"I honestly never thought they were going to be big," admits David "Cornbread" Brown, host of a weekly St. Louis radio show. "Then I went to that last show that they did as Big Blue Monkey, and it was freaking amazing. The place was absolutely packed, the kids were so into it, and I was just like, 'Wow, these guys really are going to make it.'"
The group in question would soon rechristen itself Story of the Year. Composed of five St. Louis twentysomethings, the still-unsigned band offset questionable nü-metal leanings with a Jackass-style promo video and frenetic live shows featuring backflips 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."
Story of the Year subsequently moved to the West Coast, signed with Maverick Records, and -- with its 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 are over 800,000. But last October's follow-up, In the Wake of Determination, has yet to move 150,000 copies, raising the question: What happened? And is the entire screamo genre heading the way of the '80s metal SOTY grew up on?
In the eyes of Adair vocalist Rob Tweedie, Story of the Year's national success gave smaller midwestern bands "a little light of hope that it's possible to achieve what you're looking for." Sophomore guitarist Nathan Hall, whose quartet is signed to SOTY guitarist Phil Sneed's burgeoning Royal Crest Records, echoes Tweedie's optimism.
"None of the A&R people want to come out to the Midwest," says Hall. "Though there are a couple of Midwest bands -- Fall Out Boy is from Chicago and Hawthorne Heights from [Dayton] Ohio -- it's been a good thing to see some Midwest bands not only make it, but they're setting trends now, mainstreamwise."
It's easy to forget that Story of the Year was one of the first screamo bands to taste mainstream success, but initial rushes are often followed by crashing returns to reality. Brown suggests that Story of the Year's dynamic concerts will help it outlast its imitators.
These concerts, in fact, indirectly led them to a record deal. When SOTY opened that 2002 show, the bandmates busied themselves distributing copies of their infamous gonzo video to other bands. A few copies found their way onto Goldfinger's tour bus and into the hands of vocalist 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."
Feldmann had previously discovered Utah screamo pioneer the Used and produced its 2002 self-titled debut. Both bands ultimately toured with Goldfinger, headlined the annual summer Warped Tour, appeared on numerous magazine covers, and had videos in heavy MTV rotation.
At the same time, online and print rumors begin to circulate, indicating that SOTY was unhappy with the album that brought it 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 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 airplay, it remains to be seen whether SOTY and the sound it helped create will fall victim to consumer whims. (Within the screamo realm itself, San Diego's Finch recently broke up, and New Jersey's Thursday publicly contemplated doing the same after disappointing sales of its 2003 major-label debut. Meanwhile, though the Used's second album was certified gold a year ago, it has sold only about 150,000 copies since.)
"I don't see that it's a dying genre, but it does change every year," says Cornbread. "I feel they should have gone back to Feldmann for their second record. Maybe on their third, they should have done the record they just put out, because there's not much longevity in the business, no matter who you are."
"If you try and jump scenes to what's trendy now, and if you're so worried about what two or three 14-year-old emo kids are talking about on MySpace, it's never going to work," says Feldmann. "You always have to be true to yourself, and it has to be about the songs.
"The bottom line is, as far as Story of the Year goes, I love that band. 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."