Shannon Taylor is the creative force of a band named awakebutstillinbed and she just put out a record titled…deep breath here…what people call low self-esteem is really just seeing yourself the way that other people is see you. Do you really think she’s going to apologize for being emo?
“Emo’s not a phase,” Taylor tells me right up front during our phone conversation. “When I turned 19 and I first found American Football, I went through this period where I was checking out emo bands and really getting into the genre — that never really stopped. That was 2010 and it never ended.”
Many people in the scene (myself included) had spent the past year wondering about the future, as most of its biggest acts broke up — voluntarily or otherwise cancelled — and nearly all spent their existence distancing themselves or qualifying their relationship to “emo.” But awakebustillinbed have emerged as one of 2018’s most exciting bands not just because they draw on the best parts from a decades-spanning canon of Rainer Maria, Algernon Cadwallader, and the Hotelier while smuggling in day-glo ’80s pop-rock (“Life”) and sweeping post-rock instrumentals (“Interlude”). When Taylor’s evangelical enthusiasm for this music comes across in every one of her throat-searing, post-screamo howls, she’s experiencing her 2010 — or your 1999 or 2014 — for the very first time again.
The songs on what people call low self-esteem are the first ever released to the public by awakebutstillinbed, dropped onto Bandcamp during the early January refractory period for music publications. But it’s the record Taylor’s been writing her whole life, absorbing every demoralizing condescension and missed opportunity from her early days as an alt-grunge teen in Texas to a Bay Area fixture with an actual “San Jose DIY” tattoo. While growing up in the Dallas suburb of Mesquite, Taylor recalls, “my dad and my two brothers would make fun of me when I started singing and I had internalized this idea that you just were good at something or you weren’t. They never said that kind of stuff with me for guitar.” At 15, her family moved to York, Pennsylvania, not-so-lovingly referred to as “Shit Towne” by its most famous residents — “When I moved there, every single kid that I met that was an alt kid said, ‘yeah, Live’s from here,” trying to make York seem cool,” Taylor laughs.
After high school, Taylor pondered her next phase and “Floor” was originally written in Spanish in 2010 when she was in a state of giddy anticipation about her impending move to California. While mining her archives for material that fit within the emotional arc of the LP, she rediscovered “Floor” and altered the lyrics to reflect the chaotic events that actually happened. “Eventually, I found my way into the DIY scene and everyone has been really really nice to me. That’s why I have a San Jose DIY tattoo.”
Given how much Taylor was carrying into the making of the record, it’s no surprise that what people call low self-esteem holds nothing back, musically or lyrically. “I was at my wit’s end,” Taylor sighs. “Because every single time I was in a band that was building some type of following or connection, we’d break up.” She realized it wasn’t realistic to expect a “Radiohead model” of stability and collaboration. While the dynamic and unpredictable what people call low-self esteem never sounds like a typical singer-songwriter project filled out by ringers, Taylor intended to surround herself with a revolving cast that you see more often in indie rock these days (“Waxahatchee is not gonna break up unless Katie [Crutchfield] decides that she’s just done”). When we connect on a Sunday afternoon, she’s having a practice session with the “road team” awakebutstillinbed that will travel outside the Bay Area. “I have kinda two lineups, a tour lineup and a home lineup because we’re in the middle of a bunch of transitional phases,” Taylor says, assuring me it’s a simpatico Lou Williams-type deal where both parties involved know each other from the Bay Area punk scene and are completely understanding of how the arrangement is mutually beneficial and necessary. “The original members of the band never expected us to do as much as we’re doing so they weren’t really ready for it.”
Taylor didn’t expect all that much either. After completing the album, she briefly considered reaching out to labels but figured it was futile given awakebutstillinbed’s lack of stature. “I was like, ‘they probably won’t like it, we don’t have a following, there’s no point. I’m just gonna put it out myself, fuck it.’ Then we did.” Specifically, “they” refers to Tiny Engines, the label that signed awakebutstillinbed about a month after the album dropped; in a few months, they’ll be playing a run of California dates with Joyce Manor. “I put out the record, thinking like…we’ll tour forever and maybe people will care about it eventually and that is not what happened! It’s extremely overwhelming and amazing but I can’t even focus on that because I can barely keep up with it.”
STEREOGUM: Most of the breakthrough indie rock acts in the past couple of years have been a central songwriting figure surrounded by a rotating cast rather than an actual band — are true bands no longer practical in 2018?
TAYLOR: I only know why it’s feasible for me. I’ve always been down to take time off and quit a job to go on tour. I’ve quit plenty of jobs to go on tour when they wouldn’t let me and I guess I see [music] as more important. Part of it is also because I live in the Bay Area and it’s really fucking expensive here. I don’t have a lot of money, so I always end up having really weird living situations where it’s sorta transient and not meant to be a permanent thing. For example, right now I live in an office space, this little warehouse in the back [of this building]. It’s my friend’s dad’s and it’s been paid off since the ’80s — it’s not zoned for living and there’s no shower, so I have to go the gym to take showers. I’ve always had to find weird ways to exist here, and so because of that, I’ve never really felt glued to anything. Even when I’m hustling at work and working three jobs, which I was doing earlier last year, I never made enough money to really put down real roots in the Bay Area as far as establishing a home or anything. And I didn’t really want to, because that would be a lot of work and I’d have to stop doing music.
It’s not a good financial decision to be a musician. So unless you have a strong, primitive reason to do it, not a lot of people are down to be like, “fuck it, I’m gonna be broke my whole life and be a musician.” Especially in the Bay Area where you need to make a lot of money just to have minimal level comfort. Like having a home with a garage. No one I know has a garage. If you have a garage, that’s like the peak of luxury. “You don’t have to park your car two blocks away and worry about having it broken into? Oh my gosh!”
STEREOGUM: How has the DIY scene in San Jose evolved since you got started?
TAYLOR: There are still house shows, but there used to be way more. It actually used to be one of the best places for DIY in the Bay. Back in 2014, when the Santa Cruz scene was dead and the Oakland scene was very weird and clique-y, San Jose was where it was at. I remember back in 2013-2014, people would hit me up and say, “we wanted to play in Oakland, but we couldn’t get a show, could we play in San Jose?” And we’d be like, “yeah, you can.” I look back on that with nostalgia: It’s really hard nowadays, there’s still good shows, but a lot of people that made it what it was — and a lot of the things that made it what it was — stopped existing. The bands that united the scene, the spaces that were available to play, the people that opened their homes, the people who weren’t in bands that were really pushing things to happen and people who wanted to see music…they’re all still there, but they don’t go to shows anymore and it kinda sucks.
STEREOGUM: It’s interesting because from a distance, San Jose often gets lumped into “the Bay Area” rather than its own distinct entity.
TAYLOR: The tech companies would love for you to see [San Jose] as part of a conglomerate and treat it like a route on the way to Oakland, they’re so awful. All the ways the city is marketed to people nowadays comes through Tesla and all the tech companies based there that are just the worst. The real spirit of San Jose underneath all the bullshit, the people who have been living here since they were kids or whatever, there’s so much tight-knit support of each other. It’s not like Oakland or San Francisco where people move there because it’s a status symbol or whatever, and they live there for three years and move out. San Jose is home for a lot of people, they care about it and they really want it to be a great place. It’s not like a cool place to live. It doesn’t have the status of a cool city, so a lot of the people are there because they want to be there and it’s not just this weird phase. I think there is a fire under people to make others realize that [San Jose] is great because it’s overlooked so often. I don’t know how to say this without it coming out weird, but it’s almost like a complex. “It is good, you just don’t know!” It’s not just music shows and punk, there’s art shows and poetry shows.
STEREOGUM: When talking about “Stumble,” you mentioned that you’re hesitant to do breakup songs — the “vindictive breakup song” is still what people immediately associate with emo, but I feel like most of the bands nowadays are extremely self-conscious about going there.
TAYLOR: I saw a show pretty recently where the song was like, “I hate you, you suck” or whatever and people were into it! So I was like, “OK, cool. There’s a place for this, but it’s not what I want to do.”
STEREOGUM: With those kind of songs in particular, I think about this therapeutic method I’ve studied called dialectical behavioral therapy — it validates the underlying feelings while trying to change behavior, yet this kind of music kinda confounds that practice since the behavior itself is “expressing your feelings as valid.”
TAYLOR: That’s basically why I chose the title of the record. It was the record title before it was a lyric. The origin of that whole quote is not from me. People have said “the record title is literally a tweet,” but actually it’s a Facebook status that my friend posted six years ago when she was having a really hard time. And I’ve been thinking more about why it stuck for so long with me, it’s easy to not think about what those words mean anymore because it’s almost like a “The World is a Beautiful Place and I Am No Longer Afraid to Die”-level joke. Me and the band have lots of riffs on the title we say as a joke, because it’s a meme at this point and that’s how things work in 2018. A lot of things I do are really instinctual and I’ve been trying to think introspectively about the band and remember why I chose certain things. That Facebook status where she wrote verbatim, “what people call low self-esteem is really just seeing yourself the way that other people is see you,” is super depressing. But I’ve felt that way a lot of times, that my low self-esteem was a reflection of reality and not something that needed to be fixed because it was real. It was a way to express what it was like to be depressed without saying the word “depression” in a sentence. And I thought that was really powerful.
But the other thing is that when I read the words, I don’t think that they’re true or false. Even though the words are said in a declarative way, as if they’re saying a truth, it’s not whether or not it’s true, it’s that it feels true to people at times. And the fact that it feels true is more important than whether or not it ever is true. You can’t know how everyone else feels, you can’t know objectively what your worth is, those are completely intangible ideas. But when it feels like that, it’s a real fucking shitty feeling, to put it bluntly. When I wrote the record, I was going through a really rough time and that’s what a lot of the songs were about. I had a lot of conversations with people in the band and outside the band and even myself about shortening the title and making it less long, because having a long title is a hard move to make. And every single time, it didn’t say what I want it to say, it didn’t say the whole thing. So I was like, fuck it: “It’s gonna be this lengthy mouthful and people are gonna have to accept it.”
STEREOGUM: Speaking of “people are gonna have to accept it,” how has the response to the vocals been for you?
TAYLOR: That’s the most divisive thing. It’s funny to me because some people will comment that they hate the vocals or say, “every time she sings, I’m just waiting for the screams,” and I kinda relate more to those people. When I listen to my own record, I’m like, “when do I start screaming?”
STEREOGUM: How did you develop your screaming technique?
TAYLOR: This was 2005-2006, I’m [currently] 26 to give you some context. I was doing breathing exercises and stuff. The bands I wanted to scream like…the first that came to mind was Filter and also Alice In Chains. I also listened to At The Drive-In, but that’s the one you expect me to say, right? But At The Drive-In wasn’t my favorite band, I really liked the Mars Volta and I got into At The Drive-In because I liked the Mars Volta so much. I liked prog and grunge, those were my genres. It’s funny to think back on that now because my music is soooo emo. All the music I listen to is so emo. But at the time, King Crimson was my thing.
Fast-forwarding, eventually I started singing and I had one song where I tried to scream and I was really bad at it. I tried to sound like the Fall Of Troy and that didn’t work out very well for me. I didn’t even know what I was doing. And I remember losing my voice immediately after the first take and being like, “fuck, i gotta do my next take tomorrow.” Which by the way never happens anymore. People always tell me, “be careful with your voice!” I never lose my voice on tour, people are usually asking me how that’s possible and I tell them, “dude, I’ve been doing this for a while” Although I hope I don’t jinx anything because we’re going on a really big tour in may and I don’t want to come back and have really bad vocal nodes.
STEREOGUM: Before then, you’re playing SXSW — do you still consider it an important opportunity for developing bands?
TAYLOR: I love South By, last year was really eye opening for me. I didn’t realize how strong the scene still was, because I’m kinda isolated a little bit. San Jose isn’t really an emo metropolis or whatever. Back in the day, it seemed like the scene was really strong in San Jose, but then when everyone started listening to hardcore and stopped going to emo shows, it sort of felt like…nobody cares about this genre of music. But going to SXSW, it was just so overwhelmingly positive and there were so many people from across the country that I knew.
I met a lot of people at shows like, “I’m friends with you on Facebook and I have been for three years and I don’t remember how. It was probably some fluke that we added each other on some emo forum or something.” But at SXSW, so many people were still interested in this stuff and it’s important because emo’s not a phase to me. There’s a lot of cross-genre hate that people do, elitism or whatever where people are like, :I only like real rock ‘n roll, no bleep bloops, electronic music’s for chumps!” and I think that’s really wack. And I also think it’s really wack when people are like, “I don’t like emo, I don’t like rock or punk or indie, I’m sick of guitar music.” Guitar music, man…really? I think it’s really corny when people write off forms of artistic expression. I feel like a freak saying something like that to someone in an interview, but people say shit like emo’s dead or rock music is dead, man…not as long as I’m alive!
awakebutstillinbed’s what people call low self-esteem is really just seeing yourself the way that other people see you is out now on Tiny Engines. (Physical pre-order here.) The band are touring, too. Here are the dates:
03/08 Santa Cruz, CA @ Subrosa
03/09 Upland, CA @ Palisades
03/10 Phoenix, AZ @ The Lunchbox
03/11 Albuquerque, NM @ Gold House
03/12 Dallas, TX @ The Armoury
03/13 Houston, TX @ House Show
03/14 Denton, TX @ Killer’s Tacos
03/15 18 @ SXSW
03/19 EL Paso, TX @ Cafe Tolteca
03/20 Tempe, AZ @ Secret Garden, ASU
03/21 Fullerton, CA @ Programme Skate & Sound
With Joyce Manor:
04/26 Orange County, CA @ The Observatory
04/27 Fresno, CA @ Strummer’s
04/28 Sacramento, CA @ Holy Diver
04/30 Reno, NV @ Jub Jub’s
05/01 Chico, CA @ The Senator
05/03 Petaluma, CA @ The Phoenix Theatre
05/04 San Jose, CA @ The Ritz
05/05 Santa Barbara, CA @ Velvet Jones