In December 2019, in another green room in another anonymous cement underbelly of another arena, The Chainsmokers realized that they hadn’t seen the sun in two weeks.
Drew Taggart and Alex Pall had just wrapped their World War Joy tour, a two-month, 41-date sprint across the United States and Canada, during which the duo performed on a fireworks-spitting stage, while stuntmen on motorcycles zoomed around the rig. After each show, Taggart and Pall went to sleep on their tour bus, which would park in the subterranean garage of the venue — and then would already have arrived in the next venue’s garage by the time they woke up in the morning, with the tour’s sixteen transport trucks in tow.
Outside of those 90-minute nightly sets, the grind had become — well, just that. “I definitely remember the feeling of, ‘My God, I should be so happy right now, but I’m not,’ ” says Pall.
“I was in a dark place at the end of 2019,” adds Taggart. “I was on antidepressants. We were on this massive tour, we had an album that needed to be finished, and I went through this really tough time of waking up and not wanting to do anything that day. And there was so much to get done.”
This burden of responsibility provided a sharp contrast to the never-ending whirlwind of enormous hits, giant shows and huge paychecks that encompassed much of the duo’s first few years. Taggart was 22 when The Chainsmokers began, pairing with Pall, then 26, right out of college, then blasting into dance-pop ubiquity — some would say infamy — with their 2014 breakout single “#Selfie,” a satirical joke song that nonetheless reached No. 16 on the Billboard Hot 100. A string of straight-faced hits followed, including 2015’s “Roses,” 2016’s “Don’t Let Me Down” and that year’s “Closer,” an inescapable team-up with Halsey that spent 12 weeks atop the Hot 100 chart (the latter two tracks scored Grammy noms). Legitimizing The Chainsmokers in the mainstream, these songs have now aggregated 4 billion U.S. streams, according to Luminate, formerly MRC Data.
They also fueled the 180-plus global shows The Chainsmokers played each year from 2014 to 2019, an era in which many fellow EDM A-listers withered due to the burnout such constant touring inflicted. Taggart says that production costs were so high for the World War Joy tour that the endless live run didn’t turn a profit. Suddenly, under the fluorescent lights of those arenas, Pall and Taggart felt much more adult than when they’d started. “It was like the songs were moving faster than we were,” says the duo’s longtime manager Adam Alpert. “It became second nature to them that they had to be on tour all the time.”
Fifteen minutes after the last World War Joy show ended on Dec. 6, 2019, in Vancouver, The Chainsmokers sat down with Alpert in that unremarkable green room to discuss their next move, presenting a quasi-utopian vision. “They said to me, ‘We just want to go away and make stuff and not have to worry about deadlines, or if it’s a pop song or a dance song,’ ” says Alpert. “We just want to do something with no rules, no pressure, no preconceived notions, and if it takes us a year, fine.’ ”
So, with the final show of their 2010s wrapped and the pyro machines unplugged, The Chainsmokers decided to do something uncharacteristic: disappear.
On one glorious Los Angeles mid-morning nearly two-and-a-half years later, the pair are posted up at a sunlit modular house in L.A.’s woodsy Nichols Canyon that functions as their studio and hangout space. Pall’s two dogs — a sweetheart red golden retriever named Moo Shu, and Lula, a smaller mutt that Pall’s girlfriend adopted from Tijuana — saunter through the living room and out to the sun-splashed patio. Everything here is tasteful and suggestive of money: the overstuffed furniture, prodigous art, the grand piano standing erect in the corner. Pall offers me something to drink, and in their stainless-steel refrigerator I find roughly two dozen different types of water — fizzy, still, flavored, pH balanced, etc. — lined up in tidy rows. Pall grabs a cold brew, then Taggart materializes in the living room wearing gym shorts and an Apple “Think Different” t-shirt that looks like it’s been through some laundry cycles.
The duo strikes a balance, able at this point to finish each other’s sentences: Taggart is all heart, expounding on his emotions and life experiences, while Pall keeps it a bit closer to the vest, talking in big ideas. One of those is the “no rules, no pressure, no preconceived notions” project that’s been consuming the guys’ time since they posted what was essentially a high-profile away message to their social media in February 2020, locking down just a few weeks before much of the world did the same. “We have never been more inspired and are already hard at work on TCS4,” read the post, “but we are going to be taking a break from social media (minus a few obligations) to give it the attention it needs.”
This project — So Far So Good, the fourth Chainsmokers LP, due May 13 — ended up demanding even more attention than they anticipated, with the pandemic extending their hiatus and providing more time to toil over the album’s 13 songs. This was the first time they got the luxury of an unhurried creative process, which allowed them to make finely detailed tracks that expand the notion of what The Chainsmokers’ music is, moving the dial from radio-friendly, indie-leaning dance to sounds that balance sing-along indie-pop and nuanced, often deeply textured electronic productions. This sonic evolution is happening after two albums released less than a year apart — 2018’s Sick Boy and World War Joy — failed to deliver any top 40 Hot 100 hits, benchmarks that previously seemed effortless for the duo.
“They started making songs that sounded like ‘Roses’ and ‘Don’t Let Me Down’ and ‘Closer,’ ” says Alpert. “People liked them, but there was no way they could be as big as those first songs. They got to a point where they were like, ‘We don’t need to keep making the same type of music over and over.’ ”
The production process for So Far So Good began on the North Shore of Oahu, Hawaii a few weeks after the World War Joy tour ended. In a rented house, Taggart and Pall settled in with a gaggle of pals including the electronic producer Whethan, and Ian Kirkpatrick and Emily Warren, the producers who’ve penned previous tracks for The Chainsmokers and cowrote hits for Dua Lipa and Shakira. The first few days were spent relaxing and playing music for each other. “Then out of nowhere one night,” Taggart says, “it just started happening.”
After the team came up with a few solid musical ideas, the guys fell into a rhythm: waking up around noon, surfing for a few hours — they had local guides take them out because as Pall tells it, “We’re not that good at surfing” — then having lunch at the house. After, they’d work on music until late at night. Given that the duo hadn’t been in one place longer than a few days for the previous six years, the two weeks were revelatory.
“I can’t tell you how life-changing it was for me personally,” says Taggart, his big eyes growing wider as he speaks with nearly religious conviction about the “most euphoric period of my life.” By the end of the trip, Taggart says he’d tossed his Prozac. (He notes he hadn’t been on it long enough to make weaning himself off necessary.)
Work continued during writing retreats in Joshua Tree, Calif., New York and London, with the guys meticulously assembling, then tearing apart, lyrics and production elements upwards of a hundred times. “To me, these songs sound like they took two years to make,” says Alpert.
While The Chainsmokers catalog had been defined by high-profile collaborations with singers like Halsey and Chris Martin, at a certain point they decided Taggart would just do all the singing himself to make the project even more their own. While the album’s lead singles “High” and “iPad” were written after the rest of the music to give the album what Taggart calls “connective tissue,” the album demonstrates a new level of technical proficiency and artistic verve in terms of The Chainsmokers’ capabilities as music-makers. Songs meld electronic sounds with thoughtful indie-pop songwriting in a way that presents Taggart as the lead singer of The Chainsmokers, The Band, with Pall joining on piano along with their drummer Matt McGuire for live shows.
“New people that don’t like ‘Closer’ or ‘Don’t Let Me Down’ are going to hear these songs and say, ‘This I can get down with’ — especially in the subgenres of the dance music community,” says Alpert. And while the album won’t likely deliver The Chainsmokers too deeply into dance’s underground realms, Alpert hopes it can “at the very least just be appreciated by those worlds.”
Which brings us to the great Chainsmokers dilemma: a lot of people kind of loathe them. This hasn’t been easy for Taggart and Pall. The guys are perfectly aware of the hard-partying, EDM-bro image that they projected in their early days of stardom, and they shy away from magazine interviews, for fear of a quote being taken out of context.
Their wariness is understandable. It was around the same time they became one of the most commercially successful groups of the mid-2010s that they also became two of the most ridiculed artists in mainstream music. A 2014 performance of “#Selfie” on American Idol was famously disastrous, with the guys posing for awkward photos with host Jennifer Lopez (today, they don’t even like to say the song title aloud), while a 2016 Billboard cover story found them backstage ripping tequila shots, proudly declaring that “we rage every night,” and exuding a bit of a chauvinist streak.
“I remember reading that and thinking, ‘I can’t believe this is what people are going to think of us,’ and ‘Do we come off this way? I don’t want to be this person, you know?’ ” says Taggart. “That was the biggest thing. The guys we read about there, I was like, ‘I don’t like these guys.’ ”
While they attempted to clean up their image in subsequent interviews, the headlines — “Get Used To Hating The Chainsmokers,” “The Stupidity Of The Chainsmokers Continues To Astound Me” — were unrelenting. (Yes, they read a lot of those stories.) Taggart and Pall acknowledge that they do have some bro in them — but the people who really know them, they say, have always understood they weren’t ever those caricatures.
“Sure, I would have loved that article not to turn out like that,” says Pall. “That’s the hard part, being like, ‘God, that is just not accurate of who I am, but I didn’t do myself any favors to show that person a different side.’ ”
Alpert, who calls himself their “big brother,” chooses his words carefully: “I can’t put myself in their shoes emotionally, but I think that when you’re dealing with hate, it throws you off and causes you to make mistakes, and it damages you a little bit…They certainly stumbled along the way, for lack of a better word. They played into that hate, in a way that is understandable for a person in their twenties to do.”
Years later, as they sit for another Billboard interview (the guys first had me over to the studio last December to play me the album and, it seemed, gauge my vibe) Taggart and Pall come across as thoughtful, funny and generally normal, more like dudes you’d meet at a fintech conference than on a bleary-eyed bar crawl. They’ve both gone to therapy, figured out how to say no to opportunities that don’t work for them, dealt with anxiety and imposter syndrome, and gotten advice on how to be famous from the likes of Martin and Calvin Harris.
They’re rich and famous, to be sure, but their day-to-day doesn’t sound terribly sexy, with current schedules that include workouts, studio time and hours of Zoom calls for their VC fund, Mantis. Using funds raised from outside investors (in 2020 they announced that Mantis had raised $35 million in commitment), Mantis buys private company shares during initial funding rounds, with recent investments including Apeel Sciences, which extends the shelf life of produce. (They generally stay away from consumer products to avoid diluting The Chainsmokers brand.) The guys are serious about the endeavor and count billionaire private equity CEO Jim Coulter among their mentors, adding that they’ve played weddings and bar mitzvahs hosted by plenty of the Fortune 500 CEOs.
Mostly, they just seem like — at long last — grown-ups who are proud of the more grown-up art they’ve made. So Far So Good is The Chainsmokers 2.0 — tighter, contemplative and more experimental than most of their previous capital-B Bangers. Album track “Testing,” for instance, may be the only song in the dance canon that samples Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory’s “Pure Imagination.” They hope people will give it a chance.
This reset began in January when, after a two-year break from social media (they admit they lurked a bit, but generally enjoyed being disconnected), The Chainsmokers uploaded a video announcing their return: a parody clip in which two random actors replace Pall and Taggart, playing into the longstanding Internet joke that anyone can do what The Chainsmokers do. “Sorry, The Chainsmokers are back,” a title card announced at the end of the video.
“Part of the thing with The Chainsmokers is, we felt on some levels like we were becoming people’s dirty little secret,” says Pall. “By being like, ‘We’re in on the joke, we get the joke, we love the joke,’ it disarms people and allows people to enjoy the music for what it is… Whatever people imagine from past experiences with us, I think it was really important to kind of reset the tone.”
“I definitely think we won people over,” says Alpert, “and that was 100% the plan.”
Of course, The Chainsmokers still have millions of global listeners that don’t need any convincing. The guys have been hanging out on their Discord channel playing their 10,000 subscribers their latest music and, in early April, jetted to London to play a pair of shows where production was just cryo and some lasers. “I had never felt more connected to our fans,” says Taggart. These were their first public performances since a July 2020 charity show in the Hamptons for which organizers incurred a $20,000 fine from New York state for breaking public health protocols; both Pall and Taggart are quick to call it a mistake.
Having also learned hard lessons during the relentless World War Joy tour and hundreds of shows prior, the trick now is getting The Chainsmokers back on the road in a way that doesn’t make them acutely miserable. With the album finished, there’s no pressure to produce more. Their team has also designed the So Far So Good tour to be a more modest run, with greater care put into individual shows booked at more unique venues. This time around, they want it to feel more special for everyone involved — including themselves.
“It does feel like we’re a new band starting over in a lot of ways,” says Pall. “I don’t mean that in any sort of negative way. It’s the best feeling ever.”