2019 American Music Awards

Tigers Jaw's Charming New LP & Atlantic's Latest Cred-Carrying Imprint Are Alt-Rock's New Major Label Hopes

Jimmy Fontaine
Tigers Jaw

The beloved indie-punk band follows 2014's 'Charmer' -- released on scene staple Run For Cover Records -- with the debut for new label Black Cement.

Tigers Jaw vocalist-guitarist Ben Walsh calls Saves the Day’s In Reverie his favorite record. The seminal New Jersey punk band’s 2003 release is best known today not for its intricate melodies -- as Walsh would probably prefer -- but as the prototypical punk band-screwed-over-by-major label cautionary tale. Saves the Day’s three previous albums -- released through respected indies Equal Vision and Vagrant -- upped the grassroots ante to the point where they seemed likely to follow like-minded bands like Jimmy Eat World and New Found Glory to major label success. The opposite happened.

“They got dropped from [Dreamworks Records] the day the record came out,” Walsh remembers. The press archives technically place it a few weeks later, but the point remains -- when majors court punk bands, there's a boom-or-bust history with a lot more Dear Yous than Dookies in its wake. It’s especially jarring to hear this from Walsh because the Scranton, Penn. band’s latest album is coming out this spring on the brand new imprint of a major record label. It’s called spin and it’s arriving May 19 on a new Atlantic Records venture dubbed Black Cement.

The shock has nothing to do with Tigers Jaw’s credentials (Charmer was actually filled with cozy harmonies) and everything to do with punk’s almost non-existent relationship with the current major-label ecosystem and its especially volatile past. “We came from a generation of bands that formed shortly after the collapse of the seedy industry, big label, big 360-deal era,” Walsh says, thinking back to Tigers Jaw’s 2005 formation. “A lot of bands did get screwed over by major labels. [Tigers Jaw] was formed with this pre-conceived caution.” Brianna Collins, Walsh's songwriting counterpart, likens that caution to "the image you have in your mind of a major-label person wearing a suit, buying steak dinners."

The duo -- Walsh alongside keyboardist-vocalist Brianna Collins -- was wooed by a decidedly less destructive vision of strip clubs and A-list restaurant tabs, courtesy of chief ambassador and A&R rep for Black Cement, Will Yip. For the better part of the last decade, the Philadelphia-based producer built a reputation as the amicable, accommodating guiding light behind some of the alt-rock underground’s most influential albums -- Title Fight’s Hyperview, La Dispute’s Rooms of the House, Balance and Composure’s The Things We Think We’re Missing and naturally, Tigers Jaw’s previous LP, crafted after three-fifths of the band (including founding songwriter Adam McIlwee) announced plans to go their separate ways. “Charmer for us was a transitional period, but [Yip] was so consistent and so creative and helpful,” Walsh says. “So it was completely a natural thing -- ‘No matter who’s putting out our next record, we want to work with Will.’” 

The feeling’s mutual. “There’s a Mount Rushmore of bands that are kind of the OGs in this world," says Yip. His etched-in-stone core four includes Tigers Jaw, plus the trio mentioned above. "When Black Cement formed, Atlantic approached me [saying] we wanna do a label with these bands… [I said] ‘You can’t do this label without some of the OGs.’” Dave Rath, head of A&R at Roadrunner Records for the past decade, had long been fascinated by Yip’s corner of the rock world and spent over two years planning Black Cement with Yip. “Other labels are running away from rock while we’re running at it,” Rath asserts. Case-in-point: Atlantic now houses what figures to be the most punk and indie rock-oriented imprint of any major label alongside the hard rock-heavy Roadrunner and the pop-rock smorgasbord Fueled By Ramen. 

So Yip's world has a Mont Rushmore, but does it even have a name? These groups are all adjacent to those commonly placed within the so-called “emo revival,” but sound nothing akin to bands like My Chemical Romance and mascara-era Fall Out Boy that the three-letter word commonly evokes. (Neither do the core “emo revival” bands, for that matter, but that’s a discussion for another day). Punk or alt-rock? Those qualifiers are less incorrect, but no more compelling. Perhaps it’s most accurate to define Tigers Jaw’s world by what it isn’t. “It’s not like Mumford & Sons, that folky alternative stuff,” Yip says. "Mainstream rock radio really isn’t true rock music to me… I love a lot of stuff that’s on the radio. I love fun. -- they’re my buddies -- but I don’t think of them as a rock band.” 

Rock or not, the fact Yip names a band that hasn’t been active in two years is telling of the genre’s place in Top 40 in 2017. And the dearth of non-folksy guitar extends even to alternative radio. Once the playground of established bands like Red Hot Chili Peppers and Linkin Park, this week’s Alternative Songs tally features only two electric guitar-driven songs in its top 10 and a guitar-less Linkin Park song at No. 22. “Guardian,” the yearning, Walsh-fronted first single shared from spin, sounds a little like pre-major label Death Cab For Cutie (one of the few traditional alt-rock bands left on radio these days) and virtually nothing else heard on the format these days.

But the label is trying. Rath confirms Tigers Jaw will be worked to alternative radio and with the band's blessing, radio mixes have been made for "Guardian" and "June," a sunlit guitar-pop nugget that's yet to be released, but an even better bet to catch on. It features Collins on lead vocals; though a longtime member, the keyboardist didn't get her shine as a vocalist until she ran away with the opening verse on "Hum," Charmer's most popular track. This time around, she's writing her own songs for the first time. “I just never thought I’d be capable of that role in the band,” she says. “The experience with 'Hum' was what started myself thinking that maybe I could really try to do this. [spin] was the first record Ben and I did completely on our own. Tigers Jaw had always been two primary songwriters and I thought I might as well give it a go.”

Collins, like Walsh, is aware of her scene's brushes with the mainstream and that yes, it's sometimes clicked. Fall Out Boy and MCR were among her early influences, and she happily remembers cheering on New Found Glory on TRL. But the playing field has changed a lot since the early 2000s. Aside from guitar rock's struggles on radio, it lags mightily behind just about every beat-driven genre in the streaming game.

These will be uphill battles, but the live stage presents particular opportunity for Tigers Jaw. The festival circuit has long been a boon for underappreciated alt acts, and last year, Lollapalooza's lineup even featured Modern Baseball and Pinegrove, the exact sort of indie-punk bands you'd expect Tigers Jaw to share bills with. Being part of the Atlantic family opens doors, too; both Walsh and Rath float the idea of Tigers Jaw playing with Paramore, longtime Fueled By Ramen members who'd figure to be on the road soon to promote the new album they've been teasing

Major label life will be a unique challenge for Tigers Jaw, but their numerous successful muses prove the scene can indeed hang in a god damn arms race. Around the same time Dreamworks obliterated Walsh's beloved Saves the Day, it vaulted a once-failed major label band called Jimmy Eat World to stardom. But at the end of the day, Yip assures, "Tigers Jaw does not need a record label in 2017, period," just as Walsh stresses this wasn't "some sort of Hail Mary move to blow up the band." Tigers Jaw has spent over a decade nurturing a grassroots fanbase; now Black Cement gets to nurture one quarter of Yip's Mount Rushmore. 

“The coolest part about this record,” says Walsh, “is that it was totally finished before we signed any deal, before we committed to any label. The record is exactly how we envisioned.”

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