AJR is a trio of brothers who released their third full length album, Neotheater, last Spring ending up at Number One on the Alternative and Rock Albums chart. They have been on the road the past few years performing on tour for fans all over the world. Their tour stops included some of the major music festivals in the United States and I was able to catch their show and photograph the band’s sets all over the country at Voodoo Festival, Lollapalooza and Bonnaroo.
Many people may not know that Adam (the “A” in “AJR”) is finishing up his PhD in International Human Rights, serves as the Executive Director of Sustainable Partners, Inc. and is a United Nations Development Programme Advocate. I wanted to take some time and talk with Adam for a special Earth Day interview where we chat about music, activism, touring more sustainably, and AJR’s “Time for Change” initiative.
I had no idea you were finishing your PhD in Human Rights. What specific organizations do you support or does the band support?
I do a lot of work with the UN Development Program. Because of my academic work, the UN actually reached out a few years ago and asked if I could help promote their sustainability initiatives, their sustainable development goals and their 17 goals that aim to end poverty and protect the planet from climate change. A few years ago, I started my own nonprofit called Sustainable Partners which amplifies how businesses can move in a sustainable direction. We have done a lot of partnerships with companies, Live Nation and iHeart, and now we are working with a bunch of brands on advertising campaigns. Sustainability and human rights are two of my big passions in addition to music.
Festivals are trying to become more sustainable. For example, they are encouraging people not to use single use plastic and bring their own water bottles. Have you seen a shift?
Yes, I have definitely seen a shift and that is what we are doing on our tours as well. We are trying to use locally sourced catering, eliminate single use plastic, and incentivize carpooling. Every little bit counts. Something that has been interesting to me is figuring out the way to balance educating our fans about this because it is something I am passionate about and at the same time focusing on the art of the music.
I travel a lot and so do you guys. Travel is hard sometimes because I have gone into situations and been in countries where there are obvious human rights issues. Do you have any thoughts on how to be more responsible with travel? It is hard for me to tell people not to go to certain places because I want people to be educated about the real situations that are happening around the world. It is hard to know that maybe your money is going to supporting something not great.
My specific PhD work is about the relationship between sustainability and human rights around the world. There are so many amazing green projects being built, wind farms, solar plants, hydroelectric plants and they are all doing great work because they are moving to renewable energy. At the same time, they are kicking indigenous populations off their land, they are contaminating water, they are violating human rights around the world.
We have such an amazing opportunity right now with the world transitioning to renewable energy, that we need to build human rights into renewable energy. When we are building a microgrid or new solar farm, they need to take human rights into account at the bedrock of it. Not have the attitude that we are going to build this solar farm and “hopefully” protect the people who own that land.
In terms of travel, and I know it is not a perfect solution, we offset all the carbon for all of our travel. We pay for carbon offsets, we plant trees, we pull plastic out of the ocean. But as far as picking countries that you are going to that have a lot of human rights violations, that is not the strongest ways to impact their policies. There is so much activism that you can do, and so much activism has moved online. There are great groups that are doing petitions. The real thing, in my opinion, is it starts with businesses. Businesses, having their business work or not work in a country is going to influence these countries to make positive decisions about human rights.
I also saw you went to March for our Lives. I was also in DC covering the event. That was and amazing experience and I know your song “Burn the House Down” was featured in a March for Our Lives campaign. Why is it so important for you and the band to participate in this movement?
March for Our Lives is an unbelievable organization. It was built by students for students. They figured out the right way to communicate the messaging about gun sense legislation. The fact that people are scared to send their kids to school because they are afraid there may be a mass shooting is insane. School is supposed to be the safest environment there is for educating kids. Because of the pandemic and limited students at school, March was the first time in years that there wasn’t a school shooting in the United States. (Note: The first month since 2002) That is absolutely insane. These students have done an incredible job. They have made it more about mobilizing people more than focusing on the one cause. It has been about getting people out to vote to make the change and the action itself instead of educating people.
It is Earth Day. The band tries to offset carbon emissions and you try to partner with companies like Delta who are offsetting carbon emissions. Why is it important for you to use these companies and how do you find these companies?
I do a lot of research but there are a lot of blogs that have posted about the businesses doing the best jobs of being sustainable. Offsetting your carbon is a good step but some of the clothing companies we use, some of the companies we choose for catering they go further than that. They go further than offsetting their carbon. They use local farmers to produce the food or their supply chains are done in a sustainable way. Their shipping is done a little bit slower but doesn’t put as much CO2 into the air. It takes a little bit of research, but a lot of people have done this research already so there are sites that aggregate it. It is really easy to make a switch. Like Chipotle for example, that company is everywhere and they do a great job of supporting local farmers.
You are a family band. Is it hard being on the road with family 24-7?
I think one of the most valuable things about being in a band is I am on the road with family. I don’t think I’d be able to do this if it weren’t family out there with me. My two brothers and I, we have very different roles in the band, we take on different responsibilities and we trust each other with those responsibilities so there is no ego. There is very rarely any conflict because we can be honest with each other and we trust each other.
I have only seen you guys out in the festival atmosphere, but the whole band always seems like you are having a really good time on stage. What is your favorite song to play live?
“Burn the House Down” is probably my favorite to play live. I play bass and there is a really fun bass line in that one.
And the crowd goes crazy. They know all the words.
That is so rewarding, even the songs on our album that are deep cuts that have never been on the radio, the fact they know all the words is insane to us.
Are you working on any new music in quarantine? Are you quarantining together?
Ryan and Jack have an apartment together and I am in a different apartment. They are quarantining together. But yes, new music is being made. We write and produce everything in our living room normally so this is not very different from the normal writing situation. There are new songs and a new project being put together right now.
How are you staying connected to fans right now?
Mostly through social media. We are supposed to be on tour and we are postponing the tour that is supposed to start in a few weeks. We are trying to give as much as we possibly can through social media. At the same time, everyone is doing a lot of self-reflecting right now because we are being put in situations we have never been put in before so we need that time also to self-reflect. I promise on the other side of the self-reflection and the other side of this quarantine there will be new music.
The band has travelled all over the world. Do you have any hidden gems you have come across from a travel perspective?
We are big foodies so we tend to categorize places where we have had really interesting meals. Sydney, Australia, I wouldn’t say it is a hidden gem but it is very far from the US, some of the best food we have ever had. There is a place by the Heathrow, the London airport that has unbelievable dumplings and you would never know that place would have amazing dumplings. We got there and they were closed and we said we just came here because the reviews were so amazing for your dumplings. They re-opened the restaurant for us to just give us the dumplings. They were the nicest people. Food is such a big part of the road because we wake up, promo with radio station, we are in the venue, we soundcheck, we perform, we do meet and greet, and the thing that differentiates each place is the food. We try to find some sort of local restaurant. Even in Russia, we were in Russia twice in the last year, we went and tried the local Russian food and it was really good.
Your videos always have a whimsical approach, including the new video for “Bang!” Who comes up with the ideas for the videos?
It is normally a mix. This video we knew we wanted to do something card or gambling themed but wanted it to have a Wes Anderson vibe. We came up with that concept then brought in the director. Some of the videos we have done completely ourselves. We have an animated video for our song “Turning Out”, and Ryan storyboarded the entire thing and directed and we brought in an animation team. The song “I’m Not Famous” we shot, directed, edited, and produced completely the three of us. It depends on the video. More recently we have brought in a director to give the idea, add things to the idea, but it is generally us that comes up with the initial idea.
Tell me about the AJR Plant a Tree initiative you guys did?
Through my nonprofit, Sustainable Partners, our newest campaign is called Time for Change, and essentially what it is, we work with businesses to run advertisements you see on social media, on YouTube, on Facebook and at the bottom of the advertisement it says if you watch this video all the way through, we will plant a tree, pull a pound of plastic out of the ocean or relieve someone of their medical debt. It is a really cool program because it is what businesses are looking for, for people to watch their ad all the way through and become familiar with their product. At the same time people feel good about giving up that 20 seconds of their life because they are doing something good for the world. The results we got from this ad campaign for our summer tour was staggering. The click through rates were higher than we had ever seen before for any tour and the completion rate was 30 times the average you get on these platforms. In less than a month, we sold 100,000 tickets and planted 100,000 trees. We are all about finding creative ways to incorporate and use people’s time they are going to spend anyway for good. Now we are expanding and working with other artists, we are working with other brands using this Time for Change campaign.
Do you have any messages for fans struggling with staying at home?
For me the best thing about this quarantine is finding new outlets to put energy into. I have been really working on my cooking skills. It could be that or puzzles or writing something or writing music. You don’t have to produce anything, but to find a new outlet for your energy. Now is such an amazing time to find something new. Even if you are terrible at it, who cares, you are indoors, you are not really sharing it with anybody. Just try it for yourself.