There’s cake in the green room across the street from Paper Tiger, the San Antonio rock club where post-hardcore sextet Scary Kids Scaring Kids are playing a sold-out show in a few hours. It’s a gift from the show promoters, and the Gilbert, Arizona band has good reason celebrate this gig — and this whole tour. This brisk January night marks the penultimate date of a two-week trek celebrating the 15th anniversary of SKSK’s debut album, The City Sleeps in Flames, which they’re playing (almost) in full every night. The cake commemorates 10 years to the day since they last played Paper Tiger, then called the White Rabbit, on their farewell tour.
A lot has changed in the intervening decade — most immediately, the Scary Kids Scaring Kids lineup. Joining original guitarist Chad Crawford, drummer Peter Costa and keyboardist/resident crowd-surfer Pouyan Afkary on this tour are guitarist Don Vedda, bassist Jordan Flower and vocalist Cove Reber, who fronted post-hardcore band Saosin from 2004 to 2010 and now sings in Dead American. Reber is taking the place of SKSK’s original singer Tyson Stevens, who died on Oct. 20, 2014 at the age of 29.
Stevens’ death — reportedly caused by a suspected heroin overdose — ostensibly squashed any hopes for a Scary Kids Scaring Kids reunion. The band reissued its debut EP, After Dark, in 2017, but otherwise remained dormant until Sept. 29, 2019 — which would have been Stevens’ 34th birthday — when Crawford released a new song titled “Loved Forever” under the SKSK moniker. “We’re still holding onto hope that one day we will see your face again / We still sing those songs you wrote / Reciting every line, word for word, note for note,” the guitarist sings in the song’s cathartic chorus.
It turned out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. “Loved Forever” prompted SKSK’s booking agency to reach out to Crawford and gauge the band’s interest in a reunion tour. Crawford broached the subject with Afkary, who warily agreed. “I was like, ‘Yeah, I’ll do it. Sure.’ Thinking it would never happen,” the keyboardist says with a laugh. “And then I created certain stipulations, and one of our agreed-upon stipulations was we need to have someone that can fill Tyson’s shoes in a way that honors him, and in a way that feels natural and authentic and doesn’t do anything to hurt what people see the Scary Kids band to be.”
Afkary’s apprehension makes sense, given SKSK’s brief but incendiary tenure. The band quickly became standouts of the mid-2000s post-hardcore/screamo scene with 2005’s The City Sleeps in Flames, a cathartic tour de force of twin guitar leads and bleeding-heart lyricism that produced two stone-cold genre classics in the thrashing shred-fest “The Only Medicine” and synth-driven rocker “My Darkest Hour.” They beefed up their production and refined their songwriting on their 2007 self-titled album, which incorporated tender piano ballads (“Watch Me Bleed”), cinematic interludes (“Breathe”), adrenalized emo anthems (“Faces”) and blistering mosh pit calls (“Snake Devil”). The common denominator was Stevens, who oscillated between larynx-shredding screams and anguished clean vocals, and whose lyrics revealed an ongoing battle with his personal demons.
Replicating Stevens’ vocals would be a tall order, and Reber was the only name on the band’s wish list. Reber is no stranger to filling big shoes: At 18, he replaced Anthony Green in Saosin, following the release of their seminal 2003 EP Translating the Name, which established Green as one of the genre’s best vocalists and performers. With Reber at the helm, Saosin pierced the top 40 of the Billboard 200 with their 2006 eponymous debut album and 2009’s In Search of Solid Ground, catapulting the singer from high school graduation to stages around the world.
Reber, now 34, was several years younger than his Saosin bandmates, and he found kindred spirits in Scary Kids Scaring Kids, all of whom are roughly his age. The singer hung out on the SKSK bus when both groups played the 2009 Warped Tour, and he filled in for Stevens on a few dates when he was unable to perform, a move Afkary dubs “Scaraoke.”
“That’s the kind of camaraderie that you don’t really find a lot when you’re on the road,” Reber says. “Every time that I saw these dudes on the road, it was like a slap of reality, but also like, ‘Hell yes, I’m back with my bros.’ I get to hang out, watch them, have fun, have fun watching them. And then as soon as we’re all done, it’s just hangout time, and I get to escape all that jadedness and just be in this reality with these dudes.”
That camaraderie returned as soon as Reber linked up with Afkary and Costa for rehearsals, despite not having seen them in roughly eight years. (“We can come right back into it, pick up where we left off, catch up, and then just immediately start talking shit on one another,” he says.) The band members made it a point to play tighter than ever on this tour. “When you’re younger, you’re not paying as close attention to the delivery of the music so much as the experience,” Costa says. “You’re like, ‘Hey, we’re setting something on fire!’ Or like, ‘Yeah, Pouyan’s jumping off the top of this 20-foot speaker into the crowd! Rock and roll!’ But I think the other big important thing for us was, hey, let’s play and let’s sound even better than the album does.”
Still, they needed to preserve the riotous energy of their old gigs. “My biggest concern was, make sure those rooms are full,” Afkary adds. “If we expect only 50 people to go to the show, let’s play a 50-cap room. We did play 1,000, 1,100-cap, but the booking agent seems to have understood that that’s where the demand was, so those rooms were full, too. And the energy at each one of these shows has really delivered in a way that we couldn’t expect it to have done.”
Afkary certainly gets his wish in San Antonio. The 1,000-strong crowd — ranging from skinny teenagers to burly 30-somethings — erupts in applause as soon as the band takes the stage, clapping and swaying back and forth as they break into the lurching riff of “The City Sleeps in Flames.” Reber stalks the stage and baits the audience (“Y’all ready to fuck shit up?”) while Afkary moonlights as a hype man when he’s not playing keys, summoning cheers from both sides of the room. The mosh pit opens up and crowd-surfers soar through the air during the encore of “The Only Medicine” and “My Darkest Hour.” A blind woman stage dives several times, using her cane to navigate instruments and musicians and putting the rest of the audience to shame.
Ten years after breaking up, Scary Kids Scaring Kids are performing at the top of their game. But this tour is about more than just throwing a great rock show. The band has partnered with To Write Love on Her Arms, a nonprofit organization dedicated to giving hope to people struggling with depression, addiction, self-harm or thoughts of suicide. Afkary says the band members watched heroin ravage their circle of friends and fellow musicians — Stevens included — during their formative years in Gilbert. They weren’t equipped to talk to Stevens about his addiction at the time, but now they hope to facilitate a dialogue with fans who have similar struggles.
“We didn’t know how to work with Tyson to make him want to seek out help or to make him want things, but we’re not pros. And we also don’t know how to talk about Tyson’s struggles in a way that doesn’t take his story away from him,” Afkary says. “He was a person that had struggles, but he was many other things. And we didn’t know how to have that conversation. So we wanted to bring out professionals that knew how to have that conversation and provide services to other people that connected to the music that may be dealing with that, too.”
One of those professionals is Chad Moses, director of outreach and experience at TWLOHA, who gives a brief message before SKSK’s set at every show, reminding fans that their lives have meaning and encouraging them to reach out if they’re going through hard times. “The first time he gave that message, we hadn’t heard him. We had just met him, and he came out, and we were super stoked to be able to just go onstage — and all of a sudden, it was just this new emotion,” Costa says. “Like, oh my gosh, normally you feel like this when you’re in your room by yourself, listening to an album or, I don’t know, reading poetry. And now this part is exposed.”
For Reber, the greatest moments of this tour come from watching the old-school SKSK fans revert to their teenage selves before his eyes. “When I get to look at the crowd and see these 30-somethings going hard like they’re 16, knowing that their back’s gonna be sore tomorrow, and they’re not gonna be able to pick up their kid ’cause they’re fist-pumping too hard, that gets me so excited for gigging, night in, night out,” the singer says. Even during the slow songs, which might normally call for a bathroom break, Reber says the energy in the rooms stays sky-high, but takes on a different form: “It’s almost like the emotion in the room, you can feel it. It’s almost physical in a way, and I’ve never experienced that.”
The members of Scary Kids Scaring Kids don’t just want to mourn Stevens’ death on this tour; they want to celebrate the life and career of their friend and bandmate by playing his songs and giving fans a place to lose themselves for an hour. “Now that I’m singing these songs, I’ve gained a better understanding of who Tyson really was and how much he struggled,” Reber says. “I feel like what we’re accomplishing through this tour, even just onstage, is allowing people to receive the message and see how much we actually do love and appreciate who he was as a person. And we get to see how much everybody else loved and appreciated this band and Tyson as an individual, because he was much more than his demise.”
“We’ve had multiple times where people just start cheering his name, and I think he feels loved and he feels cared for,” Costa adds. “And hopefully that message can go on to other people, and other people can have a different outcome in their life.”
Scary Kids Scaring Kids wrapped their tour last month, but that won’t be the last fans hear from them. Still, don’t expect them to overstay their welcome like other seemingly interminable rock reunions. They’re keeping things compact, and they have no plans to record new music at the moment — but Costa doesn’t rule it out. “Six months ago, we would’ve said 100 percent no,” he says of the tour they just finished. “We all have our own professional lives now, and we love making music. And I think making music under the name of Scary Kids would require a lot of long conversations, and we’re not even thinking about that yet. One day at a time.”