Interview: Chris Payne On Writing Emo History Book ‘Where Are Your Boys Tonight?’

Marianne Eloise talks with the author about the genre’s commercial explosion thanks to the likes of Fall Out Boy, Jimmy Eat World and Dashboard Confessional.

Photo: Chelsea Herrera

In the mid-00s, the third wave of emo burst onto the mainstream. Suddenly, bands that had been playing in basements were on SNL, winning awards, and hitting bestseller lists. Some of these bands seemed to have little in common, with each other or the previous waves of emo, and many resented being lumped in together. It didn’t matter: this era was, and is, emo as the majority of people would come to understand it, no matter how difficult it remains to define.

A new book by music journalist Chris Payne, Where Are Your Boys Tonight? attempts the impossible. Through interviews with countless key figures in the scene, it traces the emo movement from the dingy basements of New Jersey and Long Island all the way through to the mainstream breakout of bands like My Chemical Romance and Fall Out Boy. It’s a real labour of love, with hundreds of hours of interviews that allow the people who were there to tell the story themselves. We caught up with Chris to chat about just what that process was like.

Rock Sound: You grew up in the scene in New Jersey. How did that inspire you?

Chris Payne: “I went to a big public high school in a town called Colonia in northern New Jersey. By this point, Thursday were already local heroes and My Chemical Romance were well on their way. When I was getting into things, the bands on the come up were Senses Fail, The Early November, Armor For Sleep. Everyone in every class at school seemed to have a band, and that inspired me to realise I could get involved in some way.”

RS: In your book, a key turning point feels like when Chris Carrabba was playing before heavier bands, and people seemed ready to stand and listen without bottling him.

Chris: “Chris is such a kind person. We had two interviews for this book, and he was so generous with his time that the interviews were about three hours. He told a story about opening for Jimmy Eat World at the Wayne firehouse in New Jersey, which was just a literal firehouse where kids put on shows. It was 800 kids, but it was just Dashboard opening for Jimmy Eat World at 5pm. Two years later, these bands were winning VMAs and Jimmy Eat World was playing ‘The Middle’ on SNL.”

RS: What do you think it was about this time that made it possible for emo to go stratospheric?

Chris: “It was a crossover of a bunch of different eras, with a couple of them ending and a couple of them just getting started. It was the end of an era where punk scenes were very centred around in-person experience, because the internet was around in the late 90s, where my book begins. It wasn’t advanced enough to support social media as we know it today, but you could still post shows online and spread the word. The other huge thing was Napster. Amy Fleisher Madden, who founded Fiddler Records as a teenager, put out ‘Swiss Army Romance’ with no distribution, but kids uploaded it to Napster. The songs were good, and they were different, so they connected to kids, but without Napster and being able to throw songs up online and let anyone hear them, Dashboard wouldn’t have been a thing. That’s the end of an era that allowed it to still have underground elements that made it feel authentic.”

RS: It was such a fraught time politically, too.

Chris: “Leftist politics were still a big part of the scene back then. Zine culture was still really thriving, so you have a lot of the values that punk rock is built around, but it also overlaps with the rise of social media at the very start. MySpace was massive in driving the scene. I tried to turn a spotlight on Gym Class Heroes and Panic! at the Disco, because those two bands put out by Pete feel like the start of this phenomenon of artists popping up online. The end of the pre-social media punk rock era coming together with pop music and the music industry facilitated through the rise of MySpace and the modern internet created a really unique time that I don’t think could happen again.”

RS: The format of the book works so well to allow these people room to tell their own stories. What about doing it as an oral history appealed to you?

Chris: “I started interning at Billboard in 2011, and I’ve been doing some kind of music journalism since high school. Something I’ve learned about myself is that I love interviewing not just musicians, but interesting people in general. When I was working on this book, the energy never ran dry. I was so enthused, but what really felt compelling to me was telling stories that hadn’t been told yet. There are so many passionate fans of this genre, and I knew for a book like this to really touch people, it couldn’t be rehashing things that they could have read before. I really wanted to talk to these people and ask them things nobody has before. For example, Pete Wentz rarely talks about Racetraitor, and it felt important to go into that history.”

RS: Who was the most helpful in pulling this together?

Chris: “The first one that comes to mind is Anthony Ranieri, the frontman of Bayside. Anthony was so helpful, and he put me in touch with a lot of people. Gabe Saporta was really helpful. A few lesser-known people, like Mike Doyle, he used to play in a Jersey band Lanemeyer, and he does a podcast called “This Was the Scene” that really helped me research for the book. I also really want to shout out Adam T. Siska from The Academy Is… That dude was one of the most insightful, self-aware people with the best memories that I spoke to. Sisky also put me in touch with Max Bemis from Say Anything and a bunch of other people from behind the scenes in the Chicago scene.”

RS: In the introduction, you mention the pain that Jesse Lacey caused so many women and lay out how you’re going to frame that conversation. You don’t skip over Brand New’s impact, but you don’t glorify him. How did you figure out how to approach that?

Chris: “I thought so much about how to appropriately approach it with the most care, and above all else, just not bring any further pain to those who Lacey hurt. It’s impossible to tell this narrative without Brand New. If you were doing a list of best albums, you can leave out Brand New. But if you’re telling a narrative of the scene, starting from the 90s, and how it blew up, there’s no way to not talk about Brand New. The guiding principle was showing where and how Brand New drove the mainstream boom of emo without glorifying Jessie Lacey.”

RS: This is a scene sometimes defined by misogyny, but there were so many women in it who were affected by that and still loved being a part of it. You included their voices, too.

Chris: “By doing an oral history, it’s really not your voice at all, you’re turning the mic to other people. Amy Fleisher Madden, for example, was so important to the scene, and getting to interview her was awesome. Same with Jillian Newman, who’s managed Taking Back Sunday from the very beginning and has so much to do with shaping the scene. It was really cool to talk to other writers who were scene kids but are now really accomplished writers and authors, like Maria Sherman and Jenn Pelly. I feel really grateful to have their voices in the book.”

RS: Finally, it’s really hard work defining this era of emo when people have set ideas about what that should look and sound like. Did you find it difficult to frame why and how all these seemingly disparate bands drove the scene?

Chris: “I tried to use adjacency to hardcore as a guiding principle. Even with some of the biggest most popular bands, like Fall Out Boy, they really did come from hardcore. The Used came from the Utah hardcore scene, which was one of the most brutal scenes in the country. Some of the younger bands, even if they didn’t come from a scene, loved that music. Paramore loved Norma Jean and Underoath. Using hardcore as a guiding principle was important for sorting things out. Cobra Starship is far from hardcore, but some of Midtown’s first shows were in Geoff Rickly’s basement. All of this era can be traced back to hardcore.”

Where Are Your Boys Tonight? is available now via HarperCollins.

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