Talking emo with Chase Mason of Gatecreeper

A freewheelin' chat about some of Chase's favorite emo records

Talking emo with Chase Mason of Gatecreeper

When I decided to start Former Clarity a few months back, it was because I wanted a space where I could write whatever I wanted without asking anyone for permission. And the story you’re about to read is the one that put that thought into my head.

When Gatecreeper announced their new album Deserted this summer, I fired off a mundane tweet about how I thought the record was, and I quote, “very good.” Through a weird turn of events, the band’s vocalist, Chase Mason, ended up replying and revealing that he was a pretty big emo fan when he was a kid. As someone who loves both metal and emo—and plenty of other things—I thought it’d be fun to talk to Chase about all things emo, not just because of our shared interest, but because it’s rare to see someone from the metal world admit to having a non-metal interest. For a genre that’s come as far as it has musically, there’s still a tendency for fans to call other people out for not being 100% metal since birth. So I felt it’d be fun to see Chase put that all out there and see how mad people got about something so innocuous.

Despite being a pretty fun little premise for an interview, no outlet would take it. And when I say that no one would take it, I don’t mean that the pitch was rejected, I mean that no one even responded. I sent polite follow-up emails over the course of a few weeks and couldn’t get so much as a “no” from any of the people I pitched. But, instead of being defeated, I said “Fuck it. I’m gonna start a newsletter.” And friends, as is proven by this sitting in your inbox right now, I have gone and done a newsletter.

The reason I wanted to talk to Chase about emo was not just because it’s a fun tidbit, but because he said in one of our first interactions that the genre still influences his approach to songwriting. Take a listen to Deserted and you can definitely hear it. Sure, it’s still a death metal record, but these are pop song structures with crushing riffs carrying them. There may not be choruses that land for fans of non-aggressive music, but at the heart of it all, there are hooks, both in the vocal melodies and guitar leads. It’s death metal, but it’s built on a foundation that owes more to things outside the genre than many of the bands cited as Gatecreeper’s direct influences.

I asked Chase to pick some of his favorite emo records as a loose framework for our discussion, but things went all over the place pretty quickly. His list of favorite albums is below, but we go long and let things take us where they may, which is really the reason I got into this whole newsletter racket. And friends, it sure does feel good to get to do stuff like this here.

Oh, before we start, here’s a picture of Chase in 8th grade, proving his emo bona fides.

Chase way back when

Former Clarity: So, before we get into the emo thing, what was the first thing that got you into music?

Chase: When I was a kid my dad was really into music. He took me to see Paul McCartney for my third birthday, so I got really into the Beatles. I really liked that movie Help! and I would just watch that over and over and over. I had a little fake guitar and would pretend to be playing and singing the songs. Probably when I was six or seven and was venturing out and figuring out what I liked, my dad showed me how to tape songs off the radio. I’d have it set up with this little recorder with the pause button on, and as soon as a song I liked came on, I’d unpause it and record it. It was my first little adventure into finding new music and collecting music.

I have a cousin who was seven years older than me, maybe eight, and he played in a punk band and he skateboarded. Through him I started going beyond radio-rock sort of stuff, and I think a big landmark for me was Green Day’s Dookie, because that was on the radio, but it was also punk. It was accessible enough for me to get into. My other cousin, who’s around my age, we’d be playing Super Nintendo in their basement, and my older cousin’s band would be practicing. We were basically sitting in the middle of them practicing as we were playing Super Nintendo. So I was just around that stuff from a very young age, and I kind of dug deep through him.

From there, I got blink-182’s Dude Ranch, which was a big one for me. I would say that’s the first punk album that I really liked. That record kind of sent me down the path, because I was also interested in skateboarding, and those worlds are really tied together. So I got into all the Fat Wreck and Epitaph stuff because it was so easy to find new bands because of those Punk-O-Rama samplers. They were super cheap and they had like 30 bands on them. It was a really exciting time.

This takes us to around 1999, so I was 12-years-old, and this was around the time the internet started becoming more of a household thing. So I started with those samplers, but then there was the beginning of Napster, so it was perfect for me. That fed into my hunger and that search for new bands. I just went deeper and deeper.

When I talk about with this people, I think there are a couple important things to mention. Number one, I grew up in Mesa, Arizona and my family’s Mormon. There’s a lot of Mormon people in the Phoenix area because we’re close to Utah. So first, Jimmy Eat World is from Mesa, Arizona, and some of those dudes are also from Mormon families. So it was really like this kind of hometown heroes kind of thing. This was before Bleed American came out, before “The Middle” or any of that. But, because of them, there was this huge interest in that sort of music. They’re a generation or two ahead of me, but some of them went to my same high school. So all the younger kids, and all the kids starting bands at the time, it was kind of in the wake of that. There was a huge interest in emo, or that kind of pop-punk, I guess you could say.

And the second thing is, at that time, around 1999 or 2000, on the other side of it was nu-metal, and I didn’t like nu-metal. At school, you kind of had to pick one or the other, and I was like, “Nah, I’m into punk.” The kids who liked metal, they liked nu-metal. They liked Korn and Static-X, and then a little later things like Slipknot. But I didn’t like metal, and I didn’t get into it until I was older because of that. You’re young and very impressionable, so you’re like, “This is what I like! You have to choose one or the other. I don’t like metal, I like punk.” I think that’s a really important thing, because even a lot of my peers that I play music with that are my age, their trajectory was much different because they were into nu-metal at that time. I think how I transitioned into the emo thing was because of Jimmy Eat World, and I think going from that sort of pop-punk stuff into emo is a pretty smooth transition, there’s a pretty huge overlap with it.

Jimmy Eat World, Clarity

Clarity is just perfect. The one before that, Static Prevails, I think they were figuring it out. And even with Bleed American after, that’s almost too much in another direction. It’s good, but I think with Clarity, it’s the peak. All the songs are great, and the production on it is really good. It’s one of those records I remember listening to on headphones growing up, and the production’s so rich, there’s so much ear candy in it, with the electronics and huge guitars and the little backing harmonies, it’s a perfect record. It’s one of the few records I’ve been able to listen to consistently since it came out—it’s 20-years-old now—and I’ve never gotten sick of it. I don’t know how many hundreds of times I’ve listened to it, because there’s always something new you can hear in it.

It’s a record that doesn’t sound dated at all. When you were getting into it, were you consciously like, “Oh, this is a cool emo band,” or was it just some band you found and liked?

I didn’t really have enough perspective to fully understand what they were doing. I was young enough that I was just like, “I like this.” Obviously there was the hometown thing but, looking back at it with perspective and knowing about all these different genres, I can kind of appreciate it in a different way now. I feel like they were doing it the best of anyone. Even though I experienced it firsthand, I was young and naive, so I didn’t really understand things. I can’t say that I was super aware of Clarity when it was first released, but it was shortly after that. It was the time between that and Bleed American. Some of the songs from Bleed American leaked onto the internet, there was a demo version of that song “Sweetness” that was floating around forever, and I feel like the album leaked like a year before it came out. It came out right around 9/11, and they had to change the name, and it felt like another year or two before “The Middle” became a hit. It was a big radio song after the record came out. That wasn’t an immediate thing.

I think Jimmy Eat World is such an interesting case study. Static Prevails and Clarity were released on a major label, they didn’t sell, they got dropped, they finance Bleed American on their own and then basically sell it to a major, then it becomes the biggest thing they’ve ever done. That’s not how it usually goes.

It was a huge, slow build. Clarity was out, and it was appreciated, but we definitely watched that build up. I was at the show where they filmed the video for “Bleed American.” I was almost in the video for “The Middle.”

Wait, what?

That video where it was all the kids running around in their underwear? I think you had to be 16, or maybe 18, but I wasn’t old enough to be in the video. But there are some people I know who were.

Thats so wild.

But yeah, when you talk about them paying to record Bleed American, the guy they recorded it with, Mark Trombino, he did another one of the records that’s on my list.

I think he just understood how those records were supposed to sound. The same with J. Robbins. They had a unique understanding of what this music was, and they knew how to best treat material that could have these chunkier, post-hardcore riffs and then these softer, delicate parts without really having to sacrifice anything to make either work.

It’s true of all different kinds of music, it starts out as an underground, DIY thing, then eventually those bands start working with real producers in real studios and it gets super polished. That’s the difference between Clarity and Bleed American. Clarity is right in the sweet spot where it’s very well-produced but not over-produced. It sounds huge but it doesn’t sound fake or overdone. It’s in the sweet spot.

I feel like this is good record to show people when they turn their noses up at emo. It’s got some real daring choices on it that I think people overlook, and it shows how loose that genre tag can be.

It’s one of those records, for sure. It’s funny, because I’ve met some metal dudes, and I mean, like, metal dudes, who like Clarity. We were just touring with this dude who plays in Black Anvil, but somehow Jimmy Eat World got brought up and he was like, “Dude, the production on that record!” I think there are people who can appreciate that sort of stuff, but they’ve got to look past that it’s called emo. And that’s something that I guess needs to be addressed, which is just the word “emo.” That word got tainted. Those emo nights they have at bars, or the Myspace-era that people roll their eyes at, people always assume that’s what you’re talking about. For me, that’s not what it’s about. That’s word has been muddied up, and it’s a losing battle when you try to explain it. You don’t want to be an elitist about it and be like, “This is real emo,” because that’s so pretentious, but that is a thing.

No Knife, Fire In The City Of Automatons

This one, and one of my other picks, I feel like in the grand scope of things, even if you’re talking emo with someone, and even with the emo revival stuff, I feel like this band kind of gets lost. People know Mineral and the midwest bands, but I feel like No Knife gets lost in that. But this record is one of my all-time favorites, and it’s another Mark Trombino record.

No Knife feels very lost to time. This record’s basically been out of print since it came out. How did you get into it?

It’s the same kind of thing with Clarity. At the time, they were kind of buddies with Jimmy Eat World, and it was hitting that same group of kids. The people I got new music from were like, “This is it!” I didn’t really think too much about why I liked it at the time, but I know now. Like you said, that emo tag is kind of a loose genre, so this one has more of an alternative influence on it. It doesn’t sound like Mineral. It’s more willing to just straight-up rock.

When you look at the bands that were coming out of San Diego then, be it No Knife or The Locust or even Pinback, everyone was kind of taking something and pushing two or three other things into the sound they were doing. No Knife was taking Drive Like Jehu and kind of bending it over math-rock’s knee but still having big, borderline alt-rock choruses.

I mean, yeah, and I really like Pinback too, but I think with the No Knife thing, you’re right. They were pushing those things together, using those angular, D.C. kind of things, or I guess even Drive Like Jehu, but I think the vocals, and even some of the guitar melodies, it felt a little more accessible. It was the same sort of thing as Jimmy Eat World, where the vocals were a little higher pitched and sounded a little nicer. It was just catchy. And with Fire In The City, it’s got a lot of weird bass stuff on it and, again, the production is very lush. The guitar tone is great, and the guitars are usually doing two different things at the same time. I actually saw them for the first time a couple months ago. Jawbox did two shows in L.A., and I don’t really care about Jawbox, but No Knife got added to the second one, so I went out to L.A. to see it. I saw them for the first time after listening to them for years and it was great.

It was really interesting for me, because I owned the CD, and at that time, that’s all you could really know about a band. You could look through the CD booklet and maybe see a picture of them, but there wasn’t all this information about them. You couldn’t follow them on social media and see pictures of their dog. I didn’t even know what they looked like. I didn’t even know that they had two singers. Listening back now, I can hear that, but at the time they sounded similar enough that I didn’t even consider that.

I totally know that feeling. Because some times it just sounds like one dude kind of pushing his voice into a slightly different register.

It wasn’t like Clarity, where Tom only sings one or two songs but it’s a very noticeable difference. You can tell what songs Tom sings. But Fire In The City, thinking about how I looked at it then and how I look at it now, having explored all these different genres, I can hear influences of things like shoegaze on Fire In The City. I got into Swervedriver, which is one of my favorite shoegaze bands, and after listening to them a bunch, I listen back to Fire In The City and am like, “Oh, they probably like Swervedriver.”

With a lot of these bands, you can definitely see how they were all pulling from different wells. One band would be really into Unwound, another one was into Britpop, another was into shoegaze, and you can hear why they’re all in the same genre but have dramatically different takes on it.

When you’re younger you don’t really consider that, as a band, they like all these different things. You just think it’s completely original. You think they sound like that because that’s their original sound. But when you dig deeper you’re like, “Oh, okay.” Like any other musician, you’re influenced by other stuff, and that’s how I found a lot of bands in metal because I got into that when I was a little bit older. I’d find a band I thought was cool, and then I’d want to find their influences and trace that back. This was no different.

Mock Orange, The Record Play

I feel like this one is even more of a deep cut than No Knife. They had the one before, Nines & Sixes, which is good, but this one, The Record Play, this is the one for me. I feel like after that they got pretty weird.

Yeah, they totally changed their sound a decade later.

Both this one and the record before, you can see the progression. But after The Record Play it’s like, “Yeah, this doesn’t sound the same at all.”

What makes The Record Play the one for you, because I feel like Nines & Sixes is more of the consensus pick?

I don’t know if it’s a time and place thing, or if it’s the same thing I said about Clarity, where the record before it is them figuring it out and then this one is them just nailing it. You can tell they’re comfortable, and the songs are just perfect. I think both Static Prevails and Nines & Sixes, the records that lead up to my favorite one, it could also be equated to early death metal bands. There’s that transition from that kind of punk sound into the emo kind of thing with these bands. And it’s kind of like when death metal bands were transitioning out of thrash metal. It’s like Scream Bloody Gore, where it’s a very extreme version of thrash, but their next record is like, “This is a death metal record.” On both Static Prevails and Nines & Sixes, you can hear this punk band that’s becoming a new thing. And then the next record is the one where they’ve figured out that sound and just totally nail it.

And also similar to metal, a lot of these bands ended up shifting their sound pretty dramatically. Mock Orange doing a hard indie pivot isn’t that different from what a band like Bathory did after a few releases.

Yeah, exactly. And that’s some of the best stuff. A band starts out, they figure it out, and then there’s the sweet spot where they nail it. But then they get bored and want to do something different. That’s what I think a lot of these records share, it’s the moment where they finally nail it. I can totally understand from a musician’s standpoint being like, “We nailed what we wanted to do, so we can either make a record that’s not as good or we can change it up.” Again, I don’t know what these dudes look like. I think they’re from Indiana. Aren’t you from Indiana?

Yeah, I am. And to prove your point, even I didn’t know that. I guess they’re from Evansville, which I feel like I should have known, but I never really knew anything about these dudes because I think I had downloaded the first couple albums.

With a lot of this stuff I just had a burned CD of it. I feel like a lot of this era of music was like that. And if you look at the cover of The Record Play, it’s kind of boring, very nondescript. It’s not a death metal with some crazy cover. So I probably had a burned CD of this forever and didn’t know much more than the band’s name and that I liked it. I just had it on repeat. And in my little friend group, it was kids older than me that played music and were just like, “This is it.”

That was the thing about getting burned CDs, you literally just knew the music and what band it was. You had nothing else to go on. You could find like, a Mock Orange Angelfire page and that was kind of it.

Yeah, unless you could see them live, that was kind of it. I’m sure they did, but I don’t remember them ever coming through Arizona, and I’ve never seen them. I do know the label it came on, Lobster Records, that’s what Yellowcard was originally on. I remember following that label a little bit, and it was kind of in the lane of Drive-Thru Records a little bit.

Yeah, it was them and Yellowcard and Park, a lot of bands really leaning into the pop thing that could be considered a test run for the Drive-Thru scene. It’s basically when emo records stopped coming out on hardcore labels.

I had my time with Drive-Thru Records bands for sure. They had that kind of crazy major label deal thing, but I think the huge exception to this would be Fueled By Ramen. They still exist, which kind of blew me away, because they kind of started in this same lane and are now owned by Warner. There was this band from Arizona called Pollen, and that was one of the original Fueled By Ramen records, and they just kind of sounded like Descendents or ALL. And there was a band Recover, and I almost put their EP on this list because I still kinda like it, but yeah, Lobster Records just kind of stopped.

It really only took one big band to make it work though. There was that label Fiddler Records that was just kind of putting out Florida stuff and then got lucky and had the early New Found Glory and Dashboard Confessional stuff.

There’s an Arizona connection to Fiddler Records, because they put out this band The Bled, you remember that band?

Oh yeah. They jumped up to Vagrant after that.

Fiddler put out Pass The Flask, which was huge for a lot of kids. When I started getting into metal and hardcore, that was a huge one.

There started being more bands like that, the ones that kind of became the pivot point into more aggressive music.

That was huge for me. Thursday was a big one too. There was screaming in it and a hardcore influence, and for a lot of people, that was an intro into heavier music.

The Get Up Kids, Something To Write Home About

It’s a classic. It also came out in 1999, along with Clarity and Fire In The City. I think I might have heard Four Minute Mile from my cousin, but I’m not sure if I was ready for it yet. But this record, I remember being at a skatepark with my friends, I was in seventh grade and there was a skatepark opening, so there was this big event. There were some pro skateboarding teams there and they were all giving away a bunch of stuff, they were just throwing out skate decks and shirts, and they were throwing out promo versions of CDs. And, for some reason, they were throwing out promo versions of this record and my friend got one. So then we just became obsessed with it. And then, because of the sampler thing, I just became obsessed with all of Vagrant.

But yeah, this and Clarity are considered classic emo records, and for good reason. It’s still enjoyable to listen to. I think this one, over all the ones I’ve mentioned, would be the most universally accepted. Even if you’re not really into emo, it’s accessible and the most pop-rock of any of them. You don’t even have to be interested in this style of music to think they are good songs.

It definitely tracks with everything we’ve talked about, where Four Minute Mile is so ragged and rushed, and there are hints of good songs, but they really level up here. And then after this, they make a hard left turn, too. Did you stick with them?

I was into this record, and Four Minute Mile was in the rotation too, but they had those two EPs, Red Letter Day and Woodson, and they got released as one CD so I got into those, too. They also had that collection record with all those covers on it and some alternate versions of older songs, and I remember buying that and being like, “Well, this is a little different.” Then On A Wire came out and they switched it up. It was more acoustic and, I don’t even know what you’d call it, but I still like it.

That record got a real bad wrap at the time, but it’s really just The Get Up Kids slowed down and stretched out.

I’m trying to think of how to even describe it. It’s kind of Americana.

Stay Gone” could be on a Hold Steady record.

At the same time, I was really into that Anniversary record Designing A Nervous Breakdown, and around that same time they came out with that record Your Majesty. Their thing was they got into classic rock and started smoking weed. I feel like there’s probably a parallel where all these bands were like, “We started doing drugs now, so we’re going to experiment with classic rock.”

All of these bands started when the members were teenagers. When you’re 15, you want to make a certain kind of record, but even by the time you’re 20, you want to make something different. But to kind of wrap this thing up, were you doing any bands during this time?

I was, and I was going to mention that earlier but forgot to bring it up. My cousin was in a band, so I was like, “Man, I wanna do that.” I played drums in the first band I was ever in, and it was just a punk band that did covers of shit that was easy, like The Ataris and blink-182 and MXPX. From there, I had a band that, right around this time, we wanted to sound like The Anniversary or Reggie And The Full Effect. We had a keyboard player who played a Moog, so it was super influenced by that. I played bass and wrote songs, so that’s how I learned how to play and write songs. I’m a self-taught musician, so it was like, I’m going to learn how to play Green Day and blink-182 songs. So when I was starting to write my own songs, I was trying to sound like these bands. As far as my own personal growth as a songwriter and musician, it was super influenced by all this stuff because that’s what I was into.

For me, even now, I think it’s a reminder to focus on things that are memorable and enjoyable to listen to. All the things we’ve talked about, when I say I grew up liking punk, I liked pop-punk. I liked the catchy melodies, I didn’t like crust punk, though that’s stuff I got into later in life. And with these other bands in this landscape of what you could call emo, all this stuff is more on the poppy side of it. Even starting a metal band it’s definitely stuck with me. I don’t know if that’s from being into the Beatles, or being into the stuff that we talked about, but I think that consciously, and subconsciously, it’s stuck with me. Even if it’s in an extreme genre, where stuff is typically supposed to be scary or creepy, it’s still gotta be a memorable song.