By Leor Galil
There’s a pre-concert ritual many gig-goers may be familiar with: gawking at band merchandise. Usually, there’s a flashy T-shirt or a tour-only vinyl that will whet some music fan’s appetite.
Yet, the most interesting item Nick Wakim’s band, Castevet, had to offer at a house show in Logan Square in early August couldn’t be bought. It was a photo of the Chicago quartet’s latest album, “The Echo & The Light,” on display at a record store. In Japan.
“We’re kind of a big deal in Japan,” Wakim said, jokingly, as he showed some of the other musicians on the night’s bill the photo on his iPhone 4. “No big deal.”
Joking aside, Castevet’s success is a big deal. For a band that plays basement shows as often as Castevet, the opportunity to release an album on a foreign label like Japan’s Stiff Slack Records doesn’t happen every day. Castevet is doing something big. And that big thing is emo.
Emo, or emotional hardcore, has gone through a lot of changes since it became a vital sound in the Washington, D.C., post-hardcore scene in the mid-eighties. Its most recent iteration saw a marriage of pop-punk melodies and emo lyrical introspection boost bands like Fall Out Boy and My Chemical Romance to the No. 1 and 2 spots on the Billboard charts, respectively. Emo experienced a wave of backlash along with its success, be it in the form of the British tabloids that called emo a cult, or other bands that saw the genre as flaccid and one-note.
Yet, Castevet is hardly a part of that brand of emo. Their caterwauling, angular take on the sound is closer to what bands like Braid and Small Brown Bike produced in the nineties than anything with the emo tag on the pop charts today.
Castevet isn’t the only group digging through emo’s past to rebrand the genre with a vital new sound. Across the country, acts with names like Algernon Cadwallader, Empire! Empire! (I Was a Lonely Estate), Pianos Become The Teeth, Annabel, Tigers Jaw, 1994!, Everyone Everywhere, Monument and countless others have found inspiration in emo’s eighties and nineties heyday, and are making plenty of new noise today because of it.
“It’s fun music. The songs grow on you and you become attached to them. You can’t help it but to want to write your own,” writes Anton Kropp, guitarist for D.C. band Monument, in an email. “For me, it’s a natural progression of growing up and coming back to stuff you loved as a kid and putting your own twist on it. A few of us in Monument played in hardcore bands for years, but we always loved bands like [The] Get Up Kids, I Hate Myself, American Football, Braid, etc.”
Kropp and his bandmates’ love for classic Midwestern emo akin to American Football and Braid is quite evident in Monument’s music. Monument’s sound is draped in the kind of catharsis and youthful propulsion that made the earlier incarnations of emo so vital. Fortunately, Monument and their peers are hardly carbon copies of emo’s glory days: Today’s undergound emo sound is reminiscent of Chicago’s scene in the nineties, but it’s very much a product of the present.
Just as it was a power-player city in the nineties emo scene, Chicago is still a hub for some of the brightest emo acts today. Besides Castevet, there’s the troubadour-stylings of Into It. Over It.; the crunchy, gutter-punk leanings of Grown Ups; the sugary, pogoing pop-punk of The Please & Thank Yous; and the raw, mathy compositions of Coping, one of the newer bands on the scene. Chicago is also a home-away-from-home for emo groups just outside the city limits, like Rockford, Illinois, sextet Joie De Vivre.
The sheer number of bands harkening back to the days before emo became a dirty word has culminated into a strong national and local community.
“I didn’t realize how many bands looked back to emo bands,” says Patrick Delehanty, guitarist for Joie De Vivre. “People are just starting to wake up to it.”
Delehanty is one of those people. Before joining Joie three years ago, Delehanty’s music diet was thoroughly un-emo.
“I didn’t know who Mineral was,” Delehanty said. “I didn’t know about Sunny Day Real Estate, Fugazi, all the pioneering bands. Chris [French, Joie guitarist] made me listen to them and I ended up falling in love with them.”
Whether or not Delehanty’s musical peers were first discovering the genre’s touchstones at the same time, they certainly were taken enough to produce their own distinctive spin on emo during that time period.
Take Keith Latinen. The Fenton, Michigan, native formed Empire! Empire!, a band thoroughly indebted to mid-nineties emo acts like Mineral, in 2006. With emo, Latinen found a powerful and expressive form of music.
“Ever since I first heard it, it just pulled at my heart,” writes Latinen in an email. “The music is so pretty and so intimate, that it glorifies life, beauty and the flaws. Living is all about embracing the moments, so that is what we try to do with our music.”
Besides forming Empire! Empire!, Latinen also created a forum for people to discover these groups.
“We were looking to record a new seven-inch, and we figured no one would want to sign us,” Latinen said. “So, we thought if we were putting it out, we might as well start a label to put it out on. Then we thought of all our friends who were in a similar situation, and we thought we would help them too.”
On January 16, 2007, Latinen released Empire! Empire!’s first EP, “When the Sea Became a Giant,” on his then-new label, Count Your Lucky Stars Records. Since then, the 27-year-old has released seventeen albums by a slew of bands from around the country, including Joie De Vivre and Castevet.
Releasing more than a dozen albums in three years is no small feat, especially when you consider that Latinen’s day job at the Commerce Township Community Library circulation department helps fund the records. CD releases generally cost $1,500. The price for a vinyl release tends to rely on the color, size and the volume of vinyl being produced, but it can be as low as $1,500. (However, the $1,500 price for vinyl is an extremely low estimate for producing vinyl. Physical records are quite expensive to produce.)
Digital sales for CYLS are handled by Tunecore, a digital-music distribution website that has partnerships with iTunes, eMusic, Amazon and a host of other sites, and charges an upload and annual fee per album. After CYLS covers the cost of releasing an album, the label and band split the profits evenly.
Although it’s not a money-making endeavor, Latinen is happy to pour his time, money and energy into his label. Latinen isn’t the only one working on a small label that releases emo records. In 2008, Chuck Daley, Will Miller and Jeff Meyers, who run a Charlotte, North Carolina, music publicity company called Beartrap PR, decided to create Tiny Engines Records. The label has released four records in two years, including Castevet’s latest album. Other labels, like Topshelf Records and Be Happy Records, have established a brand with an emo-friendly roster.
While these boutique labels won’t be threatening Atlantic Records anytime soon, they’ve managed to find an audience hungry for emo. Tiny Engines sold all 450 copies of their second release, Tigers Jaw’s “Spirit Desire” EP, on vinyl in a matter of months. Sure, those numbers may seem like peanuts. But when Seattle proto-grunge act The Melvins made headlines with their Billboard debut for selling less than 3,000 copies of their newest album, it’s not unimaginable to think Tigers Jaw could crack the Billboard charts.
The small-scale popularity of these bands shows a certain countrywide devotion to the newest style of emo. Part of it is thanks to the omnipresence of the Internet, which has helped smaller bands like Castevet find an audience.
“I think blogs and Twitter and all those sorts of things have made it really easy for people to share music with friends and strangers alike,” writes Wakim in an email. “Ever since we’ve been getting our music out there, it seems as if more and more are able to access it.”
Even as many major music outlets ignore the new version of emo, or, in the case of Pitchfork, deride it, the fans are still able to discover bands re-inventing an older version of emo for a newer generation. It’s something Delehanty saw firsthand when Joie did their first East Coast tour in June.
“Everywhere we played, we had one or two kids singing along to our stuff,” Delehanty said. For a musician who never saw New York City before June, it made for a surreal tour.
Delehanty’s experience echoes that of the many underground emo musicians around the country. They may not grab headlines in Rolling Stone, but they’ve got devoted fans eager to catch a show or buy a record. If the fans’ love of the sound is anywhere near as earnest and heartfelt as the songs being produced by today’s underground emo bands, the national scene may be able to remake emo’s image. Or, at the very least, release a few more albums in Japan.