by Mia Hughes
“What kind of music would the band that wrote Something to Write Home About make with twenty years more experience?” Matt Pryor poses, speaking over the phone from his home in Lawrence, Kansas. At the time of our conversation The Get Up Kids – the band Pryor has co-fronted along with bandmate Jim Suptic since 1995 – are a day away from releasing the answer to that question: four-song EP Kicker, their first new music since 2011. Musically, the songs are the same brand of sunny, energetic banger that captured many a bruised and bored adolescent heart back in 1999, when The Get Up Kids (rounded out by brothers Rob and Ryan Pope on bass and drums, respectively, and James Dewees on keyboard) released the sophomore full-length that would become a rock-solid benchmark of both their career and an entire genre.
Although their debut Four Minute Mile built them a loyal fanbase and turned more than one major label head, it was Something to Write Home About, with all its perfectly-tuned heartache, that planted The Get Up Kids firmly in the emo hall of fame (something that’s populated pretty solidly by adolescent young men singing with the same heart-on-sleeve urgency about any minor romantic grievance as about end-of-the-world, all-encompassing heartbreak). Simple lines like ‘It’s like you’re falling in love while I just fall apart’ found a home with thousands of young fans who could claim ownership of those feelings every time they sang along.
“I think one of the things that people relate to, especially with that record, is what the songs are about. And it would be disingenuous for Jim and I to try and write songs from the perspective of a twenty-year-old when we’re in our forties,” Pryor says, reflecting on where that leaves the grown-up Kids now. “I think that what people refer to as ‘emo’ has more to do with the lyrics than it does with any kind of genre. And so, I think if that’s what it is, then the whole point is that the lyrics are just openly honest, and not filtered. But I think you can still do that as an adult – I’m not gonna talk about paying my taxes or anything. You don’t just immediately turn into a boring person when you turn forty.”
Indeed, lines on Kicker like ‘From the moment that I could see / I needed you to carry me’ feel as earnest as any aching confessional from Something to Write Home About. It’s unquestionably the same heart that remains at pride of place on The Get Up Kids’ sleeves, even if the viewpoints are decidedly more mature. “Being in a relationship when you’re twenty usually means just this one person that you’re in the relationship with. And now I have so many other relationships with so many other people. Like my kids, my family, my friends. And so you have much more influence to pull from, in that regard,” explains Pryor. “The other big thing that I’ve noticed in both Jim’s and my new songs is the reflection on time. We talk as much about the past as we do about the present and the future. And when you’re twenty years old, you don’t really sing about the past.”
The Get Up Kids, after all, have plenty of history to reflect on; it’s a rich and winding twenty-three years that brought them from being kids singing about their first loves in Kansas basements to the grown-up family men they are now. For Matt, one thing that stands out is the conversation in which the band decided to drop out of college in favour of wherever the road may take them. He recalls the conversation they had at the time: “‘I think we could probably just keep doing this. Like, I don’t know, maybe let’s try and do it for a year.’” That conversation took place in 1997.
He uses the word ‘adventure’ more than once in reference to the band’s early days of touring. The picture he paints isn’t one of a band who ever foresaw a decades-long career ahead of them, or who ever meant to have any kind of influence on their scene, let alone an entire genre. “When the band first started doing well we were so young, and it happened so gradually for us, that it never felt like we were part of a movement. It was never like ‘Oh, we gotta keep the train moving.’ Go along for the ride, I think is the term people would say. We were always kinda like, ‘I don’t know what the ride is, this is just what we do. We tour a lot because we don’t wanna be home.’”
Whether it was meant to or not, that constant touring put the band on an upward trajectory that ended up rocketing Something to Write Home About into thirty-first place on the Billboard Heatseekers album chart – no small feat for a bunch of Midwest punks on an indie label (the band signed to Vagrant Records after an aborted fling with major Mojo Records; Vagrant co-owner Jon Cohen’s parents mortgaged their house to fund the album). At the same time, bands like Jimmy Eat World and Dashboard Confessional were making similar ripples in the charts. Emo was battering at the walls of the mainstream and at any moment they were going to break. But then, with little warning, The Get Up Kids jumped ship.
Something’s follow-up On a Wire, was mellow, mature – even folky at times – and definitely not an emo record. “I just think we had sort of fallen into some songwriting tropes. We wanted to challenge ourselves,” says Pryor, citing his then-recently conceived acoustic side project The New Amsterdams as a precursor for where The Get Up Kids was headed, along with the band’s newfound affinity for Wilco and The Kinks. More than a few fans were appalled; but, Pryor says, that was never the intention, or even the expectation. “We had been going for five years at that point. And everything that we did, people seemed to like whatever it was that we put out. They liked the next thing better than the last,” he recounts. “We kind of assumed everyone was on the same page as we were, and they weren’t.”
The band continued in a similar vein with 2004’s Guilt Show, before the strains of touring led to a brief breakup in 2005. The experimentation only intensified with their comeback album, 2011’s There Are Rules, a moody stab at new wave. While reception was mixed, one point was inarguable: The Get Up Kids had left emo far behind.
So too, though, was the reverse true. When the inevitable mainstream gold rush came, emo mutated into something unrecognisable from the Midwest DIY scene that had birthed The Get Up Kids. But it was destined to fizzle out, as all trends are; the ashes were settling right around the time of There Are Rules, and from those an underground emo ‘revival’ scene that far more closely resembled that of the 1990s was born. By the time the decade passed its midpoint the emo climate was welcoming enough that 90s emo benchmarks like Braid, American Football and Rainer Maria reformed and put out new albums that injected an adult viewpoint into the genre, while not shying away from everything that made it great – a model that The Get Up Kids have leaned into wholeheartedly with Kicker.
It was Pryor’s friend Evan Weiss of Into It. Over It. who first made him aware of the revival. “We did a tour together and he pointed out all these younger bands that are putting on shows in basements and putting out their own records again. And it wasn’t just, ‘We gotta get on Warped Tour. We gotta get on the radio.’ And I relate to that a whole lot more than what had come just ten years prior to that.”
With the revival breathing new life into classic emo, Pryor has started to see a new generation latch onto the songs he and his bandmates wrote in their own youth. “It just makes me feel really proud that it seems to have such staying power. And that it’s not just like, ‘You had to be there in 1999 to get it.’” What exactly that power is, though, Pryor isn’t sure. “I mean, honestly, it’s just this weird blend of herbs and spices that for some reason, only seems to work when the five of us are together. The whole is definitely stronger than the sum of its parts,” he muses. “There’s something kind of magical and infuriating at the same time about the five of us coming together that makes something that people seem to respond to.”
The understatement is almost humorous; for two decades, people have fallen in love, fallen out of love, cried and screamed along to The Get Up Kids’ brand of honest, earnest and urgent emo. While they may have strayed from that path along the way, with Kicker they’ve once again embraced their strengths, and the result is an EP that reminds us that Pryor doesn’t need to know how to explain what is so magical about The Get Up Kids; the answer is in the songs.
“I’m really happy at this point,” Matt tells me. “If I’m being logical, of course there’s things I would do differently. But if I’m being completely honest, I don’t regret anything. ‘Cause everything leads to here.”