Tag Archives: Texas Is The Reason

Interview with Darren Walters

I’m happy to post a selection from the ongoing email interview I’m having with one Darren Walters, co-founder of Jade Tree Records.

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.”

Interview with Chris Simpson

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 Gooda 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.

Here goes:

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.”

Interview with Chris Leo

It’s been far too long since I last featured an interview featuring a musician that will be in the book America Is Juat A Word.

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.”

Chris Leo (live, solo set):

Let’s Make A List: An America Is Just A Word Update

I’m happy to announce another addition to the America Is Just A Word roster of voices involved in the book. Chris Leo, frontman of The Van Pelt, will lend his voice to the evolving narrative. The Van Pelt were a part of the post-hardcore/emo scene in New York City in the mid 90s and were quite entrenched in the scene. They were signed to Gern Blandsten Records, buddies with Texas Is The Reason (and happened to give that band their name), and helped progress the general post-hardcore sound in the city. You may also recognize Chris due to a fraternal connection of his… to one Ted Leo, of Ted Leo and the Pharmacists (who’s mid-90s emo act Chisel was also signed to Gern Blandsten Records).

The band has recently convened for a handful of reunion shows, so if you’re in DC or Philly, be sure to check them out at the Black Cat (Friday) and Kunfunecktie (Saturday). And stay posted for even more news about the book and the interview process as it continues!

The Van Pelt (live):

Delaware Are You: An America Is Just A Word Update

I’m excited to announce yet another contributor to America Is Just A Word. Darren Walters, co-owner of Jade Tree records, has given me the thumbs up for the interview process, and his voice will be more a welcome addition to the roster of interviewees. Although most of the first-person interviews I’m collecting will be musicians, Walters’ input is very much appreciated, especially as Jade Tree’s impact on the international emo scene is nothing but important. Since forming in 1990, the label has signed/released music from many an important emo act: The Promise Ring, Cap’n Jazz, Pedro The Lion, Hot Water Music, Texas Is The Reason, Jets To Brazil, Girls Against Boys, Joan Of Arc, Owls, Lifetime, Juno, and countless others have released music bearing the Jade Tree logo over the years.

Walters’ own experience will be able to shed some light on the impact of emo from its point of underground popularity through its watershed moment and to the present, how it affected Jade Tree, and how it affected those who were assigned to the term, including Jade Tree. It’ll be another great addition to the book, which is really beginning to accumulate a number of great contributors!

The Promise Ring – “Is This Thing On?” (video):

Don’t (Touch and) Go

From the looks of a post early in the day by Stereogum, one would have thought it was the end of the aural world for fans of underground music. Although the reports later in the day dismissed the rumors that Touch and Go Records was finished; instead, the still dreadful news that the label will no longer be able to distribute the collections of numerous smaller labels and will be letting go of  20-person staff. Here is label head Corey Rusk’s statement:

“It is with great sadness that we are reporting some major changes here at Touch and Go Records. Many of you may not be aware, but for nearly 2 decades, Touch and Go has provided manufacturing and distribution services for a select yet diverse group of other important independent record labels. Titles from these other labels populate the shelves of our warehouse alongside the titles on our own two labels, Touch and Go Records, and Quarterstick Records.

Unfortunately, as much as we love all of these labels, the current state of the economy has reached the point where we can no longer afford to continue this lesser known, yet important part of Touch and Go’s operations. Over the years, these labels have become part of our family, and it pains us to see them go. We wish them all the very best and we will be doing everything we can to help make the transition as easy as possible.

Touch and Go will be returning to its roots and focusing solely on being an independent record label. We’ll be busy for a few months working closely with the departing labels and scaling our company to an appropriate smaller size after their departure. It is the end of a grand chapter in Touch and Go’s history, but we also know that good things can come from new beginnings.”

This is a big news story in many circles, and not just music fans. Touch and Go will be known for its service of providing and fostering a wealth of great artists, be they Jesus Lizard, Butthole Surfers, Big Black, Slint, TV on the Radio, Ted Leo, Pinback, !!!, Polvo, Bedhead, Naked Raygun, The Meatmen, Yeah Yeah Yeahs…. the list could go on.

Touch and Go logo

Touch and Go logo

In many ways, Touch and Go is a representation of a narrative of a time since passed, having turned from a seminal hardcore zine into a full-fledged independent label breaking some of the hottest oddball bands from the 80s until today… it grew to a tremendous point for a small operation, and without the need for “world domination” ideals and hype-mongering use and abused by what is arguably the other “big” independent American label today, Sub Pop. Despite it’s operation, Touch and Go remained in a low-down mindset similar to Dischord that was more about fostering a community than forwarding some music revolution agenda… no wonder Ted Leo found it to be a great place to call home.

Today’s event is remarkable only because whatever the mish-mash of events – be it the recession or downloading, etc – this is the first big-name, independent label that’s been hit in ways that hasn’t been publicized… meanwhile, it’s nothing but Armageddon talk with the majors. But unlike the majors, Touch and Go isn’t primarily a business, in that it’s all about the benjamins… it still sticks to its guns and original notions of putting out music. The changes at the label seem to be on level with that occurring at newspapers nationally, though with potentially better prospects: during boom-times, these entities grew to enormous proportions to fill a potential want/need, but now that there is no necessary need or ability to cover it, they must withdraw from their growth a little and focus on regrouping and the very idea holding their entity together. In the case of newspapers, it’s keeping the public informed; in the case of Touch and Go, it’s keeping the public artistically and musically endowed.

Obviously, the big loss is to all those labels who no longer have the distribution network and base that Touch and Go has/had. In years past, this could (and did) kill off many a smaller label, as record stores were a predominant method of selling music. However, with the tight network of online sales, the decline of record stores… this part basically writes itself. Still, some of the smaller labels might be in harms way. Perhaps not Jade Tree, the emo label that came to fruition in the 90s and brought emo acts such as The Promise Ring (who inversely helped bring Jade Tree some cred, as an earlier post states), Cap’n Jazz, Lifetime, Jets to Brazil, Texas is the Reason, as well as other bands such as… My Morning Jacket. Perhaps other labels like Kill Rock Stars, Merge, and Drag City may survive on their own. But what about Flameshovel, home to post-emo-ers Maritime? How about Robcore, home to Rob Crow’s 5,031 side projects? What will they do? Perhaps Southern Records, the European label of independent choice that has been helping small time record labels (notably Dischord) with distribution in Europe, could pick up key missing pieces. At this point, it’s too soon to tell… but hopefully, something will come to fruition for these tiny labels.

TV on the Radio – “Dreams” (video):

The Revolution Will Be Produced

It’s always nice getting some sort of personal email, especially when it’s in the form of a musical reunion between David Byrne and Brian Eno. Well, “personal” isn’t quite the right word, but I certainly took the message as a sincere and direct one:

It’s with great pleasure we offer you a sneak peak by sharing an MP3 from the album. The song is called “Strange Overtones”.

The album in question is Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, and it’s the first collaboration from the two post-punk minds in decades. The duo last came together with the album My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. However, that album was overshadowed (and probably will always be overshadowed) by Byrne’s main musical artery, Talking Heads. Yet, Eno was a central tenant to the Talking Head’s success, as his role in the producer’s seat for three of the Heads’ best albums (More Songs About Buildings and Food, Fear of Music, and Remain in Light) was as vital as any other performing member of the band. It was because of Eno’s previously-unforeseen creative control over the band – which according to the book Rip It Up And Start Again hit its tipping point when Eno and Byrne got writing credits for Remain in Light ahead of the other band members, who were simply written down under the umbrella of “Talking Heads” – that his relationship with the Talking Heads and Byrne deteriorated.

Talking Heads

Talking Heads

It took me quite a bit of time to realize what an impact certain producers have over the final musical product. I always assumed that the final version of a song and album was simply a record of what the musicians themselves had originally created. And in many cases, that is true, especially in the world of underground music (and on the flipside, with mainstream, conglomerate pop, there’s the tendency wherein the “musicians” have less control over the final sound – or even the original sound to begin with). But as I became more interested in music, its with the “behind the music” stories so to speak, that I realized what a fundamental role producers play. The most famous stories I can think of involving the influence of a producer are all about Rick Rubin, the man who transformed the Beastie Boys into a fully-fledged hip-hop act and brought guitars and turntables together with his idea to do a Run-DMC/Aerosmith collaboration.

Rick Rubin

Rick Rubin

Rick Rubin is the kind of guy who blends a musician’s sound with his own distinct style. His style is not quite overbearing, but you can hear distinct patterns and ideas in songs such as Jay-Z‘s “99 Problems”; with it’s big, chunky guitar riffs broken up by break-beats, its in the same ballpark as “No Sleep ‘Til Brooklyn” or “Walk This Way.” It’s something I tend to notice coming out of my favorite producer today – Danger Mouse. Despite the fact that DM works with a diverse number of genres and artists, there’s a certain reliance on futuristic-soul (a bit faster than old skool soul) with a twist that flows through most of his repertoire. Don’t believe it? Take a quick listen to the Black Keys‘ “Strange Times” and compare it to Gnarls Barkley‘s “Go-Go Gadget Gospel.” They’re both excellent songs, but they share a pop-friendly downbeat and have the same hand-clap filled start.

Strange Times:

Go-Go Gadget Gospel:

It is partially due to production that emo transformed from an obtuse and ambiguous umbrella term for DC based post-hardcore, into a tangible genre. In its infancy, many of the bands who were tagged as “emo” simply produced their own records, or had friends produce their records. Everyone from Rites of Spring to Beefeater (note – their friend “Gumbo” MacKaye is said to have produced their overture) to Fugazi to Lungfish to Jawbox had band members working on both sides of the soundtrack. Hell, Happy Go Licky, the post-Rites of Spring group in a slightly different formation, only has one album, and its a collection of live recordings. The first wave of emo’s lack of a singular mode of production allowed for each act to create their own sounds uninhibited by any outside forces.

Happy Go Lickys Will Play

Happy Go Licky's Will Play

Enter the second wave of emo and there are noticeable changes and formulations drawn out that inevitably impact the future of the genre. The 2nd wave basically has two distinct halves: the spread of the DC-inspired sound to particular parts of the country in a small number of bands (Sunny Day Real Estate, Jawbreaker, etc), and then the immediate spreading of “emo” under the influence of the previous 1st and 2nd wave bands (most notably throughout the Mid West). Of all of the groups in emo 2.1, Sunny Day Real Estate had the most influence, and yet, they themselves have two distinct parts in which their sound developed due in part to the band’s relationship to two producers: Brad Wood and Lou Giordano. Wood produced the first two Sunny Day albums (Diary and LP2), and the production value brought out a certain aural dissonance derived from the feedback of the band’s dual guitar-work. Considering the band found an instant fan base (albeit, rather small) isn’t unbelievable as their produced sound shared numerous qualities with grunge, which was still popular at the time (Wood worked his alterna-sweeping grunge sound into the work of other artists such as Red Red Meat, Hum, and Smashing Pumpkins). And yet, on LP2 you could sense that the band wanted to achieve something more powerful than the immediate gratification of sonic blasts, as songs such as “J’Nuh” delved into succinct, taught patterns. When they reformed, Sunny Day grabbed Giordano, who helped relieve the band of its excess dissonance in favor of sparse melodies, a concept which has carried on into the band members’ post-Sunny Day work (The Fire Theft, Enigk’s solo work). Sunny Day held their own individual sound throughout their career, but with the help of two different folks created two distinct portraits.

Sunny Days final form

Sunny Day's final form

As emo spread throughout the rest of America and bands began to share musical ideas, producers helped sift through the sounds to create something resembling a conglomerate creation. And the two people who had the most impact behind the bands themselves are Mark Trombino (former Drive Like Jehu drummer) and J Robbins (former Jawbox frontman). Trombino is best known for his production work with Jimmy Eat World, most notably on the album Clarity, a record which traded the band’s pop-punk leanings for ambient experimentation. Trombino’s relationship with Jimmy Eat World, Mineral, Knapsack, and Boys Life no doubt formed a core aesthetic for emo which mainly highlighted the band’s talents by simply teasing out the volume, focusing on the intertwined guitar flurries, and highlighting the singers’ vocals. It’s a style of down-tuned production that no-doubt has influenced countless pop-punk and emo bands today, many of whom Trombino has worked with.

J Robbins

J Robbins

As Trombino fiddled with certain bands’ sounds, J Robbins mostly covered the bases of bringing the bands to the studio. In the case of many J Robbins’ produced albums (most recently, his work on Ponytail’s Ice Cream Spiritual has gotten attention for bringing a notoriously hard-to-record-but-excellent-live band into the world of recorded sound), Robbins leaves much of the musicianship up to the band, but makes sure to twist the production knobs in a way that it gives each group the kind of pop-friendly gloss they were hoping to achieve. Even in the case of Texas Is The Reason (Do You Know Who You Are?), Robbins has been able to flesh out the noise-fetish in order to create approachable pop. In fact, Robbins’ work with one band in particular helped drive emo into the bubblegum chew of pop perfection: The Promise Ring. After TPR were upset with the sonic outcome of their debut, 30 Degrees Everywhere, they turned to Robbins for a little quality control. And that’s exactly what Robbins did, delivering the band’s two poppiest records; Nothing Feels Good and Very Emergency. It’s with Robbins that certain aspects of the emo “sound” manage to stand out, because he managed to make the sounds all stand out; rather than bands being lost in a caterwaul of noise, Robbins’ produced material (from the Dismemberment Plan to Jets to Brazil to Braid to mewithoutyou) sounds clear and conscience, making the band stand out. And in music production, that’s what counts.

Brian Eno and David Byrne – Strange Overtones (fan video):

Double Double

In one corner, weighing in at 6 members is The Mae Shi, with support from The Death Set, at Great Scott.

The Mae Shi live

The Mae Shi live

In the other, pulling together as a duo is No Age, with a little help from High Places and Abe Vigoda, at the Middle East Downstairs.

No Age

No Age

It is a challenge to behold… For music fans of Boston, tonight’s concert calendar will have a tough choice, but either event will provide a winner. This may be a match for an individual’s night, but it is no way a battle between acts. This cavalcade of musicians rolling through town represents some of the brightest acts from the three pivotal underground music communities today.

The Mae Shi, No Age, and Abe Vigoda mastered their craft and honed in on their acts out in LA. There, they (along with a multitude of other acts) formed a community dedicated to furthering the boundaries of art and punk. It’s a living, breathing unit that can be seen in the 40 Bands 80 Minutes documentary (it is what it says – 40 bands performing 2 minute songs in a sweaty LA venue) or on any regular evening at The Smell, the all ages venue that No Age placed smack dab on the cover of their 2007 album Weirdo Rippers. With the critical acclaim these three acts – alongside peers such as HEALTH and Mika Miko – have been receiving, the LA underground scene has once again been thrown into the national music limelight.

The Smell

The Smell

Although LA has received a considerable amount of attention, so has Brooklyn (home of High Places) and, more than any other area, Baltimore (home of The Death Set). Forever cast in the shadows of nearby, larger areas (Baltimore has DC, and although Brooklyn is a part of NYC, Manhattan has always dominated the other burroughs), these tiny, seemingly-culturally deprived areas have burst with creative ingenuity in all forms of the arts. Baltimore has built an insular community to match its small sized, and has since been propelled to the national level thanks in part to the Wham City collective and its unofficial head Dan Deacon; in little pockets of a city that most residents have either forgotten or never cared about, out came a sprawling arts basin that seems as communally inbred as it is creative. Venture north a number of hours and you hit Brooklyn, itself a sprawling mass of space that’s cheaper – and therefore, more attractive to aspiring artists looking to make it in the big city. Any busted-up storefront could easily be turned into an art gallery or performance space, and a good number of them art (at least in the Williamsburg area). Out of it has formed numerous art-punk acts as wide spread, yet communally linked; TV On The Radio, Battles, Parts & Labor, and a ton of others all call this place home.

Baltimores Video Hippos at Brooklyns Death by Audio

Baltimore's Video Hippos at Brooklyn's Death by Audio

Both Baltimore and Brooklyn offer scenes that are in close proximity to areas of cultural resonance, but their chance location has given both places an almost-secluded quality which has allowed these communities to prosper and trade ideas amongst one another without the eye of the mainstream music world staring down upon them. LA, though a mainstream cultural capital in its own respect, is so spread out that over the past few decades, it has allowed for numerous musically-based culture movements to spawn and spread out of little pockets in the vast city side and across the suburban sprawl. These communities are created and developed in the guise of complete creativity, without the influence and impact of commercial interest to hinder, attract, or distract anything or anyone from the ultimate goal of creation. These qualities are the typical stamp-of-approval for the development of underground art communities in the US; the resources are there in almost every location in America, but it takes a special formula of location, individuals, and atmosphere to make it work.

This is an important aspect of the development and continued thriving of emo as an underground cultural force. It’s still one that drives the many different voices of emo in its current underground status. True, emo has become a fashionable commodity, but it doesn’t mean that it hasn’t continued to thrive as an underground culture, one separate from its mainstream state. It’s the ideas of creativity and independence that the innovators of the culture imbued into its artistic essence that not only kept emo in the underground for so long (around 15-17 years, depending on when you choose to mark its beginning and entrance into the mainstream). When what became known as “emo” began in the ashes of DC’s hardcore scene, a good chunk of the punk music community scorned it as hardcore had yet to hit its dramatic fall on the national level. DC was (and in many ways, still is) ignored by the music industry as an important place, so emo transformed, unfettered by outsiders and made for the better by community members. As Fugazi became the scene’s main touring act and magnet, their sound became a beacon to anyone looking beyond the convention of punk and broadcast a vibrant and diverse aural image of emo around the world.

Fugazi

Fugazi

From there, communities outside of the insular DC scene began to form around the idea of emo. The strongest cross-state emo community to arise didn’t occur until the mid 90s. While connections formed among artists from different scenes (Sunny Day Real Estate and Shudder To Think as touring partners comes to mind), the mid 90s provided a time when scenes across the country formed their own little pockets and ideas of emo, yet would come together to share them. Outside of DC (which added Chisel and The Dismemberment Plan to their list), the East Coast had pockets of sound; NYC had Texas Is The Reason, New Jersey had Lifetime, Boston had Karate and Jejune (who later moved to California), and down in Florida (if you want to count it as the East Coast) there was Hot Water Music.

Mineral

Mineral

But the mid 90s and emo will forever be associated with the Mid-West, where the bands were as connected to their hometown scenes as they were with the rest of the middle-country-divide. Cap’n Jazz, The Promise Ring, Jimmy Eat World, Mineral, Christie Front Drive, Braid, The Get Up Kids, Boy’s Life, and dozens more upon hundreds of those which may never be heard by the masses have formed a dominant portrait of a land and time in the emo narrative. The places they came from are all different and so are their ideas, but they all came together to form a variety of sounds that continue to exist within popularized forms of emo today. Consider it the time of multiculturalism in underground American punk. While the national hardcore scene transformed local sounds into one big rule-based notion of musical defiance summarized in a minute and a half of screams and thrashing guitars, the mid 90s Mid-West emo scene allowed for individual pockets to develop their version of emo undeterred by outsiders all while coming together to form bonds and trade ideas to enhance their individual perspectives. This can be seen in everything from split singles on vinyl (such as the Jimmy Eat World/Christie Front Drive split that attracted the attention of Captiol Records) to a shared creation of lyrics (The Promise Ring’s “Picture Postcard” attributes some lyrical content to Braid’s Bob Nanna), to simple ties of friendship that extend past inter-state routes. Just as the movers and shakers of today’s underground music scenes breach state lines to form communities while continuing to build their local ones, emo became a strong presence throughout America before it became a mainstream phenomenon. Those connections kept it a living, moving center of a community, and that notion continues to drive like-minded individuals who operate under whatever label they choose to this very day.
No Age – Eraser

The Mae Shi – Vampire Beats (video):