In a city like Ann Arbor, things come and go: businesses, students, music and interests. We’re in and out; we come and go. Sometimes, I think of the University as institutionalizing the fleeting nature of life. You settle into a home for four years, and then you’re off. The shifting landscape endlessly produces new interests, new humor and new nostalgia.
Lately, a lot of buzz has been made about Ann Arbor as the center of an emo revival in music. Ever since I entered college, I’ve been around, or a part of, this scene. The summer after my freshman year, the bands that give the town its revival reputation were taking flight, and over the past two years, I’ve watched them grow into what they are today. Going into college, though, this was not the type of music that I listened to. But as I attended more shows, and eventually went on a short tour with the groups, their music grew on me.
To get a better understanding of the tradition that has so vividly colored my college experience thus far, I sat down with my friend Chris Lieu, guitarist and lyricist of Brave Bird, to talk about the revival and what it’s like to try and make a name in this kind of place.
“Scenes like Chicago, L.A. or Boston, they’re always going to exist,” Lieu said. “A scene in Ann Arbor could be a very fleeting deal. It really is up to a few people to put everything they have into it and completely devote themselves to it.”
Brave Bird released its first EP, “Ready or Not,” two summers ago and, along with fellow Ann Arbor-based band “Pity Sex,” the group has been responsible for the revival reputation the city has gained among certain circles across the country.
In addition to Ann Arbor native and University student, Lieu, Brave Bird includes bassist Mike Politowicz and drummer Mark Buckner. Politowicz graduated from the University with a degree in aerospace engineering and Buckner currently studies English. Coming from different backgrounds, they all met at Sigma Phi, a local gathering spot for the hardcore and punk scene.
“It was kind of a serendipitous moment where we were just all in the same place and decided to make this music,” Lieu said.
When they began recording in 2011, Michigan didn’t offer much of a scene beside the established hardcore and punk community they had found at Sigma Phi.
“There were not any expectations at all,” Lieu said.
When I’ve tried to explain to friends the sound of Brave Bird and Pity Sex, I really haven’t known what to say. As I said before, I wasn’t listening to this kind of music when I came to college. I knew that they described themselves as “emo,” but even that term eluded me.
As Lieu explained, the emo genre began in the 1990s and is largely attributed to the midwest (sometimes called “midwest emo”), where many of the bands came from. Bands like American Football and Braid defined the sound and attitude of this movement. In recent years, the bands have influenced such notable groups as The Wonder Years and Fall Out Boy, but appreciation for those original bands from the ’90s is gaining popularity. Over the course of the past two decades, the term “emo” adopted more connotations and associations than its use as a term to describe those bands from the ’90s (which explained my confusion).
“(Emo) gets a bad rap,” Lieu said. “It’s such a fluid term. It really is like an attitude rather than an actual genre.”
The revival in many ways started with Pennsylvania-based Algernon Cadwallader, which brought newer punk vocals to ’90s American Football-style guitar. Coming across this synthesis was important for Lieu when he first heard it. At the time though, he didn’t know that a huge underground movement was associated with Algernon. Like those original bands from the ’90s, the punk ethic led them to avoid large venues or mass advertising. For a lot of these bands, this means fizzling out before getting started. But there’s a lot of honesty in that, and in many ways that was its greatest allure for me.
“When I released our EP, I didn’t expect anyone to listen to it aside from the few hardcore kids who came around our house,” Lieu said.
But the band released the EP online, and after making its way onto a few blogs, it blew up.
This past summer, I went on a road trip with Brave Bird and Pity Sex to Milwaukee, Chicago, and Chesterton, Ind. At each of the shows, there would always be a group of die-hard fans shouting the lyrics back at Lieu, Politowicz and Buckner.
Obviously, a lot happened between that original EP release and the tour. In the second installment of this story, I’ll talk about how Pity Sex formed, the record deal both bands got this past summer and what Lieu and Brave Bird hope the next step in the emo revival will be.