Tom Mullen’s Anthology of Emo: Volume 1 is a collection in print of ten of the most significant artist interviews from his Washed Up Emo podcast. Almost all of the musicians interviewed here were central to the second generation of emocore that rose up in the mid-’90s (with the exception of Chris Carrabba of Further Seems Forever and Dashboard Confessional, who came around at the end of the decade). One of the driving motivations behind the book’s publication is to help finally bring the term ’emo’ to a place of acceptance and respect in the greater popular music conversation. This is an uphill battle that Mullen has been gradually building toward over the past decade. It’s not even about, say, restoring the respect that the term lost in emo’s third generation ‘hair metal’ years, because the generation before that, as some of the interviews here attest to, weren’t very fond of the word either.
Generally less wary of the E-word than the bands it was used to describe were many of their fans, plenty of whom even embraced it. Then, in the early 2000s, a term that spent 15-odd years being kicked around hardcore and indie rock subculture was grabbed by the wallet chain and shoved into the mainstream culture grinder. Those who had spent their formative years in the ’90s believing in the power and conviction of bands like Sunny Day Real Estate, Texas is the Reason and Christie Front Drive were surely lost for words as to what had become of emo by 2007. Tom Mullen was not one of them. Indeed, he had so many things to say about it that he started a blog to let all of his feelings out. The name he chose for the blog, Washed Up Emo, more or less fairly reflected the state of the term itself at the time. In 2007, the term ’emo’ was a 22-year-old burnout.
The engine of popular music is driven by repeating cycles, but there’s no other genre out there that has had the same trajectory as emo. Its seed was a lighthearted gibe planted in the self-serious soil of the mid-’80s hardcore scene in Washington, DC. Out of the handful of bands ’emocore’ (short for ’emotional hardcore’, of course) was thrown at, the only one to make it past 1986 was Fire Party. Members of the two bands most strongly associated with it, Rites of Spring and Embrace, joined forces in Fugazi, and the term stalled out as ‘post-hardcore’ (and other terms like ‘alternative rock’) entered the dialogue. A quick and quiet end for what was essentially a local in-joke should have been emocore’s fate, but instead it laid low like a dormant virus.
What were the characteristics that led some post-hardcore bands in the ’90s to be specifically designated as ’emocore’? Lyrical and vocal qualities were the most overt distinctions in this second wave. In a word, sensitivity, but it was never as simple as “post-hardcore bands that listen to the Smiths” (although Braid did record covers of both “This Charming Man” and “There is a Light that Never Goes Out”). As some of the conversations transcribed in Mullen’s book illustrate, the musical tastes of emo’s Greatest Generation were more dynamic than dour.
Chris Simpson and Scott McCarver of Mineral bonded in the early days over Siamese Dream (1993) and Catherine Wheel’s Chrome (1993). Eric Richter of Christie Front Drive was a big fan of Buffalo Tom. The Promise Ring used to rock Son Volt’s debut, Trace (1995), in their tour van. Most and least surprising of all might be the fact that one of Mike Kinsella’s favorite bands is the luminescent British indie group the Sundays. These folks weren’t all simply huddled around 13 Songs and The Queen is Dead calculating how to split the difference. Certainly some common root influences shone through in their music, but the end results ranged from the nuanced pop punk leanings of the Get Up Kids to the angular art rock of Juno.
Anthology of Emo, Volume 1 alone can’t offer a full explanation as to how such a varied, visceral and vulnerable strain of post-hardcore and indie rock was boiled down in pop culture to swoopy haircuts and unnecessary shrieking, but it’s illuminating to read the first-hand experiences of those whose music made the genre what it was. For one, it’s interesting to revisit how much resistance the creative growth of the second generation was met with. Eric Richter moved to New York and started experimenting with New Order-meets-Cure electronic dance music with the criminally underrated Antarctica around the same time that the DFA was just getting off the ground, and here he recounts a particularly misguided review from that time. In 2002, the Gloria Record — the band Simpson and bassist Jeremy Gomez put together after Mineral split — released Start Here, the closest emocore got to its own OK Computer. It received some recognition, but not enough. Dan Didier and Davey Von Bohlen of the Promise Ring speak in their interview about the initial tepid response to Wood/Water, and how it warmed up as fans got older and started to connect with it.
The goal of getting people to take the word ’emo’ seriously doesn’t freeze the tone of the interviews; the conversations are always genial. Casual, even. The interview with Matt Pryor of the Get Up Kids from 2013 endearingly captures his kids in the background watching Kung Fu Panda and playing with a vacuum cleaner. Mullen’s history with, and enthusiasm for, the music comes through in the conversations, which typically delve into a mix of personal musical awakening, band origin story and points of development, and the trials and tribulations of establishing networks and setting up tours on an indie level person-to-person in those final years before the Internet became ubiquitous.
Mullen doesn’t press the musicians he interviews too far on how they feel about ’emo’, but inevitably it comes up. Norman Brannon of Texas is the Reason makes the very reasonable case in his interview (from 2012) that ‘post-hardcore’ feels more appropriate. Pryor expresses a begrudging acceptance of “…this stupid letter I have to wear on my chest”, noting that because it had a negative connotation back in the day, “…it makes me laugh when that’s a thing to be proud of now.” Perhaps some more time is needed to fully heal the mascara scars of the ’00s, as well as to finally set the genre free from its misconceptions and misuse, but Anthology of Emo, Volume 1 is a purposeful step forward, and the potential future volumes indicated by its title may yet provide the answer.