When the 21st annual Warped Tour pulls into Tinley Park on Saturday, the traveling punk festival will be older than many of the fans who show up. While the fest has aged, though, its image hasn’t: unless you’ve seen the Warped Tour crowd with your own eyes, you probably picture swarms of suburban teenagers into poppy mall punk. But no institution that survives by catering to the tastes of kids stays static for long. Almost ten years ago, the archetypal mall-punk style that peaked along with Fall Out Boy in the mid-2000s—fast and bratty, with sugary, accessible hooks and snotty-sounding vocals—gave way to breakdown-centric subgenres (crunkcore, crabcore, metalcore), which have themselves subsequently gone out of fashion. It’s represented today by the likes of Canadian band Simple Plan, who had their heyday in the early aughts (and who appear on this year’s Warped Tour).
Not everyone at Warped repping that classic pop-punk sound is a holdout, though—a few young bands are picking it up for the first time, and some of them are even taking it to new places. South-suburban outfit Knuckle Puck favor heavier riffing than their peers and vocals that are more burly than whiny, and their newer material borrows from sad-sack indie rock and 90s emo for its quiet parts—in other words, they’ve got a much bigger range than most other bands treading similar territory. In a display of confidence that borders on hubris, their forthcoming full-length debut, Copacetic, closes with a delicate song called “Untitled” that’s nearly eight minutes long.
Knuckle Puck are on Warped Tour for the first time, but they’ve been around for several years. Vocalist Joe Taylor, drummer John Siorek, and guitarist Kevin Maida began playing covers together in fall 2010. By April 2011 they were working on originals with second guitarist Nick Casasanto, and they had their first show in July at Centennial Lanes in Tinley Park. (Until bassist Ryan Rumchaks joined in spring 2014, a series of friends played bass—including vocalist Dan Lambton of young Tinley Park pop-punk band Real Friends.) Knuckle Puck’s first release was a self-titled EP in October 2011, and since then they’ve put out a string of seven-inches and EPs, including a split last year with UK pop-punk outfit Neck Deep. The October 2014 EP While I Stay Secluded landed on several Billboard charts, peaking at number five on Heatseekers, 13 on hard rock, 23 on alternative, 42 on independent, and 49 on top rock albums. Knuckle Puck play the EP’s huge chords with laser-cutter precision, while Siorek drums with such power and momentum that he seems to pull the whole group along in his wake; Taylor’s cantankerous vocals evoke frustration, sadness, and triumph by turns. He and his bandmates seem as excited by the distinctive punk sound they’ve developed as their fans clearly are.
Long-running Portland punk label Rise Records will release Copacetic on Friday, July 31. Of all Knuckle Puck’s releases, it most clearly demonstrates the band’s evolving skill at building moods. On a few songs they incorporate Rhodes piano into their layered melodies, and throughout the album Taylor sweetens his gruff vocals ever so slightly. The lyrics, written mostly by Taylor and Casasanto, reach beyond the loss, pain, and rejection that seem de rigueur in Knuckle Puck’s subgenre to communicate a sense of almost naive wonder. On “Disdain,” when Taylor sings about flying out of the midwest—”Let the turbines shake the overheads”—his bandmates tweak the backbeat drive of the song to create an exhilarating burst of energy.
That’s not to say Copacetic isn’t inspired by pop-punk forefathers Blink-182 and Fall Out Boy, whose style has persisted on the margins of the mainstream since FOB’s influence started to fall off a decade ago. Knuckle Puck manager Zack Zarrillo, who cofounded punk site Property of Zack in 2009, loves that style, and he sees the late aughts as a dark time. “There was this bare period for pop-punk between when Fall Out Boy got really popular and 2010, because a lot of the music got so large—[it’s] I guess what people call the neon MySpace-era phase,” he says. “There were bands like Cobra Starship, Metro Station, and Gym Class Heroes, which people would categorize as pop-punk. But that was, to me, never pop-punk.”
Zarrillo, 22, fell for pop-punk before he even reached his teens, devouring songs by Blink-182, Sum 41, and New Found Glory, but until the end of the aughts he had trouble finding new groups that felt similar. “These bands—Man Overboard, the Wonder Years, Transit, and Set Your Goals—all came around in 2009, 2010, 2011, and a lot of the mottos were like ‘Defend Pop-Punk’ and ‘Pop-Punk’s Not Dead,'” Zarrillo says. “A lot of that sounds silly and corny, but for a 16-, 17-year-old kid like I was, it felt like there was something coming back in the music that changed my life and got me into this world in the first place.”
Zarrillo got hooked on Knuckle Puck when he heard their 2013 EP, The Weight That You Buried. He premiered “Your Back Porch” on Property of Zack in August of that year. “Every once in a while there’s the type of band that has a certain energy behind their music that it doesn’t matter the kind of song,” he says. “I wanted to hear the rest of the EP the second I finished that song for the first time.”
When Knuckle Puck played Reggie’s Rock Club last year on a tour with Man Overboard, Maida told me how they came to play the kind of pop-punk that Zarrillo grew up on—they wanted to fill a void in the south-suburban scene. “There were literally no bands playing our style of music. It was a bit like, you’re either a metalcore band or a real poppy band. None of us were really into it, and we wanted to do something that our specific hometowns have never really heard before,” he said. “For me personally, the main motive with Knuckle Puck was just to be a local band that people actually wanted to go see—a local band that I would be like, ‘I’m going to every single one of their shows just because I love their music so much.'”
Everyone in Knuckle Puck is 22 or 23 except Rumchaks, who’s 20, and the founding members moved in intersecting social circles even before forming the band. Maida, who’s from Orland Park, had a cousin who was best friends with Casasanto, who grew up in Mount Greenwood on the southwest side. Maida’s cousin also played hockey with Taylor, who grew up in Evergreen Park and now lives in Plainfield. Taylor met Siorek, who lives in Hickory Hills, at a garage party. “In short, we grew up together, but we didn’t grow up together,” Casasanto says. “We all know everybody each other knows, but we’d never met.”
Their mutual love of pop-punk helped bring them together. “I had seen Kevin’s old band play a show, and he was wearing a Wonder Years shirt and I was wearing a Title Fight shirt,” Siorek says. “After they played, I went up to him and I was like, ‘Hey man! I like your shirt. I like that band.'” Maida and Taylor met when Philadelphia group the Wonder Years played a local show in April 2010.
Taylor helped steer everyone into what eventually became Knuckle Puck. “I wanted to do a band, and there was no way in hell I was going to let people walk away from it,” Taylor says. “John was on board, and I was like, ‘Fuck yeah! We have someone on board with what we want to do!’ Then once they [Casasanto and Maida] came around, it was just a no-brainer.”
After they started playing shows in the last half of 2011, Knuckle Puck sometimes gigged with their neighbors and buddies in Real Friends, whose 2014 full-length debut, Maybe This Place Is the Same and We’re Just Changing, peaked at number 24 on the Billboard 200. “I really don’t like saying that we started pop-punk around here, because we didn’t,” Casasanto says. “But I think we’re one of the first bands, with Real Friends, to actually do something with it.”
Knuckle Puck started attracting a significant audience outside Chicago with the 2013 EP The Weight That You Buried. When Property of Zack premiered “Your Back Porch,” Zarrillo says the site was pulling in about a million pageviews a month, and the Knuckle Puck song got a lot of traffic. His job as the band’s manager is almost an extension of what he began on his blog: “I knew I wanted to work with them,” he says. “I wanted their music to be heard by more people, and I thought I could help them do that.”
Knuckle Puck made The Weight That You Buried piecemeal, beginning in the winter of 2012 and ’13. Maida and Siorek were taking classes at Illinois State in Normal and Moraine Valley Community College in Palos Hills, respectively, and Casasanto had a full-time job at Jones College Prep in the Loop, so the group wrote the EP’s four new songs through e-mail over an eight-month period. Their process for While I Stay Secluded was similar—it wasn’t until they began writing Copacetic in late 2014 that they were again able to work in a room together. Maida says the band also took a lot of time to talk about the direction of the album first. “None of us wanted to write the same music again,” he says. “We’re still the same band, but we’re all like, ‘Hey, let’s get kinda weird. Let’s do some really different stuff.'”
“Different,” according to Maida, meant developing the quieter, prettier, more patient parts of their songs. I tell him that “Untitled” reminds me a little of American Football, with its pitter-patter percussion, swooning vocal harmonies, and filigreed layers of guitar. “We like a lot of music like American Football, 90s emo, and Mineral,” Maida replies. “So it’s kind of, ‘Let’s throw that in the mix. Let’s not just do power chord, power chord, power chord.'”
These changes keep Knuckle Puck interested, and Maida hopes they’ll make it easier for the group to keep exploring—if their fans are used to hearing the band’s music evolve from one release to the next, they won’t be surprised or alienated by its evolution in the future. “We’re not trying to create our own little niche or anything like that,” Maida says. “That’s fine if we fit in as a pop-punk band—we’re all very aware of that—but sometimes with some bands it can get a little restrictive. We would love to stay in that scene, but we would love to expand as well and try to make the most of it as we can.” v