How Maroon 5 found the courage to let its heart show
For the future members of Maroon 5, a moment of clarity came unexpectedly in 1998 in the form of a funky, sultry pop tune on the radio: “Are You That Somebody?” by Aaliyah and Timbaland. It was a revelation for singer-guitarist Adam Levine, who was finally prepared to abandon his garage-rock dreams for a sound that was soulful, romantic and new.
“That is one of the most revolutionary-sounding songs ever recorded,” said Levine, whose teenage rock band Kara’s Flowers was dropped the following year by Reprise Records. “We heard that song, and we thought to ourselves, ‘Whoa, there has never been anything like this before.’ ”
It also suggested an alternative path for Levine and the band, which would reconvene as the platinum-selling Maroon 5, with smooth pop hooks and obsessive lover-man vocals rooted in their growing admiration for the groundbreaking R&B of Stevie Wonder, Al Green and Michael Jackson.
“I thought to myself, ‘This is much more suited for me. I can sing like all these guys better than I can sing like Eddie Vedder,’ ” remembered Levine, now 31. “We got a lot of flak for it. Our loyal power-pop cool fans thought we were out of our minds.”
The rewards came quickly with the release of Maroon 5’s multi-platinum debut, 2002’s “Songs About Jane,” followed in 2007 by the chart-topping “It Won’t Be Soon Before Long.” There was a Grammy in 2005 for best new artist and sold-out performances of the band’s many pop hits, including “This Love” and “Makes Me Wonder,” despite uneven critical support.
The romantic hit-making formula remains in place on Maroon 5’s glossy new album, “Hands All Over,” released Sept. 21 on A&M/Octone.
“We want to be accessible. We want people to relate to our music,” Levine said. “That kind of energy exchange between you and your fans when you play a song that they love ... we love that. We don’t want to go out there and alienate anybody. We want to do exactly the opposite.”
The singer was up at his hillside home near the Hollywood sign, wearing a Rolling Stones T-shirt and sitting with keyboardist Jesse Carmichael on a recent afternoon. As workers outside were remodeling the house, a large, framed photograph of Tupac Shakur leaned again a living room wall. It once decorated the band’s rented rehearsal space while song ideas were being prepared for the new album.
During that time, Maroon 5 got an unexpected international call from Robert “Mutt” Lange, the veteran producer known for his work on decades of multi-platinum albums, stretching from the hard rock of AC/DC and Def Leppard to the pop vocals of (his ex-wife) Shania Twain. Now he wanted to work with the group.
“It’s like getting a call from Stanley Kubrick, asking if you want to make a movie with him,” Carmichael said with a smile. “He’s so reclusive. Mutt is such a mystery in the music business. All you know is he made these huge records. He’s also worked in so many different styles.”
Recording with Lange meant an extended trip to Switzerland, where the producer has his state-of-the-art studio by a lake up in the Swiss Alps, giving the band’s four months of seclusion a pastoral, “Sound of Music” quality. It was “an unbelievably epic time,” Levine said, but more important to him was Lange’s insistence that band members include only their very best songs on the album, and worry less about finding a proper balance of styles and tempo.
“That made our mission very clear, and made us not think about stupid things: Is this song too Motown? Is this song too pop-y?” Levine said. “For the first time in our career we’ve made an album where we stand behind every song very passionately.”
The first single released from the new album was “Misery,” a bouncy funk tune that was an unfinished song idea of the band for more than six years, while the title song includes the muscle of Leppard-like rock guitars. In another stylistic twist, the album closes with the airy country flavor of “Out of Goodbyes,” with harmonies from Lady Antebellum. The album debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard charts and as of the week ending Oct. 10 had sold 207,000 copies, according to Nielson SoundScan.
As a lyricist, Levine remains obsessed with scenes of romance and love gone wrong.
“Yes, yes, that is still the common theme — romance, love, the lack thereof are still very big themes,” Levine acknowledged. “I haven’t figured out a way to use everything yet. As a songwriter, I’m still limited to that one thing. That will definitely change over time.”
Levine grew up in Brentwood and by age 10 knew he wanted to be a musician. He was soon gathering neighborhood kids to jam out rock hits as best they could. He met Carmichael at age 13 while attending Brentwood School, a private Los Angeles campus.
With other friends at Brentwood, they formed Kara’s Flowers and had just recorded a rough demo when they were discovered by a music producer while playing a beach party. Their first and only album, 1997’s “The Fourth World,” was produced by Rob Cavallo, now chairman of Warner Bros. Records.
When the debut failed to attract a following, Kara’s Flowers was cut loose from the label, leaving band members adrift and unsure of their next step, until rediscovering ‘70s R&B and getting that irresistible taste of modern pop from Aaliyah and Timbaland.
“Failure is a huge part of why we’re here today,” Carmichael said. “It’s how you respond to failure that makes you successful.”