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.'"

The shows that Commotion Promotion hyped in particular were the band's "L3" series at the iMusicast Webcasting warehouse in Oakland. Initially a showcase for the Matches and other East Bay underage bands that were having trouble getting in to play some of the regular local venues, "L3" grew into a huge all-ages promotion ring that booked acts from around the Bay Area and even bigger touring bands. The series, almost entirely controlled by the Matches, also served the band's larger interests: "It was a good way for us to meet lots of touring bands -- you get to know booking agents for those kinds of bands, you know -- and [do] them favors," says Whalen. "Those contacts came in handy 'cause we were able to use them to get shows around the country, which otherwise we would not have been able to do."

Last year, Epitaph got wind of just what the Matches are able to do -- namely, bring in the kids in hordes -- and signed the band, rereleasing E. Von Dahl, which was originally self-released. In the short course of a year, the Matches went from being the messiahs of the East Bay's underground underage scene to rapidly climbing the Warped ladder toward pop-punk stardom.

But what exactly does a band that builds its success on an underage revolution of sorts owe the kids who, according to Harris, "enabled us to start touring, get on our label"? It's not an easy question for the Matches. "L3," for example, has suffered a bit in light of its founders' newfound national success, with the band booking shows and then finding itself unavailable to play them. At the same time, Whalen says, "We're not really sure what to do 'cause we're so protective of it and it's hard to let it go to somebody else, you know. ... But we definitely want to keep it going somehow and keep that community feeling going there."

Bigger opportunities, however, may once again deter the band from that goal: "We just got the Yellowcard tour in the fall," says Whalen. "It's gonna be one of the biggest tours in the fall, so actually, there's gonna be a show at the Warfield in San Francisco." However, according to a recent post from the Matches' manager on the band's message board, the Yellowcard show at the Warfield has actually led to the cancellation of a September "L3" date due to "contractual conflicts." While some posters responded to this announcement with an attitude of both disappointment and support for the band, others saw through the industry jive talk. "Promoters don't like bands to play other shows in the area because then the fans are less likely to go to the other, more expensive show," wrote one poster.

For the most part, though, the fans seem supportive and delighted that the rest of the world is finally starting to figure out just how "fucking brilliant" this act is, posting congratulations for the band's success with the album and advising the group (on Epitaph's message board) to keep letting "everyone else see how we cali rockers do it!" The Matches' message board is actually a good indication of what direction their commitment to the local scene might take, with their online community frequently posting local show notices and "musicians wanted" ads. Whalen also notes the networks, friendships, and bands that were formed by "L3" attendees. So perhaps the Matches' role will be that of the founding father -- oft-referenced and revered not only for laying the groundwork but also for their willingness to let the younger generation take over as its gurus approach their ancient mid-20s.

At the very least, as the kids singing along to the fidgety, pent-up "Jack Slap Cheer" ("This town gets so boring/ Na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na/ When you are not scoring") in Washington state can attest, the Matches have managed to get to the heart of suburban ennui with a bit of artistry and wit. And maybe, for a band perched exhilaratingly between local upstart and national darling, that's enough for now. The details can be ironed out as both the Matches and their fans grow up.

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