Emo Money

Now that emo's a cash cow, one of the genre's founding bands has reunited to milk it

"This is a scrapbook that I started keeping," Todd Bell explains to the video camera. He's sitting at a kitchen table thumbing through the 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 ...." They're talking about their old band, Braid. Talking 'bout the good ol' days.

A minute later, the footage on Killing a Camera, the recently released Braid DVD, is revisiting those days: Four sweat-soaked dudes scream and flail through anthemic rockers in a sold-out Chicago club. The show, from August 1999, is inspiring and intense. It seems like a different era. It makes the case that, at least in August 1999, Braid was the most important band on the planet.

When the movie returns to today, five years later, revealing the band members to be a little older, balder, and rounder, we are obviously in a different era. Drummer Damian Atkinson and bassist Bell reminisce about the past. Singing guitarists Chris Broach and Bob Nanna reflect on the poignancy of their youthful careers. In short, they tell you that they were the most important band on the planet.

Eternal Golden Braid: Emo's forefathers are back.
Eternal Golden Braid: Emo's forefathers are back.

Maybe they were. Among those who follow such things, Braid is widely considered to be the forefather of a 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 about confessional blog entries and backpack straps adorned with colorful little buttons. By the close of the decade, disciples of the movement had risen from the fertile soil of the Midwest like so many ears of corn, and 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.

Initially a brand of music whose very name implied sincere expression, emo began to drift toward the other side of the profit margin, and left its earnestness behind. Each new crop of bands increasingly had its eye on "radio ads," the Warped Tour, and promotional merchandising. Before you could say "New Found Glory," the essence of the whole thing had changed, and the definition of the word had morphed into slick, paint-by-numbers, mall-ready pop-punk. Today, 'fessing up to being an emo kid is like admitting you were a candy raver. Most prefer not to talk about it.

When Bob Nanna gets on the other end of the phone line, you have to ask him: What is it like to get the credit for spawning the emo monster?

"I guess it is kind of flattering, but I can't take it too seriously," Nanna 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 guitarwork and personal lyrics ... that was what we wanted to do. 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 helping to invent a genre that would soon take over the world (or at least the world of 14- to 24-year-old suburbanites), the band didn't get it out to thatmany people. That happened later, after the group broke up. The sold-out performances of the band's last hurrah on Killing a Camera were by far the exception rather than the rule. No one really gave a shit about Braid until it was long dead.

"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 the Metro [in Chicago in 1999], it blew our minds. When we sold it out this 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."

Like Jessica, the Braidiac from New Jersey. Her profile on Braid's fan page (http://carouselandsold.com/) lists her favorite lyric as the band's champion one-liner: "If you wanna be a martyr, try harder." Her favorite songs, "Capricorn" and "Hugs From Boys," were recorded when she was 6 years old. Jessica didn't place in the site's recent Braid quiz, which included some blingers like "During the first Braid show, Bob wore an Ace Hardware shirt with what name on it?" (Answer: Erin.) But then again, she was 4 at the time. Jessica is also a member of "Braided," an online chat community dedicated to the group that's made up of about 200 fans in more than 50 countries. Average age: 19.

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