There are various eras of rock that fans can’t help but have a nostalgic connection with. For baby boomers, it may be the glory days of ‘70s psychedelic rock. For Generation X, they look back on the grunge movement in the ‘90s.
But for millennials like myself, it was the early ‘00s that helped change our lives. The new millennium saw an explosion of emo culture: dark eyeliner and dramatically swooped bangs, moody Myspace pages, an affinity for Hot Topic, and the influx of new, younger bands that wore all their emotions on their black-and-white striped sleeves.
Some fans gravitated towards the impassioned lyrics of My Chemical Romance, while others opted for From First To Last’s cutthroat screamo tunes. But as a then 12-year-old middle schooler, Story of the Year became my savior. On Sept. 16, 2003, the St. Louis band — comprised of lead vocalist Dan Marsala, guitarists Ryan Phillips and Philip “Moon” Sneed, bassist Adam “The Skull” Russell and drummer Josh Wills — released their debut album Page Avenue.
The album became a source of solitude as I tried to cope with the uneasiness that came with growing pains, puberty, the fear of going to a new school, and a stubborn pit in my stomach that would later be diagnosed as depression. Dan’s wails on songs like “Dive Right In” and “Sidewalks” mimicked the frustrated tears I hid from my parents, “Razorblades” encapsulated all of my insecurities in just under four minutes, and the title track gave me a sense of hope that everything will be just fine in the end. I didn’t realize it at the time, but listening to the music was a form of therapy.
It turned out that Page Avenue was not only a comfort blanket for myself, but fans around the globe, as seen with its massive success. The album became one of the first post-hardcore records to achieve a Gold certification by the RIAA at the time, peaked at No. 51 on the Billboard 200, and featured the band’s biggest hits to date — “Anthem of Our Dying Day” and “Until The Day I Die” (which peaked at No. 10 and No. 12 on the Billboard Alternative Songs chart, respectively). These milestones proved the genre had a space in mainstream rock.
15 years after its release, Story of the Year has gone through many changes — Russell left the band in 2014 and returned earlier this year, Sneed is no longer in the band and they switched record labels before self-releasing their recent album Wolves. We’ve all grown up in different ways, whether it be the members entering fatherhood, or me entering adulthood and learning how to cope with that in a positive way. But Page Avenue remains an important moment in all of our journeys; it’s a sentimental reminder of how far we’ve come.
Below, Adam Russell and Page Avenue producer John Feldmann look back at the album’s backstory, key tracks and what its mainstream success meant for mid-’00s rock music.
‘WE ARE TO SOME PEOPLE WHAT MY FAVORITE ARTISTS WERE TO ME’
Man, it’s been 15 years since the album’s release. How does that make you feel?
RUSSELL: It’s a great feeling. How do I say this without sounding really old? I’m definitely starting to realize that I’m at an age where nostalgia is a natural part of my emotional life. And I think the fact that nostalgia has become its own genre in entertainment is part of it as well.
The drummer of Pantera [Vinnie Paul] died recently, and Pantera is one of my favorite bands of all time. It hit me really hard, even though he wasn’t necessarily the member I connected with the most. I posted on Instagram that it’s kind of hard to describe how significant it feels to watch your heroes die. With me being almost 40, that’s happening more and more. So when things that I’ve been a part of creating reach these milestones, it really resonates with me because I realize now more than ever that we are to some people what my favorite artists were to me. I also appreciate and respect fans who still show love and come out to shows and still support our band.
FELDMANN: I DJ Emo Nite, which is sort of become an event in Los Angeles, it always sells out. It’s typically a bunch of artists from the scene back in the early 2000s playing their favorite music from that era, and “Until The Day I Die” always gets one of the biggest responses. So it is interesting watching it from a real fan point, standing on stage playing My Chemical Romance and The Used and The Starting Line, and when Story of the Year comes out, it’s this visceral response that is pretty interesting. We knew that we had something really special at the time, but the record they did after me didn’t really connect. Sometimes it’s hard to judge what’s gonna happen with an artist when the first album is so big, and then they never really recapture that.
These bands existed, but there were never these big anthemic chorus, melodic, sing-along moments in the hardcore music prior to The Used. So when I was producing The Used and Story of the Year, and then hearing My Chemical Romance, this whole thing happened and I was just in the middle of it. It was really exciting to watch Story of the Year. I remember the  cover of Alternative Press and they were headlining Warped Tour really quickly. They were called Big Blue Monkey and it was like, probably within a year of changing the band name, getting signed and putting this record out, it all just exploded for them.
There isn’t really that big of a stretch between Page Avenue from Story of the Year and what Post Malone is doing. All these artists, there’s hints of their influences when you listen to Nothing, Nowhere or Lil Peep. They have these very emo-centric moments that still exist in modern music. When I heard “SAD!” by XXXTentacion, I really still feel the influence of that movement of My Chemical Romance and The Used, so it doesn’t really feel like we’ve done a complete 180. I think we made a timeless record with Page Avenue, and I’m really grateful to have been part of it.
Take me back to that time, were you nervous about coming into the music industry? Or were you young and bright-eyed?
RUSSELL: It was a little bit of both. I especially was gung-ho on every level and ready to become the biggest band in the world, because I was so pumped about the music that we were making. I joined the band when it was morphing into what would become Story of the Year, as I was a big fan of the local band that included Dan [Marsala] and Ryan [Philips] and was friends with them. When we joined forces, we had no fear whatsoever. But ironically we were also afraid of success on a credibility leve,l since we were such hardcore punk kids. We were worried about the “hardcore police”! [Laughs.] Although we’d been playing music for what felt like forever at that point, to the world we were brand new. So coming out with a big radio-pushed single [“Until the Day I Die”] for our first album was not only scary, but we actually fought it.
We wanted to wait and tour for a year before pushing a single, because everything we grew up on in the ‘90s was all about development and labels used to invest in that. I remember when the Red Hot Chili Peppers released Blood Sugar Sex Magik and “Under the Bridge” became this worldwide hit. When I went and looked back [at their music] I was like, “Oh wow, this band’s been around forever.” And that opened my eyes to the idea of band progression. So we were really afraid of becoming this sellout band with a big single and lose our credibility, but the label was adamant about releasing it, and it was obviously the right thing to do. We made sure to get out and tour, like, immediately, in order to prove ourselves as a live band and to elevate the song’s presence, rather than let it pass through this window of opportunity like a lot of radio bands do.
What was it about touring with those guys that made you want to help record their album?
FELDMANN: ?Goldfinger played St. Louis and Ryan, the guitar player, gave me a VHS of a bunch of shenanigans that the band had done. It was almost like a mini-episode of Jackass. In this one scene, they had sprayed a bunch of hair spray on someone’s back and lit it on fire, and then there was this one guy who was lactose-intolerant ate a bunch of ice cream, and another one threw up on the guy while he was dead asleep, lighting up firecrackers in each other’s pants. Just like wild shit. I was like, “Okay, these guys definitely are entertaining.”
There was a little snippet of their live show while they were still called Big Blue Monkey and they were doing back flips and jumping over each other, doing somersaults. It was just a really crazy stage show, so I flew them out to LA to see if they were open-minded. I thought the name was awful, so I convinced the band to change the name from Big Blue Monkey. They came up with Story of the Year, which I thought was a much better band name, and they were open to collaborating and take the songs to the next level. They came to me with “Until the Day I Die” pretty early in the process, and I knew that song was really special. So we did a showcase at The Viper Room for Maverick Records, which is where I was at the time, and they were signed pretty much immediately.
I got my friend John Reese to manage the band, who was managing Goldfinger at the time, and it all kind of came together pretty quick. So I didn’t take them on the road until we had recorded “Anthem of Our Dying Day” and “Until the Day I Die.” Then I took them out on tour because they were still an unknown band because I knew we had enough of a fanbase. Anyone who was going to open for us that people didn’t know would get heckled, and I wanted to see how they would feel about hecklers, and how they would deal with a different audience — because we were really a ska-punk band, and these guys were not. These guys were heavier, they had metal riffs and they were definitely a different band. And they held their own. They dealt with it all and they won over our fans every night, so I knew there was something really special.
What was like working with John Feldmann?
RUSSELL: We were touring with Goldfinger based on a promo video we made [in 2002] on VHS, which is crazy to think about that now. So Feldmann brought us out to see if there was more there, because he felt that we had potential. He came in long before the [record] deal — I say long before, but it was like a month or two — to do a bit of light producing and pre-production to tighten up the songs to present it to the label. We worked on a couple songs that we already recorded and got “Until The Day I Die” to a place that would come across even better live. Then we went to play the showcase and the deal happened.
When we went to record the first three songs — “Until The Day I Die,” “Anthem of Our Dying Day” and “Razorblades — although we were thrusted into this major-label recording process, we were still with this dude from our band who we respected that already got our feet wet to the process. Having someone tell us what to do about our music was tough because we were [very protective] — it was that same punk mentality. Even in the ‘90s with grunge, everyone wrote their own stuff, got in the studio and hammered it out.
There wasn’t much big-production theatrics, so we were like “What is this dude doing, telling us this part sucks?” It was a tough process that was exciting but infuriating but glorious — all of that stuff in one. But through butting heads and arguing, we really created some magic in those moments. And recording that album holds nostalgia as well. We made it at Feldmann’s old house in Marina Del Rey that was like 1,000 square feet. The studio — I’m using big air quotes right now — was one bedroom and he had the drums in there too. He had headphones on while Josh [Willis] was recording about four feet away. Ryan recorded on the guitar in a closet with a bunch of foam around it. We were basically living in that house.
But the sound quality and the production Feldmann was doing was blowing our minds. It wasn’t like we got signed and was thrown into a multi-million dollar studio with dollar bills floating around everywhere. [With Feldmann], we realized, “This is how songs get better and how bands learn how to write. This is how musicians do things.” It was that kind of culture shock.
‘MY JOB WAS TO MAKE SURE HE DIDN’T HAVE TO WORK AT A PIZZA STORE ANYMORE’
Were there any challenges you faced while you were recording?
FELDMANN: There’s always challenges making albums, and with Story of the Year, the specific stuff was that they had a guitar player before they had Phil. A few of the songs on the record we had recorded without Phil, who for all intents and purposes was probably the most musical guy in Story of the Year. He sounds like Sting when he sings and he’s one of the greatest guitar players that I’ve ever worked with. We had the beginning stages with a guitar player that wasn’t as good, and then they kicked him out halfway in the recording process. Thank god that they got a better guitar player.
I was recording in this little teeny room in Marina Del Rey, I didn’t really have a studio. I had glued foam to the wall and I had stapled egg crates to make it more of a pleasant sounding room. I threw this little 57 microphone in the bathroom down the hall, and I’d leave the door open to record drums at midnight. My wife would get super pissed. We weren’t married at the time — we were just dating — and she would be like, “What are you doing recording drums at midnight waking the cats up?” I really had to keep pushing them to be bigger than I think they thought. They had tons of influences from Pantera to Red Hot Chili Peppers, and they really wanted to be a heavier band than the record I made with Page Avenue. There’s definitely these soaring melodies, and I definitely meant for the album to be very vocal driven. Ryan and I really thought a lot about how loud the guitars should be and how riff-centric the record should be, so that was the biggest challenge I had: knowing how big the band could be.
I don’t want to take credit for the success of the record — but I mean, I have to, to a certain extent, because Ryan and I fought a lot. He wanted it to be a metal record, and if it would’ve been the record he wanted, it would’ve never connected the way it did. The record needed to have the melodies and the vocals the way that they were, in order for people to really understand how great the songs were. That probably took 10 years for Ryan to really understand.
If you look back, they didn’t hire me to do the second record. That’s how bummed Ryan was on how the first record sounded. He was really upset. He was like, “This record is a pop record.” He wanted to make something heavy, so they hired a metal producer to do the second record, which failed horrifically. It got them dropped [from the label] and it didn’t connect. I think in hindsight, Ryan understands it. But when he was a kid, he was so defiant on my process. It was really challenging for me. He worked at Papa John’s pizza. My job was to make sure he didn’t have to work at a pizza store anymore. I was really trying to give him a career.
Did you feel pressure producing a new act competing in the same space as other rock bands? How did you help them stand out?
FELDMANN: I really try to use each of the artists’ strengths to make them as unique as possible, because the singer Dan [Marsala], he is an incredible vocalist. He has almost perfect pitch. The guy really delivered amazing performances. I tried to separate Bert [McCracken, lead singer of The Used], who has such a unique voice, with Dan, who is more of a trained singer. The riffs that Story of the Year had definitely lent to more of a progressive sound than The Used, which was more chaotic. So, I tried to use their own style to define who the band is. That’s my role: to have the artist really be the driving force behind creativity.
RUSSELL: We felt that pressure, for sure. And a majority of our efforts to stand out went to the live shows. We focused more on that than playing well for the longest time [Laughs.] We wanted to take what all of our favorite bands did and bring it to another level. We wanted people to leave thinking, “Holy fuck. What did I just see?” That necessity to achieve that was elevated further by the fact that we had a radio single out.
‘WHAT ARE WE SO FUCKING UPSET ABOUT?’
Let’s get into some of the songs. Why was “And The Hero Will Drown” chosen as the album opener?
RUSSELL: As we were writing it, we knew it was one of those high-energy, in-your-face kind of songs. Even the first verse, which was the first part we played together, set off that light bulb. That came from the live focus, if anything. We still write songs with live shows in mind. So we were like, “Okay when the next part comes on, everybody has to jump. What’s gonna make people move their heads?” Like, “What’s gonna make them just lose their shit and not know what to do but fucking run in circles?”
That actually came from watching bands like Goldfinger. We molded our live set around that, where you come out 1,000 miles and hour and jump straight into the crowd before taking a break after the first two or three songs.
“Until The Day I Die” was incredibly commercial, but not in a bad way.
RUSSELL: I agree fully. I would say the placement of that song within the album sequencing, that was definitely an old-school marketing plan mentality. Just frontload the album with singles so the people get that when they put the CD in their CD player. You could of course skip to any song you want, but that [sequence idea] remained from the old days of cassettes and vinyl.
I think there was some kind of requirement that emo bands at that time needed to have a lyric about blood-soaked shirts!
RUSSELL: It’s very early ‘00s screamo, for sure! [Laughs.] I think mainstream-wise, “Until The Day I Die” was maybe the first song to really take it there. Warped Tour was blowing up, The Used was getting big and Glassjaw were like gods to us. But a song on the radio talking about that with the kind of tone we used was a very early [trend], and then Hawthorne Heights came along [with 2004’s “Ohio Is For Lovers”] and then Taking Back Sunday’s [“You’re So Last Summer” in 2003] came on the radio after being around before us, and then Matchbook Romance was on that [with 2006’s “Promise”]. And then we all were collectively like, “What are we so fucking upset about?” [Laughs.]
We were definitely aware of the song’s progress along the way, being on a major label and having a manager that was very in tune with that. We were getting weekly [chart and radio] reports on everything. It was that feeling of watching election results or a sports match, just that tension of “Is it going to make it to this position this week?” It was that same excitement, regardless of how anxious we were about being a sellout radio band. It further fueled that drive of showing people what we were all about in a live show.
And “Anthem of Our Dying Day” is quite literally, an anthem for many fans, including myself.
RUSSELL: It felt like we were writing an anthem, because we were doing it while riding this self-generated wave of excitement of what was happening [with our success] in that moment. That feeling made the song even more intense.
That opening verse was such a vibe — Josh started it — and we literally jammed it out, old-school style. Ryan felt that chord progression coming and we all followed along, and the song just built itself. When Dan had the melody for the chorus, we were like “OH SHIT! That’s it, that’s fucking awesome!” It was like seeing the last handful of puzzle pieces finally come together. We were all talking about the lyrics and I said, “What if it’s like an anthem of our dying day?” I had all these Saves the Day, Glassjaw and just emo “everything’s life or death” kind of lyrics circulating through my brain. The guys were like, “THAT’S PERFECT!” We were all just high-fiving the whole time, with rainbows and shit everywhere.
We were on tour with Linkin Park at that time, when “Until The Day I Die” was blowing up on radio, and we learned that Joe Hahn was directing their videos. We thought they were great, so we started talking about the video for the next single. We told our manager about Joe and they said, “Yeah absolutely, just ask him.” We all became friends already and were on the same page creatively, so it was kind of like a no-brainer [for him to direct].
“In The Shadows” was made to be played live, it’s such a rager.
RUSSELL: The making of that song had the most conflict between Feldmann and us, with our focus on credibility and sounding cool and fighting so hard against an idea that he had, to the point where we made something better than either of us thought of prior to that. The whole vibe was about jumping until the fucking floor breaks through. The chorus used this erratic rhythm and I always thought it wasn’t enough, but everyone else [in the band] just rolled with it.
But Feldmann said, “No, you need a chorus and drop down into the strings.” He had us staying in this regular time frame that was a little more chilled out. We were like, “Ah, that’s so fucking wack dude! The verse is so bouncy and heavy, and then we’re gonna come down to this chill chorus? No fucking way.” We were so bummed, but it was better than what we had.
But Ryan was just not having it! I remember at one point he burst into the room like “Okay, so, what if like, we did this — [mimics guitar rhythm]” — you know, in his ADHD kind of way. [Laughs.] With the worst communication ever, he described his idea. And then Feldmann with his ADHD was like, “Okay I get that.” So we changed the chorus and it elevated the entire song. We envisioned every step in the studio: “We’ll jump here, wait for a little bit, and then jump off the amps!” Then we ended up doing all of that live for the past 15 years.
“Sidewalks” is one of those songs you cry to during a break-up.
RUSSELL: That song was almost entirely written by Philip [Sneed], and it was/is about relationships and missing the simpler times in life. Phil had left his band, which consisted of two other members of Greek Fire — Johnny [Venus] and Mark [Joseph Roth]. There was a lot of tension happening, and it was a big deal when he left that band to join ours. And I think between that and other life stuff going on, there was this feeling of being stuck.
It was so much easier when we were just kids and having fun, and this adult shit is hard on the emotions. But when you’re young, all you want to do is grow up and get older and move away. It takes the ups and downs of life and hitting rock bottom to say to yourself, “I was really naive. I wanted to get away just for the sake of it.” Ryan and I co-directed that video with the [Villains] production company, and it was inspired by the vibe more than the lyrics in a literal sense. So that reversed, sort of backwards timeline fit metaphorically. At the time we weren’t acutely aware of the metaphors [in the video], but we felt them enough that everything made sense to us.
FELDMANN: “Sidewalks” [is my favorite song] just because I’m a sucker for a really, really great, like, 6/8, swingy kind of tempo. That song is just so heartfelt about where they’re from and growing up. It just reminds me of a really good time. That song was really driven by Philip — it’s really his song, and I fell in love with it immediately.
Do you remember if there was a song that was more difficult to record than others?
FELDMANN: So, “Falling Down” is the punk song on the record. I just couldn’t get the drummer to be able to play the beat. I had to have Dan, the singer, play the drums on that song. It was just so hard. I’ll give it to Josh [Wills] that he really gave it a go. I didn’t want to have to cut up the drums so it sounded like a drum machine. I wanted to still have it feel like a real drummer.
And so, we gave Dan a shot at playing the punk beat, and he just crushed it. The singer is an incredible drummer. In the end, everyone really struggled [with] someone not playing the instrument that they’re credited for, you know what I mean? With Dan’s lead vocals, I think it was really hard for Josh to allow Dan to play drums on that. It was such an emotional struggle.
‘IT’S ALMOST LIKE THE CIRQUE DU SOLEIL OF PUNK ROCK’
The album was a successful release — how did you celebrate?
RUSSELL: We were on tour in some state — I think it was in California — and everyone from our management and label came out to the show. We had a little “presentation of the plaque” kind of party backstage. We took a bunch of pictures and shot some video that ended up in our DVD [2005’s Bassassins]. But we kept the wheels turning and didn’t want to stop to pat ourselves on the back too much, because we were all about what the next step was. In hindsight, I wish I would’ve stopped to absorb it a little more, because it went by so quickly. But I can’t regret that, because I know that mindset is what kept our creative train on the tracks.
What attributed to the band’s debut success?
FELDMANN: It’s part timing — the band was the right place, right time. They were definitely playing the style of music that was really coming up. To me, their live show is arguably the best. At least top three best live shows I’ve ever seen. They’re so entertaining; they’re like acrobats. It’s almost like the Cirque du Soleil of punk rock, you know? To me, it’s a combination of how great of a song “Until the Day I Die” is, and how much it connected on the radio. And then, it was the effort the band put into their live show.
Page Avenue is one of the albums that changed my life. Were you guys aware of the impact it had on fans?
RUSSELL: We weren’t; it took us a few years. For the most part, we were such positive, go-getter kind of dudes despite writing these emotional lyrics. But maybe that was our therapy that allowed us to be that way. We were the most non-emo, emo band that you could imagine. So I think that, combined with the momentum of everything we were doing, unfortunately allowed us to overlook the emotional impact of the album.
Which is fine now, because we’re looking back at that time and talking about it. It didn’t go completely unnoticed, but at the time we were so on the fucking train forward. Like, “Yes, everyone is singing these songs. Let’s do the next fucking album! Let’s be heavier!” We wanted the bands that we liked to think we were cooler. And [our sophomore album] In The Wake of Determination was full-blown hardcore, heavy metal all thrown into a blender. But when we were making our third album, The Black Swan, that’s when things really hit us. We went back to Feldmann to work on a few songs and tried to communicate that all those things we said on the first album still stuck to us, that we understood that fans were connected to that stuff in a way that we didn’t realize at the time.
When Dan wrote “Angel In The Swamp” on The Black Swan, it was direct response to a message that I think he got on Myspace. A fan was in an abusive home and was going through some really heavy stuff that none of us have ever had to deal with. She talked a lot about our band being the one thing that almost literally kept her alive, and that hit us like a fucking ton of bricks. That was really the moment when we realized this was more than just heavy music that people like to jump to — how have we not been paying attention to this all along the way? Now we’re a lot more focused on it, and we of course appreciate it.
I spoke to Dan last year about how the music has become so much more mature. But in your own words, how do you think the band has grown since Page Avenue?
FELDMANN: Sometimes bands peak in a certain era. I feel like the willingness and the excitement of leaving a retail job — like working at a pizza place — and having the opportunity to come to Los Angeles for the first time being innocent and wide-eyed. I think there’s something about that willingness that allowed the band to be open to make Page Avenue. I don’t know if they’ll re-create that magic again, because they each have their own ways they want to do stuff. The guitar player of Goldfinger is Philip, who is a seminal voice in Story of the Year. I still consider these guys my friends. Adam’s one of my best friends. I don’t know if this is something that can be recreated, or if it’s just a magic moment in time.
RUSSELL: I don’t want to say turbulent — because I think we’re the most chill people in terms of our dynamic with one another despite recent events [the controversy with Philip Sneed exiting the band] — but we really went up and down with confidence, self-awareness and direction.
I think this most recent album Wolves — despite me not being on it — I can say more confidently as an outsider that it’s by far the most mature Story of the Year album. I think it’s the most genuine, because I know Dan as well as I know any member of my family. I know how to write lyrics with him and the driving forces behind them. And hearing the lyrics on Wolves, all I hear from him is absolute sincerity. I knew him well enough to know he went to places more deeply on that album than I ever heard him go. It’s the greatest feeling to hear that, and it’s all growth on every level, in the most positive way. Through all the shit that we went through, from being successful and thinking we can do anything we want, to thinking it’s all over — to get this album showed that it was all worth it. And we’re still here.
Why was this year the right time to return to the band?
RUSSELL: It was really the positioning of how the band works now, in terms of work-life balance, as wack as that sounds. Because I left the band four years ago to chill my life out a little bit and to introduce more consistency, just financially, and spending time with my wife and family. At that point, being in a band full-time was really fucking hard. [The band] came to me earlier this year, and the first thing Ryan said was, “It won’t be full-time like it was before. We all have kids and full-time jobs. It’ll be fewer shows, and only the ones that make sense to us. No more playing for nothing and just grinding it out and making ourselves miserable in a tour bus. It’s all about fun and enjoying playing music together, and still be able to be happy creative people at home.” That’s exactly what I could’ve hoped for.
And it’s been that way. We get ready for a few shows, and I get a little nervous and make sure I run a couple extra miles. [Laughs.] When we get onstage, I have butterflies in my stomach again like when I was 19 years old. Then I go home and back to normal life for a little bit, and when it’s time for shows I get excited all over again. It’s not like I couldn’t sleep last night because the bus was bouncing, or I ate ramen for the 15th time and I just wanna go home. No more of that shit!
© 2022 PMC. All rights reserved.