5 Seconds of Summer are learning how to be happy: ‘There’s parts of our career that I don’t remember’

The Australian pop band are all still in their 20s, but have spent a decade touring and recording ‘in an endless loop’. Now they’ve swapped parties for feeling at peace

Eleven years since four Australian schoolboys were spotted covering Bruno Mars and Justin Bieber songs on YouTube, plucked from obscurity and planted on some of the world’s biggest stages, 5 Seconds of Summer are starting fresh. A few months before they are set to perform two sold-out homecoming shows on the Sydney Opera House forecourt, they’re celebrating the release of 5SOS5, their (fittingly titled) fifth studio record – and their first to be released independently. They’re seizing control, in more ways than one.

But first, Luke Hemmings (vocals/guitar), Ashton Irwin (vocals/drums), Michael Clifford (vocals/guitar) and Calum Hood (vocals/bass) are confronting another monumental creative task: an album release show at London’s Royal Albert Hall. It is not just a venue of global significance but also personal significance: they once busked outside the concert hall while on a trip to London in their formative years. This time, they’ll be inside, and accompanied by an orchestra.

“I think when [the shows] come about, I’m gonna be very stressed out and I’m gonna try to enjoy it and not just focus on how stressed I am,” Hemmings says, sitting with Irwin in a studio in Eagle Rock, California. “I want to enjoy it and be able to fully remember it, because there’s parts of our career that I don’t remember, just from sheer volume and not being present.”

To fully comprehend the band’s meteoric rise over the past 11 years would be an incredible feat for anyone, let alone a teenager. Barely a year after 5SOS’s first show in 2011, to a dozen people in Sydney’s Annandale hotel, they embarked on an almost 100-date world tour as the support act for One Direction. By then, they were playing to more than 80,000 people over four nights at Sydney’s Allphones Arena.

In those days, as the popularity of boybands such as One Direction and BTS were rising to a level that threatened the sound barrier, 5SOS were forging a different kind of path. They had a fresh, dynamic quality, drawing as they did on the pop-punk they grew up with. All four were born in the shadow of Green Day’s 1994 breakthrough Dookie (Irwin, now 28, is the oldest member of 5SOS), and they repackaged that chart-topping punk for a new generation. Within a few years, 5SOS became the only band in history to land at No 1 on the Billboard 200 with each of their first three studio albums.

They’ve since collected five Aria awards at home, along with plenty of hardware overseas, and outlasted the band that gave them that early leg-up (One Direction has been on hiatus since 2015). Their 2018 song Youngblood became the biggest-selling single in Australia that year, then the country’s 11th bestselling single of all time, ranking 5SOS among AC/DC, Vance Joy and the Kid Laroi. Worldwide, they’ve sold more than 12m albums.

As one of the most successful musical acts in Australian history, it would’ve been easy for 5SOS to simply stick with what worked. They had perfected a formula and were enjoying the spoils. But as pop began shifting towards something similarly emo-influenced – the likes of Olivia Rodrigo and Machine Gun Kelly have been credited with “saving” pop-punk – 5SOS stepped back and shifted gears.

What does it look like for this band to have to pause in a way they haven’t in a decade?

“You suddenly stop and you realise … uh, I’m now sick, and I want to move all the time, no matter what,” Irwin says. “And I don’t know how to not move.”

Australian pop band 5 Seconds of Summer perform in Dublin
5 Seconds of Summer perform in Dublin, Ireland. Photograph: Ryan Fleming

The pace of life on the road manifested in physical and emotional illness. In June, Irwin was hospitalised for extreme heat exhaustion during a show in Texas. He’s been sober since 2019 and has experienced body dysmorphia – something he wrote about on his song Skinny Skinny, from his debut solo album. Spending a decade under the glare of cameras and fame contribute their own kind of spiritual illness, too.

The pandemic was a “forced stop” for the whole band, and one that created a relieving kind of freedom. They decamped to Joshua Tree to think and write together, without the same cycle of promotion and touring they had come to associate with making music. When a producer’s planned visit to their makeshift studio was derailed by a flat tire, Clifford stepped into the role and drove the sonic direction for 5SOS5, producing much of the record himself.

“We had a bit more time to reflect on everything that had happened to us – as opposed to in years previous, where we just were writing an album, going on tour, writing an album, going on tour,” Irwin says. “It was, in ways, an endless loop.”

They reflected on how their rapid rise had, Irwin says, “affected us personally, mentally, physically and philosophically. So we just dove into that feeling, and rode off into the sunset with it.”

In one of the early singles from the new album, Me, Myself and I, Hemmings sings of being a pit of need; getting what he wants, but still not feeling satisfied. “A lot of [the new album] is about romantic relationships and friendships,” he says. “But it’s more about realising that maybe you don’t have as many emotional tools in the tool belt to figure out why they affect you.”

5 Seconds of Summer
‘You suddenly stop [touring] and you realise … uh, I’m now sick, and I want to move all the time, no matter what’ … 5 Seconds of Summer. Photograph: Andy DeLuca

Only a few albums into their career, the cheeky upstarts from Sydney had barely hit their 20s when they started to experience the downside of their overnight success. On More, they sang about “a house that’s full of everything we wanted/but it’s an empty home”. “A band is often a trauma bond because you’ve been through so much together,” Irwin told NME in 2020.

Just a few years earlier, a Rolling Stone cover story painted 5SOS out to be debaucherous kids making the most of a good thing: partying hard and burning bright, but destined to be snuffed out. The people in that story couldn’t appear more different to the ones in front of me now. Hemmings seems intent on interrogating the emotional root of his songwriting; like Irwin, he released a solo record last year. And Irwin is pursuing creativity of all kinds, in the open-hearted way countless new arrivals to LA have done before him. They’re still young adults – but adults all the same, confronting what it means to be “on the other side of 24”, seeing scenes change and people fade out of view.

In the press biography for the new album, Irwin speaks of how he and his bandmates have made a conscious and active choice to show up, to be in the band for another day. Nothing about the band, or their new album or where they end up will be by default.

“When we decided to write together [in 2020], we had started to heal ourselves from moving so much and at such a high pace,” Irwin says. “And that, in turn, began to heal our creative relationship together.”

“Healthy” is a word that comes up often during our conversation; Hemmings and Irwin speak of having healthy goals and patterns, ensuring their health is a priority, having their own lives outside the band – “in a healthy way,” Hemmings clarifies. Getting out of each other’s pockets enabled them to find a new way forward, together.

“It’s almost like we were coming back to the basics of the band,” Hemmings says. And after an era defined by feeling heavy and weighed down, he says that these days, “we’re trying to get that light across.”

  • 5SOS5 is released on Friday 23 September (independently via BMG). Their world tour will end in Australia in December


Brodie Lancaster

The GuardianTramp

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