A few weeks ago, I reviewed Everybody Hurts: An Essential Guide to Emo Culture, a tongue-in-cheek guide book and document of the modern "emo" scene. Since the book got me thinking about a lot of things, I decided to have a chat with the authors, Leslie Simon & Trevor Kelley who are both big shot music journalists from Alternative Press.
Besides sharing Pete Wentz' cell phone number and even his hotmail address (firstname.lastname@example.org) I picked their brains on emo, writing books and answering the age old question of how and why someone would pay you to write about music.
I think that there has been a small group of bands that were a bit more flamboyant. Bands that didn't look or act like you. The first time I saw that sort of thing occurring was with the Gravity Records scene that existed in the early '90s. Those bands were rock stars with a capitol "R." Antioch Arrow would play to 45 people a night and their singer would still show up wearing a cape.
Why did you decide to write this book?
TK: For me, it was pretty simple. About two years ago Leslie said she had an idea for a book, and that she wanted me to write it with her. The idea was still kind of loose, but she knew that she wanted it to be a guide about emo, sort of along the lines of The Preppy Handbook. She also wanted it to be fairly humorous. Since Leslie is my best friend, and a writer I truly admire, I didn't have to think about it very long. In fact, I remember the night that she asked. We were at a club in New York, drinking and joking around. When she brought it up, I'm pretty sure that I accepted on the spot. We talked a few days later and once we started bouncing ideas off each other, I was in. So that's how I decided to co-author Everybody Hurts. As for Leslie, I'm sure that her answer will differ a little√Ę‚?¨¬¶
LS: I had wanted to write a book for, oh, a million years and all my ideas had sucked. I'm not even being self-deprecating. They honestly sucked. Then it just hit me one night as I was going to bed. I don't know what sparked it but I started thinking about how I used to love stealing my parents' copy of The Preppy Handbook when I was younger. I didn't completely understand it, but I knew it was funny. My brain immediately jumped to the fact that there were hardly any accurate√Ę‚?¨"and humorous√Ę‚?¨"explanations of emo culture. I scribbled my self-proclaimed brilliant idea on a piece of scrap paper I kept on my nightstand. In the morning, the chicken scratch jogged my memory and I was off to make my idea a reality.
Besides working at Alternative Press, what qualifies you to document this scene?
TK: Both Leslie and I are 28. We have both been doing this for a while. Personally, I have been writing about this genre since high school. When I was 18 I published a fanzine that more or less covered the tail end of emo's so-called "second wave." Bands like Braid and Sunny Day Real Estate, that's who I covered. Jason Gnewikow, who played guitar in the Promise Ring, even designed some of it. So that's where I started. Then, in 2002, I got a call from Aaron Burgess and began writing for Alternative Press. But before that happened, obviously, I had been around. That's why you'll read about something like No Answers, which was Kent McClard's first fanzine, in the book's literature chapter. I read that fanzine growing up. It's something that I experienced first hand.
LS: I can still remember where I was and what I was wearing the first time I heard Dashboard Confessional√Ę‚?¨"and after that I was hooked. I could list off all the "emo" things I've accomplished over the past six years, but that would take a while. Instead, if you do a Google search for my name, you'll see what makes me qualified to write this book. You'll also get to read my college term paper on the social psychology of cyberspace, which is totes riveting.
Your tone in the book is somewhat irreverent, but not mean-spirited. Do you find emo inherently funny?
TK: God, yes. I mean, the fashion statements alone are riot. Now, I should stress that I mean that in the most kind-hearted way possible. Believe me, I've worn some ridiculous articles of clothing in my life. But when you look at the singer of a band who has obviously spent an hour in front of the mirror, tirelessly working on a hairdo that makes him look like peacock√Ę‚?¨¬¶ that, in and of itself, is hilarious. Also, some of the lyrics are so entertaining. I mean, when Chris Conley from Saves The Day sings about how he misses his mom on Through Being Cool, you can't help but laugh. I am sure that even Chris has laughed at that before. It's such an unapologetically honest lyric, how couldn't he?
LS: Don't forget, Trevor, not only does Chris sing about missing his mom, but he does it while wearing an XXL San Diego Zoo shirt plastered with wild animals all over the front. It's like the jokes just write themselves.
As people who might be a bit older than the average emo fan, do you feel a connection or an understanding of it?
TK: Sure, why wouldn't we? I mean, Ted Leo is, what, 36? That's a bit older that your average punk rock fan, isn't it? But do you doubt for a second that he still feels a connection to punk rock? We're both about a decade younger than Ted, but I think that we feel the same way. He's a punk rock lifer and so are we. It's just that we're not quite as into the Clash as he is. No offense. I love London Calling, but not as much as I love Pinkerton.
LS: I feel more like a 14-year-old each day. I actually feel younger now than when I was really that age. I might be a grown-up in the typical sense of paying bills, knowing what a 401K plan is and not having a curfew, but I have more in common with your average Fall Out Boy fan than most people my age.
There have been a myriad of outraged media reports talking about the dangers of emo, as is usually the case with anything people don't understand. Do you think the scene has real problems?
TK: I think that both of us could talk about this forever, but in the interest of people actually reading this interview, we'll try and keep it brief. Basically, every five years or so, the media will find a cultural movement to blame rather average teenage problems on. They did it with grunge. They did it with nu-metal. Now it's emo. But let's face it, most teenagers, despite the music they√Ę‚?¨‚?Ęre listening to, are depressed. There are just some teenagers who are more outward about it. Emo fans have always been very outward about this, and now the media is latching onto that, but I think there concern is pretty unwarranted. I mean, both Leslie and I write about these bands and these kids on a daily basis, and I don't think that either of us know a single cutter. We certainly don't know anyone who has ever taken an "emo quiz" and then decided to commit suicide as a way to obtain "emo points." That's just absurd.
LS: Even my mom thought those news reports were stupid. Actually, they bothered her more than me, so much so that she wrote a letter to the dude who put the package together.
One common concern people have expressed is that there seems to be a pretty big undercurrent of misogyny in a lot of the lyrics. Do you think this is an issue?
TK: Well, this is tough, because any time a man writes a song that blames a woman for his problems, that's pretty misogynistic, right? But at the same time, what band, lead by a male, hasn't written a song like that? Most rock bands, whether we're talking about Led Zeppelin or New Found Glory, are guilty of this. But that being said, I do think some bands in this scene went too far. The second Glassjaw record contained some lyrics that were just mind-blowing. I mean, the first time I heard Daryl Palumbo demand that some unnamed female "suck the cum from my dick that bleeds lead," two questions came to my mind. The first was, "How is he getting away with this?" and the second was, "Has this man seen a physician?" Because my friend, your genitalia should not be secreting lead.
LS: If some d-bag wants to write a song about killing his girlfriend with the stuff that shoots out his penis, be my guest. I've got episodes of Arrested Development to watch.
I didn't find this in the book, so I'd like to ask. Any theories on how we went from the early emo you describe in the book (Rites of Spring, Lifetime, Promise Ring, etc.) to the very flamboyant bands we have now? Is there even a connection?
TK: You're talking about bands that wear make up and are sort of theatrical, right? Because if you are then, yes, I do think there's a connection. I mean, obviously this scene was founded by bands like Embrace and, later, Lifetime, whose very existence seemed to say, "Yes, you can do this, too." They looked and acted like their audience, and obviously people were attracted to that. But all along, I think that there has been a small group of bands that were a bit more flamboyant. Bands that didn't look or act like you. The first time I saw that sort of thing occurring was with the Gravity Records scene that existed in the early '90s. Those bands were rock stars with a capitol "R." Antioch Arrow would play to 45 people a night and their singer would still show up wearing a cape. These days, bands like Panic! At The Disco and My Chemical Romance are doing the same thing. So is there a connection there? Sure. Does that mean Brendan Uri has any idea who Antioch Arrow is? Hell no. But in a way, a band like Antioch Arrow surely influenced the bands that influenced him. If we didn't have Antioch Arrow, there would be no Ink And Dagger. Without Ink And Dagger, there would be no My Chemical Romance. And without My Chemical Romance, I don't think that Panic! At The Disco would have thought that it was perfectly acceptable to take a half-dozen contortionists out on tour with them. So there you go. There is a lineage there, it's just that no one really talks about the band's that kicked it off. One of the reasons for this is that those original bands were never really popular. I mean, how many records could Antioch Arrow have possibly sold? Two thousand? Also, these bands were always the exception to what was going on. There weren't a ton of bands like Antioch Arrow or Ink And Dagger back in the day, but they were out there. Anyway, hopefully you haven't fallen asleep during this little history lesson. I know that that I got a little Michael Azerrad on you there√Ę‚?¨¬¶
LS: What Trevor said.
What are the best emo records you can think of?
TK: That's tough. I would have to say Dear You by Jawbreaker, Pinkerton by Weezer and Tell All Your Friends by Taking Back Sunday. Tell All Your Friends is one my favorite albums of the last decade, period. So those are my picks. I'm actually curious about what Leslie's are. I'm guessing Bright Eyes will be on there√Ę‚?¨¬¶
LS: Hmmm√Ę‚?¨¬¶ I'll go with Designing A Nervous Breakdown by The Anniversary, Lifted√Ę‚?¨¬¶ Or The Story Is In The Soil, Keep Your Ear To The Ground by Bright Eyes, From Under The Cork Tree by Fall Out Boy, and maybe The All-American Rejects' debut LP. Dang, it's like choosing between your kids!
How did the book come together?
TK: We've already covered how the idea came about, so I'm guessing you want to know how two people write actually book together. If that's the case, then I have to say, we were really lucky. It came together pretty smoothly for us. There wasn't a lot of fighting. Which was surprising. Collaborating is hard, but I think that we meshed really well. The only stuff we fought about were the jokes that we were making too frequently. I think there were a couple occasions where I came to Leslie, or she came to me, and the argument was something along the line of, "That's the third joke you made about Vinnie Acardi's hat collection. Seriously, you need to re-write this." But that's about as ugly as it got.
LS: Again, what Trevor said.
What do you think is the biggest misunderstanding people have about the scene?
TK: The cutting thing. I know that we already touched on this, but the way that people are fixated on that totally blows my mind.
LS: And the crying thing. Despite popular belief, emo fans do not cry all the time. I mean, how would they be able to properly apply eye makeup through the tears?
Guyliner? Pro or con?
TK: Pro? It really makes your eyes stand out. Con? So will the black eye that the cornerback on your high school's football team will give you, when you show up to school looking like wiL. Francis from Aiden. But thems the breaks when you're born emo.
LS: I tend to like boys to wear less makeup than me, so I'll say con.
I understand you guys are going on a Book Tour, what can you tell me about it. Any appearances on Oprah planned? I hear that helps move books.
TK: It's true. We're not going to a ton of cities and there's going to be a lot of space between the shows, but it should be fun. We√Ę‚?¨‚?Ęre doing this whole thing with MySpace books, where we come out before bands at shows. All the shows are going to involve fairly popular bands playing in rather tiny settings. You can find out about the shows on our MySpace page and the Myspace's frontpage. Like all book tours, the idea here is to make readers aware of our book, but we also think that most book tours are traditionally very stuffy and boring. They're not something that most kids who listen to this genre would really care about attending, so we decided to do something less traditional.
LS: Yeah, it's going to be pretty unprecedented for a book to be promoted like this. Since TK and I have such a huge background in the music industry, it's impossible for us not to be inspired by the way that albums are marketed and promoted. Plus, it's a great way give something back to the people that have made the book such a success. Oh, and believe you me, my mom would love nothing more than to see her daughter and bestie on Oprah. She's even called dibs on being my personal "lint picker" or "Sharpie distributor." From your lips to Gayle King's ears.
Both MTV and the NY Post have recently written some articles comparing emo to hair metal. Wondering if you saw the articles, and what you thought.
TK: My first thought was, "You jokers are about three years too late." I mean, when Avenged Sevenfold and Bleeding Through and all those bands from Orange County were coming up, that seemed like a completely fair comparison. Those bands really looked and acted like hair metal bands, yet they were still referred to by a ton of people as "emo." I know that that still exists now. There's Escape The Fate and Halifax and a bunch of other clowns who like to pretend that it's 1984 and they're in Tuff. But when people look back on "emo" ten years from now and ask who the defining artists were, they are going to say Fall Out Boy, My Chemical Romance, Dashboard Confessional and Taking Back Sunday. And you know what? Those are all bands that came up playing VFW Halls, touring in vans, and really believing in this community. They didn't lose their connection to this community once they began selling millions of records and playing in stadiums. To me, all of those bands had credibility in their infant stages and maintained it as they became rich and famous. I don't think that was true at all with hair metal. Those bands had absolutely no interest in DIY culture. They never cared about giving back to those who supported them. Once they became famous, they became total, unaccountable douche bags. I think the total opposite occurred with most emo artist. Have you ever had a conversation with Chris Carrabba? Or Fred Mascherino? Or Patrick Stump? These are completely down-to-earth, intelligent, and compassionate guys. This is only a guess, but I doubt that anyone would describe Tommy Lee that way. If I got the opportunity to interview Vince Neil tomorrow and I asked him what Tommy Lee's most redeemable quality was, I guarantee that he would say something like, "Well, dude, Tommy knows how to party and, you know, the ladies love him because he has a huge cock." I don't think Carrabba would ever use the word "cock" in an interview. That says a lot.
LS: I don't know if I can back your Tommy Lee bashing, Trev. I mean, homeboy might have a big Johnson, but that doesn't mean he's automatically stupid. I mean, didn't he have that reality show called Tommy Lee Goes To College? I think he earned his doctorate or something. Geez.
Pete Wentz, for better or for worse, has become the figurehead of modern "emo" and seems to be everywhere these days. He appears prominently at the end of your book as well. He seems to be running his music career like a hip-hop mogul. Any feelings on him?
TK: You can say whatever you want about Pete, but that guy is essential to this scene. He is absolutely creating culture in a day and age when everyone else in the world is just sitting on their ass, waiting to absorb it for free. So whether you love him or hate him, you can't deny that he has contributed. I mean, without Pete and Fall Out Boy and his stable of friends, there's a pretty good chance that a book like ours wouldn't have been possible, and a site like Punknews might have a few less readers. He's helped bring this world to the masses, and I think he's done a pretty good job of that, considering all the speed bumps he could and, at some point, did hit along the away.
LS: I heart Pete to bits and think he is brilliant beyond words. Period.
One of the most frequent emails I get from people is asking about being a music journalist. Since you guys are "pros" what kind of advice would you give all those hoping for a career in music writing?
TK: We're "pros"? Ummm, that's news to me! I don't know. When people ask this question, they usually want to know, "How can I become a writer?" and I think Les and I are proof that there are many ways to go about this. Like I said, I came from writing a fanzine, which is a pretty unlikely route. But it was from that fanzine that I ended up writing for Alternative Press. One of the editors there, Aaron Burgess, used to read it and even reviewed it in Alternative Press. So as I was finishing college I got in touch with him and he signed me up to write a small news piece on Saves The Day. That was in the summer of 2002. Two months later, I wrote my first cover story. Its now five years later and I've written more cover stories than I can remember, have become a contributor at SPIN and have co-authored a book for the same publishing house responsible for A Tree Grows In Brooklyn and Brave New World. I never thought that any of that would happen back when I was interviewing Pedro The Lion in David Bazan's minivan. So that's how it happened for me. But there's many ways to go about this.
You can say whatever you want about Pete, but that guy is essential to this scene. He is absolutely creating culture in a day and age when everyone else in the world is just sitting on their ass, waiting to absorb it for free. So whether you love him or hate him, you can't deny that he has contributed.
LS: I'm Trevor's total opposite when it comes to breaking into this scene. When he was publishing his own zine, I was memorizing the lyrics to Doggystyle and drinking Zima in elementary school playgrounds. In terms of advice for aspiring writers, I think one of the most important things you can do is find a mentor; someone who you look up to and who can help motivate you to be a better writer. Also, write every chance you get. Whether it's in a diary, on a blog, or for a school paper, the only way you'll improve is to write like it's your job, especially if you wish it were.
You mentioned Glassjaw as a particular example of misogyny and I think you're definitely correct in your assessment. That said, considering the audience of this music is largely young and female, why would this kind of attitude be so attractive to young women?
TK: Honestly, I have no idea. I would think that would cause them to turn and run, but in the case of Glassjaw in the early '00s, it actually lead to the complete opposite reaction. Why that happened, I'm not sure. One of our best friends is actually the woman that Daryl was referring to in at least some of those early songs, and I would always say to her, "What were you thinking?" Dating him just seemed so wrong to me. It was like she dated the villain in a comic book story. Like, he was "Misogyny Man." Actually that would make for a great comic book. "He can stop a speeding train with a single dumb blonde joke! He can scale tall buildings with a single reference to the size of his dick!" I think we have our next book, Les. We should see if Gerard Way could illustrate it.
LS: No comment.
On the same note, with rare exceptions, emo is about the most suburban, white and Christian subculture in an already fairly homogenous punk scene. I wonder why you think that might be?
TK: I think that it's just one of those things. That's just who found this music, you know? You could ask that question about a lot of subcultures. How come indie rock is primarily made up of white guys in their late 20s? How come there are so many Eastern Europeans that are obsessed with electronic dance music? How come all guys with receding hairlines love rockabilly? Beats me. They just do.
LS: Two words: Joe Trohman. Two more words: Jew fro. That's all I have to say about that.
Less seriously, what do you think will come next? What is going to be post-emo? My theory is that it will involve killer robots, but you can feel free to speculate.
TK: Yeah, I've been hearing the killer robot buzz for a while now. In fact, there was a band of killer robots called These Ides Of Mesentery that played a sold out show at the Crazy Donkey in Long Island this past weekend. People were clamoring to get in. Kids were just freaking out. Apparently, every A&R guy in the world was there and then Jesse Lacey showed up. He wanted to take them out on a 10-city-tour of retirement homes in the Southwest, but then they got into a fight over a girl. Anyway, there was a huge screaming match about it in the parking lot afterwards, which then prompted Brand New to retaliate and whip up some new merch that said, "Robots are for killing, not singing." I already went to Brand New's online store and put in an order for a Youth Large hoodie. I can't wait for it to show up. All of that being said, yes, there will definitely be some killer robots leading the next wave of emo. And my guess is that they'll all be wearing guyliner?
LS: And girl robot jeans.