"This song will become the anthem of your underground."
This first line of "At Your Funeral," the first track on New Jersey emo quintet Saves the Day's album Stay What You Are, is proving far more prophetic than its author, eager-voiced Chris Conley, could've intended. Though written as a tongue-in-cheek reference to the grave of the song's addressee, it's been a not-so-subliminal declaration to the nearly 100,000 people who've bought Stay What You Are in the 20 or so weeks since it was released. It's also a testament to the fact that once again, there is a bursting, vital rock underground. While the stalwart indie labels of the mid-'90s -- Lookout, K, Kill Rock Stars, Sub Pop, etc. -- have faltered in the early millennium, a new, younger breed has emerged, led by Saves the Day's label Vagrant Records, now America's top-selling indie-rock imprint.
Saves the Day, pre-Vagrant, was a talented pop-punk band with a penchant for melodic musings about the opposite sex that owed much musically to its New Jersey forebears Lifetime. The band put out two records, Can't Slow Down and Through Being Cool, on the minuscule Equal Vision record label. After the acclaimed Through Being Cool's release in 1999, the majors pounced, as did one single independent label.
Eben D'Amico, bass player for STD, explains: "We had a lot of interest from major labels; a lot of people wanted to sign us. We made sure that we got the full story on everything; we tried to find out as much as we could about every label that was interested, all the major labels, and we ended up going with Vagrant. Vagrant was the first label that called us when that record came out."
The devil's in the details, and as the barely twentysomething band members ran the gamut of the schmooze circuit, the contrast between their major-label suitors and Vagrant grew. "You have the major-label dudes that are comin' to your shows and trying to wine and dine you and sayin', 'Oh, man, I'm from the streets -- I'm down with the indie thing. You guys are awesome, I like the Get Up Kids!' and shit like that. But we definitely believed Rich [Egan, president of Vagrant] when he told us how he felt about our band," D'Amico says.
Egan, a charismatic 32-year-old who also manages several of the bands on Vagrant, has this to say about his approach to Saves the Day: "I'm never gonna tell a band something that we can do and then not do it for them. We may not accomplish our goal, but we'll die trying." That dedication, coupled with Vagrant's burgeoning track record with the Get Up Kids (whose first Vagrant album, Something to Write Home About, has now sold upward of 150,000 copies), sealed the decision for the boys of Saves the Day.
"It made the most sense. It felt like it was the right step for what we were trying to do and where we were trying to go," D'Amico says. It's hard not to be of that opinion, considering STD's peers at Vagrant -- the Get Up Kids, Face to Face, Rocket From the Crypt, Alkaline Trio, the Anniversary -- a stable filled with some of the best-selling indie artists in the game. "It would have been pretty silly for us to go to a major label, I think, and potentially disastrous," D'Amico adds.
Rather than disaster, Saves the Day's alliance with Vagrant has brought the band and the record label exceptional successes; Stay What You Are has been the label's best-selling release of 2001. Not that STD is head and shoulders above its Vagrant siblings: 2001 releases by both Dashboard Confessional and Alkaline Trio have each sold upward of 60,000 copies. All three bands receive nationwide radio play, and have even been embraced by MTV; in the current indie-rock climate, that's a phenomenal feat, especially considering that four years ago Vagrant was merely a tiny label with a good-selling compilation, Before You Were Punk (which had established acts like Blink-182 and Unwritten Law covering New Wave songs).
The turning point for Vagrant came with the late-1999 signing of the Get Up Kids, who were managed by Egan and on the verge of leaping to a major label. Egan, whose post-collegiate background is in band management, was wary of the possible complications of both managing a band and being its record label's president.
"It started out I always vowed that I'd never manage a band on Vagrant because of potential conflicts," he recalls. "I managed the Get Up Kids, and they were in the process of signing to a major label, and the negotiations fell apart because they just got tired of being lied to. They came to me and they said, 'Why don't we sign to Vagrant?' Then I was faced with the quandary of maybe the best indie-rock band out there, at the time and still, wanting to be on our label, and me managing them." Egan asked the band members if they were comfortable with such an arrangement, "and they said, 'Well, obviously if we trust you enough to manage us, we trust you enough to be on your label.'" He now manages Vagrant acts Face to Face, Saves the Day, and Dashboard Confessional, as well as the Get Up Kids.
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.
"It's strange to see our name on, like, Billboard charts -- you're getting pushed up to another bracket. But I don't think it's uncomfortable. Our mentality about the band has always been that we're gonna do what we wanna do on our own terms, and it's really exciting that people have embraced it like they have," D'Amico says. "It's definitely a little weird, the fact that we're getting played on certain radio stations with lots of other shitty rap-metal bands, like Staind and whatever else, Creed . . . whatever. But it's cool 'cause I like to think that maybe kids are gonna hear our music and think, 'That other stuff really sucks, why have I been wasting my time listening to that?' We're not gonna change the world with our music or anything, but if nothing else I would hope to turn on kids who normally wouldn't listen to certain things, turn them on to the music we listen to and the music we're influenced by."
For Rich Egan, president of the biggest indie-rock label in America, Saves the Day and Vagrant's prosperity is a gratifying experience, but when asked where he thinks STD's potential will lead, he's reticent about contemplating the extremes of commercial success. "I certainly hope for it, but it's one of those kind of things where if that's your goal and you set out to do that, then you're probably gonna end up somewhere that you don't wanna be because you end up compromising to get there. I want to see the band go as far as they possibly can go. I know that Saves the Day is going to continue to make great songs, and if the public's taste and the pendulum starts to swing towards great songs, then Saves the Day will probably get their due."
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