Boys Like Girls swing home with mainstream pop reach.
Though rarely recognized around their hometown, Boys Like Girls inspire craziness around the world. The Boston pop-rockers have sold millions of records and thrilled crowds as far away as Singapore, where the band played a show in July before 15,000 fans.
“Kids were going nuts for us over there, which was awesome,” says drummer John Keefe, a Mansfield native. “They all had glowsticks and signs and were screaming. We were like, ‘Holy s***!’ It’s surreal. Then you go sit in a tent with a little white light. It’s like you’re going a million miles an hour and then it’s off. It almost feels like it didn’t really happen.”
Their current reality was just a faraway dream in 2005, when Keefe, singer/guitarist Martin Johnson and original bassist Bryan Donahue founded the band in an attic apartment in Taunton.
“It was an absolute s***hole, but it was fun,” recalls Keefe, who slept on a mattress in the kitchen and worked a landscaping job by day. He also supplemented the fledgling band’s infamous diet of ramen noodles with produce from his family’s farm. “It wasn’t like we were starving, but we were making the best of what we had,” he says. “It’d be tough now to go back.”
Indeed, life has changed for Boys Like Girls in the six years between the group’s eponymous debut and their just-released third album, Crazy World. But Keefe contends that success didn’t come quickly.
“It always gets a lot harder before it gets easier,” he says. “We did 13 U.S. tours in a van over the course of about two years straight until we got into our first bus. We all paid dues. It’s always funny when there’s some punk kid who doesn’t like your music, and he’ll yell at you, like, ‘You guys didn’t put in your time.’ And you say, ‘You have no idea.’”
For Keefe, 29, that meant playing thousands of gigs since his unusual first break at age 15 when he joined Shania Twain onstage at Great Woods (now the Comcast Center). “I was very hooked,” the drummer says. “Playing in front of an audience, I’d say, is the only time I feel that I have some type of real purpose in life.” Countless shows later—from his family barn to small club and community shows around Massachusetts and Rhode Island—Keefe linked with Johnson, who graduated early from Andover High School to focus on their music career.
Boys Like Girls began in the pop-punk vein but have grown into more of a mainstream pop sound. Last year, faced with radio’s growing shift away from guitar-based rock, they scrapped tracks for their next album and took a hiatus. “You spend that much time with the same guys doing every goddamn thing together,” Keefe says. “We needed a break.” Johnson, who had copenned Taylor Swift’s “If This Was a Movie,” went to Nashville to write and inevitably came up with the songs that became Crazy World.
Johnson, Keefe and guitarist Paul DiGiovanni replaced Donahue with bassist Morgan Dorr for the new album, streamlining emotive songs that aim for fans’ heartstrings—and that should increase the band’s hometown profile. Guitars give way to light orchestration, which in turn plays up the melodies and Johnson’s falsetto-capped vocals. “The First Time” spills nostalgic lines with an effusive country-pop feel, while Johnson sings “I’ll make you shiver, I’ll keep you warm” in “Be My Everything,” evoking visions of young fans swaying their hands.
But the screams and sing-alongs sometimes overshadow musicianship and craft in concert, especially when Johnson fuels the fervor with inside stories between songs. Keefe says he occasionally wishes the focus was more on music, but understands that it’s a show.
“It’s about the whole environment and just letting people get away from their everyday grind,” says Keefe, whose group plays House of Blues later this month. “If they want to listen to your music, they can go turn on your CD. They come out to see you, and that interaction with your fans is a very big part of it.”
Boys Like Girls play House of Blues on Sept. 22.