Maroon 5 band members: PJ Morton, left, James Valentine, Adam Levine, Mickey… (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles…)
The members of Maroon 5 take plenty of responsibility for what they say went wrong on "Hands All Over," the 2010 album that temporarily stalled the ascent of this L.A.-based pop-rock group.
"I don't think we knew what kind of record we were making," singer Adam Levine recalled this month at Conway Recording Studios, his combat boots propped on an enormous mixing console. He and guitarist James Valentine were at Conway to record a track-by-track commentary on their new album for Spotify. "It was such a hodgepodge — all these disparate ideas and songs that didn't make any sense together."
Still, Levine added with a laugh, Maroon 5 can't be blamed entirely for the trouble with "Hands All Over," which according to Nielsen SoundScan has sold 1.1 million copies — half as many as 2007's "It Won't Be Soon Before Long." There was also the matter of the Swiss castle the band occupied while working with producer Robert "Mutt" Lange.
"We were in this idyllic paradise, which is a horrible place to make a record," the frontman said. "Switzerland'sneutrality is very famous, and I feel like that neutrality infected Maroon 5's third album."
"Come on, pick a side!" Valentine joked, before adding, "We picked a side this time."
Indeed they did. For "Overexposed," due out Tuesday, Maroon 5 enlisted the services of a small army of Top 40 mercenaries, including Max Martin, Ryan Tedder and Benny Blanco: Midas-touch songwriter-producers responsible for some of the past decade's biggest — and least ambivalent — singles. Think Kelly Clarkson's "Since U Been Gone" and "Teenage Dream" by Katy Perry.
The alignment with A-list hit makers is a surprising about-face for a group — one rounded out by bassist Mickey Madden, drummer Matt Flynn and keyboardist PJ Morton — that for years positioned itself as operating outside the pop-industrial complex. "No one has ever written a note for this band who wasn't in the inner circle," Levine told Billboard in 2010.
Yet last year, the singer woke one morning with a realization: "We love having huge songs," he said, describing a pleasure Maroon 5 first experienced with "This Love" and "She Will Be Loved," from its quadruple-platinum 2002 debut, "Songs About Jane." "And there was a slight lull in our ability to make that happen. We needed help."
They got it from Blanco, who recruited Levine — by then a judge on NBC's hit singing competition"The Voice" — to appear on "Stereo Hearts" by Gym Class Heroes. The single went to No. 1 on Billboard's pop songs chart.
"After I put Adam on that record he really wanted it for himself," Blanco says. "I was like, 'Look, man, it's all good — we'll just make you another one.'"
The follow-up with Blanco did even better: Maroon 5's "Moves Like Jagger," featuring Levine's "Voice" costar Christina Aguilera, topped charts in 18 countries and has sold more than 5 million copies in the United States.
"'Jagger' saved us," Levine acknowledged at Conway. "It totally revived the band."
The song's success also provided a blueprint for "Overexposed."
"Had that not happened, I don't think we ever would have been open to [further collaborations]," said Valentine.
The new album preserves the band's melodic streak and Levine's white-soul vocals but punches up the four-on-the-floor groove in cuts like "Lucky Strike" and "Doin' Dirt." Rapper Wiz Khalifa contributes a verse to the album's lead single, "Payphone," which this week sits at No. 3 (with a bullet) on the Hot 100.
"It's kind of like a reinvention," says KIIS-FM (102.7) program director John Ivey. Last month, the L.A. radio station invited Maroon 5 to play its annual Wango Tango concert alongside Khalifa, Nicki Minaj and Pitbull — acts well beyond the rock scene in which Maroon 5 once circulated. "I think they reached a fork in the road, and they took the right path. But it doesn't feel like a sellout. They just contemporized their sound."
Valentine says the retrofit led to loosening of long-established roles. "I was territorial at first — like, 'Who are these guys, and what's my place in this gonna be now?'" Levine remembers arguing with Flynn over keeping the beats simple enough to impact immediately on the radio or in a basketball arena.
Both men acknowledge that "Overexposed's" dance-ready vibe represents a concession to pop's current climate. "But look at every major artist during the disco era, from the Rolling Stones to Rod Stewart to ABBA," Levine adds. "They were trying to fit in!"
"The price of admission is that there is a sound you have to slot into if you even want a shot on radio," says Valentine. "Whether that's good or bad is another discussion. But that's the way it's been for the last two years."
Levine is unabashed about his desire to "be a part of the conversation," as he puts it. "We don't really wanna go quietly into the night."