This Is Your Life: The Get Up Kids

Laura Leebove

By Laura Leebove

Managing Editor
on 01.24.11 in Spotlights

In 2010, I heard Superchunk for the first time — or for what I thought was the first time. My immediate reactions were, in this order: “Oh my god, this is amazing,” “Why didn’t I know and love this band in high school?” and “Whoa, now I know where the Get Up Kids came from — Matt Pryor sounds an awful lot like Mac McCaughan.” Then, while researching for my interview with Pryor, I read Superchunk drummer Jon Wurster’s tour diary and found out that I actually saw Superchunk live in 2002, the summer after my freshman year in high school — opening for the Get Up Kids. It’s not a surprise that when I told Pryor this story, his response was, “Well, yeah, I’ve only been copping Mac’s vocal style for 15 years!”

From their start in the mid ’90s, the Get Up Kids were heavily influenced by the likes of Superchunk, Fugazi and Drive Like Jehu. In the same way that Superchunk’s pioneering indie rock soundtracked the tumultuous high school years of teens in the ’90s, the Get Up Kids ‘confessional, heart-on-sleeve take on pop-punk — which, yes, often got classified as “emo” — did the same for kids in the later half of that decade, right up until the band’s breakup in 2005.

In 2009, the Kansas City, Mo., group celebrated the 10th anniversary of their touchstone album, Something to Write Home About, and with a remastered edition of that record came the announcement of a reunion tour. Fast-forward a year or so to There Are Rules, their first collection of new music since 2004′s Guilt Show. In the past five years, bassist Rob Pope has joined Spoon, keyboardist James DeWees has been playing with My Chemical Romance, and Pryor has continued with his band the New Amsterdams, worked on his children’s music project Terrible Twos, and also released his first record under his own name.

Rules will likely surprise longtime Get Up Kids fans: The lyrics require interpretation, with more allusions to religion (“Tithe,” “The Widow Paris”) and others ‘wrongdoings (“Better Lie,” “Rally ‘Round the Fool”) than unrequited love a la “Forgive and Forget” and “My Apology.” The songs are high-energy and experimental, more contained and mature than the angst-driven frenzy of their first few releases. The start of the set’s best track, “Regent’s Court,” is reminiscent of the Strokes, with punchy guitars alternating with a buzzing synth line; “Shatter Your Lungs” doesn’t even use guitars, but instead relies on warped electronics and drums.

During his stop in Brooklyn for the Where’s The Band? tour (with the frontmen of Thrice, Saves the Day and Bayside), I sat down with Pryor to chat about the new record and play him a few songs that span the Kids ‘(and his own) career.

The Get Up Kids, “Shorty” (Eudora — song originally released as a 7-inch in 1996)

This was your first single, right?

Yeah — is this the version from the 7-inch or the version from the album?

This is the one that’s on Eudora, so, the single. So you switched labels a couple times since the band started making music, but what was it like trying to choose a label for the first time?

There was a guy in Lincoln, Nebraska…this guy, Mike Mogis, who does Bright Eyes and stuff now — he would charge you by the song instead of by the hour — so it was like 300 bucks, we could drive up to Lincoln, three hours away, the van broke down on the way there…We put it out ourselves and then mailed 7-inches to everybody that we could possibly think of. I don’t think we had any intention of where we wanted to be, necessarily. We had the Musician’s Guide to Touring and Promotion and just sent ‘em all off, and Doghouse was the first one that got back to us. So we waited. We sat on that for a while, got a bunch of rejection letters from Warner Bros. and then yeah, they were just kinda the only game in town, really.

Did it mean anything to you at all that the label was also based in the Midwest?

No, I don’t think so. It was just kind of — Ohio’s weird. I don’t know that I’d consider Ohio part of the Midwest, but that’s just kind of a personal prejudice. But no, we just wanted somebody to put our records out.

Now you’re releasing There Are Rules on your own label. What’s changed the most about selling records since you started making music? Why doesn’t it matter for you to be signed to someone else’s label?

It’s all your perspective. It’s all what you want to achieve, you know? You’ve always been able to put out your own records. It’s just a matter of whether or not you want to do that side of the business, or if you just want to only focus on your artistic side with someone else countin ‘the beans. So I don’t think it’s changed so much. I mean, obviously the music industry’s changed quite significantly — your company wasn’t even around. If anything it’s a lot more viable option for people.

Do you feel like you have to do more in terms of marketing or anything different to get the record out there?

Well, yeah. But that’s just kind of the evolution of the industry. It’s not worrying so much about print ads, it’s more about leaking it to blogs and doing banner ads online and web promotions. The internet changed everything. But it’s still the same — it’s like, I need to tell this person that the record’s coming out, and they tell this larger group of people and they tell this larger group of people, and hopefully it goes exponentially from there if all goes according to plan.

The Get Up Kids, “Ten Minutes” (Something to Write Home About)

This was the last song the band played at the last show in 2005. Why this one?

We close with it a lot. It’s a driving song, it’s a party song — everyone goes nuts. It was kinda like, “Do you want to go out with a ballad or do you want to go out with a party?” And it was “Let’s go out with a party.” So that’s why. It’s a fun song. There ended up being, like, 45 people on stage by the time the song was over.

Was it the 10th anniversary of Something to Write Home About that got the band talking about getting back together?

It was actually kind of the other way around. We were all at the same show and we all went out for a beer afterward, and it was kind of like enough time had passed and enough weight had lifted that it was like, “Oh yeah, we don’t have to be weird around each other anymore, we can just be friends.” And we started kicking around the idea, and it was like, “We gotta have a reason to do it.” Which is stupid — we don’t have to have a reason to do anything, but it was like, “OK, so it’ll be getting back together because of the reissue.” That was the whole plan. So it’s gone well. It’s been evolving since then.

What do you have to do to make these songs that are 10 years old still seem fresh to you? Do you have to think about them any differently?

No, because I think performing them, you’re really just going off of the vibe of the audience and of the band itself, and the old songs that we do play are strategically chosen so that if we’re gonna play something we’re sick of, it’s gotta be something we know the crowd is gonna go nuts for. If we’re gonna play something that we’re sick of that everybody’s kinda “Meh” about, that’s not worth it — I’d rather play one of the new songs. I don’t think about what the songs are about when we play them. I feel like that burden has been lifted and that we focus on having the energy and having a good time and having this living organism that is a rock show and the audience being positive.

In an interview you did around the time when the album came out, you said you didn’t think the “emo movement” was going to be anything monumental, looking back on it. Now that it’s been so long do you feel like, regardless of whether you guys being grouped into it or not —

It’s kind of interesting because on this tour [with Thrice's Dustin Kensrue, Saves the Day's Chris Conley and Bayside's Anthony Raneri] we’ve been discussing this. Everyone else either grew up on the East Coast or southern California and I think the concept of a scene or of a movement or whatever was much stronger with them than it was with us. Our scene, our sound was literally the five of us in our van. And it was kinda like us against the world all the time, and so getting lumped in with anything else is sort of irrelevant to us, and it’s nice to be cited as an influence, I guess, because it’s kind of a level of respect, but it’s not really important to me.

With the tour right now, since the guys from these other three bands have been making music through the same time when the Get Up Kids were the most active, what was the idea behind the tour? I know you did it a couple years ago also.

Well, [Chris] Conley [of Saves the Day] and I have done shows together before and we all have the same booking agent, so it was kind of like, hey, see if it works. And then it’s really fun. It’s not like any other tour I’ve ever done because it’s just the four of us in the van and we all have very different perspectives on songwriting and the business side of things and the universe at large, but we’re all very intensely opinionated people, so it’s a good debate.

The Get Up Kids, “Wish You Were Here” (On A Wire)

You’ve said before that bands like Wilco have been an influence for you and I feel like that comes through in this song in particular. I don’t think before On A Wire came out that a lot of Get Up Kids fans were expecting to hear anything that was influenced by a band like Wilco.

At the time we were just sick of what we were doing. We felt like we were getting stale and getting formulaic, like we would do covers and just be like, “All right, here’s where we do the part that we did in ‘Action & Action,’” and so we just wanted to do something different and wanted to embrace all the facets of the things we were listening to. And it’s not just Wilco, it’s going back and getting more into the Kinks and the Beatles and the Stones and just wanting to be like, we can still be a rock band, we can be all-encompassing if we want to. I think we assumed everybody else was on that same plane with us, that they were all gonna be like, “That’s so cool, you’re doing something different, but it’s still good.” I think we could’ve done it better — we could’ve spoon-fed it a little better. We were very much like, “Well, this is what we are — fuck you!” And I think if we had kinda been like, “Look, this is the direction we’re going in, let’s make a transition there…”

It’s interesting. Going back and listening to that record recently, I feel like I get it a lot more now than when it came out.

I used to say it’s a “way-homer”: You don’t get it till the way home.

In an interview around when Wire came out, [keyboardist] James [Dewees] had described the songs as being not structurally different from the band’s earlier music — they were just more or less being played differently, with different instruments and whatnot. Do you feel like that’s what you guys did with There Are Rules, too?

No. The structure of There Are Rules is — there were no songs predating [the recording process]. From our first record, the stuff we did on Doghouse was more like what we’re doing now, where we’d all be in a room and just jam out ideas, like anything that came to mind. And it’s really confusing, it’s really loud and it’s really irritating — until it clicks, and then it’s awesome. For all the records that were in the middle there, primarily I or Jim or sometimes one of the other guys would come in with completed songs, and it was like, “This is the song that I wrote, what do you think?” And that was how the band took something that I would just play by myself, and make it into what it is. But yeah, with Wire really, we kinda just went on this path where we wanted to do something different and I don’t think we necessarily intended it to sound as twangy as it does, but at the time it didn’t seem like that weird of an idea.

It’s a good record.

I don’t think it’s our strongest work front to back, but I think that there are a handful of songs on that record that are some of the best songs we’ve ever written before or since. So you take “Overdue” — that’s one of my favorite songs I’ve ever written in my entire life, but there’s some filler crap on the record, too.

Matt Pryor, “Confidence Man” (Confidence Man)

I keep forgetting about that keyboard part at the beginning.

You released this album under your own name — why did you decide to do that instead of making another New Amsterdams record around that time?

I get really hung up on semantics and I was starting to feel like the New Amsterdams were sounding like a band and I wanted to do something that was just me and that was just kind of logistically easier for me to recreate live. ‘Cause the last New Ams record we did has a lot of stuff on it, and it sounds its best when t here’s at least six to eight people on stage, which is just too heavy a financial burden to maintain for that band. I don’t think anybody cared but me, it just seemed like it was a more grown-up way to release a quieter record, to have it be more of a singer-songwriter [kind of thing]. There’s a big thing with bands that I’ll get compared to on the acoustic side where you don’t actually perform under your own name, you come up with the band name even if it’s just you. The only reason I never did that in the first place was that I just felt kinda awkward about it, and I still do, but you get used to it, just like anything else.

Are you planning on releasing more with New Amsterdams or doing another solo record eventually?

We’ve done a handful of New Ams sessions. It’s so scattered and I’m so busy with everything else that it’s hard to tie everything down. Over the winter, before the Get Up Kids tour starts, I’m gonna write and record another solo record. I wanna do the, go to a cabin for a month and just hole up, and it’ll probably be a bummer. It’ll just be a bummer record.

Most records that are made while holed up in a cabin are! What do you get out of doing these other projects that you weren’t getting out of work with the Get Up Kids?

I think variety, primarily. I think I’m a better songwriter for working with different people on different projects. You can’t help but learn something from them. One of the things I really liked about the New Ams stuff is I learned how to make something sound big, even if it’s not loud. Like it doesn’t have to be four guitar tracks turned up to 11; it can literally be a cello and a pedal steel and it can still swell up so big. That was a necessary thing for me. Now I’m trying to learn how to be even quieter than that but still project it.

The Get Up Kids, “Regent’s Court” (There Are Rules)

That’s my favorite song on the record.

I think it might be mine, too.

It was the last song we wrote and it was literally, like, “OK, I have to leave in an hour to go pick my kids up from school. Let’s just try it.” And we wrote the basic arrangement of it and did a scratch take where I was just singing gibberish over it, and then James and Rob and Ryan kind of did the bass and drums and keys and some of the guitars, so it was very [snaps] there it is. The lyrics took a little while but that was how that whole record was written. That one just happened to be under extreme pressure.

You just got together and wrote them all at once, pretty much?

It was in batches over the last year. We started last June and we did nine songs then, then we would do three more three-song batches after that.

What was the first one you wrote back together?

It’s not on the record. It’s called “Neverending” and it’s finished, it’s all recorded. I’m sure it’ll come up somewhere, but I kept saying it’s kinda like the first pancake. You know when you’re making pancakes and you always fuck up the first one? It’s still edible, but you don’t want to make somebody pay for it? I wanna change the name of the song to “The First Pancake.”

People will understand. Everybody in the band has been involved in so many other projects that are very different, like Rob in Spoon and James in My Chemical Romance. How did everybody’s respective projects influence the writing and recording?

I would say that Spoon’s influence is probably just in the analog aesthetic of stuff. We did the whole record to tape, we didn’t use any computers on it hardly at all — just a little bit of mixing on computers — ’cause I think it’s just become ingrained in Rob’s head that that’s a better way to do things.

And that’s not what you’ve done in the past?

It’s not what we haven’t done — we haven’t done the last couple things that way. It’s not that big of a deal to me, but it’s something he’s really passionate about, so it’s like, OK, that’s cool, trying to handicap yourself to see what you can come up with. But I think we have to find the common ground, and oftentimes that’s like, Fugazi and Drive like Jehu, Superchunk — bands that we all came up listening to together, before we started to branch out. We had a couple of things we knew we didn’t wanna do. We knew we wanted it to be a rock record, but nothing was off the table. Hell, that “Shatter Your Lungs” song doesn’t even have any guitar in it at all.

That’s a change.

Nothing [on guitar] was making it better. Who gives a — it sounds good. It doesn’t matter. We’ll find something for [Jim] to do on stage, he can play a tambourine or something [laughs].