Interview

Tanner Jones On The End Of You Blew It!, The Grind Of Being In A Full-Time Band, & The “Emo” Stigma

The University Of Florida should probably just cancel classes on the final Friday of October — at least stop pretending it isn’t going to be a campus holiday whether they like it or not. On this weekend, thousands of the Gator faithful decamp to Jacksonville for the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party, the annual rivalry game between Florida and Georgia. But Gainesville isn’t a ghost town for Halloween — in its stead comes Fest, a weekend where the college town transforms into a mecca for pop-punk, emo, punk, and everything else that considers local legends like Hot Water Music and Against Me! as patron saints and encourages copious indoor PBR consumption. Tanner Jones, frontman of the poppy, punky, and very emo Orlando band You Blew It!, admits that he usually needs a week to recover from Fest.

Things were different this year. “This is the first Fest where I didn’t drink,” Jones says during our phone conversation on the Thursday afterwards. “It’s not like I’m quitting drinking, but I felt great the whole Fest. I dunno why I don’t do that more often.” Perhaps he can chalk up his abstinence to simply getting older. Or maybe he just couldn’t afford to take too much time off from his graphic-design gig for the Florida merch store SmartPunk. Or maybe he just wanted a greater degree of clarity during You Blew It!’s two sets during Fest, because they were the last ones the band may ever play.

The dissolution of You Blew It! came as a surprise, but not a shock. They’d been quiet since the release of Abendrot last November and emo bands don’t tend to last very long — this seems like a natural result of young people playing emotionally and physically taxing music that rarely seems to have much potential commercially or critically. “It’s hard to pinpoint, because it’s been coming on for a while,” Jones says of the malaise that led to his band’s halt. “I think the creative process got contaminated just by the climate of the band itself. And not only that, I think one more member change would’ve really done us in.” Jones is the only remaining member from the version of the band that made their first three-song EP. You Blew It!’s bassist Andy Vila is currently serving the same role for Balance & Composure, a band who has seen their own career jeopardized numerous times.

Then again, it’s likely we’re talking about You Blew It!’s hiatus in the first place because Jones was unusually candid about the contaminant in question:

Or, more pointedly, “I’d be lying if I said the word emo sticking to us didn’t have a huge effect on us maybe or maybe not breaking up.”

At the risk of projection, I imagine that anyone who follows or especially writes about emo in the current day has to feel conflicted about whether we’re doing more harm than good. It should go without saying that for most of its champions, “emo” was and is used as a subset of descriptors that anyone should want out of indie rock — irrepressible energy, nimble rhythm sections, raw, unsteady vocals, vibrant lyrics, and a complete disregard for fashion. Even if You Blew It! were called an “indie rock band from Orlando” from the jump instead, it wouldn’t take long to hear Cap’n Jazz, Pedro The Lion and Jimmy Eat World as their comparative points.

But the subtext of every single trendpiece written about this scene is that the term “emo” is still bad for business. Spend any time in these circles and you’ll hear gossip and inside baseball about how being classified as an emo band can affect who takes you on tour, interest from labels and PR firms and, subsequently, how and if you get covered by certain publications. On some level, this stuff shouldn’t matter — great music should find its audience and it often does. But for You Blew It! and so many like them — teetering on the edge of pop-punk, emo and indie rock — this all can have a profound effect on whether or not they can find that audience.

“We noticed we were starting to get shuffled within pop-punk tours,” Jones says. They’ve opened for Taking Back Sunday, State Champs, the Early November, Alkaline Trio, Motion City Soundtrack, and the Wonder Years in the past five years and it’s a tricky situation — Jones is grateful to have shared stages with these bands, and, y’know what? They’re mostly great bands with large and dedicated fanbases. But I can speak from personal experience that these shows tend to be largely nostalgic, people who liked these bands in their teens and early 20s who aren’t always interested in the opener or really keeping up with the scene in general. And once you’re “pop-punk,” it’s hard to be seen as anything else. “At some point, I think we started touring and maybe even writing to some extent to make money and that sucks. That’s not fun for us, that’s not fun for anyone, so it felt like the right time to throw in the towel at least until it’s fun again. Or maybe forever.”

There’s something poignant about You Blew It! calling it quits at a time when Jones feels like Fest is “getting back to its roots,” i.e., functioning as more of a local/scene affair than a national concern. “2011-2014 was the heyday [of Fest],” Jones remembers, which not coincidentally is the heyday of emo’s fourth wave, aka, “revival.” “You could go anywhere and catch Foxing or Modern Baseball or the Spirit Of The Beehive, very incredible emo bands that are pushing the sound forward.”

Maybe Jones is too modest to include his own band, but they’re quintessential — releasing a precocious, but raw debut album of verbose pop-punk on Topshelf in 2011 (Grow Up, Dude) and making the “leap” on Keep Doing What You’re Doing, which placed #45 on Stereogum’s Best Albums Of 2014 list. By the end of the year, they became the “flagship” band of a rejuvenated Jade Tree, the legendary imprint that was once home to the Promise Ring and Pedro The Lion before quietly shutting down last decade.

But after releasing the Pioneer Of Nothing EP in early 2015, Jade Tree had, once again, quietly shut down in the ensuing months. And by the time third LP Abendrot dropped in November of last year on Triple Crown, “that was a very volatile time for not only us as a band, but emo in general,” according to Jones. Modern Baseball had called it quits at the peak of their popularity, next-big-thing JANK had imploded over circumstances that grow more disturbing with time, the Wrecking Ball ATL festival announced it would take 2017 off (only to be revived as a more condensed “Small Ball”).

In December, I reflected on how many of the individual bands of the revival had incredible years in 2016, but the scene itself was starting to collapse. “I think we all felt it coming and then you wrote that article, but that kind of cemented it. It’s the flag that popped up that we all knew was there and we kinda hoped to ignore and all of a sudden, we realized that we should look at this more seriously than we have.” And indeed, while Abendrot is You Blew It!’s strongest and most consistent album, it arrived to ambivalence, if not outright ignorance — a preview for 2017 where large swaths of the best music from this scene went completely overlooked and even the biggest bands are starting to see smaller crowds in rooms they might have expected to pack two years ago.

Jones hedges when it comes to whether or not You Blew It!’s breakup is for good. He jokes that he’s already collaborating with Tom Mullen of Washed Up Emo for the inevitable 10-year reunion tour. And even if it feels like You Blew It! left on a bad note, it’s not like American Football, Mineral, and Braid were selling out rooms when they called it quits. Given the bonhomie of Fest, it’s understandable for Jones to spend a little time second-guessing himself over the weekend. “People would come up to me and say, ‘I’m really gonna miss you guys.’ I’m like, ‘huh, I never really considered that.’ The day of our last set, the mood was a little bit somber, but now that it feels over and done with, it feels like a weight off my shoulders,” Jones says. “It’s an odd birthing of a new era.” Read a Q&A with Jones below.

STEREOGUM: It seems like You Blew It! were at a point where there was success and expectations, but not enough to make things self-sustaining. So how does a band at your level determine the cost/benefit analysis to keep going?

JONES: What made us money was, first and foremost, touring. I definitely wouldn’t need the day job if we toured nine-to-10 months out of the year, but that sacrifice is so immense, that wasn’t something we were really interested in doing. We like getting out and doing the two to three full US tours a year and a couple of international tours. That was probably the height of what we were gonna do. That’s what we did in 2014 and we were out for seven months. I don’t want to say that was the breaking point, but it was a real eye-opener. We were like, “We’re doing well with money, I can pay rent, I can pay car insurance.” But the consequence of not seeing any of our friends, not nurturing relationships, is a very big price to pay that we weren’t really interested in doing anymore.

STEREOGUM: That all happened after the release of Keep Doing What You’re Doing, when You Blew It! and the scene in general were really buzzing. Does that mean you were considering shutting things down even back then?

JONES: I felt it. It was kind of an unspoken thing. But for a label like Jade Tree [which released Pioneer Of Nothing] to come knocking and asking for something for anything, that was something we couldn’t pass up. At the end of the day, we’re glad we did it. We maybe could’ve operated with more of an eye on the future.

STEREOGUM: How so?

JONES: We got the offer to do that EP in November [of 2014] and they wanted it out in January or February. Jumping at it and agreeing to it allowed us — or rather forced us — to break a bunch of plans we had with our significant others and things like that. We thought, naively, “Aw, this is an opportunity we’re not gonna get again,” and dropped a lot of personal things in order to do that. I mean, we’re all in relationships with very caring and understanding people, but the hurt of telling them that they’re second priority doesn’t really go away.

STEREOGUM: Having signed You Blew It! and the Spirit Of The Beehive, it appeared that Jade Tree was back in a major way in 2015 but neither of you ended up releasing an album with them. What happened with the label?

JONES: That was a maturing and also sobering experience. The on-the-record answer is that things with them and us didn’t really work out and I don’t think they were particularly ready to handle all those bands that they scooped up. I think they expected something more along the lines of the way the industry used to be, and when they saw that it wasn’t necessarily like that anymore, everything was flipped on its head. Maybe they realized a little too late that getting back in the game wasn’t the right thing to do for them, or really for us. They treated us really well, but it was disheartening to get wrapped up in all of that, to be their quote-unquote flagship band, record an album, then just be out in the open, on a lifeboat not having the resources to do anything. Luckily, Triple Crown came by and scooped us up and kept things on track.

STEREOGUM: Abendrot finally came out in November of last year…

JONES: The day after election.

STEREOGUM: I always wonder how bands feel about November releases, given that year-end lists come out earlier and earlier these days. With the two and a half years that passed since Keep Doing What You’re Doing and the Jade Tree dissolution, do you feel like the momentum behind Abendrot had been lost anyway?

JONES: There were a couple of levels. We had put out a bunch of releases out in January and February, which are supposedly and provenly terrible months to do things in. We were a little naive after Keep Doing What You’re Doing and the EP. After all of those did well, we thought, “hey, we’re invincible, November will be fine.” I thought it’d be early enough in the month where everyone would still be paying attention and maybe we can get in there for a couple of last-minute “album of the year” mentions. So, we really didn’t mind it. And the other level: we were all expecting Hillary to win, so the day that bomb got dropped and everyone’s sitting in the smoldering ashes of Obama’s presidency and Trump is about to get sworn in, everyone was just in shock. I think we all like to use that as an excuse, I’m not sure how much of an impact it had on the release of the record. I’d like to say it had a big one, but it could be the very simple fact that people just didn’t like that record either.

STEREOGUM: From my own perspective, I feel like people who were invested in You Blew It! dug Abendrot and it sounded especially well-suited for a November release date. However, it did seem like it got significantly less notice and set the tone for the way a lot of records from this scene were received in 2017. It just seems like there’s a pervasive fatigue in music coverage this year, especially with indie rock.

JONES: Without a doubt. You have to be kinda heartless to not feel that way, especially going out and playing sad music in a sad climate. Maybe that’s not the right thing to do? We really tried to offset that and make a lot of donations to what we thought were really important charities and groups through our merch sales. That helped both us and the audience members feel a little bit better. But when you’re sitting around in a van, essentially doing nothing for an entire day it’s easy to let that sense of “you could be doing more” creep in. Early 2017 was definitely not good for anyone.

STEREOGUM: What needed to happen with Abendrot in order for You Blew It! to get to LP4?

JONES: I think the obvious, easiest answer is, “better reception for that record.” But i’m not gonna sit and complain about that because we’ve had a really incredible career; records that we were hoping to get us beer money got us recognition and tours across the country. I think on a deep level, the word “emo” is very sticky and right now, unfortunately, “emo” is super unique in that whoever the last and most popular band to champion it is, sets the definition. Unfortunately right now, that definition is not very good.

STEREOGUM: Is it though? The stereotypes still persist, but I feel like there’s at least been a reassessment of the word and it’s not like there’s been a wave of Hot Topic bands that have usurped it like back in the last decade.

JONES: Not to say that there aren’t incredible emo records out there — the Hotelier and Foxing, those are examples of emo bands doing great work, I know they’d hate me calling them that, but they’re writing very cerebral, very textural incredible emo. But where it gets messy, I think emo is an unspecific term, so anyone can claim it without being wrong. Pop-punk and all these boys clubs are still claiming the term and bastardizing it for bands like Foxing, the Hotelier and Modern Baseball. And unfortunately, that still seems to be more mainstream definition: if you asked three people [to define it], two at least would say pop-punk.

The whole thing started contaminating the creative process. I found myself more and more starting off with spite in my mind. Instead of letting creativity flow and writing what felt good, everything was put through this lens of “does this sound too emo?” Writing became not necessarily a creative process but a process in how to offset the word emo, not even the definition that I know, the one that’s a four-letter word for people like us.

STEREOGUM: Do you think being defined as “emo” helped you in the beginning?

JONES: Definitely. It’s hard to put it into words, but the word emo had a different definition back then — something about it felt new and exciting. Even though it’s been around since the late ’80s, it felt like cool again, it had a gleam. But something changed in that time period between then and now, that the three-letter word started to morph into a four-letter word.

STEREOGUM: Likewise, did you see that “emo” closed doors for You Blew It!?

JONES: Yeah, I think grabbing those pop-punk tours felt like a lifeboat because we could see the hole kinda closing and we couldn’t really figure out a good alternative at the time. Not to blame this on anyone else, because we did it. But it just felt like that was a really easy quick way to further our career. But going back, I don’t think that you or any journalist should feel bad or complicit for using it because it was a different animal, I think it was lifting bands up. But things got different! Back then, we were told we weren’t emo enough and then those same people were telling us in 2017 that we were too emo and that was such a weird thing.

STEREOGUM: The biggest question during those years was trying to figure out how a band could break through that glass ceiling and be accepted by indie listeners. I think we saw it in the past year to a degree with Julien Baker, who don’t sound like Cap’n Jazz or Cursive the way a lot of revival bands did, but they come from the same labels and toured with many of the same bands. What do you think did it for them?

JONES: I think about that all the time! We’re all close with Modern Baseball, [bassist] Ian [Farmer] has been dating my sister for a long time so we’re always in close contact and I’d be lying if I said that every time we hung out, I don’t think about what could’ve been different. The easy answer is “I dunno,” it could be timing, could be climate. We’re not bitter about it, we wish we could’ve had fortune like that, but it’s just one of those things that happens that you gotta shrug off.

STEREOGUM: So when it started to become clear that maybe that fortune wasn’t in the cards, how did the conversation of breaking up begin to take shape?

JONES: Everyone in the band was kind enough to let me have my say because I’m the only original member, but the conversation’s been happening without really speaking about it for the past year or so. After Abendrot came out, tensions started getting higher, we started getting on each other’s nerves and not just for the normal reasons of like, being on the road for too long. The tension was there and maybe we could feel the door closing — it wasn’t easy to push a song out and let it grow organically. We realized that we had to do a lot more work. Not that we’re unwilling to do that work or think we’re above it, but I guess a better way to put it is that it wasn’t like it used to be!

STEREOGUM: Was there a specific show that made you think, “this is definitely it”?

JONES: Atlanta. Our Atlanta show on our headliner tour. Historically we do pretty well in Atlanta, but after [Atlanta pop-punk band] All Get Out played, the room emptied and we played to maybe 20 people in a 300-cap room. That felt like the final straw.

STEREOGUM: I do wonder what it’s like for a band in those situations, because it’s definitely awkward just to be an audience member.

JONES: It felt terrible. We’ve played many, many, many shows with less than 20 people, even in the past three or four years. But where that was really easy to shrug off before, with all that tension coming to a head, being on stage felt awful. There’s a constant conversation going on in your head whether you should be open and truthful with the crowd and showing your anger and frustration or putting a smile on and going on with the show. I think we’ve always put a smile on. That one was very different, it was very hostile on stage, not towards each other but while we’re not typically ones to throw instruments, that set ended with a couple dropped and tossed instruments.

STEREOGUM: So what does the future hold for you as an artist?

JONES: We all feel a little bit freer to do what we want, that burden of trying to get out from under our past releases isn’t there anymore. I’ve done more writing in the past three days than I have in the past year and a half. I feel like i’m outside of a shadow and we can possibly reconvene with who we were at the beginning of the band.

I’m super happy, if we haven’t gotten the coverage for being an emo band back then, I wouldn’t be here, I wouldn’t have gone on tour with the Wonder Years, I wouldn’t have had some of the best experiences of my entire life. It’s easy to sit back and think of the negative things how they had an impact, but it’s important to think of the positive impact emo and this band has had on me personally.

Tags: You Blew It!