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Before Merriweather show, Fall Out Boy on growing up, Wiz Khalifa and 'Centuries'

Fall Out Boy's Pete Wentz and Patrick Stump talk reformation, Wiz Khalifa and infiltrating pop culture.

If someone would have told Pete Wentz, bassist of the band Fall Out Boy, that the pop-punk quartet he formed in a Chicago suburb in 2001 would go on to write one of the biggest sports anthems in recent memory years later, he would have shook his head in disbelief.

“Oh man, I would have laughed. I wouldn't have believed it,” Wentz said on the phone from Los Angeles earlier this month. “It's so funny how it works, right?”

Nothing about Fall Out Boy's career path has been easy to predict. And thanks to the recent ubiquity of the made-for-stadiums foot-stomper “Centuries” and back-to-back No. 1 albums, the quartet — which plays Merriweather Post Pavilion on Saturday — appears stronger than ever. Fall Out Boy flirted with the mainstream early on, but now they seem determined to penetrate it by any and all means.

“We're a pretty bitter pill for straight-pop radio to swallow still,” Wentz said. “Pop radio plays one rock song from a rock band, maybe. We need to infiltrate culture in whatever ways we can. If that's getting played on ESPN or in sports games or whatever it is, that's the way we're able to sneak our way in.”

The goals were much smaller in the beginning. After the 2003 debut “Take This to Your Grave” established the group's songwriting chops and lyrics were sharper than their Warped Tour peers, Fall Out Boy broke through to MTV’s “TRL” crowd in 2005 with the anthemic singles “Sugar, We're Goin Down” and “Dance, Dance.” In 2007, the band hit a commercial peak, scoring the first No. 1 album of its career with “Infinity on High.”

But the following year, the group's fourth album, “Folie a Deux,” failed to match rising expectations, and Fall Out Boy looked to be running on fumes. In the fall of 2009, the members — singer and guitarist Patrick Stump, guitarist Joe Trohman, drummer Andy Hurley and Wentz — went on hiatus with no indication of when they would get back together. Personal lives and relationships had frayed, and the future of Fall Out Boy looked bleak.

For Wentz, the time away — which included a divorce from singer Ashlee Simpson in 2011 — was necessary to mature from “a guy in a rock band with no responsibility” to an adult and father. (He and Simpson share custody of their 6-year-old son, Bronx.)

“I walked away with perspective I think,” Wentz, 36, said. “Taking some time and being able to process [the hiatus] a little bit was pretty helpful. It was realizing how lucky we were, and it made me appreciate our fans, too.”

Stump, a versatile songwriter, pursued a solo career that would put distance between him and the band’s “emo” tag that constantly followed them. During the break, he released his funk-and-synth-pop-influenced solo album, 2011's “Soul Punk.” While Stump considered it “my little art project,” critics and fans assigned higher expectations that Stump had no clue he was supposed to meet.

“I'm about as famous as the red-headed kid from 'The Sandlot.' Because of that, I just assumed I had this anonymity,” Stump said in a separate phone interview from Los Angeles. “As a pop record, it was doomed to fail because it was never mean to be a big pop record, so of course it was going to flop.”

Stump wasn't the only member trying to find his way. Wentz pursued an electropop project called Black Cards. Trohman played in the metal supergroup the Damned Things. Hurley played drums in various Milwaukee hardcore bands. But no one came close to reaching the heights they achieved together.

So it was surprising, and not, when Fall Out Boy resurfaced with little notice in 2013 — first in February with an online message announcing they had spent months working in secrecy on new material and then the release of their fifth album, “Save Rock and Roll” in April.

Clearing the air of festering, inner-band grievances led to the decision to make the band more collaborative while moving toward a pop-minded sound. Fall Out Boy was welcomed back with open arms. “Save Rock and Roll” and its January 2015 follow-up “American Beauty/American Psycho” both debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard album charts.

The time away coupled with the members' natural maturations made all of the difference, according to the singer.

“The band is probably the healthiest the four of us have ever been,” Stump, 31, said.

Their renewed relationships — both personal and creative — have translated into hits like “The Phoenix” and “Uma Thurman.” But none have been bigger than “Centuries,” a triple-platinum anthem with more than 118 million plays on Spotify alone. The song was not an instant success, but received a monumental push at sporting events around the world after ESPN named it the official song of the network’s inaugural College Football Playoff coverage.

This past winter, it was hard to watch the channel without hearing Stump's full-throated plea, “Remember me! For centuries!” It was the type of hit where backlash was inevitable, and even Wentz understands it. Not that he would change it, though.

“I wouldn't have done anything differently,” Wentz said. “You're getting exposed to people who wouldn't hear you otherwise.”

The push helped at radio, too. Rob Kruz, program director of Baltimore Top 40 radio station Z104.3, said “Centuries” was slow to catch on, but once it did, it was an undeniable hit.

“Eventually we just saw a passion level from our audience that told us not only do we need to play it, but we need to play it a lot,” Kruz said. “It differentiated from Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande at the time, Iggy Azalea. Just from a sonic standpoint, it gave us a real nice balance.”

Armed with recent hits and a deep catalog that is aging well, Fall Out Boy is optimistic for the future. First up: The band's co-headlining “Boys of Zummer” tour with perpetually stoned rapper Wiz Khalifa. It's a pairing that makes sense given the band's history, as Fall Out Boy has collaborated with Jay Z, Lil Wayne and Big Sean. In Wiz, Wentz sees a "kindred spirit" in their pop adaptability. He also believes young audiences are more accepting of cross-genre collaborations than ever.

“Kids like songs. This song might be by a rapper and this one might be by a DJ or a rock band. I think genre means less,” Wentz said. “Everything about Fall Out Boy has always been experimental, and we'll see how it goes.”

Whether Fall Out Boy keeps experimenting for decades or months, Stump said they've come further than anyone ever expected. (“I don't think Fall Out Boy would have been a sure bet 10, 15 years ago,” he said with a laugh.)

Wentz, on the other hand, is happiest that the relationships that began in his small hometown of Wilmette, Ill., nearly 15 years ago are still in tact.

“We're still just four guys. That is a really hard thing to do on the rollercoaster that is being in a band that's successful, that has ups and downs,” Wentz said. “I'm most proud that we're still friends.”

wesley.case@baltsun.com

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If you go

Fall Out Boy performs Saturday at Merriweather Post Pavilion, 10475 Little Patuxent Parkway in Columbia. Wiz Khalifa, Hoodie Allen and DJ Drama will also perform. Doors open at 5:30 p.m.; show is at 7. Tickets are $40-$75. Call 410-715-5550 or go to merriweathermusic.com.

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