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June 24, 2014
by Bryne Yancey

There are benefits to being a member of a tight-knit music community. As a fan, you’re able to truly experience the exhilarating highs of a raucous live show, the deafening lows of a disappointing album and everything in between. Especially in the punk scene, fans often follow bands from their humble basement show beginnings to when (or if) they begin to receive more recognition, and stay close throughout those highs and lows. The natural course of a band’s career is at once unpredictable and fascinating, a parallel for the lives of many of their fans. When a band you love does something great, you feel great, not just for them but in a weird way, for yourself, too. And when that same band lets you down you wonder, either to yourself or aloud, what went wrong and how it could have been done differently, not unlike how you might react to an adverse event in your own life.

Though this phenomenon isn’t unique to the punk scene, it’s far more common here. In punk, the division between artist and audience member is often minimal; most of our favorite bands release albums on small labels, play venues with low or no stage, and will hang out at the bar or in the back of the house after their set. They’re regular people with hopes, dreams, fears and regrets; with shitty jobs, empty bank accounts, relationship problems, annoying allergies and other common problems that plague the rest of us. They just happen to be a little better at singing and playing guitar than we are (well, sometimes) and can portray those hopes, dreams, fears and regrets in a way that a lot of us can’t. We are them and they are us. Their music simultaneously reminds us of our own problems and assures us that we’re not alone in having them. That yeah, things might suck now but eventually everything will probably be alright. Beyonce can do a lot of things, but she decidedly cannot do that. Ten bucks says Beyonce has a perfect credit score.

That intimate connection. That’s why punk endures through exhausting cynicism, endless scene politics and counterproductive cliquishness. It’s why you should laugh at anyone who suggests punk is dead, and remind them that it’s only dead to them because they stopped paying attention.

*****

A few months ago I saw my friends in the Swellers play a west Philadelphia basement as part of their initial tour supporting their new album on No Sleep Records, The Light Under Closed Doors. Although they’re from Michigan and I’m from Florida, I feel like I’ve grown up with these guys. The tour, which was mostly house shows, was something of a return to the band’s roots; I have great memories of driving from the no-name town of Melbourne, FL where I grew up to other no-name central Florida towns like Deltona and Poinciana to see them play in houses and backyards to very few people, and even fewer genuinely interested people, in the mid-2000s. They’ve gained a lot of fans since then, most of them much younger than me and with no prior concept of what house shows are. They might have discovered the Swellers while attending Warped Tour one year, or saw them open for Paramore or Motion City Soundtrack, or read about them in Alternative Press or AbsolutePunk. The idea that one of their favorite bands would be playing a show in someone’s basement and would be just hanging out at the house before and after their set, something that you and I completely take for granted, blows their minds.

When I gingerly walked down the narrow, rickety staircase into that west Philly basement, there were kids already claiming their spots up front, saying things to each other like, “We’re about to see the Swellers play in a basement and we’re in the front row!” How fucking cool is that? How can you possibly witness that and still feel old and jaded?

The show was incredibly fun, because everyone from the band to the crowd were having a blast forging a connection that would otherwise be broken by a stage or barricade. The band played songs about the difficulties in their own lives that spoke to the audience, and likely mirrored their own experiences. There was no posturing, just a bunch of really excited kids bobbing their heads, dancing and singing along to their favorite band with incalculable exuberance. I couldn’t help but see my former self in them just a little bit.

Remember when that used to be us? Let’s bring it back.

*****

The Swellers announced their breakup today after twelve years, which, given the way today’s landscape seems to chew up bands and spit them out, is a lifetime. They lasted longer than most of the contemporaries do because of their work ethic above all else. (Their songs were pretty good, too.)

Earlier this year, their music—and my ongoing relationship with their music, which lasted nearly as long as the band did—inspired me to write the above piece, while reflecting on how we, as a scene, have a tendency to shy away from overt enthusiasm about a lot of things we used to embrace—older people especially. It’s become so easy to just stand in the back with our arms crossed, dividing attention between our phones, our beers, and the band in front of us, while scoffing at kids, both in person and on twitter, who are thrilled about seeing a band they love. These kids have so much enthusiasm they can barely contain it, and as such, it can sometimes bubble over and create awkward situations, but by and large, they mean well. They’re just figuring out this shit, much like you and I had to at some point.

The Swellers were arguably one of the few bands in the scene who were legitimately influenced by punk bands—unlike a lot of more popular pop-punk bands, who seemed to have grown up listening to New Found Glory, latter-era blink-182 and little else, it was more than obvious Nick and Jonathan Diener grew up listening to Punk-O-Rama and Physical fatness comps. Their demise leaves a huge void in a fragile, impressionable portion of the scene.

Now that the Swellers’ story is ending, it’s easy to reflect on the stupidly simple tenets that led to their longevity in a fickle scene where they were too punk for the pop crowd and too pop for the punk crowd: Work hard. Be nice to everyone. Don’t worry about detractors. Just keep trying to improve. These things could apply to anyone regardless of their walk of life, but in an independent music subculture, they seem to go a lot further because so few people adhere to them. 

Hopefully, the Swellers’ influence reaches that sphere as well. We’re gonna need it.

An earlier version of this column appeared here on Jan. 8, 2014.

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