January 3, 2018
I met Tom Mullen years ago back in New York, through some random interactions that I honestly forget now, but that led to us talking about my old band, Speedwell (this is Troy writing, by the way). Searching back through old emails as I write this, I’m finding ones back and forth between us in the fall of 2011, shortly after Mullen had started an interview series that attempts to capture and record the mid 90s/early 2000 emo and post-hardcore scenes, largely in an effort to defend their legacy as they began to morph into something a lot of us hated—a very commercialized, highly-polished, and totally inauthentic version of themselves; something some of us termed ‘mall emo’ (props to Brian Minter—I think he’s the first I heard call it that).
Since Tom and I first met, his website and interview series has grown exponentially, as has his (now long) career in the music industry—Tom’s now a music industry executive at Atlantic and has spent time at Equal Vision, Vagrant, TVT, EMI, and Sony, where he was a 2016 Clio and Cannes Lions winner for his work with Bob Dylan. Yeah, that guy. But his passion has remained this strange, edgy scene we both grew up in, more or less, and it’s been a common thread that’s kept us in touch over the years. In addition to his site and interview series/podcast, Washed Up Emo, Tom created a popular emo-themed DJ night in NYC (the good, original one; not the bobo one) and started a pretty uncannily thorough search engine that answers the age-old question—Is This Band Emo? (sometimes with very entertaining results).
He’s also just published his first book, Anthology of Emo Volume 1—376 pages of band interviews, rare photographs, set lists, and more.
On the occasion of its release and the book party tomorrow night at one of our favorite places in Los Angeles, Donut Friend, we took a deep dive with Tom to talk music, and how Bernie Sanders’ wife changed his life as a youth.
raven + crow: Alright, Tom, so, first off, great to talk with you again—it’s been too long, man! I guess let’s start at the beginning—you’ve got a long, prestigious career in the music industry and you’ve clearly ‘paid your dues’, as they say, but what got you into the emo scene in the first place? What was the scene like where you grew up/went to school and what were some early bands—known or not—who pulled you into the scene?
Tom Mullen: Thanks Troy! I’ve definitely been in the music industry way too long, going on seventeen years in the professional world. A big part of my ability to stay relevant in the music industry is what I learned in the scenes growing up. I grew up in Vermont, a small state with no billboards and very few bands coming through. Thanks to Bernie Sanders’ wife, there was a teen center in Burlington, Vermont, which I lived about 40 minutes from and it had all these amazing punk, indie, hardcore, metal, and emo bands come through. They weren’t the biggest but to me, that was all that would tour that far up north. I would go see Only Living Witness, Tree, Sam Black Church, and others from Boston; bands from New York City that would trek up on their way to Montreal or on their way back from there. Burlington was so small that there was no arena, no big shows coming through, so the punk and hardcore scene to me seemed like the biggest thing in the world.
I was instantly perplexed and amazed by this underground scene that I had to dig and search for bands, labels, and scenes. I quickly developed an affinity for emo and all the bands. It was just another band on the hardcore bill so I was into all of it. I looked like a hardcore kid but listened to Karate and Snapcase. Vermont was limited due to their location and size so when I graduated high school, I knew I needed to get the fuck out to really get into the scene and see more bands. I went to school down in North Carolina, which was a culture shock for an East Coast kid. What it did have going for it were countless shows only 30 minutes away and cheap gas. After joining the radio station at the college on day two, I was off to the races calling labels, getting records in the mail, and trying to see as many shows as I could across North Carolina. One day it was Neurosis, or it was Bad Religion or it was A New Found Glory or Braid. I was taking it all in and I couldn’t get enough of it.
Ahhhhhhhh the 90s. As a quick sidenote and sign of the times, my 2017 MacBook just auto-corrected ‘emo’ to ‘emojified’, by the way.
Yes, a common issue with Apple devices. I’ve definitely asked my friends at Apple to fix that.
Get on it, Apple! So, do you feel like first-wave emo filled the same sort of role that, say, punk and new wave filled before, this sort of outsider role?
The first wave of emo, the late 80s/early 90s, was so all over the place that it was definitely an offshoot from the scenes of hardcore. The word itself derives from emotional hardcore, emo-core. So it was just different at the time and as you’d expect, hated as soon as the words were uttered in D.C.
Right, maybe we should back up for the uninitiated (and interested)—can do a quick breakdown on the various emo waves and history here?
This is heavily debated and argued about on Reddit, 4chan and wherever else people like to complain. I’ll caution that people describe these waves very differently. For myself, it’s the first wave of the D.C. bands like Rites of Spring, Embrace. The second wave of the late 90s, with The Promise Ring, Get Up Kids, Jimmy Eat World, etc. Third wave is the pop/hair metal era with Fall Out Boy, My Chemical Romance, and Dashboard Confessional. The fourth wave is the emo revival with bands like Foxing, Hotelier, and Free Throw. Let the angry comments commence.
Yeah, that’s why we disabled commenting on these pages. Suck it, audience! This is a leading question, but how do you feel the internet and this instant information-/cultural-exchange via the web have changed such formative cultural/musical genres and experiences?
The internet is fleeting. It’s instant and there’s very little work to get something but harder to feel a deeper connection to something you took time to find online or in the real world. That’s what’s missing to me when I think about bands and music today. It’s a kid in a bedroom talking shit that would never say it at the show. Maybe back in the day, he’d be at the show and still not say it or quietly say it but today those words can be heard by anyone theoretically, so it’s a false sense of being a part of something. I think bands had more time to cultivate and really cut through, but in the same sense, someone posting a song could get huge and learn the ropes after getting that help early on that they may not have gotten. I love it all but think it’s dangerous to just be on the computer tweeting all day or commenting. Get outside, meet someone, learn something new, sit next to a human and interact.
I do think music is one of those area’s that so heavily affected by the proliferation of use of the web that it’s resulted in this flooding of information/sounds/bands, to the point that it’s impossible to really fully know the bands that make up a scene because the’re so legion now. It does actually make going out to shows and relying on good line-ups at venues one of the best ways to find new bands you might like.
Was that a motive for starting Washed Up Emo though—both the site and the interview series—sort of preserving this scene, what it evolved into, and what came from it?
The motive for the site was to exactly that. The podcast was an extension of the story to have it be evergreen. Someone listening today or 10 years from now will understand where Matt Pryor‘s headspace was and what he was into and why he was doing what he was doing with the music and the bands. It’s a life story I hoped would be something people would listen to and not just have it be the news of the day or two people trying to be funny with each other and a guest. I don’t care if anyone remembers me, I just want the stories to remain.
Your new book then—Anthology of Emo Volume 1—I assume that’s kind of the natural evolution of the interviews; what made you want to channel all of that material into book form?
The book felt like a natural way to bring something academic and serious to the genre. The genre is more than often a punchline for a publication/press outlet to crack a joke while praising a band. Emo is the comedy genre of the Oscars. No respect and always a joke. So having the book look academic—taking a serious approach it—was a huge motivation to making a book from the interviews.
And are these full transcribed interviews? Speaking from experience, I know those can really add up to a lot of text/pages.
Yes, they’re fully transcribed but I edited out a lot of the stupid shit I say and anything out of context. It wasn’t a lot and I left 95% of the interviews in. It was all about flow.
Besides the interviews, what else is included in the book? Any favorite visuals?
Chris Barroner, who was in the band Ethel Meserve, helped a huge amount with flyers and photos for this book. Though my favorite has to be the photos of The Van Pelt. They’re fucking beautiful and it takes me back to the 90s whenever I look at them. The photos help break up the text and help someone realize the physical nature of the years when we would save things and not just scroll through our phones for that one photo we wanted to share with someone at the bar that one time. Ha!
Man. It’s seriously hard to have this conversation and not get nostalgic for simpler times. We’re old, dude.
I don’t know, though. Something tells me…can’t quite put my finger on what, but something tells me there might be more books to come…maybe even volumes. How did you choose what/who went into this first and what’s to come in the next volume(s)?
Yes, there will be more. It was all about whether the first one was successful and I wanted to do it again. The goal of this is not to make money, the goal is to make enough from each one to make the next. I just want the stories to be heard by as many people as possible. I’m doing this out of my own pocket with no publisher so I only have that motivation and no other person telling me to do it another way. I picked the first batch to showcase the depth of the genre across the eras and each volume will hopefully take that same approach. You may pick it up for Chris Carrabba but then learn about Christie Front Drive.
So love Christie Front Drive. Who did your book design, though? We really dig the typography, color way, size/format.
Jesse Reed did the design of the book. He’s a fucking genius and offered his time and support on how to make a book, which I had no clue about. It wouldn’t have happened without his help and I think he understood me completely after I spent a good fifteen minutes just spouting off about how I wanted it to look. He came back with comps of what the cover may look like and I was floored. It was exactly what was in my head.
I know it’s tough—akin to picking a favorite kid—but short of picking a favorite interview you’ve done over the years, can you call one out that was unexpectedly weirder or more interesting than you’d expected going in?
I, unfortunately, did Jon Bunch‘s last interview. Many know him from Sense Field but he was in countless bands and I was promoting one of them when we did the interview. Since the interviews are evergreen, I had the interview all edited up and found out that he had killed himself. I then had to go back and re-edit it because of things said about the future, meeting up, etc. It was heartbreaking and something I wasn’t happy about but I knew I had to do it. These were his last words about music and I had to do it justice. We ended up interviewing people at the benefit show a few months after and made an episode of all the fans, friends and band members talking about Jon. I had a tough time editing that and felt good after. I was giving this person the respect they deserved for their musical life. No matter what happened in their life and why they did what they did, I hope the music and his words live on.
God, I remember when you posted that. I never knew him, but by all accounts, he was a great guy. That was evident from afar by the outpouring of emotion and support after his death. It’s such a tragic, sad thing, but its also really heartwarming to see how his fans and friends and family have turned this tragedy into an effort to support his son too with the GoFundMe campaign.
I have no elegant way of segueing from that, but I am wondering if you have any thoughts on all these old bands reuniting now? It’s hardly a phenomenon unique to emo, but that scene has scene a lot of seminal (and less well-known) bands return of late.
Reunions are as old as time. I love tweeting out, no band breaks up. It’s so true. I mean, Jawbreaker is back. I love it when bands get together and play shows for someone that maybe wasn’t around to see them or was too young or just missed them because they weren’t in a big city then. If they’re doing it, most likely for money and to see their friends again, then hats off to them. If people show up, who cares. Shut up and play the hits.
Fair enough. Any favorites you’ve caught? I’ll say outta the gate that our mutual pick (between Katie and me) was the aforementioned Christie Front Drive at the Bell House some years back.
Christie Front Drive was fucking amazing. Eric Richter (of Christie Front Drive), featured in the first volume of the book, is responsible for so many bands connecting. He’s an unsung hero of the scene that deserves a lot more respect than he gets. It’s tough to say which ones over the years because I’ll inevitably forget one… If I had to choose right now… Refused, Boys Life, Mineral, American Football, Quicksand, and Texas is the Reason.
Totally solid picks. I wish I’d caught Mineral.
Not to seek out shade, but what’s your thought on new, younger bands coming out with sounds that are more-or-less mirroring what we heard in 90s emo?
What’s interesting is most bands don’t fucking realize it. They’re just making loud music and figuring it out. It just happens to sound like the 90s. Truthfully, some are referencing that era but most aren’t. They’re just in the basement figuring it out. That’s the beauty of music that I love and it always inspires me to answer an email to a band that sends me their site and asks me to listen. I have to because that next sound may be the next thing I get sent and I want to hear it and champion it. Music is still so important to me—all I want to do is share with someone that I heard something amazing and I have to share it. I just have to do it. So when I hear a band like Free Throw or Foxing or Hotelier, all I want to do is encourage them to make more music and to create more—to make that next great album regardless of the era. I think the kids have realized the earnestness of the 90s and skipped over the hair metal era of emo in the 00s. They saw how fleeting it was and superficial it was sounding. They went back to the drawing board and figured it out. I can’t wait to hear the next thing I click on or hear in a club…
That’s super-encouraging to hear and, yeah, I love that the ‘new’ emo sounds like what I’d consider to be the good stuff, not the ‘mall emo’.
Back to the book though, I know you’re doing your release at Donut Friend Thursday—any other book events planned around the country we can shout out?
Yes! We have another event in Brooklyn at Powerhouse Books in Dumbo on the 12th of January. An actual bookstore! Growing up, the bookstore was the toy store for me. It had every topic I could think of the shelves and I could peruse anything. Growing up, my dad would always let me run wild in the bookstore and I was able to figure out what I liked and disliked because of his encouragement to read. That’s still with me today. Unfortunately, my dad passed away in late 2016, but the thought of him seeing a book I made and then having an event at a bookstore, I know for a fact, he’s looking down smiling.
As for the NYC event, I’ll be selling the book and doing a little panel discussion/Q&A with Norman from Texas is the Reason, Chris from The Van Pelt and William from Rainer Maria. It should be fun and I can’t believe I get to do this.
Yeah, condolences again about your dad, Tom. Excited to see you again tomorrow at the event.
Speaking of Donut Friend, favorite donut there, either in name or culinary composition?
I love the Jimmy Eat Swirl and the Jets to Basil. Classics. Mark Trombino, a legend already, has made an amazing product and I’m so happy it’s successful.
Awesome, man. Thanks again for talking and see you Thursday.
If you’re an emo fan and in Los Angeles tomorrow (Thursday, Jan4), you’d be a fool not to come by Donut Friend in Highland Park from 7-9PM for some mingling, emo music, and excellent, post-hardcore donuts (most of which are vegan/vegan-ize-able, by the way).