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.