- The Get Up Kids: Call them sincere, but don't call them sissies.
It's an accusation that's been on the lips of rock's macho defenders for years. Though these Kansas City youths can kick out the jams with abandon, their punky rush has always been undercut by their sensitivity -- a fact some consider unbecoming among the Y-chromosome set. Even when lead singer Matthew Pryor tells the girl not to take things so seriously, as he does on the group's 1999 Vagrant Records debut, Something to Write Home About, he strains with earnestness. Pryor's pleading, nasal tenor and the band's crashing cymbals, ringing guitars, and fluttering Moog transform punk rock's trouser-dropping assault into the wail of a woman done wrong.
As befits a Get Up Kid, Suptic considers the notion almost seriously: "I think all artists are somewhat feminine. You've got to be in touch with your feminine side a little bit to make art, maybe. Regardless if the music's angry or sad or whatever, it's all about emotions and you getting that across. Maybe that's our problem. Maybe that's the key to selling millions of records. We need to start disrespecting women, doing tons of drugs . . ."
There's good reason Suptic can mock million-sellers. In today's topsy-turvy climate, in which a hit record could break a band as easily as make it, the eight-year-old quintet has found a far better measure of success. According to Devil in a Woodpile magazine, Something to Write Home About has sold about 150,000 copies -- a trifle in a major-label ledger, but enough to make Vagrant one of the most successful indie-rock companies of the last few years. What's more, the album solidified the Get Up Kids' reputation as exemplars of a pop-punk style that's "all about emotions and getting that across": emo.
It's often been noted that the boy-men who lead emo bands probably have done more to draw young female fans to smoky rock clubs than any Estrogen-American fronting a Lilith Fair or riot-grrrl group. But it's also been noted that the bands most closely associated with emo are the ones who most vehemently deny that the style even exists.
For that matter, some musicians who stand outside the style are also dubious. Mac McCaughan, singer-guitarist for Get Up Kids tourmate Superchunk, is an indie-rock icon who helped lay the groundwork on which emo has built its gender-equal hospice. "It's funny, because when [the emo] label started being revived, what I always thought of was Rites of Spring and these D.C. bands from 15 years ago," says McCaughan, speaking by phone from his own successful indie-rock imprint, Merge. "But even then, I thought it was kind of a stupid label. And I'm sure the Get Up Kids are sick of hearing it, too. I mean, it's like any label: It gets started, and you can't really stop it. But often the bands that fall under whatever label don't really care about it."
By now, the Get Up Kids have long since given up the typecasting battle. "I laugh when all these bands say, like 'emo-shmeemo,'" says Suptic. "We don't deny where we came from. We know what our band sounded like when we were 17. But we were 17 years old, you know? And everyone grows up."
Suptic is speaking by cell phone from Denver, the last city on the West Coast leg of the Get Up Kids' tour. Before the band meets up with Superchunk to start its East Coast swing, the 25-year-old guitarist is buying a house and planning his September wedding. It will make him the fourth married member of a group whose eldest partner, keyboard player James DeWees, is all of 26. (Drummer Ryan Pope is the sole bachelor.) If it all suggests the Get Up Kids have grown up fast, their latest album, On a Wire, confirms it. The disc offers the kind of midtempo pop-rock that started aboveground with the Beatles, slipped halfway underground with R.E.M., and nestled there permanently with the Lemonheads.
As Suptic acknowledges, the group knew full well the risk of leaving emo behind: "If we put out a Something to Write Home About, Part II, it would be an easy way to cash in on something that's happening right now in the music industry. But at the same time, to us that would have been selling out. We would have made a dishonest album."
The change is undoubtedly brave, but not entirely successful. On a Wire is shot through with anxiety about the decision to move forward -- "The Worst Idea" and "Hannah Hold On" address it fairly explicitly -- and the group doesn't yet demonstrate the kind of pop-rock mastery that could assuage its worries. If the Get Up Kids have shed emo's punk tumult, they're still mired in the kind of keening sincerity that flattens all sorts of pop.
"Our band has always been sincere," acknowledges Suptic. "And I'm sure we've gotten a lot of shit for being sincere. But . . . I think all good music is sincere -- all the music that really lasts, like the R.E.M.s of the world and U2 and the Beatles."
For that matter, he might have added Superchunk to the list. True, the North Carolina quartet also goes a little too soft on its latest release, Here's to Shutting Up (Merge), an album with fewer surefire hooks than On a Wire. But gems like the uplifting, punky "Art Class (Song for Yayoi Kusama)" still explain how Superchunk has lasted so long. Kusama, the song's subject, is an older Japanese artist who has intrigued McCaughan for years.
"She basically is someone who dedicated her life to art," he explains. "And she's kind of crazy, but she does her art to keep herself from going completely insane. So she's someone who's obviously serious about her art, but at the same time, she's spent a lot of her energy sort of fucking with the art world. You know, like having a bunch of people get naked at MOMA in a fountain. But that was sort of her point: You can do whatever. You can take art as seriously or as not seriously as you want.
"And you can't take yourself too seriously, you know, because that's kind of embarrassing."
The Get Up Kids should know.