From the hardcore of the ‘80s, through to the intensity of the ‘90s, and onto the globe-straddling dominance of bands like My Chemical Romance, emo has been a genre which has changed so dramatically from band to band, that it's almost useless as a category. But it has been responsible for some of the most important underground and mainstream musicians in the last 30 years. There's just one thing, though: call the likes of Ian MacKaye or Gerard Way emo, and they'll run a mile...
Without Ian MacKaye, what has come to be termed emo would never exist. Having defined DC hardcore with the righteous punk of Minor Threat, MacKaye remained determined to write honestly, personally, emotionally and truthfully but he wanted to colour the out-and-out antagonism of his former band with something less direct. In 1985, he formed Embrace and so investigated a more mature, more rounded sound in which he was still writing from the heart but without investing his music with as much violence of old. It was the birth of post-hardcore, or what became known as emo. MacKaye hates the fact that it is something with which he is associated.
“We used hardcore punk as a term to differentiate ourselves from the nihilistic, self-destructive punk rock that people associated with Sid Vicious,” says MacKaye. “At some point people started joking around with the term hardcore by adding ‘core’ to anything – skacore, metalcore, gothcore and so on. Brian [Baker], who was at that time in Dag Nasty, came up with ‘emocore’. If I recall correctly, it was first used publicly in an interview he did in Thrasher magazine in 1985 or 1986. It was then seized upon by Tim Yohannon, the editor-in-chief of Maximum Rock ‘n’ Roll, which was probably the leading punk fanzine in the world in the early to mid ‘80s. He got a hold of that term and just ran it into the ground in every review: ‘Get out your handkerchiefs: more emocore from Washington DC’. It was a term we never, ever used. We were punk bands. We never thought about calling ourselves anything else. ‘Emocore’ was purely derisive, it was meant as a put down.”
Though MacKaye thought the label “emo” was a put down, he believed wholeheartedly in the raw, honest and intelligent music at the heart of the scene. Through his Dischord label, bands like the seminal post-hardcore band Rites Of Spring found more of an audience. “Rites Of Spring were a phenomenal band,” says MacKaye. They only played 17 or 18 shows, and they played almost all of them in the DC-area. They never toured – and part of the reason for that was because they approached every show as their first and last. It would have been impossible for them to play three shows a week – if only because they were constantly breaking their equipment, and not always on purpose. I went to every show of theirs I could because I couldn’t bear to miss being present for what might transpire.”
But though MacKaye despised the fact Rites Of Spring became known as emo godfathers, he would go on to team up with the band’s singer Guy Picciotto to form Fugazi in the ‘90s and so invent an even more influential emo band. It was Fugazi who went onto inspire the scene throughout the ‘90s and, from there, influence the bands who became known as emo in the ‘00s. Just don’t tell MacKaye how important he was.
“Emo is a manufactured genre and, for those of us who were the initial recipients of it as a slur, it’s completely ridiculous,” he says, still bitter at the association.
Walter Schreifels has many claims to emo godfatherdom and, unlike Ian MacKaye is at least happy to use the term in relation to the bands in the Washington DC and New York area in the ‘80s. However, mention the word to him today, and he hates what it has become.
“These days, the word emo has changed so much that no-one wants to cop to it anymore,” he says. “What is it? It’s so vague. I just think of guys with shitty haircuts and nail polish. I think of people just selling shit.”
As part of the influential Youth Of Today and Gorilla Biscuits in the New York punk and post-hardcore scene in the ‘80s, Schreifels looked up to the DC scene dominated by the Dischord bands. MacKaye may have refused to call them emo, but Schreifels doesn’t.
“Back in the ‘80s we called bands like Embrace and Rites Of Spring emo and it sounded really cool,” he says. “It made you think of people crying at a hardcore show and that seems like a really transcendent idea.”
What inspired him about the scene was its inclusivity. “You were singing along into the actual mic as it was being handed around the room,” he says. “The band were completely accessible to you. You could get onstage with them. You felt such a part of what was fuelling the band. That participation is really something special.”
But in New York in the late ‘80s, the punk and hardcore scene became split by violence. “The community vibe didn’t last,” says Schreifels. “It’s not fun to go some place and feel you might get punched in the head for no reason.” And so he looked to where the DC scene and MacKaye was headed.
“Fugazi showed the way with emo,” he says. “Those guys, Embrace, Dag Nasty, Soul Side, Ignition, Shudder To Think and all those DC bands really started it all. DC was an older, smarter scene than the New York one because they had a lot of college guys in it. The music was still really intense, but they weren’t achieving that through a heavy mosh vibe but with a different energy. It was so inspiring.”
And so he veered away from the macho New York punk scene and began to pepper his own punk ideology with intelligence and emotion. The band he perfected it with was Quicksand.
“In hardcore, you sang about your crew, brotherhood and being stabbed in the back. But as a lyric writer, you get past that and you start to wonder about who you are as a person. So I started writing about that in Quicksand,” he says. “I was tired of music that was telling people what to do, I wanted music that was about being your own person. That’s what bands like Embrace were talking about. I thought it was really cool that you could get to know a person through their lyrics.”
Quicksand’s music was rooted in the underground punk philosophy first espoused by the Dischord scene in DC but had an emotional honesty and intelligence that stood it apart. One thing it wasn’t, though, was commercial. But in the post-Nirvana gold rush of the early ‘90s, major labels were desperate to hoover up anything they saw as alternative, sometimes without really knowing whether it would sell or not. Quicksand, much to Schreifels’ surprise, were one of the bands they turned to.
“I thought we were a great band – but I didn’t see us as being in the running against someone like Pearl Jam. But that’s how these [label] guys were seeing us. It was going to lead to some disappointment.”
It couldn’t last, and didn’t. Quicksand disbanded in 1995, reformed in 1997, then broke up again in 1999. But their legacy as one of emo’s most influential bands remained. Schreifels, however, would go on to form the equally revered Rival Schools, bringing an even more contemplative melodic edge to the punk riffs of emo.
“In Rival Schools, I was just trying to make something progressive,” he says. “I didn’t want to scream as much because I got sick of my voice hurting. I wanted to be more melodic and to bring other influences to bear, but somehow the hardcore roots always came through.”
United By Fate would be their only album (until a 2008 reunion begat a follow-up) and the fact it was, for so long, a one-off made it an influence to a legion of second-wave emo bands into the ‘00s. Rival Schools became seen as the leaders of the emo scene, which is the point at which Schreifels became uncomfortable again.
“Emo became a term to coral a bunch of bands together to make it easier to talk about them,” he says. “Unfortunately, after that, it just started to become a fashion for kids in high school. Rival Schools benefitted from the emo tag, but we had nothing to do with what it became.”
He shied away from the mainstream emo of the ‘00s, despite the fact his bands had inspired much of it. He remains bemused by the term. “One of emo’s big problems is that it just doesn’t have that strength that a term like metal or punk has,” he says. “Saying you’re a metalhead is fucking cool. Saying you’re emo makes people think it’s fucking confession time or something.”
If Quicksand were one of the lynchpins of East Coast post-hardcore following Fugazi, Texas Is The Reason were the other. Fronted by Norm Arena (who now goes by the name Norm Bannon), the band were first influenced by the angry hardcore of New York punk. But its members quickly realised that angry punk was fine for when you’re younger but, when a little older, it offered little but instant catharsis. They wanted to do something with more lasting meaning. Like Quicksand, they were caught up in the post-Nirvana vacuum too as labels hurried to sign their own alternative rock success story. Bannon hated it.
“It just happened too fast for us,” says Bannon. “We played our first ever show in our living room, and there were major label people there for that. They happened to be our friends who had got jobs in the industry when, post-Nirvana, the labels offered underground people jobs. But, though these people were our friends, word still got around that we had people from Columbia, Atlantic and Hollywood at our first show. Before we knew it we had deals on the table from 50 labels. We hadn’t been a band long enough to discuss these things, so it just confused us.”
They ignored all the majors and signed with independent hardcore label Revelation. “We thought the majors would back of,” says Bannon. “In fact, it only made it worse.” Hyped by MTV, they were chased by the big labels and eventually their heads were turned.
“I was conflicted. On one hand, I appreciated the major label interest, but I knew we weren’t a band who wrote three-and-half minute singles with choruses and hooks. We were not going to make Nevermind Part II,” says Bannon. “The other side of me, though, was a little seduced. Being chased around the world by people telling you that your music is amazing is flattering.”
A week before they signed with Capitol, though, they broke up. On tour in Europe, shattered, Bannon and drummer Chris Daly decided to end the band despite the fact they were being offered a life-changing amount of money – $350,000 – just to sign.
“I realised that’s not how I wanted my life to change,” says Bannon. “So Chris and I talked about it. We asked, ‘Are you happy?’ And neither of us was. So we decided to roll the dice: if the next show was awesome, we decided it would be our last. It was an awesome show.”
What they hadn’t done was tell their other two bandmates about their arrangement. The pair of them, bassist Scott Winegard and guitarist/vocalist Garret Klahn, subsequently missed out on a payday thanks to the actions of their guitarist and drummer. “I feel guilty about that to this day,” says Bannon.
Texas Is The Reason’s influence was huge, though, and they would go onto inspire a legion of post-hardcore and emo bands to follow. But to Bannon, the band were never playing emo.
“I don’t really remember being called emo when we were a band – we were called post-hardcore,” he says. “That was a term that worked for me, because it described where we came from: we had been a bunch of hardcore kids, but we weren’t playing hardcore anymore. Emo was always a derogatory term; growing up in the ‘80s it was used as a joke. So I always found it hard to grant it much seriousness.”
He has, however, just about made peace with it.
“If you want to call Texas Is The Reason emo, then I’ve given up the fight on that,” he says. “Ages ago, I read an interview with Ian MacKaye who said ‘If your music isn’t emotional, you’re doing it wrong’. That’s really how I feel. If emo means that the music I made mattered to people’s internal worlds, then that’s fine. Honestly, I think the problem with the word emo is that it sounds like a Sesame Street character. That’s probably its biggest issue …”
While post-hardcore was mainly developing on the East Coast of the US, there were also scenes springing up elsewhere. In Seattle there was Sunny Day Real Estate. In Illinois, there was Braid, and in Sacramento, California, there was Jonah Matranga’s Far.
He had grown up in Boston, where the sounds of DC post-hardcore and punk dominated the underground. But he fused those influences with completely different sounds.
“I was really deep into a lot of different songwriters – from Prince, Neil Young and Tom Waits to Sinead O’Connor, Rickie Lee Jones and Tom Petty,” he says. “These were people either writing perfect, timeless songs or really weird shit.”
He met the rest of what would become Far after moving to Sacramento and they had a meeting of minds. “They were a rock band who were into Victory Records, Revelation Records, Bad Brains and Jane’s Addiction – but they wanted a singer who wasn’t a very typical, macho rock singer,” he says. “They wanted to be heavy but they didn’t want to be dumb. Neither of us was looking to do something that was a straight rock band. So our general intent was to make a mess – we wanted to make standard issue rock ‘n’ roll but with more bravery in terms of dynamics and fucking with moods.”
The music they made saw them added to bills with the likes of Deftones (who they were great friends with), Korn, Sepultura and Monster Magnet. “We did tours early on that were comically bad because no-one knew where to put us,” says Matranga. “But there weren’t any bands playing the music we played who had any success, so there was no-one for us to go open for.”
And so eventually, they slotted into the post-hardcore scene. “It was a scene by accident. It was a scene made up of bands who would have been kicked out of mainstream genres. None of us fitted!” he says. “We all ended up finding each other. If there’s a heart of post-hardcore it’s in people who love a big, goofy chorus, a sick fucking breakdown and a soft, sensitive part. It’s people who love all of those things, but who don’t feel the need to stick to a safe formula.”
But, when the scene became known as emo, Matranga found himself confused by the association. “The term emo was fucked from the start, because there has been a long line of people putting emotion into their music,” he says. Matranga remembers a Kerrang! feature from 1996 or 1997 in which the caption alongside his photograph referred to him as “The king of emo”. “At the time,” he says, “my friends and I had a joke that I was the king of something and nobody knew what the fuck it was.”
Far shied away from the major labels hovering up, then chewing up talent in the ‘90s gold rush. They saw bands around them explode then collapse, and were unwilling to play that game.
“We’d joke that bands that opened for us would either break up a week later or go platinum,” says Matranga. “But I saw what steps had to be taken between playing to 200 people and playing to 2000, and I saw a lot of bands making little deals that allowed them to be a little more homogenised and a little more recognisable. It wasn’t that I was against that to just be a dick but, for me, the feeling I had when I was 15 playing loud and shitty in my basement was very magical. And most of people who trade that feeling in end up bored and sad.”
Though they split in 1999, Far became a vast influence on the post-hardcore bands that followed them and had success in the ‘90s.
“We always joked that, for a band who sold so few records, we sure had a lot of fansites,” says Matranga. “We noticed there was a passion for the band and we noticed that those people would start their own bands. And some of those bands went on to be very successful and some not successful at all.”
But he found the emo explosion in the ‘90s to have little to do with what he and Far had been intending to do. And despite his band’s influence, found little in common with the bands they begat.
“If there’s one thing that’s a central problem with the popularisation of emo, it’s the commoditisation of sincerity,” he says. “It’s an affront to people like me. When there’s a look, a feel and a fashion to go with this music, then it’s sad. We used to go and meet the people we played to after shows because we’d be playing in their basement! It’s hard not to meet them in that situation. When ‘meeting the kids’ means selling a gold-circle VIP ticket so people can get their shit signed for $50 extra, that’s not meeting the kids.”
By 1997, a new wave of post-hardcore bands had formed. Just as Quicksand, Far and Texas Is The Reason had followed the lead of Fugazi, so this new wave were following them. In New Jersey, via the influential Eyeball Records (who counted among their staff an intern called Mikey Way, who would go on to play bass in My Chemical Romance), Thursday were beginning to become the key emo band of the early ‘00s. Not that singer Geoff Rickly saw it that way. “I always thought emo was a stupid term. It always used to be hardcore for me,” he says.
The band were influenced by the likes of Rites Of Spring and Embrace, but also took their cues from the post-punk of British bands like Joy Division. The combination led to a sound that was softer than the DC hardcore as espoused by the likes of Ian MacKaye, but still driven by punk intensity.
“I listened to a lot of post-hardcore music and what became known as screamo,” says Rickly. “That music was so super-charged, so passionate. They had the intensity and fury of hardcore bands, but the complexity and sensitivity of a band like Fugazi. That made me want to play music – that made me really want to play music.
“But it turned out my voice just didn’t work the way I wanted it to. Everything came out sounding New Wave and Cure-influenced! We sounded like Joy Division doing hardcore, which seemed very weird to people at the time.”
Rickly became a scene stalwart in New Jersey, putting up touring bands at his house and putting their shows on in his basement. It meant that, not only did he become friends with a US-wide network of bands, but he also listened to and was influenced by a diverse variety of sounds. Thursday took it all on board and began to form their own sound, one that added more sensitivity to post-hardcore. And with it, came success.
Their 1999 debut, Waiting, was an underground hit but its follow-up, 2001’s Full Collapse, made them emo icons. Rickly was deeply uncomfortable despite the band’s success.
“I mean we even found it weird the first time we had to play on a stage! Why? Why couldn’t we be on the floor in front of the stage like we were used to? So when we got big it was a real shock. It was nothing we had ever wanted, considered or thought possible,” he says. “It was upsetting – and I know that sounds weird because it’s everyone’s dream to be in a big band. We didn’t know how to deal with it and we felt like we were being pushed out of the scene we loved and had nurtured so much.”
So, while Thursday came to be seen as the key emo influence in the ‘00s, inspiring the likes of My Chemical Romance, Fall Out Boy, The Used and more, they never felt a part of the scene. Emo was, for them, simply a handy catch-all term to describe a bunch of bands playing loud music at the same time. It was not something they felt a part of.
“The label never really encompassed a sound, it was just a time and a place,” says Rickly. “So I understand why such different bands can be called emo, because it’s just a succession even though the style, heart and intention changes. It all makes sense if you think of it as a bunch of people hanging out together – it’s just when you listen to the music that it all falls down.”
Growing up in the New Jersey scene that Thursday made famous, Gerard Way was greatly influenced by its key band. A great friend of Geoff Rickly – the Thursday singer not only produced My Chemical Romance’s debut, but he also championed them long and loud – Way was undoubtedly in thrall to emo as his band took their first nascent steps. But, from the minute MCR’s debut, I Brought You My Bullets, You Brought Me Your Love was released, Way and the rest of the band had moved on. Second album Three Cheers For Sweet Revenge was an out-and-out commercial punk record, with nods to high camp along the way. Third album The Black Parade was a concept record masterpiece, owing more to the like of Pink Floyd and Queen that it did to Ian MacKaye, while fourth record Danger Days was infused with sci-fi rock ‘n’ roll. Nothing very emo there.
Yet Way is held up as an emo icon, his band hailed as emo megastars and their music supposedly the definition of emo itself. It’s an odd one, frankly, and an association he himself has gone a long way to dismissing.
“Basically, it’s never been accurate to describe us [as emo]. Emo bands were being booked while we were touring with Christian metal bands because no one would book us on tours,” he told The University Of Maine’s Campus newspaper. “I think emo is fucking garbage, it’s bullshit. I think there are bands that unfortunately we get lumped in with that are considered emo and by default that starts to make us emo. All I can say is anyone actually listening to the records, put the records next to each other and listen to them and there’s actually no similarities. I think emo’s a pile of shit.”
Which is pretty unequivocal. Despite his protestations though, there is something in his rebuttal of the emo tag that actually reinforces his link to those emo godfathers before him – the stronger the denial of emo-dom, the more revered you appear to be within the genre. Just ask Ian MacKaye.