By Jon Wiederhorn
For almost 10 years, the members of Franklin, Tennessee band Paramore have been taking steady strides towards commercial superstardom. Their second album, 2007's pop-punk Riot, went platinum; and their third record, 2009's more emo-pop Brand New Eyes, debuted at No. 2 in the U.S., selling 175,000 copies in its first week and eventually going gold.
But nothing could have prepared the band for the reaction they've received from their fourth album, the eclectic, poppy and new wave-inspired Paramore. The disc came out April 5, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart, and things have just gone uphill from there. The album's second single, the peppy, infectious "Still Into You," refuses to release its grip on the masses; a video for the song has amassed nearly 25 million views. Paramore performed the song on the Teen Choice Awards on August 11, and won Best Rock Group at the event, beating the Lumineers, Mumford & Sons, and others.
"I don’t think anyone of us anticipated 'Still Into You' lasting this long and taking on this new life," vocalist Hayley Williams told Yahoo! Music. "It was on the radio, and then we played the Teen Choice Awards, and now we're just getting so much more love for that song that we have to keep pushing it, which is great."
Currently, there's no end in sight to Paramore's pop reign. In mid-October the band will launch its first U.S. arena headline tour with Metric and Hellogoodbye in support. Dates include New York's Madison Square Garden, which, like many musicians, Williams has always dreamed of playing.
"The idea of having a concert at Madison Square Garden feels totally surreal," she said. "But at the same time, I'm sort of like, 'It’s time, y’know? We've been touring for eight years, we've been a band for almost a decade. And if we're ever gonna do it we need to do it now. I have every bit of faith our fans are going to fill that place up. I just know it. We have crazy fans in the Northeast, especially New York City."
Paramore's commercial dominance is especially impressive considering the slap in the face they took two years ago when founding guitarist and songwriter Josh Farro and his brother, drummer Zac Farro, left the band. The departure erupted in a storm of controversy when Josh posted online that Paramore was a "manufactured product of a major label." He also claimed that Williams was the only band member signed to Atlantic Records, and that the other musicians were "riding on the coattails of her dream."
The betrayal stung Williams deeply since she had always considered Paramore a tight-knit band, and at first she considered breaking up the group.
"There were days early on when all the drama was still hot on the press and fresh," she explained. "You could still smell it and it was so disgusting. I hated it. I really, really didn't like being in the middle of something I never thought would happen to Paramore. It was bad enough losing band members, but then to see it play out in this very dramatic soap opera for everyone to read about was so gross and really petty. And it made us look like we were a part of it, which we weren't! We didn't want any part of it. It really shook up the rest of the band as well. It took [guitarist] Taylor [York], [bassist] Jeremy [Davis] and I a while to regroup."
As a founding member, Josh Farro had been a major part of the songwriting process. While Paramore had survived other lineup shifts, the combination of bad blood and the insecurity of starting a new album without a major component of the band was at first crippling.
'We went through something life-changing," Williams said. "We lost friends. It was a hard time for us. Finally, we decided we were either going to back down and go away or we were going to come back stronger. And when the three of us finally pulled it together and decided we were here to stay, we worked harder than we've ever worked to show people that we weren't going anywhere."
Determined to continue the band, Williams nonetheless needed a fresh start and a new direction. Tennessee held too many ghosts from the past, so she and her bandmates uprooted and moved to Los Angeles. It was there that they started the writing process for Paramore.
At first, it wasn't easy. The songs weren't coming together right away, Williams was homesick, and she had to fight with every fiber of her being not to get on a plane and go back to Nashville.
"That’s what the song 'Ain't it Fun' is about," she said. "I’m almost 25, but I'd never had that experience of getting done with high school, leaving home and living on my own. I've lived in a van or a bus with a number of other dudes since I was 16. So moving to L.A. and living on my own was scary, but it really taught me a lot. I grew up a lot, learned to take care of myself and become self-sufficient."
Usually the periods of personal revelation came shortly after total freakouts. "The first couple of weeks, my insides were kicking and screaming," she admitted. "I was thinking, 'What are you doing? Go back home where you're comfortable and things are familiar. All your favorite restaurants are there. And your family and friends are there.' But I resisted the impulse. And once the guys and I came up with, like, five demos we liked, we realized, 'Okay, we can do this.' And we stayed in L.A. until we finished the record."
The further Paramore delved into the songwriting process, the more they realized their lineup shakeup was a blessing in disguise. Freed from the songwriting approach they were used to, they were able to stray further than ever from pop-punk and emo conventions. And as they became more comfortable, they experimented more with new-wave, gospel, and mainstream pop music styles.
"It was a process of putting one foot in front of the other every day and trying new things," Williams said. "The more we tried, the more fun it became. We've never had the tools or felt the freedom to show all of our influences in the past, and this record was really liberating because we were able to reveal all our influences and show off all the different sides to this band. Taylor was a really important part of that. I don’t know why he didn't write for Paramore long ago. He’s got ideas and hears sounds and melodies in his head that amaze and inspire me. And then our producer Justin Meldal-Johnson (M83, Neon Trees, Tegan and Sara) helped us capture a lot of our ideas into songs."
By the time they were finished in the studio, Paramore had concocted their longest (17 songs in just under 64 minutes) and most musically accomplished album.
"I really feel like this is the most grown-up piece of work we've ever put out before, and that makes me proud," Williams said. "But I also feel proud that we weren't afraid to make some pop songs. We love good pop music. We write heavier songs, too, but something like 'Still Into You' came out so naturally and felt so right and so real. I'm really happy it's the song we get to play on TV and make a big deal out of."
What makes the album more than just another great Paramore release is the band's willingness to expand its music boundaries and create songs that appeal to a new, younger audience, yet its understanding that there needed to be enough core elements not to alienate their old fans.
"It has been cool to watch younger pop fans get into Paramore, but it's also been awesome to see the fans that have been following us all this time now be just as excited about it and not turn their backs and say, 'Aw, sellout.'" Williams said. "That’s what happens to any band that comes from a remotely punk-rock background and then has a little bit of success. People turn away. But that hasn't happened and I think that's because people realize we love to write all kinds of music. We're not just trying to write hits to get on the radio."
To further expand their horizons, Paramore have announced Parahoy!, a boat cruise for fans that will depart Miami on March 7 and sail to Great Stirrup Cay in the Caribbean on March 11. The cruise is a partnership with the company Sixthman and will be held on board the Norwegian Pearl. The voyage will feature concerts on multiple stages through the ship. There will also be Q&A sessions and other activities. So far, the only other band announced is Tegan and Sara, but more performers will be revealed in the coming weeks.
"Tegan and Sara are longtime friends of ours," Williams said. "We did the Honda Civic tour with them in 2010 and it was terrific. It was such a great mix. Our music is very different, but we didn't want a bunch of bands that all sounded the same. That would be boring."
Since Paramore hadn't yet scheduled shows through 2014, the band's booking agent suggested they put together the package cruise, which will allow fans greater access to the band than they would have at a normal show. Tickets for the event start at $650 per person.
"It’s funny because when our booking person said, 'You’ve never done a cruise. Would you like to do one?' I was like, 'Yeah, right. No one's gonna go to that. People are going to think we’re crazy,'" Williams said. "And since we’ve announced it, we've gotten so much positive support. I can't wait to see how it turns out."
While she’s excited about Parahoy!, Williams admitted that she's nervous about being out on the open seas for four days. "Cruises scare me a little bit," she said. "But if I’m going to go down with the ship, I might as well go with my friends and a bunch of people who love Paramore."