Making Peace With an Emo Past: An Interview with the Get Up Kids

The Get Up Kids
There Are Rules
Quality Hill

Whenever I hear the music of the Get Up Kids, I can’t help but think of AC/DC.

Both bands have been unfairly lumped in with bands they have influenced — the former getting grouped with emo, mall-punk groups like Fall Out Boy, the latter often getting thrown together with 80s hair-rock acts neither as hard-edged or as invested in showmanship as their forebears. The comparisons have just enough to them to fool the casual listener.

But if the Get Up Kids are an emo band, they are what is good about emo. They play loud music with deconstructed rhythms, often emoting without descending into broad generalizations. Their brand of music is well-represented in the quality of the first album of the emo band Further Seems Forever, before lead singer Chris Carraba left to form the awful Dashboard Confessional (after Carraba left, Further Seems Forever itself became an awful Christian rock band). The point is that there was a brief moment before emo became awful, and the Get Up Kids have seemed to create a whole sound based on that moment.

Songs like “Holiday”, from the landmark 1999 album Something to Write Home About, and “Pararelevant”, from their latest album, suggest that sincerity can be both tough and difficult. In their newer music especially, lead singer Matthew Pryor’s melodies stand out and musically cohere the band’s distorted guitars and dreamy synth undertones.

After four LPs, a 2005 break-up during which members formed other bands, and a reunion tour last year, the Get Up Kids released their fifth full-length album in January, There Are Rules. PopMatters recently caught up with lead singer Pryor about connecting with fans, influences both incoming and outgoing, and how country music doesn’t use metaphors.

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How invested are you in pleasing fans of old school Get Up Kids music?

We’ve made a very strong connection with the people who listen to our music, and that’s the positive side of it. The negative side of that really strong connection is that [Get Up Kids’ fans] feel really possessive of our music. And because of that some people kind of go against the idea of us evolving …

And it’s frustrating, but you get to a point — I mean it’s been nine years since On A Wire came out — and you get to a point where you just say fuck it. […] If I tried to write an album like I was 18, it would suck. Even if the songs were good, it would be a totally different headspace. You just get to a point where you’re like, “Sorry you don’t like it.” The other side of that is that you have to find that balance. You can’t walk in some place and be pissed if they don’t like it. People are very comfortable coming up and telling us they don’t like something. [It’s mostly] drunk idiots who come up to the merch table.

So what motivated last year’s Get Up Kids reunion?

The reason behind coming together and playing again was that we hadn’t seen each other in, like, three and half years, and we just like each other. Like, “Oh that’s right. We’re friends …” No one was bankrupt. We were just like, this is fun … and that carried over to the songwriting. We just said, “Let’s try it, and if it’s fun then we’ll keep it, and if it sucks then we’ll scrap it.” It was definitely a good experience.

Were you guys pretty much able to pick up where you left off? Any lingering tension?

There wasn’t any major tension when we made the record. I mean, it’s five dudes in a little room, so people are gonna get on each other’s nerves. But I think you’re gonna make your best records … it’s kind of that Fleetwood Mac, Rumours philosophy, where the record was so good because of all the crazy personal shit they were all going through at the time. But I don’t think that’s the only way you can make a good record.

Can you talk a little bit about the process of making There Are Rules? Was it different from previous records?

For the new record, the songs were never finished [when we started recording]. We would just go into Ryan’s bedroom, and we would set up and try and write a song concept a day … and nothing would get finished until we got into the studio. That’s how this most recent album went, and we had never written like that before. [For] our first album, we would write the whole song before we went in. Before, we “wood-shedded” it, where you just play it over and over and over.

Our new record tended to be a lot of Rob and James coming up with a lot of structure, with Jim and I throwing in input, and then he and I would sing gibberish over the songs, and from that maybe we’d get a line. […]Both the songs Jim sang started off as jokes. The songs I sang, I would go home and write lyrics for. And then we’d started to streamline things in the studio. Rob and James are focused a lot on their keyboard-oriented stuff, and there was a lot of effects pedals manipulation going on. Audio geek stuff.

Does it ever happen where you’ll write a lyric that someone else in the band will want to change, or vice versa?

Oh yeah, all the time. It pisses me off to no end. But you know, it’s just constructive criticism. A lot of the angsty, heartbreak kind of crap I wrote about when I was younger was because I was going through a lot of angsty heartbreak crap at the time. And now if I was going to write a personal song, it would be like, “Oh, I love my wife … I don’t really like to tour …” You know, it just would suck. Even I know that no one wants to hear that crap.

I’ve always thought the bands that came out of the various members of the Get Up Kids — like The New Amsterdams and Reggie and the Full Effect — show pretty transparently who is contributing what to Get Up Kids music. Do you think this is true?

Reggie is what happens when you leave James to his own device. The New Amsterdams was more of a collaborative effort on the last couple records … but I’ve been kind of thinking that the Get Up Kids are kind of like that cartoon, Voltron. Individually each lion can definitely, like, do its job. But when they come together to make this super-robot, they’re like that much better.

That’s a pretty good illustration …

Over the years, I’ve gotten good at analogies.

Can you cite any direct influences to Get Up Kids music?

Getting back to how a Get Up Kids record has to be a representation of all five of us, we have a defined commonality, things that we all agree on. And we come back to Fugazi a lot. There was a point in the studio where I wanted to reference something from [Fugazi’s 1993 album] In On the Kill Taker. And we ended up just listening to the record in the studio. But then we were like, “Wait, we’re in the studio. We need to record music right now …”

The guys in the Get Up Kids’ rhythm section have a lot of rhythm section heavy bands [influencing them]. Like Gang of Four would get brought up a lot. Joy Division gets brought up a lot. There was one point in the record where I’m singing very low, and I think it’s because I had been listening to the National for the past month.

How do you feel about other bands who have cited you as an influence? Do you think it’s possible to recognize that influence as a good thing without endorsing their music, especially regarding “emo” bands?

This is something I’ve had to think about a lot. Because it comes up a lot in interviews. But it’s an interesting question. The way I feel about it is if someone is influenced by something we did, that makes me very proud. It makes me feel like what we did is worthwhile, and it’s a compliment. It’s not why we do what we do, but it’s definitely a compliment.

Now, that said, it does not matter who that person is. Whether it’s a kid who comes up to the merch table having heard us for the first time that day or some multi-platinum selling artist. Their music, it doesn’t matter. It’s still the same compliment, the same gratification. In that sense, I appreciate the compliment, regardless of who it’s from. It doesn’t really matter what they do with it.

I’ve never heard any band, and think to myself, “That’s like us.” I hear the stuff we’re ripping off from other bands. People will [listen to other bands that we’ve supposedly influenced and] say, “That’s a Get Up Kids thing,” and I’ll be like, “Actually that’s a Jimmy Eat World, Static Prevails thing. But if you want to go there, that’s fine.”

Do you have anything to say specifically about Fall Out Boy citing the Get Up Kids as an influence?

You know, that’s cool. Whatever. I don’t know. As far as I can tell, it doesn’t change my life at all that famous people like our band, other than I have to answer questions about it.

Do you think getting lumped in with a band you’re not personally a fan of is unfair in any way?

It’s like Eddie Vedder singing in the lower register then somehow making it okay for Creed to sound the way they do. You can’t really choose the people who are influenced by you. On the other hand, you can’t be like, “Your band isn’t very good, so you can’t be influenced by us.”

I would hope that if someone only got into music because of bands who were influenced by us, that they would do what I did when I was younger, which is kind of work backwards — look at the bands they were influenced by, and then just keep going back and back … basically go back until you’re listening to the Beatles, and then realize that they were influenced by Little Richard, and then all of a sudden you’re listening to nothing but Django Reinhardt.

And then you’re left with nothing but Gregorian Chant.

[laughs] Right. I don’t even think it’s a bad thing that that happens. If something is meaningful to you, and someone else exploits it, of course it makes you feel a little hurt. But it’s also kind of silly to go there. Like when Nirvana blew up, I got rid of all my Sub Pop records, because of all the jocks who then loved Nirvana. But then you turn a corner where you realize that just because you like a band, it doesn’t mean you have to like everyone who likes that band. Otherwise you’re just going to be mad at all of popular music for eternity.

Punk rock music is often classified based on varying levels of earnestness. How do you feel about being designated as an earnest punk band?

If you went back to something you wrote when you were 18, you would be like, “I can’t believe I said that. It’s so personal and honest and cheesy, or whatever.” And that’s kind of like where I am as a quote, unquote lyricist who was working in the ’90s. That’s where my head was at the time. Just throw it all out there, you know? It sounded really important to me at the time. I look back on it on it now, and I probably would’ve been more discreet. As we got older, I got better at metaphors.

Like the Voltron metaphor?

[laughs] Yes. That’s one thing about Top 40 country music. Like, say, you put on a Toby Keith record — not that you should — but you’ll notice on country records that there are no metaphors, at all. It’s all like, “Beer is good … I like beer …”

Toby Keith kind of is a metaphor. His whole persona is kind of constructed.

That’s true. But if we get called an earnest punk band … the punk thing was that we just wanted to write energetic music. The earnestness was just that that was the only way I knew how to write. And I think anybody who would look back at the way that they wrote things at that time in their life, they would probably think that to a certain degree. But for some reason it really resonated with people, writing that way.

As I’ve developed as a lyricist, I’ve tried to write [about things other than] myself and my own personality. Kind of going back to that whole thing about how no one wants to listen to a song about how I love my wife. But definitely those first few Get Up Kids records, and a lot of On a Wire, was all, “I’m stressed, and I’m lonely.”

Do you feel any pressure to maintain that? Like keep up a “Get Up Kids status quo“?

No. We don’t want to be one of those bands that writes the same song over and over again, because we’d get bored. We never really felt like we belonged to a genre. It seems like people put us into a genre. We wanted to play indie rock. We wanted to be Superchunk. We have a camaraderie with certain bands, but it’s because we toured with them. Touring is like summer camp, where you’d be like “Oh we’ll never forget this moment,” and then you don’t see them for five years.

Have you ever been influenced by a musician that people wouldn’t think likely? Like Prince or Madonna?

I like Prince. Prince is a bad-ass. My mom got me this Songwriters on Songwriting book for Christmas one year. And Madonna was in there. And I was like, whoa, Madonna is a songwriter? No, but I’m a really big Tom Waits fan.