I was nervous about this one.
Not that I had any particular reason to be - it’s just how do you distill 20 years of listening to a musician’s output into a series of questions that you might be fortunate enough to have 20, maybe 30 minutes to ask? I needn’t have worried, of course. Matt Pryor was nothing if not gracious with his time, jovial and conversational. I only wish I could have asked my questions in person - and that I had another hour to talk about everything he, and the band, have been through.
The Get Up Kids are about to hit the 25-year mark, which is a significant milestone in just about any profession. Things were obviously very different in 1995, when they first started out.
“I tend to think of most change in this industry as a positive. I’m kind of the opposite of a Debbie Downer in the room, a bit of a Pollyanna,” says Matt Pryor, a founding member of the now seminal rock band, their front man, guitar player, and a prolific musician outside of the band. “I mean, obviously the biggest difference now is the use of the internet. Whether you use it for good or evil is up to you.”
“For the most part I see more people being independent,” he continues. “They’re less afraid to be who they actually are. Whether they’re a person of color, or a queer kid or transgender, or anyone. Also, people feel empowered to release their own music and book their own shows.”
His music has been a part of my life for going on 20 years now. Outside of the music itself, it’s comments like that where I’m reminded why.
“We were talking about this the other day. The album cycle… is that really a thing anymore? Should we go back to like a 1960’s single cycle, where we put smaller things, just more often, instead a bigger thing every 2 to 3 years. And I don’t know what the answer is.”
“It just means I can write more songs,” he tells me. We chat a bit more about “content,” not just its creation, but the commoditization of that content. We both lamented humorously, that we even refer to someone’s creative output as “content” in the first place.
Between 6 albums and various EP’s with The Get Up Kids, his other project The New Amsterdams, and various other entities he’s been a part of, his presence has been felt at some of the most personally challenging and transformative periods of my life. A winter in Chicago, a move to New Jersey, the tumultuously maturative decade of figuring out so many things I loved and hated about myself while I was there. The return to my hometown. Everything that happened in between and in the decade since that move.
Looking back at my own relationship with the band's music, I have these kind of early 00’s music video-esue, oddly vivid memories of when I purchased the compact disc of Something To Write Home About. You know the kind I mean; staring out the window of a moving vehicle, headphones on or singing along with friends, maybe the windows are down, it could be in the city or on a country road. I can still distinctly remember what it was like to hear it for the first time, what it was like to discover something so emotive, this longingly powerful series of tracks that were narratively puzzling, but moving nonetheless. Of course, there are several musicians that hold that kind of place in his heart.
“I think that those are such formative years, your late teens and early twenties. You’re going through such an important and big transition in life, and whatever the soundtrack is to your life at that time, it’s going to make a big impact,” he says, with a bit of gravity. “For me, that was Jawbox and Jawbreaker. And then later, Steve Earle, Wilco, and Tom Waits.”
“I posted a video on my Instagram, when we were backstage at our show in Tokyo. And we put on the first Boys Life record. They’re kind of in that era of Christie Park Drive, and early Jimmy Eat World. They were a few years before us,” he tells me, excitedly. “And I just posted a video of the guys just rocking out to the first Boys Life backstage, and I was just like, yeah… I could be in an elevator and hear that record, and be like, oh yeah, fuck yeah. It’s time. Or if I hear “Savory,” by Jawbox, I’m like yeah, that songs a ripper. There’s no way around it.”
Of course, with a band like The Get Up Kids, and the attachments their music tends to create, I wondered what it was like to know this, the band’s fans were so attached to albums, specifically Something To Write Home About, from so early in their career. “It makes me happy that we were able to create something… that they feel something so similar to how I feel about those things,” he says.
It’s a challenging question to answer, and it’s a thread we followed a bit.
“I feel differently in the sense that I think that we, and/or I, have done other things that are better than that record. But that’s not my place.” I appreciate his candor here. He continues. “I mean, honestly, I see people’s connection with that record as kind of like… like, living with that record, and I love that record. And I’m very proud of that record, and I was proud of it when we did it. Still having to live with that record is kind of like our price of admission to get to make new stuff.”
What might seem like a backhanded compliment of their own legacy actually makes a lot of sense, especially as someone nearing 40 and trying to create new memories for my family, and not just continuously look back on what came before. There were a lot of good times, sure. But what about the future? Pryor seems to understand both the weight and the freedom that comes from his own band’s legacy.
“Because of that record we can still be a band 25 years later, and still make new music. And I can be an artist independently of the band 25 years later, and do my own thing. I will always acknowledge and honor that, as long as it continues to let me make new art. And so far, that’s been the case.”
In the early 2000’s there were just a couple of labels running the indie music show - with bands like The Get Up Kids, Saves The Day, Hot Rod Circuit, Dashboard Confessional, Alkaline Trio, The Anniversary, and a few others anchoring what those labels were churning out. Between spring of 2001 and summer of 2002, many of these bands made a pivot in sound that signaled “Emo” was growing up.
“I have thought about this. It’s like the same thing as like, collective consciousness. What do they call it in comedy when two guys come up with the same joke? Lateral thought?”
It’s something like that. We also quickly discuss what was happening in the late 90’s, the bastardization of sound that eventually led to the term “emo.”
Though The Get Up Kids only ever loosely fit that description they’ve long since been tagged with - let’s be honest, they are and always have been a rock band with punk influences, drenched in everything that comes along with growing up in the Midwest - their follow-up, On A Wire, was part of a larger shift within a scene that they’d help create.
“We were all listening to more classic rock. When you grow up in punk rock, you don’t go into The Beatles, you know what I mean? You have to kind of get past punk rock to get back to rock and roll. For me it was Steve Earle and Townes Van Zandt. And Kris Kristofferson. These really poetic singer-songwriters,” he tells me, pieces snapping into place as I quickly think through what they did with On A Wire.
“And I think I was going, ‘I don’t really feel connected to punk rock anymore. I feel more connected to this.’ I think it was because our band got more successful. And as we got bigger, our crowd got younger,” he continues.
“I remember playing a show and there was a 16-year birthday party, like that’s what they did - it was like a bachelorette party but for a 16-year old. And I was just like ‘I don’t get this at all. This isn’t my peers anymore.’ You know what I mean? If I had to guess, I would think that we all had a similar sort of vibe, of just kinda getting into different stuff.”
But… we come to the anticlimax of it all. “The thing that I think was really the great error of the whole thing, is that, at least for us, is that we just figured that everybody else in the world was going through the same shit and that they would just be like, ‘Yeah, it totally makes sense that you would make an acoustic sounding record after Something to Write Home About.’ And people were not stoked,” he says, before laughing into his next thought.
“I mean, people like it now.” We both laugh.
Historically speaking, it’s one of my single favorite times in independent music. It forced me to grow up with these bands and their music, and colored my view of every other band’s evolution from that point forward.
Action & Action
Problems is an amalgamation of almost 25 years of experiences, on and off the road, within and without the band. “As far as on our end, what we do… it’s not much different. We get together, we hash out songs in a variety of different ways,” he tells me. It’s a lot like it’s always been, more or less. But, it’s 2019, not 1995.
“The thing that I’ve noticed on this particular record cycle is that the time frame is shorter. It’s that thing we talked about, having to make content more rapidly. It feels like the record came out forever ago… it was in May,” he laughs. “That’s the thing about meme culture, it’s that everything is stale like, a month later. And that’s new.”
“Our last record came out in 2011, and that was just starting to happen. And that’s the thing that I’ve had to kind of wrap my head around.”
They have a new home on Polyvinyl, a label that has become a sort of home for wayward bands who still want to create, but have outgrown or moved significantly away from where they first started out. It’s different for them, but that’s okay. “I think the difference in our relationship with Polyvinyl, as opposed to Vagrant which was different, but it was very good… it was treated more like a business partnership. The deal with Polyvinyl is like a 50/50 split. It’s very much like a partnership. They’re into doing whatever we want to do. They’re smart about it. I just want to make songs. How do we do that?”
Even with that evolution in sound, the band found itself challenged on multiple fronts. It’s all been well documented, and that’s not what this is about anyway. Right now, after There Are Rules released 8 years ago, The Get Up Kids’ 6th studio album, Problems, is out. Right now, after 8 years since their last time in Cincinnati, The Get Up Kids are coming back to town.
Older, maybe wiser, it turns out it’s not any easier for him to get back out on the road now that his children are growing up. “For me, being away is the same as it’s been since 2002, when my daughter was born. I don’t like being away from my family. I’m finding that it’s proving to be harder as the kids have gotten older. I actually thought it would get easier, but it’s kind of the opposite of that,” he says, with sincerity.
“I haven’t been away from touring enough in the last 20 years to really miss anything about it. And I’ve been thinking about that, because I always figure I need to write music. That’s something I have to do. But I don’t feel like a need in my soul to perform.” More honesty.
“When I’m home I do not miss being on the road. But I wonder, and I don’t know, but I wonder if I was home for a few years, if the wanderlust would come back,” he says, finishing that thought, pivoting ever so slightly for us to talk about the band coming back to the area after almost 10 years.
The Get Up Kids return to Cincinnati/Newport this Wednesday, December 11th and will be playing The Southgate House Revival. “I’m more excited about going there than I am about some of the other places. I like Cincinnati. I like the whole kind of Ohio/Kentucky/Ohio River area,” he says.
“I can’t hang with your chili, though. I like a lot of different things, and I’ve had it. I tried it, and I just don’t get it.” To each their own, I suppose.
Hembree and Sontalk will be along as support. I’m not sure where they stand on Cincinnati-style chili.
Problems is out now on Polyvinyl Records, and is, coincidentally, one of my favorite albums of the year.
My sincere thanks to Matt for being so gracious with his time and answering a self-described fanboy’s questions.