Inside Meet Me @ the Altar's Debut Album: 'We Didn't Want to Trap Ourselves in the Box of Genre'
Pop-punk trio Meet Me @ the Altar arrived during the pandemic as a vibrant newcomer to the scene - and has been eager to release its debut album ever since. "I'm done waiting," vocalist Edith Victoria tells Billboard in late February, in a tone that fuses excitement with exasperation. "I'm really over it."
Fortunately, the wait is over as Past // Present // Future arrives today (March 10) on Fueled by Ramen. It's the culmination of an effort that the band - comprised of Victoria and guitarist/bassist Téa Campbell, both 22, and drummer Ada Juarez, 24 - began writing in mid-2021.
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With a tense-themed title that nods to the genre's pivotal players throughout the past few decades and teases where the band will take it from here. Single "Kool," backed by crunchy guitar, turns its title into an approximately nine-syllable word; "Thx 4 Nothin'" could fit seamlessly onto the Jonas Brothers' 2008 album, A Little Bit Longer; and album closer "King of Everything" rolls its grunge-based production into a head-banging chorus. "We didn't want to trap ourselves in the box of genre," Campbell says. "It's our art at the end, and we want to make the music that makes us happy."
And though the group is intent on providing more than just nostalgia, its members aren't afraid to tug on heartstrings: During its tour opener at New York's Gramercy Theatre at the top of March, the band performed a medley of Alanis Morissette's "You Oughta Know" into Avril Lavigne's "Complicated" into the Freaky Friday battle of the bands classic, "Take Me Away." (Plus, Victoria noted during the show that the vulnerable "T.M.I" draws inspiration from P!nk's 2001 hit "Don't Let Me Get Me.")
Over the course of the roughly hourlong set (Meet Me @ the Altar's first headlining show, and its first of 23 stops on tour), the trio took turns marveling at the crowd and offering an early listen of some Past // Present // Future hits.
"That's such a big aspect in releasing anything. People really come to understand [new music] after they see it played live," Victoria says. "I've even experienced that as a music lover. Not really liking a song, and then after I see it live, I'm like, 'I love that song.' I'm really excited for that."
Below, Victoria, Campbell and Juarez discuss how they made an experimental - yet cohesive - body of work, wanting to tour arenas with the Jonas Brothers and more.
The release of Past // Present // Future comes just before the fifth anniversary of your first EP as a trio, Changing States. How has your creation process evolved since?
Campbell: I always forget that we even have Changing States. As time goes on, you understand each other's visions, and we're always communicating and talking about what we want for this band and what directions we want to go. We've gotten a lot better at visualizing our vision. Before, we were kind of just doing whatever. Now, we're really locking in on what we want to be making.
What conversations inspired the sonic direction of this debut?
Victoria: We wanted for it to be a little bit experimental because it's our first record. If fans end up liking those songs, we have so many different avenues we can take for the second [album] - and not have our fan base be so confused as to where the heck it came from.
Campbell: Right. We didn't want to trap ourselves in the box of genre, which a lot of artists do and a lot of fans inflict on bands, too, which is kind of messed up. It's our art at the end of the day, and we want to make the music that makes us happy. If other people like it, that is great. But if they don't, it's still music for us. Like Edith said, we want to be able to go any direction [while] still keeping it rock-based. An example of a band who did it perfectly was Paramore: Their records all sound different, but it's still them. Some people take a while to get with it, and that's alright. That happens any time anyone changes anything. But they'll get over it.
Victoria: One thing I've always hated about the music industry is that fans don't see their favorite artists as lovers of music that can like multiple things. It's so unfortunate because I remember when Paramore released After Laughter everyone was freaking out and I was like, "This is so good, though!"
You've previously discussed wanting to create an album that sounded like a cohesive body of work. Why was that an important focus?
Victoria: [With] us being huge music-lovers and listening to a lot of different types of records, it's always really hard to find the sweet spot between having a diverse record but also keeping it cohesive. Because you can listen to an album and then four songs in you'll be like, "Well, I've already heard this." We had to find out how to keep it diverse but also keep it cohesive. That's what we would like to see in other artists, so we want that for our band, too.
Were there moments when you thought the project was finished and then you'd listen back later and think, "You know, we've heard this song already"?
Juarez: So many times.
Campbell: We thought we were done in April and didn't get done until November. In the beginning, there were so many swaps because we weren't really sure of what specific sound we wanted this album to have. As we had more writing sessions and fell in love with more songs, we started to really understand, so then those would beat out some of the other ones that we didn't really feel fit that cohesive vibe. We recorded the album in April and then we had a last-minute session and flew out to L.A., wrote a couple more songs and had to put them on the album. We swapped those out last second.
How many songs do you think were written for the album in total?
Victoria: Around 30? There are some songs that I refuse to ever ... we're taking those to our grave.
Juarez: Those our deepest, darkest secrets. It's just going to be us knowing those songs.
John Fields (Miley Cyrus, Jonas Brothers, Demi Lovato) helmed the album's production. How did that come together?
Victoria: I made a playlist of early 2000s throwback pop-rock songs - Kelly Clarkson, Demi Lovato, Jonas Brothers, all those people. We were all listening to it during the process, and when we were seeing how the record was going to shape up, we had to decide who [was going] to produce it. I was looking through that playlist and I saw John Fields' name under "Get Back" by Demi Lovato, and that's one of our favorite songs. I was like, "He's probably going to be a million dollars a song, it's not going to work out." But we had dinner with our A&R and he was like, "I'll just reach out and see what happens." John really liked us and it all worked out.
Juarez: Long live John Fields. He was the perfect person for this album.
The first line on the album opener and lead single, "Say It (To My Face)," immediately addresses being an industry plant. Why did you decide to kick it off with that?
Victoria: That's the leading insult that people say to us, and we wanted to start this album rollout with an in-your-face moment. We've heard it so much since signing to the label; just people saying sh-t for no reason. We still get that. We get that more now than I think we ever have.
Campbell: In between [August 2021 EP] Model Citizen and "Say It," we had all that time to see what people were saying. It was like, "We've been gone for a while, but we're back. We saw what you were saying while we were gone! We're going to address it and we're moving on."
You've been signed to Fueled by Ramen for a few years now. What are some of the bigger goals the label has helped you accomplish?
Campbell: First of all, we have the best publicists in the world. That has contributed to so much of our blowup. Everyone on the label genuinely cares, and it's so nice to feel taken care of and listened to because that's hard to come by, especially in our experience.
It's also funny because - I've seen this recently - people assume that when a band changes anything, it's because a label is making them. It's all us. If you don't like that, that sucks because it's our idea. The label never forces us to do anything. Everything is our choice.
Victoria: It's so funny. Especially since we kind of shifted gears with our sound, everyone is like, "Oh, the label is changing them." They're not.
Juarez: Funny enough, we would've done it sooner. Almost did.
Victoria: We almost did. Model Citizen almost sounded more like this.
You're on your first headlining tour. As a band that has supported so many icons on the road, what were you eager to apply to your own shows?
Campbell: Every time we tour with someone, we're out there [in the crowd]. To be able to tour with bands like Coheed and Cambria, The Used and Green Day who have been doing this for so long, we really studied those acts because they alter their songs around the show and alter their show around the songs. It makes you think of, like, "Oh, I could be doing this kind of moment" - whether it be a clapping thing or whatever - in our own songs. We really tried to absorb as much as we could.
Now that the album is out, what are the band's biggest goals moving forward?
Juarez: Taking over the world.
Campbell: I want to tour with the Jonas Brothers!
Juarez: I want to do a big arena tour so bad. Manifesting.
Victoria: Yeah, I'd really want us to open up for an arena tour. The Green Day shows that we played in Europe were amazing. But Jonas Brothers, yes. They have a new album coming out, too...
If you had to designate one song on the album in each of the "past," "present" and "future" categories, which would you choose?
Campbell: I would say "T.M.I" is past because I feel like that song has a vibe most similar to "Bigger Than Me." Like, that era of MMATA.
Victoria: I feel like "Try," too.
Juarez: For future, "Kool" has to be there. That's that futuristic type sh-t. People haven't even thought of it yet.
Campbell: Present would probably be "Say It."
Victoria: Also, it could be "Rocket Science" from a lyrical sense. We're experiencing so many new things and I think we're going to have to remind ourselves-
Campbell: It isn't rocket science!
Victoria: Yeah! It's a whole new era for us, in every single way. First album, new sound, new vibes. We might have to remind ourselves a couple of times to chill and not overthink [things]. Like, "Oh yeah. We did that."
A version of this story originally appeared in the March 11, 2023, issue of Billboard.