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.

If I Die, I Wanna Die In The Suburbs: Pop Punk, Suburban Angst and Quarter Life Crises

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The suburbs are a breeding ground for angst and disillusionment, and no other genre of music has captured these feelings or mythologized the suburbs in quite the same way that pop punk has. Given that this style of music has typically been most popular among teens and early twenty-somethings and that the bands themselves often begin as suburban teens, this thematic trend makes perfect sense. From pioneers of the genre like The Descendents to current day pop punk bands like The Wonder Years and Light Years, lyrical themes of alienation, disenchantment and even nostalgia surrounding the suburbs continue to abound. Though I’ve gone through various musical phases in my mostly suburban life, I always seem to cycle back to pop punk in some form or other. It has been a staple in my musical diet from my early teen years all the way through recent quarter-life crises, and it has been inextricably tied to alternating feelings of disenchantment and nostalgia that have surrounded my suburban existence.

My early experiences with pop punk began when I discovered the more “old school” bands that I grew up on and fell in love with in middle school like The Descendents, Blink-182, MxPx, Green Day, and early Saves The Day. I came across these bands at a time when, like most young adolescents, I felt disenfranchised by my hometown and by being somewhat of a misfit in a high achieving, upper-middle class-dominated educational environment. School sucked, kids could be pretty mean, friends were fickle, and times were generally tough. So pop punk bands (as well as 90’s rock greats like Weezer, Nirvana, and the Foo Fighters) provided a much needed refuge from the uncertain and unwelcoming terrain that I was forced to navigate at school.

I grew up in a slightly more working class neighborhood of a very affluent Boston suburb, and the D.I.Y. ethic and sense of camaraderie that characterized the kids in my little enclave went hand in hand with the themes and sentiments commonly expressed in the various sub genres of punk rock. So it was natural that some of my neighborhood friends and I would come to embrace this kind of music in our middle and high school years. In some ways, punk rock, pop punk, and later on, emo, numbed the pain that accompanied my life as a confused, underachieving outcast lost in a sea of privileged overachievers. While they were most likely listening to radio friendly hip hop and mainstream acts like the Dave Matthews Band, I was holed up in my room listening to punk rock records supplemented by a healthy dose of Morrissey.

Fast forward several years, and I’m back in the same suburban town, living with my parents temporarily while I sort out this latest quarter-life crisis and return to grad school. A whole new breed of pop punk bands have emerged and the genre has seen quite a rebirth since my middle school days. While I’m a little pickier about my pop punk than I used to be, bands like The Wonder Years and Light Years have occupied an important niche in my eclectic listening habits. And while my high school escapist habits of occasionally raiding the liquor cabinet, sneaking a cigarette, or smoking pot in the alley behind the coffee shop where I used to work have been replaced mostly by distance running, I feel like I’m still running from my suburban roots, running to escape the town I was born and raised in, running toward an uncertain but still promising and alluring future of living somewhere that feels more like home and finding my life’s purpose after taking all these fascinating detours. As I ran through the streets of my hometown today, three pop punk songs stood out on my playlist, each evoking a quarter life crisis-fueled sense of either angst, disillusionment, or nostalgia as the lyrics came blasting through my headphones:

1.) The Wonder Years- “We Could Die Like This”

Memories flood back like photographs
All bright and out of focus, all drab with muted colors…

Operator, take me home
I don’t know where else to go
I wanna die in the suburbs
A heart attack shoveling snow all alone
If I die, I wanna die in the suburbs

2.) Light Years- “Parking Lots”

Before my past comes crawling back through my front door
I’ll spend the rest of my days and nights
Just hoping for something more

Do you ever miss
the parking lots
we hung out
in the town that we grew up
Not being held responsible
for all of the shit
we used to do

3.) The Swellers- “Parkview”

It’s been four years
And I still don’t know what I’m doing here
My friends settled down
And all I do when I’m home is sleep in

Until then you can watch me shoveling snow
Clearing a path so I’m not walked on anymore
I guess tomorrow it could melt
But I’m not sure
Maybe I’m paralyzed
Haven’t stood up for myself in a long time

I’m not used to the soundtrack of my neighborhood at all…

While each of these songs offers a unique reflection on the suburbs, they all capture a sense of aimlessness and angst that often accompanies suburban life. Each lyricist wrestles with his twenty something suburban existential crisis in his own way. Dan Campbell of The Wonder Years seems to romanticize the suburbs of his youth while simultaneously envisioning his own tragic demise that will someday take place right there. Pat Kennedy of Light Years evokes a more carefree time in his youth as a nostalgic escape from the harsher realities and disappointments that come with adulthood. And Nick Diener of The Swellers describes a situation marked by lethargy and confusion, sleeping in as he remains frozen in the same place, but clearing a path perhaps to make his way toward something better.

As I run past the landscaping trucks parked in front of neatly manicured lawns, schools I once attended that are now being demolished or converted, and once modest ranch homes that are being torn down to make way for huge McMansions, I’m overwhelmed by the sounds of these constant suburban embellishments, and the lyrics “I’m not used to the soundtrack of my neighborhood at all” feel especially relevant. In many ways the place where I grew up has changed dramatically since the 90’s/’00s, as one would expect, but now that I’m living back at home all these years later, I’m experiencing some of the same apathy and angst that I felt in high school. Maybe these “grown up” pop punk bands I’m listening to now will provide me with a little comfort or a brief escape as I run, flooding me with childhood memories and nostalgia for the places I used to hang out. Maybe a year from now the six miles I typically log through these streets as The Swellers stream through my headphones will be just another fond memory, and I will have cleared a path to find a place that fits me better. I’m almost certain it won’t be the suburbs, but I’m pretty sure wherever life takes me, you’ll find me shoveling snow. Let’s just hope that won’t be how I die…

No Sleep Records- “A Comp For Mom”

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No Sleep Records will release a compilation tomorrow called “A Comp For Mom,” to celebrate the life of label founder Chris Hansen’s mother, who recently passed away. The compilation’s 16 tracks are a mix of original songs and covers. Some highlights for me include an unreleased song by The Swellers, a new acoustic song by Major League, a full band version of The Wonder Years’ “Living Room Song,” a solo track by Balance and Composure lead singer Jon Simmons, and an excellent cover of The National’s “Available” by Touché Amoré that showcases lead singer Jeremy Bolm’s “clean” (non-screamy) vocals for the first time ever.

You can stream the entire compilation at Brooklyn Vegan, but I would encourage you to purchase the compilation if you like what you hear, as the proceeds will all go toward medical bills and other expenses incurred after Hansen’s mother’s passing and also to a memorial fund that he has set up in her honor. The tracks are listed below:

A Comp for Mom – tracklist

1. Allison Weiss – In My Life (originally by the Beatles)
2. Daisyhead – Work (originally by Jimmy Eat World)
3. Grey Gordon – Safe (originally by Dag Nasty)
4. Into It. Over It. – For Agnes
5. Jon Simmons – Veins
6. Koji – Matches (live version)
7. La Dispute – First Reactions After Falling Through The Ice
8. Major League – Montreal (acoustic version)
9. Moose Blood – Orlando (2014 version)
10. Now, Now – Neighbors
11. Run Forever – Warmer Weather
12. Sainthood Reps – Occurrent (acoustic version)
13. State Faults – Chin Up (originally by Copeland)
14. The Swellers – Possibilities (unreleased b-side)
15. The Wonder Years – Living Room Song (full band version)
16. Touché Amore – Available (The National cover)

The Swellers/Wolves & Machines cover Nada Surf’s “Paper Boats”

Nick and Jono Diener of the Swellers and Aaron DeVries of Wolves & Machines did a really sweet live cover of Nada Surf’s “Paper Boats” at a recent show in Michigan. It’s an acoustic song that’s definitely more chill and subdued than anything from the Swellers’ catalogue.

Check it out.