Adam Levine is afraid of sharks. Actually, he’s obsessed. The Maroon 5 frontman was born and raised in Los Angeles, but has only tried surfing once. He can’t dip a toe in the ocean without thinking of sharks. He knows everything about them. He even has one tattooed on his chest, hidden under his T-shirt, which he pulls up without a glimmer of shyness to expose the portrait of his own personal bogeyman.
“I thought the best way to get in touch with the fear was to tattoo it on my body, in a weird way, because I can’t escape it,” says the 28-year-old, grinning wryly, his guard dissolving for a moment. “Sometimes I’m all about embracing fears, but sometimes I’m definitely not!” Smiling to himself, he suddenly looks half his age, and it’s clear that behind his musical talent, public charisma, flashing green eyes and heartbreaker reputation lives an intense, driven and private young man who, like the rest of us, gets scared sometimes.
A few other things you probably don’t know about Adam Levine: he may be Maroon 5’s frontman, thereby getting the most attention, but the band is a democracy, with each member contributing something of equal value and having an equal say. He’s a Pisces. (Ironic, isn’t it?) His lucky number, tattooed on his arm, is 222. (“I like the symmetry of it. Also, the first studio we ever recorded at was a place called Room 222, in Hollywood.”) He avoids coffee because it “makes him exhausted”. He played basketball as a kid, took his first guitar lesson at age 10 and has been determined to be a professional musician ever since. On this particular Sunday morning, in a posh Toronto hotel room, red-and-black-checked socks peek out from beneath his black high-top skateboarding sneakers. His short haircut almost creates a military effect, which, considering his devotion to ambition and passion for precision, is not entirely inappropriate.
Levine’s tenacity and dedication—qualities shared by his bandmates—have certainly contributed to the band’s steady growth over the years, and to its present-day success. Originally formed as Kara’s Flowers by Levine and high-school friends Jesse Carmichael (keyboard) and Mickey Madden (bass), they were dropped by their first label, but soon after regrouped as Maroon 5. Their 2002 debut, Songs About Jane, featured hits like “This Love”, “Sunday Morning” and “She Will Be Loved”. It won Maroon 5 a Grammy for Best New Artist, and went gold or platinum in more than 35 countries. Since then, the band has sold more than 10 million records, and they’ve performed with the likes of the Rolling Stones and Stevie Wonder.
Their new release, It Won’t Be Soon Before Long, debuted at #1 on the Billboard charts in the U.S. The album takes their hook-laden, R&B−influenced rock/pop sound to a new, albeit just as marketable, level: louder, sexier, funkier and a tad darker, at least lyrically. The debut single, “Makes Me Wonder”, for instance, expresses disillusionment with the political status quo, as Levine croons, “Give me something to believe in ’cause I don’t believe in you anymore.” Both SPIN and Rolling Stone gave the record good reviews, with critic Robert Christgau of the latter praising its “meaty-beaty dynamite” and the group’s avoidance of the “sophomore slump”. And what do the fans think? Judging from audience’s rapture at recent sold-out Montreal and Toronto shows, the radio-loving world of mothers and daughters is experiencing a collective swoon.
Maroon 5 is a big band. And in an industry that often equates talent with poverty and success with selling out, the guys remain humbly unapologetic about their larger-than-life status, their indisputable slickness, and the perfect pop package Levine calls a “well-oiled machine”. Which is pretty much what Maroon 5 is.
“I can’t be in a band for 13 years and not have it be a well-oiled machine,” he says. “Otherwise I would feel like I was backpedalling. I’ve been in the garage bands, I’ve screwed around and jammed until 5 in the morning, I’ve done all that and that’s great. But now I love that it’s very concise and to the point, no bullshit, very forward. I’ve always focused on ‘bigger, better, more’. The goal has always been to be in a band so that I could have it be my career and hopefully get paid to do it, so there’s no shame in that. And I’ve always had really high expectations for myself…” He looks up again with that wry, amused self-awareness. “In music. Nowhere else, really.”
To the troops of hopeful actors, artists and musicians who occupy its maze of streets, Los Angeles, a thousand cities rolled into one, can be bright light or black hole. Usually, it’s a bit of both. In the year 2000, guitarist James Valentine of Lincoln, Nebraska, dropped out of college to play music. Against the advice of family, friends and even his hometown guitar mentor, he moved to Los Angeles to pursue music. Levine and Carmichael had recently returned from studying at the State University of New York.
“I had the classic ‘American dream’ struggle,” recalls the 28-year-old Valentine, longish blond hair framing his friendly face, dressed in a striped T-shirt. Whereas Adam Levine is all sharp, sexy edges and layers upon layers of self, James Valentine projects a softer cool, more open and laid-back. Even his West Coast vocal twang is soft and fluid, the kind of voice that makes you want to speak just like him.
“After I was out there for awhile, everybody was like, ‘What are you doing? You’re never going to make a living as a musician.’ I met up with this band soon after, but even after I joined, I was still living off credit cards. It’s tough to be broke and be out there with so many people trying to do what you’re trying to do. It was amazing to go through that and come out on the other end. I still don’t believe it sometimes.”
Shortly after meeting the group, Valentine became a Maroon. The band combined R&B and soul influences with their rock sound; the result was Songs About Jane. Meanwhile, the musicians were growing up just as their band was becoming famous. “We weren’t only transitioning into the stature we had achieved as a band, but also transitioning into adulthood,” Valentine explains. “Then we went out on the road, which was just forever, so it’s almost like we went away, and when we came back, everything was completely different—we had money for the first time, and we were settled, and we bought houses.”
With new drummer Matt Flynn on board and four seasoned producers at the helm, Maroon 5 got to work on their follow-up. Levine was eager to try new things and explore different influences, like Michael Jackson, Prince and Talking Heads. “We really did what we wanted to do,” Levine explains. “That’s why we were so excited, ’cause we had a lot more freedom. And a lot more time. And a little more money. We were able to go further, and then scale back. That’s a really satisfying feeling.”
Yet with boiling sophomore pressure and five strong opinions, Valentine says the vibe in the studio was, well, stressful. “We all have very high standards,” he says. “We wanted it to be really good, and we all have different ideas about what that means. So it was often pretty tense, but we’re used to that. Any time we’ve been in the studio, we argue about everything: the smallest, most minute details. And we fight fair. It is ultimately a democracy. A lot of times things will come down to a vote. I mean, when you’re making a record with five distinct identities, it’s going to be a compromise in some ways for everybody. But at the end, we all came out in a good place. We’re all proud of it.”
Levine admits he learned to compromise the hard way. “I was very stubborn,” he says. “Turned out I was wrong, and being able to admit fault was important. The biggest mistake you can make is thinking you’ve nailed everything the first time.”
As such, before hitting the stadiums, Maroon 5 tried out new material in a series of small club shows. “If you can win over a small crowd in a club, you can basically win over any crowd,” says Levine. Although these particular “small crowds” were obviously the band’s most loving fans, it was still difficult learning to work a room in L.A.’s sweaty clubs. “When you go out there, and nobody knows who you are and nobody particularly cares, it’s difficult to convince them you’re a good band. I definitely flailed my arms and said ‘Hey, look at me, look at me’ many times to get people’s attention. Now we know for the most part that when we get in front of a crowd they’re going to be wonderful, lovely, adoring fans. It’s exciting that we earned that. It took a long time.”
Being in a band is kind of like being in a marriage. Individual identity can get lost in the collective, but the collective can save you from yourself. Factor in fame and all its trappings, the impermanence of life on the road, and life changes that are part of growing up, and it’s no wonder so many rock stars get lost. For the most part, however, Maroon 5 has avoided those pitfalls. How?
“It helps that we’re all pretty well-grounded,” says Valentine. “When people associate themselves too much personally with whatever band they’re in or whatever they do, that’s dangerous because when the band’s done, people who are that invested get into trouble. So we all do different things to maintain our personal identities.”
Contributing to other artists’ records is one of Valentine’s keep-it-real hobbies. Last year, he and Mickey Madden played on Jenny Lewis’s album Rabbit Fur Coat, and he’s also played with John Mayer and Rachael Yamagata. “And I’m gonna sound like I’m from L.A., like I’m flaky…” He gets all shy for a moment. “But over this past year, I’ve started meditating. I started reading about jazz musicians who meditated. It absolutely helps with music, and when I’m onstage that’s the state I’m trying to reach.”
As for Levine, the Maroon who gets so much attention—whom tabloids have linked to Lindsay Lohan, Jessica Simpson and Paris Hilton, and whose ex-girlfriend was the lyrical muse of Songs About Jane—he’s learned not to care what anyone thinks of him. Except for close friends and family, of course. “It’s kind of a nice… façade,” he says of his persona. “I don’t need people to know all the details of my life. People can think what they want to think. It’s not going to change my actual reality.”
Most valuable of all, the guys have each other. “I’m in a band, so I have a great support system,” says Levine. “We don’t give each other much room to be assholes. It’s really important to have good friends who aren’t your yes-men, who are your peers. If I was trying to do this by myself, I’d probably have a very skewed idea of what reality was.”
And so, as its members live their individual lives, the entity that is Maroon 5 marches on with almost military precision, the whole protecting each of its five heads from being swallowed by the sharks.
Direction: Sandra Zarkovic. Styling: Aristotle Circa. Grooming: Janine Holmes. Location: Michael Lee-Chin Crystal at the Royal Ontario Museum. Special thanks to Antoine Tedesco.