John Bohn: How Ann Arbor's emo revival influenced my college years (continued)

Run For Cover

By John Bohn, Daily Arts Writer
Published May 30, 2013

When it comes to shows and concerts of any size, behind the final product lies a world of logistical planning and preparation that’s needed to make sure things go smoothly, let alone actually go. For the local scene, though, sometimes it’s just a few friends doing what they love.

“It’s funny because a lot of people say that Ann Arbor seems to be a great place for music,” said Chris Lieu, lyricist and guitarist of Ann Arbor band, Brave Bird. “It’s kind of just me and my friends goofing around.”

This is not to say that it isn’t a lot of work — it’s just that, sometimes, you can laugh with each other while you do it.

This is part two of my column on Ann Arbor’s emo revival, and while last time I talked a lot about what exactly the emo genre is, this time I’d like to talk about the energy and friendship that goes into making such a scene.

Obviously, this story has a wider history than just Brave Bird and Pity Sex. Their big splash onto the Ann Arbor music scene came in the wake of another era that included such bands as Dire Wolf and Damages. It was from this crowd that some of the band members and first listeners would come, and so for that, those days can’t be omitted. But when I started hanging around at Sigma Phi in January 2011, Dire Wolf had just played their last show. In a similar fashion to my experiences with Borders freshman year, my college experience seems to have begun with a rupture in Ann Arbor’s communal life.

So during the winter semester in 2011, where my story begins, Pity Sex and Brave Bird were just forming. After Brave Bird released their EP that spring, Lieu was also pushing his friends in Pity Sex to release a demo.

“I strong-armed them into recording it because I wanted Ann Arbor emo to be a thing,” Lieu said. “And it was really good and a lot of people got into it.”

Pity Sex returned to Lieu for a second recording the following summer, which resulted in the Dark World EP. This time, Lieu and Pity Sex took the recording in a different direction, giving it a more lo-fi recording reminiscent of Smashing Pumpkins or Dinosaur Jr.

During that summer, both Brave Bird and Pity Sex got record deals. Brave Bird signed with Count Your Lucky Stars, a Michigan-based label in Fenton. Pity Sex signed with Run for Cover Records, a label known for being the starting point of such major bands as Tigers Jaw and Title Fight. Brave Bird and Pity Sex now tour frequently, occasionally together, and Brave Bird has since released a full-length album named Maybe You, No One Else Worth It.

In many ways, the establishment of these two bands has changed the environment in Ann Arbor. Symbolically, the city appears to be a home for the emo genre, but when it comes to infrastructure and places to play, helping out-of-town emo bands can be difficult. Most scenes come about through word-of-mouth and someone offering you their basement.

“If you’re from out of town, you’re going to ask your friends if you can play at your friend’s house,” Lieu said. “That’s how a scene forms. When you’re starting out and no one gives a shit about you, you need to go to your friends.”

As of right now, the main venue for these kinds of bands is Sigma Phi. Having given its space to hardcore and punk bands for the past decade, Sigma Phi has cultivated a particular reputation and crowd. Sigma Phi is, however, somewhat alone in the kind of music it presents, which is indicative of the number of listeners in the area.

“When you play in a touring band, other bands help you out with shows in their town, and you need to help them out with shows in your town,” Lieu said. “And when they ask me about Ann Arbor, I don’t know what to do. I don’t know if I can get these kids to come out. There aren’t many kids in Ann Arbor who are really into this kind of music. I mean, we do well, but that’s because we have a lot of friends who support us.”

For a while, Launch, the skate shop on South University, hosted hardcore and punk shows, but eventually, they had to close their doors because things would get out of hand. A lot of the traffic was from out of town, either from Detroit, Downriver or from Lansing, and the small shop would fill up fast. I remember standing outside on the corner of South U. and Church a lot of the time when I went to those shows.

“Those were huge hardcore shows with bands from Chicago, like Harm’s Way or Weekend Nachos would come out,” Lieu said. “Those bands are huge in the punk scene, so everyone loves those bands.”

But when it comes to a smaller band that’s just starting, the worry that no one will come is justified. Brave Bird has faced this problem on tour firsthand.

“For a smaller band like mine, we don’t necessarily know how we’re going to do in a city,” Lieu said. “It can be OK or it can be bad. Or it can be amazing. Like in Philadelphia, the first time we were on tour, there were 100 kids in a basement singing along. And the next day, in Baltimore, we were at a really cool spot called Trim City, and there were like five people in the crowd.”

When it comes to the up-and-coming music scene, cities and towns can be hit or miss. Ann Arbor, while having a very vibrant community with Sigma Phi at its center, probably fits somewhere in the middle of this spectrum. There are the “nowherevilles” (to use Lieu’s term) where a very singular scene thrives and bands of a certain genre will do really well. Then there are the big cities where there is so much going on that a subculture seems to exist for every style. Ann Arbor obviously has its steadfast venues, but as a college town, some of the venues are constantly shifting depending on which houses people are living in during any given year.

And it’s in this environment that the “Ann Arbor Emo Revival” has come about. But where to go from here? Pity Sex and Brave Bird have given it a reputation, but the spaces for performance are limited. In terms of new bands forming in the area, however, Ann Arbor seems to have a great climate. This year, Jon Riley, Zach Geimer, Sean Horner and John Dickenson formed the band Youth Novel, whose influences are some of the same bands that gave Brave Bird and Pity Sex their initial direction.

“It’s really cool because they are like a new band where there are some already established bands, and we’re all trying to help each other out,” Lieu said. “When I found out about them, I was like you guys are part of our Ann Arbor Emo Collective, which doesn’t really mean anything. It’s just me pretending like there is something going on here.”

“They are really a bunch of great guys and they write killer songs,” Lieu said. “Anything I can do to help our scene get to that next level.”

That next level, for Chris, isn’t necessarily a mainstream breakthrough. Instead, it’s about sustainable living and the persistence of a style of music that died off in the 1990s before it got started.

And that’s where I leave it. Ann Arbor has shifted just that much more. New bands looking to put out their sound will find a community here. And, as long as it lasts, that will be so. If it doesn’t last, if time, as always, goes along and people move on, the next generation of kids will come to Ann Arbor and hear of the “good old days.” Every new generation hears about the good old days. And, in that wake, if they want, they’ll talk about starting something new or bringing something back. And that’ll be Ann Arbor for them.