It’s 10pm on a hot summer night in the small Victorian town of Tarwin Lower. A crowd of four thousand dust-covered metal fans at Unify Gathering are enthusiastically singing along to a commercial radio hit in the form of Drive, Tonight Alive’s new single.
“I’m so glad about the vibe at Unify and the two Melbourne shows,” says Tonight Alive vocalist Jenna McDougall.
“I never thought I’d see dudes in hardcore band t-shirts singing along to Drive.”
This kind of crossover crowd isn’t a completely new thing for Tonight Alive. Since their early gigs at Sydney’s PCYCs and all-ages venues in the late 2000s, Tonight Alive have always found themselves caught in the crossover between punk and pop—signed to a major label in Australia but indie labels overseas; choosing mathcore, acoustic and pop bands as support acts; building a career and a die-hard passionate fan base but failing to land a bona-fide commercial hit.
New album Limitless, the band’s third, is the result of a deliberate decision to try something new. In early 2014, Tonight Alive [rounded out by guitarists Whakaio Taahi and Jake Hardy, bassist Cam Adler and drummer Matt Best] were about to start their second year of touring 2013 album The Other Side with a spot on a Taking Back Sunday/The Used double-headliner across the United States.
“There are video diaries of me from around that time where I am on the verge of breaking down from the lack of direction and general uncertainty,” says McDougall. “Whakaio and I would set aside time to work on ideas, but it just wasn’t feeling special.”
It took a writing trip and more than a dozen demos for the band to admit what they’d written wasn’t anything they hadn’t done before.
“We needed to end The Other Side,” explains McDougall, “because even though I really love those songs, continuing to write the same kind of stuff didn’t feel true to our current selves. I’d been channelling my high school years and while that was really fun to do, I feel like I captured it and that there wasn’t much more I could do with that line of thought.”
Having realised they were stuck in a songwriting rut, Tonight Alive’s label suggested a trip to the States to work with writers and collaborators outside the band.
“It’s not like the whole record is co-written, but it was a really cool experience to deal with other people and see how other people work,” says McDougall. “We had a lot to learn and it gave us a chance to forget the rules we’d imposed on ourselves and forget the idea that Tonight Alive has to be a particular genre or have a particular sound.”
“Being in those sessions taught us how to write better when we were on our own as well, especially once we became conscious about not repeating the past. Some of my favourite songs on this album came from just Whak and I together, approaching the whole writing thing in a new, different way.”
Finally excited about their new material, Tonight Alive returned to the States to work with producer David Bendeth, whose production and mixing credits include Paramore’s Riot! and Bring Me The Horizon’s Sempiternal.
“I have never met anyone like him before,” says McDougall. “He’s a really special kind of person—both warm and freezing cold at the same time.”
Bendeth’s chill intensified as he and the band began nine days of pre-production and discovered they had very different standards of preparedness.
“It was devastating,” says McDougall. “We thought we were quite prepared, but every night we’d leave the studio either talking each other’s ears off about all things that went wrong, or just go home in silence and go straight to bed. It was like hitting rock bottom.”
“[Bendeth’s] intention was to create purpose for each instrument and make sure that everyone had space and a voice. That meant making a stronger rhythm section so there’d be a solid foundation under the music, and separating the two guitarists so they weren’t competing or playing the same thing. In a lot of our older stuff, often both guitars are chugging away at the same time which just makes everything sound stacked.”
McDougall and Bendeth also went to work on her vocals including her accent.
“By the nature of what we listened to in high school I ended up singing in an American accent, and touring overseas so much meant that it became a kind of universal accent. Expressive vocals are really important to me and through coaching I’ve learned to use my vowels in a way that is unique to me.”
“I wanted to make sure that no part of the record would be boring if you stripped it back to a single instrument, including my voice, so I wanted to make sure that I was doing justice to the detail in the parts that I wrote. ”
“What [Bendeth] did was create a musical unit out of us,” says McDougall.
“While we have this unbreakable friendship which makes us a unit, I don’t think that as musicians we were ever in sync as much as we are now.”
While the band is thrilled with how Limitless turned out, many of their fans have been more hesitant with the band’s new, decidedly less pop-punk direction. However, McDougall isn’t fazed.
“You know, I think it’s natural. Whenever bands break off and try something new there will always be mixed responses, but I’m not here to satisfy other people. I’m here to be open and honest in how I express myself, and genuine in how I relate to the fans. To stay the same would’ve been to lie.”
“On the previous records I’ve spoken a lot about the difference between people who stay the same and people who make changes to become happier and more accepting … so I think If our fans truly connect with our lyrics, they won’t be so afraid of the music of the new stuff.
I point out to McDougall that the new songs went down well at their Unify show, and seemed to fit seamlessly alongside their older material.
“It was surprising actually,” says McDougall. “I really should’ve given those songs more credit and known they’d belong in the set list, but it wasn’t until we started rehearsing that we saw that they fit well and made it comfortable for us to go between records.”
“I think the fact that the new stuff sounds a little more raw live is a good thing, and I think seeing it in the live set will make it a little less shocking for fans who are maybe on the fence about it.”
“My favourite responses so far are from people who say ‘thanks for not giving a fuck what people think—you inspire me to not care what people think and to do what’s right for me’.”
“It’s the biggest lesson I’ve ever learned and I’m glad I can share that with our fans.”
JENNA ON CARING FOR HER VOICE ON TOUR
“I have lost my voice every couple of tours, so it really is a balancing act. If my voice is in good shape I have heaps of confidence, otherwise it all falls apart."
"Before the show I make sure to separate myself from everybody for an hour or two before we go on to warm up. I go through my exercises in front of a mirror so I can watch my technique and just be patient with myself. I am really trying to work on my mindfulness and meditative skills. I’m not very good with them at the moment, but I know if I can bring myself to be present and peaceful in one moment as I warm up -- just try to ignore FOMO -- the rest of the night is going to be fine."
"I don’t drink alcohol so I don’t have a motive to go out to bars or smoky places late at night after the show. I am really nocturnal so I find it hard to rest and switch off, particularly after a show, even though sleep and rest are often the only things that will save my voice.”
WRITING HOW DOES IT FEEL WITH DAVID HODGES (EVANESCENCE, KELLY CLARKSON)
“We had this instant chemistry with him and went to work at his home studio in LA with another writer, Cameron Walker. We were jamming around and while he led the writing session I was kinda crumbling on the inside. I had to say ‘I’m sorry, I don’t like where this is going … what do you think of this drum beat?’ and did this little beatbox of a drum beat. He went “cool, got it”, put a loop of it on and and that’s where How Does It Feel grew from."