Around The World
The US is currently churning out many of our favourite bands, and they’re coming from an unlikely place. Clearly there’s something in the Philadelphia water.
Words: Ryan De Freitas. Photos: Marthe Johannessen.
“Okay, I’m just gonna make a quick list of bands right now from the Philly area: The Menzingers, The Wonder Years, Tigers Jaw, Title Fight, Man Overboard, Modern Baseball, Superheaven, Circa Survive, mewithoutYou, Petal… it really quickly spins out of control.”
Dan ‘Soupy’ Campbell, The Wonder Years
In the last decade, that ‘Philly area’ Campbell speaks of (“When I say the Philly area, by the way, I’m talking about the suburbs, I’m talking about South Jersey, I’m talking about Scranton, Wilks-Barre, Delaware, all those places are what I see as the Greater Philadelphia Region”) has produced a ridiculous amount of great bands that, across a number of sub-genres, have played a huge part in shaping the contemporary punk rock landscape.
In fact, it’s hard to imagine what that landscape would look like at all without Philadelphia’s bands. Where would pop punk be without The Wonder Years? Where would the ‘emo revival’ be without Tigers Jaw or Modern Baseball? How empty would indie-rock feel right now without the likes of Hop Along or The War On Drugs? Hell, without Beach Slang, mewithoutYou, TWY and Superheaven our albums of the year list would be considerably shorter, too.
No one area is more vital to a style of music right now than Philadelphia is to punk rock. It’s doing for punk what Louisiana did for the blues, it’s doing for punk what Seattle did for grunge, it’s doing for punk what New York did for hip hop. So it begs the question; what exactly is it about Philadelphia that’s led to it producing not just so many bands, but so many truly great bands?
“I remember reading this interview when I was younger with Steve from Minor Threat,” Campbell recalls. “He was talking about how when they wanted to play the first Minor Threat show, they knew that to play in DC you had to be pretty good because Bad Brains were there. And if you weren’t up to par, Bad Brains would make you look so bad, by being so much better than you were.
“It was like that with Philly bands for me, because there were so many bands that were so good that when you started a band, you really had to not be terrible to even have a shot at being liked at all.
“The level of competition was just so high in Philadelphia. The bands we grew up listening to like mewithoutYou, and The Starting Line, and Circa Survive. Those bands were just so good and from right around the corner, so if you wanted to play music, you had to raise your game up to that level.”
And while The Wonder Years have been around for over a decade now, that idea of needing to live up to what’s around you holds just as – if not even more – true today for bands in the area. It takes a certain kind of attitude to look at such a talented pool of bands around you and take it as a challenge, or a level to aspire to, rather than brushing it off as being a saturated market and giving up. A hard-working attitude bred from the town’s blue-collar roots.
“There’s a real DIY camaraderie in Philly,” Campbell goes on to explain. “In the suburbs, we had the option to do a bunch of shows in houses and a bunch of shows in basements or garages and we would call places that just had any empty space. So we’d play at a firehouse, the library, gymnasiums and then all these other places like a VFW Hall [Veterans of Foreign Wars hall – a community space available for hire] or just anywhere like that. We’d just call them and ask to rent the hall out.
“I was calling these places when I was like 15 years old and telling the people in charge that I wanted to rent them – totally illegally – and obviously I wouldn’t say that we were having a punk rock show, I’d tell them we were having like a community band jam or something. I’d sign the paperwork, I’d end up getting a few of our friends’ bands to play and then I’d have one of our friends draw up a flyer and I’d break into the teachers’ lounge and I’d run off a thousand copies on their photocopier. There was just always that kind of ethic. We didn’t really need anybody else.
“I mean, if you look at big music cities; places like New York, places like Nashville, places like Chicago and Los Angeles, there’s like this infrastructure in place and if you want to play music, you have to find a way to fit into that infrastructure, whereas Philadelphia didn’t really have that infrastructure. It wasn’t really about the right way or the wrong way; it was really just the only way for us.
“If we wanted to play shows, we had to book them. If we wanted to put out a zine, we had to put it out. If we wanted photos at the shows, we had to take them. There was just nobody else to rely on. At the time, it didn’t seem strange at all, it was just ‘why would I need anybody else? I can just do all of this myself without them’.”
The matter-of-fact-ness in Campbell’s voice as he explains this says everything about the mentality of the city. In Philadelphia, bands don’t take the DIY route because it’s the most honorable or righteous way, they do it because it’s the only way they know.
“All of our friends suddenly became really talented.”
Greg Barnett, The Menzingers
The same holds true a few hours north of Philadelphia in the town of Scranton. Dragged into mainstream pop culture relevancy as the setting of the US version of The Office, the town was put on the musical map in recent years by The Menzingers, Tigers Jaw, Petal and Captain, We’re Sinking, all of whom grew up there together.
Those four great bands coming out of a town of just 75,000 people isn’t something that happens too often, either. To put those numbers into perspective, if you had the same ratio of great bands to population everywhere, London would have four hundred and fifty three great bands. And it doesn’t. So, how does that end up happening?
“It was honestly just one of those things where everyone was in the right place at the right time,” starts Bobby Barnett, guitarist / vocalist of Captain, We’re Sinking. “We were all the same age roughly, there were a couple of venues, everyone started playing music at the same time and it just so happened that we all got pretty good at writing songs.
“The early shows we used to play, the lineups would always be The Menzingers, Tigers Jaw, Captain, We’re Sinking or the other lineup would be Title Fight, [who are from half an hour away in Kingston] The Menzingers, and Tigers Jaw. Those were just typical Saturday nights. The shows would be great, but obviously nothing like those line-ups would be now.
“Everyone was very supportive, everyone was really cool in helping each other out, and everyone just came together around the idea of playing honest music because that area that we’re all from is a no bullshit goes kind of area.
“Scranton has a very depressed economy, it’s a very depressed city – it gets ranked nationally as one of the most depressing places to live in America. Well, Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. They usually count the two places as one because of how close they are.”
“Also, that area seemed to be so hardworking for somewhere so small,” adds Zack Charrette, Captain’s drummer. “I think you fight for it more because there was nothing else to do. Being where I’m from, maybe a half an hour south of Scranton – more up the mountains into The Poconos – where there was nothing. Same thing as Scranton though, shit economy and shit people.
“Scranton/Wilkes-Barre were the places to play for us because we had nothing. We had maybe one or two venues that would pop up, maybe be around for like six months to a year and then they would just up and leave because it wasn’t really worth it.
“We had some cool bands come through, like Bigwig were really big over there, cause the drummer was from that area. The hardcore scene there was pretty cool. But at the same time you had these venues that were pay-to-plays and people just taking advantage of kids to make some money. Off of something they work so hard for and care so much about that they just knew nothing else. At the time though, it just seemed like this is what we had to do, so it was like ‘fuck it, let’s do it’.”
Philadelphia (and the surrounding area) has produced some total bangers of late. Don’t just take our word for it, though.
Tigers Jaw – The Sun
The Menzingers – Casey
The Wonder Years – Came Out Swinging
Captain, We’re Sinking – Lake
Hop Along – The Knock
mewithoutYou – Mexican War Streets
Radiator Hospital – Cut Your Bangs
Superheaven – In On It
Title Fight – Coxton Yard
Modern Baseball – Your Graduation
Being a part of that must have been pretty special, too. To come from a deprived place and find something to be proud of.
“Yeah, it was fucking awesome,” beams Greg Barnett, Bobby’s brother and guitarist of The Menzingers. “We grew up just as kids playing in Scranton, starting bands at like fifteen years old – we were all doing that, just learning to play and playing cover sets in skate parks and stuff like that. And then all of a sudden there was just like two years where all of our friends just suddenly became really talented and developed as songwriters so just listening to our friends and being like ‘wow, this is incredible’ was so fucking cool.
“We didn’t really have that many venues though, or we did have in Wilkes-Barre, where we’d always play and then in Scranton there were more like art spaces and practice rooms and stuff. It was cool cause there weren’t really that many bands, but we’d all always play together on the weekend and then just hang out after and write songs together while hanging out at each other’s houses. So it was really just this communal development where we learned from each other how to write songs and how to do the whole music thing together and that was really cool.”
“I was having a conversation recently with my friend Kiley, who plays in Petal,” Bobby continues. “We spoke about songwriting for a while and how with us an our friends’ bands it’s always had to be this very honest thing, very open and like ‘if you have something to say, say it’. We all pat each other on the back for that and make sure we don’t shy away from it. That support system is important. We’re all like to each other ‘whatever you want to sing about, sing about it and we’ll be at all your shows’. We all fed off that.”
Apart from Bobby Barnett, though, most of those Scranton bands have moved down to Philadelphia now. Greg Barnett and the rest of The Menzingers were there pretty early in their career and the DIY ethic they brought with them from Scranton meant that they’d go on to do great things in the city.
“It was hard for us at first, but we made a lot of friends really quickly.” He remembers. “I don’t think we were really accepted instantly, or at least people were like ‘oh this is cool’ but didn’t really invite onto any big shows or whatever, so we just played at people’s houses.”
It’s not all stage-dives and whiskey in Philadelphia either. Greg goes on to explain, “There’s a really strong indie-rock scene here with The War On Drugs, Kurt Vile, Waxahatchee, Hop Along and stuff who are basically my favourite bands, and that scene’s thrived and the punk scene has thrived and it’s great because they’ve both mixed together now. I think it all just comes down to the fact that both scenes have a DIY mentality. Everyone helps each other. Hop Along always play basement shows with their friends’ bands, but then they also do big tours with Kurt Vile, y’know?
“Katie Crutchfield [Waxahatchee] would play little house shows and now she’s ended up at venues like Union Transfer. It’s all just rooted in the same DIY/punk ethos, which is seen as just the proper way of going about things around here. You don’t get that in like, Los Angeles or whatever.”
It’s interesting that Los Angeles was specifically mentioned there, too, since that’s the city that indie duo, Girlpool recently moved to Philadelphia from. Consider that Waxahatchee, Radiator Hospital and Modern Baseball also moved into the city from various other locations and it becomes apparent that Philly’s appeal for musicians is known far and wide across America which, for Barnett, comes from the “musicians first, rather than The Machine first” attitude.
This blue-collar unity in Philadelphia, something that stretches far beyond music, is exactly why the scene there is as tight-knit and prosperous as it is. The city is affectionately referred to as ‘The City of Brotherly Love’ and this is exactly why. If there’s something that music scenes worldwide can learn from Philadelphia, Dan Campbell sums it up best: “It’s all about friendship and it’s all about everyone working together, because like I said there was never an empire in Philadelphia – we were the empire. Your friendships are everything and your work ethic is everything.”
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