At the end of June, underground Connecticut emo band the World Is a Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid to Die landed on several Billboard charts with its debut full-length, Whenever, If Ever: number three on the Heatseekers and vinyl charts, eight on the Internet chart, 66 on the rock chart, and 196 on the Billboard 200. The album, which came out on tiny independent label Topshelf, might have done even better had it not leaked a month earlier via torrent site What.CD, undercutting potential sales before they could happen.
These days, with record sales down across the industry and major-label budgets a ghost of their former selves, the playing field has been leveled a bit—it’s easier for artists outside the major-label ecosystem to land on the Billboard charts. In mid-July unsigned Chicago hip-hop phenom Chance the Rapper appeared on the Heatseekers chart at number 26, even though he’s not even selling the release in question—a “label” called MTC had sold 1,000 units of an unlicensed version of his free mixtape Acid Rap. But unlike Chance, who spent much of the summer on tour with Mac Miller, playing ballrooms and theaters with capacities of 2,000 or more (and who performed last Friday at Lollapalooza), the World Is a Beautiful Place mostly gig in small DIY spaces—basements, living rooms, arts centers, recording studios, churches—which makes their chart performance even more impressive.
When the eight-piece band came through Chicago in July, they played an alcohol- and drug-free Humboldt Park loft called Swerp Mansion, which shares its name with a DIY punk label. Swerp cofounder J. Matthew Nix says it was one of the last concerts hosted by the space, and that people traveled from as far away as Detroit and Minnesota to catch the World Is a Beautiful Place. “If any more showed up, we would’ve had to turn people away,” he says. As at all Swerp shows, 100 percent of the door money went to the bands, and according to Nix the venue was packed with a mix of scene veterans and folks who looked like they’d never come to a DIY show before but wanted to see the band with the big name. Once the music started, everybody crammed into the room and jostled around together (it was too crowded to properly dance, though a few people managed to crowd surf). “It was ridiculously rowdy, in as good of a way as possible,” he says.
TWIABP are part of the new fourth-wave emo scene, which is heavily influenced by 90s midwestern bands and has been brewing underground since the late aughts. The band’s popularity outside the DIY circuit is just one indication that this scene is starting to seep into the mainstream.
The first wave of emo (though of course no one thought of it that way at the time) was a reactionary movement within the mid-80s hardcore scene in Washington, D.C. Bands such as Rites of Spring, Embrace, and Beefeater turned against the “loud, fast, and angry” approach, instead slowing the music down, injecting it with lots of melody, and belting out lyrics that looked inward instead of lashing out.
By the late 80s the style had spread beyond the D.C. area, and in the mid-90s it began to catch on in the midwest, where second-wave bands tranformed the angular fury of D.C. emo into something malleable, melodic, and cathartic—its common features included cycling guitar parts, chugging bass lines, and unconventional singing that sounded like a sweet neighbor kid with no vocal training but plenty of heart. Cap’n Jazz had a spazzy take on the sound that sometimes plunged into chaos; Braid’s style was charged and uplifting; the Promise Ring and Get Up Kids went for gigantic, sugary pop hooks; American Football combined emo with math-rock influences and a doleful aesthetic; and the Appleseed Cast (who play the Fireside Bowl on Thu 8/8 and Fri 8/9) achieved liftoff with a celestial postrock vibe.
Beginning in the late 90s, many of these bands inspired the third-wave acts that would score top-ten spots on the Billboard charts in the aughts—My Chemical Romance, Fall Out Boy, Dashboard Confessional, Brand New—and in the process push emo away from the second wave’s midwestern roots. Today’s underground bands, including TWIABP, look back to that mid-90s midwestern style, partly because in those years the scene valued the same DIY principles that they do. But even if they wanted to follow in the footsteps of those big third-wavers, they probably couldn’t—bands that play in basements can’t spend the money it takes to sound as huge and polished as My Chemical Romance, and the community that nurtures them is too small to post top-ten numbers, even in the odd music marketplace of 2013.
Tom Mullen, digital marketing director for Sony Legacy, knows the midwestern emo sound well, and he’s been watching the scene as that sound has started to bubble up again. In the late 90s, while attending Elon College in North Carolina, he fell for it hard; in 2007, during the third wave (which he refers to as emo’s “hair metal” phase), he launched a blog called Washed Up Emo to catalog bands he’d loved from the midwest and elsewhere. Within a couple years, readers were regularly e-mailing him about new independent groups that sounded like his old favorites. “These random kids would send me their demos . . . and all they did was copy Mineral,” Mullen says. “That told me that the scene had longevity and the scene will come back.”
It’s taken a few years, but fourth-wave emo is outgrowing the underground. Bands playing a pastiche of older emo sounds—Joie de Vivre, Empire! Empire! (I Was a Lonely Estate), Pianos Become the Teeth, Balance and Composure, Into It. Over It., Everyone Everywhere—have built international followings with the help of Tumblr, Bandcamp, DIY touring networks, and of course indie labels such as Topshelf, Count Your Lucky Stars, No Sleep, Run for Cover, and Tiny Engines. There’s a pre-existing audience so hungry for the sound that a “midwestern emo” tag on Bandcamp all but guarantees that people will find your music, no matter how obscure you are or what country you call home.
Florida band Dikembe, with no label and no management, put out their debut EP as a joke in 2011 and exhausted their 200 free Bandcamp downloads in three days. Title Fight and Restorations have signed to well-established indie SideOneDummy (also home to Chuck Ragan of Hot Water Music), and last month Riot Fest booked Chicago three-piece Pet Symmetry based on the strength of a couple seven-inches and the pedigrees of its members (who also play in Into It. Over It. and Dowsing). Second-wave artists who are still active have begun working with fourth-wave upstarts too: Braid tapped Evan Weiss’s group Into It. Over It. to open some shows on a recent tour, Mike Kinsella of Cap’n Jazz is in Their/They’re/There with Weiss, and Braid guitarist-singer Bob Nanna plays with several younger musicians in Lifted Bells.
The scene’s fan base may not be huge, but it’s devoted, and even some of Topshelf’s most lavish releases move fast—including a recent box set collecting the discography of Japanese emo-postrock act Toe, which was limited to 200 copies and cost $70. “The box set sold out in like six hours,” says Topshelf cofounder Seth Decoteau. Launched in 2006, the label is still a modest operation, with four employees; only the other founder, Kevin Duquette, works for it full-time, and he’s barely able to cover his rent and expenses. (“He lives month-to-month to be able to do this,” Decoteau says.) But nonetheless Topshelf has helped the emo scene break out of the self-sustaining but somewhat self-contained underground. “Some of these new bands that we’re working with are able to get the attention where something like Pitchfork is like, ‘Hey, something good here is happening, we need to check this out,'” Decoteau says. Last week Pitchfork favorably reviewed a Topshelf corelease called Knots by midwest-influenced UK five-piece Crash of Rhinos.
Some key bands in the emo revival aren’t reaping the benefits of this upswing, though, because they’ve broken up; among the defunct are Algernon Cadwallader and Snowing, both of which were influenced by Cap’n Jazz despite being from Philadelphia. But they’re in turn influencing even newer bands, including Tel Aviv’s jumpy Bonjour Machines. Front man Ilai Ashdot, who’s just 15, started the group last October, and at the time he’d never been in a band before. “I was watching YouTube videos of the final Snowing and Have Heart shows,” he says, “and I realized that I had to make something as beautiful happen over here.” He’s helped build a small scene in his hometown in less than a year, and Bonjour Machines have two releases out—a self-titled EP and the brand-new full-length Level Up! Even though Ashdot lives, as he says, “thousands of miles away from the center of emo,” he still feels like part of an international community.
Ashdot’s experience is representative of the sense of kinship that crosses borders and generations to draw fans to the underground emo scene—a feeling of discovering something special, almost secret, that speaks to them and binds them together. The musicians look out for each other too: recently Rockford/Chicago band Joie de Vivre helped reunited Rockton emo group Gods Reflex (who were pretty obscure even in their late-90s heyday) book a headlining slot at the Beat Kitchen on Sat 8/10.
The members of Gods Reflex started the band in the mid-90s, when they weren’t old enough to drive, and the way guitarist Phil Goudreau talks about his teenage years makes it clear he has a lot in common with Ashdot—though only the latter knew before he started a band that there was a subculture out there that would welcome him, they both felt trapped and isolated, and they latched onto music as an inspiration. Goudreau’s reference points were different (the Dischord catalog instead of Snowing and Cap’n Jazz), but like Ashdot he wanted to play in a band on his own terms, making music intuitively and without filters rather than trying to imitate something he’d already heard. The first Gods Reflex album, 1998’s A Brief Lesson in Affection, definitely sounds like the work of a band putting their instincts first. “I was listening to that, and I still have no idea what I was doing,” Goudreau says. “We just kind of worked our way till we thought something was good.”