Meet Me @ The Altar are changing the face of pop-punk for the better

Growing up, Meet Me @ The Altar didn't see a band that represented them or that they could call their own. So they simply made it for themselves. Ahead of their new EP, Model Citizen, meet the trio who are sweeping long-needed change through pop-punk…

Meet Me @ The Altar are changing the face of pop-punk for the better
James Hickie
Jonathan Weiner

Edith Johnson remembers the moment she was struck by two devastating thoughts simultaneously. The exact location and date are facts she today can’t put her finger on – in her early teenage years, she would be in attendance at no fewer than three shows per week – but the disheartening realisation that suddenly hit home is a memory as clear as day. Though she was surrounded by a sea of faces, each as excited as the next, not one person, whether in the crowd or up on the stage, looked anything like her. ‘Where are all the Black people and Brown people?’ she recalls asking herself. ‘Why aren’t I seeing any women on the stage?’

Born and raised in Peachtree City, Georgia, home to fewer than 40,000 people and better known for its extensive use of golf buggies than its diversity, Edith was used to feeling like the odd one out. “It’s a very conservative place, so I didn’t feel like I belonged,” she says of the outsider status that primed her for an introduction to pop-punk, a sub-genre that seemed to celebrate being young and different, while providing the sense of community she’d been missing. “It was very angsty and that was everything to me,” she recalls of her first impressions of the scene. “And when you went to shows, everyone was there for the same reason: the love of the music.”

While that was unquestionably true, there was another thing those fans had in common: they were almost all white, and the bands they were watching were almost all men. It was then that Edith made a promise to herself. “I wasn’t seeing what I wanted to see, so I decided I’d do it myself,” she explains. “I was adamant I’d become the frontwoman I’ve always wanted to see. There are some [frontwomen] out there, of course, but I never felt connected because they’re not women of colour and they’re not Black. I decided I could be that [person] for myself and for other people too.

“I was angry, but I was also very determined. I knew then that I’d find a group of girls to play music with who are like me, and we were going to take over the world.”

A few years down the road and Edith, now 20, has already achieved the first aim, and is on course for the second. Today she greets Kerrang! from Los Angeles, where Meet Me @ The Altar are currently attending meetings, shooting videos, and doing all the other things a band on the way up do, in anticipation of their forthcoming Model Citizen EP. She’s taking it all in her stride, though. Her unofficial role within the band is that of comic relief, her lack of social anxiety meaning she’s perfectly placed to diffuse awkward situations with humour. Meanwhile, the self-belief instilled by her parents is as striking as her multicoloured hair. “It’s deeply rooted in being raised as a woman of colour and as a Black woman – I feel the strength that we hold is in our blood,” is one of her more striking offerings. “It’s scary how ambitious and determined I am,” is another. Evidently, her band’s fledgling success is the world learning what she’s known for a while: that they’re awesome.

Happily huddled on a sofa next to Edith today are guitarist Téa Campbell and drummer Ada Juarez. Téa, rocking a beanie and tie-dye Prince T-shirt, is also 20 and equally positive in her outlook, though with a necessary serious streak. After all, when the band toured their 2018 EP, Changing States, she acted as booking agent and tour manager, as well as performing her onstage responsibilities. “She reels me back in when I’m being too much,” says Edith of her bandmate’s soothing influence.

“I’m just happy to be here,” jokes 22-year-old drummer Ada, the quietest of the three, or perhaps the most reticent in interviews. “I’m the passive one,” she suggests, her tone laidback but considered. Get Ada on to the topic of the intricate drumming on Model Citizen, though, specifically the less obvious inspirations behind her powerful playing, and she’s anything but passive, waxing lyrical on her love of progressive metalcore, while name-checking her heroes Matt Garstka from Animals As Leaders and Nic Pettersen from Northlane. It’s little wonder she eats, sleeps and breathes the drums, given that it runs in the family – her father, who emigrated to the U.S. from El Salvador, played too.

“For the longest time we felt like no-one was seeing us…”

Listen to Téa discuss the importance of feeling validated by support from their peers

The obvious closeness between the trio no doubt comes from the fact they’ve spent so much time together of late, having moved into a house together in Orlando. So, how did three women from Georgia (Edith), Florida (Téa) and New Jersey (Ada) wind up in a band together?

The answer, of course, is pop-punk – the genre that gave the trio an upbringing and now an outlet. It has provided them with their favourite albums: The Story So Far’s self-titled third (Edith), Knuckle Puck’s Copacetic (Téa), and Neck Deep’s Life’s Not Out To Get You (Ada). It got them signed to a major label, Fueled By Ramen, home to the likes of Paramore and twenty one pilots. And it’s earned them some famous fans in the form of Dan ‘Soupy’ Campbell from The Wonder Years, an early advocate who’s recorded an acoustic version of Model Citizen’s opening track Feel A Thing with the band. And let’s not forget Alex Gaskarth from All Time Low, who’ve invited Meet Me @ The Altar on their UK tour in September.

But it’s more than just the music that’s brought them to this point. It’s about filling a sizeable gap in terms of representation, to give a new generation of music fans heroes who look like them. And if you want proof of just how much what Edith, Téa and Ada are doing means to people, you need only look at the comments beneath the video for last year’s single Garden, many of which are from grown-up punk and emo fans praising the arrival of the band they so desperately needed in their own teenage years.

‘The little lonely black alt girl I was in the 00s is living [right now],’ reads one response. ‘She never even dared to hope she might see this.’

‘15-year-old me is sobbing,’ says another. ‘Our future kids will finally see themselves promoted in the rock industry. It’s about damn time!!!!!’

Make no mistake: Meet Me @ The Altar are here to change lives.

There's something very wholesome about Meet Me @ The Altar – from their overall manner to the circumstances around how they got together. Back in 2015, Téa and Ada met through the latter’s YouTube channel, initially bonding over a drum cover of twenty one pilots’ Holding On To You, and soon staying in touch by phone. It was during one of these exchanges that they got on to the topic of Mortal Kombat, specifically their favoured characters from the classic beat-’em-up franchise. Both, it turned out, were rather partial to Sub-Zero, the face mask-wearing warrior who uses ice to vanquish his enemies. “Marry me,” joked Téa of the coincidence. “Meet Me @ The Altar,” replied Ada.

And the rest is matrimony.

Edith Johnson joined this happy union two years later, having successfully auditioned online with a powerful version of Paramore’s All I Wanted and wasting no time in throwing her ideas into the mix. “I remember being on the trampoline in my garden right after I joined the band,” she says, “sending ideas for the first song we wrote together, How Could You Ever (Lie).”

Things are considerably less happy and bouncy at this juncture, though. Edith is currently sitting in shock, her eyes wide and her hand covering her mouth, revealing nails that match the shades of her hair. “I can’t believe we used to do that,” she eventually declares. “The disrespect to women in the lyrics of music we used to listen to shocks me.”

“Why didn’t we hone down on those words earlier,” adds Ada, shaking her head as she ponders another issue within pop-punk: the prevalence of sexism and misogyny.

“I feel like everyone in the scene collectively realised at the same time,” suggests Edith of the watershed moment. “Before it felt like people were enjoying the music, rather than really listening to what that music was saying. Then people realised, but it was unspoken for a while. Now, however, times have changed, so everyone has realised it’s just not acceptable.”

“I think it’s been like that in all genres,” reasons Téa, keen not to blame pop-punk exclusively for an issue affecting all facets of the music industry. Edith nods in agreement, pulling out her phone to Google the lyrics to a particularly grotesque example, from the track U.O.E.N.O by rappers Rocko, Rick Ross and Future, which celebrates the act of drugging a woman’s drink.

“It’s so upsetting,” Edith gesticulates wildly. “No-one knew what he was saying because of his delivery, so it went under the radar, and it’s such a popular song on the radio.”

For Téa, the best way for her band to exact constructive change is to broaden the parameters of what pop-punk bands write about by moving away from the tired tropes of men being angry at their ex-girlfriends – not just because it’s well-trodden ground, but because it’s a narrow worldview and imparts negativity. “We didn’t want to contribute to that, which is why we focused our lyrics on new topics, covering things you haven’t heard before,” explains Téa, who’s found understanding in the lyrics of Los Angeles singer-songwriter Hayley Kiyoko, a queer woman of colour. (In a tweet last year, Téa revealed her and Ada are both gay, adding: ‘WE GOT ALL THE REPRESENTATION BAYBEE’.)

Edith has also drawn from a well of influence outside of the music she’s making her name with, from artists like J Cole, Kendrick Lamar and Jay-Z, but with a special acclaim going to singer India Arie, “who sings about being a Black woman, accepting herself for that, and embracing her own beauty – all while touching on the colourism and sexism that female artists in R&B and rap have to deal with.”

"We wanted people to feel like they were at Warped Tour in the pit"

Hear Téa discuss the creation of recent single Brighter Days and its nostalgic sound

The proof, as they say, is in the pudding. And Model Citizen’s six tracks certainly deliver on the promise of a less obvious approach, with meditations on feeling off-course in life even when you’re not sure what that course is meant to be (Mapped Out); and being conscious of your own naivety at a point you’re supposed to be entering true adulthood (Never Gonna Change). And while neither notion is a seismic shift from the norm in terms of subject matter, they’re captured with a welcome freshness.

“At the end of the day, we want to write songs that people still recognise themselves in,” clarifies Téa.

And what of those who don’t recognise themselves in these songs? Have the band been on the receiving end of hostility from others in the scene? “We can never be sure because we don’t talk to these people,” explains Téa. “But we get the vibe. There are times when someone in a band will post something on social media and we’re mentioned in the subsequent thread that will be ignored by the person who posted. We don’t really care, because what matters is the three of us right here.”

“There are always going to be people who feel threatened because of who we are and what we stand for,” is Edith’s blunter take. “But that’s because their outlooks are messed up.”

Here are some things you’ll find in Meet Me @ The Altar’s songs: soulful vocals, irresistible melodies, spritely guitars, powerhouse drumming, hope, doubt, happiness, fear, coming of age, calls for change, and a whole lot more. There’s one thing you’ll never hear in them, though: swearing. Not in the band’s everyday lives, you understand, as Téa is quick to clarify all three have “sailor mouths” – a fact illustrated by her response to those who might not like their kind of music: “Fuck you if you think we’re cheesy because this is for the kids.”

“We had a conversation about it after we released Changing States,” Téa says of an ethos based on providing a good example to the widest audience possible. “We said to ourselves: ‘We know we’re going to be the biggest band in the world and be that representation we never had for so many little girls, and we want their parents to support them listening to our music, so let’s not put bad words into our songs because we can get our point across without them.’ There’s no people playing the music that we’re playing who look like us, so we have a lot of power in terms of what kind of message we want to put out.”

“There have been parents who have sent us videos of their kids dancing to our music,” says Ada, whose YouTube channel features videos of her as a nine-year-old, drumming to Linkin Park songs as her family looks on. “It makes sense that we keep that up because we want to inspire more little kids.”

It’s a commendable goal considering today’s kids will be tomorrow’s curious and confused teenagers, eager to find ways to express themselves and on the lookout for role models to show them the way. “The end goal is to inspire a whole new wave of bands that wouldn’t necessarily have had the confidence to assert themselves in a predominantly white, male scene,” explains Téa. “We’re rare in our mentality, because we just didn’t care [about the limitations of the scene] – we were just going to do it. But not everyone is like that, so it’s cool that we’re going to be able to give others that courage.”

"I would look for girl drummers, and there'd be about three, but they'd all be white girls”

Hear Ada discuss growing up and not seeing people like herself doing drum covers online

Given these ambitious aims, what does true success look like for Meet Me @ The Altar? Is being women of colour and representing queerness in a scene associated with whiteness and straight male preoccupations achievement enough? Would ending up as anything less than “the biggest band in the world” be a disappointment to them?

“The best compliment you could give us would be: ‘Wow, these girls can really write,’” suggests Edith. “Halsey was talking to us about how as artists of colour in this particular space, it’s always going to be a topic of conversation that we’re women, and that we’re women of colour as well, and sometimes that’s going to overshadow the fact that first and foremost we’re artists.

“We, as women of colour in an alt.rock band, have written this EP all by ourselves, with no co-writers or anything, which is our first big release on a major label,” she adds. “I want people to hear us and say we’re talented... because we are!”

She’s not wrong. And they’re fearless, too, unafraid of tearing up the rulebook and killing any preconceived notions people may have about pop-punk with kindness, consideration and kickass tunes.

Meet Me @ The Altar's Model Citizen EP is released on August 13 via Fueled By Ramen.

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