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Beyond “The Scene”: How Finch, Geoff Rickly, and Others Have Grown Beyond Their “Screamo” Roots

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Component is a section of Aux.Out. for one-off pieces, special editorials, and lost orphans of the music discussion. Today, Dan Bogosian writes about the growth of Finch and Geoff Rickly, musically and as people.

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It’s a brisk Sunday in March 2013 when guitarist Randy Strohmeyer calls in a favor to Finch’s booking agent and gets tickets to a sold-out Deftones show that night. He, vocalist Nate Barcalow, and bassist Daniel Wonacott split a cab with me, taking us from the band’s hotel to Montclair, New Jersey, to see a band all three musicians agree is great. “You’ve never seen Deftones?” Strohmeyer asks. “You’re going to be blown away.”

In their heyday, Finch were poster children for the much-maligned scene that became “screamo.” They, along with pop-punk champions New Found Glory, emo kings Dashboard Confessional, and prog-rock daredevils RX Bandits, were on the record label that dominated Hot Topic, Drive Thru Records, hitting number one on Heatseekers and vaulting into the Billboard 200 with their first full-length, What It Is to Burn, a mix of mainstream sensibilities and drop-tuned guitars. But this Sunday in 2013 isn’t their heyday. This is a day off on their reunion tour, and each band member isn’t sure if they will make a new album.

“Halfway through the reunion tour, the response from all the fans showed us they wanted us here, respected us, and reminded us why we were there,” says drummer Alex Pappas. “We came to realize we should do another record, but we weren’t trying to focus on it. Things naturally moved along in a positive way.”

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While Finch’s 2013 highlight was touring for the first time in years, Geoff Rickly’s year was sinking to the bottom. The former vocalist for Thursday was working retail, searching for a new beginning after a divorce, and was robbed at gunpoint in June.

“2013 was pretty shitty for the most part,” says Rickly. “It was a dark year. I was mostly living with Don [Devore] from Ink & Dagger who I’ve been friends with for a few years. I didn’t have a job that I liked. I was doing a lot of touring just to pay the bills. I wasn’t working on a lot of things I really loved. It was pretty depressing.

“I was looking for a normal, straightforward day job but I couldn’t find anything that paid well enough to live as an adult because I didn’t have any real qualifications. I knew I was looking in the wrong direction, and it never really resolved itself until I got back into music.”

Rickly and Finch share a rare belief on the “screamo” scene: that their fans are mature and ready for something more creative than just-another-pop-record-with-heavier-vocals. Rickly pushed for a pay-what-you-want release with his bandmates before Radiohead transcended indie rock with In Rainbows and continued to push the limits of Thursday’s sound with albums like the Flaming Lips-tinged A City by the Light Divided, the atmospheric and darker No Devolucion and a split release with critically heralded Japanese post-rockers Envy. Thursday’s final album is their highest scoring effort on Metacritic, and the group broke up at what was arguably their creative and commercial peak. Finch’s experimentation isn’t so successful.

At Deftones, the trio step outside for a few cigarettes and run into Buddy Nielsen, known as the frontman for fellow ex-Drive Thru act Senses Fail and to indie rockers as an employee of Vagrant Records. Vagrant’s taste creates a parallel: the label that once launched the careers of heavy, punk-laced bands like Alexisonfire and The Get Up Kids is now known for more mainstream, trendy acts like The 1975 and Bombay Bicycle Club.

Buddy recognizes his former labelmates and shares a quick smoke. He attends Finch’s show at Irving Plaza a few days later and knows as well as anyone the impact their second record, Say Hello to Sunshine, had on their first breakup.

What It Is to Burn was one of those records that influenced a generation of kids to play a certain style of music,” he tells PropertyOfZack. “The record being such a success for the band might have actually hurt their future. I feel like [Finch] resented the fact that they had that much success, on a record they didn’t feel represented where they wanted to be musically. It is pretty obvious that on their follow-up they wanted nothing to do with their old sound.”

finch  42081 zoom Beyond “The Scene”: How Finch, Geoff Rickly, and Others Have Grown Beyond Their “Screamo” RootsFor their second album, Say Hello to Sunshine, drummer Alex Pappas was replaced by Marc Allen from Counterfit, an open-handed lefty who eventually toured with acts like Weatherbox and Helen Earth Band. His playing helped fuel their experimental sound – the same screamo basis was at the core, but the genuine post-hardcore influence of San Diego pioneers Drive Like Jehu is obvious from the moment “Insomniatic Meat” kicks off the album. With other songs capturing a mathcore, Dillinger Escape Plan feel and Barcalow paying tribute to Mike Patton throughout, Say Hello to Sunshine was not and is not for tame, young music fans.

The album tears their audience in half, something they’re well aware of to this day and a fact that’s easily traceable on the internet. “It was a huge learning process for me,” says guitarist Alex “Grizzly” Linares. “What I retain from that is a really thick skin. We were in our little bubble after taking a year off to write and record. I was drinking the kool-aid; I thought it was our best work at the time. To me, Say Hello to Sunshine is a better record than What It Is to Burn; I expressed what I wanted to do, and we said some really cool things, but I automatically assumed that because I thought it was so next-level for us, that everyone else would, too.

“My first hint that people might not love it was when we had a barbecue with the Foo Fighters while in pre-production, since we were in the same studio – Taylor Hawkins, Dave Grohl, and Nate Mendel. Some of them came in and watched us play a couple of the Sunshine songs, and Taylor Hawkins said, ‘Uhh, you guys are fucking pretty trippy, bro.’ I said, ‘What do you mean!?’ and he goes, ‘You guys are pretty proggy.’ He made me feel like I was in Rush. That’s when I realized, ‘Fuck. People may not like us.’”

Foo Fighters weren’t ready for it, and the scene wasn’t ready for it; released only three years after their debut, it’d act like the Warped Tour equivalent of Radiohead going straight from Pablo Honey in 1994 to Kid A in 1997. They took an “indefinite hiatus,” effectively breaking up. That lack of musical exploration from the rest of “the scene” was something that drove Rickly to start one of his current projects, United Nations.

“I think there’s a pretty well known stigma of ‘scene’ music,” says Rickly. “Aside from the bands being sort of vapid, and the bands themselves not being that concerned with being original or things like that, it seems like the fact there was this idea of ‘the scene’ is kind of what killed a lot of those bands; they had something they could do to be safe and predictable; they felt they had a base they could pander to instead of just making music.

“I never wanted to do that. There’s a lot in United Nations about ‘true punk’ and one group of kids hanging out talking about music feeling superior to another group of kids hanging out feeling superior about music.”

Rickly crafts his art throughout various different bands and projects: he sings with Thursday and United Nations, runs his own Collect Records label, wrote a film script with former Low Times podcast creator and current music video producer Daniel Ralston, and learns to walk a better, more productive life path while letting go of what’s happened before. “You get coddled by the scene and exalted in this small little box, and to start anything else from anywhere else is scary,” says Rickly. “Nobody likes to go from feeling idolized or respected to just being not special and having to start over. I think a lot of bands get stuck in the ‘scene’ way and either want to completely leave or just drag out their time until it’s just sad.”

Other artists break that stigma in different ways. The Starting Line bassist/vocalist Kenny Vasoli started a new band as he matured, leaving behind four-chord pop-punk for danceable chillwave grooves in his new band Vacationer. Others, like Saves the Day’s Chris Conley, use that new palette in their primary band; Saves the Day’s In Reverie started a backlash from some fans that still manifests itself in music press.

Like Saves the Day, Finch chose to use their taste to add new ingredients to their original sound. When their hiatus ended, they released a self-titled EP that fuses indie rock with out-there guitar noise on their own dime. On one such song, “Chinese Organ Thieves”, the band goes into some of the most complex waters ever explored by a band once stigmatized by the Hot Topic emo comb-over hairdo. The track dives into Nine Inch Nails-esque combined time signatures (22/8, or two measures of 6/8, one of 4/8, and one of 6/8) and mixed-instrument polyrhythms yet mixes haunting, Pixies-esque backing vocals to form an incredibly catchy, heavy listen – and yet, with no label support behind the EP, it’s virtually unknown to anyone who isn’t a hardcore fan.

The push-pull of having five different songwriters contribute to each and every song caused Finch to break up again at the end of 2010. “We were working on a third record, but the songs were super out there, wacky, and not very realized,” says Barcalow. “We got frustrated, and everyone stopped trying to work on it; then everyone stopped talking. There was a four-month period with no communication. There was no reason to become one of those bands that plays every two years and plays one record and becomes a parody of themselves; it was time to let go because we weren’t getting anywhere.”

In their time away from music, Finch spread their wings in very different ways. Pappas, having not been in the band since 2004, made a name for himself locally mixing records and was eventually featured in Drum! Magazine for his expertise in drum-sample replacement. Barcalow fronted other bands, mixing desert rock and synth layering with Earthbound Ghost and playing guitar in the heavy swamp rock of Reverend Crow. Grizzly went to culinary school, worked in kitchens, and is now a world-class chef. Wonacott focused on being a good husband and father. Strohmeyer did his best to put his Warped Tour “R2K” days behind him – not in personality but maturity – and got his hands dirty in several music industry activities, working with Cathy Pellow at Sargent House and helping manage Maps & Atlases.

While Finch pursued their individual lives, Rickly did the same. The robbery in June of 2013 was probably his rock bottom, but the years that led up to it weren’t easy either. Between a failed label launch (forever hampered by the mature decision of Rickly’s to not cash in on Gerard Smith’s death), a rough breakup and divorce, and a hospital stay, his post-Thursday years were no cakewalk.

At the same time, two curious traits started affecting the music world: bands began to reunite, getting better deals from promoters than they ever had originally, and music criticism started to respect a fledgling sound that (almost shamefully) became known as “emo revival.” Both Finch and Rickly eventually operated in proximity to the “revivalists”: Rickly’s United Nations secured a solid lineup when it took the rhythm section of Baltimore post-hardcore group Pianos Become the Teeth, and Finch hand-picked the opener for their reunion tour, The World Is a Beautiful Place and I Am No Longer Afraid to Die, a band that would later be Pitchfork praised. Both bands are well known for their time on Boston’s Topshelf Records.

“When we were in Thursday, we did a tour in 2008 or 2009 where we took out different bands in different parts of the country; Young Widows for the whole thing, but at different parts we took out Touché Amoré and La Dispute,” says Rickly. “They were really in their infancy, but we thought they were really interesting. Touché Amoré recommended Pianos Become the Teeth. I was standing next to Lukas [Previn] from Thursday and UN; when Pianos Become the Teeth started playing, we thought, ‘Holy shit! This could be the rest of the band for United Nations!’”

Rickly has recently formed a new band with his friends from Lostprophets named No Devotion. To some, he may be replacing Ian Watkins; for those who listen, it’s clearly a new band on the brink of defining a sound more in line with Joy Division or Stone Roses than two bands that once played Warped Tour.

“When I talk to [the rest of No Devotion], they think of Stone Roses as being a bigger band than Oasis,” says Rickly. “That’s a British thing; for a certain age group, Stone Roses is the biggest band, and Oasis came later. For us, Stone Roses is an indie rock band, and Oasis is the massive stadium band. For them, what’s in their DNA is what became massive in the UK. When they think of straight pop, that’s what they come up with, and I love it. [To me], it sounds like that stuff done as pop music, but they already view it as pop music.

“I’m really optimistic about the next year or two, and I’m really happy to be working with such a good group of people all around.”

It’s a similar optimism that led to Finch’s return. One of their former managers had the idea to do a few shows for the anniversary of What It Is to Burn, with no deeper intention in mind, and got the original lineup – minus bassist Derek Doherty, who is literally a convict – to agree to a few shows in California and London. Ticket sales led to the option to do a real tour. After living with each other on tour, they dipped their toes in the water to see if making new music is worth it, if they creatively still have it, if a five-headed monster of creativity is more mature and productive as early thirtysomethings than it was as teenagers and twentysomethings.

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The record that resulted, Back to Oblivion, is not harshly experimental like Say Hello to Sunshine, but still features the flashes of subtle, brilliant musical experimentation that were found on the album and EP that followed. Produced by Brian Virtue (Deftones), the album blends the scene they seemingly abandoned after their first album, the scene they were seemingly replaced with by the emo revival, and the legends who inspired them as youths to create an indie-tinged set of howling sing-alongs they can still present to their fans.

Pappas’ melodic drum fills and subtle additions (an open hi-hat here, an extra double-kick there) are prominent for the first time in nearly a decade, as Finch’s signature dueling guitars and Wonacott’s endearing basslines create a mix that lets Barcalow’s aged voice sing and scream as strong as ever. Finch were once known as a band who fought onstage, where members left venues crying as the others were forced to play short sets with temporary fill-ins. They’ve replaced the in-fighting and near breakups of the 2000s with an adrenaline-inducing act possessing two capable harmony singers, always in key, always on time, and always running their asses off.

“These latest shows feel like a transition, like a gateway into whatever comes next,” says Strohmeyer. “We don’t do it for nostalgia. Some of these people know lyrics to songs that were released two days earlier, and that’s wild. The crowd gets unhinged, and we’ll all stop holding back. I’ve fallen over several times [Laughs].”

The band is still worried about the new album’s reception. “I think people will compare it to What It Is To Burn and Say Hello to Sunshine,” says Wonacott. “When I grew up listening to records, I didn’t care what Dinosaur Jr.’s or Alice in Chains’ last records sounded like. As an artist, you ideally want people to invest in a new vision.

“When we made the record, we didn’t talk about the old stuff. We’re not in it to manufacture something the band has done before; we can’t. It’s not a calculated thing. If we were to sit down to write a pop-punk song with screaming in the choruses, it would sound horrible in 2014, and we wouldn’t sound good doing it. It’s not a knock against anything from the past; we just can’t force those things.

“There’s nine years separating it from our second album. Comparisons will happen, but the best we can hope for is that fans look at it as a standalone piece.”

Collect-Records-logo-e1403803976126Finch’s plan is obvious: release the record, tour in support of it, and continue to be friends and a creative band. Rickly’s plan is to focus on Collect Records. “2015 is the label year,” says Rickly. “We’re wrapping up a lot of plans, but we only have one full-length coming out in 2014, with more coming next year.

“I know at some point I’ll want to stop touring. At some point I’ll want to have a family and be home more, and at some point, you get tired of talking about yourself and the ‘me me me me’ thing. At least, some people do, and I am one of those people. I love the idea of helping out other bands, telling people why I believe in them and showing them how special I think they are and telling them their crazy dream isn’t as crazy as they think, that ‘you really have it, you’re really as good as you think you might be, keep pushing forward.’ That’s super cool to me.”

Back at the Deftones show, one in every 20 or 30 fans stares at Barcalow, Strohmeyer, Wonacott, and me – the odd man out – often with the bewildered look of a person trying to figure out how they recognize someone. Occasionally, a fan knows instantly and without hesitation states their mind.

“You’re from Finch, right?” a man asks. “You guys were awesome.”

Were?

Are.

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Dan Bogosian is a writer based in Brooklyn. He’s written for Pigeons & Planes, Bass Player, Drum! Magazine, and others. You can find on Twitter here.

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