Why pop-punk and emo bands are having a comeback moment

When Justin Pierre reflects on what he considers his band Motion City Soundtrack’s peak, his inability to remember most of it makes him sad. It’s almost too fitting given the band’s pop-punk and emo leanings, which made it a regular on the Warped Tour festival circuit in the early aughts.

For Pierre, the years following Motion City Soundtrack’s debut release — “I Am The Movie” in 2003 — were a blur of incessant touring, drinking and drug use. So when the group set out on tour to celebrate the 15th anniversary of its acclaimed sophomore release “Commit This to Memory” in early 2020, the lead singer and guitarist was somewhat surprised to be welcomed by emphatic fans selling out venues and screaming the words to every song.

“To be able to experience a bit of that, it was a weird thing,” said Pierre, now 12 years sober. “It made me sad when I thought of the past, but it made me feel a lot of joy in the present.”

Motion City Soundtrack, which returns to the Summit in Denver in July for its now 17th-anniversary tour, is one of numerous emo and pop-punk bands riding a resurgence in popularity, as tastes have gravitated to dark and sentimental lyrics set to aggressively catchy melodies. Nostalgia is certainly one driving factor: Just look at the aptly named When We Were Young Festival in Las Vegas in the fall, which sold out almost instantly, for proof.

But Colorado-based producers and promoters say chalking it up to cyclical tastes is too simple. Digital streaming and platforms like Spotify helped a new generation of fans discover these bands and also inspired a wave of up-and-coming artists who are now carrying the tune.

“If I had a dollar for every article or everybody that claims every couple of years that rock is dead or punk is dead, ya know, we’d have more money to book more shows,” said Danny Sax, talent buyer for AEG Presents Rocky Mountains. “It’s never going to die because there is a primal energy in this music. And especially in emo, there’s such a strong emotion that it’s equally rewarding to see it remerge with a new flavor for each successive generation.”

RELATED: 30 pop-punk and emo concerts coming to Denver in 2022

One contributor to the genres’ staying power is Emo Nite, a Los Angeles bar party-turned-traveling event that brings tunes from Good Charlotte, All Time Low and other favorites to audiences nationwide even when the bands aren’t touring. In fact, the party makes its way to the Summit in Denver on March 11.

Geoff Brent, owner of Colorado Springs venue The Black Sheep and a Live Nation talent buyer, hosts his own local version called Taking Back Mondays, a play on the band name Taking Back Sunday. When he started the weekly event at The Matchbox in Denver about seven years ago, it drew a couple of dozen people for a late-night dance party. Now, it regularly hosts a couple hundred, he said.

“I literally started doing it on Zoom for a few months (during the pandemic) because so many people were like, ‘I miss it!’,” Brent said. “It was a fun little house party with the regulars. That was in the everything-was-closed days. I was like, ‘People just need some connection, you know?’ ”

Pent up COVID angst

It’s hard to overstate the impact that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on the live music industry. For two years, artists have been caught in a cycle of tour cancellations and rescheduled dates amid ever-changing health conditions and new variants.

Even as states discontinue mask mandates, uncertainty lingers. Motion City Soundtrack, for example, restarted its tour in December only to have to delay dates again after Pierre contracted COVID-19. Boulder duo 3OH!3 is slated to play the When We Were Young Festival this fall and hoping to tour the United Kingdom after having to reschedule — three times. But producer Nat Motte admitted it’s a constantly moving target.

“Everyone’s just trying to figure out how things are going to work logistically and how to make it safe and sound for everybody,” Motte said.

There’s no doubt, however, that multiple years in live music limbo has both bands and fans anxious to get back at it. Concerts are not only an essential revenue stream for musicians, but also an integral piece of fandom. But for teenagers and twentysomethings who were too young to catch bands a decade ago, the sense of urgency is palpable.

“There are a lot of 17-year-olds coming to those shows. People who are under 21 or barely 21. The album might be older than (they) are,” Brent said. “It’s not really irony or nostalgia or anything. The music just holds up and has a spotlight on it now.”

There’s something else intangible at play, according to Sax. Punk’s past resurgences in the 1970s and 1990s were counter-culture movements, he said, and that the world has experienced dramatic social and political upheaval recently is adding to the genre’s resonance.

“Punk-rock was born out of a class and social sense of strife, and I think especially when young people are exposed to that they react powerfully,” Sax said. “There’s a certain element that’s intrinsically punk-rock in that.”

The resurgence includes hardcore music, too, he added.

Beyond anecdotal evidence, ticket sales speak to the trend. Sax originally booked When We Were Young Festival performer The Story So Far at Denver’s Ogden Theatre, which holds 1,700 people. The April 13 show sold out so quickly that AEG Presents moved it to the Mission Ballroom, with a 4,000-person capacity, Sax said.

“Motion City Soundtrack, I swear to God that band is twice as big as even when they came out,” said Brent. “I certainly have been working these shows long enough to see it get huge. And then there were like five years when these bands were just really doing poorly … . It’s been consistently getting better, but it definitely seems like it’s peaking every day now.”

Similar sound, different scene

Credit can’t go entirely to the old bands seeing renewed interest, our experts said, as a new wave of artists embrace the sound and progress the scene.

Rapper Machine Gun Kelly is one of the most well-known names dabbling in pop-punk right now, thanks in part to collaborator Travis Barker of Blink 182, who has championed several other up-and-comers such as nothing,nowhere. and KennyHoopla. (Both are touring through Denver soon.) Other modern bands worth a listen, according to Brent, include Hot Mulligan, Oso Oso, Mom Jeans and Sincere Engineer. The latter is a project by Deanna Belos, a rare frontwoman in the scene.

The lack of female representation on stage was thrust into the spotlight near the end of Warped Tour’s reign, which coincided with the #MeToo movement. According to VICE, some fans criticized festival organizers for their response to accusations that women had been mistreated by certain bands on the lineup. Artists and promoters said they’ve seen the scene become more inclusive.

“It’s super LGBTQ-friendly, super female-friendly. I think a lot of the bigger tours and festivals are making a point to have female artists be represented,” Brent said. “You could maybe say that about all of music at this point, but it’s noticeable in that scene for sure.”

It’s the same sound, a different scene, and still bound to be a good time. At least 30 pop-punk, emo or adjacent bands you’d find in the same CD case are coming through Colorado this year. But if you talk to Pierre, don’t call it a comeback.

“I don’t think punk will ever die, but I think it will be like any other material that cannot be created or destroyed. It just changes over time,” he said. “Billie Eilish is punk as (expletive). For me, it’s in the attitude and how people do things. Like AOC is punk as (expletive).”

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