If you have ever had any love in your heart for emo, and if you have tried to give a piece of said heart to someone else in the form of a mixtape, burned CD-R, or playlist, there’s a strong chance you have called upon the services of Matt Pryor.
Emo does not lack for love songs, per se. But once you weed out the self-righteous screeds against girls by scorned songwriters, various pity-party missives, and the accursed “Hey There Delilah,” the actual amount of high-quality, “put this on a mix and you will get a kiss” fodder is more scant than one might think. And many of those high-quality emo love songs were written by Pryor, the frontman for Kansas City, Missouri, e-word standard-bearers the Get Up Kids.
His memoir, Red Letter Days, is a bildungsroman, a look at DIY touring, the independent music scene before the internet revolutionized/ruined everything and at emo before it became Emo™. But ultimately, it’s a love story about Pryor’s childhood sweetheart and eventual wife, as well as a portrait of the Artist as an Older Man Taking Responsibility for His Shit. (He’s particularly embarrassed by “Michelle With One ‘L.’”) If you really love someone, after all, you will do your best to grow up and show up for them.
“The plan was just to start writing and see what came of it. I think anybody who knows me, a lot of my most popular songs that I’ve written are love songs, and they’re all about the same person,” he says while Zooming in from Lawrence, Kansas, which was a couple of degrees below zero on the day we talked. “So it seemed like that would be an interesting and honest thing to write about,” he adds.
In Red Letter Days, Pryor recounts his struggles with DIY touring as a Type 1 diabetic, flexes hard about all the envy-inducing shows he saw back in the day, and recounts the various ways his Catholic school education failed him, whereas Fugazi never did. He also recounts what his native Kansas City was like in the early ’90s, and what it was was “sketchy.”
“It was pretty desolate, really. There wasn’t really much of an all-ages scene. We were all teenagers, so we couldn’t get into the bars to play shows anyway,” he says. “So oftentimes we had to just make our own fun, like finding old buildings and warehouses and stuff like that. Really dangerous places to play, to be honest.”
Arriving via Washed Up Books, an imprint from podcaster and emo expert Tom Mullen, Red Letter Days is a charming dispatch from a fan who loves rock music so much that you can feel his heart bursting, but Pryor’s also a true no-bullshit Midwesterner who is reluctant to glamorize an often shady scene and who is more than willing to call out bullshit wherever he sees it, even if it involves his own music or admitted neediness, all delivered with the vulnerability and honesty that made him the frontman of your favorite emo band’s favorite emo band.
What made you decide to lead off the book with you entering a diabetic coma?
That was part of the initial pitch in my head as far as: I’ve already got a weird job, and I tell stories about my weird job, but then I’m also one of maybe two or three people that I’ve ever heard of that are diabetic and do my job. So I just thought that would be an interesting angle to tackle this from. And it’s not something that I have talked about very much, not because I’m ashamed of it or trying to hide it, just because it’s always been my deal, and I don’t want to bother anybody with it.
You don’t really hold anything back in the book. In addition to being very up-front about your diabetes, you talk about your mother’s struggles with addiction. You even mentioned that you got dumped for a ren faire dude. Were you nervous to be even more direct in this book than you are in your songs? Was there any trepidation?
There’s certainly stuff that I didn’t put in there, but I wanted to be as honest as possible. I didn’t want to tell anybody else’s stories. And I’m not a big party guy. So all the tour party stories I have are actually other people’s stories that I heard about the next day. And so I didn’t really want to include a lot of those. But other than that, I don’t think there’s anything in there that anybody could be particularly mad at me about. But we’ll find out.
In the book, you talk a lot about being codependent. Was that embarrassing for you to admit to yourself and to put in a book? And how have you navigated that throughout your life, growing from a teenager to an adult and a married man?
Well, you do enough work on yourself, you start to kind of realize that these are all maybe bad behaviors that you picked up from when you were younger. And I had a real big fear of abandonment, and so that kind of translated to me being very possessive and being very controlling. I think especially when you start sharing your life with somebody, and then even more so when you start having kids and you realize that you cannot control them, no matter how hard you try, you can either get pissed off about that or you can work to accept it.
My wife and I’s relationship is much better now that we both, like, figured out more who we are. We started dating when we were so young. It’s one of those things where it’s just sort of mental health stuff, which I consider codependency to be, or like the diabetes or the loneliness or all of these things that are not kind of traditional rock ’n’ roll biography fodder. I think [they] are important things to talk about. Because I think that the job is considered to be somewhat glamorous, and it’s not. Sometimes it is. I mean, sometimes it’s really, really fun, but it’s not exclusively.
Do you feel like your abandonment issues stemmed from not seeing your father all that often?
That and just that my parents were pretty active drinkers when I was younger, and there’s some episodes where I ended up having to take care of myself because they weren’t around. I ended up becoming really, really independent. And then also just the whole diabetes thing of just, like, all of a sudden losing a certain level of control over your own life and your own physical health and just this sort of thing and having to come to terms with, “OK, so you’re very different from everybody else.” You could beat yourself up and feel like you’re broken.
But then also it’s like, there’s no cure for this disease, so you have to kind of come to terms with that. It’s not cancer. It’s not actively attacking my body, but it’s something I’m going to have to live with until it kills me. Trying to take control of any other aspect of your life when you lose that control over your own body is, probably, I would assume, a pretty normal reaction and not a healthy one. Just an understandable one.
How did your dad react when he figured out that instead of going to college like you said, you were in a touring band, and you used tuition money to help buy a van?
He said he could sue me for fraud, and I said, “Well, go ahead. I mean, you’re not going to do that.” I’m not really very close with my dad. I didn’t ever really want their approval. It was kind of nice, once I got it to a certain degree, but that was never something that I was desperately searching for, because I had gotten so angry and so ferociously independent by that time. My mom didn’t even think I was doing anything with my life until the first time we toured in Europe, and then she’s like, “Oh, this is a real thing.” And I was like, “It’s been a real thing for like three years, Mom.”
You stop the book right when the band is at the height of Something to Write Home About and your first solo album with the New Amsterdams. After the events covered in the book, in 2002 emo blew the hell up due to Dashboard Confessional and other bands, while the Get Up Kids released On a Wire. What made you decide to stop when you did and not go into emo going mainstream?
I always figured this would be more than one book. It had to be one painfully long book or more books, and so I figured that there’s a definite turning point for me personally around the time the book ends.
I accomplished everything that I had set out to accomplish at that point, as far as wanting to tour and wanting to be in a band. I would sit at school and dream about going on tour. I went overseas, signed with a label, and played big shows. We got to go to Japan, Australia, and then I was like, “OK, now what?” At that point, it started to—and this isn’t bad—but it kind of became less of an adventure and more of a career.
I saw it as the end of act one sort of thing. The next book, as I’m picturing it in my head, when I start writing it, it would pick up around 2001, when things get even weirder for us. At that point, I’m like, I’m not sure what was going on. The scene that we kind of helped lay the groundwork for starts going really mainstream but without us. It was definitely a strange time, and then I started a family during that On a Wire period. And eventually we broke up about five years after. So I wanted that time period to have its own book.
How do you feel about On a Wire in retrospect? Obviously it’s a very mature singer-songwriter-style album, but it cuts against what the emo boom became. It might have been better for you in the long term, but it wasn’t what was on MTV2 all the time in 2002.
As far as making a creative decision to try and do something different and not be part of a wave? I think I succeeded in that respect. We made something that was more in line with what we wanted to hear, which was always what we did in the past. If all you cared about was mainstream success, it was probably a bad call. But when you’re coming from a place where the idea of success never really crosses your mind ... like, success was having a place to stay every night.
I don’t think the record is amazing front to back. I think that some of the songs on On a Wire are some of the best songs I’ve ever written, but at the same time, the heavier rock aspect got neutered in the production of it. When we relearn those songs to play them live, they sound more like the Replacements and less like adult contemporary. We just didn’t want to keep making the same song over and over. I don’t think any of our albums sound the same. They’re all pretty different from each other, with the one unifying thing being I still hear the five of us in it.
How does it feel that your generation of emo is now experiencing a huge nostalgia boom?
I don’t think we see the same spoils that a lot of other bands that we were contemporaries with do. I think we’re still kind of a little bit more underground. Not underground. I can’t think of what the right word would be. A little less mainstream.
But the thing is, we write pop songs. We’re not writing really heavily abstract art-rock songs or anything. It’s not for lack of trying to be commercial, but we were noticing it on the All-American Rejects tour [last summer]. The other bands, we were saying they were forged in Warped Tour. We weren’t ever part of that scene. We were just clubs and theaters and stuff. So we’re more comfortable in that setting. And we can translate it to a bigger stage.
The joke is we’re your favorite band’s favorite band, which I don’t think does us any favors, telling people that. But we do fine. I always like to say we don’t need to be Starbucks; we want to be like a small, artisanal coffee shop that pays employees a living wage and does well. We don’t need to be the biggest band in the world.
You write about attending the first Lollapalooza and seeing the alternative scene start to get co-opted. What did you think when you saw the emo scene start to really go mainstream? Did you have sympathy when fans were like, “I liked the Get Up Kids back in the late ’90s. But nowadays they’re all over MTV2,” or, “Dashboard Confessional: I loved them when I found them on Napster, but now they’re too popular.”
I mean, that’s fine. I went through that with Nirvana and when that whole scene blew up, but I was also 16 when that happened. And now being on the other side of it, as far as being a working musician, I don’t fault anybody for liking anything, and I don’t fault any artist for being successful. I don’t know that I ever did, but now I’m just kind of like ... “That’s not how I would do it. But you do you.” I’m totally aware that there’s people who only like the first two Get Up Kids records. We will play songs from those records every time we play. But if all I was ever going to do is just play those songs over and over and over again, from now until forever, I would hate it. So we have to work out a balance, you know, between us and the audience.
You talk in the book about reconciling with your own privilege, that you felt like an outsider, but you knew you came from wealth to a certain extent. You also talk about how punk rock saved your life, but it was also difficult for people who weren’t, say, heterosexual, white, male, that sort of thing. Was that difficult for you to admit to yourself and work through?
I think it was difficult for me to admit to myself, as I was kind of coming to terms with it. The biggest issue of it is just the way that women were treated or really not even recognized in the scene that we came from. I thought that by just not being an asshole, that I was not part of the problem, when I realized now that silence does just as much harm as anything.
The thing that I was noticing, though, is when my kids got old enough to get into punk rock … of course it was helpful to me because I was an outsider who was listening to outsider music for white, straight men. But it was homophobic when I was growing up, and I don’t think it was necessarily, like, racist, but there just weren’t many people of color in the scene at all. They were anomalies.
It’s good that the people who are having the most success with anything that’s kind of emo—quote, unquote—are women. Even going into, like, Taylor Swift and Olivia Rodrigo and Paramore and that kind of stuff, or Billie Eilish even. It’s just people who were fans of the things that bands of our generation did who are now really taking it to another level. And in the punk scene, from my understanding, as far as watching what my kids are into, it has much more of a queer and BIPOC sort of fellowship to it. Then you get kind of grumpy white guys going, “You got to be trans to get big in a band.” It’s just like, “No, you don’t. They just now can be big,” as opposed to like when we were growing up, when it wasn’t even something anybody talked about at all.
I remember when I talked to you for my book, you were talking about how the Get Up Kids were doing, I think, a livestream, and you had to relearn some older songs you hadn’t learned in a while, and there was one song you were like, “Man, I sound like so possessive, whiny, and codependent. Who was this guy? I hate this guy.”
That’s the problem if you go back and read the poetry you wrote when you were 19. Now it’s like, “OK, I’m 45, and I’m going to sing these lyrics I wrote when I was 19.” And some of them are fine, but some of them are just kind of like, “Oh, that guy sucks.” Not in a dangerous way. It’s like in sobriety, just looking back on the stupid things you did when you were drinking and being like, “Oh, glad I’m not that guy anymore.”
The cool websites, like the Pitchforks of the world, never gave the Get Up Kids much notice back in the ’00s. But when the band was on hiatus in the late ’00s, your bassist, Rob Pope, was in Spoon, objectively the coolest band of the 21st century. How did it feel watching that?
It made total sense to me. Rob was always the coolest guy in the band. He’s an amazing bass player, so him getting that gig, I was like, “That makes sense. That’s great. You get to hang out with people that dress as well as you do.” I thought it was a really good fit. The scheduling conflicts of having people in multiple bands is difficult, but it’s not impossible to do. So when we got the band back together, it was like he was playing in Spoon. James [Dewees, the Get Up Kids’ former keyboard player] was playing in My Chem, and it was just kind of like, “OK, so when are you both off?”
Is there any new music in the works, from the Get Up Kids or otherwise?
Not currently. Something to Write Home About turns 25 this year in September, so we’re kind of planning out what we want to do around that. We’ve been digging through the archives, finding a bunch of old photos and flyers and CDs. We had to have a vintage media day where we had to track down a VCR and a cassette deck and a DAT player to go through. Everyone has a box in their basement that’s full of old random shit.
So, last question, how do you feel these days when you are playing shows with a band with the word “Kids” in it, and looking back, would you have changed it?
I don’t know that I would have changed it because I don’t know that I care that much. I just figure that if the Beach Boys can still be boys and Sonic Youth, before they broke up, could still be youth, then we’re in good company. And also band names are dumb, so it doesn’t really matter. I think Green Day is a weed-smoking reference? God, you know what I mean?
It doesn’t matter. It’s just something to print out a poster or a shirt. The intention was good. The band name has good bones. What I don’t like is “The Kids Are All Right” anytime something gets written about us, or “The Get Up Men,” or “The Get Up Adults.” That’s just lazy. That’s low-hanging fruit.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Red Letter Days is available via Washed Up Books here.
Michael Tedder is a freelance journalist who has written for Esquire, Stereogum, and Playboy. He lives in Hoboken, New Jersey. His book, Top Eight: How MySpace Changed Music, is available from Chicago Review Press.