Tonight Alive thought they’d finished their third album. They sat in the office of Paul Harris, their Sony Music Australia A&R manager, and played him the songs, many of which paid homage to frontwoman Jenna McDougall’s 1990s emo-rock and pop-punk roots, and waited for the praise to come. But it didn’t.
“He just sat there and said, These are good, but if we just make the same record it’s not going to do anything for you guys,” recalls lead guitarist Whakaio Taahi. “No one had ever really said that to us. We just looked at ourselves and said, We want to push the boundaries, we don’t want to just keep plateauing.
It was a conscious decision to become better as writers and be a better band, realise what Tonight Alive is and realise what the potential could be.”
That meeting set in motion a sequence of events that the band – released on Easy Life in the UK – hope will help take them to the next level of rock stardom. Previous album, 2013’s The Other Side, had given them a UK breakthrough, securing rave reviews in the rock press and selling 16,155 copies here, according to the Official Charts Company.
They concluded their touring for that album with two sold out nights at London’s 1,410-capacity Koko venue and had a song, The Edge, featured on The Amazing Spider-Man 2 soundtrack.
This time around, however, they scrapped the proposed follow-up and made the decision to work with outside songwriters for the first time, although the search for the right partnership proved anything but easy.
“We met some amazing writers,” says McDougall.
“We met Glen Ballard but we had no chemistry. We met Diane Warren, but we just didn’t click. They were great opportunities but that wasn’t what it was about, it was about creating a connection.”
Eventually, the band – completed by guitarist Jake Hardy, bassist Cam Adler and drummer Matt Best – found what they were looking for in David Hodges, best known for his work with Kelly Clarkson and Celine Dion, and set about writing what would become Limitless.
The album was eventually released in March this year and became the band’s first Top 40 album in the UK, reaching No.37, although it’s only sold 5,214 copies to date.
The album was produced by David Bendeth, who also pushed the band harder than they were used to.
“It was extremely challenging,” admits McDougall. “He wanted us to be better musicians and a better band, but he just gets inside your head like a…”
“Screwdriver?” interjects Taahi, laughing. “Yeah, right through the temple,” responds McDougall. “He just wiggles around. He wanted a result. And that’s what we wanted too.”
“We needed someone that knew how to get this album out of us, because I didn’t know how to put all these songs together,” says Taahi. “His thing is to bring you down to the ground and then see you rise. Get the best out of you.”
Consequently, Limitless emerged with a much more mainstream sound, with songs such as Human Interaction and Waves coming on like big emotional ballads, rather than angry emo anthems.
That meant the early stages of the campaign have had to be carefully navigated, as the band and its team sought to keep the original fanbase on board while reaching new fans.
“I’m supportive of artists challenging their boundaries,” declares Easy Life founder and managing director Jamie Osman. “Sometimes with rock fans or rock press, there’s a tendency for people to not like it when bands push themselves.
They don’t like it when people evolve too much or try something new. That can be frustrating for me, because artists need to be able to make the records they need to make. No one would go to a restaurant and have the same thing every time; you’d always try something different.”
Tonight Alive have just spent a successful summer on America’s leading travelling alternative rock festival, the Vans Warped Tour, and played the NME/BBC Radio 1 stage at Reading and Leeds festivals last weekend, actions that have helped keep their core rock fanbase happy.
But McDougall says that the success of No Doubt, fronted by her personal style icon Gwen Stefani, shows that rock bands can also try different things and succeed.
“No one ever took away their credibility because of that,” she says. “They always maintained the fact that they were best friends and with all that history, they were completely authentic in my eyes. They’re not footsteps I would be hesitant to follow in.”