Breaking Down Two Decades of H2O with Bassist Adam Blake

H20 singer Toby Morse conducts the choir.
H20 singer Toby Morse conducts the choir.
Photo courtesy of Adam Blake

It can’t be 20 years already for H2O, can it? How time flies in between stage dives and microphone grabs. Nobody could have predicted that the smilin’ New York hardcore band would still be pumping out the breakdowns two decades later back when the group was just a one-song experiment by Sick of it All roadie Toby Morse and friends. But H2O quickly built a reputation for high-intensity live shows that would eventually take the group around the world. This Sunday, the group struts into Walters on their 20th anniversary tour, their place in the NYHC pantheon long since secured.

Bassist Adam Blake is the new guy in the group — he’s only been in the band for a paltry 19 years. But he was around from the very beginning, and right from the start, he says, there was something different about H2O.

“I had finished with my previous band, which was a band called Shelter, and I remember I would watch H2O because we would play shows with them,” Blake says. “I just loved the vibe of it. It was so positive and so fun.

“At that point, there was really a lot of ‘tough-guy’ bands, you know?” he continues. “It was all about who could be the meanest, who could be the hardest, and I never really connected with any of that. That stuff was never something I really liked. I liked metal, but I didn’t like that in hardcore. It was great to see a band that wasn’t in any way, shape or form influenced by that.”

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H2O’s resolutely positive mental attitude and crunchy, upbeat tunes made the band a comfortable fit for the pop-punk explosion of the late ‘90s and early 2000s. Quickly, the group found themselves at the forefront of a new, more melodic style of hardcore punk, allowing them to score high-profile tours with similarly energetic groups such as AFI and the Used. No matter how tempted they might have been to give eyeliner a try, though, H2O always kept one foot solidly in the corner of traditional, aggressive New York hardcore, earning them the respect of their scene forebears in Agnostic Front and Madball.

A lot of trends have come and go and come again in hardcore since Blake joined the band, from straightedge and militant veganism to gelled hair and girl-jeans. The bassist says that H2O has weathered the storm of change over the decades by focusing on all the things that have stayed the same.

“Hardcore is still a very grass-roots movement,” he says. “You’ve got a lot of people coming together to create something for themselves. The Internet has made the world smaller, to some degree, but hardcore still lives and dies by its onstage show. The energy is the same, the vibe is the same, and the spirit’s the same.”

That’s not to say that there haven’t been a couple of missteps along the way. Back when softer, friendlier acts like New Found Glory were reeling in major-label record deals and enjoying MTV play at the turn of the millennium, H2O moved from Epitaph to MCA and took a shot at the big time. By most accounts, they missed.

“Being on a major label for a band like us was an interesting experience, and I’m glad we did it,” Blake says. “But ultimately, it was a pretty poor fit. There’s not much call for hardcore in the mainstream.”

While their major-label debut Go fell flat with longtime fans, H2O regrouped and came back strong with the pointed Nothing to Prove, falling back on the tried-and-true mania of their high-energy live performances. It was the sort of underground comeback that not a lot of their hardcore peers have been able to pull off.

“Coming back after Go with Nothing to Prove was a really nice high point, just because it had been a really long time and everyone was really kind of burned out,” Blake says. “To come back and feel fresh and new again and revitalized — I mean, those songs still get such an incredible live reaction. We see so many bands that we tour with where it’s all about the older songs that get the reaction. With us, it’s awesome that the newer songs actually get the reaction.”

Fans will finally have the chance to react to some even newer songs this September, when H2O plans to release their latest album, Use Your Voice, on Bridge 9. If you’re lucky, they might preview some of that material on Sunday. But don’t count on it: this tour is about celebrating the songs and support that have allowed H2O to live out their punk-rock dreams since the Clinton administration.

“Expect highlights and deep cuts,” Blake says. “And we’ll definitely do some requests! So, if anybody reading this wants to hear a specific song, by all means, feel free to yell it out during the set. There’s a strong possibility it’ll get played.”

H2O celebrates 20 years at Walters Downtown on Sunday with Cruel Hand, United Races and Blunt. $15. Doors open at 7 p.m.

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