Fire Starters

Now that Oakland's Matches are finding success, will they leave behind the homegrown scene they helped found?

My friend and I, at 37 and 26, respectively, are easily among the oldest mall punks at the Warped Tour this year. In fact, our very appearance amid the vast, Von Dutch-emblazoned sea has a Moses-like effect, the waves of suburban angst parting (with a perplexed, territorial look and a whispered "Dude, somebody's dad is here!") like an act of God -- that is, if God owned Diesel (which he very likely does) and employed Blink-182 as his choir of angels.

OK, so maybe that's a bit of an exaggeration. But as Oakland's the Matches take the stage in Seattle's Gorge Amphitheatre, the air crackles with the portent of youthful power. The band members adopt ready-to-rawk poses as they launch into "Audio Blood," a churning paean to teenage catharsis. Guitarist and lead singer Shawn Harris bugs his eyes and tosses his lopsided, tricolored hair, his throaty vocals and overenunciated lyrics anchored by an almost indie rock minimalism that then shifts into a sort of "Enter Sandman" guitar break before dissolving into a finale of chugging Nirvana chords. The crowd has swollen to 150 (which is impressive for a side-stage act), and the kids can't help but pump their fists.

"We've been getting one to two hundred people every day," Matt Whalen, the Matches' drummer, told me earlier that day, the 14th of about 50 Warped dates. "You always worry because you see bands playing at 8 o'clock and there's, like, five people watching them. We haven't had that happen yet -- I'm sure it'll happen at some point on the tour."

It had yet to happen when I talked to him again in mid-August, as the tour neared its close. In fact, the band even got bumped up to larger stages in a few cities, playing the second-tier Maurice Stage in Detroit. "People at the Warped Tour are kind of taking notice, it seems," said Whalen.

And why shouldn't they? The Matches, by educating themselves in the nuances of their own genre and at the same time eschewing the formula, have managed a sound that fits in with, yet transcends, the snappy pop-punk of their peers. They've also worked hard to get that sound out of their basements and into the hot little teenage hands of America, most notably by founding a grass-roots series of Oakland-based all-ages shows called "L3: Loud, Live, and Local." The enterprising is starting to pay off: Longtime Warped Tour attendees, the Matches made their debut at the festival this summer after signing to Epitaph. All of which raises the question: What happens when a band that built a music community starts to outgrow it? What happens when the fish gets too big for the pond?

Whalen and bassist Justin San Souci started playing together in grammar school. They met Harris at Oakland's Bishop O'Dowd High School, and added lead guitarist Jon Devoto after graduating (although Devoto himself is only 18). Several years later, they're still friends.

It's all very wholesome. But a bunch of kids starting a band in high school is certainly nothing new, and as it turns out, the Matches aren't doing anything that radical with their music either. E. Von Dahl Killed the Locals, their debut release, is, despite the band's many protests to the contrary, decidedly within the well-worn realm of pop-punk, albeit catchy, hook-laden pop-punk that recalls the heyday of Green Day.

"Chain Me Free" is Weezer-riffic alternarock, with some pretty, falsetto "oohs" and a few pop-culture one-liners for the TRL generation. Opening with a little beat-box (which is either ironic and silly or totally embarrassing) and a dramatic, full-throttle jam, "Eryn Smith" is quickly subdued to a dull pop roar, highlighting its lyrical ode to a "bitchin'" girl who's "got ADD but isn't bored with me." The MTV-ready chorus of "Borderline Creep" is pared down to a spare, anticipatory bass and drums, its singalong melody propelling the song into the inevitable conclusion of heady, wailing guitar licks and gunshot drum palpitations.

Again, these are familiar, even predictable, choices. So what is it that sets the Matches apart from their run-of-the-mill Warped brethren?

First, the Matches are in fact musicians (as opposed to, say, Vans models with guitars). They play their instruments well and, still more surprisingly, they understand and even employ dynamics, which is akin to quantum physics for far too many of the bands on the Warped side stages. The difference is apparent in tracks like "Sick Little Suicide," which lets Devoto strut his stuff on some straight-up, School of Rock solos but also regulates the wailing with a healthy pop discipline. And while it's a pretty conventional skater punk march for the most part, "Dog-Eared Page" is a well-crafted example of its genre that finds the boys playing with pulse without getting pretentious.

Second, the Matches are savvy businessmen whose innovative promotion tactics helped them pull their way up from the school-dance underground. In the early days, for example, the musicians would often play short acoustic sets outside shows that attracted their target audience to generate awareness for their own gigs, a technique they dubbed "Commotion Promotion." "We were brainstorming about, like, ways to promote our shows that would be more effective than just passing out a flier," Whalen recalls. "And we tried it and it started working. Like, the attendance went up at our shows and more people, you know, got to know us, like, 'Oh, you're that band that plays outside all the shows I go to.'"

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