If you took an essay that you wrote in English class when you were seventeen years old and read it ten years later, you'd probably cringe," says the Get Up Kids' frontman Matt Pryor. "Now, imagine if the same essay you're totally embarrassed about is considered the pinnacle of your creative career, when really it was just the rough draft."
Pryor's metaphorical "essay" is the Lawrence, Kansas, group's 1997 album Four Minute Mile, the first release in the band's fruitful, turbulent career. The scrappy record epitomizes adolescent urgency and desperation, each track either an apology or an anxiety attack or both. Earnestly written, recorded and performed, Mile has become a pivotal document of punk rock's shift toward a vulnerable, dynamic brand of pop punk — or, as the young ones like to say, emo. Many more recent torchbearers cite the album as a milestone: Fall Out Boy, Motion City Soundtrack and Brand New included.
Pryor accepts Four Minute Mile's influence with "a huge block of salt," stating, "I can't even listen to the record because the vocals sound terrible. But it's a blessing and a curse because if the album hadn't meant as much to people, I might not have a career today."
By the time the band released Something To Write Home About in 1999, emo was overgrowing its place as a subset of punk, and the band involuntarily became its poster boys. The Get Up Kids' sophomore record cast a new sparkle over the band's initial pep, courtesy of a comfortable recording budget from Vagrant Records and a newfound interest in synthesizers. Something was emo's first breakout success, topping 100,000 copies sold and landing the band on tour with both Green Day and Weezer.
"We toured for three years on Something To Write Home About, and it was getting to the point where things were getting formulaic," Pryor says. "We'd go into the studio and do the one-off tracks that ended up on [B-sides collection] Eudora, and we were becoming a parody of ourselves, like, 'Here's the half time ending, and here's the octave part.' We were getting bored, and we thought, if our audience is on the same page as us, surely they're getting bored as well."
It didn't quite work that way. "We were partially wrong," Pryor admits. For the Get Up Kids third album, On a Wire, the band rerouted its token restlessness inward. The result was a complex and sophisticated record that was, for the most part, hated by the band's followers.
"It's not uncommon for us to put out records that are somewhat divisive among our fans," Pryor says. "But to love us is to love all of us. We can't just make our first two records over and over again. That would be dishonest and, more importantly, it wouldn't be any fun for us."
On A Wire is often noted as the Get Up Kids' attempt to abandon emo, but it was more about loyalty. Four Minute Mile is flawed and jarring at times, the type of record that makes personal investment a prerequisite for enjoyment. Something To Write Home About is more approachable, but it still takes work to penetrate its mopey surface. Many fans' attachment to the band was so deep, or superficially deep, that deviation was betrayal; by 2002, if On a Wire did not deliver exactly what a listener wanted from the Get Up Kids, there were plenty of coattail-riding emo bands around to pick up the band's sloppy seconds.
The band regained some energy in 2004 with Guilt Show, but the fatigue of touring began to wear on Pryor. "We were on tour in Australia, and I was so miserable and unhappy that I couldn't enjoy the fact that I was in fucking Australia, so I quit the band," he says. "Our attitude was always all or nothing, so at that point it had to be nothing."
After the band broke up in 2005, countless acts emerged like locusts, not only dropping the Get Up Kids' name as an inspiration but aping — and watering down — the band's organic synth pop. When asked about the current crop of emo bands in a 2009 interview with Drowned in Sound, guitarist Jim Suptic said "If this is the world we helped create, then I apologize."
Pryor is more ambivalent about the mimicry. "From our perspective, when people say they like our band it's great. It doesn't matter to me whether or not I like their band," he says. "But we don't sit around and think, 'I wonder if Paramore is influenced by us.' That would just be stupid."
Pryor does see a distinction in today's climate. "In the scene that we came from, the goal wasn't to try to be famous," he explains. "The goal was to play in somebody's basement or to try to get a record out or tour over the summer. I think the difference is that some kids who come up now want to play emo because that's how you become a rock star. That was never where our heads were at."
After disbanding, the members continued making noise. Matt Pryor released six generally folky records in a four-year span, some under his own name and some with his project the New Amsterdams (or its children's music alter-ego the Terrible Twos). "The stuff I do on my own is sort of intentionally quiet," he says. "I think that's in direct correlation to the Get Up Kids being so loud." Keyboardist James Dewees, who frequently records and tours under the pseudonym Reggie and the Full Effect, took the opposite approach, going further into the loudness as a touring member of My Chemical Romance. Meanwhile, bassist Rob Pope joined the seminally hip rock band Spoon.
All the while, a reunion seemed unlikely. "At the time, I had no intention of ever doing the Get Up Kids ever again," Pryor says. "And now hindsight being 20/20 we didn't need to break up. We just needed to take a break, but we weren't healthy enough to know.
"Eventually we all had to be in the same room at the same time for some paperwork, because even though the band had broken up, the Get Up Kids business still existed. It was pleasant; we enjoyed being around each other. If we were ever going to play together again, it needed to be because we liked each other again."
Still, the band was reluctant to officially regroup. "It built slowly," Pryor says. "Every step was like, 'We're going to do this one show, and that's it,' and, 'We're going to play this one festival, and that's it,' and, 'We're going to go on one tour, and that's it!'" Any attempts to stunt the momentum failed. The Get Up Kids' reunion has thus far included a handful of festivals and tours; the band's St. Louis date is on the first leg of a massive summer outing that takes the group to Japan and Europe — and gives Pryor a second chance to enjoy Australia.
The band's second wind has also resulted in 2010's Simple Science EP and a full length album, There Are Rules, released this past January. It is an abrasive power-pop record whose closest ties to the band's back catalog is its rendition of the Pixies' "Alec Eiffel." "This record was very collaborative," Pryor says. "We didn't experiment; we just hacked stuff out. What you hear on the record is what happens when all five of us have to agree on something. We're like Voltron."
In the great Get Up Kids tradition, Rules shows the band creating its own motion, albeit not in the direction most would expect. "We didn't start making new music again so we could repeat what we were doing before," Pryor explains. "If we wanted to do that, we could just play Four Minute Mile all the way through every night."