By Jim DeRogatis
"This record was definitely a group effort," The Get Up Kids guitarist and vocalist Matt Pryor says, comparing the new Vagrant Records album On A Wire to the groupâ€™s much-heralded 1999 effort, Something to Write Home About. "The last one was a bit more one-sided, but this one is definitely everybodyâ€™s baby."
Itâ€™s no surprise that Pryor has infants on his mind: As we chat, his wife is several days overdue in delivering their first child. Heâ€™s pretending to be calm, but the parents among us know how heâ€™s really feeling. In any event, this baby business is an apt metaphor for dropping a new album, especially one as highly anticipated as On A Wire, which was nearly three years in the making.
Why the long delay from a combo that has previously been so prolific (two albums, two EPs, and five 7-inches in six years)"
"We donâ€™t write on tour," Pryor says. "We mean to, but it just never works out that way. Then I moved to Boston, and [drummer] Ryan [Pope] moved to L.A. This was in 2000, and we were only seeing each other when we got together to tour."
"It was a really long time, but we were getting offered all of these tours, like Weezer, and we couldnâ€™t turn them down," adds bassist Rob Pope. "We were over the last record more than a year ago, and we started writing songs for this record almost a year and a half ago. Weâ€™re on tour with Green Day, weâ€™re opening for the kings of punk rock, but we have all these very different kinds of songs that weâ€™re dying to play!"
On A Wire is indeed a leap forward for the quintet, but then fans know that the band has never stayed in one place for very long. The group came together in Kansas City in 1994 with Pryor, Rob Pope, guitarist-vocalist Jim Suptic, and drummer Nathan Shay, who was replaced early on by Robâ€™s kid brother and best friend (he swears), Ryan. Over the course of those early recordings for the Huey Proudhon and Doghouse labels, and too many tours to count, the band consistently honed a melodic yet propulsive sound that grew ever sharper and more sophisticated, especially after keyboardist James DeWees came on board circa the first Vagrant album, Something to Write Home About.
Which brings us to the inevitable bio challenge: How to categorize this music" (Youâ€™ll notice Iâ€™m avoiding the dreaded word "emo"â€”except that, damn, I just said it.)
"Iâ€™m very skilled at this question, because itâ€™s been coming up since day one," Pryor says. "Itâ€™s sort of like every year, a whole new group of people seems to learn the term, and so it just keeps coming back up again with different people. Iâ€™m used to it now, and it doesnâ€™t bother me at all, because I figure itâ€™s just sort of a marketing term. Itâ€™s sort of like the only people who really need to use it are journalistsâ€”no offenseâ€”and people who work in record stores.
"The other thing is about the term itself: If music is not emotional, then what is it, exactly""
Good question. As for how the band views itself, Rob Pope puts it best: "You can call us whatever you want, but weâ€™ve always thought weâ€™re just a Midwestern rock â€™nâ€™ roll band."
Now when Pope says "Midwestern rock," he doesnâ€™t mean John Mellencamp or REO Speedwagon. Heâ€™s thinking of The Replacements and Cheap Trick, two bands that resonate with all of The Get Up Kids, who share the values of energizing but tuneful rock with lyrics that are straightforward and from the heart. Thereâ€™s also a certain no-B.S., "just-regular-guys" Midwestern attitude that the band members all share.
On A Wire finally started to come together when The Get Up Kids all returned to Kansas and began writing in earnest. Eventually, they penned 25 songs for the album in order to choose the 12 that made the final cut. This was a departure from the way they worked before, as was their first collaboration with a real producer, the legendary Scott Litt, whose previous credits include R.E.M., Nirvana and Incubus.
"We decided we wanted to have a producerâ€”we drew up a wish listâ€”and we knew that we wanted to not be rushed on this album," Rob Pope says. "I mean, we recorded the first one in Chicago in two and a half days! We ended up doing this one with Scott Litt because he approached us; he heard the demos and he really liked them. We really concentrated on arrangements - just putting across what needs to come across and not overplaying. It was cool because we were recording in a house in Connecticut, and we didnâ€™t really know anybody around there, so there werenâ€™t a lot of distractions."
The result was another set of sparkling material like "Overdue" and "Hannah, Hold On" (the two acoustic-driven tracks that begin and end the album), the Beatlesesque "All That I Know" (one of two songs Suptic sings; the other is "Campfire Kansas"), the delightfully garagey, organ-driven "Worst Idea," and the wonderfully titled "Grunge Pig".
In the end, Pryor says that many of the tunes wound up being about doubtâ€”"just sort of questioning where youâ€™re at and what you want to do and ultimately coming to the conclusion that youâ€™ve got to be happy with what youâ€™re doing." As The Get Up Kids themselves most certainly are.
"We wanted to make a record that was more song-oriented and not like guitar-rock-oriented, and I think we did it," Rob Pope says. "Weâ€™re not a punk-rock band and we never said we were; we never carried that flag. Weâ€™ve always just tried to do our own thing and do it different than any other band is doing it. I think if people are fans of music and theyâ€™ve been fans of us, itâ€™s a departure, but itâ€™s not that huge a thing. While we were making the record, we were asking ourselves, â€˜Is the average 15-year-old kid who comes to our shows going to like this"â€™ Then we realized that we just canâ€™t worry about that."
Or, as Pryor sings in "Hannah, Hold On," "You only disappoint the ones who donâ€™t believe."