As I make my way towards my desk to take a call with R5’s Rocky Lynch, I trudge around assorted items in my unkempt bedroom. Trash bags and boxes are scattered throughout, as I’m in the middle of moving back home for the summer. There’s a chaotic mix of both childhood artifacts and gently-used dorm room items, and as I use my foot to shove a bin out of sight under my bed, I catch a glimpse of the dusty corner of a poster I made when I was 15. Scrawled in thin pink marker, the lyric “AND THEY SAID WE’D FINISH LAST” graces the flimsy white card stock, along with the sharpie-d autographs of all five members of R5: siblings Ross, Rocky, Rydel, Riker and best friend Ellington “Ratliff”. It brings back a rush of memories that I recall vividly: May 5, 2012 (thanks to my teenage habit of obsessively memorizing the dates of my favorite days), one of the band’s first bigger shows where a group of internet friends and I made a series of posters that spelled out the chorus of the R5 song we felt encapsulated our fan-to-band relationship: “Look at Us Now”.
The days when loyal fangirling was at the forefront of my life are behind me now. However, I reminisce on them fondly, as that unabashed, unironic passion I embraced as a full-fledged devotee played a significant role in my development of self and self-awareness. Talking to Rocky now feels oddly like getting reacquainted with an old friend, because a lot changes in five years: two albums, four EPs, a million Instagram followers, and several TV awards and headlining tours later, R5 has arrived at a point of stardom that I would have previously found appalling. But even with his own flourishing fan base, Rocky also understands the wholesome beauty and vital value of being a fan, because at his very core, that’s simply what he is.
“That’s basically how I became a musician. It’s because I loved live music. I loved listening to music. I love chord changes that make me feel something,” he said enthusiastically after I divulged a bit of my own story. “We’re basically doing the same thing, just in a different way. I noticed that a lot of journalists all seem like they started out as fans as well. I think we all do — I think that’s how we find ourselves.”
For R5, the venture of finding themselves has been spurred by an openness to constantly adapting and evolving. The Lynches, originally from Littleton, Colorado, have been involved with performing from an early age – playing music, dancing and acting all comprise their repertoire of talents. Ratliff completed the formation of R5 after the family moved to LA in 2007. From the color-coordinated outfits and cheekily choreographed performances of the past to angstily covering The Killers and sipping champagne onstage in Los Angeles at their pre-release show last month, growing up is an understatement for the maturation that has taken place. “With social media being around since we’ve been a band, it’s basically like a history book; you can find anything out. There’s so many pictures out there of us when we first started as a band, and I’m like, ‘What were we thinking?’ But then I remember how young we were and I like how much growth it shows,” Rocky said.
There is a definite evolvement of sound and style happening, and it’s clear that R5 is rapidly filling into themselves, tunneling forward with a more robust sense of identity. “With the music, because we had such a big part in writing and producing it, we decided what it sounded like. Then you have things that are happening like Ross doing indie films that are a little more out there, and because [Ross] isn’t on the Disney Channel anymore, that isn’t really a factor with anything with R5,” he continued. “Now it’s just us living our lives and making music. We’re not hiding anything. This is us. It’s all going in the right direction.”
Following a near two-year hiatus from releasing new music and touring, there was a tinge of hesitancy that came with the inception of New Addictions, R5’s latest EP. “When you’ve taken time off, you’re kind of always questioning if people are still out there, if people still care,” Rocky stated. “And luckily, we’re still able to release music and people still like it. We’re growing as a band. The fans are growing as individuals. And I still don’t know what it’s going to be like playing this tour. You never know. I kind of like that mystery.”
For Rocky specifically, finding himself in the role as primary producer for New Addictions was the manifestation of aspirations he had long been working towards. Before the titles of performer, singer, guitarist or writer, Rocky considers himself a producer first. “I’ve always had a love for the overall sound of the song,” he said. Having always been interested in the production aspect of music, Rocky had a hand in producing several songs from the band’s previous 2015 release, Sometime Last Night. “Because my knowledge wasn’t good enough then, we had to go with a great producer-engineer to recut the drums, recut the guitars and basses and make sure they were up to par with everything else. But now I’ve finally arrived at a place where I can do it all on my own,” Rocky explained. “Sometime Last Night was the start of getting there, and New Addictions is like, ‘Cool, we’ve done it’. Now we can go on to make more music and do basically whatever we want, whatever style we want, because we’re entirely in creative control of it. It’s a good feeling to have.”
The praise-filled response to New Addictions has affirmed that creative control as a move in the right direction: even Rolling Stone’s review yielded the EP’s galloping basslines, “which was nice,” Rocky tells me with an unpresumptuous chuckle. Riding those basslines are lyrical stories of the myriad of complexities concerning love — heartbreak and hopefulness, loneliness and lust — that take the form of catchy, buoyant pop hooks.
The EP’s dance-y opening track “If” details R5’s take on your most modern-day love story, the kind that more often than not regrettably begins on social media. “It’s about falling for someone that you’ve never met before that is on Instagram or Twitter. And that actually happened,” Rocky said. “There’s so many Instagram models that just have millions of followers. ‘If’ is the question of, ‘What could we be together?’ because you never really know. Everyone kind of falls in love with someone on Instagram for a second.” “Lay Your Head Down”, the soulful ballad soloed by Rocky, recalls a whimsical fling while hinting at subtle motives rooted in isolation. “There was a girl that I met in Japan; she was a model and we just had a quick connection. The song kind of just follows the story of our relationship from kind of starting out lonely and finding that connection,” he told me. “It has a bit of loneliness in it, but it also resolves the loneliness as the song goes on.”
Though several lyrics on New Addictions are informed by particular anecdotal rendezvous, it is chiefly written on the premise of pure feeling. “’Trading Time’ just feels kind of dark and has a night feel,” Rocky said, and called “Need You Tonight”, the band’s cover of the 1987 INXS track, the EP’s token “Spotify song”. “Red Velvet”, the sultrier of the lot, is heeded as a fun, groovy jam, but is still infused with in-the-moment sincerity.
“I can only make music if the song I’m making feels good,” Rocky said about his writing process. “Even if it feels good in a bad way, like it’s a sad song, it still has a feeling.” He circles back to the previous album to emphasize this — he had briefly mentioned earlier that his most effective method of measuring growth is to pit R5 against themselves; they’re their own competition — stating that the self-produced songs from Sometime Last Night were the beginning of and graduation onto New Addictions. “I hope people can feel the difference. A lot of people have been telling me that at random LA parties. They feel like these songs are more honest and pure,” he said. It’s the highest compliment in his book, as it’s what he’d hoped would be palpable. “I think that’s because they actually are. They’re as honest as you can get, and even with no lyrics on some of these songs, I think they come across truthful, and that’s what I like to have. I like a song to just have the melodies and chord changes create emotion, and the lyrics take it the next step over,” he stated. “I hope these songs do that for people.”
R5 has come to understand now that even with specific scenes and feelings galvanizing the creation of their work, the subjective personal interpretation of it all is what keeps listeners engrossed and unwaveringly committed to stay along for the ride. It’s a promising reminder that despite the endlessly changing currents of time and dispositions, making music that’s purely representative of the present overrides all other attempts at relevancy. “The best songs are the ones that people can individually apply to themselves, even if it isn’t the original meaning or idea of the song that the writer wrote it about,” Rocky said. “If it can transfer over the the listener in some way – the best songs do that.”
He’s right. The art that sticks with you latest and deepest is the kind that you’re able to insert yourself into, like my friends and I did years ago when we took those R5 lyrics and made them ours — a sentiment that we still, to this day, use as a sappy congratulatory remark: “We’ve come so far from the past, and they said we’d finish last. They just don’t know how; look at us now.”