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— by Jon Wiederhorn, with reporting by Greg Kaplan

Since they formed near Chicago in 2001, Fall Out Boy have struggled through the normal rock and roll growing pains. They've played gigs to just a handful of people, faced rejection from record labels and toured the country in a van that makes a Honda Civic look like a luxury vehicle.

"It was a tiny V6 that was running on three cylinders, and it was not getting enough air, so it would drive really slowly," recalled bassist and songwriter Pete Wentz. "We had to turn on the hot air to reach the speed limit, so we had the heat on all the time in 120 degree weather. It was so hot it melted the plastic molding around the windows. When it rained, we'd get all wet."

Life has gotten easier for Fall Out Boy since then. Earlier this year, the band recorded the indie record Take This to Your Grave, which has been well received by critics and fans. Better still, the group has earned respect and admiration from some its heroes.

"We did the Skate and Surf Tour, and one day we get offstage and this guy walks up to me and goes, 'Man, you guys are great. I love your band,' " singer and guitarist Patrick Stump recalled. "I look up and it's the guy from Killswitch Engage, and I'm like, 'No, I love your band!' It was awesome."

It's not hard to grasp why Fall Out Boy's legions are growing daily. The band plays energized, guitar-blaring, melodic, soaring rock that bridges boundaries between emo and punk-pop. The group's far-reaching influences include Dashboard Confessional, Less Than Jake, Squeeze and the Cure, but Fall Out Boy's roots are entrenched in even heavier soil.

"I met Patrick [when I was having] a conversation about [tribal noise metal band] Neurosis in a Borders bookstore," guitarist Joe Trohman said. "I was taking really loud 'cause I talk really loud about Neurosis and other metal stuff, and he happened to hear and come over and popped in all weird and started talking to us. I ended up talking to him for an hour straight."

With the addition of drummer Andy Hurley, all the pieces were in place. Fall Out Boy started writing songs, but up until the time they played their first concert, they still didn't have a name. And when they finally chose their moniker, they had no idea it was the name of a short-lived character on "The Simpsons."

"We were playing our first show and we asked the crowd what they thought we should call ourselves," Wentz said. "So a kid yelled out, 'Fallout Boy,' and it stuck."

Fall Out Boy quickly recorded a series of songs they're now embarrassed by, but it wasn't long before a three-track self-titled demo found its way to the Internet. The songs were so well received that the band started getting calls from labels impressed by the buzz.

After a series of negotiations that fell through, Fall Out Boy found themselves signed to the indie label Fueled by Ramen and working on Take This to Your Grave, which was released in May.

"The record has been a really long time coming, and it actually kind of started by accident," Stump said. "We did the three songs from the demo a year before we finished the record and kept working on the rest of the songs after that."

Once Fall Out Boy stirred the waters, the feeding frenzy began. Several major labels wined and dined them in an effort to win their affection. They finally signed with Island, which will release the band's major-label debut next year. If Take This to Your Grave is any indication, Fall Out Boy could soon reap the rewards of corporate promotion and wind up in the same camp as Thursday, Thrice and Brand New, traveling in a luxury bus, getting played on the radio and selling lots of albums. There's no question that Fall Out Boy would be thrilled by such a fate, but it's hardly a goal.

"My goal is just to keep going where it's at and never have any lofty expectations," Wentz said. "I think a lot of bands get in trouble when they start having these expectations. For us, we never thought we would even play at this local club Fireside in our town, and then we played that, and it just keeps on building. But this band is solely based on friendship, and as long as we keep being friends with each other, it'll keep getting better."


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   Photo: Fueled By Ramen