“I do remember people saying we were a punk rock boy band.”
That’s Brett Detar reminiscing on fronting the Juliana Theory, an old school emo band that got endless grief for writing sugary hooks, using drum machines, performing with in-ear monitors and wearing matching outfits — all things they’d be at worst excused for, at best applauded for in today’s poptimist-driven critical landscape. But given the band’s late ’90s and early 2000s heyday, Detar’s still dodging rumors he once performed wearing a Britney Spears-style headset.
The Juliana Theory formed in the Pittsburgh metro area in 1997. They signed to the Christian rock imprint Tooth & Nail Records despite not being a Christian band themselves (more on that later) mostly because Detar’s other band, the metalcore outifit Zao, was on its roster and actually identified as such. The Juliana Theory debuted in 1999 with Understand This Is a Dream, a cathartic, achingly earnest indie rock record, then followed it a year later with Emotion Is Dead, a masterwork that indulged their pop and electro urges (without losing the riffs) that might as well have been called, Hey Other Labels, We Have Our S–t Together.
They hopped to a major label because of course they did and it went really badly and awkwardly, because of course it did. They broke up in 2006, and since then, only reunited for a tiny handful of dates in 2010. This summer, all the emotion gets a little less dead.
This morning (Apr. 17), the Juliana Theory announced the first batch of dates for a summer reunion tour (see below), centered around the band’s 20th birthday and the vinyl reissue of the 2000 opus that inspired most of those boyband-related jabs. A ‘90s emo band reuniting in the 2010s behind its seminal work is hardly surprising; in fact, it’s almost expected. What is exceptional is how well Emotion Is Dead has aged.
Within the emo canon, Emotion is a sonic cousin of Jimmy Eat World’s 1999 touchstone Clarity — a wildly ambitious punk record that breaks up its breakdowns and gang vocals with drum machines, electronic interludes and a two-song, psychedelic tour de force in its final 15 minutes. Quality-wise, it’s Clarity’s near-equal, with only a fraction of the present-day fanfare. In pop ambition, it even outpaces Clarity. Detar sha-la-la’s like McCartney on “We’re at the Top of the World,” coos “baby, baby” right along with the era’s actual boy bands on “This Is Your Life” and with the harmonies and finger-snaps on “Something Isn’t Right,” joins his bandmates in emo’s most Pentatonix moment to date. If you’re guessing a lot of this didn’t go over that well, you’d be absolutely right, which is part of the reason another track calls out early Internet trolls in what’s almost certainly one of the earliest utterances of the phrase “e-mail address” in a pop song.
Last week, a noticably well-adjusted Detar (who spends his time working on film scores and solo music) chatted with Billboard about bringing the Juliana Theory back to life. The band split in 2006 (a year after releasing its fourth and final album Deadbeat Sweetheartbeat) and has since only reunited for those 2010 shows. The Juliana Theory deserved a lot better, but that’s not keeping Detar from enjoying the moment. Perhaps that’s why, unlike most of his colleagues, Detar voluntarily uses the three-letter e-word in interviews.
The experimentation on Emotion Is Dead was such a jump from your sound on Understand This Is a Dream. How did people react?
I remember definitely getting mixed reactions from people initially, whether it was us using drum machines and having them live… I remember there was backlash early on because punk rock and emo bands weren’t supposed to do things like that. We never tried to worry too much about what was expected of us.
It was never a question of whether we should try to have African-American female vocals singing on our songs because we wanted it to sound like Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon or we wanted to use drum machines because we listened to DJ Shadow all the time and Dr. Dre records, or should we try to make the poppiest song possible because we were really into a lot of poppy music at the same time. I definitely remember we were really big Third Eye Blind fans. We wanted to have aggressive, upbeat songs like “To the Tune of 5,000 Screaming Children” but we wanted to write “Don’t Push Love Away” or “Something Isn’t Right Here,” these completely no-holds-barred pop songs. Why wouldn’t we do it? It felt second nature.
Being called a “punk rock boy band” and everything — where did this chatter come from? Was it early Internet stuff? Zines?
Totally early Internet stuff! Recently somebody tweeted something like, “Was the Juliana Theory the first band ever to say ‘e-mail address’ in a song? I called people out — “You’re an alias, an e-mail address” [during “To the Tune of 5,000 Screaming Children”] — which is kind of funny looking back on it. But where we come from now, Internet troll culture is such a thing.
Back in the day, if I didn’t like something Fugazi did, I would have to walk up to Guy Picciotto or Ian MacKaye and be like, “Hey, why did you do this in your song?” But as soon as the anonymity of the Internet world happened, everything changed and everybody was always entitled to their opinion but there wasn’t as much of a discourse. I feel like we went from kind of being in a super-small, tight-knit underground scene to taking a stab at it lyrically, calling the album Emotion Is Dead, which is a not-too-veiled joke of saying “Emo is dead.”
Sometimes we would wear matching outfits onstage. We were just looking back at the Beatles, thinking they looked cool onstage because it looked like a band uniform. It was a combination of being unabashedly pop, and I don’t know, being guys that sometimes wore similar colors onstage. I guess we were asking for it at the time, but we didn’t care.
Looking back, are there any lyrics you wrote for the Juliana Theory that you just can’t get behind? Any favorites?
I think Emotion Is Dead doesn’t have too many [bad] lyrics… there is some cheese on it; I am as guilty of writing cheese on a lot of our records. I look back at our  album Love and I think it has a couple of our strongest songs ever, but I think that album is the worst thing I’ve done lyrically in my career of any band or solo stuff. I just think there’s so many bad lyrics on that record.
On Emotion Is Dead, I don’t know if anything stands out as being really good to me. I feel like the opening track “Into the Dark” — in my head that’s the quintessential Juliana Theory song.
It seems like you’ve enjoyed looking back on all this, being able to analyze your experiences.
It’s weird, yeah. I went through a quite-a-few-year period where I was kind of embarrassed that I was the singer for the Juliana Theory. Not because I thought anything we did necessarily was bad, but it was just that there were so many associations with emo and so many associations with guitar rock, Tooth & Nail Records, so many things from our past… I also went through a very long period of time where I couldn’t listen to anything rock music-related. I personally went through a period where, emotionally — because I didn’t distance myself from people — but I distanced myself from the band. I’ve kind of come to this place where I’ve made peace with every point of my past.
What was it like being on Tooth & Nail Records? What did you have to make peace with?
At the time we were complete fish out of water. It was pretty much, an almost totally, sort-of-Christian label and we were not a Christian band. We’ve always had atheists, agnostics, Jews, Christians in the band — always a very religiously diverse group. I remember Tooth & Nail saying, “We’ll give you a bigger album budget if you let us sell your album in Christian book stores.” And we were like, “Yeah we’re gonna take the smaller budget.” It was awkward in that time period being lumped in to a scene and genre of music that you’re not a part of.
We signed a very bad deal with Tooth & Nail. Our contract was very unfavorable. Every lawyer that has looked at it has said very disparaging things. If there’s anything we’re making peace with, it’s that we were young and dumb and signed a really bad contract. But it is what it is.
What was it like jumping to Epic for your 2002 album Love?
They didn’t push anything. We had a guaranteed video in our budget that we didn’t get to make. They decided our record was dead before it came out. It still sold a really good amount of records first week with absolutely no push whatsoever and it had leaked seven months early on the Internet… I remember the first time we played London; we played the legendary 100 Club. The record wasn’t out for three months but every kid in the audience knew every word. It was amazing but also weird because the record wasn’t out yet.
Then our A&R guy Jim Welch got fired and within that period, things started shifting within the company. I think some of our biggest cheerleaders left.
We found out someone at the label got into Polly Anthony’s head — she ran Epic at the time — and told her we made the wrong record. A week after it came out they called us and said, “Your record’s dead. You want to talk about making the next one?”
Wow, other bands on Epic said you didn’t make the right record?
One band in particular — I’m not gonna say who it is. We heard after the fact. We used to be friends, talk on the phone and be pals, hang out on the road.
Watch a live performance of “Do You Believe Me?,” a focal track from Love that tested well with radio listeners but was never released as a single:
Now that the band is touring again, have you considered releasing new music?
The thought comes up and we talk about it. It definitely crosses our minds all the time; it would have to be the right situation… If the band has a legacy, to me, personally, it’s that we never half-assed anything. If we were going to make new songs now I would want them to… they don’t necessarily have to sound like a certain era of the band but they would have to have that same spirit and that same effort — that same level of care and craftsmanship.
Below, find the dates for the Juliana Theory’s forthcoming reunion tour. They’re pressing 3,000 copies of the long-out-of-print Emotion Is Dead on vinyl, with half of them — a red, black and blue splatter variation — only available for those who purchase certain ticket presale packages. VIP tickets are on sale now; general admission tickets go on sale May 1. The band intends to announce more shows at a later date.
July 29: Columbus, OH @ Double Happiness
Aug. 4: Nashville, TN @ Exit/In
Aug. 5: Dallas, TX @ The Door
Aug. 6: Houston, TX @ House of Blues
Aug. 11: Baltimore, MD @ Rams Head Live
Aug. 12: Charlotte, NC @ The Underground
Aug. 13: Richmond, VA @ The National
Aug. 17: Boston, MA @ Royale
Aug. 18: Asbury, Park, N.J. @ House of Independents
Aug. 19: New York, NY @ Stage 48
Aug. 20: Philadelphia, PA @ Trocadero
Aug. 24: Pittsburgh PA @ The Rex
Aug. 25: Pittsburgh, PA @ The Rex
Oct. 28- Nov. 1: Warped Rewind at Sea (cruise leaving from New Orleans)