The Get Up Kids are historically good at making EPs. The beloved Kansas rock band, whose twangy shout-a-longs first gained steam in the late ’90s, during the waning years of emo’s Midwest-centric second wave, have put out three to date. The Red Letter Day EP, released as a 10-inch just a few months before Something To Write Home About took the group from underground stars to the forefront of an entire movement, might be one of my all-time favorite examples of the format. If you’ve ever listened to “Mass Pike” on the Mass Pike, you’ll understand what I’m getting at.
And now, in 2018, they’ve got another one. Kicker arrives June 8, seven years since their last official release as a band. The four-song project is also their first for Polyvinyl, and it finds the band — particularly co-songwriters Matt Pyror and Jim Suptic — setting new, grown-up concerns about marriage and family life to the kind of upbeat and melodically assured guitar music that they’ve always been known for.
“We've been playing with this idea about how you can translate the ‘emo themes’ — the ‘I miss my girlfriend’ kind of thing — into feelings that are relevant to being an adult,” Pryor told me recently, over the phone from his front porch in Lawrence, Kansas. “We’re thinking about life, but also the past. When we were 18 we weren't thinking about the past at all. We were only thinking about the present and the future.”
Today, we’re debuting the video for “Better This Way,” an electric earworm that Suptic wrote. The song is “about making a choice,” he explained over email. “A choice that you think is right at the time, but then it turns out there really isn't a right choice.” The clip itself follows a young loner who finds his people in a sort of Fight Club-esque foosball ring. It’s got plenty of easter eggs for long time fans, including a background character in full ’90s emo cosplay, complete with the very same t-shirt that drummer Ryan Pope wore in the “Action & Action” video 19 years go.
Watch the clip below, then read my full catch-up convo with Matt Pryor about the Kicker EP, his teenage daughter’s punk band, and the process of looking for fresh joys in things that haven't felt new in a long time.
Jim spoke about “Better This Way” a little over email. What’s your take on the song?
It's just kind of a reflection of where we're at in life. Looking at the past, looking at the present, looking into the future. When you’re 40, taking stock is something that you do.
Do those themes apply to the whole EP?
I think that they do. They're coming up a lot now. It just seems to be where both of our heads are at. We've had over 20 years of being in a band under our belt and a lot of life experience. It's like, What are we going to do with this now? How do we make this something that's still relevant — not in the grander pop culture sense, but relevant to who we are. We don't want to be one of those bands that writes the same song 20 years later.
How did the new EP come together?
We would get together periodically. Because we're all so busy, we weren't really doing anything serious. We'd get together to practice [for a festival or something] and then we were like, ‘We should try to record some new stuff.’ It came together gradually over the course of a year — just getting together and going to our friends studio. We didn't really know what the endgame was. Finally we were like, these four songs sound really good together, let's do this as an EP and then let's go make a record. Partnered up with Polyvinyl. From then on it was off to the races. We're in the process of writing an album that we're gonna record in September. It will come out early next year. I'm pretty stoked on it. I'm really, really excited about the stuff we've been writing.
How do you think your own lyrics have evolved over time?
I don't think how I do the work has really changed at all. Put your ass in the seat and start writing — that's still the same. As I got older and married and had kids, I tended to write more songs about other people's stories, but when we first started out, I was really just writing about myself and the people around me. I've kind of come back around to that. I have different worries and different fears and different loves and different interests. I'm at a point in life where I'm paying more attention, I guess.
Are you into many contemporary punk and emo bands — like, the younger bands that sound like music from when you guys were first starting out?
I've been into what I've been told is the "fourth wave" — the PUP and Modern Baseball kind of stuff. I was like, I get this. This makes sense to me. But even beyond that, my kids have gotten me into a lot of stuff. My daughter's playing in a band around town now. She's gotten me into a lot of bands, like The Spook School and Diet Cig and Remember Sports. I was like, 'This is good stuff!' Her band, and the scene that they're helping build here in Lawrence, is really cool. It brings me joy to still see kids playing punk rock in basements. Doing it because they love it and not because they're like, 'We're gonna get signed!' You can't sleep on a floor forever, but the intent of how you start out is important. And how you carry yourself down the line.
What's your daughter’s band like?
They were called MK Ultra, but there was already a [Chicago thrash] band called that, so they changed it to LK Ultra — like, Lawrence, Kansas. The closest way to describe it, even though it's kind of derivative, is that it's sort of riot-grrrly. They're queer-positive, trans-positive, angry teenage punk kids. She's 16.
I'm always happy to hear about young punk scenes popping up outside of huge cities. A few years ago, people might have argued that hyper-local music communities like that had started to fade away.
I wondered if they had, certainly after watching the whole explosion that was early-2000s “emo” — I guess they call it the third wave. We played shows with younger bands that seemed way more interested in being famous than being part of a scene. The "scene" thing is a tricky word for my band, in particular; we were kind of lumped in with people, but we were the only ones from Kansas City. There were people here for sure, but it wasn't like going to Boston. I do think those places exist. Sometimes they end up becoming these phenomenons — the next Seattle, or whatever. Which is something I'm sure no one says anymore.
In recent years, people definitely said similar things about Philadelphia.
I was just thinking that. It's probably Philly.
Is there anything you’re envious of when it comes to bands that are first starting out now? Or are there certain things that you think are harder for them?
I don't know that I feel envious or pity. But if you look at in on a bigger scale, the way that it's evolved is interesting. The same sort of attitudes that we had when we were 20, 20-year-olds in the punk scene have now. There was that blip when it was being exploited pretty heavily, but that seems to have died off. It will happen again, I'm sure.
In recent years, there have been instances of emo and pop-punk artists that you came up with, or around the same time as, being exposed as abusers or as having a history of predatory behavior.
Even before that stuff started coming out, my wife had been telling me for decades about how much differently women are treated in punk rock than men are, and I never totally got it. It seemed like by not being an aggressor that I was doing the right thing. I realize now that by not saying anything, I was part of the problem. I was never in a situation where I knew someone was being a predator, but there's definitely been times where I've been like, This isn't what I signed up for. I thought I couldn't do anything about it and I regret that. Regardless of how I feel about it, the fact that it's coming to the surface is a positive thing. It's not healthy and it needs to change.
The thing I'm struggling with now is lack of observation about how differently women were treated in the scene that we came up in. I don't think I fully really understood that until I saw my daughter deal with it. There's whole other aspects of it, too, when you're getting into queer and trans and non binary issues. Even when you grow up as a kind of outcast — like, I'm the kid that got beat up in school — you're still a straight white guy [laughs]. Even when you have it bad, you don't have it that bad. I don't think I fully recognized that until fairly recently. Which is an interesting thing to come to when you're 41.
Does it make you feel differently about that time, when you were first starting out?
For me, personally, it's kind of about going, Oh, maybe this isn't entirely what I thought it was. And that's a bummer. A big bummer.
What are your fondest memories of that time?
Our first couple of tours. I was 20. Everything was new. Everything was strange. Going to Europe for the first time, with Braid. Sleeping on floors and going to castles. Now — and this sounds like a fucking self-help book — but it's about trying to find joy in any of these processes, whether it's songwriting or recording or touring or doing interviews. It's about finding the parts of it you like and not becoming jaded. Trying to be present. There's a lot about this that's really cool. I don't want to be gone for 9 months out of the year, I want to have a family, but there's plenty positive about it. For those first couple tours, though, it wasn't a job. It was like, This is crazy.