“These songs feel bigger than our band”: how Fall Out Boy’s ‘From Under the Cork Tree’ inspired a generation

Fans and the group's Pete Wentz look back on the pop-punk smash, which turned 15 this month and helped shape today's musical landscape

In April 2005, a brilliantly weird music video started to appear on the likes of MTV. It depicted a love story between an outcast boy and local girl, which might sound pretty clichéd – except that in this video the boy is shunned by the local community because he has antlers (which he tries to remove with pruning shears). When his love interest’s father discovers the young couple are getting close, he tries to shoot him with an arrow, only to be hit by a car – when it’s revealed her dear old dad has hooves. Tl;dr: It’s mad shit.

The video accompanied Chicago punk band Fall Out Boy’s new single ‘Sugar, We’re Goin Down’, the first song to be taken from their upcoming second album ‘From Under the Cork Tree’. This was the song that would, within a few months, catapult the group – and their unique blend of emo, rock and pop-punk – to the mainstream. Selling over seven million copies worldwide, ‘From Under the Cork Tree’ saw the band nominated for the Best New Artist Grammy and become arena-playing radio staples. The record, which turned 15 this month, has left a long-lasting impact on music.

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“Our debut, ‘Take This to Your Grave’, had made us the biggest band that no grown-up ever heard of” Fall Out Boy’s bassist and lyricist Pete Wentz explains over video chat from his home in LA. “In a weird way we were kind of like how some TikTok people are now.” Released in 2003, the band’s first album was a breakneck collection of pop-punk and was released through the cult alternative label Fueled By Ramen (where they joined the likes of Paramore and Panic! at the Disco).

Despite having garnered a healthy fanbase with this first album, the band knew they wanted to switch their sound up for their next record, which would be released on major label Island Records. “We knew that if we didn’t change between ‘Take This to Your Grave’ and the next record, that we probably never would,” Wentz says. Their new sound was impacted by the eclectic range of music that the band was listening to while driving from city to city on tour, which included the likes of David Bowie and The Cure, as well as R&B and metal.

“‘From Under the Cork Tree’ is one of the first albums I ever bought. I remember listening to it like, ‘Holy shit!’ – Waterparks’ Awsten Knight

Starting to write the record on the road, the band found what’s now become their typical creative process, with frontman Patrick Stump looking after the music and Wentz taking control of the lyrics (in the past Stump had collaborated on lyrics too). Wentz modestly bats away the question when asked if he knew that he was writing a smash with ‘Sugar…’., but he does reveal that “we felt like we stumbled upon what this record could be. It wasn’t really stumbling upon a song that was going to connect with people, but instead finding a centrepiece for this record.”

The band had signed to Fueled By Ramen as part of a deal that meant they would graduate to Island for album two (an indication of their early ambitions for mainstream success, despite the band’s punk beginnings). The step-up naturally impacted the recording process. “All of a sudden there’s a budget and there’s A&R guys,” says Wentz. “The label were like, ‘We want “a real” producer and stuff.” The problem: “No producers really wanted to work with us.”

Neal Avron, who at the time was known for his work with fellow pop-punks Yellowcard, Everclear and New Found Glory, initially turned the project down, though – luckily for us all – came round in the end.

“I had been doing a lot of producing for pop punk bands, and I was really trying to base my projects on what I thought were the best songs that I could work with,” Avron explains to NME. “When I first heard the demos, I wasn’t blown away”. An A&R at Island Records eventually managed to persuade Avron there was something he could work with: “[He] sent me a new CD of demos, with a little note saying, These couple tracks are your diamonds’. I listened to it and it was ‘Sugar…’ and [follow-up single] ‘Dance Dance’”.

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Recording began in Burbank, California in late 2004. Fall Out Boy were living together in corporate accommodation (a temporary furnished home) throughout. “You don’t really see movies about Los Angeles with the people that didn’t make it big,” says Wentz, “and that’s a little bit what the corporate housing was like. It was a weird transition period; it all felt temporary,”

Wentz was going through a tough time while working on the album. He was struggling with mental health difficulties, which meant that writing the record’s lyrics would sometimes act as a catharsis, but the physical process of creating a record – coupled with fears about letting fans down with a flop – exacerbated the problem. “I think that not sleeping and trying to figure it out and being on the precipice of something fuelled a lot of anxiety,” he says.

These anxieties reached breaking point midway through the album’s production in February 2005. Wentz attempted suicide. He spent a week in hospital, then moved back in with his parents in Chicago, before eventually returning to Burbank to work on the album. The experience informed the song ‘7 Minutes in Heaven (Atavan Halen)‘, which includes the painstakingly honest couplet “I’m having another episode / I just need a stronger dose”.

Wentz was never nervous to share these lyrics with the rest of the band, but had reservations about the rest of the world hearing them: “Mental health is still stigmatised, and at the time it definitely was even more so, and so it felt weird. It felt a little bit like exposing your weakness or something, which never feels great.”

Yet these candid lyrics drew fans to the music, with a generation of teenagers connecting with Wentz’s bracing honesty. “It was cool to interact with the kids on Warped Tour who were like, ‘This means a lot to me and these songs mean a lot to me,’” he says. “That was one of those things that never really got old, you know. It felt like there was like a deeper connection there.”

It wasn’t just fans though – these lyrics also had an impact on other bands who discovered the album in formative years. Awsten Knight, frontman of Texan pop-rock band Waterparks, tells NME:  “’From Under The Cork Tree’ was one of the first physical albums I bought. I remember having it in my mom’s car and reading the lyrics along with it when I was 13 or so. To this day Pete is probably my favourite lyricist. I remember listening along with the booklet being like, ‘Holy shit! This is so creative but it’s also how I feel. What is happening?’”

Neal Avron agrees: “Pete could put a thought out there in a very intriguing manner that made you have to really look at the words or really think about what he was saying. It’s masterful.”

“This was the album that made it possible to do all the other stuff” – Pete Wentz

‘From Under the Cork Tree’ brims with Wentz’ candid words. ‘A Little Less Sixteen Candles, a Little More “Touch Me”’ runs an honest assessment of a failed relationship through a John Hughes filter (“And you’re just the girl all the boys want to dance with / And I’m just the boy who’s had too many chances / I’m sleeping on your folks’ porch again, dreaming”), while ‘Our Lawyer Made Us Change the Name of This Song So We Wouldn’t Get Sued’ aches with loneliness (“It’s just past eight and I’m feeling young and reckless / The ribbon on my wrist says, ‘Do not open before Christmas’”).

The album was released on May 3, 2005. “We put the record out and didn’t really get any ads or radio,” Wentz says, “We sold a bunch of records to the people who are the underground fans but it didn’t really take hold.”

Despite a slow start, the record initially charted at Number Nine on the US Billboard Chart, but it was the wild music video for ‘Sugar…’ that began to take on a life of its own, and over the next few months the album started to fly off the shelves.

Wentz credits that video as the catalyst for the band’s success:. “The video entered [now-defunct MTV show] Total Request Live (TRL) and our fanbase was so insane that it kind of forced radio to play it.” When Fall Out Boy embarked for a summer on the Warped Tour, things rapidly escalated. “Our tour bus was in the public parking lot and there was one day when you could go outside, and the next day you just couldn’t go outside.”

By August the album had been certified Gold, meaning it had sold 500,000 copies. By September the band had shifted more than a million.

Fall Out Boy during 2005 MTV Video Music Awards. They won the MTV2 Award for ‘Sugar, We’re Goin Down. Credit: Getty/KMazur/WireImage

The band were suddenly in the public eye, but Wentz says they managed to keep everything on their own terms: “It was weird because you’re on TRL with Backstreet Boys or something. But at the same time, we were just these weird guys so we didn’t have stylists or people telling us what to do. It was just a weird moment in culture where bands became the boy bands for a minute again.”

TRL exposed the band to thousands of new fans, including the next wave of pop-punk bands. Cody Carson, frontman of Floridian rock band Set It Off, tells NME: I saw Fall Out Boy perform ‘Sugar…’ on MTV and I was blown away. I remember [Fall Out Boy guitarist] Joe Trohman did this backwards guitar spin move, and I was like: ‘This is my new favourite band; I need this album’. I went straight out to get it and fell absolutely head-over-heels for the entire record.”

Carson credits this album with helping him learn how to write music: “I would learn how to play their songs, and I would just try to listen to their song structure like, ‘Why’d they do this here? Why is this chord progression like this?’”. Carson credits Wentz as co. as trailblazers who readied the mainstream for a whole swathe of pop-punk and emo bands.

“Fall Out Boy have consistently kicked down the door,” he explains. “With ‘From Under the Cork Tree’ they allowed other bands to open their eyes and their minds to the ability to create some really pop-centric melodies over something really rocky or energetic and intense. They found this really cool balance between those worlds.”

“There’s this world that exists now that Fall Out Boy are mostly responsible for creating” – Set It Off’s Cody Carson

Carson cites bands such as Baltimore pop-punk jokers All Time Low, musical chameleons Panic! At The Disco and charming Arizonian rockers The Maine as bands that Fall Out Boy paved the way for: “There’s this world that exists now that they’re mostly responsible for creating. Bands like us owe them a ‘thank you’ for giving us  an opportunity to do the same thing.”

Neal Avron concurs, and points to artists as varied as Australian pop-punk heartthrobs 5 Seconds of Summer, gobby British pop-rocker Yungblud and even US rapper Machine Gun Kelly. “They all took on some of that pop-punk vibe,” he reasons. Even something like Katy Perry’s ‘I Kissed A Girl’ [released in 2008]  can be traced back to emo-pop.” The sonic influence of ‘From Under The Cork Tree’ is so sprawling that even now, 15 years later, Avron is approached by musicians asking how he achieved specific guitar tones of the album.

Wentz is typically humble when asked if he can see the massive impact that ‘From Under the Cork Tree’ has had on a generation of musicians. “It’s hard to look back and think that we were bigger than a small part in [the mid-noughties pop-punk scene],” he says, “but it’s really cool to have been a part of a moment that a lot of people got to take part in.”

Waterparks’ Awsten Knight, though, is much more forthright: “That album definitely defined a time period and had a real cultural moment and I think when you make art that’s one of the highest things you can achieve.”

Set It Off’s Cody Carson is similarly unequivocal: “I’m always gonna go back and listen to ‘From Under the Cork Tree’. Every now and then I get that itch that you got to scratch. You turn it up all the way and scream the lyrics, and there you are back to listening to it for the first time all over again.”

Now, a decade-and-a-half on, Wentz reserves a special place in his heart for the album. “We were just happy for those songs to come out,” he says, “so it’s kind of crazy to still be playing them at festivals 15 years later.”

In the years that followed ‘From Under the Cork Tree’ being released Fall Out Boy have remained one the biggest exports of the noughties pop-punk scene. Experimenting with genre, they’ve fused their sound with R&B (on 2008’s ‘Folie à Deux’), embraced wild electronics (on 2018’s ‘Mania’) and even put out a hip-hop remix album (‘Make America Psycho Again’, a remix album of 2015’s ‘American Beauty/American Psycho’ which featured collaborations with Migos and Joey Badass). And it was the glorious pop-punk of ‘From Under the Cork Tree’ that kickstarted it all.

“This was the album that made it possible to do all the other stuff,” says Wentz. “If this one hadn’t worked or hadn’t connected with people, we wouldn’t have gotten to go to the UK and around the world. I have such reverence for those songs because they feel bigger than our band.”

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