Boys Like Girls
The Bamboozle Roadshow
Boston power pop/rock quartet Boys Like Girls stopped through Chicago on The Bamboozle Roadshow and took a pretty significant chunk of time out of their schedule to chat with The Dead Hub. Boys Like Girls is Martin Johnson (lead vocals, rhythm guitar), Paul DiGiovanni (lead guitar), Bryan Donahue (bass), and John Keefe (drums).
“Heart Heart Heartbreak” sounds incredibly similar to “It’s My Life” by Bon Jovi. When writing, recording, and producing the track was it your intention to emulate the Bon Jovi hit single in any way?
Martin: Did you see the YouTube that mashes them up? I’m really excited about it.
Bryan: I didn’t see it.
Martin: You know what it is? It’s the two hits at the beginning. I didn’t realize that until it was on the record. I probably would’ve changed the two hits if I had known so many people were going to talk about it. It’s just that I don’t really care. Bon Jovi’s sweet, so whatever. Everybody rips off everybody. [Copying] is the best form of flattery. Hey Bon Jovi, thank you, thank so much. Good song guys. It’s the two hits at the beginning. It’s the stealthy rock-and-roll hits. I guess we’re just keeping some stealthy rock-and-roll hits alive. We didn’t realize it until after the record [was finished] that it was kind of similar. I’ve never experienced ourselves in one of those “Wow, you ripped yourself off” or “Wow, you ripped somebody else off” video mashups. We got really excited. There’s this one with Nickelback where they rip themselves off. It’s a mashup of two [of their] songs.
Dead Hub: Well, all of their songs sound alike pretty much.
Martin: I’m not even a closet Nickelback fan. I’m a public Nickelback fan. I think they’re great.
Bryan: We all are. We made that public years ago.
Martin: We’re all public Nickelback fans. Check that out on YouTube [BLG/Bon Jovi mashup] and know that the band gets a good laugh out of it.
Read the rest of our interview with Boys Like Girls after the jump…
Would you rather have your music be lyrically stimulating or driven by catchy refrains that guarantee hit singles?
John: I’d rather have guaranteed hit singles, personally. But there’s nothing wrong [with either]. I just like hearing and having my songs on the radio. I think it’s awesome.
Bryan: With a song that’s lyrically driven and catchy, it usually goes hand in hand. Good lyrics and catchy melodies…
John: Yeah, that’s true. With a song like LMFAO’s “Shots,” I mean that’s lyrically really stimulating [sarcastically].
Bryan: 21 “shots” and then one “everybody” and then repeat. I counted it out yesterday.
Martin: That was 16, chief. Good try. John doesn’t know any of the lyrics to our songs, so he isn’t qualified to answer that question. Honestly ask him. Quiz him.
John: I know some of them. I just don’t know all of them. I don’t really pay attention.
Martin: I’ll give him a line to one of our songs and be like, “What song is that from?” and he has no idea. No clue. He’s like, “I just beat the drums, man.” John’s definitely not qualified to answer that question, so I’m going to re-answer it for him. I’m just messing with him.
John: I think you’re lying. I think you agree with me.
Martin: I definitely agree with you. When I start writing a song, if it’s totally in the other direction, where the lyrics are way too heavy. I think it’s about finding the middle ground. It’s a totally lost cause if you’re into writing these super adult indie-type lyrics that make sense to five people. Then you have to decode them among metaphorical terms. I don’t think casual listeners who could possibly be exposed to some great music are going to take the time to decode your intellectual bullshit. That’s my problem, not yours. I’ll write it in my diary and call it a day. Right now I’m writing a song. For a song I’m going to decode it for you. I like to think that I split the difference pretty good. We split the difference pretty good. If the guys aren’t understanding something that I’m trying to say, I go “Ok, maybe you’re right. Maybe that word didn’t make sense. Maybe I should make it a little bit simpler and scale it back a little bit.” I like to think that we find a way to keep songs catchy. A “hit” song is what’s in the public’s reaction. That just means a lot of people like it. I like hit songs. That’s what I listen to. I listen to songs that a lot of people like because that means that they’re good songs. There’s a lot of bullshit on the radio right now. And I fucking want to pull my ears out. Four on the floor… Just absolute train wreck mess mastered to full volume. I can’t even listen to the Top 40 right now. It’s about splitting the difference and still trying to keep your integrity while at the same time giving something that the whole public might be able to digest.
When you have fans that relate to lyrics that get them through hard times or happy times, do you keep that in mind when writing lyrics?
Martin: I’ve had probably 20-25 people off this record come up and say that I’ve saved their or their friends’ lives from writing the song “Go” off this current record. It will change my day entirely, probably change my week. It’s about really digging yourself out of depression, moving on, and finding a way. Last night I got a letter that was three pages long from a girl with a brain tumor. It’s terminal. She says that the thing that keeps her going is listening to the lyrics on the record. I don’t think there’s a better compliment than that.
How did you first get hooked with the songwriting and production team of Sam Hollander and David Katz? Did your publishing company set you up with them?
Martin: They found us, actually. They found the band. We knew those guys before we got signed to our deal with Columbia [Records]. We were the first band that they had worked with. We were babies to each other at that time. It was the first collaboration that Sam and David had worked on together. They’ve gone on to become a complete powerhouse. They respect our opinions a lot. For this last record, we did half of it up with Brian Howes up in Canada. For the other half, they [Sam & David] let me in on a lot of the production, which was definitely good for me. The whole band got to do whatever they wanted. John got to go in to the drum session room and just have a guideline. It wasn’t about a producer.
Bryan: It was a lot looser.
Martin: It was like, “play what you want.” Play something simple one time, and then play what you want three times, and we’ll figure it out later.
Bryan: Even just going back and forth from New York. We’re all from Boston, so we could take a trip down. It’s only four hours. Do whatever and go back home for a day or two. Then be like, “Oh hey, we forgot this one thing. We’d come back down, do it again.
John: Having the time in between, you come in fresh rather than, “Ok, we did four songs and now I’m worn out.” We’re not sitting in a room. The whole pre-production thing was done way different. We weren’t just sitting in a studio hacking out songs just for hacking out songs. Everything was more well thought out this time around. Not that it wasn’t before. The process was a lot easier as far as thinking logically about how to make a record.
Do you think that when you have that freedom everything flows so much easier?
John: I think it makes the process a lot easier. Versus being, “Okay, we have 30 songs let’s go and try to figure out how they go together.” Sit in a room all together. Okay, here we go.
Bryan: Here’s day one of recording, we’re going to do this. And then this. And then this.
John: I think it’s something every band should do, and I’m assuming we’ll probably do it again at some point. Who knows? I think it works for some songs and doesn’t work for other songs.
You’ve worked and toured with big names in music such as Good Charlotte, Metro Station, Cobra Starship, Mark Hoppus, and Taylor Swift…the list could go on and on. Who has been the best to work with and why? Who have you learned the most from?
John: Our dudes in Good Charlotte are like our big brothers on tour. They’re nice, down-to-earth guys. They showed us the ropes. How to treat people better, to better ourselves, and do smarter things in the business.
Brian: They’re genuine. They have been around forever. Everyone else on this tour looks up to them.
John: They know how to respect people.
Brian: We grew up listening to them. It’s awesome.
Martin: On a morale standpoint and on a road-dog type standpoint definitely Good Charlotte. On a musical standpoint it was pretty amazing working and writing with Taylor. John got a chance to play drums on Fearless. With the amount of success she’s had, and to be that young and be such a fucking amazing songwriter, she straight up brings the heat. How are these ideas coming out of a girl who left high school when she was fifteen? She has the intelligence of a grown-ass woman. It was great working with her on a collaboration standpoint where she came in and sang one of our songs, but musically it was cool with the behind-the-scenes stuff. With the couple of songs we wrote together and watching John in the studio with her and how she kind of interacted with that. It was interesting.
How did that collaboration come about? Did you reach out to her? Did she reach to you?
Martin: She wrote about us in the Wall Street Journal as one of her favorite new bands.
John [joking]: Then we were at square dancing lessons together.
Bryan: She covered “Hero/Heroine” acoustically during a show in Australia and it was on YouTube.
Martin: No, she played “Two Is Better Than One” in Australia. Then she started covering our song “Hero/Heroine.” I thought, “I have to write with this girl.” We’re a huge fan with this record. We reached out to her, and she ended up becoming friends with the whole band.
How did the writing collaboration come about between you and Taylor for the Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus song “You’ll Always Find Your Way Back Home”?
Martin: Disney was scrapping for it and we were up late laughing, just having a good time in Nashville and we decided to write the song.
Many of the bands that you have toured with in the past (and are still currently on tour with) have never experienced the mainstream success with commercial radio airplay that Boys Like Girls has enjoyed. Has that ever affected your relationship with the other bands that have never had a song on the radio? Is there any animosity?
Martin: It definitely has an affect where there’s animosity toward some bands. It’s hard for us to tell because we’re living in it. We don’t turn on the radio, so we don’t know. We see the charts. We see the kids singing along to certain songs more than others. We’ll notice some bands all of a sudden treating you differently and some bands that have stayed the same. Treating you the way that they’ve always treated you. That’s what’s isolated the men from the children. I’m not going to name any names.
Bryan: Nowadays it’s all about touring and playing live anyway. We’re all pretty much in the same boat. When the “radio fans,” the ones that only know the singles come out especially at a show like this, they get turned on to a lot of new music. The Ready Set is starting to hit radio. I’m pumped for him. You’ve [Martin] been on stage talking about getting all these bands on the tour back on the radio and getting Ke$ha off.
John: In a perfect world…
Bryan: In the BLG world…
Martin: In a perfect world, shitty music that other people just plopped in people’s laps that’s completely manufactured to be on the radio and make money, would not be on the radio. There would be good rock-and-roll back on the radio that was written by the artists for the artists. Going back to the hit song question, it’s what the artists wanted to say to their fans in the simplest way possible. What the fans liked about that song. With the radio industry and the way that it works right now, it’s just about what’s going to work on the format. Everybody’s scared to play guitars on the radio right now. It comes down to, “Are there guitars in the song? No, we can’t play it.” It’s a scary world. It’s a fucked up world, in my opinion.
I’ve read that your next album will have songs more driven by melodies similar to Love Drunk. Is this merely because you have found a niche sound that fits your style or because you know that’s it’s successful and will sell albums?
Martin: Where did you read that because I’ve never talked about the next record even though it’s pretty much all written?
Dead Hub: I guess to change my question…
Martin: I’m just messing with you. I’m curious, where did you hear that from? Did you hear that from Wikipedia?
Dead Hub: Wikipedia (simultaneously with Martin).
Boys Like Girls: Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!
Bryan: Wikipedia, it’s always Wikipedia. Wikipedia is the nemesis of BLG.
Martin: We went to Malaysia once and somebody wrote that Boys Like Girls was a Nazi, gay-hating band because our name is Boys Like Girls. We go over there, and there’s this huge language barrier. Every interview we had a translator and the first question was, “Why are you a Nazi band, and why do you hate gays, and what’s your standpoint religiously?
John [sarcastically]: It was awesome!
Bryan: First question right off the bat, and we were like, “Whooaa!”
Martin: No, no, no. Ahh! We wanted to cancel all of our interviews. Wikipedia has fucked with us a lot. When you write a pop song, it can be in any genre. It can be a country song, a techno song, a massive arena rock song. It can be put into an acoustic fucking indie format. It can be whatever you want it to be. It lays into the production. When we write a song, generally it starts out on an acoustic guitar. If a song can stand alone, completely stripped down, that’s a good song. We are sifting through the bullshit right now, figuring out what everybody’s comfortable with and what everybody likes for this next record. When we go into the studio it’s all about how we’re feeling, and how much we’ve grown up. It’s not about direction. We play best song wins, and we kick in the vibes as we feel them. What songs are most appropriate with a certain vibe, a certain flavor. Generally, they all start out as the best pop songs.
Do you consider whether the melodies would be good on the radio or not?
Martin: No. I’ve listened to melodic music and writing songs since I was six. I’ve been listening to the radio since I was three. I’ve been singing since I could talk. I never liked anything that wasn’t melodic. When I’m writing a song, I don’t think about the radio stuff. It’s afterwards when you have all the songs together you’re like, “Which song would be the most translatable to our fans in this current state of music? Which song best represents the whole record?” I know it’s a singles-based market where people don’t even buy records or even download the whole record for free. I would prefer a fan to go and download the whole record for free rather than buying a single for $0.99 to be honest with you, so they get the whole record in their iPod because we’re proud of it. Support us by coming to the show, buy a t-shirt or a concert ticket. We’ll stay alive somehow. It’s depressing that we live in a singles-based market, but you choose the radio singles after everything’s all said and done.
Many bands break up due to disagreements over publishing splits, royalties, creative direction, egos, etc. How do you guys keep your friendship, personal lives, and professional lives going strong?
Martin: You guys are asking some pretty fucking in-depth questions. I’ve never done a more business-type of interview. I think it’s cool. Do a lot of bands freeze up when you interview them?
John: I’ll answer your question. Martin pays us $100 a week each to be in the band. There’s our answer.
Martin: There’s the answer. I honestly want you to post that.
Bryan: That’s honestly not true, but we do know a band that does that.
Martin: We’re making fun of a band that we know who does that.
John: We keep it split up.
Martin: Everything’s split up. It’s a fucking rock-and-roll band.
John: This band shares a lot more than you think.
Martin: We share showers…
How much of the business side of the music industry did you guys understand when you first started out in Boys Like Girls? Publishing deals? Recording contracts? Licensing deals?
Martin: None and I didn’t care.
John: We all went to Harvard Business School.
Dead Hub: A lot of artists have read All You Need To Know About The Music Business by Donald S. Passman.
Martin: They told us to read that. I think John knows more than anybody else in the band. We knew absolutely nothing. You learn a lot really quickly.
John: The whole business is changing so much that it’s tough. That book is so dated now. Half of it’s not even the way it is anymore.
Dead Hub: Are you happy with your current record label contract?
Martin: We got one of the old school contracts at first. Everything turned around. We decided to flip it to a 360 [degree] deal so that our record label would continue to support us the way they had been just out of respect because we weren’t selling records. We were selling a lot of singles. In the States, if you have three charting singles off each record that you put out and your new record’s selling 300,000 copies rather than five million like it would of [years ago]. There’s the website called bigchampagne.com where you can track illegal downloads. We released our single “Love Drunk” and on the first day it came out there were 80,000 downloads on iTunes and a million and a half illegal downloads. That’s not even counting file transfers. What’s funny about our band is we got discovered off the Internet, we came from the Internet, we were able to tour from the Internet. I say, “Yo, hit me with that new record on iChat” and I don’t think twice. It’s 2010, welcome. 90% of my records I buy off of iTunes if I really like it. Honestly, I’m not technologically capable enough to get it for free. It’s really easy [to buy albums], and my credit card is already in the system.
Bryan: To be honest most of my free records come from our boy Ryan (BLG Tour Manager). I don’t even ask for them. He just sends me an email saying, “Hey, check out this new record,” and I’m like, “Sweet, the new Paramore. Thank you!”
John: Can we get movies, too?
Martin: Yeah, can we get movies?
Ryan: You want movies?
Martin: I’m not in that industry, so I don’t feel as much compassion.
Bryan: They are still making billions. The movie industry is fine.
Martin: When I’m onstage, I encourage our fans to download our music illegally because I want them to hear the whole record. That’s how it is in 2010.
John [sarcastically]: It really worked out great for us on this record cycle. We sold a ton of records.
Martin: We’ve never seen one royalty check. We’ve never made our record label a dollar.
Bryan: It’s a win-win for both.
Martin: If you call us a successful band, you have to think about it in perspective. We’re breaking even.
Bryan: It’s all relative, I guess.
Martin: If you want to figure it out, it’s the fucking t-shirt business. It’s the t-shirt industry. It’s the fashion industry. You sell some American Apparel t-shirts with your logo printed on it.
John: We’re a brand. Branding.
Bryan [to Ryan]: Can we get some Cee-Lo? Everyone on this tour plays Cee-Lo.
As musicians who can actually play various instruments, how do you feel about the Rock Band / Guitar Hero game phenomenon?
Bryan: To be honest, whatever promotes actual music.
Martin: I’ve never played video games.
Bryan: It’s one thing when a kid plays that game so much and gets so good at the video game. Then he’ll pick up an actual guitar and be like, “This is stupid.” They’re pretending to play the real thing.
John: It’s great bands in the music business like Aerosmith who make more money off that than they did in their entire career. It’s really awesome if you land one of those deals. Plus, it’s really fun to play.
Martin: I’m going to put it to you like this: Do I think that it’s better that a kid picks up a real instrument and plays it? Yes. If we got asked to do a Rock Band Boys Like Girls, would we do it? Yes.
John: Fuck, yes.
Bryan: If kids put half the effort they put into learning the video game, they’d be on their way to playing a real instrument.
Martin: What I really care about is getting our music out there and the most [amount of] people possible hearing it.
John: I bet it inspires kids to pick up drums and guitar. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.
Dead Hub: I remember reading a quote from John Mayer about the Guitar Hero and Rock Band games being about hand-eye and color coordination.
Martin: I was just about to say that. He gets all pissed off about it.
Bryan: It’s a little misleading for a kid to pick up a plastic controller and then an actual guitar and be like, “This is nothing like the video game!” He’s like, “Shit, I should’ve done this one first.”
Martin: I haven’t played video games since I was a little kid when I owned a Game Boy. On our last tour we did this promotion where we let fans come up and challenge us to Guitar Hero. It was the first time I had to play Guitar Hero. I had to practice a couple days before the promotion because I was like, “These fans are going to come up on our bus and smoke me at Guitar Hero and I’m going to feel like a fool.” I picked it up and our merch guy was kicking my ass. I was like, “What the hell? I play guitar.” It has absolutely nothing to do with the instrument. It’s cool that kids are at least listening to music and rocking out. It’s definitely a better game rather than running around with guns and shooting aliens.
John: Although that’s really cool.
Bryan: Those are fun games, too.
How much do you rehearse for a tour? Do you have a practice regimen?
Paul: One day. Two days. We’re always on tour. We play these songs all the time, so we know how to play them. It’s not like we have to figure anything out.
Martin: When we first started as a band we rehearsed every single day, eight hours a day for months.
Paul: We’ve been doing it for years. Every night playing shows, so we know how to play the songs. In the beginning of a tour we always change up the set list. We change everything up.
Martin: We’ll run through the set a bunch of times.
Paul: To make sure it’s smooth and fluid and works fine.
Martin: What’s most important is that it’s all run to click-track. What you don’t hear in the front is the actual metronome that’s going on in our ears. We like to be super air-tight live. The fluctuations and the differences live are there, but there’s cool smooth transitions almost like a DJ set. Especially for the first half of the set. If you stick around for the set you’ll notice. I don’t even talk until the sixth song. Before we go in the studio it’s about, “is this vibe going to work?” You’re rehearsing it as the tape is rolling. The tape’s rolling and if it happens to catch something, sweet. Then you figure it out later. When rehearsing for a tour, we know each other’s energies now so much because we’ve been playing for so long. It’s about rehearsing the transitions, how it’s going to translate live more than it is about tightening up the songs.
What has surprised you the most about choosing this career path and being in the music industry? What are things you wish you would’ve known before getting into it?
Martin: The bigger it gets, the hungrier you get. At least, that’s how it’s been for us. I guess it’s the same thing as being a spoiled brat: the more you get, the more you want. The more people that hear it, the more people I want to hear it. The more I want to take it worldwide and bring the heat. We love doing what we do and want to do it forever.
John: We just want to go global with this shit.
Martin: “We just want to go global.” I like that. Go universal, go worldwide, go Disney. Make a movie!
Dead Hub: What do you think it takes to have a lasting, universal staying power? I’m studying public relations and fashion business and realizing that everything you learn can be obsolete in five minutes.
Martin: The music industry is 50% fashion so you actually do have a perspective.
Dead Hub: Exactly. I like to hear that. It’s amazing how all of the industries work together.
Martin: They all do. Clothing companies support 50% of tours. The kids wear what the bands wear. When you go to school, you make a fashion statement. It’s about what type of music you listen to. It’s all intertwined.
Are you guys all about licensing your music to films, television shows, and commercials? I have heard a few of your songs on MTV’s “The Hills.”
Martin: I’m proud that we’re anywhere because I want as many people as possible to hear our music.
John: I think it’s pretty sweet.
Martin: You come off really indie like you think it’s discrediting our music to be on “The Hills.” I don’t like “The Hills.”
John: I like when hot girls are rolling around in bikinis while our song is playing in the background.
Martin: If a hot girl is driving around in a Land Rover on a fake reality show, I’m all about it. Go…play the song. Let’s get fucking seventeen years old. I heard that one of our songs is getting played by the automated Chuck e Cheese cover band. They sing some cover version of “On Top Of The World.” I’m excited. If a three-year-old is eating his pizza while playing skee-ball and somehow he subliminally [becomes] a Boys Like Girls fan, go for it. I would license it all out for free. I don’t care as long as people are listening to our music.
You guys said that we had a very business-type of interview. What questions were you expecting us to ask?
John: Where did you get the name Boys Like Girls?
John: How do you write a song?
Martin: How do you write a song?
Martin: Who’s the principal songwriter?
Martin: Explain the collaboration with Taylor Swift and what was it like?
Bryan: How did you get Ashley Tisdale in your video?
Martin: How was she?
Martin: Was she cool?
Martin: What was she like?
Martin: Is she pretty in person?
Martin: Have you dated Taylor Swift or Ashley Tisdale?
Bryan: What’s your favorite color?
Martin: Who is the crazy member of the band?
Martin: Tell us some tour stories.
Martin: What happens on tour?
Martin: Do you guys party?
Bryan: Do you guys play tour pranks?
Martin: What are the biggest pranks you play on each other on tour?
Bryan: What is the most embarrassing moment you’ve had onstage?
Bryan: What is the creepiest thing a fan has done?
Martin: Who’s the craziest fan?
Dead Hub: Well, basically we didn’t ask you any of those questions.
Martin: I know! It’s awesome. Thank you! That stuff is fucking stupid. I thought it was cooler that you guys went in a different direction.
Dead Hub: Normally I end an interview with a neutral question such as, “What question about your music has become your biggest pet peeve during interviews?” But you guys just listed off 20 of them!
Martin: Post all of those questions, please. Future interviewers can Google “Boys Like Girls interview” and figure it out. I’m curious…did we come off super angry in this interview?
Dead Hub: No, you were fine.
Martin: Thank you. You girls were very sweet. This was a fun interview.
*Boys Like Girls was interviewed by Jennifer Boyer and Kate Jacobsen