By Rob Barbour
Imagine a band with the dynamics and passion of Devil and God…-era Brand New, the heartfelt sincerity of Manchester Orchestra, and the melodic sensibility of Death Cab For Cutie. Now throw in a disregard for genre conventions that’s become Say Anything’s stock-in-trade. Is that something you might be interested in?
Meet Backwards Dancer.
The quartet hail from Worcester, Massachusetts and have just dropped one of the most exciting debut albums of 2017. Though arguably part of the vanguard of artists currently resuscitating third-wave emo – think Can’t Swim and Safe To Say – the band are picking up noticeably less traction and international acclaim than their cohorts. Perhaps that’s because their sound is a little harder to pin down.
“I love emo bands,” explains frontman Zack Shaw. “Brand New, Manchester Orchestra, Kevin Devine. I feel like we’re paying homage to all those bands who came before, and honouring that tradition. But I don’t want to be pigeonholed.”
Shaw’s ambition was inspired by his time in emo-revivalists The Hotelier, of whom he was a founding member – “that was super influential for me, to have these positive role models who wanted to do this punk rock thing” – and Shaw and guitarist Ryan Kelleher had been friends since they were children. In fact, they wrote their first song together when they were just 11 years old.
But Backwards Dancer only came together when drummer Andy Underwood saw Shaw playing an acoustic show in their hometown and approached him afterwards, suggesting they jam together. A mix-up with nicknames (Shaw calls Kelleher ‘Kel’) meant that when Underwood offered to bring “this kid called Ryan” into the fold, Shaw found himself back at the house of his first musical collaborator.
“I was like, ‘Dude – this is crazy.’ We grew up together! It ended up just taking off from there.”
The band released an EP, New Life in Old Shoes, in 2015 and although it was featured as one of Absolutepunk’s Top 100 EPs of the year, they parted ways with their original bassist before they had a chance to finish writing a full-length album. And for many bands, that’s where the story might end. Enter Max Bemis.
The singer, songwriter (and for all intents and purposes, sole member) of Say Anything had found their EP via Absolutepunk, and contacted them directly. For Shaw – who grew up listening to the band’s seminal debut, …Is A Real Boy, the call itself was surreal enough. But within two weeks, he found himself on a flight to Texas.
“I hung out with Max for four or five days and just talked, and wrote a bunch of music. He’s got the attitude of a mentor, and with his guidance I’ve been able to improve myself. The way he went about it was more than I could ever ask.” Although Bemis treated him like a friend from the off, Shaw admits that there was an artist-fan barrier to break through.
“We’ve been talking for about a year and a half now, and I think it took about five months for me to get over being starstruck!”
Bemis signed Backwards Dancer to Rory Records (his imprint of Equal Vision), and they found themselves back in the studio doing something they’d never had the luxury of before: pre-production.
“We had a lot of time in the studio where we’d just be playing live and figuring out the dynamics. We kinda write songs like making a cake or ice cream – each topping changes it.”
It’s not the most technical of descriptions, but one listen to the eponymous end result will demonstrate what he means. Layers of interwoven guitars and plaintive vocal melodies, rudely interrupted by staccato riffs. It’s emo, but not as we know it.
“I wanted to just have a unique take on heavier rock music,” Shaw explains. “I think that we each have a really individual style of playing, and we all have really unique tastes.” He cites Underwood and Kelleher’s love of Radiohead and his own enjoyment of singer-songwriters like Conor Oberst and Elliott Smith. Along with a somewhat more surprising influence:
“I wanted to have an angle of harder rock, but also have parts that are thoughtful and reflective. I just got tired of hearing bands that all did the same kinda shoegaezy thing. And I love Foo Fighters.”
While Backwards Dancer isn’t exactly stadium-ready radio rock, its plethora of influences help explain how it manages to live very much within its genre without conforming to its clichés. Sure, there’s a lot of Brand New in the mix – particularly on opener, ‘Airy’ – and Shaw’s voice is immediately evocative of Manchester Orchestra’s Andy Hull. But the album is so much more than the sum of its parts, and Bemis’ appearance on the creepy, atmospheric ‘Artists as Characters’ makes this the best record on which he’s appeared since Say Anything’s 2010 self-titled effort.
There’s a poetic justice in that. Max Bemis makes no bones about his idolatry of Saves the Day’s Chris Conley, who became his collaborator via an appearance on Say Anything’s ambitious but divisive second album, In Defense of the Genre (and, of course, their even more divisive Two Tongues project). If that meeting of musical minds was a bridge between 90s and 00s emo, then Bemis’ artistic adoption of Zack Shaw and Backwards dancer marks his paying it forward to the next generation.
“It’s an honour that he’s given so much to us in terms of wisdom. I grew up listening to those bands and when me and Max were hanging out, it was like he was handing the torch to me.”
If that’s the case, there’s no further defence required; the future of the genre is in very good hands indeed.
Backwards Dancer is out now on Rory Records/Equal Vision.