I write this because we recently celebrated our third anniversary. Three years are a long time for a band such as ours, especially when you take into consideration that many of our predecessors and inspirations barely made even one. By now, you’d think we’d have built for ourselves a solid fanbase, but the truth is, we still find ourselves playing to crowds of about ten people.
Far be it from me to pass judgment. I realize a lot of you simply can’t make it to all of our gigs, and I understand. We’re all working and going to school and engaging in other activities that prevent us from attending local shows. And some just aren’t into what we play, which is perfectly alright with me. If we were completely accessible to every last person, then we’d be doing something wrong. Do more people like Dashboard Confessional than Rites of Spring? Most definitely. But would Dashboard Confessional exist without Rites of Spring? Most certainly not.
Is it all so odd that a band entrenched in 80s and early 90s emo is somewhat making a humorous jab at the recent reunions of 2nd wave emo acts while placing themselves in something of a similar narrative. There’s something so interesting with all these tiny, almost neo-nostalgic, emo acts popping up in little “holes” around the country. The backwaters of Pennsylvania and Maryland, over in the Midwest… hell, there’s even a record label, Count Your Lucky Stars, the seems to focus on just these kinds of bands.
These little bands with such a similar sound popping up across the U.S. again is simply fascinating… It’s something to do with emo that I haven’t been fascinated with for a solid month. Which is partially why I haven’t really taken the time to update the blog, or work on America Is Just A Word. The passion for it is still there, I just don’t want to force it.
Time is a killer too. I figured grad school would be a time consumer, and a lot of the times it is. And when it isn’t, I just want to stop staring at a computer screen for the length of my day. And then there’s an entire world out there not strictly traced back to emo for me to write about. Like with True/Slant, or, now, The A.V. Club:
It’s been a fantastic experience writing for these outlets. It’s given me the chance to broaden my niche music-writing base into areas that I would otherwise not really be able to write about in the guise of this blog. Which is fine – I made this blog for a specific reason, and I’d like to keep it in the same general idea. And I like having the ability and opportunity to write for other places.
So, don’t call it a comeback… this stuff is always on my mind. Just sometimes I get a bit tired thinking about sifting through endless articles and blog posts about Twilight when all I want to do is uncover another Algernon Cadwallader or Shinobu. And darn it if a love of music isn’t what this whole thing is all about.
As a majority of my America Is Just A Word interviewees happen to be musicians, it’s great having Darren on board to give some perspective of the other goings on that helped transform emo through the decades. (Of course, an exception to all this is Ian MacKaye, who’s role as a musician and Dischord Records co-founder gives him a completely different perspective than most folks involved in the book.) When it comes to emo in the 90s, Jade Tree was one of the few places where things were really popping. The record label quickly rose to fame with The Promise Ring and continued to soldier on from there, releasing music from numerous indie emo “big names” (whatever that oxymoronic phrase means) such as Hot Water Music, Texas Is The Reason (a split with TPR), Lifetime, Jets To Brazil, Joan of Arc, Pedro The Lion, Cap’n Jazz (the label introduced many people to the band with their double-disc discography) and many a popular non-emo act such as Fucked Up and My Morning Jacket.
But, I’ll let Darren explain it all himself. Enjoy:
How’d you get into music and, more specifically, punk music?
Darren Walters: “A few things happened around the same time that finally got my fully into punk once and for all.
I had been into new wave, alternative and the like and eventually met a few people who were also into the same type of music, including punk. In and around the same time, my best friend ended up being sent to military school where he became immersed in punk. His friends at military school helped him stock up on great records which he brought home during his breaks and left with me. Him and I quickly became 100% into punk rock in about 1985 or so and began going to shows and seeking out as much info as we could on punk rock and watching movies like Suburbia and Decline of the Western Civilization over and over again.
What was it like growing up in Wilmington?
DW: “Wilmington is at the northern tip of Delaware and the biggest city in the state. Essentially, it is a suburb of Philadelphia as it is only about 25 minutes outside of the city.
It was-and is, for the most part, devoid of any culture during my childhood and continues to be so to this day. It’s basically your typical American suburb and it’s the place that I still call home and have form most of my life.
Having spent most of my life here I’ve come to like it, which is interesting considering I spent those formative punk years trying to think of a way to get out. Growing older and being able to leave, I got used to the idea of being in Delaware. It also became advantageous for Jade Tree to remain in Delaware as it was inexpensive compared to cities like NY or SF where Tim and I had often discussed moving the label to (in fact, Tim lived in NYC for many years).”
On the Jade Tree site, it says that you and Tim were pretty involved in the DC punk community. Considering Delaware isn’t exactly a walk away from DC, how did you balance a life at home with going to shows and building on a community in DC?
DW: “I was involved in the DC scene in the sense that I was going to shows an awful lot in the MD/DC/VA area and Jade Tree worked with plenty of bands from there over the years. DC was one of our support systems and one of our scenes and we of course looked up to many of the people involved in it both past and present.
It was easy enough to go back and forth from DE to DC. Tim had grown up in DC and still had family there, I had a girlfriend there at one time, Jade Tree had bands there, tons of friends and so on. It was just something that we did without thinking. And it’s less than 2 hours away. I used to be able to get to the Damnation house in an hour and 10 minutes on a good day. Granted, I was doing 90+ mph, but the point is that this was a drive that Tim and I made almost weekly, or at least monthly, for years.”
How did you and Tim meet?
DW: “My best friend growing up attended college in MD and met Tim at a show in DC. They started a label called Axtion Packed together and that’s how I met Tim, through him.
Once my label, Hi-Impact, was beginning to fall apart, coincidentally so was AP, so Tim and I decided that perhaps it would be best if we combined forces to work on new label.”
What was it like being in high school and then college, trying to balance the life of a student and the work needed to run a label (be it Hi-Impact or Jade Tree) and a band as well?
DW: “It was crazy of course! At times it would be fairly simple because there wouldn’t be much to do in the very beginning. However, when there would be a new release in production or a record would need to be mailed out to radio or to all of the awaiting orders, it would take hours, if not days, to do so. That could be intense. Especially because for the first few Jade Tree releases, many of the records were put together by hand. You can imagine how long it takes to hand assemble 4000+ 7″s & CDS for instance. We would enlist every one we knew to come on over and enjoy free pizza, get the latest release and help us out. It was a community thing and it helped Jade Tree get off its feet tremendously.”
It’s an absolute pleasure to bring Chris Simpson into the America Is Just A World fold.
Part of my inclination for adding more interviews and material to what I’ve already written for the book is to really uncover the narratives that have been overlooked, and no band’s lifetime has the same mixture of mild coverage and crass disregard for the group’s actual story like Mineral. For many, Mineral was a pre-eminent mid-90s emo act, if not the pre-eminent act of the time. And yet, a large portion of their story is generally unknown, despite the band’s importance on future generations of C chord pluckers.
Andy Greenwald dedicates three pages or so to the band in Nothing Feels Good – a whole three pages! On Greenwald’s terms, that’s an infinite space for a band to take up if the name of their project doesn’t start with a “Dashboard”. Without speaking to Simpson, Jeremy Gomez (bass), Scott McCarver (guitar), or Gabriel Wiley (drums), Greenwald conveniently tried to fit a square peg in a round hole.
Fortunately, Simpson has been kind enough to lend some time to this ongoing project of mine, and was able to jot down some answers to my endless stream of email questions. As you can see from just a sampling of this material, his perspective will be genuinely helpful for the final version of America Is Just A Word.
Tell me about your personal experience growing up. When did music first hit you, or was it something that was always a part of your life? When did you start playing music?
Chris Simpson: “I lived in Denver, CO from the age of 4-17, so it feels like where I grew up for the most part. I was really into sports as a kid and got into skateboarding in my early teens. My mom was very passionate about music and we always had to listen to whatever she was hot for at the time. My first musical loves were Lionel Richie and Barry Manilow. The first record I bought with my own money was Michael Jackson’s Thriller. At about 14 I think I ditched the sports and skating and decided to go full-on into the music.”
How did Mineral form?
CS: “I finished my last year and a half of high school in Houston, TX. I had met a few friends during school there from going to a lot of shows
and playing solo sets at clubs and coffee shops. I knew I wanted a band and not to perform on my own ultimately. I moved to Austin with my then girlfriend and some other people who were involved in music. Soon after doing so I met Scott and we started trying to write together. We had a very difficult time finding common ground at first. I remember that summer that two records came out that sort of
crystallized our direction, The Catherine Wheel’s Chrome and Smashing Pumpkins Siamese Dream. We were huge into U2 and Sugar and
Buffalo Tom and Superchunk, etc. We started out playing with a different bassist and drummer calling the band ‘I The Worm’ which was
an awful thing to call a band. Soon after this we started playing with Jeremy and our friend Matt who had also moved to Austin from Houston
that summer, and eventually Gabe took Matt’s place and Mineral, as it was known was begun.”
With The Power of Failing, the album artwork has such a stark, minimalist layout – just a white cover with a little text and a photo and a black inner-cover with a little liner notes here and there: is there any particular reason (artistically, economically, etc) why you decided to go with such a format?
CS: “I think there was a general aesthetic amongst all the bands we found ourselves peers with— Texas is the Reason, The Promise Ring, Christie Front Drive, Boys Life, Knapsack, etc. Everyone seemed to be interested in art work that was minimal I guess. I think we were just
more interested in letting the music speak for itself.”
Why did Mineral break up?
CS: “As we started writing the second record, I began to feel like we were growing apart as writers and personally. I just wasn’t excited about working together anymore. It didn’t feel free or inspiring. It’s like any young relationship I guess. You assume at 19 that the relationships you have in your life will always be there, but realistically, as you get older you start to move in different directions. It was basically me and Jeremy’s decision at the time to quit the band. It was not something that the other guys wanted or liked, so things were pretty sad at the end between all of us. I have ultimate respect for Scott and Gabe as people and bandmates and was sorry to be the driving force behind the end of the band, but you have to follow your heart and instincts.”
What are your thoughts on “emo” in general? When did you first hear it used in combination with describing the music you made (be it with Mineral, the Gloria Record, or Zookeeper)?
CS: “I’m confused and uninspired by it. I remember when I first heard it was when I gave a tape of Mineral to someone I respected who was also a musician and he asked what sort of stuff it was. I guess maybe I mentioned Sunny Day Real Estate as a reference and he said, “Oh, so it’s kind of emo?” I was confused and thought he was referring to the club Emo’s here in Austin where we played a lot in those days. I couldn’t figure out what he could mean by that as a description because as far as the bands who played at Emo’s at the time, I don’t think we were the norm. It was much more of a crusty, garagey, sort of punk sound for the most part. Soon after I realized what it was he was saying and that a lot of other people were saying it too. And they were referring to a lot of predecessors like Rites of Spring, etc that I was unfamiliar with. There was also a real tie to the hardcore scene, which seemed to me to be the farthest from what I identified Mineral with. So, yeah…”
In Andy Greenwald’s book Nothing Feels Good, he pegs Mineral as “a quartet of deathly serious young men,” yet, all lyrical connotations
aside, it doesn’t seem to be the case – the liner notes to the Power of Failing include a description that states “Mineral = pizza boys
gone rock.” Do you feel that the label of “emo” has done something of a dis-service to you (and various others) and your music?
CS: “My friend Chris Colbert said it was belittling to the content of the music, and I think that’s an accurate assessment. It was fun for a bit
to feel that there was this movement that we were considered a part of, but pretty soon you start to realize the danger such classifications pose to creative freedom. The fact is that it was a movement, but not one we were going through so much as one the people who listened to us and came to our shows were going through. As far as Andy Greenwald, I haven’t read the book but I think he was communicating something that a lot of people were also echoing. There was a seriousness and intensity to the material which was not necessarily mirrored in us personally. But most outsiders would have had no way of knowing it. We were, as the liner notes said, actually four pizza boys gone rock.”
I’ve got an odd relationship with downloading. I’m usually outspoken against it when discussing the subject with most of my friends, but usually for a variety of reasons that you really can’t articulate when these types of conversations boil down to lots of yelling. I’ll diffuse the normal “record labels and artists” and “pirating” and blah blah blah arguments that are usually the focus of the downloading conundrum for folks.
A big frustration for me with the design downloading is a certain culture that’s been generated because of its appeal. One would assume that, with millions and millions of songs and bands at one’s fingertips that one would relish the opportunity to listen to at no cost. In theory, it’s a great benefit for the consumer.
But really, from what I’ve witnessed, it (more often than not) creates a Consumer culture, with a big “C.” Considering the ease with which one can accumulate albums, the potential to seek out a hard-to-find gem in the same way that so many vinyl junkies can be whistfully nostalgic about is really gone. A few clicks of the mouse and it’s yours. And just about any other album you can think of.
So, instead of pouring over a piece of music, one can just accumulate a massive sonic library packed with things that they might never properly touch or listen to. The ability to say ‘I’ll download it” and not only not think twice, but not think about the album or song after the music is in your possession is increased tenfold.
How do I know this? Well, it could be from witnessing friends who ingest music without a thought (be it to the amount of time that was put into the piece of music or to the potential legal ramifications of their actions or merely stating the thought/sentence “I’ll just download it”) and, more often than not, usually let the music lay waste.
Or I could also know it from my own actions in the past. Not necessarily with illegal downloading of the sort: I maybe illegally downloaded a few dozen songs at the tail end of high school and promptly deleted most of those songs when I acquired the albums from other means. It’s more of my music acquisition in other areas. For example, I was a DJ at my college radio station for 4 years. During my shows, I’d pop a CD into the stereo system linked to the airwaves, eject it after it played, and then popped it into my computer. With literally thousands of CDs at my beckoning call, I could go on music binges, often uploading more songs than I could possibly listen to. I’d often try to, but I still come across the spare album I’ve rarely listened to (which makes for a fun listen in and of itself). (You could argue that, this action too, is just as illegal as downloading. But beyond my own arguments of merit, you have to take into account that most record companies realize that when they send music to a radio station – which are usually run by people who love music – people at radio stations are going to want what comes in the mail. Especially – gasp – college stations.)
At the same time, I also know I’m something of a music fanatic, and I take the time and energy to comb through blogs, newspapers, magazines, flyers, record stores, friends conversations, etc etc to find out about music. But my “Consumer kulture” really comes into play with a large majority of music listeners in the country. This mass is the same line of people who, decades before leading up to now (and even including the present), got their music listening “habits” from the major sources of music distribution, be it radio, television, newspapers, magazines. They listened to whatever landed on their grid, be it good, or bad (especially “or bad”). So now, today, when downloading – and illegal downloading – account for a majority of music consumption today, why is it that “bands” and “musical artists” such as, say, Nickelback (who I pick on a ton, but for good reason) continue to not only retain a large popularity of corporate radio/television while most critics and people who consider themselves to have musical taste largely detest the group? When Joel Tenenbaum‘s court case against the RIAA recently went to trial, were the illegal downloads in question the products of someone who poured through the dregs of the net in order to find these jewels? No. Nothing but Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, and other 90s alternative ephemera that, while good music, is the kind of collection that corporate radio has been surviving on since 1991 and Joel himself was reared on as a child. Most folks who are sued for illegally downloading tend to get caught for gathering some monolithic singles, which happen to be under the ownership of the big record companies in America. I would be hard pressed to see the RIAA hightailing it after some kid who illegally downloaded Black Flag’s My War and a couple of Jade Tree albums, though color me red if that indeed has happened. However, that would be the mark of someone who used downloading to seek out unfamiliar, unavailable, and unique musics and took the time and energy to do so. And that’s not the case that I see with a majority of people who download.
Of course, that is all a mass generalization, but sometimes generalizations are needed in order to gain a perspective on a certain culture…
Anyway, this brings me to a certain situation one of my downloading fiend friends was so quick to throw back in my face:
A handful of weeks ago, I discovered an excellent MediaFire folder through last.fm, and it is like discovering a holy grail of sorts. It’s officially called “Emo: 1985-1999,” though the url attachment is “emoisdead” (a query I’d argue against, but that’s another aside). Upon opening the link, I was blown away. 36 pages of 1st and 2nd wave emo acts. Many of them rarer than rare. Obscurer than the most obscure, out of print 7″ out there. For who knows how long I was so overwhelmed all I could do was click through the pages and stare in awe. There was some stuff I’d only heard whiffs of. And all on one site. And all for free.
As I said, I haven’t downloaded anything that hasn’t had the artists consent since the tail end of high school. I’ve got ye olde emusic account, I still buy CDs, I’ll grab stuff from blogs, and scour the net for musician-approved downloads. But, from all the huff and puff and ribbings I’d give friends who’d download a torrent without hesitation or afterthought and (sometimes) no interest in the artist, it would be an awful conundrum for me, especially when I’d discuss this. Because how could I not. This was a find!
Of course, it came back to hit me in the ass with one friend. And of course, whenever I’d provide some sort of insight into why I’d want to download some of this stuff or any claim I thought was legitimate, the potential for real discourse was closed. And I understand why, and I certainly deserved a good ribbing.
But, for me, there’s so much more than just Consumption. I’ve got an academic-strength interest in emo, and, after all, I’ve got America Is Just A Word in the works. And I believe I’ve still got them principles to back it up. There’s plenty of stuff on the mediafire site, and plenty I won’t download. There’s some stuff from Gravity Records or Dischord that I just won’t dare touch. The music is still in print, I can still purchase it. I know (and in some cases, have met and talk to) the artists and labels benefit from this, that there’s not some convoluted big-label hierarchy that most of my money would be going to, but the people who’s work I genuinely support. (Though I don’t necessarily have any qualms for/against major labels and taking money away from them… I don’t care for a lot that goes on in their system, but man, there are some great bands on major labels.)
But the other stuff on there? Some of that stuff just isn’t available anymore. And some stuff never was available.
Like Strictly Ballroom, which featured The Postal Service’s Jimmy Tamborello on bass. Their 1997 record Hide Here Forever came out on Waxploitation Records and is out of print and not even available on iTunes in the US (and only partially elsewhere). And it’s in the MediaFire emo folder.
Or Trocar, who’s Citywater album, which is apparently available on Self-Satisfied records, except for that any link to purchase the CD from the location on myspace in nearly impossible to get to without some anti-virus spyware popping up warning of various hazards, and they even say download it if you so feel like having it and give a link too (though it ain’t their preference). And it’s in the MediaFire emo folder.
Or The Promise Ring’s 3 track demo, a tape that was never meant to be created to be distributed for commercial sake. And it’s in the MediaFire emo folder.
Or Watercolour, a band I can’t track down for the life of me, and one which has no discernible song titles on their unreleased album, Stories About Old Rich White People, but it’s available on the emo-themed MediaFire site.
I’d been meaning to post this up for quite a while, and here goes…
I met up with Geoff Farina, frontman of the now-defunct and beloved band Karate, for an interview to be included in America Is Just A Word. Karate is one of a handful of bands that really challenged the ideals for what emo can do and where it can go. Where other bands stayed their ground, traveling in much of the same sonic ranges, tempos, and even cliches that emo had wrought in the mid-90s, Karate moved into areas of jazz, indie, and slowcore all while growing to an organic stop at 2004’s Pockets. In the emoverse, there really is no other band like Karate.
In terms of how the band is perceived in the realm of emo, it’s a pretty close-focused view. Andy Greenwald halts the band’s evolution down to zero in Nothing Feels Good, hardly mentioning the band outside of their early roots in Allston and their first record. It’s with a certain frustration towards Greenwald’s single-mindedness towards emo that was, in part, a reason I decided to expand America Is Just A Word and get in touch with Geoff Farina in the first place. So much can be said for the depth, breadth, and places emo can go with the entire Karate catalogue, and they’re a fantastic band to put to print for the argument that emo is more than just melodramatic pop-punk rife with suburban angst.
In June, I met up with Geoff Farina at the Porter Exchange, a mall in Porter Square filled with tiny restaurants that specialize in various Southeast Asian cuisines. Farina is an intelligent, humble guy with plenty to say, and a lot of wise commentary to throw into the America Is Just A Word mix. Below are a couple of selections from the interview, with some pretty heavy stuff in the second clip. Enjoy!
On getting into music:
On inspiration for songwriting and personal experience versus autobiographical in song:
Along comes Chris Leo to correct that error. Before his brother Ted Leo stole the hearts of the indie crowd in the aughts, Chris was making waves with his band The Van Pelt. Formed while a student at NYU, Leo codified a particular scrappy sound that crops up in many an emo song, with his speak-singing vocals mapped out across slow-churning, intricately composed post-hardcore instrumentation with a signature melodic, reverberating/bell-like quality to its guitars.
Leo’s words will offer a look at the New York mid-90s emo scene, a surprisingly overlooked area of the time, especially considering New York is usually seen as a mecca for any and all musics. The Mid West seemed to be where it was at in the mid-90s, but Leo’s band was offered as vibrant and engaging a sound as any other.
Without further ado, the interview:
What made you want to pick up an instrument?
Chris: “In 6th grade they were starting a band at my school. The band leader went through the pros and cons of every instrument to an assembly in the auditorium. He said, ‘well…the trombone is a very unpopular instrument’. I chose trombone.”
How did you first get involved in the New York music scene? Was it simply out of the convenience of being a student at NYU or were you previously involved in the music community in New York?
Chris: “I grew up in northern NJ before I went to NYU and between my older brother handing me Vision, Gorilla Biscuit, and American Standard 7″s for guidance, an all ages matinee club called ‘The Pipeline’ in Newark right down the street, and skateboarding videos like Speed Freaks, I was inducted at an early age.”
What was it like balancing the life of a student while dealing the the usual rigors of performing in a band?
Chris: ” It was like this: student teaching every morning during the day, NYU by night, girlfriend and/or band after, girlfriend and/or band at various New England college campuses by weekend, working at record stores in between. Too much, college was a blur. There was much more living before and after.”
I know there was a choice between two names for the band: The Van Pelt and Texas Is The Reason? How did you come up with both those names and why did you decide to go with The Van Pelt?
Chris: “Neil suggested Texas is the Reason from a Misfits song about it being the reason Kennedy is dead. The Misfits singing about the Kennedy’s felt aptly similar to the type of mountain we were trying to tackle…but then there were all the NYC bands from the 70’s and 80’s where all the members had the same last names (or at least that’s how we’d refer to them, ‘Look, there’s Tommy Smackdown’ or, ‘Hey, Bobby Epilepsy, whadda ya know!’) and seeing as Van Pelt was a good Dutch name from New Amsterdam we opted to be brothers.”
How did you guys end up on Gern Blandsten?
Chris: “My band before The Van Pelt, Native Nod, was on Gern. No one else other than every major label wanted to touch us. We had only big contracts or Gern to choose from. Looking back, no matter how much a major could have raped us, they could never have raped us as badly as Gern did. We each received $50 and a vegan pizza before a tour from Charles at Gern over the course of our existence and since. Never one statement ever on how many records we’ve sold. When we’ve asked, both casually and through the lawyers, he’s refused to produce. If we had gone with a major at least we would have seen enough bread to get two or three vegan pizza pies each at we would have at least been able to find our catalog in used bins.”
To explain, I was one of 382 folks to back record label Polyvinylin their hopes to store/salvage 10,000 records using Kickstarter. Kickstarter is a new funding organization that helps artists, organizations, and individuals fund their various projects. It’s basically like a social networking site that allows creative individuals to connect directly to their base in order to get their ideas off the ground independent of the usual forces behind music, film, books, art, etc.
Anyway, people are encouraged to offer incentives for folks to fund projects, with different levels of donations come complete with certain “rewards.” The kicker (no pun intended) is that these are all pledges to pay: if a project doesn’t get at least 100% of its targeted goal, no one has to pay and the project gets zero funding.
There was no question that Polyvinyl would reach their goal, as it appeared like they were almost liquidating their stocks. The top pledges ($50+) received 26 CDs and two DVDs filled with various indie artists… and yes, emo musicians to boot. With Aloha, Decibully (feat. two members of Maritime), Friction (ex-Braid), Joan of Arc, and Rainer Maria, it’s quite an array of emo acts… and the old Of Montreal and Saturday Looks Good To Me… well, looks good to me (ok, pun intended).
Kickstarter is currently only invite-only for people looking to start projects, as it’s in something of an infant state. Depending on how things end up on the publishing end for America Is Just A Word when all is said and done, Kickstarter may indeed be a good place to take this project.
But, that’s a ways away. For now, I’ll just occupy myself with listening to some of these albums…