Four years ago, the Starting Line were on top of the world. Their single, “Best of Me,” was all over music television stations, their smiling mugs were plastered all over magazines, and the band’s potential seemed endless. Unfortunately, when the band turned in the demos for their second full-length, Based On A True Story, Geffen told them to go back to the drawing board and thus began a year-long writing process that kept the group off the road and yielded song titles such as “Inspired by the Dollar $.”

But that was over two years ago. This summer, the Philadelphia-based band released their third album, Direction, on Virgin Records, a collection of decidedly upbeat pop gems that shows the group transcending their pop-punk roots and rocking with real authority and spirit. “We have always been lumped into that pop-punk category because that’s the music we grew up on,” explains guitarist Matt Watts. “But there’s definitely something different and unique about what we do.”

From a guitar standpoint, the album is miles away from the power- and octave-chord combinations that informed most of the Starting Line’s early material. For example, the song “What You Want” begins with a melodic delay-driven guitar line complete with hammer-ons and pull-offs; “Way With Words” is a deceptively simple three-chord rock song that’s dripping with complex harmonies; and the album’s first single, “Island,” is so ridiculously catchy that it should be the fall radio staple.

“Everything that happened with this record and these songs felt really natural from a songwriting standpoint,” Watts says. “It was a pleasant experience all around; I don’t think we could have written anything dark, depressing, or angry if we tried. Playing shows and having kids care about us—that means more than anything.”

To achieve his tone, Watts exclusively used Les Pauls from his personal collection and also borrowed a few from the album’s producer, Howard Benson (The All-American Rejects, My Chemical Romance). “I use Les Pauls live and in the studio because the sound of the guitar is so thick that I don’t need any pedals to fill it out,” says Watts. “That guitar is like a tank. I can beat the hell out of it every night and it doesn’t go out of tune. It’s just super strong and versatile, and I completely back it—it’s a fantastic guitar.”

Despite the setbacks the band have endured with their former label over the past few years, they seem more content now than they’ve ever been—but that doesn’t mean that they’re going to be resting on their respective laurels anytime soon. “I think we’re still kind of discovering our own place in the scene, and I’m hoping that by staying on the road and keeping people exposed to our music, we might carve our own spot,” Watts says. “That’s something we’ve always wanted to do. The truth is, we can’t be stopped.”