The year was 2002, the venue was the 1,000-person-capacity Mississippi Nights, and the group in question would soon rechristen itself Story of the Year. Composed of five twentysomethings who grew up skateboarding and listening to '80s metal in Overland, the still-unsigned band offset questionable nü-metal leanings with a Jackass-style promo video and frenetic live shows featuring back flips and daredevil leaps off speaker stacks.
"We didn't have a lot of good songs; we were all about just playing good live shows," vocalist Dan Marsala recalls. "We didn't even care about the music; that was secondary. We just cared about working real hard."
The Mississippi Nights show served as a bon voyage of sorts, as Story of the Year subsequently moved to the West Coast, signed with Maverick Records and, with their 2003 debut, Page Avenue, and hit single "Until the Day I Die," helped usher the hardcore-punk-emo hybrid known as screamo into the mainstream musical consciousness.
After two and a half years, Page Avenue's sales remain just shy of one million sold. But according to Nielsen Soundscan, last October's follow-up, In the Wake of Determination, only moved 148,000 copies, begging the question: What happened? And after everything they've done for the local music scene, could one of the biggest bands ever to break out of St. Louis be overshadowed by bands they've helped along the way?
Prior to SOTY's rapid ascent a time when the Urge and Gravity Kills had come and gone and the St. Lunatics were barely a glimmer in Nelly's grill there weren't as many young musicians in St. Louis. But the community was also tighter-knit, says Sophomore guitarist Nathan Hall.
"I call [the phenomenon] 'Little Generations,'" he explains. "Certain bands will be together and there will be a whole scene, and two, three years later they'll all break up and switch members and reform new bands. It's still the same people as always, and I've seen that a couple times now."
In addition to SOTY and Sophomore, such groups as Adair (now signed to Warcon Records) and Ludo (which released an album on 33rd Street Records) emerged from these extended musical families. As SOTY's profile grew, they hooked up their buddies with touring gigs, offered advice and wore their merchandise near-religiously. Adair even lived in SOTY's Orange County rental house while recording their February debut and are currently performing alongside the band on the Taste of Chaos Tour.
In the eyes of Adair vocalist Rob Tweedie, Story of the Year's national success gave area bands "a little light of hope that it's possible to achieve what you're looking for." Sophomore's Hall, whose quartet is signed to SOTY guitarist Phil Sneed's burgeoning Royal Crest Records, echoes Tweedie's optimism and calls SOTY's breakthrough "a breath of fresh air. There's not the same amount of competition like in LA or New York, but it's harder in some ways because none of the A&R people want to come out to the Midwest. Though there's a couple of Midwest bands Fall Out Boy is from Chicago and Hawthorne Heights in Ohio it's been a good thing to see some Midwest bands not only make it, but they're setting trends now mainstream-wise."
Indeed, it's easy to forget that Story of the Year were one of the first screamo bands to taste mainstream success especially since originators begat a slew of imitators, the Next Big Thing is always around the corner, and initial rushes of success are often followed by crashing returns to reality. (Within the screamo realm itself, San Diego figureheads Finch recently broke up, and New Jersey's Thursday publicly contemplated doing the same.) But the Point's Cornbread thinks Story of the Year's dynamic concerts will help them outlast their imitators.
"You're always going to have somebody try to copy what you do to try to make it as well, but that's why they're not going to have success," he says. "A lot of bands are doing exactly what SOTY are trying to do, and they do it very well. But some of those bands can't do a live show like SOTY."
These concerts, in fact, indirectly helped them earn a record deal. When SOTY played an opening slot at the 2002 Pointfest show, they busied themselves distributing copies of their infamously gonzo video, a few copies of which found their way onto Goldfinger's tour bus and into the hands of John Feldmann (who serves as an A&R rep for Maverick when he's not fronting his ska-punk four-piece).
"They were a little bit stylistically lost," Feldmann recalls now. "But they were so good live, and their video was so epic. I just knew if they were open enough to kind of rearrange everything and kind of start over with the songwriting process, they would make an amazing record. They were all just really focused on what they wanted."
Story of the Year ultimately toured with Goldfinger, headlined the annual summer Warped Tour and had videos in heavy MTV rotation. But SOTY retained their hometown pride throughout it all: They filmed a 2005 DVD, Bassassins: Live in the Lou, at the Pageant and settled down with their girlfriends and fiancées in St. Louis instead of purchasing extravagant pads in LA.
At the same time, online and print rumors begin to circulate indicating that they were unhappy with the album that brought them so much notoriety.
"There's been so many interviews where we've said something and then people would turn it into, 'They hate the first record, they hate John Feldmann, they don't like anything that John Feldmann does,'" Marsala says. "Nobody ever said that. Some problems went down, but we're still friends and it'll end up being fine in the long run. I'm still happy that we didn't do the new record with him and we went in a new direction. We think it definitely represents our band a lot better. But he did a lot for us, and we ultimately end up owing a lot to him."
SOTY chose Steve Evetts (Snapcase, Dillinger Escape Plan) to produce In the Wake of Determination. The result was a harder, heavier sophomore effort, a less-poppy showcase for the group's evolving musicianship. The fact that the album has yet to take off stateside reflects conventional wisdom that the music industry is a tough, fickle beast particularly within the pop and punk genres. But even with slow record sales and lagging radio airplay, it remains to be seen whether SOTY and the sound they helped create will fall victim to consumer whims.
"The bottom line is as far as Story of the Year, I love that band," Feldmann concludes. "I want that band to be the biggest band in the world, and the last thing I want to see is any more drama. They're still a huge band. They're the best live band on the planet. I know they're disappointed they're not selling massive amounts of records on this one, but hopefully on the next one they will."
Marsala doesn't seem too worried yet either at least judging from his joking tone: "I told Adair yesterday to quit while they're ahead, 'cause it's not going to get any better from here." Should they heed his warning? "No, I hope not," he chuckles. "That would be bad advice."