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Emo Money 

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

Wednesday, Jul 7 2004
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"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.

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 that many 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.

How does a band get big with the kids after it breaks up? Nanna credits the posthumous popularity to the lip service of the group's devotees, including new fans to his latest project, Hey Mercedes, which he started with three of the four members of Braid (black sheep Chris Broach went on to form the Firebird Band). "Someone will introduce someone else to Hey Mercedes and they'll say that we were all in Braid and we started the whole emo thing, and that person will get interested in the old stuff."

The record sales prove it. Braid's final proper release, Frame and Canvas, continues to sell. To date it's moved more than 16,000 units, bettering the most recent Hey Mercedes full-length, Loses Control, by about three grand. According to music industry sales monitor SoundScan, Braid outsold Hey Mercedes last month by a margin of 2-to-1. But in 2004, the "emo thing" that Nanna fathered with Braid has a different flavor than it did back then. Today, emo bands don't play basements; they ink big-time record deals with suits looking for the next sensitive superstars who can bring in the crossover cash like Jimmy Eat World or Dashboard Confessional.

"The current trend of emo music hasn't hurt the interest in Braid," says Dave Sadiwink, 25, who is the content director of carouselandsold.com. Sadiwink lives in Pennsylvania and responds to an e-mail inquiry about the band the night after he drove to New Jersey for a reunion gig. "Bands like Taking Back Sunday and Brand New are huge, and I would imagine any kid into them could trace the lineage back to bands like Braid."

But when asked about the groups that have prospered from following in Braid's wake, Nanna doesn't sound so thrilled.

"Today the scene of bands is not about what we were about," he claims. "Newer bands aren't concerned with playing basements. They want to be immediately playing to a lot of people, and MTV, and sponsors. It's unfortunate. If I could talk to some of these bands, I'd tell them to go play some shows. That whole idea of the $5 basement show and VFW hall happening is dying."

Perhaps, but don't expect the Braid reunion to bring those traditions back from the grave. The Braid of 2004 takes more cues from the fiscal-minded purveyors of Emo Nuevo than from the DIY innocence of yore. Admission to the band's upcoming show at the Bottom of the Hill is $10, not $5. Most of the other venues around the country are asking $12 to $14, and tickets for those shows can usually be purchased through, ahem, Ticketmaster.

"A lot of things have changed since we started up 10 years ago, but a lot is just the same," Nanna says. "A lot of the old-school fans don't come to shows anymore, but there are newer fans. And it's good to play these old songs to new people, to share the experience of what we were trying to do back then and see how it still affects people today."

But is Braid 2004 able to do the same thing? Granted, the tunes have stayed the same. But the audience and the context are worlds apart. The band's Frankenstein musical spawn have run woefully amok, creating a strange, inverted world where emo bands are fashion-friendly moneymaking machines that are anything but emotional. Without the reunion, Braid's legacy would have had a tragic arc: Four guys from nowhere innocently start a (for better or worse) revolutionizing movement, but break up before they can reap the spoils -- Braid, the ultimate underground martyr. But apparently they've decided to try harder.

About The Author

Nate Cavalieri

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