Boys Like Girls frontman Martin Johnson guides us through the making of ‘Sunday At Foxwoods’, the band’s first album together in over a decade.
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Read Boys Like Girls, ‘Sunday At Foxwoods’ | The Album Story below:
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“It’s really polarising to feel like you peaked at 23,” frontman Martin Johnson muses, twiddling a toothpick between his fingers.
“I was 18 years old when I wrote our first record… there were a lot of things about that guy that I was embarrassed about. I’m 13 years sober now, but that kid was blowing an eight ball up his nose and taking 14 Xanax bars every day. That’s embarrassing, but in 2016, I learned how to love that kid again, to love the music he wrote, and to feel proud of it again.”
Embarking on the 10th anniversary tour of their self-titled debut album in 2016, it’s been 11 years since Boys Like Girls were last here releasing an album, and whilst a lot has changed since the band’s Platinum-certified hits ‘The Great Escape’ and ‘Love Drunk’ were gracing the airwaves – some things stay the same.
Take, for example, the way Martin and his bandmates would meet up in LA sports bars to watch Patriots games during their hiatus.
Or the unwavering support they gave each other during their varied endeavours, from Martin’s venture into songwriting and producing for some of the biggest names in pop music, to drummer John Keefe’s journey to becoming a black belt in jiu-jitsu and opening his own gym.
Or even the way they would still celebrate Fourth of July weekend with a barbecue, the setting where – shortly before the pandemic took hold of the world – John and founding guitarist Paul DiGiovanni posed an important question to Martin:
“Do you want to make a Boys Like Girls record?”
That’s where the story of the band’s fourth album, ‘SUNDAY AT FOXWOODS’ begins. A story of self-acceptance, freedom, and how four friends from Boston banded together to create an album to help themselves – and hopefully the rest of the world – fall in love with Boys Like Girls all over again.
“When we got into the studio to start writing this, it was like, ‘Who’s it for? Are those people still even there?’ It’s easy to forget that there are people willing to sing your songs back to you,” Martin recalls.
“Playing When We Were Young festival, and going over to Asia and Australia in 2022, we felt the energy, joy, and true, unequivocal passion again. It was clear how much this music meant to people, and that reminded us of what it meant to us. We had to look our fans in the eye, all these years later, to realise what we needed to make now. It was instinctual.”
Faced with the task of figuring out what a Boys Like Girls record should sound like after 11 years in the dark, ‘SUNDAY AT FOXWOODS’ came to life within Martin’s Nashville studio, fuelled by the energy of the band’s community.
A euphoric pop-rock record, flirting with nostalgia but ultimately committing to reinvention, it’s a guided tour through the past, present, and future of Boys Like Girls – often driven by Martin’s love of pop music.
Working on huge hits with the likes of Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande, and Jason Derulo, as well as cultivating his own 80s-esque new wave project – The Night Game – during his time away from the band, sonic twists and turns dominate ‘SUNDAY AT FOXWOODS’.
From the instrumentals of the album’s fast-paced opener and its gentle mid-point break ‘Monday Morning’, to the euphoric neon synth sounds of ‘Blood and Sugar’ – this is Boys Like Girls as you’ve never heard them before.
“It’s interesting, because whilst this album is different – Boys Like Girls have always made pop songs, they were just outfitted a certain way,” Martin explains.
“There’s a world where that first record, produced differently, wouldn’t even be called a pop-punk or emo record. If you came out between 1994 and 1999, you were a grunge band. If you came out in 2006, you were an emo band.”
“Honestly though, I’m a mediocre guitar player! I’ve pushed myself to be better, but when I started writing music for other people, I began to really enjoy writing on piano and synth – which is why a lot of these songs sound the way the do.”
Forging a hybrid of the musical DNA of his last decade and who he was whilst writing the first two Boys Like Girls records, that’s not to say there aren’t moments of sheer nostalgia here for those who grew up blasting ‘The Great Escape’ through their headphones. From pop-punk misfit anthem ‘The Outside’ to singalong ‘Brooklyn State of Mind’, album four has everything you’d expect from the Boston band – just wrapped up in shiny new packaging.
“It’s clearly a Boys Like Girls record, but it’s what would happen if Boys Like Girls slept in a cryogenic chamber for 11 years. If we released our self-titled album in 2023, it would end up being a distorted version of who we were at 18… it’ll never really be the same,” the frontman muses.
“If you’re going to go away for that long, it’s important that you put out something you’re really proud of… something that feels like your identity.”
An album of such personal importance to Martin, it was vital that everyone involved in the creation of ‘SUNDAY AT FOXWOODS’ truly understood the weight of the task at hand. Reuniting with founding drummer, John Keefe, album four sees the introduction of bassist Greg James and guitarist Jamel Hawke, two close friends of the band.
“Greg used to be Paul’s roommate. He played bass with us a couple of times and opened for us on The Op Tour. Funnily enough, Jamel was our original first choice as guitar player for the band too. He said no because he wanted to stay in his local Boston band called The Cadence. They’ve both been a part of this in some way since it began, and their voices were heard throughout the process.”
Four people who understand Boys Like Girls more than anyone, Martin knew that if ‘SUNDAY AT FOXWOODS’ was going to sound the way he was envisioning it – he also needed to be sat at the production desk. Working alongside co-producers and friends Brandon Paddock and Danen Reed Rector, each member of the team played their own role in outlining Boys Like Girls’ next chapter.
“Danen’s influence on the record was pivotal because he grew up as a Boys Like Girls fan,” Martin explains.
“I would hand him a production and say, ‘Can you make it sound like Boys Like Girls?’. He would go home and programme the drums like John would have played them in 2006… Learning how to be the version of ourselves that we had unlearned over 10 years from a guy who grew up listening to us was beautiful.”
No longer writing songs in his parents’ house, and in a vastly different chapter of his life than the last time he wrote a Boys Like Girls record, Martin spent a lot of time figuring out what he needed to say with ‘SUNDAY AT FOXWOODS’. Pushing any expectations aside and writing songs solely for himself, the album’s poignant ballad ‘Cry’ took over nine years and six re-recordings to make it into the world… But why?
“It has to be believable,” the frontman asserts.
“Throughout those nine years, I didn’t believe that song because I had nobody to sing it to. Finally, I met my wife and she got pregnant. Suddenly, I had somebody to sing it to, and I meant it.”
From 2006’s ‘On Top of the World’ – a song written for Martin’s mother who passed away when he was 16 – or 2009’s ‘Go’ – written for a friend during a difficult time in their life – that authenticity has long sat at the centre of Boys Like Girls. Sparking fans around the world to forge a deep connection with their music, ‘SUNDAY AT FOXWOODS’ pays tribute to everyone who has made the band’s journey possible.
“That’s what ‘The Outside’ is about. It shares a lot of DNA with ‘The Great Escape’ because it’s about the same three guys,” Martin explains.
“I have these three best friends from high school. We have matching tattoos, and we call ourselves ‘The Three Amigos’. We spend Christmases together, and we’re in a fantasy football league together. We met 24 years ago, and it’s a beautiful friendship. It’s nice to throw back to high school, but it’s a long time ago… It’s not like I’m still mad at the jocks. I’m 38, I have a kid, so I’m over it. At this point, it’s more of a celebration of identity and keeping your old friends close, because they’re important.”
THE TITLE & THE ARTWORK
“We all grew up in the Boston area of New England. Foxwoods is a casino in Connecticut where your trashy grandma or aunt who lives in Massachusetts would go… An image came to my mind that felt like gambling on a Sunday. You’re on the East Coast in this isolated casino, and it feels like the dark shadow over Boston. It’s less of a nod to the casino itself and more of a nod to where we grew up.”
A reference to the place where everything began for the band, when it came to defining the visual elements to match the dark title of their new chapter, Boys Like Girls found themselves swimming in unfamiliar waters.
Releasing their debut album at a time where fans would download music online and burn it onto blank CDs without ever seeing the artwork, 17 years later they had a whole new aspect of their campaign to carefully consider.
“I’ve still never met the artist who did the iconic drip on our debut album,” Martin admits.
“When you’re 19, and you sign to Columbia, suddenly, you’re in this corporate situation where they’re hiring three different artists to try some stuff for your album cover. You get 19 different covers in your email, and you’re like, ‘What the fuck does it say about my music?’”
“Going back to those album covers, I don’t really resonate with them, so this one needed to be deeply hands-on. Every visual element involved a discussion, and we created a mood board to find references that set a scene. The images capture the relationship that we have as a band, and they deliver an emotion that couplets with the music. We want to look back in 20 years and feel confident about the visuals this time.”
“When I was seven and I got my first guitar, I would spend so much time just posing with it in the mirror,” Martin recalls.
“At some point, when music becomes a job, you forget what that kid’s dreams were… all I ever wanted to do was to play and sing songs for people.”
Finding a way to celebrate the art that he created as a teenager and combine it with the skills, knowledge, and maturity he’s collected over the last two decades, on album four – Martin has made peace with his younger self.
Joining forces with his friends to create a series of songs inspired by the fervent passion of their fanbase and rooted in the sheer joy of playing music, as Boys Like Girls make their return to the scene – they’re the happiest they’ve ever been.
“I feel so confident about everything we’re doing now, but whilst our debut album meant a lot to so many people – we’ll never be able to make you 16 again. All we can hope is that ‘SUNDAY AT FOXWOODS’ does something for you emotionally and spiritually, even if it feels a little different this time. This album is not for the 16-year-old version of the people who come to our shows; it’s for the people they are now.”