'Pasty Nobodies In a Van': The Get Up Kids Discuss New Album 'Problems' and 20th Anniversary of 'Something To Write Home About'

Dalton Paley
The Get Up Kids

After the Get Up Kids finished their seventh studio LP, Problems, the Kansas City, Mo.-based band had to do something unusual, at least for them: wait.

“We come from the Fugazi school of, ‘We make records but we keep touring and then when the record comes out, that's when the record comes out,’” singer-songwriter Matt Pryor tells Billboard. Because of increased production demands on pressing plants, vinyl turnaround has skyrocketed, from three weeks in the late ‘90s to up to half a year in the late 2010s. “From when it was mastered to release was over six months,” adds the band's other singer-songwriter, Jim Suptic. “It feels like we made the record forever ago.”

In a sense, it also kind of sounds like Problems was made a long time ago. The 12-track effort is suffused with the same power-punk urgency as the Get Up Kids' breakthrough sophomore album Something to Write Home About, which included “Ten Minutes” (one of Billboard’s 99 Greatest Songs of '99) and would go on to define multiple generations of emo to come, from My Chemical Romance to fourth-wave emo ambassadors like Modern Baseball. Asked if the timing was intentional, Pryor demurs, “It was only intentional in the sense of, we're not going to not put a new record out just because it's the 20-year anniversary.” Adds Suptic, “I think we forgot about it and then were like, ‘We did something for the 10[-year anniversary], are we doing something for 20? There was an email sent.”

Following last year's Kicker EP, the five-member outfit’s first new full-length in eight years -- which reached No. 10 on Billboard’s Vinyl Albums chart -- addresses more adult situations and emotions. Opener “Satellite,” which starts with acoustic strumming before exploding into a cacophony of frenetic guitars and tight drumming, was influenced by Pryor’s introverted son. Other songs tackle the death of keyboardist James Dewees' mother, one friend’s possible pending divorce, and another friend’s actual divorce. “It’s just a fun record for the whole family!” quips Suptic.

Indeed, the record’s mature themes are counterbalanced by the Get Up Kids’ signature bright, propulsive melodic sheen, which energizes tracks with tongue-in-cheek, woe-is-me titles like “The Problem Is Me” and “Fairweather Friends.” And then there’s “Lou Barlow,” a humorous aside about a run-in with the former Dinosaur, Jr. member that did not actually happen. “We get asked that in every interview,” Suptic deadpans.

Still, Pryor and Suptic -- who phoned in for an interview with Billboard from, respectively, a front porch with an old dog and a car parked outside a communal working space -- say there may be a Something to Write Home About 20-year celebration in the works for later this year. “We’re not going to just ignore it,” says Pryor. “It’s a pretty big milestone.” With a North American tour beginning next month through October (including fall dates with Cloud Nothings), however, the band's time for planning trips down memory lane is increasingly limited. 

“Maybe that’s the goal with this record,” jokes Suptic. “People love it so much everyone forgets the 20th anniversary of [Something].”

Matt, you've talked about how you draw on other people's stories for records that you've made as you've matured. Was that the case on Problems as well?

Matt: I mean, it’s called Problems. On the one hand, my own catharsis in songwriting is only going to fill up so much space, so I need to draw from other people's issues to have things to write songs about. As I'm always saying, “I love my kids, I love my wife, life is good” is not really good fodder for rock music. Ironically, we work really well in bro country. Have you ever noticed that, that all the bro country songs just talk about how good life is?

Jim: [Sings] "Me and my booooyy... Drinking good stuff on a Saturday night..."  

It’s an organic way to grow with your listeners, because I'm sure a lot of your fans are going through those same issues.

Matt: I think what really quantifies the term “emo” is the lyrical content of the songs, and how you can still have strong feelings about things when you're older, and how those feelings evolve, even though they're still just as important to you as when you were in your 20s.

Jim: When you're 18, every emotion you have is the strongest emotion you've ever had.

Matt: My daughter's band practices in my garage and they come over and everything is the end of the fucking world. It’s all so black and white, it's all so absolute. It's interesting because I don't remember things being that concrete, but apparently they were when I was that age.

When you perform your old material live or just thinking about it, do you ever think, "Oh man, my younger self in 1999 didn't know what the hell he was talking about"?

Matt: I've got a couple of cringeworthy lyrics that I kind of go Eeehhhhh when we play them, but for the most part... It’s like getting a tattoo. It was relevant at the time, regardless of how stupid it was.

Jim: We just happened to start putting out records when we were very young. With a lot of artists, you don't even see anything they create until they're in their mid-20s or something. Ours is there. Own up to it, I guess. I'm not ashamed of it. If I listen to the new record, I focus in on myself a lot, and when I'm playing that's just the way it goes. But it's fun to go backwards, finally, and listen to a song I haven't heard forever. Because I don't remember how to play the old songs, it's almost like I'm listening to them differently. It’s like a different band I'm listening to, which is always a cool feeling.

Tell me about the song “Lou Barlow.” Did you really meet him?

Matt: No. James would be like, "Do you remember this time we met that guy who kept talking about Lou Barlow?" And we're at practice like, "No, what are you talking about?". And then I had Lou Barlow stuck in my head, and I just wrote this silly little lyric, and then kind of turned it into the impetus for like, the moment you know a relationship is done. When it's some little thing that’s like "Oh, we're not compatible at all.” The straw that breaks the camel's back, as it were. In this particular instance it was because somebody really loves Lou Barlow's songs, and their significant other didn't really care. 

Matt, in an interview from last year, you said that you were at a point in life where you're paying more attention? What did you mean by that?

Matt: I've been very aware politically in the world for a while -- especially since 2016 -- and really paying attention, especially with my daughter's bands and always trying to teach two teenage boys to be aware of queer and trans issues, and issues with people of color. I’m not a crusader or anything, but even in my friendships with other straight, white, cis gender, older punk rock men, they don't interact with that scene very much. So I've taken it upon myself to be like, "Here's what this actually means.”

I still live by this philosophy that -- even as dark as it's gotten the past couple of years -- if I was foolish enough to bring three other humans into this world, that I have to believe that humanity will eventually make the right decision. Otherwise I feel like a terrible person for having offspring. Maybe that's also just getting older and having kids and being more aware of what's going on in the world. I certainly wasn't 15 years ago.

I was reading Pitchfork's announcement of the new record, and they described you as an emo band. Do you feel like that’s still relevant?

Jim: I was joking, if we put out a ska record, it could be the purest ska record you ever heard, and it would be an emo ska record. We could put out the most heavy metal record that is straight death metal and it would be emo death metal. It's always going to be attached, no matter what.

Matt: You could ask a hundred people what emo is and get a hundred different answers. Is emo Embrace and Sunny Day Real Estate and Rites of Spring, or is emo Fall Out Boy? It’s like, "Yeah, it is. It's whatever you want it to be.” We've never really lived by that mantle, it’s just been thrust upon us, but it's interesting watching how the language evolves, and how even the next generation interprets what it means. I guess it is a stereotype now -- hair in your face, sad teenager.

Jim: I think the stereotype that the average person who knows nothing about the history of punk rock or music in general, the stereotype is someone who actually looks more like a goth.

Matt: Well that's because of that whole My Chem[ical Romance] era of more theatrical, powder makeup. There’s nothing wrong with that, it's just that's the most striking image, as opposed to four pasty dudes in shorts and a van.

Jim: That's our emo, pasty nobodies from Kansas in a van in glasses. You’ve got to have terrible eyesight to be a true emo.

Editor's note: The story has been updated to reflect that a song was written about the death of James Dewees' mother and not Jim Suptic's.