There are some moments in a musician's life when reality becomes so unreal that you know you've finally made it. One might think trading solos with Prince during an intimate late-night jam session at the legendary hit maker's home would be one of those moments, but for Maroon 5 frontman Adam Levine and guitarist James Valentine, it's actually when, at the end of that all-night jam session, Prince wants you to stick around for pancakes.
"Believe it or not, they offered," Levine says, "but we were too tired."
This, you've got to understand, has become the strange and charmed life of Maroon 5: Sell millions of copies of your debut album, Songs About Jane; tour with the Rolling Stones; record your second studio album, It Won't Be Soon Before Long, in Rick Rubin's haunted house; turn down pancakes with Prince. Yep, Maroon 5 has made it.
Interestingly, though, that wasn't how things were supposed to work out. More than a decade ago, Levine and two other members of Maroon 5, bassist Mickey Madden and keyboardist Jesse Carmichael, along with Maroon 5's former drummer, Ryan Dusick — all of whom attended the prestigious Brentwood School in Los Angeles together — were better-known as Kara's Flowers. The garage-rock band eventually signed with Reprise Records, which would have been great and all, except nobody bought its music. The members of Kara's Flowers unofficially disbanded after that and headed off to college only to be brought back together when Levine discovered R&B and, in particular, Stevie Wonder. The dark-haired, unnaturally handsome frontman abandoned his grungy singing style in favor of a higher-pitched one more akin to Wonder's, started writing about love and relationships, and, after recruiting Valentine, re-formed Kara's Flowers as a bastardized child of a one-night stand between funky R&B and their rock roots — also known as Maroon 5.
Songs About Jane has sold roughly 10 million copies since its release in 2002. The band hit the road for so many years supporting it that it didn't have time to record anything other than live albums until this year's It Won't Be Soon Before Long. If the name of the album seems odd to you, the band feels the same way. But it's their only way to describe the baptism by pyrotechnics they've endured for so long.
"Somebody said it," Levine says, admitting nobody knows exactly who to attribute the saying to. "We think it might have been Jesse, but it was just one of these strange, nonsensical things that winds up making a lot of sense in some weird, abstract way. I guess it's the closest thing to a Ringoism. When the Beatles said, 'It's been a hard day's night,' you kind of understand what [they're] saying, but you don't really at the same time."
Long story short: Five years passed between studio releases, with Acoustic (2004) and Live — Friday, the 13th (2005) the only way for fans to whet their Maroon 5 appetites during the long drought — outside of, you know, all that constant touring. Five years. That's half a decade. Levine or Valentine could have fathered a kid and sent him off to kindergarten during that time. Even when trying to avoid the dreaded sophomore slump, that's a long dry spell for a band that had climbed so high so fast — hell, it won two Grammys in the interim — before recording its second studio album.
"I think we've avoided Spin Doctor's territory, but we haven't just disappeared off the face of the Earth [either]," Levine says. "We have a lot more to prove. We've always been very hard on ourselves, I think in a productive way, in a positive way, to keep on and to establish a career. That's what we want. We want a career, we want to be around for a while. We want to not just be a flavor, flavor of the month, or flavor of the year."
He's not the only one that feels that way.
"I was relieved to make it through this record because it is sort of a test," Valentine says. "One record doesn't mean that you've proven anything. I'm excited now that that's over."
The result is a much-leaner album than Songs About Jane, so slick and polished that the alt-rock shades that still permeated Jane didn't have anything to stick to and were consequently dropped in favor of a more evolved sound. It Won't Be Soon Before Long is thus five white guys generating some of the best funk of the last 25-or-so years, using modern technology to yank a nostalgic sound into the mainstream. Another way to put it: It's the culmination of 40 years of rock, pop, R&B, and soul. Does this mean it's a masterpiece? Hardly. Does this mean Maroon 5 has definitively announced they won't be going anywhere for a long time, even if it takes them a half-decade to record albums? Absolutely.
"We made our first record in 2002," Levine explains. "We were in our early 20s, and our musical tastes [have] all kind of shifted a little bit. I think the most important thing with making records is that you reflect exactly where you are at that moment, and then that becomes something that you refer back to when you play the songs live as the years go on."
Now that Maroon 5 has, you know, "made it," it's interesting to consider whether they have ambitions to make an impact on pop-culture, since just about all their idols managed to shake up how music sounded for decades to come. But Levine is quick to dismiss what his band's success, or future success, might mean.
"Bands get big and they kind of develop these grandiose opinions of themselves — [but] let's backpedal for a minute," he says. "We craft songs, we love to play them, and we hope to inspire people and make them smile or make them think or make them do whatever they're going to do.
"But," he adds, "we're certainly not putting a flag anywhere. As far as any kind of impact, we won't know that for 20 years. Right now, we just have to make the right decisions and write good songs that people love and see what happens."
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