Misery Business: The Cathartic and Unexpectedly Joyful Trend of Emo DJ Nights in Austin
Welcome to the Black Parade
Anyone who's done time manning a nightclub DJ booth comes armed with a clutch of "in case of emergency, break glass" songs they can trust to ignite a crowd.
Prince is an MVP of this dance floor utility, while Notorious B.I.G. and Jay-Z have earned their place among the old reliables, and Bad Bunny stands as the newest member of that League of Bangers.
For most of the past six years at Barbarella's Downtown dance den on the first Wednesday of the month, the song that launches the place to another level starts with 12 seconds of spare piano strokes that lead into a five-minute bare-souled screamed rock symphony.
It is perhaps a bit reductive to describe My Chemical Romance's "Welcome to the Black Parade" as the emo-rock "Bohemian Rhapsody," but there's no denying the instant recognition and bonding among a crowd full of strangers that takes place when those notes come tumbling out of the speakers deep into the evening at the monthly Jimmy Eat Wednesday nights that have become an odd duck success on the club's booking calendar.
When the song resounds amongst other genre heroes like Taking Back Sunday, Fall Out Boy, and event namesake Jimmy Eat World, seated drinkers become human pogo sticks who join a chorus channeling the torment of MCR singer Gerard Way.
"It seems to be the unofficial but somehow understood anthem of the whole night, the one song where everyone's tastes intersect because it was such a big song at the time, especially if you were just getting into the genre then around 2005 or 2006. It's the song that, out of all of them, seems to connect every person in the room," said Alex Chavez (DJ name "BB Ding"), the Houston native who launched Jimmy Eat Wednesday in 2015 and has used its success to start the statewide TX Emo Club that is behind a growing number of emo club nights in Austin.
"The moment you play that first piano note, everyone in the room seems to just be like, 'Oh, yeah, they're playing it.' It's the one that seems to unite most of the people that come."
Chavez and his partners currently have four monthly events at clubs throughout Austin, along with one-off events like the end-of-summer emo boat party on Sunday that will be the third such gathering this year.
Also entering the Austin emo night fray is the national promoter Emo Night Brooklyn, which has staged nearly 200 events in major markets across the country since launching in a Williamsburg bar in early 2015. ENB co-founder Ethan Maccoby now lives in Austin and is working to grow the company alongside partner Alex Badanes, with its next Austin booking slated for Friday at the Parish.
Emo Night Brooklyn events are differentiated from other sad-rock inspired nights by taking place in traditional music venues holding between 500 and 1,500 people, with the pair serving as onstage hosts and hype men introducing a string of genre favorite songs and occasionally sharing the stage with guests such as Metro Station's Mason Musso, who will be on hand for Friday's show.
Badanes said the popularity of emo nights can be chalked up largely to a very specific nostalgia niche for an audience whose older congregants are now juggling kids, mortgages, job uncertainty and, lest we forget, the mental baggage that comes with living during a global pandemic.
"Especially coming out of COVID, people are looking to get out and they feel some nostalgia for that time, especially if you're in your mid-to-late 20s and 30s and you have adult responsibilities and want to go back to a time when you didn't have any responsibilities and things were a little more free," he said. "Plus, a lot of those bands aren't touring to let you see them live these days. This isn't anything like seeing someone live, but it is something to hold people over and let them enjoy a night out with something different than what's being played in other bars."
With the perspective of holding events across cities in New York, California, and Florida as well as in Las Vegas, Dallas, and Detroit, Maccoby said they've learned some of the distinct tastes of different crowds and their affinity for emo music that leans either pop-punk, hardcore, screamo, or downcast. With Austin serving as a popular relocation spot for creatives in their 20s and 30s, he said the eclectic crowds here tend to be open to many subgenres.
"There are some cities where it's clear that it's a hardcore and screamo crowd and the poppy stuff is not going down. Then in other cities it'll be a younger crowd that wants newer stuff, or in Florida people want all of those Florida bands that were coming up at the same time," he said. "Austin is similar to New York because it's a transient city where you have people here from all over the place with an eclectic mix of people and you can try lots of different things for a slightly older crowd."
It is worth noting that the strands of emo that drive these nights favor the more caffeinated and pop-punk influenced bands that flooded radios, music video channels, and Hot Topics across the nation in the early 2000s. It's not out of the question to hear Nineties emo stalwarts like Promise Ring, Get Up Kids, and Sunny Day Real Estate at most emo nights (Rites of Spring and Embrace fans take note; this ain't your jam), but they're going to be quickly drowned out by the louder, anthemic likes of Paramore, Panic at the Disco, and Underoath.
Taken all together, it is still sort of a jarring notion: "emotional" rock music serving as the soundtrack to a DJ'd night at a music venue, with crowds finding a unified joy in sad-rock songs fueled by frustration and distrust.
"It's not like Joy Division is exactly happy, but you can play it at an Eighties night and people will dance to 'Love Will Tear Us Apart,'" Chavez said. "Seeing people sing and dance to songs that I thought were more alternative hits or things that we all knew, but you don't necessarily play it in a dance club ... I was like, well, this could work because these bands all have those kinds of hits too."
For musicians who spent stretches of the Nineties and early 2000s playing and touring under the inelegant umbrella of emo – a sound that, for many, seemed destined to be at most a niche subgenre of indie rock – the mental image of clubs packed with people celebrating video screens and playlists can look warped and out of focus.
For Chris Simpson, singer/guitarist for Austin Nineties emo founders Mineral, the popularity of emo nights fits with the loyalty that fans of the music have always shown, even if the construct of the music taking over dance clubs is difficult to fully grasp.
"To me it's strange because it doesn't really strike me as the sort of music that would work for that sort of thing. Like, do people dance? What do they do? It seems like strange music to congregate to in a club, so I guess people go there, talk with their friends, and enjoy this music," said Simpson, who still releases music under the name Mountain Time and does occasional reunions with his Mineral bandmates.
"It makes sense because a lot of people who get into it get into it at the exclusion of all other things and they're like 'This is what I like' and then want to discover as many emo bands as possible and that becomes their total scene."
Stella Maxwell, singer of the early 2000s Austin pop-punk band Cruiserweight, first experienced the emo dance night phenomenon when another of her bands, Adam & the Bull Shark, played a Foo Fighters tribute set on the Barbarella patio as a sidelight to Jimmy Eat Wednesday.
She said the experience of seeing significantly younger fans revering the music that had marked her early adult years felt "a little too close to home."
"It was a feeling I can't describe because in this club there were people just rocking out and singing along to all these songs that we all used to play on CDs in our vans when we were touring many years before that," she said. "I'm not a snob, but it was the type of nostalgia that didn't feel totally comfortable for me."
Round Rock resident Aaron Burgess helped create some of the most impactful coverage of emo and punk rock music in the early 2000s while he served as managing editor and editorial director of Alternative Press magazine. That publication's embrace of the genre – beginning with a cover story on Dashboard Confessional that helped redefine its coverage – helped to fuel its popularity by providing a consistent spotlight to a cohort of artists who were aligned in how they related to their careers and fanbases.
"It was weird because it was a scene that was DIY and yet also had commercial aspirations and the culture, sentiment, and heart-on-sleeve nature of the music made sense and I saw people in the generation younger than me really responding to it. There was a sense of authenticity that a lot of the bands had that wasn't manufactured," he said. "My kids talk about this music like classic rock and generational shifts are happening so quickly now that there's a definite sense of nostalgia about it, which is weird to me, but I also understand it."
In addition to the DJ'd nights, Chavez has worked to add live music into the mix of TX Emo Club nights, with both tribute acts like Y'all Out Boy and young bands playing original material getting audiences thanks to the more than 6,000 members of the company's social media and email marketing efforts.
In recent years the band Nominee has grown into a club draw after starting early gigs on the Barbarella patio, while Drunk Uncle was recently signed to the indie label Count Your Lucky Stars, and a handful of other bands – Rare Bloom, Glass Mansions, and Drip-Fed – have recently topped the bills at the monthly Taking Back Tuesday night at Far Out Lounge in South Austin.
All of this activity is of course happening under the cloud of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and an ongoing surge in infections and hospitalizations in the Austin area, making crowded gatherings an uncomfortable prospect.
Local clubs have attempted, with mixed results, to require proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID test for entrance. The recent relaunch of the SadderDays night at Spider House Ballroom earned the venue a warning from the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission when it learned the business was trying to enforce the rules Chavez wanted to implement for all of his company's bookings. As of now, those events are using a well-publicized honor system that asks customers to be immunized or to test themselves beforehand.
"Most people seem to be on board with us and the people who don't want to follow that protocol don't really come. It's definitely put a strain on my relationship with some bars because if that means some people don't come, it looks like it will be a slow event, and on the off nights where they put us, if it is slow then that doesn't make good business sense for them."
There is no danger of any strained relations at Barbarella, with club co-owner Jacob Cheely calling the night "a monster" that surprised him and other managers with its success from the first event.
"What's different about the night – and it's been tapped into by other stuff, but especially with Jimmy Eat Wednesday – was Ding going out and collecting hundreds of emo videos to play on our screens in the club, so it's like going to a club, but being at a rock show," he said. "Nostalgia sells and these are a chance for these people to come together and rally behind this movement they've had in their youth, with a lot of 30-year-olds screaming their heads off like they did when they were teenagers."
That popularity is likely to fuel more growth and emo nights around town. Chavez, whose father Charles Chavez is a former manager of the superstar rapper Pitbull, said he hopes to create a semi-regular emo skate night and pizza party, in addition to other club bookings.
With fans of the Barbarella's night stuck at home through the pandemic, he said the bonding and community that formed online for the weekly Screamo nights he held helped to firm up the idea that there was enough demand to spread the love of the genre far and wide.
"I thought, well, it's our culture. It's something all these people grew up on that they love and it's cool to see them connect with these songs and the artists. Seeing what took place with the Screamo nights, that was the light bulb moment because people were talking about how they wish they had grown up in that era and how they saw it. We pushed the pedal to the metal and really to really expand our presence within the markets we're already in and, you know, see where it goes."
Emo Veterans on EMO DJ Nights
Chris Simpson, singer/guitarist, Mineral: "I remember feeling this kinship of discovering someone doing something similar to what we were doing as a band. [Emo nights] makes sense because a lot of people who get into it get into it at the exclusion of all other things and they're like 'This is what I like' and then want to discover as many emo bands as possible and that becomes their total scene."
Stella Maxwell, singer, Cruiserweight: "It seemed like a cool way for a club to cultivate a crowd. The [Jimmy Eat Wednesday] name seemed cute and I remember walking into the club area and it was a feeling like I can't describe, with people just like rocking out and singing along to these songs that we played on CDs in our van during the times we were touring many years before that."
Gabe Hascall, singer/guitarist, the Impossibles: "Stylewise that stuff had a very strong identity, and nostalgia can be easily dismissed but it's a universal feeling and there's a reason why revisiting music from a time period that was particularly meaningful ... if you lived through a certain era you can still have a visceral reaction when you hear specific songs."
V. Marc Fort, bassist, Schatzi: "Emo nights in general I find fascinating because it's this weird thing in between a DJ night at a dance club and a regular show. It's not people dancing as the music is being played and you have young people acting like they're at a rock show singing along to the DJ because they know every word. It's like a facsimile of a rock show."
A Guide to Austin's Emo Nights
First Wednesdays: Jimmy Eat Wednesday @ Barbarella / Swan Dive (emo night/live bands/emo karaoke)
Second Saturdays: Sadderdays @ The Spider House Ballroom (modern/classic emo outside – emo night inside)
Third Wednesdays: Emo night Austin @ Summit Rooftop
Last Tuesdays: Taking Back Tuesday @ Far Out Lounge (bands/emo karaoke)
10 Faves from Emo Night Brooklyn's Ethan Maccoby
1. A Day to Remember – "The Downfall of Us All"
2. Taking Back Sunday – "A Decade Under the Influence"
3. Boys Like Girls – "The Great Escape"
4 Yellowcard – "Ocean Avenue"
5. The Starting Line – "Best of Me"
6. All Time Low – "Dear Maria, Count Me In"
7. Underoath – "In Regards to Myself"
8. New Found Glory – "Understatement"
9. My Chemical Romance – "Teenagers"
10. The Dangerous Summer – "Where Were You When The Sky Opened Up"