Sex, tax& rock’n’roll
WHAT DO YOUNG AUSSIE BLOKES GET UP TO AS THEY PREPARE TO PLAY A SOLD-OUT SHOW AT NEW YORK’S MADISON SQUARE GARDEN? KATHY MCCABE WENT BACKSTAGE TO FIND OUT
The corridor outside the 5 Seconds of Summer dressing room is buzzing with buoyant friends and family celebrating the band’s sold-out show at New York’s world-famous Madison Square Garden. Minutes after walking off the stage, drenched in sweat, the four Aussie rockstars are excitedly hugging and fist-pumping their loved ones and enjoying a well-earned beer backstage under photos of many legends who have played here before them, from The Rolling Stones to local hero Billy Joel.
Singer Luke Hemmings, guitarist Michael Clifford, bassist Calum Hood and drummer Ashton Irwin, four boys from Sydney’s outer western suburbs, always dreamed of being the biggest rock band in the world. In just five whirlwind years, they’ve gone from playing to 20 people in an inner-city pub to their current Sounds Live Feels Live world tour, which has sold out arenas throughout Europe and the US. And they’ve done it all without a succession of monster pop hits, instead building a fan base via the very 21st-century method of cover versions uploaded to Youtube, support from British boyband behemoth One Direction, who introduced them to the world on their 2013 tour, and a millions-strong social-media following. The self-named 5SOSFAM have downloaded the band’s albums (their self-titled 2014 debut and last year’s Sounds Good Feels Good), streamed the singles, bought the T-shirts and shadowed their favourite four everywhere they can find them.
Such fans are the rock on which many a boy band has come to grief. The hormonally-charged teenagers who were early adopters of the band five years ago are now young women who are less hysterical and more strategically flirtatious. Irwin agrees that their lives are more comfortable now the highpitched screams greet them when they walk onstage instead of when they walk down the street, and likes to refer to the fans as friends. As to how he behaves when they want to become more than friends, the drummer’s take is parent(and media-) friendly. “It’s another thing you have to learn. What is going to make your heart feel good and what’s good for your soul. Obviously there are many beautiful women who follow this band and that is awesome. But you need to take care of your actions and make sure that you are respectful all the time,” he says. “That’s who we write our songs about, too. You meet different wonderful people along the way.”
Guitarist Clifford agrees, saying his mother Karen would prefer not to acknowledge the sexual activities of young men in bands. In reality, it must be hard to avoid, as her son and his girlfriend, model Crystal Leigh, regularly appear in gossip columns and are often trolled on social media. So are Hemmings and his partner, socialmedia star Arzaylea, who met at Kylie Jenner’s 18th birthday party. “We’re so young and the thing is, [dating is] so normal,” says Clifford. “If another 20-year-old kid, Michael Clifford in Sydney, was trying to hook up with a girl he knew in high school, literally no one would give a f*ck. It’s because of this strange platform we have that people do care about it… It has taken us a while to get used to.”
The boys, all aged 20 except Irwin, who’s 22, have taken most aspects of the nomadic and often exhausting lifestyle of the musician in their stride, however. There have been no trips to rehab, no band bust-ups, and no Bieber-style social-media meltdowns.
THIS PARTICULAR EXHAUSTING day in the life of 5SOS, Friday, July 15, begins at the very un-rock’n’roll time of 6.30am, when the musicians and their team emerge like the walking dead to head to the hit-making Siriusxm radio station, which has supported them since the early days. They greet fans outside the Soho Grand Hotel before a few hours of interviews and meet-and-greets. After inhaling breakfast in the corner
“If another 20-year-old kid was trying to hook up with a girl he knew in high school, no one would care”
of a studio where producers frantically prepare for their live interview and the radio premiere of their new single, “Girls Talk Boys” (which features on the Ghostbusters soundtrack), the band switch into gear. 5SOS are as entertaining here as they are onstage, educating their hosts about Australian slang – sickie, mozzie and pokie – while Irwin tells a story from the night before, when he was in a bar and had to get his family to text a photo of his 23-year-old dog to convince people the elderly canine was still alive.
Before they leave the radio station, it’s grin-and-grip time. First the radio jocks, then the fans: hand your bag to a minder, stand in the middle of the four men, take your bag and out the door. The photo will be sent later. It’s not cold and clinical – rather a well-oiled machine that ensures everyone gets their moment and souvenir.
They have a few hours to catch up on sleep or stroll Soho before the sound check at Madison Square Garden, another fan session with 1500 contest winners and finally, the concert. During rehearsal, they run through the new single – which now has more than 16 million streams on Spotify since its release in mid-july – for its live premiere. It’s clear Hemmings, Irwin, Clifford and Hood are in charge: they insist if the video package for the song isn’t ready, they won’t go with it that night, and they fine-tune the performance until they’re satisfied.
Irwin says making the second album revealed the boys’ individual strengths. He takes care of the artwork, Hood muscled up in the songwriting, Clifford is the sound and production guru, and Hemmings focused on his frontman vocals as well as playing the piano. “I think that’s why we are in the position we are now,” says Clifford. “Because all of us call the shots on different things. We take advice on things we know aren’t our field, but now we’ve been doing it for five years, we understand a lot more.” Adds Hood: “And we’ve proved ourselves: we’re at Madison Square Garden, so you have to take control of your show. If it’s sh*t, it’s on you.”
IN BETWEEN ALL this activity, there’s the Stellar photo shoot. The boys insist on wearing their own clothes and the make-up artist they asked to be flown out from Los Angeles spends more of the afternoon on their girlfriends’ hair and make-up than giving her charges a rockstar makeover. She does reveal, however, that Clifford has one bit of hair at the back of his head that always sticks up, and that Hemmings loves boots – apparently he has a pair of gold Yves Saint Laurent ones.
After the shoot, we catch up in their dressing room. I did their first-ever interview four years ago, after their manager Matt Emsell insisted they weren’t just another boy band, and followed their rapid progression from teen dreamers to successful young men. Rockstar treatment, model girlfriends and designer boots aside, 5SOS remain the polite, funny quartet they always were. Irwin strums a guitar and makes up a welcome song while Clifford clears away their half-eaten plates of pasta. There is an undercurrent of nerves about this gig, but they seem pretty relaxed for a bunch of Aussie blokes about to play a sold-out show at the world-renowned venue. They laugh uproariously when informed Forbes has included them on its 2016 Celebrity 100 Up And Comers list, suggesting their album and ticket sales were “raking in double-digit millions”.
“When my parents complained about tax when I was younger, it was like, ‘Whatever, Mum,’” says Clifford. “Last year I went home and was like, ‘Tax, what the hell?’ Half of everything is gone! It’s like going through a divorce every time you get a pay cheque.”
“When my parents complained about tax when I was young, it was like, ‘Whatever.’ Now half of everything I earn is gone!”
Tax isn’t their only headache. They explain how they’ve made the 5SOS Express, the tour bus that’s their home during the American leg of the tour, a home away from home with throws, rugs and, in Hood’s case, fairy lights in his bunk. Touring, however, still takes its toll on the lads: “It’s super-romanticised, but you are living within half a metre of everyone on the tour,” explains Clifford.
A more entertaining form of transport is the golf cart they request on every rider. They drive it around the vast car parks of the regional arenas they play to say hello to fans and, when the girls have gone inside, their parents. They also pose for selfies with the dads waiting outside by their cars, knowing the photos will later make their daughters green with envy.
5SOS has escaped the boy-band tag, now regarded as a punkish-pop outfit instead, and demonstrate respectable musical chops during the gig, which kicks off around 9pm. Their long day of media and fan commitments has seemingly taken no toll as they deliver a performance that’s polished, energetic and damn good fun.
Hemmings’s mother is in the pit in front of the stage taking photos, while his dad and brother are at the sound desk, along with the girlfriends and friends, drinking and dancing and singing along. So are the mums in the crowd; dads mostly sit and smile as their daughters howl in between bursts of singing and dancing. The screams hurt your ears, the songs don’t; their infectious pop hooks, three-part vocals and Irwin’s propulsive rhythms and energetic performance inciting you to move. Fan favourite “Jet Black Heart” loses some momentum when Clifford stretches out his big moment of soaking up the screams alone on stage for about three minutes, while his band mates wait underneath. I wonder who has to have the conversation with him not to milk it so long at the next gig. But I wonder more how far they can go. After a night of triumph, it appears the dream isn’t so far from reality. 5 Seconds Of Summer perform at Margaret Court Arena, Melbourne, on September 29; Riverstage, Brisbane, October 2; and Hordern Pavilion, Sydney, October 4 and 5.
SUMMER LOVIN’ (clockwise) Fans wait for a glimpse of the boys; (from left) Irwin, Hood, Clifford and Hemmings have a laugh on the radio; playing dress-up to promote single “Girls Talk Boys” which features on the Ghostbusters soundtrack.
IF YOU CAN MAKE IT HERE… After a few hours to themselves, 5SOS head to the world-famous Madison Square Garden in Manhattan to rehearse for their sold-out show.
AWESOME FOURSOME (clockwise) Another fan session with their 5SOSFAM; accepting an MTV Fandom Award; shaking off the pre-show nerves; rocking out in front of 18,000 screaming fans.
4.45pm 6.10pm 8.36pm