Blame It on Braid
"This is a scrapbook that I started keeping," Todd Bell explains to the video camera. He's sitting at a kitchen table, thumbing through pages with the kind of unfettered nostalgia usually reserved for high school football stories or John Mellencamp tunes. His old buddies are gathered round, pointing at the pictures. "That's me, Todd, Pete " They're talking about their old band, Braid. Talking about the glory days.
A minute later, Killing a Camera, the recently released Braid DVD, is revisiting those glory days. Four sweat-soaked dudes scream and flail through anthemic rockers under the magnanimous lights of a Chicago club. The show, from August 1999, is inspiring and intense. Even though it wasn't that long ago, it seems like a different era. The performances on the film make the case that for at least one August night five years ago, Braid was the most important band on the planet.
But when it flashes to 2004, revealing the band's members to be a little older, balder and rounder, it's obviously a different time, a different place. Drummer Damian Atkinson and bassist Bell reminisce. Singing guitarists Chris Broach and Bob Nanna reflect on the poignancy of their rock. In short, they tell you that they were the most important band on the planet.
Maybe they were. For the uninitiated, Braid is widely considered to be a forefather of the strain of post-punk called emo (maybe you've heard of it). In the mid-'90s, bands like Braid, Cap'n Jazz and the Get Up Kids paraded the sub-subgenre through DIY basement shows and VFW halls. Like hip-hop, it wasn't just music, it was a lifestyle. The soundtrack was about nervy sincerity and discordant guitars; the fans were about confessional blog entries and backpack straps adorned with colorful little buttons. In the late '90s, disciples of the movement rose from the fertile soil of the Midwest like so many ears of corn. Soon there were bands all over the country that, like Braid, employed Fugazi's aggro complexity to sing about getting dumped.
But then something terrible happened. Emo got ugly.
What was initially a brand of music whose very name implied sincere expression had morphed into slick, paint-by-numbers mall Muzak. In short, emo sold out. Today, admitting you were an emo kid is like admitting you were a candy raver. Most prefer not to talk about it.
When Nanna gets on the other end of the phone line, you have to ask him: What's it like to get credit for spawning the emo monster?
"I guess it is kind of flattering, but I can't take it too seriously," he says. "When we were playing back then, we were just trying to do what everyone does, to play something new and challenging. But we weren't trying to get a new genre up and running. And it wasn't as if the term didn't exist; we thought of all our favorite bands as emo bands. Not the bad emo bands you think of today, but bands like Jawbox, Hoover and Lincoln, that were into this challenging guitar work and personal lyrics. We were just copping that stuff from other bands, and maybe we just got it out to more people."
But here's the rub: When Braid was inventing a genre that would soon take over the world, the band didn't get it out to that many people. That happened later, after the breakup. The sold-out performances of the band's last hurrah on Killing a Camera were far more the exception than the rule.
"Even though we broke up at the height of our popularity, probably most people who know Braid have gotten acquainted with our music in the last five years," Nanna admits. "When we sold out [in 1999], it blew our minds. When we sold out this [last] time, I kind of expected it to happen. It feels good to see young kids responding to music that we wrote a long time ago."
These young kids include Jessica, the Braidiac from New Jersey whose profile can be found on Braid's fan page (carouselandsold.com/). She's a member of "Braided," an online chat community dedicated to Braid that's made up of about 200 fans in more than 50 countries. Average age: 19. Jessica's favorite songs are "Capricorn" and "Hugs from Boys," which were recorded when she was six years old.
How does a band get big with the kids after it breaks up? Nanna credits lip service from Braid disciples, including new fans to his own project, Hey Mercedes, which he started with three of the four members of Braid (black sheep Broach went on to form the Firebird Band). "Someone will introduce someone else to Hey Mercedes, they'll say that we were all in Braid and we started the whole emo thing, and that person will get interested in the old stuff."
The record sales prove it. Braid's final proper release, Frame and Canvas, has sold more than 16,000 copies, bettering the most recent Hey Mercedes full-length, Loses Control, by about three grand. But in 2004, the "emo thing" that Nanna fathered with Braid has a different flavor than it did back then. Today, emo bands don't play basements; they ink big-time record deals with suits looking for the next sensitive superstars who can bring in the crossover cash, like Jimmy Eat World or Dashboard Confessional.
"Today the scene of bands is not about what we were about," Nanna says. "Newer bands aren't concerned with playing basements; they want to be immediately playing to a lot of people and MTV and sponsors. It's unfortunate. If I could talk to some of these bands, I'd tell them to go play some shows. That whole idea of the $5 basement show and VFW-hall happening is dying."
But don't expect that the Braid reunion to bring those traditions back from the grave. The Braid of 2004 takes more cues from the fiscally minded purveyors of emo nuevo than the DIY innocence of yore. Tickets for Braid's stop at Fat Cat's are $12, not $5. The first three shows of the reunion tour sold out.
"A lot of things have changed since we started up ten years ago, but a lot is just the same," Nanna says. "We've played 537 shows, and half of them I could tell stories about something cool or interesting that happened. A lot of the old-school fans don't come to shows anymore, but there are newer fans. And it's good to play these old songs to new people, to share the experience of what we were trying to do back then and see how it still affects people today."
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