Something to Write Home About: Investigating the Existence of an Austin Emo Revival

by Joel Greatbatch

Something to Write Home About Austin Emo

It’s a term that’s been bandied around almost every music publication the past few years, the “Emo Revival,” a regeneration of music stylings found mostly in independent music circles. Talking to local bands and artists here in Austin you find there to be quite an upsweep in interest and influence from music that fits into one, if not all of the eras of emo. And during the madness that was 2016, is Austin a city that has evidences of any form of emo scene on the rise? What’s the point in even looking for one? It’s that in trying to find one, we can talk to and highlight some great new artists in Austin.

On the subject of emo with Adrian Haynes from Major Major Major, he understood the challenge of describing genres today: “My Dad grew up in the ’60s in London and so if he told someone he likes rock music generally they would know exactly more or less what kind of bands you listen to. But now that’s not the case at all.” While Major Major Major don’t have a sound one could firmly pin as emo (more one of indie rock but that is another can of worms) Haynes still felt influenced by bands that would fit into the emo label. It was Sunny Day Real Estate, American Football, and his declaration of “Savory” by Jawbox being the pinnacle of emo in his mind. It was a “classic ’90s” era of emo that he personally subscribed to and gives you a parameter for describing it.

This description was the likes of Sunday Day Real Estate’s verse/chorus dynamics; tinkling clean guitar replaced by throttling distortion and emotional vocalizing. American Football then gives the softer and more intricate side to what could fit in with “classic emo.” As for an emo revival in Austin, he felt there were no definitive venues or a distinct scene to identify with it, but there were a few bands that Haynes said he had played with possessing elements of what he termed the “classic 90s era.” The band that stood out the most to the both of us was Hikes.

Classical Emo

Hikes can be easily categorized as one of the many Austin’s bands “to keep an eye on.” They have an energy and a presence that captures your attention, and your average Austin group doesn’t fly off to Japan to record a new album. I had the privilege of seeing them humbly play in a garage for Ovrld’s AH-FUCC festival and they exemplified how a band can absorb influences from the emo past but still develop and progress them, not simply regurgitate and celebrate. They stretch American Football’s mathematical approach to riffs and rhythms to a new extreme, with a much louder dynamic and live performance that is perfectly passionate even if playing in a small garage on a hot Austin night. Their guitarist Will Kauber described the “clean, pretty and tonally ambiguous guitar parts” as defining emo guitar traits that he and fellow Hikes member Nathan Wilkins appreciate and tastefully amalgamate into their own work.

You can hear that influence in tracks like “Spring Forward”, where just as things sit in the realm of clean and pretty, Hike’s change things up with clean toned arpeggios dynamism that could give Yngwie Malmsteen a run for his money. That sets them apart. Math rock/midwest emo that is engaging yet challenging, with every instrument, drums and bass included, dedicated to getting the most out of itself.

Kauber commented how in the midst of the 2000s, “the height of emo as a pejorative term,” he was appreciating emo through bands Sunny Day Real Estate and Rites of Spring. Yet he still had his mom worried about him, seeing news reports of emo kids being physically persecuted in Mexico. And discovered a similar confusion in high school where it was like the Mods vs the Rollers, Punks vs Emos.

“I felt a sense of having to protect my identity and relationship with emo by being something of an emo-traditionalist.”

And that’s what one can hear in their recent work, hints of traditional emo that appreciates its past, but not glaringly obvious enough to distract you.

Hikes

Hikes performing at Ovrld’s AHFUCC fest

Another Austin act that popped up in conversation with Haynes was Honey & Salt, a band that has a sound that could be described as the typical American Football technicality, with twisting guitar riffs and bass somersaults; but has a slight pop sensibility in relation to the unpredictable song structures Hikes bring to the equation. It’s not your casual indie rock but one that could be linked to Sunny Day Real Estate’s guitar tinkled verses and overdriven guitar jangles. It doesn’t show a solid revival of emo, just there are traditional elements of the genre if you dig deep.

With fellow Austin band Glyde, one with a predominately indie/alt rock feel, if listening with emo in the back of your mind you do hear classical elements of bands like Braid and Austin’s own Mineral.

Front man James Beveridge admits that “…although an emo sound is pretty prevalent in my music, it’s not a result of any effort towards that specifically…[but] I would go so far as to say that almost every band/artist that I draw inspiration from could be labeled as emo in one way or another.”

His track “Null” is a perfect example of that discordant and explosive guitar sound that additionally resides in the ‘classic emo’ category.

There’s also Austin group US Weekly that I thought to have some classical emo hints, Rites of Spring being the primary band in the mix; with vocals forever bordering on a scream and rhythm timings going on the occasional tangent. But listening to any rock band in Austin with an emo ear piece inserted you find yourself always jumping to emo conclusions. Listening to US Weekly without emo in mind, one hears it belonging more to a post punk/post hardcore/At the Drive-In community (though At the Drive-In is always in the mix of any emo inquisition).

Likewise, with local hardcore screamers Locket. Not your cut and dry emo, but a post hardcore style that if debated would be the genesis of emo in the 80s. Rites of Spring were an early example of this early emo development; recognizable post-hardcore sounds but bringing more emotional experiences to the fore. And this is a movement that can be associated to Locket. Even their record label is named Take This To Heart Records. The band bio mentions the likes of Mewithoutyou and Brand New as influences, and notes: “These longtime friends intend to capture the raw emotion that helped shape who they are today.” Nothing gives you more of an alignment to classic emo than a quest to capture “raw emotion.”

Austin emo at a minimum

Emo discussions are almost entirely with ardent electric guitars in mind. Getting outside of the cacophony that traditionally accompanies emo, there’s Austin’s mysterious and anonymous fuvk. She’s minimal emo. Often just an acoustic guitar underneath curt breathings of emotion. If you told someone fuvk was an emo voiced teenage boy recording poetic and affecting ditties in his room, there’s a chance they’d believe you.

One song, “ordinary”, has the lyric “Met a girl who caught my eye, on any other day I would have passed her by/Her voice wraps around my heart and echoes in my brain.” Because emo is conventionally recognized as a white male domain, it wouldn’t be surprising if upon first listen you had to make a cerebral decision of which gender was singing to you. Why emo is even in one’s thoughts as you listen to fuvk is the vocal and lyrical delivery. It’s poetic and metaphorical, but it still cuts to the chase with its emotion.

“I think a lot of people have already categorized my music under the ’emo’ tag, and that’s fine with me,” fuvk further admitting, “I don’t think the musical composition itself always falls under that kind of sound, but the vocal delivery and lyrics definitely seem to fit the bill. I’ve been told it’s very confessional.”

Brently Heilbron from Fragile Rock, Austin’s satirical but honest emo puppet band, focuses his work on the lyrics of the proposed emo genre. “I truly think of emo, at least what we’re satirizing, it’s those lyrics. Oooh, I do love me some sad lyrics with their ‘don’t look at me/look at me!’ demands.”

It’s clear fuvk’s lyrics would come under an emo umbrella, but she still gives emo legitimacy and poignancy rather than fall into the trap that Fragile Rock helps expose. You don’t cringe at hearing “If only, if only, I’d learned to be lonely” when it’s delivered with such smoothly sung certainty.

Resurgence, not revival

For one Wednesday each month, Austin venue Barbarella gives host to the fabulously emo themed Jimmy Eat Wednesday. Emo DJ Alex Chavez is part of the event which spins seminal emo hits to a crowded dance floor of young folk singing along to the songs of their youth. It’s gaining popularity with every month and that a few hundred stick around until 2am on a week night shows a commitment to a night of emo. An emo revival?

“I dunno if revival’s the word” says Alex, “but resurgence, people missed the sound.”

And when viewing the Barbarella dancefloor and the way its crowd responded to each emo banger, it hinted at basking in nostalgia rather than kicking a genre revival into gear.

With every Jimmy Eat Wednesday, the neighboring staged venue Swan Dive has local bands playing simultaneously as the emo disco revelers next door. It shares its back porch with Barbarella and with it also being a free event it’s easy to stroll back and forth from each venue. The difference between the two is that one is for a night of fun and nostalgia, the other is also fun but is performing new and original music from local bands organized by the Jimmy Eat Wednesday crew. Not every band who has played on the bill becomes an emo flagbearer, but there are bands that Alex recognized as been influenced by emo.

Austin bands Thieves, Nominee, Later Days, and Gold Steps are those acts which Alex is excited about. “They’re not mimicking the Paramore sound, the super mall emo sound. They’re going back to the likes of Saves The Day, Get Up Kids, Promise Ring.”

Though, whether they like it or not, Gold Steps will always draw a Paramore reference when they have a petite and bold female singer flanked by a band of men ready to jump and pop-punk. With a decent listen they occupy more of that positive pop-punk lean than Paramore’s razored emo edge. In regards to emo bands Taking Back Sunday and Brand New, Gold Steps guitarist Cam Lamothe considered that “bands here [at Swan Dive] are in that realm of music.” When I brought up Hikes in conversation, Lamothe declared, “Love Hikes. They were my first local Austin band that I got into and honestly that kinda motivated me to check out the scene a little bit more and get out there.”

As a result, individuals such as Lamothe who were “checking out the scene” then met others like themselves, and started to form bands. Gold Steps frontwoman Liz Mauritz noted, “it’s like a big family. That’s how we networked. We would go to local shows.”

And there is definitely a scene forming and a loyalty between these bands who share a similar sound. Thieves, Nominee, Gold Steps, Later Days, Burning Years, Lions & Tigers, Almost Famous Friends, the list could go on, and all of these bands playing together in one gig wouldn’t be that surprising. Swan Dive, Fine Southern Gentlemen, Dirty Dog, the aforementioned bands will play at these venues on a regular basis. Almost all of them shared the bill at recent show at the Fine Southern Gentlemen warehouse.

Gold Steps all declared, “There’s so many of us… it’s impossible to get to every show… there’s a show everyday…you never go to a show and not see somebody you knew there.”

According to Gold Steps, the bands that lead the “big family” Mauritz described is most definitely Thieves and Nominee. Both plunder the sounds of past emo stalwarts Get Up Kids and Saves The Day with faithful abandon; and it’s done without any sense of irony or blatant nostalgia. They mean every word and power chord.

In regards to whether it’s the instruments or the lyrics that summarize emo, talking with Thieves frontman Billy Canino, “For me, it just has to be sonically moving. You have to be able to hear the struggle and honesty in the songs.”

And with Thieves that’s just what you get, an honesty that will either grab your heart or grind your teeth. They share with Nominee a style of warm, deep, powerfully distorted guitars. A tone of studio slickness cranked up to 11.

Steve Flynn, guitarist with Nominee, also knows the tension between performing songs which are earnest and emotionally uncompromising, but not doing so with a conscious desire to be emo. In regards to an Austin emo revival, he noted that music is always cyclical in nature, and by his own observations found that 2000s pop punk was what was really coming back in Austin. Music that can be described as keeping to the simple punk formula of straight punk power chords, steady drums, plus vocals containing a more “pop” melody. But what makes pop-punk different from emo?

“I think what makes emo emo,” said Flynn, “is there’s just a heaviness, whether it’s guitar wise or just emotion, like emotionality in the guitar playing and the drums.”

Which is what is heard in the content of Thieves and Nominee. It has definite instrumental roots in punk and heavy rock, but every sound they make is with a pure sense of emotion.

Anthony Morales, drummer for Lions & Tigers, further states that Austin was in a pop punk revival and mentioned his band’s influences as being My Chemical Romance, Fall Out Boy, Motion Picture Soundtrack. The thing is, to my mind those are emo bands. However, when I was at Jimmy Eat Wednesday and Alex began playing My Chemical Romance’s “Welcome to The Black Parade,” when the song eventually kicks into gear the sound one hears is essentially pop punk, just with an emo aesthetic in the music video on screen.

Which is what makes it feel accusatory to label various Austin bands as emo when they would prefer to describe themselves as pop punk. Later Days was the only Austin band I discovered that had the word emo (amongst other tags) in their genre description. And they don’t sound that unlike other Austin bands that would pin themselves in the pop-punk scene. Are Later Days perhaps leading the way? Saying to the other bands “Come on guys, let’s admit it, we’re getting emo.” Billy from Thieves possesses the Get Up Kids vocals of constant energy and emotion, Nominee have Taking Back Sunday’s captivating guitar dynamics down pat.

Flynn gave me an honest conclusion to their involvement in an emo revival in saying, “If we’re part of this quote un quote [Emo] revival its very genuine ‘cos we do what we do because it’s the fabric of our brains, we’re not trying to ride any train…When most people make music they don’t think of a club to join, they just make music…”

Emo improvements and new productions

When The Strokes, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Interpol started playing music in early 2000s New York, they were just “making music,” not making a conscious effort to form a garage rock/post-punk revival. It was shared influences and sounds that put them into that category. Who defined it as a garage rock/post-punk revival? The music media. So, I suppose it falls into my lap. Can I say there’s a definite emo revival in Austin? There’s one that could be insinuated as there seems to be a collection of Austin artists that show shared influences from past emo bands and are putting these influences to good use in their music.

I know it sounds like the start of a high school debate or a wedding reception speech, but the dictionary description of “revival” is “an improvement in the condition or strength of something.” That’s what bands like Hikes, Glyde, Honey & Salt, fuvk and Locker are helping to do. Then there’s the alternate dictionary description of revival as, “a new production of an old play or similar work.” And that’s what Thieves, Nominee, Later Days and others in their developing scene are achieving.

To my ears there’s an emo-revival in Austin, but they’re not consciously creating one, they just make music. Good music. And we should encourage others to listen to it.

Nominee and Gold Steps will be performing at Fine Southern Gentleman next Tuesday, January 17th.


Joel Greatbatch is a Kiwi but please don’t eat him. Instead, follow him on Twitter at @joelgreatbatch.