Yet another group of Australians that are making a name for themselves in America, Tonight Alive has had quite the year in the last 12 months, supporting Blessthefall on the Fearless Friends Tour, marking a successful run on the entire 2012 Vans Warped Tour, and recently completing a full U.S. tour supporting Pierce The Veil. The band has a whole lot of attitude, and a whole lot of ambition, and should definitely be on any rock fans watch list moving into 2013.
I was able to sit down with lead vocalist Jenna McDougal and lead guitarist Whakaio Taahi inside the band's green room at the Wonder Ballroom in Portland, OR, a few hours before doors opened for Pierce The Veil's "Collide With The Sky" U.S. headliner.
How has the Pierce The Veil tour been going for you guys?
Jenna McDougall: It's been going great man. This is our fourth time in the states, so it's nice to see the fan-base growing. At the same time, it feels good physically to perform on stage here after Warped Tour, it's been fun.
Whakaio Taahi: Yeah, and all the guys in Pierce The Veil and Sleeping With Sirens have been really fun to hang out with.
Jenna McDougall: ...and of course Hands Like Houses, our fellow Aussies.
What would you say is the biggest blessing and the biggest challenge in regards to this tour?
Whakaio Taahi: I think the biggest blessing is to play to so many people, so many of these crowds are ridiculous - we played in Utah the other night and the crowd was just humongous.
Jenna McDougall: Yeah, when we got there, I was like "...is it sold out tonight? Because this room is really big". I couldn't imagine it being filled with people, but it ended up that way.
Whakaio Taahi: I think the biggest curse is that this tour is a bit too easy and that when we go back to normal touring, it's going to suck, haha.
Jenna McDougall: Yeah, and Pierce The Veil have been super accommodating and looking after us so well, so it's been easy in that respect. We're also in a bandwagon, which is a nice change as opposed to a van. It's a bit cruise-like, but we still work really hard to put on a good show.
Yeah, you definitely have generated quite the buzz over the past month with this tour. Jenna, you just did an video with Vic [Fuentes, Pierce The Veil] and performed their song "Hold On Till May" acoustically. What does that song mean to you, and what was that experience like?
Jenna McDougall: Yeah, it was awesome to play that song with Vic, I've been a fan of the band since their first record [2007's A Flair For The Dramatic], so it's really nice to sit down on the couch with him and sing a song. I guess for that song I like it because it has a message, and I think it means a lot to the crowd - a lot of them stand there crying, singing their little hearts out, it's really quite moving.
You mention that the crowds are getting larger in America. How big of a difference is there when you go home to Australia to play?
Whakaio Taahi: We'd probably be headlining in Australia, I think that's the difference. Over here, we're working hard to get to that spot where we're at back home. It's all very positive, and we're all very excited about doing a new record, so hopefully we'll keep moving forward.
What are some of the bands in Australia that you can vouch for that aren't particularly heavy? Hands Like Houses being one of them, but other than that, I think most people think of those heavier bands like Parkway Drive and I Killed The Prom Queen when they think of Australia.
Whakaio Taahi: It's great that Prom Queen have come back, I used to listen to them when I was younger. Parkway Drive just sets the scene for everyone, and they just keep rising...whatever they do is so great and they achieve so much.
Jenna McDougall: The thing with them is it doesn't matter if you're a metal band, they set a bar for all Australian bands and you have to give them respect. It doesn't matter if you like their music or not because no band has worked their asses off like that and gotten out of Australia and become a credible and respected band internationally. But back to your question, there's this band called Bones Bones Bones and they're from Sydney, they're like this rocky pop that makes you want to dance, it has that old school rock n' roll vibe and we've toured with them a couple times.
I think something a lot of people don't know about Australian bands is what it costs just to come over here. Talking with people like J.J. Peters from Deez Nuts and Joel Birch from The Amity Affliction, it costs thousands upon thousands of dollars just to have the privilege of coming here to the States. Can you go a little more in depth into what it takes to get here, as well as surviving on the road here?
Whakaio Taahi: Well I think that's why it takes so much for an Australian band to get out of Australia, because it does cost a lot. The thing it costs in flights and visas, and most American bands have their own vans, so we have to come over and hire out a van as well, and we might not even be on a good tour and it'll suck all the time, so it's really difficult and it's really easy to give up. But we want this so bad and we did all the shitty tours and we slept on vans floors.
Jenna McDougall: Not to mention sleeping on strangers floors that we just met that night, like "Hey, can we stay at your place?".
Whakaio Taahi: So yeah, it wears on you and you get tired, you get sick, and you go "Why the fuck am I doing this?". But then you get to this point like we are with this tour that we're so lucky to be on, and you go "This is so worth it", and we're in a bandwagon now.
Jenna McDougall: And you've got the fans that are making everything worth it and making every day of tour super rewarding because you're affecting their lives in a positive way.
If you weren't offered this tour, would you still be here in America right now regardless?
Whakaio Taahi: Oh yeah, we'd definitely be trying to come here still.
Jenna McDougall: Our aim is to come here to America three times a year, which is a huge task and it's a big thing.
Whakaio Taahi: If you have to play here three times a year to make tracks then so be it. We've got plans for next year and what we're going to do.
What are your favorite things about America?
Whakaio Taahi: The beer here is really cheap, haha.
Jenna McDougall: I love Walmart. I'm like a sad little female that loves shopping, and it doesn't matter if it's groceries or not I just love the abundance of product when I walk into Walmart.
Whakaio Taahi: I think American kids are really music orientated as well. If they come to a show, they come to check out all the bands, and that's really positive for us because we're playing for around 1200 people every night and 50 kids might know us, so it's nice that the rest of them are open and want to know about new music, which you don't get everywhere especially in Australia.
Jenna McDougall: That's something that stood out to us right from the beginning, the first time we ever came here. It doesn't matter if we're opening for Blessthefall or The Word Alive, or the first time was Forever The Sickest Kids and Breathe Carolina. I mean these kids don't know us, our albums not out yet, but they're still nodding their heads and clapping their hands - that's something we've been grateful for the past two years.
I've seen a lot of people compare your band to early-Paramore. Is that a fair comparison? If not, how would you describe yourselves?
Jenna McDougall: Honestly I think that's a bit of a lazy comparison. I mean you put alternative guitars, heavy drums, and female vocals together - honestly it's not offensive in any way, I think it just takes people a little bit of time to figure out someone's sound. It doesn't matter what you listen to, you're going to try and compare it to something the first time.
Whakaio Taahi: They're a successful band, so if that's the worst they can say about us then so be it. When I go to write songs I always try to have that heavy guitar sound with pop vocal structure, it's just the best of both worlds. I love Thrice, and I love August Burns Red, and I love Parkway Drive, and I love the things about those guitars and how they're so melodic and heavy. I'm always trying to get that into our songs, with her vocals on top of it. That's what I'm trying to do, and that's what I'd like to be compared to.
So you'd be fine with opening for August Burns Red or Parkway Drive?That's the crowd you'd like to appeal to?
Whakaio Taahi: Oh, I'd like to appeal to everyone. We played with Nevershoutnever in the U.K., and we could play a lighter set, or we could play a heavier set. We'd just like to appeal to everyone.
Jenna McDougall: I think our influences allow us to have that sense of versatility where we can appeal to those hardcore kids back at home in the local scene who are actually there to see the heavier band that we're supporting, but they're still interested in us because maybe our influences in guitar, and the pop vocals make it accessible.
So it's not really much of a challenge as much as it is an adaptation to your surroundings then.
Whakaio Taahi: For sure. I don't want to close it off and have that mindset of "these are the only people I want to appeal to". I want everyone to listen to us, and hopefully they like us.
Jenna McDougall: But in reality, we're not trying to narrow down our audience or our sound at all, we're just doing what comes naturally to us. If people like it, then that's just a real nice cherry on top for us.
Your most recent album came out in February on Fearless Records, "What Are You So Scared Of?". How has the reception been in the U.S. so far?
Jenna McDougall: Oh, it's been surprising, very positive.
Whakaio Taahi: Because we've done those two tours before the album came out, then the album came out and we did Warped Tour. And it was crazy, we had a crowd every day and we were pulling that crowd - it wasn't like we were the 1st or 2nd band of the day and the crowd was already there. So that was really positive and surprising for us, I definitely think we've had a good reception.
Jenna McDougall: It's been super positive, you can see it physically, the difference even compared to a few months ago and to now as we're approaching the beginning of the year.
What are the main lyrical messages on the album?
Jenna McDougall: What Are You So Scared Of? really talks about not living in the fear of other people's judgement, that was something I struggled with a lot, and it's something that I struggle with every day - wondering what someone else is going to say or think about the way you look, or maybe the way you speak or maybe the way I perform. The point of it is to encourage our listeners to live how they want to live and not be afraid of what other people are going to say about it because it's such a waste of a perfectly good life that you could be doing whatever you want with it, and it'd be a shame to let that go to waste because you're worried about what other people will have to say about you.
Mark Hoppus from Blink-182 is on the album, that's really exciting. What can you tell us about Mark and your experience working with him?
Whakaio Taahi: We were kind of fighting over who we wanted to get on the record, and Jenna had ideas and we had ideas to tell her no, and then Mark Trombino kind of went ahead and asked Hoppus without us knowing and we were tracking drums and Trombino came up to us and asked us about our thoughts on having Mark Hoppus on the record, and we just sort of stood there...like "What the fuck? Are you serious?", and he goes "Yeah, I'm serious". Hoppus was so down to earth and nice, we went to his studio and he was so inviting - he's just this tall and powerful guy that has this aura about him, he just knows what he wants.
Jenna McDougall: It was really nice that he gave us the time of day. The cool thing was when Mark Trombino told me about Hoppus, he said "Hey, I sent him the track and he wants to be a part of it. What do you think?", and I was like "Wait a minute, he's listened to our band and he likes the song and wants to be on it?". It was just really bizarre. We felt very privileged.
If there was one thing you learned from him, what would that thing be and why?
Whakaio Taahi: I think it's just the whole carefree attitude. I think although not everything might be positive, I feel like Blink-182 are a super youthful band, even though they're all men. You grow up listening to the band, and that was your childhood and your youth. I'll always take that away from them, they made me want to play guitar.
Jenna McDougall: The thing is, they grew up but they still have their sense of humor. Mark wasn't an uptight guy, he wasn't a rockstar, he had the time for an 18 year old Australian girl...I mean, he had better things to care about, but he still gave us the time of day. That just says a lot about people who have had similar success and have been influential on millions of lives, you can still just be a normal guy.
If you could show one song off the album to a brand new listener, which one would it be and why?
Jenna McDougall: I think the title track, "What Are You So Scared Of?" because it's the last song off our record and the song that has the most message. It's the song that means the most to me because it's like me talking to myself, but also me preaching, and I like connecting to our fans on that level.
Has the new album been written yet?
Jenna McDougall: Yes it has! We've been writing it since July of last year actually.
And there was talks of you recording it in December?
Whakaio Taahi: Yeah, we head home and go into pre-production and have Christmas with our families, and then get into recording.
Who is producing the album?
Jenna McDougall: We can't announce that yet...
Do you have a title for the album yet?
Whakaio Taahi: We do not.
What are some of the lyrical themes on this new record compared to the record you have out now?
Jenna McDougall: I think the thing it's important to start with is that Tonight Alive will always maintain a positive message, but I think this album addresses a new and different side to growing up. I think it talks about a lot of things that I had never experienced before. The main thing about it is, you think you always know everything and you think you've gone through the worst of your growing up and you've had your all time low...but then something new hits you and you don't understand the way you feel and you can't figure it out. There's nothing more frustrating than getting to a point where you don't understand what's going on.
Whakaio Taahi: It's the next phase after What Are You So Scared Of?. I think the first record that we did when we were 18 and that was our realizations and accepting being in a band and not having a normal life. So this is just the next stage.
So you guys are going to the studio with a bit more confidence this time around then.
Jenna McDougall: Oh for sure. I think we know our direction this time around. Last time it was almost like writing a bunch of songs and then choosing the best ones, whereas this time I feel like we've been writing consistently most days, I feel like we have our formula down.
Whakaio Taahi: Yeah, we were very green when we went in with Mark Trombino and he kicked our ass a lot, and he taught us so much it's ridiculous. We're very much ready this time around.
What else do your plans entail for the first part of 2013?
Whakaio Taahi: We have the Kerrang! tour in February in the U.K., then I think we're coming back here in March for a spring tour, and then I think we'll end up doing some Australian dates.
Jenna McDougall: Yeah, we'll end up going back to Australia, New Zealand, and Japan...just going back to the places at that point in time we won't have played in a year.
Lastly, what is on your party playlist?
Jenna McDougall: Oooh, Gangnam Style to be quite honest - it's a popular one in our bus, as well as the Sleeping With Sirens bus as well. "Primadonna Girl" by Marina and the Diamonds is one of my favorite uplifting dance tracks. We do like a bit of Steel Panther
Whakaio Taahi: Yeah, we love Steel Panther. We play "The End of Heartache" by Killswitch Engage before we go on.
Anything else you'd like to add?
Jenna McDougall: It's been an incredible year - 2012 has been Tonight Alive's best year yet.
It's sort of like your coming out party in a way.
Jenna McDougall: It really has been. It's been a really nice introduction to the rest of the world...have we really played 32 countries this year? We've toured all over the place, we put out our record in two territories outside of Australia, we're having the time of our lives. So thank you to those who are reading this and have supported Tonight Alive in 2012, 2013 is going to be a good year, definitely not an unlucky number.