There's nothing wrong with playing background for this town
Putting on my rose-colored shades for a trip back in time.
A couple weeks back on the hellscape that is Twitter, my buddy Bob tweeted about the band Good Luck. And with that, a whole host of memories came rushing back to me. While I don’t find much use in looking back on the past with rose-colored shades, I was struck by how bands that were absolutely dominating the punk scene when they were around ended up getting lost to time. And, as you may remember from a couple newsletters back, I made a little joke about how the current media landscape is just people who wrote for big, prestigious publications now writing less big, less prestigious newsletters. One such person is Ian Cohen, who launched his newsletter, Something On, last week with a great piece about the “emo revival” and how that took root in the halls of Pitchfork. You should subscribe to his newsletter, and give that piece a read. In it Ian said this, which got me thinking about all this stuff even more.
I’m not the guy who can tell you how the emo revival really began - there’s probably a 2006 tour diary detailing every Sheetz stop over three straight weeks in Evan Weiss’ van, forever lost to the great digital dustbin of Blogspot. Or a dead AbsolutePunk thread where people who are now going through their heavy shoegaze or Bruce Springsteen phase passed around the Mediafire link for the self-titled Tigers Jaw album. Or, a guy who owned a flophouse in Bucks County where Algernon Cadwallader passed out drunk that one time in 2008 and hasn’t shut up about it in the past decade.
For better, and possibly for worse, I am the guy who can tell you about that. And between Bob’s tweet and Ian’s newsletter, I started thinking about how the era of punk and emo that existed between the years of, say, 2004 and 2012 has roughly been omitted from the historical record on a mass scale.
In 2008, I was entering college and, almost immediately, I made friends with some people who wanted to start a music website. And unlike the million other college kids who said that, these people actually went and did it. It took couple years, but in 2010 the site launched, and it was called Pop ‘stache. Though it’s not had its design updated in that time, the content is still there, in all its glory.
This was where I really cut my teeth as a writer, and though it literally pains me to do this, I’m about to drudge up some really terrible writing that has my name on it to prove that I was, in fact, there for the start of this whole thing. Here’s me giving 4.5 stars to records by Grown Ups, Touché Amoré, The Sidekicks, Loma Prieta, and Small Brown Bike, and a bunch of 4-stars review to the likes of La Dispute, Circle Takes The Square, John K. Samson, Grown Ups (again), Balance and Composure, and my current bandmate’s old band, Empty Isle. I profiled Joyce Manor on their first album, then talked to vocalist Barry Johnson again for their second, reviewed a Promise Ring reunion show, did a detailed recap of The Fest 10, wrote a long piece about Jawbreaker’s Unfun, and my 2010 “albums you may have missed” piece included write-ups on Iron Chic, The Measure [SA], Bars of Gold, Shores, and Grown Ups. I really, really liked Grown Ups.
And, you know what, since I’m going full-on embarrassment with this one, let’s take it a step further. If you know what I looked like between the years 2008 and 2010 (no beard, buzz cut, less tattoos, much skinnier, no scar on the neck) here are some videos of me absolutely going off to some emo and emo-adjacent bands. There I am in 2009, singing my heart out to O Pioneers!!! at The Fest (at the same venue I saw both Algernon Cadwallader and Bomb The Music Industry earlier in the weekend), here’s me stagediving to Small Brown Bike that same weekend, and, of course, singing along to Grown Ups like my life depended on it. Point being, I was really there for this shit and I have every truly embarrassing part of my youth documented on the internet to prove it. Also, just want to remind everyone that Gnar Fest 2012 is still the wildest show I’ve ever seen.
But even getting into this stuff on what felt like the ground floor, I was already behind the curve. As early as 2004, bands that could slot into one of emo’s sub-genres were already around, suggesting that, maybe, this shit never really did go away. If writers are quick to acknowledge that the late ‘90s and early ‘00s were a fertile time, isn’t any wonder that bands like Street Smart Cyclist, Lion Of The North, Daitro, L’Antietam, and others were releasing albums as early as 2005, then just maybe we’ve gotten the whole timeline wrong from the jump. Maybe genres start and then just continue to exist, and the narrative conventions journalists put on them are all abstract and meaningless.
The bigger question I wanted to get into is this: Why did publications at large not care about this stuff as it was happening? And more importantly, when they finally did, why was it presented in that dumbfounded, “Whoa! Get a load of this stuff we just discovered!” kind of way, as if most of it wasn’t being documented on the internet, with many vocal champions posting about it on social media—even in a nascent form. So, with all this clanking around in my head, I figured I’d go ahead and shade in those details a bit.
The mid-2000s were a weird time. Yes, emo was massive in the mainstream, but the disparity between bands playing the Warped Tour and bands playing the early iterations of The Fest was pretty steep. But in the eyes of the average music consumer, the differences between bands like Silverstein and Latterman were largely superficial, if not imperceptible. And given that emo had a mighty fine stink attached to it, if the bigger, commercial acts were off the table, well, so were the underground bands, too. In fact, this really felt like the last time that things in the punk sphere—be they pop-punk, emo, screamo, or hardcore—were still largely persona non grata to larger publications, and it’d take a lot of time for that to change.
Then, of course, there’s the issue of folk-punk. To talk about folk-punk’s dominance in the back-half of the 2000s feels like I’m recounting an alternate reality I lived through, but this stuff was huge. On the back of Against Me’s Reinventing Axl Rose, an entire industry was built up around labels like Plan-It-X Records and No Idea Records. And let’s just be totally honest here, much like far too many ‘90s publications were quick to use ska as a punchline and dismiss every band in that orbit whether they played ska or not *coughs loudly for 45 minutes* there’s no doubt that folk-punk was a similarly dismissible movement. If you wore suits in the ‘90s and had horns, or if you wore sleeveless T-shirts and didn’t bathe for a week in ‘00s, neither of you were worth taking seriously. Though this video of Anthony Fantano finger-pointing along to Defiance, Ohio proves that I guess even the busiest music nerds got caught up in it at some point.
And in many ways, the “emo revival” as I knew it was closely tied to folk-punk. Through things like The Fest, No Idea’s all-encompassing distro, and the fact labels like No Idea and Asian Man Records were basically genre-agnostic at this point, the disparate poles of underground punk all just ended up getting pushed together. With a massive hole left by labels like Jade Tree folding, and Epitaph going all-in on Myspace-core bands, there were less players in this world, so most of them ended up working with No Idea in some capacity. Not only were they releasing important records, they were also the distributor for a lot of other small labels, so they were literally getting people’s music into stores across the country. Unfortunately, it would turn out that No Idea wasn’t doing a great job of paying their bands or the labels they were distributing, but that doesn’t change the fact that, at that point in time, they were absolutely essential to the world of underground punk.
While many people are quick to say that the “emo revival” started in earnest with Algernon Cadwallader’s 2008 album Some Kind Of Cadwallader, I’m here to lightly refute that fact. Both Good Luck and their No Idea labelmates Bridge and Tunnel released full-length albums in 2008 and, in fact, Good Luck’s Into Lake Griffy came out before Some Kind Of Cadwallader. And the shock that record sent through the scene was massive. At The Fest 8, the line to get into the venue that housed the showcase with Bridge and Tunnel, Good Luck, and Defiance, Ohio was literally wrapping around the block, while getting into the bike shop to see Algernon was relatively painless.
And, if I’m being totally honest here, at that point Algernon was little more than a Cap’n Jazz clone. Good Luck actually was doing something that felt like it was theirs. It’d take Algernon a couple more years for that to really happen (Parrot Flies is their best record, just accept it). When I listen back to Into Lake Griffy now, I’m just struck by its power. Perfect pop melodies with some of the most nimble and inventive guitar playing I’ve ever heard in a three-piece band. That’s not to say Algernon wasn’t important—they totally were—but they weren’t the dominant one just yet.
Similarly, New York’s Bridge and Tunnel released a crushing post-hardcore indebted demo in 2006, and their 2008 debut East/West, was an even better version of it. The dual vocal approach was definitely paying homage to bands like Hot Water Music and Small Brown Bike, but the intricate riffs that bounced back between Jeff Cunningham and Rachel Rubino were absolutely powerful, in an almost Braid-like way. With lyrics that were rife with social commentary, if there was a first-wave revival band that most suits our present moment, it’s Bridge and Tunnel. I still get chills when I hear “Wartime Souvenirs” and the music drops out for a split second as Jeff and Rachel scream, “Too caught up in our own shit to consider any of this.” What a perfect song.
But what’s also important to note is that these bands were just mimicking the trajectory of the original emo movement. Good Luck, Bridge and Tunnel, and even Algernon Cadwallader, all started after their members broke up their punk bands. In the case of Good Luck, that was One Reason, a band that, if you’ve never heard them, well, I sure have a treat for you. And in the case of Bridge and Tunnel, drummer Pat Schramm was in Latterman, a band that, despite being small in their time, really did popularize a very specific strain of emo-tinged punk. And with Algernon, Peter Helmis was in the borderline grindcore act D’amore. This was just the normal evolution of a musical person’s desire to do something different with their next project. Only, in this moment, all their eyes just happened to be pointed at similar musical references.
But beyond all that, the world of indie-rock felt like it was miles away from things like punk and emo. As a result of that, the press coverage for records like Into Lake Griffy and Some Kind Of Cadwallader was more prone to be found in Alternative Press, Punk Planet, and Razorcake instead of Pitchfork. But even with the occasional overlap with bigger publications, a whole wave of new-media was rising to document this scene.
While message boards still carried a lot of weight, as everything from AbsolutePunk to Vinyl Collective to the community around Mitch Clem’s Nothing Nice To Say were finding music that fit into this world (remember when literally everyone had a Lemuria shirt?), none of that was really existing in an upward space. Just like the bands were blazing their own trails, so was a whole set of young creators who saw what was going on and worked to document and champion this stuff. Sites like National Underground, Ryan Russel’s Nervous Energies sessions, and most importantly If You Make It, were all there doing that very important work. Not only were If You Make It’s Pink Couch Sessions iconic, the fact you could go to their website—and still can—and get free downloads of the first releases by everyone from Snowing to Iron Chic to Football, Etc. to Cayetana, they weren’t just covering this stuff, they were giving it to you for free. Also, If You Make It was absolutely the reason I discovered Hop Along, for which I remain eternally grateful. And while I wouldn’t say Pop ‘stache was ever on the same level as some of these places I mentioned, that site’s name was good enough to get me press credentials to The Fest several years in a row, and I was definitely one of just a handful of music writers there covering the thing.
As they often say, history is written by the victors. And perhaps that’s just what happened with this era of emo. The bands that lasted the longest, or started years after that initial revival scene died, ended up winning out. But really, I just think they weren’t playing the same game. Any of the bands that were aligning themselves with these scenes, willing to play shows alongside bands that were likeminded in collectivist spirit instead of musical style, never really stood a chance of breaking out. Because they were all just punk bands. They were making their own scene with their friends, and I don’t think any of them cared what someone outside of that world had to say about their work.
And I guess that gets back to the larger point: If it’s not cool, prestige publications aren’t touching it. I can say this from experience, but it can be incredibly difficult to pitch stories on things from the underground, no matter what it is. If it’s not something that appeals to the sensibilities and tastes of middle-to-upper class folks, well, it isn’t going to get much play. It’s the reason that indie-rock became the soundtrack to polite dinner parties during this decade, trading in sedate, soothing soundscapes, and why those same people who pushed that stuff would go on to write thinkpiece after thinkpiece about why “rock is dead” just a few years later.
In most cases, if a publication doesn’t feel like they’re discovering something and/or coronating it, they don’t really care. Things like ska, folk-punk, and this real first wave of nü-emo stuff wasn’t cool, it was just high-energy music played by people who just wanted to make a thing. It’s the reason that the first time I saw Title Fight they were playing with Strike Anywhere and Four Year Strong, or the first time I saw Tigers Jaw was them opening for The Brokedowns, or Native playing with Laura Stevenson, or Grown Ups playing with Superheaven (then known as Daylight), or Defiance, Ohio and Good Luck playing together constantly, or the Menzingers and Sidekicks playing in my hometown—it was all just punk, baby. Having to watch people like Laura Stevenson and Jeff Rosenstock make unimpeachably great records for a literal decade to even get tactic acknowledgments, let alone full-on endorsements, from these larger sites has proven that there was always an “us vs. them” mentality from the top down. It wasn’t about quality, it was about the nebulous aura of “cool.”
But what’s beautiful about all this is that, thankfully, I can still revisit almost all of it. The patchwork history everyone was building isn’t lost, you just have to be willing to fit the puzzle pieces back together. While I can freely admit that tracking down these blogs and message boards required a certain level of dedication, that’s also the job of culture writing, to chase those threads and fill in the gaps to give the audience a fuller picture of what happened before they clicked that link you just tweeted out. If we can have an almost full document of every scene beef in ‘80s hardcore, I think we can expect institutions to do a better job when they have the Wayback Machine at their disposal.
As we enter a new era where more and more people are doing the kind of work that I saw 12 years ago, I’m genuinely excited for what the future holds. It’s been heartening to see newsletters and blogs come back to document the underground culture that matters to them. My only hope is that larger publications don’t make the same mistakes they did a decade ago, ignoring the work of the communities building these scenes, only to turn around and give themselves credit for launching careers when they write about a band who just released their fifth album. You don’t get to show up midway through the movie and then talk about how the first half of it sucked.
Anyway, anybody know where The Hotelier got the idea for the famous album cover of theirs? I’ve always been curious.