Becoming Self-Aware: A Farewell to The Swellers

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Sometimes it takes a band breaking up for you to truly appreciate how special they are and how much of an impact they’ve had on your life. Such was the case with bands like Thrice and Moving Mountains a couple years back, and such is case with The Swellers now. All three are examples of bands that weren’t really on my radar until a little later in their career and didn’t truly become favorites until they were almost ready to call it quits.

I discovered Thrice a little late in the game, during my junior year of college when they released Vheissu, and their early work never resonated with me quite as much as their last few albums. Their music was present in my college and post-collegiate years, but never in the captivating, all-consuming way that other post-hardcore/emo acts like Thursday and Taking Back Sunday were. After putting Thrice on the back burner for a few years, I became blown away by their last LP Major/Minor and subsequently started to appreciate their back catalog even more. And then about a year later, they announced their farewell tour, which I was lucky enough to see in two cities. I had a similar experience with Moving Mountains; I stumbled upon them a little later in their career, when they opened for Thrice (oddly enough) in 2011. While I was never a huge fan of their post-rock heavy debut Pneuma their last two LPs have now taken their rank among my favorite albums of all time.

As far as The Swellers, they’re a band I’ve liked quite a bit since I first saw them open for Paramore back in 2009. Much like Thrice, their music had a pretty decent presence in my mid-late 20’s, but for whatever reason their albums never quite made the transition into heavy rotation on my turntable. That all changed when I heard The Light Under Closed Doors for the first time last year on a road trip through New England and New York that involved me meeting up with friends and seeing Taking Back Sunday play in five different cities. The hundreds of miles I drove that week were soundtracked almost exclusively by The Swellers, Saves The Day, and of course Taking Back Sunday. I developed a deep appreciation for The Light Under Closed Doors; “Big Hearts” served up an instant shot of nostalgia, hope, and joy at a time when I was getting hit pretty hard by what I like to call my “quarter-life crisis, part deux,” “Becoming Self-Aware” quickly became one of my personal anthems, and “Call It A Night” honestly made me weep. When I arrived at my last destination on the trip—Portland, Maine—I immediately drove to one of my favorite record stores and purchased the album on vinyl. It has definitely been in pretty heavy rotation ever since.

Right before I went on my TBS road trip and rediscovered the Swellers, I reconnected with another thing from my past that I had kind of abandoned: long-distance running. After dabbling in cross country during my high school and early college years, I set goals to train for longer races in my mid-20’s, which ultimately led to injury and burnout. Then, after practicing yoga for a few years, I developed a renewed sense of appreciation and ease with running longer distances, which were always set perfectly to long pop punk/emo playlists of the Saves The Day/Taking Back Sunday variety. I’m especially particular about the tempo of the songs I run to; I need something to both inspire me and keep me going at a steady pace. So after my long road trip, I decided to try running to some Swellers songs, and the rest is history.

I’m not sure if it was the songs themselves, the fact that I interspersed them with songs from another one of my favorite bands—Weezer—or the sense of freedom and rejuvenation I felt after taking that much needed break from life to go on the open roads, but I was running faster and longer without the feelings of burnout, strain, or defeat that had always plagued me. I ran to my Swellers/Weezer playlist for weeks on end until I did what I had always thought of as the impossible: complete a full 13.1 miles. I’d like to think that the familiarity and personal connections I had with the songs— especially those on The Light Behind Closed Doors— and the feelings of pure joy and exhilaration I felt from associating them with my long drives across New England were what encouraged me to literally go the extra mile to achieve my goal.

A few days after I finished my own personal half marathon, I learned that The Swellers had decided to break up and were planning a farewell tour. Even though I had only been to two of their shows and felt like more of a casual fan than a diehard supporter, I was hit by a wave of loss and sadness when I heard the news. Their music had only recently made a significant personal impact on me, and now I would only have one last chance to see them perform. I’ve seen a fair number of bands from my teenage and college years break up, and I’ve gotten teary-eyed at several farewell shows, but perhaps because of the particular place I’m at in my life right now, this farewell felt more bittersweet than usual.

The band’s decision to break up coincided with my decision to transition out of a full-time career I had been immersed in for the last four years. I was working as an independent contractor, teaching yoga to adults and children, and the struggle to make ends meet without burning out became too much. I had experienced an intense moment of clarity during that recent long-distance run when “Becoming Self-Aware” popped up on the playlist. I realized that while I will always feel grateful for the freedom and flexibility my career offered me and the amazing people I met in the many classes and workshops I taught over the years, I was no longer in love with the work I was doing and needed to move on. Shortly after making this decision I read an article by The Swellers’ drummer, Jonathan Diener about the challenges of being in a mid-level band, and I drew a lot of personal connections to their struggles on the business end of things. Even though I had experienced a brief, blissful period of “selling out” my classes at a big corporate yoga studio chain—akin to a major record label in some ways—I was pretty much always a mid-level yoga instructor. Much like a band who tours extensively, I put far too many miles on my car and too much wear and tear on my general well being teaching too many classes just to pay the bills. This simply wasn’t something I could do full-time through my 30’s. And while it felt like a relief in many ways to give up several of my classes, it was a bittersweet departure. Months later, I’m still at a bit of a crossroads, caught between careers, working part-time jobs and attending school part time, but still very much hopeful and optimistic for whatever my next step might be.

A few days before I saw The Swellers on their farewell tour I took a mini road trip up to Portland, Maine to fill out grad school applications and write my personal statement. I needed the time on the road and the change of venue to clear my head, and Portland seemed like the perfect place, since I’ve considered it my home away from home for years. It was also the place where I bought The Light Under Closed Doors on my last major road trip, so it felt extra symbolic. A good friend of mine teaches yoga in the city, so I took her class in the morning, which was honestly the first positive, bullshit-free yoga experience I’ve had since stepping away from my full-time job as an instructor. After class I sat at my all-time favorite cafe, just down the street from my favorite record store, and the many words and paragraphs of my personal statement just came pouring out. The process of writing that essay helped put my past in perspective and calmed many of my fears and anxieties about whatever my future might bring.

I put the finishing touches on my essay just hours before seeing the Swellers play at a unique venue just two doors down from the apartment where I said goodbye to my 20’s not too long ago. It was like VFW Hall meets old school Italian Wedding Hall, and perhaps due to its oddly charming, DIY/celebratory ambience, it just felt like the perfect setting to bid farewell to a band that always did things themselves and persevered despite never quite becoming a household name or selling out a tour. I went to the show with my brother, his girlfriend, and one of my best friends who also recently quit her full-time yoga gig. Each member of our group is currently in a weird transitional place in life; like the members in the band, we are getting ready to say goodbye to certain things that just aren’t working for us anymore, and we’re optimistically bracing for the changes we’re about to face.

While at first I was overcome by nostalgia for the carefree, post-collegiate life I lived right down the street from the venue, and then by a grim, depressing feeling that my younger, happier days were behind me and that it would all be downhill from here, that feeling changed when The Swellers took the stage. They plowed through a pretty impressive, comprehensive playlist with a genuine gratitude for their fans and a love for their work. The energy with which they played began to transform my woeful pessimism into mindful positivity. I’m mindful about the fact that it will be challenging to switch careers, move to a new city, and return to school in my early 30’s, but I’m trying to maintain a positive outlook, and I know that these challenges will all be for my benefit.

I’m sure each member of The Swellers will find some success and happiness in whatever their next adventure might bring them, and to loosely quote one of their most memorable songs, I’m sure they’re “on [their] way to better things.” Their music re-entered my life at the perfect moment, and it played an important role in guiding me toward some better things for my future. While I didn’t get to personally say goodbye or thank them after the show, I’m truly grateful for this band and for what they’ve created. And the fact that I got to see them play one last time at such a pivotal point in my life made me happier than I could have imagined.

15 Albums That Turned 15 This Year (Part 1 of 2)

1.) Piebald- If It Weren’t For Venetian Blinds, It Would Be Curtains For Us All

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The odd time signatures and creative song compositions that characterize this album make it one of the more memorable, compelling releases from the late 90’s emo era. Piebald were always different than other bands who got lumped into that amorphous “emo” category in that they never seemed to take themselves too seriously. Although they definitely did show us their serious, emotive side at times, their lyricism and delivery were generally more playful and humorous than that of their “heart on your sleeve” confessional emo peers, which provided a refreshing counterbalance to the emotionally heavy stuff I tended to listen to in my high school years.

2.) Saves The Day- Through Being Cool

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Full of incredibly catchy riffs, soaring choruses, and impassioned teenage poetry-style lyrics, no other album captures that angsty, youthful essence quite like Through Being Cool. From the power chords that kick off the album’s opening track “All Star Me,” to the “Whoa!”s of “Banned From The Back Porch” that bring the album to a dramatic, crash-and-burn close, this is an album that relentlessly rocks out all the way to the finish line. With this legendary LP, Saves The Day provided a blueprint for the waves of of pop punk and emo bands that would follow in its wake.

3.) The Get Up Kids- Something To Write Home About

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Combining irresistibly catchy melodies with powerful, pensive lyrics and sprinkling in some sweet, synthy ear candy to boot, Matt Pryor and company came up with a winning formula that made this album truly live up to its title. It seamlessly transitions between emo anthems that rock out with a gloriously bouncy fervor and tender ballads that leave an even more poignant imprint on teenage hearts everywhere. I challenge you to resist tapping out the opening drum beats to “Ten Minutes” and “I’m A Loner, Dottie, A Rebel,” and to keep a dry eye throughout the closing track, “I’ll Catch You.”

4.) Jimmy Eat World- Clarity

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Revered by longtime fans from the band’s late 90’s heyday as well as a whole host of younger fans and countless bands who emerged during emo’s “third wave” and beyond, the influence of Jimmy Eat World’s Clarity spans wide and far. This is somewhat odd for an album that was considered a commercial failure upon its release and which led to the band getting dropped from Capitol Records; it’s a little like Weezer’s Pinkerton in this way. And because I tend to place Jimmy Eat World and Weezer in the same listening category (super catchy, melodic, power pop-style rock), I equate Clarity with Pinkerton and Bleed American with “The Green Album.” The former albums are somewhat more rough around the edges and confessional in nature, whereas the latter offer more polished, straight up power pop with at least one obvious radio hit. I’ll listen to tracks from Bleed American when I want something fun, uplifting, and amped up, but I’ll play on Clarity from start to finish when I’m feeling the need to become completely immersed in a tenderly melodic, melancholic album.

5.) American Football- Self-Titled

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If I were asked to nominate one piece of work as the quintessential melancholic/contemplative emo album, American Football’s self-titled debut (and only full length album) would get my immediate vote. More nuanced and subtle than most of the work being produced by their peers at the time, this album was a bit of a departure in terms of my listening preferences during my high school days. I was accustomed to the more driving power pop and pop punk influenced sounds of all the aforementioned bands in this list, so the more delicate, but still raw and angsty stylings of American Football came as a pleasantly alluring surprise. Their combination of jazzy dissonance, ornately sparkling melodies, and roughly hewn vocals that shifted from sweetly lulling to intensely anguished captivated me like nothing I had heard before. Aside from getting all nostalgic and teary every time I hear the album’s opening tracks, “Never Meant” and “The Summer Ends,” I hear hints of its influence in several “modern emo” bands, from Into It, Over It and You Blew It! to Prawn and The Hotelier.

6.) Dismemberment Plan- Emergency & I

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In many ways, this album changed the way I listen to and think about music. It was unlike anything I had ever heard before, but it recalled elements of the Pixies and Weezer, among other bands. In fact, I think I described them to a friend in high school as “The Pixies meet Weezer, on speed.” As a kid raised almost entirely on pop punk and emo, Emergency & I might have been the first truly “genre defying” album I purchased and subsequently fell in love with. From the oddly intriguing synth bass and falsetto vocals that kick off the opening track, “A Life of Possibilities,” to the beautifully frenetic mess of sounds and rhythms that is “Memory Machine,” to the hypnotically pulsating, Talking Heads-esque closing anthem, “8 1/2 minutes,” this whole album is a relentless tour de force of delightful, otherworldly sonic pleasures. And fifteen years later it still manages to sound surprisingly fresh, relevant, and unrivaled in terms of its quirky innovation.

7.) Pinback- Self-Titled

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I discovered Pinback shortly after I became a huge fan of the Dismemberment Plan. They were another band that appealed to my “emo” sensibilities, but managed to sound different from almost everything else I was listening to at the time. They were like Sunny Day Real Estate’s more lighthearted, playful cousin or a more chill, melancholy counterpart to bands like Modest Mouse and The Dismemberment Plan. And their self-titled debut album was what I would listen to when I needed to chill out during my teenage and college years. Its songs were uniquely structured, layered and compelling enough to be considered catchy, but carefree and breezy enough to also be considered soothing. Much like Emergency & I, this album continues to sound fresh and innovative fifteen years after its release. It manages to draw me so deeply into its bittersweet abyss of darkly soothing vocals and simple but otherworldly beats and hooks that I discover something new to latch onto with every listen.

8.) Modest Mouse- Building Nothing Out Of Something

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Well before Modest Mouse scored a not-so-modest radio hit with “Float On” in 2004, they were putting out messy, angst-ridden gems with cryptic lyrics like “Never Ending Math Equation” and spaced out, sprawling, contemplative indie-rock-punk jams like “Interstate 8,” the first two tracks on Building Nothing Out Of Something. This collection of tracks is less of an album and more of a collection of B-Sides songs from previously released EP’s, but the songs are of such a high caliber and flow so well that I’ve always considered this my favorite Modest Mouse album. The songs span the spectrum from super Lo-Fi and bleak (“Grey Ice Water”) to insanely catchy, repetitive, and sophomoric (“All Nite Diner”). Even the seemingly quieter, more introspective tracks are tempered with the playful, angsty intensity that makes this band so unique. While I have a deep appreciation for the band’s entire catalog and still enjoy listening to their more commercially successful later albums, this wonderfully sloppy collection of earlier tracks has always remained my go-to selection when I’m in the mood for some Mouse.