The Battle Hymn of OneRepublic

It’s been three years since Denver’s hottest pop band put out a new album. In 2012, OneRepublic finally holed up in a Cherry Creek studio to lay down tracks for its third LP. Will Native, which drops this fall, prove to be the band’s breakout record?

November 2012

It often looks like a parking lot outside Tedder’s Cherry Creek home. The horseshoe-shaped house with a three-car garage, a sprawling side yard, and a tall wall that surrounds the property is the epicenter of OneRepublic’s world. This is where everyone congregates, even though Eddie Fisher has a home in Wash Park, Drew Brown has a place along the northern reaches of Larimer Street, and Brent Kutzle keeps an apartment in central downtown. On any given day, Fisher’s Range Rover, Tedder’s Land Rover Defender, and Brown’s vintage BMW glint in the Colorado sun. Today, however, there are a few other vehicles parked along the quiet street, including studio manager David McGlohon’s SUV, producer Noel Zancanella’s Land Rover Sport, and engineer Smith Carlson’s Mercedes.

It’s late June, and the band is finally humming on its third album. About eight months earlier, in October 2011, Tedder had told me he and the guys were clearing their schedules beginning in early 2012 to start recording new material. That was their plan. My plan was to be around them to document the makings of the third OneRepublic album, much of which would be recorded in Tedder’s studio.

It hadn’t been easy to catch up with them. Although everyone except Filkins lives in Denver at least part of the year, no one stays in one place for very long. Brown often visits his girlfriend in California, sometimes jams with a band called Debate Team, and has a time-consuming affinity for collecting vintage cars in various states of disrepair. Filkins is occupied with being a married father of two in the Chicago suburbs. Fisher, who has been lying low since an argument with a lady friend in Denver ended in his arrest over the summer, does some drum work on the side and likes hanging with his French bulldog, Louie. Kutzle spends as much time as he can with his family in Orange County, California. Tedder, though, is the busiest of them all. His bandmates say he is the Energizer Bunny, a lightning-in-a-bottle type of person. (They also say he is a “sufferable” know-it-all, a great leader, the voice of the band, and an obsessive foodie.) He is also constantly and almost unbelievably overbooked—usually with work unrelated or only loosely connected to OneRepublic.

Our first meeting had to be postponed because Adam Levine was in town to work with Tedder on Maroon 5’s next album. Other times we couldn’t get our schedules to match up because he was wrapping up Leona Lewis’ album or had to go to the Grammy Awards because he was nominated for Producer of the Year, as well as for producing two songs on Adele’s Record of the Year, 21. He was also busy with negotiations to open a Denver outpost of Southern Hospitality, a New York City–based eatery owned, in part, by Justin Timberlake. He took time to make a cameo on NBC’s hit drama Smash with Anjelica Huston, Debra Messing, and Katharine McPhee. At one point I got an email auto-response that said, “Hi everyone, I am gone gone gone until next Monday afternoon on vacation w/ wife and friends. I am unreachable…if u are one of the people I have over-committed to, I promise I am getting to it!!”

It would be easy to think that Tedder lets his individual work supersede the needs of the band—and, sometimes, maybe it does. But it’s not because Tedder isn’t invested in OneRepublic. He does a million things because, he says, he still feels like he’s that 21-year-old kid who sold his car to buy recording equipment and couldn’t even let himself dream of a real career in music. He also still feels the sting of losing not one but two recording contracts. The tug of history makes Tedder a perfectionist, an overanalyzer, a control freak. He likes to orchestrate everything his way, from the dinner menu at home to his edict that no one can be in the studio when music is being written.

Although it has been three years since Waking Up hit iTunes—and met a chorus of less-than-stellar reviews from the likes of Rolling Stone (“The hook on this mid-tempo, strummy number [‘Good Life’] is pretty meek”), the Los Angeles Times (“The band needs to stop mistaking the cello as an inherently ‘meaningful’ instrument—it’s too often deployed for maximum syrupiness”), and a host of music blogs (“Take any track on the album, and you’ll find a potentially decent song buried under tacky studio gimmicks and blustery arena-rock posturing”; “You get the impression that they’re trying to channel Muse having only heard Muse once in their lives”)—the guys are still riding a five-year high that began with “Apologize” and Dreaming Out Loud, continued with a year of touring in more than 35 countries, and held steady with another world tour and myriad one-off concerts associated with the second album, which sold 1.2 million copies and had more hit singles than the band had anticipated. In just the past few months, they’ve played one-offs in Qatar, Vancouver, and London.

But still…they had wanted to go back into the studio to record a third LP sometime in late 2011. When that didn’t happen, they penciled in early 2012. They didn’t get rolling until April. Tedder’s ridiculous schedule; the unexpected phenomenon of “Good Life,” which meant booking more shows; and, well, real life—both Tedder and Filkins had children over the past couple of years—all got in the way. It happens, even to rock stars. But, in the case of OneRepublic, it seemed that there was something else, too: fear.

The song sounds pretty sweet. It’s catchy and has a stirring melody that’s quintessential OneRepublic. Maybe the song—entitled “What You Wanted”—will be a huge hit, but it doesn’t matter right now because it’s not lead single material. Tedder loves it though; in a dream world he would release it as the first single of the third album, but in his gut he knows it’s a bad idea.

It’s too OneRepublic, he says. It also doesn’t “move quite enough.” As always, Tedder has thought this through. He’s clearly bummed by the revelation, but he’s also glad he thinks he can recognize a misstep before it happens. The bandmates see this next record as an opportunity to break out in a big way—to sell out larger venues instead of small concert halls and to be as big in the United States as they are in Europe and Asia—but they want to do it right. They don’t want to put out the same kind of music they’ve produced before. They don’t want people to expect cello-laced ballads and mid-tempo piano songs. Which is why “What You Wanted” is all wrong for the lead single, even if it does ultimately appear on the album.

Tedder and Kutzle—who do most of the songwriting—want to compose an album that has continuity, transcends time, shifts their sound, pushes the creative envelope, and establishes that OneRepublic has arrived, something the guys say they haven’t quite done yet. For his part, Tedder believes the band is ready to explode—poised to overcome a shaky start, a whirlwind ascension, and a second album that he admits was not their finest effort. They’re ready, but they’re nervous, too. “Every single album is scary as hell,” Tedder says, but it’s apparent he means this one is the most frightening. OneRepublic has more to lose now than it did with either of the first two albums, when the tiniest successes seemed monumental and failure was expected. When Tedder talks about it, you can almost hear that college student, the one who didn’t want anyone to know he could sing until he was sure about it himself.

For OneRepublic, the basic melody, harmony, and rhythm of a song usually come well before Tedder or Kutzle begin penning lines. In fact, Tedder often sings along to the music in gibberish—mishmashes of consonants and vowels—until his brain finds the path of least resistance and words and phrases begin to form. When the band does happen to have a saying or chorus in mind—for example, for the upcoming album, Kutzle threw out the phrase “burning bridges”—it can take weeks to hammer out just the right way to express it lyrically. “For a song on Waking Up, I knew I wanted to use the word ‘secret,’ ” Tedder says, “but I drove around in the car for two months before ‘I’m gonna give all my secrets away’ came to me.”

It’s easy to see that Tedder puts a lot of brainpower into dissecting what makes a song worthy of pressing the repeat button. He knows arrangements. He understands what’s appealing to audiences right now. He’ll listen to two scarcely different bass lines for 20 minutes before deciding which one he thinks is unequivocally better. And although he says he never forsakes the music to chase a lyric, he knows a good line when he hears one. “Kings of Leon’s ‘I could use somebody, someone like you,’ ” Tedder says, “is an awesome line. It might not have been if they’d done, ‘I could use somebody, somebody right now.’ ”

The desire to make this third album a winner puts pressure on everyone, but especially Tedder, who has the added stress of knowing that he seems to be a veritable hit-maker for other artists. Adele’s “Rumour Has It,” Gavin DeGraw’s “Not Over You,” and Colbie Caillat’s “Brighter Than The Sun” were all enormously successful songs he produced in 2011. But killer singles like, say, “Not Over You,” don’t always make for a winning album. Sometimes a single song can garner 10 million iTunes downloads, but that doesn’t mean people are buying the other 10 tracks.

The age of digital music has, according to Tedder, had a dramatic impact on the music industry for one primary reason: “When you buy one song,” Tedder says, “you don’t invest in the artist.” Before MP3s, he says, if you liked a song you heard on the radio, you had to buy the album. And because you bought the album, you were compelled to listen to it as a whole and found other nonsingle songs you loved. You found you liked the artist. When that artist came to town, you bought tickets for the concert. Because you went to the concert and loved it, you were a fan for life. You bought the next album and the next album—maybe without even hearing a single on the radio to prompt you.

The ability to just buy one song from iTunes has, in Tedder’s mind, done two things. One, it has erased the days when teenagers and college kids obsessed over music, lying on their beds listening to an album from beginning to end, in favor of making music background noise they sort of listen to through earbuds while walking to class. And two, downloadability has shortened the lifespan of artists. “One successful single could sell three million copies and make a band culturally significant for nine months,” he says. “But because hardly anyone bought the album, that artist has zero long-term fans.”

The one-song-and-done reality has other consequences as well. Album sales create diehard fans who often go to concerts. Tedder says executives from the Recording Industry Association of America have told him that if Dreaming Out Loud had come out in 2001, for example, it might have sold six or seven million copies (instead of two million) and launched the band into touring huge concert venues sooner. Touring—concert ticket and merchandise sales—is how most bands make the majority of their incomes. The download era has also cut into record labels’ profits, which means one substandard album—even from a well-known act—can be reason enough to get dropped. All of which makes Tedder want to craft the Holy Grail of popular music for this new LP: songs that, even today, will make people say I have to have this album.