by Kristy Diaz
photo: Bianca Romano Stephens

As reliably as the sun will rise and set each day, there will be someone, somewhere, trying to define what emo really is: how it changed across its waves; which were the defining bands at each point in the timeline; where the mainstream press got it wrong, so wrong. I defy you to find any fan of the genre who hasn’t had this conversation with themselves, their friends, or – more likely – some weird corner of the internet. 

But equally as reliably, there were bands shaping the sprawling, ever-evolving genre that didn’t make the centre spread or the ‘top 20 emo bands you need to know now’ lists. Nor did they necessarily aim to – instead, choosing to push the envelope among a smaller, more intimate fanbase through the same DIY approaches that birthed the much-celebrated and oft-misunderstood genre decades ago.

Count Your Lucky Stars was formed in 2006 by members of the band Empire! Empire! (I Was a Lonely Estate) and would become one of the most influential record labels of the ‘emo revival’. Putting out releases from several breakthrough bands such as Foxing and Snowing (as well as many more underground favourites) while remaining steadfastly independent throughout, they celebrate their 100th release this year. 

Among the label’s alumni were two bands that gained significant standing in emo and adjacent scenes before taking an indefinite hiatus: Football, etc., a warm and melodic emo led by Lindsay Minton’s inimitable vocals, and Perfect Future, a more hard-edged strain of political emocore. As labelmates, they had crossed paths and played shows together before members of both bands – Football, etc.’s Mercy Harper (bass) and Lindsay Minton (guitar, vocals) and Perfect Future’s Brendan Stephens (guitar, vocals) – formed Overo in late 2018, completed by Houston DIY mainstay and drummer John Baldwin. 

We talk upstairs in Nottingham venue JT Soar before their show with Bristol hardcore two-piece Punch On! (who they’re touring the UK with at the time of interview). The band struggle to remember exactly how they formed, but after Stephens’ relocation to Houston, a series of casual conversations, and some late-night chats about Ebullition Records and obscure screamo releases – everything had lined up. “It was just the right place and the right time,” Minton says. 

“We started playing together in October,” adds Baldwin. “Brendan had some riffs, Lindsay had some riffs… we recorded pretty quickly. We recorded before we played a show, so that shows you the vibe of the band.” For Stephens, well, he just wanted to jam. “There was a part of me that thought I wouldn’t be in another band that does a lot. Maybe just one or two local shows a year,” he says – the irony of telling me this during their tour on another continent not lost. “But then once everyone was this down, I was like ‘Okay! Let’s do it!’”

There was a creative impetus and level of experience that fast-tracked a lot of the uncertain first stages of forming a new band, and crucially, took the pressure off. They landed on seminal emocore band Yaphet Kotto as the common influence of a group whose direction of travel was toward the heavier side of emo. “It wasn’t ever going to be a replica of Football, etc. or Perfect Future. We wanted to do something different, and we wanted to do something faster and more aggressive,” says Minton. 

The merging of ideas and desire to experiment with the genre and bring it back to a sound more reminiscent of its first wave brought about new ways of doing things for the two lead songwriters. “I had come with a bunch of songs,” says Stephens. “I wrote a post-rock song, I wrote an emo song, and I wrote some heavier stuff as well. I kept assuming that people were going to tell me that the riffs were too heavy or too loud or too fast, but it just didn’t happen.” 

“Brendan is bringing complete songs and then I’m adding to it. I’m also playing in a standard tuning, which I’m not used to doing. I’m learning how to play guitar all over again in this band. But I like that Brendan comes with the song and I’m able to focus on doing something a little different than crafting the whole thing myself,” Minton continues.

“In terms of writing creatively, this band is cool because we’re not strictly a genre band,” Baldwin adds. “That’s what makes the band, to me, more exciting to be in. I don’t feel like we’re falling too heavy on the tropes of a specific genre, we’re borrowing from a lot of different subgenres, and there’s not like some guidelines we have to follow.” 

It’s a point the band impresses on, its members having been associated in some way to the ‘emo revival’ movement in the early 2010s but none of them feeling like it was a good fit. “Football, Etc. and Perfect Future were both called emo revival bands,” bassist Mercy Harper begins. “At first, it was something that gets applied to you, not something that you wanted necessarily and you’re not sure what it means. It turned out to be very twinkly, inspired by American Football-type music. And what I’m feeling with what we’re doing now is still digging back into emo sounds, but the earlier phase when it was more about hardcore and less about… ‘twinkly’.”

“I’d like to think this band is influenced by emo bands that weren’t called emo,” Stephens continues, “bands that were just considered DIY hardcore and then later journalists applied the emo tag to them. Because in retrospect, when you see those old flyers, emo bands were playing with Earth Crisis. And I think it goes back to borrowing from different sounds, everybody’s down to play with a powerviolence band or an emo band or an indie rock band.”

But, after years of different trends, tastes and directions that have shaped a genre that looks decidedly different from the one they’re influenced by – is there still an appetite for first-wave emo? (“This is an experiment to find that out!” exclaims Harper.) And, ultimately, is the emo revival still even relevant? “The Midwest emo revival is dead,” says Minton, deadpan. “I think the bands that are still able to support themselves have maybe dipped a lot more into indie. There’s a huge difference in what people are calling emo right now. As it has over and over again for the past, what 20 or 30 years? It’s evolving, as it should.”

Overo’s self-titled debut is a statement of that evolutionary process; a callback to those early days of emo and hardcore coalescence. There’s an interplay between Stephens and Minton throughout that makes for an incredibly rich listen: their discordant dual vocals, the same lines repeated with different textures (“When I die, I hope I’m alone” from ‘Pact’ a perfect example) and the faster parts underpinned by furious drumming and gang vocals. ‘Pine and Black Oak’, a song about Stephens’ changing relationship with a place he once called home, is a standout, like an exuberantly poppy Sunny Day Real Estate sliced through with screams. 

The record’s emotional resonance is a result of writing that focuses on feeling and abstract cues rather than a particular message. “A good bit of my side is focused on specific images usually associated with my childhood, not nostalgia necessarily, but just reflecting on it,” says Stephens. “Perfect Future was definitely a political band, and I was like ‘okay, every song’s gotta have a specific point’ whereas with this I’m trying to capture an emotion or a feeling and not one that’s necessarily universal, more like ‘here’s where I am right now.’”

“[Stephens’] writing is chock-full of imagery and a lot of stuff about place that I can’t necessarily relate to, but I can relate to the feeling of it,” says Minton. “But he told me that one song, ‘The Dead’, was about the Pulse shooting in Florida and the hurricane in Houston, and I one thousand percent related to both those events and made a very personal response to it. When I say ‘Ink on the skin again’ in that song, I’m literally talking about how Mercy and I got pink triangle [a symbol of LGBT+ pride and liberation] tattoos after the shooting, and we got tattoos the day after the hurricane because they were raising money for the United Way hurricane relief fund. That’s my specific piece of memory.”

The band’s ability to play and build off each others’ ideas and influences, musically and thematically, is working well; their melting pot dynamic anchored by the past without being stuck inside it pays off creatively, as they talk about writing the next record having just received physical copies of the first. For Overo, it seems the genre never needed constant definition or redefinition – just a few enthusiasts who can talk about it in the small hours, keeping it alive in small but significant ways, existing amongst the noise.