25 Years Of Vagrant Records: The label that accidentally took emo to the mainstream
From a family-funded Get Up Kids album to becoming a lynchpin of 2000s emo, we look back on Vagrant Records’ reluctant rise…
Saves the Day is Chris Conley.
Well, sure – it’s a band, too. And with five uninterrupted years under their belt, their current line-up featuring guitarist Arun Bali, bassist Rodrigo Palma, and drummer Dennis Wilson is the most stable period the pop-punky, emo rock band has ever seen.
But as much as vocalist, guitarist, and lead songwriter Chris Conley loves, respects, and appreciates his current brothers-in-arms, even he knows that the name Saves The Day is inextricably tied to his identity alone. Over the course of a quarter century of playing music with a seemingly endless stream of band members, performing simply as “Chris Conley” was never once an option he’d considered.
“Saves The Day was the perfect name for my music,” he reasons. “It’s very much like my friend Chris Carrabba, who has Dashboard Confessional as his moniker… There was never once an ‘original line-up’ aside from me and [co-founding drummer] Bryan Newman, when we were 13 years old. There’s a song on the new album called Side By Side, which is about Bryan calling me up in eighth grade and saying, ‘Come over and bring your guitar.’ I went over that weekend and started playing, and the rest is history.”
Saves The Day has plenty of history now – much of it punctuated by extreme highs and lows. Yet the band seem to have reached a monumental point of stasis: their new album, 9 (due out October 26 via Equal Vision Records), marks the first time without a personnel change between albums since 2001’s Stay What You Are. Instrumental to the line-up’s longevity and the sound of the new album was the fact that Chris met his current bandmates while all were heading into their 30s, which comes with a bit more maturity and wisdom than a band formed in high school can lay claim to.
“That goes a long way to contributing to the feeling on the album that we were able to capture, because we love playing together, push each other to be better, and admire one another,” Chris explains. “That feeling of brotherly love is brand new for me, I’ve never once had that in a band. There’s always been little points of contention and it’s always been fun; it’s never been the end of the world. But to now have this camaraderie is quite a gift.”
In the context of this healthy, happy state, we talked with Chris about the past, present, and future of Saves The Day. As usual, his honesty about some of the more difficult times was as refreshing as it was enlightening.
Kerrang!: It seems that 9 is a concept album that tells the history of Saves The Day. Why was now, of all times, the right time to make such a nostalgic record?
This is just where I am right now in my life. I’m about midway through 35 and 40, so I’m in a reflective state and feeling very grateful. And all the music just came out that way. That’s the way I tend to write: by impulse, and I’ll do the editing later. I had to just surrender to what was happening. And I’m glad I did, because I wound up uncovering a lot of feelings that had been buried for quite some time.
How would you characterize those feelings?
I feel optimistic and happy; excited about the future. Maybe that’s why I’m able to reflect with clarity at this point. Some of those tough feelings that I never got to address started to bubble up from under the surface: basically, the difficulties of growing up in the limelight. And that’s not something I ever would have expected. There’s a line on the album: ‘There’s no way to know that there’s no way to know what to expect.’ There was no time to reflect; no reason to reflect – you’re just on the ride. And a lot of things get brushed under the rug as you’re on that ride. With a million people coming and going in the band, a lot of those interactions and encounters along the way could have been difficult enough for me not to be able to process at the time. So I think a lot of those feelings were just coming up because I feel like I’m at a good, healthy point in my life.
Not to compare you in any other way but this literal sense – but it’s a bit like how Michael Jackson was robbed of his childhood.
That’s not a bad comparison, because [early fame] is a unique experience. There aren’t a lot of people to help you through that. In fact, it’s amazing; it’s incredible; it’s the most magical thing that could ever happen. But it’s a bit overwhelming. Thank God I had a healthy family, so there was no Joe Jackson around.
Speaking of reminiscing, today is the 15-year anniversary of In Reverie (released Sept 16, 2003). Plenty of fans now agree that it was criminally underrated at the time, and its disappointing reception upon release seemed like it might have been difficult for you guys to navigate. Looking back at it now, what are your feelings towards that record?
Oh man, I think it’s some of the best music I ever made. I understand exactly what happened with it: it was just not the right time for a record like that, in terms of contemporary music. I think it was a little jarring for our fans, especially for one particular reason: At that point I had had a major spiritual awakening.
I had become amazed by the experience of life after we had a near-death experience in 2000. Everything was different after that. And if you look at all the music I wrote up to Stay What You Are , it’s very much [about] angst and emotional turmoil. All of the sudden we have this van accident, and the first song on Stay What You Are is At Your Funeral – so you can see that my mind is starting to at least wonder about all this turmoil: ‘Wow, this experience of life is immense and intense.’ The music changed from being about interpersonal ideas to being about extremely otherworldly ideas. And so In Reverie  is almost a love letter to God, and people were expecting emo music to be about boys and girls. My emotions were not [of] angst or turmoil on In Reverie – I had uncovered a space within myself of love and wonder, and I was on cloud nine. It was my most enjoyable experience writing an album ever in my life. I’m so grateful for that experience. It was just really special.
In hindsight, everything that happened with it [its commercial failure] was unexpected for me, but entirely understandable. And [it resonates with] people that like smart music that’s well crafted – using intricate chord structures and poetic language that’s more like a Zen kōan – and I’m extremely proud of that fact. But it doesn’t viscerally smack you in the head or make you want to go to the gym or drive 100 miles per hour. You really gotta just rip a bong and sit back and listen.
Were there any lessons you learned about the music industry from that record?
Absolutely. The first thing that I learned was ‘don’t evolve too quickly.’ (Laughs) Our producer for Stay What You Are and In Reverie, Rob Schnapf, produced all of Elliott Smith’s records. And Elliott Smith had an incredible evolution: he did it steadily and gradually. He was able to tell us how Elliott’s fans reacted when he would all of a sudden – almost like Bob Dylan going electric – surprise everybody with a drum track on the first song. So they figured out that the first song should be a little bit of a new sound, but the second song, you gotta remind them who Elliott Smith is. The second song was almost always acoustic. I didn’t learn this until after the fact. It’s a funny joke between me Rob – I’m like, ‘You could have told me!’
The other thing is that the way I was singing on In Reverie is exactly how I felt: I’m closing my eyes and singing internally, with some spiritual question, and that’s a personal experience. I realized that people really like it when singers emote; I didn’t have anything to emote. I wasn’t feeling emotions, I was speculative; introspective. And that wound up leading me further down the rabbit hole into The Trilogy [2006’s Sound The Alarm, 2007’s Under The Boards, and 2011’s Daybreak], where I’m completely alone and facing my psyche one-on-one. By that time, I had gone through an incredible about of turmoil internally. I was furious, and confused, and scared – that’s how I felt. That’s not a realization that made me change – that’s just something that I noticed: that when singers sing like I did [on In Reverie], it’s not going to hit people emotionally the way they expect that kind of music to hit them.
It’s fascinating how honest you are in expressing yourself artistically, yet you’re also obviously aware of how it will be perceived by the public.
The ‘meta’ side of Saves. If you go back to the very first album, you can notice 17-year-old Chris wondering what it’s all about, and by the time we’re on Stay What You Are, I’m this guy onstage – so I start singing lines like, ‘You wanna know who I really am / Yeah, so do I.’ My life can’t be extracted from my experience. That’s why this album became entirely reflective: It’s the summation of my life up to this point.
Not every artist will allow their personal life and music to intertwine to this extent.
That’s a good point. That’s something I wish I knew. Although, if I had known that earlier, I wouldn’t have been so forthcoming, and I wouldn’t have been this emo singer. So there’s this funny paradox there.
You’re about to embark on a pretty extensive tour this November. What are some of the most significant ways in which touring or live shows are different these days from when you first started out?
What’s cool now is that you can play a basement show with all your best friends, and then the next night, you can sell out Irving Plaza. And everybody that was in the basement show in New Brunswick is at Irving Plaza. Everyone knows each other now. There’s this incredible intimate circle of friends and family. This album is, in a large part, like a love letter to our fans and that’s part of the experience that we all appreciate after 20 years of doing this together. And in terms of actually playing the shows, it’s exactly the same as it was, but you could pull up behind someone’s house and play in an alley, or you could hop in a private jet and wind up in Brazil.
Is that something that actually happened?
Surely, plenty of fans get that you’re a whole person with an entire career of music to play, but how do you deal with the people who want to hear nothing but At Your Funeral, or Holly Hox, or whatever old song?
I’ve learned to appreciate that. I’m so lucky that they like it at all. I’m just in the one per cent of musicians who can do this for a living, let alone that people can connect with the music at all. So I feel really grateful. There are times that I have to guard myself, just so that if somebody says something that they don’t intentionally mean to be off-putting, I don’t wind up becoming offended. I’m also the luckiest guy at the world to have those incredibly supported, loving, die-hard fans who have been there forever. And those are the people who got me through the hardest times – their faith is rejuvenating. In fact, in the second song on the new album, Suzuki, I mention three of our fans by name.
But audiences these days must be different, too, in how they interact with you, just by nature of technology, phone cameras, the internet…
I think watching Jack White make everybody store their cell phones in a box is indicative of the times. I wouldn’t do it like that; you’d hope that people would just understand. During my embarrassing moment when I launched into a diatribe onstage [because the audience wouldn’t stop talking], I think my favorite line from that was, ‘What is this, Being Cool 101?’ I would just hope that people would understand that that’s not proper etiquette. You should be respectful. But we definitely live in a world right now where people don’t necessarily respect common courtesy.
With that said, you’ve surely got a lot to be excited for on this upcoming tour, right?
Oh yeah, I can’t wait to get back out there. It’s just gonna be so much fun. I can’t wait to play some of these new songs and see all of our fans. We haven’t been on stage in quite awhile, and I just love playing music. It’s my favorite thing to do.
Pre-order 9 right now by clicking here. And be sure to see the band live when they stop in your city on their upcoming U.S. tour with Kevin Devine and An Horse:
01 Louisville, KY - Headliners
02 Chicago, IL @ Bottom Lounge
03 Newport, KY @ Southgate House
04 Detroit, MI @ Magic Stick
06 Toronto, ON @ Opera House
07 Cleveland, OH @ Grog Shop
09 Pittsburgh, PA @ Mr Smalls
10 Asbury Park, NJ @ Stone Pony
11 Philadelphia, PA @ TLA
12 Boston, MA @ Paradise
14 Brooklyn, NY @ Warsaw
15 Baltimore, MD @ Rams Head
16 Richmond, VA @ Broadberry
17 Durham, NC @ Motorco
18 Nashville, TN @ Mercy Lounge
20 Orlando, FL @ The Social
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