by Rob Mair
photo: Megan Wilson
“I often struggle with understanding what my place is, with what the band has become. The box I’m in right now is the pop band trying to live in the punk world,” says Matt Scottoline, affording himself a rueful laugh.
It’s a prescient insight into life as Philadelphia’s foremost emo revival star come power-pop doyen. With his band Hurry celebrating the release of fourth album Fake Ideas, Scottoline has had more than half a decade to get comfortable with his place in the world. But, even with public support from the likes of Gaslight Anthem’s Brian Fallon, he still feels stuck between stations. Indeed, his legacy as part of Everyone Everywhere casts a long shadow over his Hurry output.
Not, of course, that such considerations should matter. Hurry really found their footing on 2016’s second album Guided Meditation, a gorgeous, pastel-hued power-pop record that owed as much to the legacy of Teenage Fanclub as it did to emo and punk’s adolescent histrionics. Since then, they’ve carved out a comfortable niche as a pop band living in a punk rock world; adjacent to the wailing, but never part of it.
Perhaps, in part, this is due to getting older. Punk is often a young person’s game, after all, and slowing things down and exploring gentler tones through pop music has provided Scottoline with the opportunity to write more expansive music. Tellingly, it feels like an echo from when Track Seven sat down with Spraynard’s Pat Graham to discuss the brilliant Big Nothing. But whereas Graham – also based in Philadelphia – found rock’n’roll, Scottoline is increasingly finding ways to make pop music relevant and credible for punk audiences, even though he only has one hand in that world now.
“I certainly feel disconnected from it, just because there’s not as much place for the music I’m writing in the punk scene. And I’m also getting older, and the punk scene stays the same – that’s just how it works. And I’m fine with saying that there’s a lot going on in that world that I don’t know about because I’m not in college anymore. I’m not in the scene the way I used to be. It’s certainly harder to play those types of shows – DIY shows, or even house shows – things that I used to do all the time, because you get put in a funny box when you’re writing pop music.
“But I do still feel connected to it, too. Having spent so much time in that world and knowing everybody, I still feel a connection to it, but I feel like my band, as it exists now, is stuck between worlds. Because we’ve been lucky, and we’ve had a lot of good opportunities. And we’ve done a lot of more legit tours and shows, but we’re also not a big band and we don’t have management or representation, so I’m still dependent on the DIY scene.”
There’s a fascination with reformed punks making pop music, as it shows an appreciation for the songwriting craft that is hard to find elsewhere. Whether it’s the solo output of The Replacements’ Paul Westerberg or even the nomadic creativity of someone like Fred Thomas, a punk background can make for wondrous pop sensibilities when harnessed. The former Saturday Looks Good To Me frontman feels like an apt comparison, as someone who emerged from an emo-adjacent scene to leave a mark as a pop auteur, having made his name as the head of an indie-rock act which featured heavily in the catalogues of emo heavyweights Polyvinyl as well as Olympia’s iconic K Records. It’s not too much of a stretch to consider Scottoline as the emo revival’s equivalent, a pop maverick with one foot planted in the emo/punk world thanks to the connections formed on the road, despite the ability to pen some truly profound – heart-breaking even – pop songs.
A case in point would be ‘Keep Being Yourself’, one of the outstanding songs on Fake Ideas. “Do you believe in an afterlife?” asks Scottoline as he goes on to chart his crisis of faith and his wish to be a better person. It’s filled with stark realisations and poignant life lessons, all set to a buzzing four-minute pop soundtrack. It’s the sort of quietly affecting song that sinks soul-deep, leading to similar consternation and rumination.
Equally, while Hurry’s entire output has a clear through-line to Teenage Fanclub, Fake Ideas also pulls from influences much closer to home – namely the 90s golden age of US college and indie rock. The likes of Dillon Fence, the Gin Blossoms and the Connells can all be heard on Fake Ideas – especially ‘Where You Go, I Go’, ‘(Sometimes I’m About It, And) Sometimes I’m Not There’ and opening track ‘It’s Dangerous’. It means, even though Hurry are operating with narrow parameters in terms of their sound and style, there’s evident growth from record to record.
“That’s definitely what I grew up on – classic American power pop,” says Scottoline. “But while I’m a fan of it, I don’t consider myself someone with a depth of knowledge where I can point to any one influence from that scene in particular.
“To me, the biggest change in my own songwriting has been confidence. I think, historically, it’s not that I would hold back… maybe I would hold back in a certain way. Like, I come from a city that’s known for its punk scene. So pivoting to Hurry and writing pop songs, I think I felt like I always had to qualify them by still being kind of punk.”
On Fake Ideas, such a notion manifests itself on ‘Doomsday’, a straight-up pop-punk blast that barely scrapes the minute mark before collapsing with exhaustion. Unquestionably the most ‘punk’ song in Hurry’s catalogue, it nevertheless has the fully realised poise of a power-pop anthem.
And, while Scottoline talks about finding his confidence, there’s also an element of working hard to realise his aims. For Fake Ideas, this meant writing several songs with the intention of them never being released on the record, but instead a gateway to finding a sound or getting the creativity flowing. Much of this process is also about pushing the boundaries of what Hurry means, broadening the sonic palette, even incrementally, for each release.
“There are always songs that I don’t finish or songs that don’t make the cut,” he says. “Maybe I’ll write one or two songs that I’m happy with, then a couple I don’t like, or I won’t finish. The difference this time was that I started out putting a lot of pressure on myself, consciously, to one-up myself from the previous record. In doing so, I was trying a lot of things that didn’t come naturally.
“To a point, that’s good because it gets you out of your comfort zone, but I wasn’t doing it in the right way. I was writing a lot – and there were things in those songs that I liked, like a chorus, a melody, or a riff – but I knew it just wasn’t clicking. I was getting discouraged because I didn’t know what was going on.
“Then I wrote one song where I didn’t overthink it, and it felt normal and in my wheelhouse, but it also felt evolved. And whether that came from writing so many songs where it didn’t click, I don’t know. But after that, it was like ‘OK, I know what to do now’, and the rest of the record came through after that.”
These challenges can be seen in the accompanying book to Fake Ideas and the interviews with the many people involved behind the scenes who helped bring the record to life. For example, this might be about the process of recording vocals and butting heads with long-time producer Mike Bardzik or the challenges facing bassist Joe DeCarolis to record parts that were sympathetic to Scottoline’s vision. What’s illuminating about these stories is how everybody’s minor issues feed into the narrative. Everyone has a story to tell about the record and how it challenged them to think differently. But, unfortunately, these stories rarely get told when discussing the process of making an album.
What the book does do, however, is give an insight into the psyche of Scottoline through his questions and conversations. Largely unstructured, they’re comfortable fireside chats, cosy and intimate, but with enough depth that you’re able to dig into what making the record meant for those involved.
“I really didn’t know what I was doing as far as interviewing goes,” he laughs. “I had a list of questions to fall back on if I needed them, so they were a safety net, but I think they ended up being more conversational just by the nature of the format – especially with bandmates because they’re people I’m close to anyway. In fact, I relied on the questions more with them because it was easy to fall into it being a conversation, and I wanted to prompt them to reminisce a bit.
“But it was a lot of fun. It was really gratifying because I do enjoy writing, but it’s not something I do much of because I don’t have an established platform for writing, and I don’t think society necessarily encourages a creative person to put themselves out there with something that doesn’t have a platform.
“I don’t know, it’s easy to get into your own head and decide not to do something. If you’re like me, you immediately start thinking, ‘what am I doing this for?’ So it was nice to have this structured around the record as it gave me permission to do it and to be fully engaged with it as a project and not have those anxieties and negative thoughts.”
In truth, such a project casts a light on Fake Ideas and increases the intimacy of the record. Hurry’s music – although propelled by glorious sun-kissed melodies – is wracked with anxieties and self-doubt. Scottoline might make easily digestible music, but there are often some very serious themes lurking beneath each earworm. Equally, it’s often hard to get a handle on all of the things that happen behind the scenes to bring a record to life, but these too are all part of the rich tapestry, and the book brings these experiences to the fore, presenting them alongside Scottoline’s lyrics as part of the record’s narrative.
These struggles are most apparent on ‘Keep Being Yourself’ and its ideas of the afterlife – ideas that have been debated by artistic and literary greats down the ages, from Keats to Wilde and beyond. Yet, there’s a wonderful juxtaposition to be had when such heavy concepts are distilled into a three-minute pop song. Perhaps that’s the beauty of Fake Ideas; a perfect pop song is timeless – The Beatles and The Beach Boys have endured for decades and still get met with wonder by subsequent generations, after all. But, to wholly bastardise Keats and the New Pornographers, there’s something poetic about finding truth in beauty and beauty in verse, and Hurry – even though they exist among both the punk rock and indie-pop worlds – hit that sweet spot between abstract artist and pop majesty.