It is a challenge to behold… For music fans of Boston, tonight’s concert calendar will have a tough choice, but either event will provide a winner. This may be a match for an individual’s night, but it is no way a battle between acts. This cavalcade of musicians rolling through town represents some of the brightest acts from the three pivotal underground music communities today.
The Mae Shi, No Age, and Abe Vigoda mastered their craft and honed in on their acts out in LA. There, they (along with a multitude of other acts) formed a community dedicated to furthering the boundaries of art and punk. It’s a living, breathing unit that can be seen in the 40 Bands 80 Minutes documentary (it is what it says – 40 bands performing 2 minute songs in a sweaty LA venue) or on any regular evening at The Smell, the all ages venue that No Age placed smack dab on the cover of their 2007 album Weirdo Rippers. With the critical acclaim these three acts – alongside peers such as HEALTH and Mika Miko – have been receiving, the LA underground scene has once again been thrown into the national music limelight.
Although LA has received a considerable amount of attention, so has Brooklyn (home of High Places) and, more than any other area, Baltimore (home of The Death Set). Forever cast in the shadows of nearby, larger areas (Baltimore has DC, and although Brooklyn is a part of NYC, Manhattan has always dominated the other burroughs), these tiny, seemingly-culturally deprived areas have burst with creative ingenuity in all forms of the arts. Baltimore has built an insular community to match its small sized, and has since been propelled to the national level thanks in part to the Wham City collective and its unofficial head Dan Deacon; in little pockets of a city that most residents have either forgotten or never cared about, out came a sprawling arts basin that seems as communally inbred as it is creative. Venture north a number of hours and you hit Brooklyn, itself a sprawling mass of space that’s cheaper – and therefore, more attractive to aspiring artists looking to make it in the big city. Any busted-up storefront could easily be turned into an art gallery or performance space, and a good number of them art (at least in the Williamsburg area). Out of it has formed numerous art-punk acts as wide spread, yet communally linked; TV On The Radio, Battles, Parts & Labor, and a ton of others all call this place home.
Both Baltimore and Brooklyn offer scenes that are in close proximity to areas of cultural resonance, but their chance location has given both places an almost-secluded quality which has allowed these communities to prosper and trade ideas amongst one another without the eye of the mainstream music world staring down upon them. LA, though a mainstream cultural capital in its own respect, is so spread out that over the past few decades, it has allowed for numerous musically-based culture movements to spawn and spread out of little pockets in the vast city side and across the suburban sprawl. These communities are created and developed in the guise of complete creativity, without the influence and impact of commercial interest to hinder, attract, or distract anything or anyone from the ultimate goal of creation. These qualities are the typical stamp-of-approval for the development of underground art communities in the US; the resources are there in almost every location in America, but it takes a special formula of location, individuals, and atmosphere to make it work.
This is an important aspect of the development and continued thriving of emo as an underground cultural force. It’s still one that drives the many different voices of emo in its current underground status. True, emo has become a fashionable commodity, but it doesn’t mean that it hasn’t continued to thrive as an underground culture, one separate from its mainstream state. It’s the ideas of creativity and independence that the innovators of the culture imbued into its artistic essence that not only kept emo in the underground for so long (around 15-17 years, depending on when you choose to mark its beginning and entrance into the mainstream). When what became known as “emo” began in the ashes of DC’s hardcore scene, a good chunk of the punk music community scorned it as hardcore had yet to hit its dramatic fall on the national level. DC was (and in many ways, still is) ignored by the music industry as an important place, so emo transformed, unfettered by outsiders and made for the better by community members. As Fugazi became the scene’s main touring act and magnet, their sound became a beacon to anyone looking beyond the convention of punk and broadcast a vibrant and diverse aural image of emo around the world.
From there, communities outside of the insular DC scene began to form around the idea of emo. The strongest cross-state emo community to arise didn’t occur until the mid 90s. While connections formed among artists from different scenes (Sunny Day Real Estate and Shudder To Think as touring partners comes to mind), the mid 90s provided a time when scenes across the country formed their own little pockets and ideas of emo, yet would come together to share them. Outside of DC (which added Chisel and The Dismemberment Plan to their list), the East Coast had pockets of sound; NYC had Texas Is The Reason, New Jersey had Lifetime, Boston had Karate and Jejune (who later moved to California), and down in Florida (if you want to count it as the East Coast) there was Hot Water Music.
But the mid 90s and emo will forever be associated with the Mid-West, where the bands were as connected to their hometown scenes as they were with the rest of the middle-country-divide. Cap’n Jazz, The Promise Ring, Jimmy Eat World, Mineral, Christie Front Drive, Braid, The Get Up Kids, Boy’s Life, and dozens more upon hundreds of those which may never be heard by the masses have formed a dominant portrait of a land and time in the emo narrative. The places they came from are all different and so are their ideas, but they all came together to form a variety of sounds that continue to exist within popularized forms of emo today. Consider it the time of multiculturalism in underground American punk. While the national hardcore scene transformed local sounds into one big rule-based notion of musical defiance summarized in a minute and a half of screams and thrashing guitars, the mid 90s Mid-West emo scene allowed for individual pockets to develop their version of emo undeterred by outsiders all while coming together to form bonds and trade ideas to enhance their individual perspectives. This can be seen in everything from split singles on vinyl (such as the Jimmy Eat World/Christie Front Drive split that attracted the attention of Captiol Records) to a shared creation of lyrics (The Promise Ring’s “Picture Postcard” attributes some lyrical content to Braid’s Bob Nanna), to simple ties of friendship that extend past inter-state routes. Just as the movers and shakers of today’s underground music scenes breach state lines to form communities while continuing to build their local ones, emo became a strong presence throughout America before it became a mainstream phenomenon. Those connections kept it a living, moving center of a community, and that notion continues to drive like-minded individuals who operate under whatever label they choose to this very day.
The Mae Shi – Vampire Beats (video):