Emo has been around long enough to have shed its skin a few times—the melodic, cathartic strain of posthardcore first blossomed in 1985, and it’s continued to evolve since its mainstream breakthrough in the 2000s. Genre-blending Kansas rock band the Anniversary got saddled with the term in the late 90s and early 2000s, at which time guitarist and vocalist Josh Berwanger was a little insulted by it. But the stigma he was responding to has largely dissolved. “When you ask one person who’s maybe ten years younger than me about emo, they think emo is this whole other genre of music,” he says. As the genre has undergone its sea changes, subsequent generations have come to see the word “emo” in different ways.
The Anniversary reunited earlier this year, and they’re among many 2016 Riot Fest acts to have influenced the definition of emo. I spoke with a handful of those artists to get a better sense of how emo, its sound, and its reputation have changed over the decades. Below are edited excerpts of my conversations with Berwanger, Geoff Rickly (who fronts reunited New Jersey posthardcore band Thursday), Brianna Collins (who sings and plays keys in Pennsylvania indie-rock group Tigers Jaw, part of emo’s recent fourth wave), Jon Simmons (who fronts Pennsylvania fourth-wave outfit Balance & Composure), and Timothy McTague (who plays guitar in reunited Florida screamo crew Underoath).
Geoff Rickly of Thursday
I had heard of post hardcore first—I was into Quicksand and Fugazi in high school. My first trip to college at Rutgers, when I was 17 or so, I heard people calling some of the stuff I already liked “emo.” I thought it was really funny they were calling it that—they thought it was kind of funny too—but then they played me some more overtly emo bands like the Promise Ring, and I kind of got what they meant.
There were touchstones of what I thought of at the time as indie rock showing up in it. In general the singers’ voices were more plaintive, more sincere, earnest, and whiny. All these things can sound quite derogatory, but they were skirting this fine line of “should be annoying but is sort of touching,” because it was so fresh, so sincere, and new. It didn’t feel like a commodity yet.
I saw some bands like Saves the Day and the Get Up Kids getting a lot bigger. In my mind that’s not what we were doing at all. We were very much a part of—to me—a posthardcore tradition. I was really into bands like Orchid and a lot of bands that would play in my basement—like, Planes Mistaken for Stars or Milemarker. I thought we were sort of this heavier thing, what I would call melodic hardcore. Even our name, Thursday, was a sort of plain, anonymous name. A long name was, to me, a hallmark of an emo band. Later on, when all emo bands had days of the week in the titles, that was a hallmark, and I think we’re probably a part of it becoming that way.
That commodification of the emo thing—turning emo into the next wave of Hot Topic pop punk, the thing that I hated being associated with—that’s sort of changed again. Now bands, critics, writers, and fans have had this critical reevaluation of emo with the whole revival. The bands that are coming up with the tag “emo” are actually complex, strange, and thoughtful, and to me that resonates a lot more deeply. To see bands like the Hotelier and stuff like that, it’s great for me. I feel like that’s something Thursday was a part of.
Brianna Collins of Tigers Jaw
My first introduction to the term was when I was 14. I was getting into Fall Out Boy, My Chemical Romance, and that wave of what was called “emo” at the time. It wasn’t until I was a little older that I actually listened to the bands that were originally considered emo—the Promise Ring and other bands like that.
As I got older, I think the music I tended to gravitate toward more was in the original vein of emo. I still feel like I’m a novice as far as what is and isn’t—obviously the music that I was listening to that was called “emo” was very different than Rainer Maria. Lately Tigers Jaw has been included in this wave of new emo, which I think is really funny too. When I was in high school, you’d get made fun of—”Oh, you’re so emo.” My older brothers used to call me that. I don’t think it’s a negative thing so much anymore.
Any type of label is just an easy way to describe a certain type or idea of music that you’re into. Saying, like, “I like alternative music” versus saying “I like country music.” But it’s more specific than “alternative.” It’s cool for people to be able to say, “I love this new wave of emo music.” It’s interesting, ’cause I feel like the bands themselves aren’t the ones that dictate these labels—it’s put upon them. But if it’s what people want to call it, I don’t think it’s a negative thing, especially because the music now that’s being labeled as “emo” references the original emo music versus the 2004 emo. Which—hey, I still back it. I listen to Take This to Your Grave to this day. But it’s definitely different.
Josh Berwanger of the Anniversary
I’ve always listened to heavy metal and classic rock. [The Anniversary bassist] Jim David was telling me [emo] was more like Mineral and Sunny Day Real Estate, and I’d never listened to those bands. I was kind of insulted by the word at the time. I think the first interview I did after 2000’s Designing a Nervous Breakdown came out—they said, “What’s it like being emo?” I was like, “Well, I think it’s kind of like calling someone a pussy, and we don’t like being called pussies.”
We never liked being pigeonholed, and I think you can hear that in our music. So for one person to say, “Oh, they’re emo”—I mean, you’re like, “OK, I guess you’re really narrow-minded if you think that’s all this is.” Recently, going back and relearning some of these songs, and knowing more of what the genre was and is, I can hear why people thought that. Also being part of the Vagrant label—all those bands were somewhat more in that emo category. I totally get it.
How do I look at it now? It’s like, what part of time do I look at it? Was I into that later stuff that was more mall punk? Most people would be like, “You guys aren’t emo! Emo was like My Chemical Romance and this and that.” And then you’ve got someone else saying, “Oh, you guys are totally emo, you’re like that second wave,” whatever the fuck that means. My opinion on it is, I just don’t care. Whatever people want to call us, we’ve always just kinda said we’re a rock ‘n’ roll band.
Jon Simmons of Balance & Composure
I got my first Saves the Day CD when I was in sixth grade, and I listened to it for a whole year. When I got to middle school I was wearing a Saves the Day shirt and a kid on my bus was like, “Oh, you listen to emo too?” I didn’t know what it was. I said, “I guess I do?”
I stopped calling things by genres, but everyone considered us an emo band when we were starting out. I never was into labeling things for what they were. I think all music is emo technically—if it’s got emotion in it, you can call it that. I just like heartfelt music and music that comes from the heart, and that’s what resonates with people.
We’re always gonna get called it because we tend to wear our hearts on our sleeves. I think we’re the new emo, compared to the early 2000s—I think it’s cool that kids are associating us with that. I think it’s great how kids recognize the depth of our songs and our lyrics. They consider it emotional music, and I would agree with that. I never would have expected us to be called “emo” when I was growing up.
Timothy McTague of Underoath
I first heard of emo when I was in middle school. A friend burned me [the Get Up Kids’] Four Minute Mile and Piebald—he didn’t burn it, he recorded it on a cassette. At the time it wasn’t all this genre-splicing, molecular-DNA-reconstructing “No, they’re indie,” “No, they’re emo,” “No, they’re too ‘whatever’ to be emo.” If it made you feel like a sad bastard, it was probably emo. Honestly it’s one of my favorite genres to this day.
I feel like Underoath and a lot of the emo bands I like—Benton Falls, Appleseed Cast, Piebald, all these bands—have a lot in common. Because that’s how I write. I was actually very influenced by the emo genre and the indie genre, and I really like the sadness of it. The keys are minor, the chords are dissonant, everything clashes, everything feels real.
Four Minute Mile, Jimmy Eat World‘s Static Prevails and Clarity, those are some of the best indie-emo records ever. I see colors and I see motion, and if a song can make me see colors and motion, I think that’s really where the sweet spot is for me. I try to write every Underoath song in a very similar way. Like, “This is the part where if it was a movie it would all be slow motion and things would be floating.”
I don’t think it exists today. There’s these things called “emo nights,” and you go and it’s just a bunch of people playing Spotify playlists on the PA of a bar; they’re playing Underoath, Taking Back Sunday, My Chemical Romance, Brand New. I think the emo-night culture is awesome, but for me, I want to play Pinback’s “Penelope,” songs off of freakin’ Static Prevails and Four Minute Mile. You start playing that in this genre now, half the kids don’t even know what you’re playing. I totally get it, and I don’t ever want to be that salty old dude who’s like, “Fuck all this, these kids don’t know what real emo is.” Emo to me is very genre specific, and it’s very time specific. And I don’t think there’s been an emo record that’s come out since 2005. v