Fans are falling all over ''Fall Out Boy'' -- How bassist Pete Wentz led the emo-pop group to stardom
A collective scream builds and crescendos, carrying across the glassy man-made waterways of Orlando’s Universal Studios Florida theme park. The object of these dolphin-pitched cries, a diminutive 27-year-old named Pete Wentz, pulls his red hoodie further over his forehead, to no avail. As the bass player and de facto leader of the multiplatinum Chicago-based emo-pop outfit Fall Out Boy, he is also the band’s sex symbol, known for tabloid-documented dalliances with various Mystic-tanned starlets. Universal Studios, where they’re performing this evening at the Hard Rock Cafe, is crawling with his Gen-Z fan base.
Wentz has ventured out of the club to visit his favorite custom-airbrush T-shirt stand, and he is quickly surrounded by awestruck tweens. ”Pete! Pete! Will you marry me?” one pretty young blonde pleads, proffering a pink plastic ring. ”Sure!” he grins, and the gathering mass swoons. ”Toss it to me!” But what begins as an informal meet-and-greet starts to get a little scary, as the crowd threatens to overwhelm his single bodyguard. Within minutes, park security materializes to escort him back to the venue, just ahead of an increasingly hysterical stampede.
These days, there are few public places Wentz can go without creating a similar scene. In the past two years, he and his bandmates — singer Patrick Stump, 22, drummer Andy Hurley, 26, and guitarist Joe Trohman, 22 — have scored double-platinum sales with their breakthrough CD, From Under the Cork Tree, toured the world, and earned the adoration of a considerable chunk of the MySpace generation. Their newest album, Infinity On High, debuted atop the Billboard 200 last month, and its first single, ”This Ain’t a Scene, It’s an Arms Race,” hit No. 1 on the digital songs chart.
In other words, life is pretty good for Pete and Co. But when Wentz is finally safely back in the Hard Rock, he makes a surprising admission. ”I think I’ve been celibate for, like, months,” he says, taking a rare break from his ever-present Sidekick, so much a part of him that it’s almost another appendage. ”Is that crazy? When someone goes, ‘You’re hot!’ it gives me zero. If someone says, ‘You played really great tonight,’ that means a lot more to me. When so many people oversexualize you, how can you not want to turn away from that?”
There’s no doubt his sexuality is something of a hot topic among both his fans and detractors. It was that same Sidekick — and another, less G-rated appendage — that famously got him in trouble last year, when hackers stole nude photos of Wentz and spread them across the Internet. While Trohman’s greatest weaknesses are mid-century modern furniture and Balenciaga pants, and vegan, bespectacled Hurley champions radical politics, Wentz’s predilections are the ones that, for better or worse, tend to make headlines: a concert brawl in Albuquerque earlier this year, say, or a near-fatal prescription drug overdose in 2005. ”There’s no handbook on how to be once your band sells a million records,” he says wryly. ”There’s no one to tell you the do’s and don’ts. You can’t even hang out next to someone without people saying you’re sleeping with them. In the world of camera phones and bloggers, becoming a parody of yourself is inescapable.”
Wentz’s profile is also high for less salacious reasons. As the founder of the imprint Decaydance, he signed a group of unknown Las Vegas teens called Panic! At the Disco; they went on to sell 1.4 million albums last year, and won the VMA for video of the year. In addition, he runs a clothing label, Clandestine Industries, that has already been shown at New York’s notoriously hard-to-crack Fashion Week. ”I don’t really like being called a mogul, because it’s just so accidental,” he insists. ”Emo-gul, tastemaker, cultural arbiter — I don’t really follow any of those. I think people give me more credit than I deserve. When you’re in a band on our level, someone is going to form a corporation and find a way to squeeze something out of you. I don’t know why you wouldn’t just be that corporation.”
Wentz and Stump are, in ways both musical and physical, Fall Out Boy’s yin and yang. Where Wentz is dark, tattooed, and wiry, Stump is blond, ink-free, and stocky (”Journalists always run to their thesaurus and call me ‘cherubic,”’ he says ruefully). Both are hyperliterate and fascinated by music history. Wentz just happens to feel much more comfortable speaking in public. ”They make it sound like it’s this thing that’s never been seen before,” says Stump of his lower profile. ”’A rock band where the singer’s not necessarily the frontman? That’s crazy!’ And I’m like, Come on, dude. As if nobody’s ever heard of AC/DC.”
The FOB formula — Wentz writes the clever, often convoluted lyrics, and Stump sings them in his surprisingly elastic voice — has been in place pretty much from the beginning. When the band formed six years ago in Chicago’s cozy northern suburbs, Stump was still in high school, and Wentz, always outgoing, was already something of a minor celebrity on the local music scene. The band’s first release, Fall Out Boy’s Evening Out With Your Girlfriend, made a ripple, followed shortly by the more fully realized Take This to Your Grave. 2005’s From Under the Cork Tree, released jointly by Island and rising Florida indie label Fueled By Ramen, proved to be FOB’s big break, thanks to the massive singles ”Sugar, We’re Goin Down” and ”Dance, Dance.”
With Infinity On High, FOB now has a chance to expand their audience — and their sound. Accordingly, it’s an epic undertaking, featuring some of the band’s most ambitious work to date, both lyrically and sonically. It also contains a cameo by Jay-Z and?most unexpectedly — two tracks produced by R&B hitmaker Kenneth ”Babyface” Edmonds. ”I wanted there to be some surprises,” says Stump. ”[Infinity] is very much a rock album, but it’s become this thing: Fall Out Boy does R&B! It’s not new jack swing, you know? We just wanted Babyface, the guy that can make great music.”
Though Edmonds says he was initially wary when the band approached him, their enthusiasm won him over. ”Just because you produce R&B doesn’t mean that’s the only kind of music you can do,” he says. ”If you’re a good musician and a real musician, you should be able to do a variety of things. Patrick is a very soulful singer. They’re not just a punk-rock group; there’s a lot of depth there. I think I was brought there not to lose the rock part of them, but to add a little bit of a different flavor to what they normally do.”
Indeed, it’s difficult to distinguish the two tracks Babyface produced from the other 12 on the album. While the record is more sweeping and anthemic than their previous efforts, it is still very much centered in rock, melding the band members’ punk past with the undeniable pop sensibility of their present.
The band tweaked Infinity almost obsessively, making changes right up to their deadline, and they were understandably eager to hear the public’s reaction to their new work. So when the whole thing leaked several weeks before release, they were initially devastated. ”There’s no way to not be distressed by something like that,” says Wentz. ”It’s like when someone walks in on their own surprise party.” But eventually they got over it. ”We definitely freaked,” says Hurley. ”But then I realized, the important thing now is to see if people like it.”
A few hours before the Hard Rock gig, Stump is holed up inside the venue, sitting on the floor of a poorly lit boiler room. (On a rock tour, you take privacy where you can find it.) There will be no trip to the airbrush T-shirt stand for him today — and no fan stampede, either. That’s just fine with Stump. He’s not shy, exactly — one on one, he’s actually voluble and charming — but he has little interest in the celebrity life, shunning the usual rock-star haunts in L.A. and New York. A musical savant with an impressively deep knowledge for his age, he is happy to wax on about his musical heroes: Brian Eno, Ornette Coleman, ’90s hardcore outfit Lifetime. He doesn’t drink or do drugs; of a long-term relationship that ended last year, he will only say, ”It’s a cliché, and I hate citing the big breakup that you have in your early 20s, but ultimately, I lost it for this,” making a sweeping gesture at the band’s dressing room. ”What are your rewards at the end of the day for being in a band? You might be able to get chicks, drugs, and money, but I’m not particularly interested in those three things. Well, chicks,” he breaks off with a laugh, ”but not in great volume. So really, it just comes down to making music and being with your friends.”
The band does seem to be genuinely close. On the road, Wentz devours books by Céline, Hemingway, and Bukowski (”They’re all one type of writer,” he laughs. ”Drunken machismo. That’s what I like”), and Stump tends to spend time messing around with the band’s portable recording equipment, while Hurley and Trohman keep in close touch with their girlfriends. But despite their different personalities and interests, there is an ease and humor between them that feels unusually brotherly.
That camaraderie, coupled with the surprising lack of sex, drugs, and groupie debauchery, may make more cynical bystanders wonder: Could all of this goodwill be a ruse, just a faux-cozy scene cobbled together for credulous journalists? ”Well, isn’t everything a red herring?” Wentz laughs. ”Nobody ever says how they really are…. The best you can do is roll with the punches, or try to stay ahead of the wave. And keep people guessing.”