Emo music used to be quite a big thing when I was growing up. Many of the current generation of young adults can undoubtedly remember the emo boom of the early 2000s, during which eyeliner sales went through the roof, along with vision-obscuring fringes and the ownership of sharp objects. Teenage androgyny and a strain of overly dramatic punk music characterised the trend, which eventually developed into one of the largest subcultures of the 21st century. But it all came to a sudden end – perhaps people got bored, or maybe they grew up and decided to stop acting like wet flannels. Either way, emos in 2014 are an endangered species, so when I heard that one of the most iconic bands of the genre was playing in the small venue around the corner, I had to go and investigate.
Hawthorne Heights are an American band most notable for their melodic screamo style and their lyrics regarding heartbreak and self-harm. Their debut and quintessential album The Silence In Black and White came out in 2004, and they have recently embarked on a 10 year anniversary tour, having re-worked some of their original classics into an acoustic release. “It’s hard to believe it’s been ten years” says front man JT Woodruff. “It feels like it’s flown by – you wake up one day and it’s ten years later”.
The crowd seem pretty normal – it’s mostly populated by ex-emos in their mid-twenties who are either there for a bit of nostalgia, or to escape from the dire pop nights which make up Exeter’s clubbing scene. There are a couple of long fringed individuals and mohican-sporting punks who are the most energetic, but the mosh pit is a fairly moderate affair for most of the night. It does however liven up for the band’s most notable songs, including Ohio Is for Lovers and Niki FM.
Seven or eight years ago Hawthorne Heights would’ve been playing to a crowd four times this size, in a larger venue. Is the small crowd a reflection of the how the genre is faring? “Obviously we’re from thousands of miles away so we don’t expect our shows to be as big when we play over here” admits JT. He contrasts tonight with last summer’s Warped Tour, where they “were playing to five or ten thousand people a day – all the shows were big, all the shows were great”.
“I wouldn’t be stoked if somebody called us emo, I wouldn’t be bummed if somebody called us emo”
Is the genre in terminal decline? It’s more of a cycle, he argues; “Rock music always sort of peaks and dies, and pop music will always be there to kinda crush it a little bit – but even if there’s only five people there singing a song that you wrote, it’s still wonderful”. He mentions that the indie scene has become a bit heavier recently. Are Hawthorne Heights an indie band? It seems almost fashionable for emo bands to reject the genre.
It’s a meaningless label, JT insists. “I wouldn’t be stoked if somebody called us emo, I wouldn’t be bummed if somebody called us emo; it’s just a name”. He takes a broader view of music – “You’re either a rock band, a pop band, a country band, rap, hip-hop – we’re all doing something different”.
I can’t help but feel that if one of the most epochal emo-bands refuses to recognise the genre, then it truly is dead. I point out the fact that they’ve swapped their long fringes for shorter and more regular haircuts – does this say anything about their direction? He laughs. “It’s getting into summer time”.
Re-recording The Silence In Black and White allowed them to take a look back at their achievements over the past ten years. “It was an exercise in remembering everything we’d done, but aside from that we just wanted to play the songs in a different way. We’ve been playing them the same way for ten years now so we wanted to something a little bit different. It was a lot of fun – a lot of memories”.
I arrived at the gig not really knowing what to expect and left having enjoyed myself. The night was perhaps best summed up by a guy I overheard in the urinal talking to his mate: “In 2006 I thought emo was shite – now I think it’s catchy as fuck”. Even though the lyrics were ridiculous (“Cut my wrists and black my eyes/ so I can fall asleep tonight”), it was a great laugh and a welcome change from the heart.fm-esque DJ sets churned out in nightclubs on the regular.
“Emo never died – it just went underground” explains one fan. “There are a couple of good bands still releasing stuff with a similar sound, such as Pianos Become the Teeth and La Dispute”. It’s also experiencing a revival, he adds. “Maybe in a few years we will hear bands more like this. The genre went away for a while but it feels like it’s coming back”.