Arrested Youth’s long-awaited album is finally here! Created pre-COVID, Nonfiction captures Ian Johnson’s journey in 15 stellar tracks. Atlas sat down with Ian to talk about the new music, writing in a stream of consciousness and his upcoming tour.
Atlas Artist Group: This week is exciting because this album has been a long time coming, right?
Ian Johnson: It really has. Man, it’s crazy. I finished writing [this album] right when COVID essentially was just hitting. I made this with John [Feldmann] and then COVID took place and I decided to move for a bit, get out of Los Angeles. I went to Texas for awhile and now I’m in New York. Through this whole process, we’ve been figuring out some last minute details with it, but really the bulk of it has been done for a year. I don’t plan on ever doing it again, but I made this album and kind of had it for over a year and that’s a long time to have an album just sitting there. But at the same time, it gave me a lot of time to get comfortable with it, gave me a lot of time to reflect and understand what it was. It gave me a lot of time to figure out what I wanted to do with it and where I wanted to go after it, which is really important too.
Atlas: Since the album was made before COVID, what was your creative process like being in-person in the studio?
Ian: At the end of the day, it was John and I, who helped me produce it. We spent a really solid three weeks in the studio. The other day someone asked me, ‘is this the album you’ve always wanted to make?’ This is the album I never knew I was going to make because when we were writing songs and producing this body of work, we only had EP one out- Sobville (Episode 1). I was planning on having more episodes of Sobville. But we got together and COVID was hitting and we just got into this creative groove. I made all the songs and I was sitting there with 15 to 16 songs, and I was like, I don’t want to do another EP, let’s just put out an album. But again, like an unexpected album.
We’re just gonna throw up a photo of me naked with some books, and we’re gonna put it out into the world.
Atlas: That must have been a very interesting photoshoot for everyone.
Ian: We actually have a behind the scenes- my friend Jordan came and shot the whole thing that day. Ironically, that was never the goal- to shoot that naked. It was supposed to be way more normal and simplified. So I invited my sister- she lives in New York City and I shot it in New York City. I invited her to come to the photoshoot and little did she know…and myself as well, in my defense, that I was gonna get there and be like, ‘you know what, man? I don’t like this idea. Let’s just shoot me naked.’ And then it just pans to my sister and she’s just covering her face and it’s just really funny. It’s a really funny video. We’re gonna put it out probably a little shortly after the album.
Atlas: What inspirations or influences were you drawing from for this album?
Ian: I think at the end of the day it’s a stream of consciousness album. That’s kind of always how I write my music and we’ve probably talked about that stuff. In the sense that it’s just honest songs about where I was at in my life at the time, there’s songs in there about my past with women that are childish, there’s songs that are about my future self and who I want to be as I progress, songs in there about my feelings about the industry and how we’re making music and the type of content that we’re putting out to kids and the image we’re selling- all that stuff is in there. I think there’s so many different worlds of music in that album, in terms of the themes, because it was really stream-of-consciously written. It wasn’t super heady like, I’m gonna make this album and it’s gonna be this theme and it’s gonna be this concept and I’m gonna sell this message. There was none of that- it was all about just capturing life. And like I said, there’s honest songs that were written in the moment that I wrote them.
That’s ironically how Nonfiction– the title- came to be because, like I said, it wasn’t a concept album, it wasn’t a thematic album. Long story short, I was sitting there with the songs and I decided it’s going to be an album, and I’m like, what is this album? What do I call it? What’s the theme? What’s the concept?
First I tried to get heady. I was like, I’m gonna do something thematic with this album, it’s gonna be this theme and it’s gonna be all artsy- all that bullshit. Then I was just like, that’s not what the songs are. I write my music to relate to a normal kid, a normal person. It’s not some avant garde stuff- these songs aren’t some critically acclaimed style of writing or persona. These are just honest songs- I’m just gonna call it Nonfiction. It’s the opposite of fiction, it’s the opposite of something that’s fabricated, it’s just real.
Atlas: Which song on Nonfiction resonates the most with you?
Ian: I can’t answer that. I really can’t. And I can tell you why. Just to put it in perspective, it took me the whole year after finishing this to figure out the tracklist. This album- every song on it has something different, in my opinion, and I just don’t have a favorite. I have lines in songs that are my favorite. You know me- I’m lyrical. There’s always moments in each song I just always love to hear. Sometimes it’s like one word or a phrase. Overall…I’m consistent on it, but the music changes a lot. If you’re just thinking about what kinds of songs are on it, there’s a lot of different songs living in a lot of different sonic worlds.
It’s hard to pick a favorite because so much of my varied tastes in music is on this album. So I can say, oh I love “Find My Own Way”. Well, I do love “Find My Own Way”- it’s the first song I ever wrote with John [and] it was the reason we ended up working together. That song is super special and of course Mark [Hoppus] came on and wanted to be a part of it and that made it even more special. But then at the same time, too, there’s a song like “My Friend”, which is so different. They’re just different types of songs and I think that makes it really hard to choose a favorite because I just appreciate that I didn’t write the same song in the same emotion and the same thought over and over again for 15 tracks. I think there’s a lot of different concepts going on.
Atlas: It feels like a play in several acts.
Ian: The one thing I would say that I did purposely do as I was tracklisting, was it felt like I was…it was really hard to figure out how these songs work together in different tracks? Because it is a lot of music- it’s a big album. If there’s many little individual stories being told throughout it, how do I make the sonic experience somewhat cohesive? If you listen again, it starts out much more nostalgic and youthful and bright. And then as the album progresses, it gets a little darker, a little more introspective, a little more forward thinking, a little more future-self thinking- not so past-self thinking. That’s one thing that I really mindfully did- I wanted the project to end toward resiliency. It starts out with a little more self-deprecation and ends with a little more resilience of self, for sure.
And that was the hope right? For awhile, I was self conscious of some of these more punky fun songs I wrote like “7th Grade” or “Ego”. I wrote this because I enjoyed them but I am a more serious, thoughtful guy. I had these songs and I wanted to keep them but what I was trying to do when I was tracklisting originally- and this is just being honest- I was kind of trying to bury them. I was trying to hide them at the end- not because they’re bad songs, they’re great songs- but just because maybe I didn’t want to identify with them at the time. So I was hiding them in the back end of the album, and I was like, this doesn’t make sense. There’s all this resiliency and development and then your last two songs are about masturbating in your home- you can’t do that.
I had to come clean and say, nope, these are gonna be in the first half of the record and they’re going to be reflective of youth, and they’re going to be nostalgic and as the record moves on, it’s going to get more thought provoking. I think it’s dynamic- it’s dynamic in its concepts, and its lyrics and its themes.
Atlas: Absolutely. You mentioned having Mark Hoppus on a track which was a great surprise! How did that collab come about and what was it like working with him?
Ian: It was awesome working with him. Actually, he ended up coming on when COVID was in full blown motion and I was living in Texas. The song was done- John sent him the song and he really liked it and said, I want to be a part of this. John reached out to me and I said of course. We were all in our own studios- we three-way Zoomed it. It was a really cohesive process. Mark was awesome about it and super open to my ideas. He came with a few ideas and he was also just incredibly down to earth and willing to allow me to insert where I thought it could be really cool to take the verse. The whole experience was just really fluid, cohesive, positive. Don’t have a single bad thing to say.
Atlas: You have a line in “Nineteen 84”- “when it all pans out, we don’t stand for anything, we just want to stand out”. This isn’t a new sentiment or expression about the music industry, but you’ve always been vocal about where you stand. What would you like to see from the industry- what direction would you like to see it go?
Ian: That’s cool that you think I am- I wish I was more out there. There’s things I would love to say- so much more to say. I walk a fine ground with just like, am I putting things out there just to complain about shit? Because you never know. As artists, we’re real about our emotions, but are we ever that real about the industry itself, and our job and the work and the politics and the bullshit? You don’t hear too much about that- especially in rock music. So I appreciate that you think I’m vocal and that’s cool to know that someone out there thinks I’m somewhat reasonably talking about it. I think there’s way more layers that, as I continue my career, I’d like to peel back for my audience in a way that obviously allows them to still enjoy the music and not think I’m some aggravated, nosy artist.
What I’d like to see…I don’t know. Here’s what I’ll say in the simplest terms, and this is the thing that I just think to be true for myself. I can’t say more than this because I don’t really know what ground I have to stand on. What I will say is I think so much of the industry has become so much about the illusion of something meaningful or novel or cool. And it’s not as much about the lyrics and the music. I just try to be as creative and introspective, and offer something new and different in my lyrics. Maybe I’m not doing that in my image, maybe I’m not doing that in my branding. Maybe I’m more simple and maybe I’m less forward-thinking than others. But what I think music is about is all really about the music. What I’d like to see is what I’m trying to do for myself. Every idea has been expressed, but how can you express it in a novel, creative way that’s also grounded and gives the listener all sides to life?
What I’m essentially saying is we become more and more one-dimensional thinkers, in my opinion, and it’s shown in the music, too. We just sell one thing, and we sell it over and over and over. I just try and offer all sides to life- I try and offer the humorous, I try and offer the good and try and offer the bad. When I offer a depressive or anxious thought, I try and offer a hopeful and resilient thought. That’s what “Nineteen 84” is about and a song like “Paul McCartney”. I get into the industry a little- bringing some of that cheekiness and thoughtfulness and self awareness back into it. Let’s not write a whole album or build a whole brand around being a piece of shit or being depressed. Those are all things that are real, but there’s other sides to life, too.
I think it’s the artist’s job to capture life in music. When you only sell one side of life, in my opinion at least, you’re not really giving the listener the whole picture. That’s how I picture and how I see it for myself- how do I offer a more well-rounded point of view through my music? At the end of the day, just like we are what eat, we are what we watch, we are what we see- we’re also what we listen to. The idea is that we need to be careful what we sell, because if we’re only selling one thing to our biggest fan, and they’re hearing that same thing every day- it’s great that they identify and connect to it, but what if they start believing it so strongly that they build their whole life mantra around that? “I’m anxious, I’m depressed, I’m no good. The world’s against me. It doesn’t understand me.” There’s definitely truth in that for all human beings- me included.
But there’s a whole other beautiful side to life that is not that way, and the world is not against you, and people don’t hate you. You’re not this helpless, anxious, depressed mess- you can be a great, functioning human being. I try and bring that thought into my music- not to say I’ve accomplished it, not to tell anyone how they should be- but just to at least put the thought out there of [how] that’s possible, too. It’s not all bad and it’s not like your life is doomed. There’s hope and there’s resiliency.
For the alternative genre, I think that’s something that every artist should take accountability for. It’s really easy to go and just write a song about being anxious, it’s really easy to go and write a song about being depressed. I think what’s harder is to say, ‘hey, I feel these ways, but I know that’s not how life is the whole time and I’m going to make sure I’m capturing the good and the positive of life, too’. Because my listeners deserve to hear that as well. They’re the ones that are going to be playing this stuff over and over and connecting it to their life.
I really believe in that- that’s something I’m willing to talk about and stand for because I think it’s important. Everyone’s struggling and it’s great to connect to music through the struggle, but you also have to have some forward thinking movement. There’s got to be some progression to it. It can’t all be about living in the past.
That’s what I tried to do with this album. When I brought up issues and struggles, I also tried to bring up hope and a thought for the future that could be something positive and something that we can all strive towards.
Atlas: What’s coming up next for you?
Ian: Well, a big piece of information is coming on Friday when the album comes out. That would have to be a tour- what else would it be? As you know, we’ve done a lot of opening tours and now we’re going to kick the bucket and do our own tour. It’s going to be the Arrested Youth tour, the Nonfiction Tour.
Nonfiction is out now!
Story by Olivia Khiel
Photos courtesy of Arrested Youth