, Michael Clifford and Ashton Irwin. Photograph: Tony Mott/EMI
Last modified on Friday 16 October 2015 08.54 EDT
heir music has been described as “stupidly catchy” and “blandness in its purest form”. At the 2015 NME awards, they were crowned “worst band” by the magazine’s readers. For 5 Seconds of Summer, media criticism and listener hostility have become the norm – something they largely try to ignore.
Occasionally, though, an attack hits its mark. Driving across the Sydney harbour bridge in a black car with tinted windows, 21-year-old drummer and the band’s de facto spokesman, Ashton Irwin, has just learned of a Twitter tirade targeted at them, penned by a prominent music journalist. The accusation is grave – according to the writer, 5 Seconds of Summer are destroying Australia’s reputation in overseas music markets – and it makes Irwin seethe.
“I just could not give a fuck,” he says, tossing aside his phone.
“It says we’re ‘Not cool enough’... I mean, what is that? What is that culture of judgment? I think that’s bullshit.”
5 Seconds of Summer – or 5SOS, as they’ve been dubbed by their teenage fans – are currently one of the biggest bands in the world. Their self-titled debut album has sold 3.2m copies worldwide and they have over 10 million Facebook subscribers. The Sydney band have no problem packing out stadiums around the world, selling more than 1.2m concert tickets in the past year alone.
Irwin and his three bandmates, Calum Hood, Luke Hemmings and Michael Clifford write their own songs, play their own instruments, and control their own schedules. But they are often presumed to have been manufactured by the global pop music machine, thanks in part to their association with One Direction (they supported the UK/Irish boy band’s 2014 world tour and have the same management team). Their glossy tunes have broad appeal and come crammed with pop motifs, putting them at odds with Oz rock’s other big exports: AC/DC, Nick Cave and Silverchair.
The band’s upcoming second studio album, Sounds Good Feels Good, is an expert fusion of pop, radio-rock and punk. Lead single She’s Kinda Hot positions the band as a new-generation incarnation of All Time Low or Blink 182, while the widescreen ballad Vapor and darker track Castaway Fix showcase their range. Yes, a team of songwriters pitched in, but the band have primary writing credits for every song on the album. The music is theirs.
But the 5SOS team fear listeners outside the teen demographic will heed the haters and not give Sounds Good Feels Good a chance. “It’s hard,” says band-manager Vibica Auld, also in the car. “We’ve got all these amazing statistics we can reel off to make people pay attention, but the figures just don’t hit home with some people. Some listeners are determined not to like the boys.”
It’s taken four years for any media outlet to come to us and say, ‘Hey, I’d like to talk about some real shit\'.
With only a few days scheduled to promote the new album in Australia, they’ve spent the morning separately, each giving interviews at different radio stations and publishing houses. By the time they reconvene for lunch on the balcony of label EMI’s harbourside headquarters, they’ve been working for six hours, but all four are eager to keep talking.
“We’ve been in this band for four years,” says Irwin, “and it’s taken four years for any media outlet to come to us and say, ‘Hey, I’d like to talk about some real shit,’ instead of who our favourite Disney princesses are.”
According to Hemmings, the band’s brooding blond singer, Sounds Good Feels Good is more rock than pop, making it a truer representation of who 5SOS consider themselves to be. “The first album was written over the course of a couple of years,” he explains in a low voice, “while we were supporting One Direction on tour. It was us trying to figure out exactly who we were as a band. For this second album, which was written in about three months, we knew exactly who we were and what we wanted to do.”
5 Seconds of Summer will release their new album Sounds Good Feels Good on 23 October. Photograph: Tony Mott/EMI
Lead guitarist Clifford – known for his forthright manner, facial piercings and wild hairstyles – admits they initially felt pressure to appease fans of pure pop. But as they accumulated recorded material – both their debut album and a series of EPs and singles – they found audiences responded better to the more rock-oriented tracks, such as the riff-laden B-side Rejects: “The songs that were more left-of-centre were the songs our fans loved the most.”
Growing up in the working class Blacktown suburb in western Sydney, the boys of 5SOS connected with bands at the louder end of the spectrum, from Green Day to Biffy Clyro. According to bassist Hood, it’s those punchy sounds that still shape their creative output. “People are pretty enraged out in the western suburbs,” says Hood.
“Kids out there don’t like going to school. It’s violent – you get beaten up on the train. That’s the reality of life out there. You’ve got to find something to connect with, and for us that was songs about broken homes, shitty jobs, shitty this, shitty that. We looked up to real dudes who had real struggles and used guitars to express that.”
At 15, schoolmates Hood, Clifford and Hemmings started recording cover songs and uploading them to YouTube. The recordings – full of off-the-cuff remarks and tentative but heartfelt vocals – won them adoration in teen bedrooms across western Sydney. Soon enough, they caught the attention of Irwin, a 17-year-old with surfer-dude good looks and larger ambitions.
“Ashton saw our potential,” says Clifford. “He thought that this band could be something more than just covering songs.”
Irwin adds: “I had a shitty upbringing and I saw an opportunity to get out. I found a bunch of guys who were doing something that could get us the fuck out of there, and that’s what we did.”
After lunch, 5SOS move to a boardroom and prep for a series of TV interviews. A makeup artist appears briefly, but the band’s scruffy outfits – skinny black jeans and old T-shirts – remain unchanged. 5SOS rarely dress up for media appearances and show little interest in joining their chart-topping associates in the front rows of high-fashion shows. “Grooming at 7am?” says Irwin. “Fuck off – I’m going back to bed. I’d rather just turn up and be us. If you want 5 Seconds of Summer, that’s what you’re going to get.”
The afternoon rolls on, and all four members smoothly handle stock questions about girls and partying from the TV presenters. When it’s done, 5SOS seem drained – but as they get ready to leave for the airport, saying goodbye to staff from their label, their energy levels pick up again.
With the morning’s social media vitriol now mere memory, the band are laser-focused on their new album, and their goal is larger than winning the approval of a handful of grizzly music journalists. “If you want to succeed, you can’t make music to please a few people,” says Irwin.
“I want to make music that feels good for everyone, and that everyone can understand.”
Sounds Good Feels Good will be released on 23 October
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