I'm on the phone with singer-guitarist Matt Pryor. He's in Seattle, a few hours before his band's show at Graceland, standing on a bustling street corner in front of the Dionysian bus he and his four bandmates sleep and eat and play Tetris in for the better part of every year. Through the dull roar that seems without fail to accompany rock and roll bands on tour, I can hear
that some of the other guys want to go guitar shopping; one of them wants to get some coffee. Pryor puts me on hold while we're talking to field another journalist's call: "I've got like 10 interviews today," he mumbles in apology.
An explanation follows. "I like touring, but at the same time, it's really tiring." He speaks with that mixture of weary conviction and naive idealism that's as common to young, hard-working bands as broken E strings and asshole club owners. You can't begrudge him the disposition: The Kids, currently riding a rising star to the above-ground music machine, have built what they've built on the road, forsaking college and jobs and live-in girlfriends for the prize of strangers' floors and free underage beer. The Seattle stop is just the latest in an ever-lengthening line. "We've been touring pretty much for, God..." Pryor trails off in thought, marveling yet again at the idea, "like three and a half years, pretty straight."
It's paid off. Something to Write Home About, the band's second full-length album, has sold somewhere around 80,000 copies since its release by Southern California indie Vagrant in September of last year--not an unrespectable figure for a band from Kansas City, Missouri (a.k.a. An Above-Ground Music Machine Nowhere). The band's wholesome, tuneful, adrenalized pop-punk has hit a chord (or three) with pop-punk fans too smart to care about Blink 182 and emo dilettantes too young to know about Rites of Spring. They even scored a spot on a recent The Real World compilation CD; reportedly, the not-so-wholesome, adrenalized Melissa is a big fan.
I saw the band last year in New York at the Bowery Ballroom (not an unrespectable venue for any band, from Kansas City or no): The kids went crazy before the Kids even bounded into view. By the time they kicked into "Red Letter Day," a particularly catchy tune featured on Something and an earlier EP, young men in horn-rimmed glasses were pumping their fists. Their girlfriends (in pink and yellow baby tees, natch) were swooning. And that was, like, the first song.
"It's been totally gradual," Pryor says of the band's growing fanbase. "You gotta understand, we've been working our asses off for the last three and a half years. When we first started touring, we were playing in basements. Then every time we went through a town it got to be bigger and bigger clubs, until it was where we are now."
Pryor is modest about his success, but he answers questions about it quickly, belying a familiarity with an industry with which he's not altogether comfortable.
"I hate industry people," he says. "Music industry people bother the shit out of me. They all kiss your ass like they're trying to get something out of you, then they don't talk to you after you can't give 'em anything."
Again, he knows what he's talking about. After Four Minute Mile, the band's debut, swept high school cafeterias in 1997, Pryor found major-label A&R guys leaving him messages and asking him to dinner. In fact, he almost bit the bullet. But something wasn't right. "Nobody in the industry wants to just hang out and be friends or anything," he frowns.
Half of me wants to give him a "Well, no shit" smack; the other half wants to hug him. But that's sort of the appeal of the Get Up Kids, distilled to a single schizophrenic urge: innocence lost and regained in a three-minute pop tune about why she left.
That's also pretty much my feeling on Never You Mind, Pryor's new solo-ish album, released under the nom de plume the New Amsterdams (a name almost as Richard Scarry cute as the Get Up Kids). It's basically the Kids unplugged (with a few requisite Elliott Smith knock-offs thrown in), though Pryor sees it as a separate animal.
"I had a bunch of songs that weren't really Get Up Kids songs, and that I didn't really want to do as Get Up Kids songs," he explains. "We wanted to do some stuff that was more acoustic-based and also stuff that I could be a complete control freak about."
When we says "we" he's referring to fellow Kid Robbie Pope, guitarist Jake Cardwell and drummer Alex Brahl. "I enlisted the help of Robbie and Alex and Jake and just kind of put the record together. I did the songs in the studio and we just kind of built the record around the songs."
Recorded in about a week (a holiday compared to the six spent on Something to Write Home About), it's much looser and more off-the-cuff than the Kids' slick bash 'n' pop. Pryor sniggers. "Oh, it is, but that's partially just 'cause we didn't know what we were doing. We were just kind of making it up as we went along."
Call it practical magic, then. Or beginner's luck. But pay attention now if you're going to: Pryor says the road-warrioring has finally taken its toll. "This tour ends October 15, and we're not playing another show for a year," he sighs. "We're gonna write a new record and record a new record." He takes a breath before admitting, "We might play a benefit show in L.A. for Vagrant, but that's really about it. That's the only show we're gonna play."
If the din in Seattle is any indication, the fans--new and old alike--will be right there waiting.