Strike It Up

It's Friday night in Manhattan, and though the line snaking down Broadway between West 52nd and 53rd might appear to be for tonight's performance of Bombay Dreams, this crowd isn't exactly Andrew Lloyd Weber's demographic. There are a handful of bemused-looking parent types, but they're wildly outnumbered by young women in Old Navy hoodies and teenage guys with extravagantly tousled hair.

At the Roseland Ballroom's stage door on 53rd, Shawn Harris--he's wearing a pink hoodie emblazoned with the image of Jem, the guitar-slinging anti-Barbie cartoon heroine--is surrounded by a gaggle of young women with expectant looks on their faces and temporary tattoos on their arms. The girls don't have tickets for tonight's show at Roseland and are trying desperately to persuade Harris to sneak them in through the back. "You have to come back and get us," one of them says, worried that he'll forget once he's inside the venue. "We don't even like Yellowcard. We came to see you guys."

"You guys" are the Matches, the Oakland-based pop-punk band Harris fronts. Yellowcard, of course, is the popular California emo-rock group whose hit single "Ocean Avenue"--it's the one that sounds like Jimmy Eat World but with a violin in the chorus--has attracted the girls in Old Navy to Roseland. The Matches are on the road opening for Yellowcard, whom they met on the Warped Tour, and it's an experience that has introduced them to a whole new world: namely, cordoned-off backstage areas and the beefy guys in brightly colored T-shirts who guard them.

Harris persuades the one posted at the stage door to let me in with him, even though I'm not wearing a laminate around my neck. When we get to the next one, there are two more young women who've managed to get into the venue but whose next conquest is reaching the bands' dressing rooms. Harris flashes his laminate and explains that I won't be running around backstage unsupervised, which is enough to get me past the velvet rope--which, by the way, is literally made of velvet. The young women aren't so lucky.

"We love you!" they shout in unison. "Can't we come back with you?" The beefy guard shakes his beefy head. They ask for an autograph, at least. Harris signs the taller girl's jacket. The shorter one offers her breast. This is awkward. Harris and I share an uncomfortable look. "She's 16, dude," the guard announces ominously.

"There are a certain amount of teenyboppers at these shows," Harris acknowledges once we make it to the Matches' dressing room backstage, where there are no squealing girls but there is a courteous Asian woman offering massages at a rate of $1 per minute. "I think girls are encouraged by the media to be fans. If a guy comes up to us, he's like, 'Oh, my god, you guys are amazing! I started a band because I love you guys!' That's what I did, and that's what [Matches guitarist] Jon [Devoto] did. Whereas a girl at age 12, her inclination would not be to go pick up a guitar. It would be to put pictures of the drummer on her wall and wanna date him. And I think very subtly we teach them to do that--we give guys guitar picks and sign girls' breasts. Me and our bass player have little sisters that are in a band together back at home, and I think it's really important, no matter how subtle the effort might be, to change that--to make all the young kids feel like they're people and they're the same as us. It makes a big difference."

You can't necessarily hear this progressive attitude in the Matches' music. E. Von Dahl Killed the Locals, the quartet's Epitaph debut, is an energetic romp through the same ideas lots of pop-punk bands romp through: broken relationships, boredom, depression, the lure of the road. There's a good melody-to-speed ratio, and Devoto gets off a few good licks, if that's your thing. What you can hear in the Matches' songs is spirit, which is what they've always used to their advantage. When the band formed in the East Bay in 1997 (as the Locals), they weren't readily accepted by the entrenched scene based around 924 Gilman St., the legendary punk club that incubated the careers of Operation Ivy, Green Day and Rancid. So they started their own space called L3: Loud, Live and Local, playing their own shows and inviting bands similarly unwelcome at Gilman Street--bands on major labels, for example--to join them.

"We didn't mean to start a completely different scene, but we ended up doing so," Harris says. "While I love punk rock, I also don't love punk rock. I think it's just as much of a dick as it is a savior. I love Bad Religion and Rancid and Green Day, but I'm not gonna throw my fist up in the air for the institution of punk rock. I love music. It doesn't matter to me what label it's on or if it's hard or soft."

Harris' point is understandable, and yet the institution of punk rock is what's keeping the Matches' wits about them on this tour--what's motivating them to interrupt the processes of fame and celebrity they consider an unacceptable aspect of reaching a large audience.

"Everyone's in chairs," Devoto says of the arenas and stadiums they've been playing. "It doesn't feel like a rock show. They're always like, 'The floor's sold out. You can't let anybody else down.' But we're on second and there's 200 people on the floor and then the chairs are all full. You just wanna be like, 'Come the fuck downstairs!' But we're not Green Day, so we can't do that."

"What we've been doing is going upstairs, walking around the halls and finding kids that look like they don't wanna be upstairs," Harris adds. "Then we go with a group of 30 kids to the security guards, and we're like, 'Hey, we met up with our street team upstairs, and as part of our contest we told them we'd get them downstairs.' They're like, 'I don't know about this.' So we pull them downstairs and say, 'Go in the middle of the pit and don't go out.'"

Eventually you have to go out, though, and face someone else's music.

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Mikael Wood