Saturday, September 23

Paramore: ‘We realised this band isn’t worth risking our health for’ | Paramore

The three members of Paramore are feeling their age. Recently, they shot a video for their comeback single, This Is Why, and the jagged, brash song wreaked havoc on their joints. “It’s not even a performance-heavy video and I’m still sore,” says frontwoman Hayley Williams, 33. As they appear over Zoom from their period Los Angeles rental one September morning, the band are on the brink of their first proper day back at work in four years. Straight after we speak, they start rehearsals for their October tour. They have “twentysomething days” to go, estimates Williams, her peachy hair covered by a cap that says “All in a dream”. “I’m terrified!” They’re limbering up: drummer Zac Farro, 32, whose bold moustache contrasts with his endearing shyness, has been hammering the band’s heaviest songs. Williams nods towards the corner: “We busted out the mini trampoline.”

Cardio is one thing, but the best preparation Paramore made for their sixth album, also called This Is Why, was to abandon the group altogether. Band life was all they had known since forming as preteens in Tennessee 20 years ago. They fast became Grammy-winning emo superstars and one of the most influential bands of their generation: their euphoric, angsty pop-punk sound is thriving among artists like Willow Smith and Meet Me at the Altar, and a generation of disparate musicians from Soccer Mommy to Grimes and Lil Uzi Vert grew up idolising Williams, a lightning bolt in a fiercely misogynist scene.

But in 2018, Paramore stepped away from performing to learn how to become more like a family after a famously volatile existence. This Is Why is their first album to be made by the same lineup as the previous one. There have been eight Paramore members and several high-drama exits – including Farro in 2010, alongside his brother Josh. The quitters usually smeared Williams on the way out: hers was the only name on the record contract she signed as a teenager, though she always fought Atlantic for Paramore to be a band, not a glorified solo project. The media revelled in the drama and potential for the band to self-destruct. All the while, Williams and corkscrew-curled, introverted guitarist Taylor York, 32, who joined in 2007, defiantly looked forward, stressing that the band had never been stronger.

Zac Farro rejoined for 2017’s After Laughter, which sidelined their yowling guitars for effervescent punk-funk. Williams’s unusually revealing lyrics delved into her depression after her divorce from the New Found Glory guitarist, Chad Gilbert. In public, it was the first time Paramore didn’t pretend everything was happier ever after. “It was a huge relief,” Williams says emphatically. “More than ever we were a support system to each other that we desperately needed.”

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Today, their mutual tenderness is clear – arranged in front of the fireplace like a family portrait, they regard each other with a sort of fond awe. (Williams and York confirm rumours that they are dating but decline to comment further.) The candour of the After Laughter era proved liberating. When one of York’s family friends died while the band was shooting a video for one single, “I just started bawling”, he recalls. “I didn’t know I had this capacity until that moment. We realised nothing is worth risking our health.” They set a hard limit on touring that record. After that, says Williams, they knew they had to take their first ever real break: “Let’s see what it’s like to not hang our identities on Paramore all the time.”

An earlier lineup of Paramore in 2006; the new album is the first to be made by the same personnel as the one preceding. Photograph: Aaron Rapoport/Corbis/Getty Images

Being in the band from such a young age meant they had to grow up fast, says York: “Then you realise it was at the expense of other parts of yourself.” During their time away, Williams made two solo albums (her bandmates worked on the first), got deep into therapy and in interviews revealed the toll the band’s past had taken on her. Farro, who admits he was rejuvenated by his years away from the band, continued making music with his project HalfNoise and explored photography and directing. York quit drinking. “I wanted to explore some deeper parts of myself and figure out why we do this, how it happened,” he says. “I’m a very introverted person and I have a passion and career that’s at odds with that. When it came back to doing [Paramore] again, I was able to say confidently, let’s do it. Zac and Hayley both needed to know that I wanted to do this.”

Back in their home town of Nashville, the trio had space to talk candidly with one another in their backyards “about living in the south during a global pandemic, during racial injustice and a social movement that was bigger than it’s ever been in America,” Williams says. “It felt really important for us to be home while so much crazy shit was happening.” They were able to add a community dimension to their lives, too – speaking up, marching and working with local organisations.

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Much of the new album draws from the trio’s conversations from that period to look back at the environments they came from. They discussed growing up in the Bible belt. Williams moved from Mississippi to Tennessee when her mum fled her second husband. She met Farro through a homeschool programme, and he knew York. Early on, Paramore talked openly about being a Christian band, but now they are all at different stages of unravelling their relationship to faith, says Williams. “You’re brought up being told something is ultimate, you unpack that and then find out that it’s tangled up with some other random shit over here.” She sighs: “Zac and Taylor are the most gentle and kind about it, whereas I feel like my teeth are knives and I’m spewing fire, trying to throw all of it over the side of a cliff. It’s good to be challenged – like Taylor reminds me all the time, you can’t generalise. I can be very dualistic when it comes to good people and bad people, and a lot of the record talks about what it means that people aren’t just that.”

They’re also having these conversations with family. In October 2020, Williams called out Josh Farro after he made homophobic comments online. “There’s a reason there are only 3 people left in @paramore. surprise, haters, it ain’t cause of me,” she tweeted, and condemned his remarks.

It’s been tough, says Zac Farro of his relationship with his older brother. “You think when you’re a kid you’re gonna do everything together, and we did up to a certain point. Then we didn’t. It’s definitely put a strain on the relationship but I actually think it’s been for the better recently. You can’t really be mad at that person – that’s what they chose. You have to choose if you’re going to show love. My heart goes out to him, too; I don’t want to sound demeaning, but some people’s worldview isn’t very acceptable online. You learn it the hard way sometimes.”

York chimes in. “This is another thing I don’t even really know where to put, but people think they are doing the right thing. A lot of people feel conviction; they aren’t speaking out because they’re trying to do the wrong thing.”

Williams, laughing at her frustration, comes back to her tendency to generalise. “I don’t want to do the work to think about people as nuanced figures. Like Donald Trump, I don’t want to think about his dad and his dad’s dad and generational bullshit – no! I don’t want to have any grace for people like that. But I think it’s the work of all of our lifetimes to be uncomfortable enough that we can move the needle in the right direction.”

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Recently, the band posted on Instagram that they would be donating money from ticket sales to abortion access charities following the overturning of Roe v Wade. The reaction was overwhelmingly negative, though Williams wasn’t surprised. “Part of me feels like it’s a good thing because if we were always speaking the same ideas to the same people, it’s just an echo chamber. If we can nudge someone a little bit more towards equality and for people to have healthcare – because that’s what [abortion] is – then we’re doing something.”

Paramore admit they had to go on that journey, too. “My parents were never like: ‘Hey, abortion is bad!’” says Williams. “It was more in the air we grew up in.”

“Zac and I are still learning a lot about this,” says York. “Growing up where we grew up, and being guys, we were very uneducated. When you’re a little kid you’re not really questioning. You hear: ‘Hey, do you think it’s OK to kill babies?’ And that feels simple. We didn’t understand the nuance. You get to a certain age, especially when the former president was in office, and everyone started to ask more questions.”

“That’s why our home base, our band, is so nice,” says Farro, “because we have the freedom to process stuff together.”

Having these “crazy complicated conversations that needed to happen”, says Williams, made them grow together. That wasn’t what they saw when they looked beyond their arty enclave to the rest of Nashville. “We all went through this crazy shit and people are still not kind out there in the world,” she laments.

Paramore … ‘It’s only now that we’ve felt lighter about the band’
Paramore … ‘It’s only now that we’ve felt lighter about the band’ Photograph: Zachary Gray

During Covid, she says, “tourism was at an all-time high. There’s multiple streets called Robert E Lee, so many Civil War tributes to Confederate soldiers.”

“Not one mask in sight,” says Farro.

“I got a call from a friend who was trying to buy groceries and this guy was towering over her,” says Williams. “She said: please stand six feet back and he cursed her out.”

The hostility and paranoia that have characterised US life post-Trump, animate This Is Why. “I look at the internet, the news, and it feels like [we’re in] Lord of the Flies,” says Williams. “When I was writing the lyrics, I was like, this social experiment – the internet – has been going wrong since day one. It exposes and exploits the general population’s blatant disregard for nuance.” Their as-yet unannounced second single addresses the importance of battling compassion fatigue (I only get to hear two new songs from the album). “Some days I feel so over it, almost to the point of apathy,” says Williams, “but that’s the struggle – that you have to fight.”

The trust engendered by the band’s backyard chats was what led them back to the studio. Still, they were nervous about preserving their good relations. “After 15 to 20 years of fighting like a bunch of brats in front of the world, you eventually learn some coping skills and communication methods,” says Williams.

“Having said that,” York adds, “I’m not in the camp that thinks you have to suffer to make good art, but I don’t understand how you can make something that is truly authentic in a collaborative environment without tension. We’re getting better and better at dealing with that.”Following After Laughter’s foray into straighter pop, the original idea was to work with just guitar, bass and drums. Then synths crept in, and they started reminiscing over the early 2000s indie scene: dance-punk, electroclash. “It felt so urgent,” says Williams. “Important, a little bit cocky. Bloc Party, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the Rapture, Glassjaw – those are characters, people that were larger-than-life indie superstars.” New British bands like Wet Leg and Sorry filtered in, too. In the studio, any time they questioned whether they were going too far, Farro pushed them: “Give ’em the goods.”

They were conscious of re-emerging into a music scene rich with their influence. “I’d rather work harder than ever to try and find ourselves despite the noise,” says Williams.

Figuring out who they are away from Paramore also let them feel less beholden to the band’s past. Williams brings up their 2007 hit Misery Business, which she wrote aged 17. The song contains vindictive lyrics about a romantic rival that Williams has said reflected the misogyny she internalised from their scene. In 2018, Paramore said they would stop playing it live. That didn’t stop its revival on TikTok and as such a conspicuous influence on Olivia Rodrigo’s Good 4 U that Paramore got a belated writing credit on the song.

“Only now that we’ve felt lighter about the band, it’s like I don’t feel defined by that song,” says Williams. She prefers to think of when they used to perform it and invite a fan up to sing with them “and live their best life for three minutes. That’s what I feel defines our band, not these dramas and: ‘Is Hayley the perfect feminist?’ That was very heavy for a long time.”

Earlier this year, Williams joined Billie Eilish to duet on Misery Business when the 20-year-old pop star headlined Coachella. She had tried to talk Eilish out of covering it, then realised “it shouldn’t be about me. People grow and learn. I’d already called myself out and done a lot of work on the misogyny I’d metabolised as a young girl.”

The first song they wrote for the new record is about “exploring how you can’t control someone’s perception of you”, says Williams. “How it feels to accept there are moments in your life where you were the bad guy or you said something that you didn’t even really believe – Misery Business – and that comes to define you for some people. What can you do except continue to grow and challenge yourself? The lightness that has come with that has been really cool.”

It’s time for them to leave for rehearsals. A day later, Paramore convene in their practice space, all dressed in black and joined by Williams’s goldendoodle Alf. Sometimes the first day back can be demoralising, says York, but yesterday felt like “flipping on the switches in the cockpit”. The anxiety that had been tightening Williams’s throat all week loosened. “As soon as we warmed up, I was like: ‘Oh yeah – this is what I do,’” she says. “We’ve put our 10,000-plus hours in.”

Paramore’s status as relative veterans is a shock even to them. “We met at the craziest age and we should not have made it through all the things we’ve been through together,” says Williams. This Is Why is the last album they’re contracted to deliver on the deal that Williams signed as a teenager. March marked 20 years since they met, and they’ve been reminiscing all year, she says. “We need to get our shit together and make a doc already.”

The trio come across as endearingly stunned that anyone still cares. They are so revered that it might seem faux-humble if it were not so clearly hard won. The excitement that they’re back isn’t just because of their huge contemporary influence (add PinkPantheress, Demi Lovato and Yungblud to their successors). There’s a sense of generational vindication: that a band who battled an unsparing media and a sexist scene, and whose frontwoman was belittled by ex-bandmates, have won out on their own terms. Their inclusive, questioning, caring values have set new industry norms, and the only reward they’re interested in enjoying is creative freedom: Farro has been calling this their “season of not resisting”.

It’s a reclamation akin to those experienced by Fiona Apple or Britney Spears, musicians who were disparaged by the media as young women, then later embraced for exactly who they were by younger, more enlightened fans, I suggest, as Alf bounds back up to his owner. “I don’t ever put us on the same playing field,” Williams says bashfully. “But that resonates. And it is wonderful to be able to stick around long enough to be given that chance.” She shakes her head happily. “People are gonna get so sick of us saying this in this album cycle, but we just can’t believe we’re here.”

This Is Why will be released on 10 February.

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