The irony of an album title like Through Being Cool, Saves The Day's breakthrough second LP, is that the record's 1999 release is precisely what made the emo-pop trailblazers, well, cool.
Not that they think of themselves any differently now, of course. If you ask lead singer Chris Conley about Saves The Day's status as genre innovators, he'd deny, deny, deny.
"We were just doing the Jawbreaker, Foo Fighters thing," he says over the phone. "That's all that was. We certainly didn't invent anything. We were just having fun, and the songs were really good and we were really excited. And then people loved it."
And fans certainly did pick up what the Princeton band was putting down 20 years ago. Merging ultra-catchy, pop-minded hooks (à la their tri-state area influencers, Lifetime) and upbeat tempos with a hard-hitting, short-form punk delivery, Saves The Day's influences were considerably wide-ranging, borrowing ideas from post-grunge radio mainstays Foo Fighters and Smashing Pumpkins and Swedish political punks Refused. Capped off by Conley's whinging wail, Through Being Cool would catapult Saves The Day from Conley's mom's New Jersey basement to MTV (which aired music videos from the band's 2001 airtight follow-up, Stay What You Are) to an opening spot on pop-punk deities Green Day and Blink-182's 2002 Pop Disaster tour.
Today, you can't scroll through an emo or pop-punk best-of list without seeing Through Being Cool near the top. On Oct. 25, the band released a new reissue of Through Being Cool, which features remastered versions of the original record, plus a handful of never-before-heard demos. There's even a new video for album single "Shoulder To The Wheel," featuring house-party animation from Sarah Schmidt and Ian Ballantyne. And, come Saturday, Nov. 2, the 20th anniversary of Through Being Cool, Saves The Day will play the album in its entirety on four sold-out dates, which kicks off at New Jersey's stomping ground for homegrown artists, Starland Ballroom.
Conley, who is the last original member of Saves The Day, sat down with the Recording Academy to talk about his earliest memories of writing and recording Through Being Cool, shooting its now-iconic cover and how he feels graphic lyrics like "Let me take this awkward saw/ Run it against your thighs" have aged.
I noticed that when Through Being Cool turned 15 five years ago, you said that it felt like the most important record that Saves The Day did. Do you still feel like that’s true?
Well, I don't remember saying that, but I think it was absolutely the record that established us an important band in this underground scene, and it was one of the most pivotal chapters of my life. And then we made Stay What You Are a few years later and I think those two records are probably the most important Saves the Day records thus far in terms of establishing our longevity.
You have a brand-new animated video for "Shoulder To The Wheel." Is it true that the band "hated" the original video?
Sometimes I don't know where these things come from. Maybe it was a passing comment and sometimes when you're young, you have intense feelings, but they don't stick around very long. I remember always hating to look at myself on any screen or in photos and that might be a thing.
There's a story about how we really didn't like our cover of AP, but that was other people that thought things about it that somehow got to Alternative Press, and I was able to finally clear the air with them when I visited them. I said, "I didn't like how I look as a human being, but I never said that to anybody." And so I think that might be where some of that stuff comes from. Maybe somebody overheard me griping about my own self-loathing.
I believe it was Bryan Newman who said that in 2014. You guys were in college when you recorded Through Being Cool, correct?
Yeah. [Founding drummer] Bryan Newman and I had done one year at NYU and the whole time during that year, I would walk over to his dorm and play him songs that I had been writing over in my dorm. And we booked time to record all these songs at the end of the spring semester. Right when we got out of school, it was the beginning of summer of 1999, I think it was late May we went in for 11 days with [producer] Steve Evetts in Trax East in South River, New Jersey. And we tracked it, and we had to book two additional half days because I blew out my voice halfway through vocals. But yeah, that's how that all happened. We were at NYU and I was writing all those songs in New York City.
When you think about that time, and when you think recording the album that would go on to be so seminal in the genre, does anything in particular stand out for you about the mood in the room and how it felt to be creating this thing?
Well, I specifically remember being in the studio as we were tracking the songs and they were coming together, there was an extreme feeling of excitement and almost bewilderment of how good this thing was. We could tell. And immediately, Bryan and I decided we would defer for the next year at NYU and just hit the road to start touring because we were picking up steam. All that year, after [Saves The Day's 1998 debut album] Can't Slow Down came out, we'd be touring in winter break and then on the weekends we'd be going out playing shows. And every time we'd go out and play a show, more and more people were there singing along. But then we made Through Being Cool and we thought, "Oh my gosh. This is really good. Let's take a year off and let's just commit to touring and do it full-time and just see what happens."
The other thing I remember is just the writing of the songs was incredibly fun, and I could tell that the songs were catchy and cool, and that was just me having fun as a songwriter. I remember at the end of one of the tours for Can't Slow Down, the guys all sat me down and said, "We don't like playing these fast songs. We like your mid-tempo songs more." And so that was a pivotal moment as well where I leaned into the mid-tempo stuff. That was a relief to me because I was only really into fast hardcore for a hot minute. I was really into Gorilla Biscuits and Lifetime for about a year and a half, but my real love is Jawbreaker, Sunny Day Real Estate, Archers Of Loaf, Smashing Pumpkins and stuff like that. And the Foo Fighters' record The Colour And The Shape had come out that year along with the Refused album The Shape Of Punk To Come. We were listening to those albums just non-stop in the van, and those two records are basically the seed of what was to become our sound.
Yeah, and it sounds like you leaned even harder into that mid-tempo style on Stay What You Are.
Well, what's cool is that one day when I was driving to the mixing of Through Being Cool, this is the final two days of working on the album, I had a long drive from my home in Princeton to the studio. And I was digging around in the back of my car for a tape to listen to, and I used to keep tapes just strewn about the car, and I pulled out a tape that wasn't mine and I didn't put there and it was The Beatles the Red or Blue tape where it was the later hits.
Oh, that's the Blue album. The later hits.
Yeah. I pulled out the Blue tape and I did not like The Beatles at the time. I thought they were only “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” which I love now, but I didn't like back then. And I was like, "All right, cool. I'll put this in." I put it in, and it was all these weird and cool quirky pop songs that were really strange, and I was instantly hooked. And so I show up at the studio and I told Steve that I found this Beatles tape in the back of the car and he was like, "Oh my god, dude. The Beatles are my favorite band ever."
And so then when we went for lunch that day, when we went into his car, he put on Revolver and Rubber Soul and he was showing me how if you turn the speaker all the way to the left you can hear just the background vocals and ride cymbal and then if you turn it all the way to the right, it's the guitar and the main vocal. And I remember we drove back to the studio and on that day, this is my first day getting into The Beatles, I thought John Lennon sang all the songs. And he was like, "Wait, you can't tell the difference between John and Paul?" I was like, "Wait, there's two singers?" He's like, "Yeah." He's like, "I can't believe you can't hear that." And now it's crazy to me that I couldn't tell the difference between the two of them.
Discovering The Beatles in that moment is what led to Stay What You Are becoming a more expansive sound and coupled with a few other important life events, like flipping our van, having a near-death experience and really seeing through the surface of the superficial aspect of life and starting to question what is this all about, which informed the lyrics. We were also on tour and doing a little bit of the rock and roll thing. You never know what somebody slips into your drink and so music starts to sound really, really cool if you're in a certain mood. And so The Beatles just blew my mind and so that's how you get songs like "Cars And Calories" on Stay What You Are and songs like "Certain Tragedy."
Nowadays Saves The Day gets referenced as helping to generate a new, perhaps more accessible wave of pop-punk and emo. When you were touring this record, did you guys feel like you were breaking new ground?
Oh, no. Absolutely not. We were just doing the Jawbreaker, Foo Fighters thing. That's all that was. We certainly didn't invent anything. We were just having fun and it was the songs were really good and we were really excited. And then people loved it.
I think I mean more in a mainstream, commercial sense. For instance, Nirvana were hailed as grunge innovators, but Kurt Cobain would say he was just trying to emulate lesser-known acts like Pixies and the Vaselines.
I can see what you mean in terms of Nirvana, but I would never be able to wrap my head around thinking about Saves in that same way just in terms of putting a new spin on things, an already established sound, but really I'm just a fan of music. I love what I love and so when Bryan and I first started playing music together, everything we did sounded like Sunny Day Real Estate and Smashing Pumpkins because I was obsessed with those bands. And so that's still the case. You're just influenced by your surroundings and I'm largely who I am because of my parents and I worship them, I love them. Then you learn what you learn in school and you start to think that way and talk that way. And I listen to records and I learn, I read books and study lyrics and I learn. And then it's like a call and response.
Yeah. From my perspective, what you did at that time really helped popularize a lot of sounds, in the mainstream sense.
And that part of it just blows my mind, the fact that we are influential at all is just crazy. That's bewildering in and of itself. And it's also extremely humbling. It's surreal. You know what I mean? I'm incredibly grateful and it's just so cool and so fun.
I want to talk about the record cover, which has to be one of the more instantly recognizable covers of the emo genre. How did you conceptualized the cover of that album? It's a very classic feeling of being at a party and feeling like, "Why am I here. I don't think I belong. I don't know what to say."
Yeah, that was exactly how I felt then and how I feel now. I was so obsessed with the band Lifetime and they were from New Jersey, and they would play shows all the time in Princeton and New Brunswick, which was just right down the road. And in the hardcore punk scene, there's no tall stages, there's no rock stars. It's a community. And so if you hung around after the show, you could meet the band. And so me being as obsessed as I was, I would sit there and help them pack up their gear. They're like, "Man, you're so awesome. You're so nice. Who are you?" And so I'm like, "Hey, I'm Chris. I'm your biggest fan." And Ari Katz, the singer of Lifetime, worked at a record store in New Brunswick.
And so as soon as I got my license, incidentally I would drive after school every day to his record store where he worked. After being there every day for week after week after week and annoying the hell out of him, he finally relented and he was like, "All right. Let's talk." And the first thing he did was, "Can you give me a ride somewhere?" And so we'd start going wherever, he's like, "Head left here. Head right there." He's like, "Pull over here. Park here." We wind up at a head shop and he goes in and buys a bong or something, a pipe or a bong.
And then he gets back in the car and he looks at me. He's like, "I bet you thought a straight-edge band wouldn't be taking you to a head shop." And I was like ... I had no idea. I was just in awe of the fact that I was hanging out with him, but he started telling me about music in that car ride and saying how to make his voice better, he would sing along with Elvis records and how he really loved Elvis Costello as well. When we got back to the record store and continuing that conversation he said, "My favorite record right now is this Devo record." And I forget what the name of the album is [Editor's note: the album is 1981's New Traditionalists], but the first song on the album is called "Through Being Cool." And it goes, "We're through being cool. We're through ... " And so that's how I got the idea to use that name. And when we finally played the record release show for Through Being Cool, we brought our own record player and hooked it up to the PA and played Devo's "Through Being Cool" as we walked on.
And there's also a Jawbreaker song at the end of Dear You. There's an acoustic song where he says, "Wake me up when you're through being cool because I'm snoring." And Blake Schwarzenbach from Jawbreaker is my favorite lyricist of all time. He is so intertwined with my DNA that I would sit there and read his words like they were actual poetry, which they are.
Do you remember the day you shot the album cover?
Yeah. In terms of the shoot, yeah, I remember it all really well. We borrowed Kate Reddy sister's apartment in Queens. Kate Reddy is from the band 108. She's a guitar player from 108 and she had her solo project, Project Kate, which is acoustic music that we absolutely loved. In fact, it's the reason that Saves The Day started making acoustic music at all. But Kate is married to Steve Reddy who owns Equal Vision. They'd set up the day at this apartment because Bryan and David Soloway, in our band, both took photography their entire life at our high school Princeton Day School and then went on to study photography in college as well.
The two of them were obsessed with David LaChapelle at the time, who was doing lots of photo shoots for Rolling Stone and magazines like that where he would set up these really elaborate sets that looked like movies. And I said this before for an Alternative Press piece recently so it's not anything new, but that was their inspiration entirely and when we used to be driving around planning the layout, the two of them were just so excited talking about this idea of having it be a party, but we were over it. We don't even want to be there. And then we lose David and have to find him and so they set up this whole story, and we shot it, afterwards we sent it to Equal Vision and a few of the people from Equal Vision were like, "Wait a second. We don't get it. We don't understand."
We said, "No, it's okay. It's kind of tongue-in-cheek. It doesn't have to take itself too seriously. It's just a fun record." We invited all of our friends and friends of friends and people we'd met through shows and in the scene to come and just have a party. We had the time of our lives. There's friends from high school there, there's friends from shows, there's friends that have come and gone, and it's wild to look back on it now and to still know so many people from that shoot and to all be sort of sharing this strange and surreal journey that that album launched.
Well, before I let you go, I wanted to get your take on something. Saves The Day, and this album in particular, has gotten pushback in recent years for some of your more graphic lyrics. I'm specifically thinking of verbiage like “Let me take this awkward saw/ run it against your thighs/ Cut some flesh away,” etc. I’m sure this wouldn’t be the first time anyone’s asked you about this, but I was curious, with the anniversary of this album, what’s your view on how Saves The Day’s lyrics have aged?
Yeah. Well, you know what's completely funny to me? I can't speak for anybody else's lyrics, but none of those songs are about anybody. That song ["Rocks Tonic Juice Magic"] was an assignment for an NYU writing class to talk about extreme feelings of anger and frustration and rage. There is no person attached to that song. That's just a vehicle for the feelings of frustration to live in a vignette, and that's poetic license. One of my favorite lyricists, who's also controversial these days, was Morrissey, and he'd write lines like, "If a 10-ton truck kills both of us, to die by your side is such a heavenly way to die." I just love that. Who knows if there's anybody in that, and that's none of my business, but I do know where I was coming from so I have zero feelings of hesitation or guilt when it comes to this.
And I've said this recently in a piece where the only songs that are about real people are the love songs. Then there are a couple of the angry songs about men. There are songs that you might think are about a female that is about a man and not at all romantically. I used to write songs about just friends that were jerks. You know what I mean? Or roommates in college that were just jerks. What's wild to me is it's an interesting thing to think about. You never know where someone's coming from, anyway. Thank god I know where I was coming from so I can clear the air there, and I'm glad that you mentioned it because when people first started coming up to me saying, "This song is really negative toward females," I was literally surprised.
That would never have occurred to me because it was never what it was about. It was just about my own personal emotions, and clearly I am incredibly emo. Those feelings are universal. I wrote "In Reverie" about feeling disconnected from God and it feels like it's a love letter about a lost lover, but I just felt I wanted to go back home. I just wanted to feel that love again. There's a song "Tomorrow Too Late" that says, "When was the last time I held you all through the night," whatever, "And never a worry would run through my heart like a knife. Feels like a zillion years," whatever. That's a spiritual song. That's spiritual loneliness and solitude and isolation and alienation. I think it's good that you asked me because artists do have to be accountable for what they truly mean and their work is important because it affects people's lives and so I think it's important for me to be able to clarify that.
Yeah, I figured that this was a well-worn topic of conversation for you, and I appreciate you going there with me again now. I'm also interested in your take on how critics have reassessed emo as a genre that is generally violent and dismissive toward women.
That's a shame, and if people are misinterpreting what I was saying had anything to contribute to that, I will go to my grave feeling bad about that, but at the same time, that wasn't my intention. Really, it's a reflection of those people and their inner world. It has nothing to do with me.
If you want to know how I feel about women, in "Shoulder To The Wheel" I say, "I'm having a bad week and I miss my mom." My mom is the only reason I made it through this world, her unconditional love and support and she's the most amazing person I've ever known. And so if you're raised by a strong woman, it doesn't even come across your mind to feel any differently. You just feel respect and there's a reverence there and gratitude.