William Beckett jokingly calls himself a mini-celeb. Fans of the former singer for defunct Chicago pop-rockers The Academy Is… would likely drop the “mini.”
Beckett’s big enough to have a “verified” check mark next to his name on Twitter and to casually tell stories about his friend Demi Lovato. Right now, though, the focus is on the 27-year-old Barrington resident as he puts his previous band behind him and supports “Walk the Talk,” which dropped in April. It’s the first of three solo EPs coming this year (the others follow in July and October), on which Beckett explores new subject matter for him.
“[The last Academy Is… album] was about my time in high school,” he said during an interview at Tribune Tower. “Since then I’ve had a child; I’m a dad now. With all the experiences that a band that tours the world time and time again over an eight-year period have had, the last thing I want to do is now go back and dwell on the past even more.”
Still, Beckett says he will play his previous band’s songs on tour from time to time, despite his focus on the future. “[The band was] sort of the like the cool police on everything. If it wasn’t mysterious, it wasn’t cool. I could have B.S.’d another record with my band, and some people would probably think that that would be the [right] thing to do, but it wasn’t. Not only for myself but for the fans.”
What do you think people expect out of your solo work, and what will they actually get?
Well, I feel like expectations for what I’ve done in the past, particularly if people have expectations they’ll know where I’m coming from with my band and what we did as far as on a record-to-record basis. We pretty much flipped the script every time that we made a record so every record was different and I think, to a certain extent, shocked our fans, for better or for worse. [Laughs.] So for this with all the additional freedom, the expectation, I don’t know what people would expect. I guess the least expected thing would be to make the same record that we just made as a band as my solo thing. But I’m certainly not going to do that.
What’s something you have the freedom to do now that you didn’t before?
There’s a particular song called “Girl, You Shoulda Been a Drummer” that I love, and it’s a little more shticky. It’s not shtick but it’s a little more swagger and taps into a different side of myself that I feel like just conceptually it would have gotten killed on the ground floor in our band setting. I’m really happy that I stuck with my gut on that song. It’s really fun and it tells a pretty fun, sexy story. That being said, I feel like that’s one example of a particular song that wouldn’t have gotten out of the cutting room floor.
The first single, “Compromising Me,” some may take that as you anticipating what people might say about you and striking out before they can even say it?
If you’re asking if it’s like a pre-meditated attack … maybe a little bit. It happened pretty naturally. I wrote the song at a point in time when I was really, really at wit’s end and really frustrated with where I was with my label situation and where I was with the project because I felt like it was so ready to go and the vision was clear yet there [were] way too many cooks in the kitchen at that point. And no one could decide where it fits. What radio format does it fit on? Who are we selling it to? And for me it’s like, I’ve never thought about music so directly like a product before. To me the artists that truly do break out on massive proportions are those that don’t follow a formula. Look at Adele for instance. One of the most groundbreaking artists of our lifetime and she didn’t follow any formula whatsoever. If anything it was a huge throwback and it was her own thing. There wasn’t something else like her on the radio at that time, so for me to mirror my sound or my approach off of something that already exists in the market, even from a business standpoint, just doesn’t seem smart to me.
A little, yeah. If I make the same record as Joe Schmo, and I know how we all love Joe Schmo’s work—
By the time I put it out, it’s old news. So that being said I would want to write a song that was just honest and bold about the kind of music I’m going to be making from now on.
You sing, “Girl, You Shoulda Been a Drummer” for mostly negative reasons. Is it better to date a singer, guitarist or bassist?
[Laughs.] The twist on that was that I enjoy it. I enjoyed it a bit as well. This person can twist your world upside down, beat you senselessly, whether that’s metaphorical or not, but at the end of it it’s like, “Whoa, I’m enthralled by this different side of this person.” In a lot of ways it is kind of a reflection of myself and how I’ve blossomed since leaving the band. In certain senses I feel like having tapped into that more instinctual, carnal part of myself, I notice that more in others. That’s essentially what that song’s about, about a wild night with someone that you know, you’re seeing a different side of them that you ever have. Or someone that is taking you by storm.
So what member of a band tends to be the most volatile to get into a relationship with?
Definitely, it’s gotta be the lead singer.
Usually they’re the most—I’m speaking from experience, being one, definitely the most vain and selfish. Not even necessarily … I think it sort of comes with the territory—the attention that a lead singer gets. For me, if I were dating someone in a band, the singer, everyone’s usually, that’s where all the eyes go first. That’s the person that’s projecting words to you. And usually the person whose face is on the cover of the record. More prominently. Everyone else is kinda hazy in the background.
The blurry guys in the background.
The blurry guys. [Laughs.] With that being said, usually the most passive-aggressive one is the lead guitar player who wants to have all the attention and everything. For me it’s like these are all reasons, it sounds like a cliché and if you’ve seen “Almost Famous” or “Spinal Tap,” it’s like some of those clichés are true. That’s why it’s funny ‘cause it is kinda true. I don’t miss that part of being in a band whatsoever.
I’m sure you spent a lot of time with Fall Out Boy over the years. Did you see Patrick Stump recently put up a serious blog post about how depressed he was about the animosity from people angry his solo stuff doesn’t sound like Fall Out Boy?
I did see it. I completely applaud him in every way. I’ve known that he’s been an incredible talent ever since we played shows in Hoffman Estates together for six people. We used to play shows, me on acoustic, him playing all these amazing Elvis Costello-inspired songs on acoustic guitar. From that point I knew that he was destined for great things. Not only because of how talented he is but because of the kind of character he has. That being said, I absolutely think that because of how massive that band was and, Patrick’s always been that guy. What he’s playing has been in him since the beginning. That is what he loves most. What he and Pete did, how they melded those two worlds is what became Fall Out Boy. You can even see in Fall Out Boy’s work how Patrick was slowly creeping into there. The last records and those last singles you can really feel Patrick emerging. As far as the bullying online that happens, and it happens to me, it’s happened to me, I’ve been bullied my whole life, whenever you do something different, you’re gonna get bullied. I’m sure that everyone in this room has experienced it. As far as that goes, I feel like there’s a disconnect between what you say on the Internet and what would ever be close to acceptable in person. I feel like that’s a dangerous line that’s being blurred. … Patrick’s just an example of what happens all the time. And you know who has it the worst is that the younger you get the worse it gets. One of my friends, this girl named Demi Lovato, she was a Disney star and she was emerging outside of that and she would get it from all angles, stuff about her personal image, stuff about her music, stuff about her personal life, and that stuff does weigh on you. Particularly someone that gets so much attention so young. And Patrick is like my age. Patrick was young when his band blew up. So those things are going to affect him. But thankfully he has a really great head on his shoulders and he should be considered a role model to kids and contemporaries alike.
What’s it like transitioning from playing big venues like Riviera to smaller ones like Schubas?
I like it. And don’t get me wrong, I love playing big places. I get more excited about playing in front of more people than I get playing—as far as my nervousness, I’m always less nervous in front of larger crowds and more nervous in front of smaller crowds. For this tour it makes perfect sense for me to do the small venues, more singer-songwriter, close-knit and intimate venue because first of all it’s how I started, when I was 17 years old I borrowed my dad’s minivan, grabbed my acoustic guitar, and a barstool and booked my own tour on the east coast. That’s how I started. I started playing for anyone that would listen. From there everything spawned from that. I’ve done acoustic tours before with my band, but I really love that setting. For the first look in the performance, I really want that closeness, I really want that intimacy of the shows where it’s almost like we’re having an evening out hanging out. That’s why I don’t have five bands opening. I have one artist opening.
On your website you say, “Ask me anything.” What’s the most unusual or memorable question you’ve received there, or on Twitter?
It’s varying. There are ones that are just in a foreign language completely. Literally in foreign languages that I don’t understand even a little. I took five years of Spanish so I can kind of get something that is based in Latin, I can kind of mess with it. but when it’s foreign figures, it looks like it’s an intergalactic message from the future. … The fans are most of the time very very respectful and not creepy but there certainly have been times where people have overstepped boundaries. And it’s just like, “Whoa, I’m kind of afraid for my life and my family’s life.” I tend to treat our fans like they’re my equals. I don’t think that I’m any better or any more deserving of attention than someone that’s in the crowd, ‘cause I was that kid in the crowd. If I can positively inspire someone whether it’s to really follow whatever their dream my be, or whatever their passion may be, no matter how old they are or what point in their life they’re at, who am I to treat someone poorly, period? Maybe that’s just the way I was raised.
Earlier today, someone wrote on your Twitter, “I swear William Beckett is the definition of perfection. OMG.” Is that the sort of thing that makes you start to worry about your family?
Um … sometimes it starts there. [Laughs.] I see that stuff and I just kinda laugh. I know they’re wrong, so it’s like, “I don’t know what I’m doing to fool you, guys, but this is not correct. It’s incorrect.” I like the social networking a lot. I’m on all the time. It’s fun to engage with fans and just the people that I’m interested in.
On releasing a few songs at a time: “Every record, even my favorite records ever, there’s like four songs I skip. And there’s always my favorite five songs and I stick to my guns, and they are still my favorite records. Like that first Third Eye Bblind record, the front half of that record is really incredible and then I feel like there’s certain songs that I would skip. Even “Houses of the Holy” there’s a song or two that just don’t do it for me. This approach, I’m able to pretty much cut those tracks out. I’ve done it with my band, and it’s just the worst experience ever where you have to put a song on that someone in a suit thinks is potentially more of a hit than the one that means a lot to you but it’s not as safe sounding.”
His favorite Chicago restaurant: Avec
Guilty pleasure TV show: “Gossip Girl.” I was a total hater early on. ... I was like, “No way would I ever watch this thing.” And then it was just on in the background once and I was just like, “Pff, whatever.” And then I kept watching and I was like, “Wait a minute.” And then I just got sucked into it. Everyone’s beautiful, they wear awesome clothes. I hate that kind of snobbery but I just can’t take my eyes off of it. the other part as well, it’s really great music. they break a lot of awesome, unknown bands. So that’s been a personal goal for me, it would be a big victory for me to get a song on there … I watch gossip girl to look at Blake Lively. That’s the reality.”
If he talks to his old bandmates: Yeah, for sure. It’s nothing too bad. Our drummer is working on a new project, it’s called the Animal Upstairs. He’s playing al the instruments and singing and he’s a brilliant artist, and he does really amazing work with art. He’s the most talented out of any of us. So he’ll do great things. I’m close with him, and we talk a lot. Our bass player, Adam, who I went to school with, we’ll always be close. Nothing can really mess that up. So yeah, we kinda put our feelers out to make sure that everyone’s doing all right.
Video/Q&A: William Beckett
Interview: William BeckettMay 22, 2012
William Beckett | 'Compromising Me' | RedEye SessionsApril 17, 2012