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The Get Up Kids' first Vagrant release, Something to Write Home About(following the band's groundbreaking Four-Minute Mile LP on Doghouse Records), was the most anticipated album in indie rock at the time, and the subsequent numbers proved it. This allowed Vagrant to stretch its wings and commence signing bands it thought had similar talent and potential: Egan signed Alkaline Trio, Saves the Day, Dashboard Confessional, Rocket From the Crypt, Hey Mercedes, and several others, and the Get Up Kids were allowed their own sub-Vagrant label imprint, Heroes and Villains, which signed the Anniversary, Koufax, and Reggie and the Full Effect.
Vagrant outgrew its distributor, Caroline, and partnered with the midsize TVT Records for pressing and distribution at the beginning of 2001. The label also formed an alliance with Napster, the embattled Internet file-swapping corporation, which sponsored several tours by Vagrant bands. Vagrant also began, with Saves the Day's Stay What You Are, enlisting the production talent of some of mainstream rock's big hitters. Rob Schnapf, who has produced Beck and Elliott Smith, spent six weeks in the studio with STD; Scott Litt and Andy Wallace, both with résumés that include Nirvana and R.E.M., are currently involved in Vagrant projects (Litt is producing the next Get Up Kids record, Wallace has remixed a Dashboard Confessional song for radio).
The observant purist may see these alliances with commercial rock institutions as an affront to the notion of independence, but Egan is careful to keep his stable of talent close to home. Vagrant drew fire for its partnering with TVT, but that arrangement is a limited, strictly practical one. "They get records in the stores, and that's all I can ask of them at this point," Egan says. Vagrant required better distribution than the indie distros could offer to keep up with the label's growth, and the only options aside from TVT were the majors. "I am not anti-major label," Egan says. "But I am definitely anti-moving widgets, and I think that's what a major label does. They don't deal in art, they move widgets."
Egan's sister, Maureen Egan, has directed videos for Alkaline Trio and for the above-mentioned Saves the Day track "At Your Funeral." Tours by his bands are essentially all-Vagrant affairs, exemplified by this year's sold-out Vagrant America tour, headlined by Saves the Day. "We are introverted," Egan says. "We're just trying to keep doing what we're doing and keep it self-contained, and when we have to dip our toe into the world of playing the game and step up in order to let more people hear our music or be exposed to our music more, then we do."
This formula has quite obviously worked: Saves the Day's Stay What You Are debuted at number 100 on the Billboard charts its first week of release. The band went from years of touring in a van, opening for established artists, to headlining sold-out tours twice in one year (the second of which hits the Valley this week). It's been a whirlwind that even the band has trouble comprehending. "It's weird and hard to grasp," D'Amico says.
"It's an intangible thing, the record charting and all that. I get the most feel for what it's like at the shows. I don't know why all these kids are coming to see our band, but it's really cool and really exciting and very, very gratifying."
Stay What You Are lives up to the hype surrounding it, somewhat surprisingly. The record's melodic bent, matured dynamics and infectious hooks have led both the press and young fans to bunch the band under the now-meaningless "emo" umbrella (along with most of the Vagrant bands). But the subject matter on the album strays from emo's formulaic torn-heart manifestoes. Chris Conley, singer and songwriter for the band, approaches topics that envelop death, drug abuse and self-doubt with a sweetly innocent pop lilt; the melodies belie the subject matter, at times anthemic and insistent (see "At Your Funeral"), at times poppy and bouncing (see "Cars and Calories"), and occasionally morose and haunting (see "Freakish").
The polish afforded by Schnapf's production is the icing on STD's cake. The songs have a depth and aural magnetism that's not often seen on indie releases, though it doesn't sound like any sort of departure from the band's progression. "[Schnapf] knew where the songs needed to go and he executed it in the right way," D'Amico agrees, somewhat in awe.
"A lot of producers can be really overbearing. Rob was just the opposite. He's very into having the band do what they wanna do. It's important to realize with things on records, that the purpose of recording is to present the music in the most ideal way possible, but it shouldn't be perfect 'cause then what's the fun? Where's the life in it, y'know?"
With STD's first single creeping onto radio stations across the U.S., its video in heavy rotation on M2 and bound for MTV in January, and its tour selling out city-by-city (D'Amico is speaking post-sound check at Philadelphia's legendary Trocadero, where the band has sold out two nights in a row), one wonders where it's all headed. Saves the Day isn't worrying about it.
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