Tigers Jaw Look Back On Their Scranton Beginnings & Their Self-Titled LP 10 Years Later

Jimmy Fontaine

Tigers Jaw Look Back On Their Scranton Beginnings & Their Self-Titled LP 10 Years Later

Jimmy Fontaine

I know this is a big ask because it sounds like a throwaway gag from The Office, but I beg of you, loyal Stereogum reader: Put some respect on the name of “Lackawanna County’s ska-punk scene in 2005.” The Menzingers, Captain, We’re Sinking, and Tigers Jaw all emerged from hardscrabble Scranton and laid the groundwork for the next decade of popular punk with fellow suburban Keystone Staters like the Wonder Years, Algernon Cadwallader, Title Fight, and Balance & Composure: pop-punk, hardcore, emo, “soft grunge,” and plain ol’ alt-rock coalescing into a subculture that thrived with virtually zero mainstream attention. But before all of that took place, all three had members with checkered pasts in bands with phenomenally ska-punk names like Kos Mos and Bob And The Sagets. The latter featured 75% of the Menzingers, and as Tigers Jaw singer/guitarist Ben Walsh regales, “They were so good too, as far as ska goes.”

Walsh, Brianna Collins, and Adam McIlwee formed the earliest incarnation of Tigers Jaw through mutual friends in the scene, while they were all high school students learning how to navigate the unexpectedly fertile and diverse landscape of northeast Pennsylvania. The younger crowd could be found in the usual church-basement and house shows, while the college kids and 21+ townies gravitated toward the art galleries, dive bars, and backrooms featuring bands on the local Prison Jazz label. Though the Yankees’ Triple-A affiliate might lead you to believe that Scranton and Wilkes-Barre are one and the same, “Dub City” is 30 minutes away in Luzerne County and was more of a hardcore kind of town; this is where you’ll find Title Fight’s homebase of Kingston. And of course, there were the kids who lived on the internet, specifically message boards and burgeoning punk incubators like PureVolume and MySpace. Tigers Jaw’s 2008 self-titled sophomore bow was the rare record equally beloved by all of these niches and subfactions, and thus, a definitive document of a crucial movement that went largely undocumented in its time — an unexpected cult classic that arose from complete obscurity to mandate a nationwide 10th anniversary tour and deluxe reissue.

Though diehard fans will certainly buck up for the flexi 7″ with an alternate mix of “Chemicals,” the accompanying zine is the greatest evidence of Tigers Jaw’s reputation. There are essays from the band’s benefactors, such as Run For Cover owner/A&R Jeff Casazza and Will Yip, the superproducer behind Tigers Jaw’s 2014 commercial breakthrough Charmer and spin, the inaugural release on Black Cement, the Atlantic Records imprint he founded in 2017. Musical contributors include indie-folk darling Phoebe Bridgers, Nick Hamm of Citizen, and Camp Cope’s Georgia Maq, who namedropped the band in their 2016 song “Stove Lighter” (“we only ever made out and listen to Tigers Jaw”). Despite being in their mid-20s, Tigers Jaw are legitimately elder statesmen at this point — “that’s still such a strange thing, because I don’t feel old,” Collins says. In fact, Collins was 15 years old when she was invited by McIlwee and Walsh to join Tigers Jaw as a keyboardist — and her parents wouldn’t let her go on the road with the band on their name-making 2008 tour with Title Fight.

Tigers Jaw isn’t a revolutionary album by any means. Sure, it’s noticeably more catchy and clever than the countless albums that sounded something like it, but in 2018, it sounds like the exact thing it is: a couple of high school kids turning out a half hour of zesty melodic punk about their friends and feelings; truth-in-advertising song titles include “I Was Never Your Boyfriend,” “Between Your Band And The Other Band,” and “Meals On Wheels.” Collins created the original art as a screen print in art class during her junior year. Walsh daydreamed the tracklist and sequencing of Tigers Jaw while working at Burger King.

The band rarely practiced in those days, but when they did, Tigers Jaw would end up at Buona’s Pizza, where Collins snapped an impromptu cover shot for the 2012 Run For Cover reissue. (“Buona’s Pizza” is also a song from their 2010 album Two Worlds). They played few shows outside of the Scranton area, and Tigers Jaw were a ragtag outfit even for the local gigs — “If Adam and I could play the show and Brianna was around, it would be us,” according to Walsh. “And we would ask all of our friends from other bands, ‘you wanna play drums?'” The word-of-mouth success is even more remarkable considering that Tigers Jaw were either uninterested in or incapable of adhering to the “get in the van” M.O. canonized by Our Band Could Be Your Life. Or maybe by 2008, they realized that whole process couldn’t compete with having your band’s Mediafire link swapped by the right message boards. “We were this enigma where hardcore kids liked us and pop-punk kids liked us,” Walsh reflects on their early days, and as a tuneful indie rock band named after a Microphones lyric, they were unsurprisingly baffled by offers to join aggro-leaning festivals like This Is Hardcore and Sound And Fury. “Something about the rawness and straightforwardness of the record just resonates with lots of different types of people, I guess.”

Walsh admits those qualities were harder to maintain as Tigers Jaw evolved into a more stylish and sophisticated band in the new decade. Even if they never were tightest-functioning unit, Tigers Jaw became harder to maintain as everyone began to graduate from high school — Collins and original guitarist Pat Brier went to Temple University in Philadelphia, bassist Dennis Mishko attended the University Of Scranton, while McIlwee and Walsh also stayed in the area at Marywood University. Geographically and artistically, Tigers Jaw were growing apart from each other and it led to one of the most unusual band breakups in recent memory — McIlwee, Mishko, and Brier decided they were going to quit the band, but they stuck around to complete the recording of Charmer. “We had a bunch of studio time and touring booked around the time we were doing Charmer,” Walsh recalls. “There was all this stuff on the table and some of the other guys were saying, ‘I don’t know if I want to commit to all of that.'” The arrangement even had their old friends in the Menzingers fooled — they bid RIP to Tigers Jaw in a 2013 Facebook post. “I think people were looking for some kind of dirt or story,” Walsh notes, adding, “we’re still friends with everybody and we support each others’ projects.” Most notably, McIlwee pivoted to his emo-trap project Wicca Phase Springs Eternal, which is credited with creating the Gothboiclique collective frequently repped by the late Lil Peep and is the newest signee to Run For Cover.

Perhaps some sliver of Tigers Jaw fanbase might take offense to seeing only two-fifths of the original band taking the 10th anniversary show on the road. But then again, the “all hands on deck” model is actually more true to Tigers Jaw’s roots, and Collins feels the community created and fostered by this album is its true legacy. “Sixteen-year-old me, was, ‘I want to release a CD on this local label and play a show in Wilkes-Barre, which is a half-hour drive down from the highway,'” Collins gushes. “As someone who wasn’t a popular person, music gave me this whole community that made the world seem so much smaller, and I’ve been able to see so much of it because of it.”

STEREOGUM: Looking back on your earliest days in the Scranton punk scene, how did people dress and conduct themselves at the shows?

WALSH: In terms of dress code, there were lots of checkered things and people in the skank pit wearing backpacks that were full of I don’t know what. There was a lot of hacky-sacking going on and there was always two skank pits — the one up front trying to impress everybody with their moves and then the sort of timid ones in the back of the room. A lot of the bands would have these tripod.net or cjb.net websites where they would post about their shows, and flyering around town was still a thing. We’d find out about these shows and there’d be a couple hundred kids coming out to these weird [places]. One of the big venues was called the Mighty John and it was the basement of the library.

COLLINS: My first show ever was [when I was in] 7th grade. I went to a Mighty John show and my mom let me go because it was in a church.

STEREOGUM: The emergence of popular indie-punk bands from this era is always interesting to me because it happened during this lull between the tail end of MySpace and pre-Twitter, and none of it was getting any mainstream attention.

WALSH: The two main sites were PureVolume and MySpace. When the internet started taking over the music scene, looking at a band’s Top 8 was similar to checking out the liner notes. And then in PureVolume, you could search based on zip code, and we would do that and also filter based on genre. So I’d be 14 years old, late at night when none of my siblings were using the internet because it was a dial-up, searching bands from our area that were under the ska-punk or the pop-punk genre.

COLLINS: I went to high school with Greg [Barnett] from the Menzingers and that’s kinda how I got into music in general. At our school, my friends were super into what older kids were doing. One of my friends in 7th grade, he had an older brother in a band, and he told me about the shows and would make mix CDs of our friends’ older brothers’ bands. I didn’t grow up in Scranton proper, I grew up in Hamlin, which is a tiny little farm village. So being able to finally go to shows in Scranton, I owe a lot to Greg, because the proximity to him and Captain, We’re Sinking was how I got to enter this world of music [ed. — the lead singer of Captain We’re Sinking is Greg’s brother Bobby].

WALSH: Just mentioning the ska side of it is only half the story. There was this really cool indie/art scene in Scranton, but a lot of it was largely 21-and-over. One of my cousins played in this really cool power-pop band called the Sw!ms, they played a lot with this band called Okay Paddy, and a lot of it was centered around this local record label called Prison Jazz. They had all these weirdo indie rock and power-pop bands that were like nothing else I’d ever really heard. I would check the website for shows and see my cousin wherever he was playing. I never actually played in one of those ska bands, but I met Adam through some mutual friends because of the ska band that he played in. At the same time I was discovering these indie/artsy-sorta bands, he was finding those same bands. The first time I talked to him was at a show where a lot of those Prison Jazz bands were playing.

STEREOGUM: No matter where you go, there always this line between “indie rock” and the DIY/punk scene — a lot of the time, it can seem based on aesthetics, but the 21+ barrier at shows makes a huge difference as well.

WALSH: You start out in the more DIY punk scene and you’re limited by what you know and what you’re exposed to by the time you’re 16. The older crowd — it’s funny thinking about the 21-and-over crowd as “older” — they were going to bars and had more life experience and had reached that point in their life where punk rock isn’t that cool. “I want to listen to Radiohead,” or whatever. There was a bar downtown called the Bog affiliated with those indie rock bands — it’s still there. Across the street was an art gallery that a bunch of college kids went in on and rented, and they started letting us do shows there. So we would ask some of those indie bands to play while we were figuring out what our sound was.

STEREOGUM: What was your first indication that Tigers Jaw had a real future?

WALSH: That record label Prison Jazz — when we started the band, that was our aspiration. “We want this label to care about us,” that was our main objective. They quote-unquote signed us and were going to put our CD — and we thought that was the coolest thing ever. With literally zero dollars of promo and probably just getting picked up by certain blogs or whatever, they got so many orders compared to what they were used to, they kinda just stopped sending them out for a long time. We’d get these emails like, “I ordered this CD and never got it and I’m not hearing back from the label…” Those emails were coming from further and further places, we were getting a bunch from people in the UK. And I was thinking, this is crazy that our music would’ve reached someone in another country. That was a real eye-opening moment. I remember one of the first times we played in New York and people were singing every word to every song and I was like, “we’re not in our hometown, there’s a ton of people that know these words.” Little moments like that made me think we might have something special here, this is resonating with people.

STEREOGUM: How much were you able to tour behind Tigers Jaw at the time?

WALSH: When the record was supposed to come out on Prison Jazz in 2008, we had a week-and-a-half-long tour with Title Fight. In 2007, we did a horrible, pieced-together tour with a couple of Prison Jazz bands. There was one time on the entire tour where someone actually came and paid to see the show. We were mostly playing to other bands and the sound man the whole time, and it was one of the most amazing things I’d experienced in my life. I was 16 years old.

COLLINS: I wasn’t allowed to go because I was 15.

WALSH: It was the coolest thing ever. And the next year, Brianna wasn’t allowed to go with us on the Title Fight tour. The CDs weren’t gonna be ready in time and there was a friend of ours who did this small Scranton-based record label that offered to help us out with this tour EP with two of the songs from the self-titled and three acoustic songs that Adam had done. That was the first tour that we were playing with the rest of the band minus Brianna unfortunately, but people were showing up and Title Fight were having a big moment. That definitely helped a lot of people find us, through that friendship. We toured very little, that week-and-a-half-long tour was the only one we did in 2008. We did plenty of regional shows, Scranton and Wilkes-Barre and Tamaqua, this tiny town in rural Pennsylvania. We did a lot of show trades with Mother Daughter Team, that was one of the first time we played out of Scranton. We kept that friendship up and kept doing show trades down there. It became kind of a strange hub for shows, because we’d play shows there and they’d come up to Scranton.

STEREOGUM: Did people at high school start seeing you differently once Tigers Jaw were gaining momentum?

COLLINS: For me, it didn’t really change anything. I had used high school to my advantage for making all the art for Tigers Jaw and screen-printing T-shirts. People in my high school, it was geared more to being a farmer, our football team sucked, it wasn’t a special thing to be in this band. But now, people will tell me they thought it was so cool but didn’t say anything [then].

WALSH: I was very uncool throughout all of my schooling. I wish it would’ve changed a few things, but it didn’t. Now, I get hit up by some people that I knew in high school and they do say, “it’s so cool that you get to travel, I hate my job, etc. etc.”

STEREOGUM: As college approached, what was the decision-making process for how Tigers Jaw were going to proceed?

COLLINS: We’re all close in age, but in different grades. Everyone was at a different starting point. I don’t know the exact point where it became, “we’re gonna finish school and then we’re gonna do it.” My perspective was that any of us would’ve loved to have dropped out and just pursued the band. But we didn’t want to take away from someone having two semesters left before they graduate college.

WALSH: I think it was pretty clear none of us were ready to drop out and do this as a band. It appeared like we did a lot in those years but we did very, very little. We never practiced, we played very few shows, and we would do maybe one summer tour throughout when we went to college. We were getting certain touring offers that would overlap with school and I definitely thought, “it’d be so cool if we did this.” But as a group decision, we knew it was never gonna be a possibility to get everyone else to want to do that. It was a strange time because we were seeing our shows more and more well-attended and rowdier during those years, but we weren’t really touring at all. Our booking agent, who thank God is still working with us, through those years, he would spend all this time turning stuff down until, “OK, here’s a two-week stretch in the summer,” with a month notice or something.

COLLINS: We’re driving through Canada in the horrible weather in January because that was the only time we could go.

STEREOGUM: I grew up in suburban Philadelphia in the ’90s when the local breakout artists were guys like G. Love and the Bloodhound Gang, so it was just so strange to watch places like Temple and Drexel become these hotbeds for indie rock a decade later.

WALSH: A lot of the Scranton kids moved to Philly because of college. It was really remarkable; bands like Captain, We’re Sinking and Three Man Cannon and the Menzingers, everyone moved to Philly. That whole scene was transplanted, Philly already had the infrastructure and every type of venue. Which was really cool for bands getting a lot of opportunities to play. But the Scranton scene definitely took a huge hit. There was a lot less going on after that.

STEREOGUM: Are there any songs on Tigers Jaw that have grown on you in the past 10 years?

COLLINS: We never stopped playing a lot of the self-titled because it’s an album that resonated with a lot of people. I joined the band when a lot of those songs were [already] written and I wasn’t a songwriter. So I was just lucky to be a fan of a band that I also played in. We play “I Saw Water” because it’s definitely one of the most popular songs in our entire catalog, but I still love that song so much. As far as listening to songs that we haven’t played in a long time and gearing up for the tour, “Heat”…that song is so fun and dance-y and I think back when I used to play it in my house, like, “how is it that something I thought I should do?”

STEREOGUM: What were the ones that were toughest to relearn?

WALSH: Probably “Heat,” “Meals On Wheels,” and “Between Your Band And The Other Band.” We’ve played them pretty minimally over the past six and seven years. Those ones are gonna be…not a challenge, but it’ll take a little more effort to get into the swing of those.

STEREOGUM: When I look back at Tigers Jaw circa 2008, those are the ones that stand out to me as being the most pop-punk, the ones about high school and scene politics — how do you currently relate to the person who was in the band at the time?

WALSH: I definitely still relate to that person in a lot of the songs, it’s about all sorts of relationships with other people — romantic and non-romantic — and just being open. It’s weird, as specific as some of the songs get, the emotions behind those are relatable in a lot of ways. You might not have the same trials and tribulations as a high school student, but you relate to those problems in a more worldly way. I don’t know if it’s more or less existential now, but when you’re 16 or 17, the world seems a lot bigger and your own problems seem a lot bigger. Now, we have a much better idea of our place in the world, and in our lives, and in our relationships with other people. Some of that helplessness or uncertainty from when we were writing lyrics as 16- and 17-year-olds, there’s always going to be those nervous tendencies. I second guess myself in a lot of situations, that hasn’t changed. None of those songs were trying to be clever or metaphorical. We were writing the only way we know how to write, it was very raw and untested. And sometimes I try to channel that. Now, when I’m writing, I wish I was that carefree about it and everything was less precious — “I like this line, I’m gonna stick with it.” Now I might cross it out and rewrite it five times. That might be a big change, but I do try to channel that version of myself.

STEREOGUM: I can’t trust everything I read on Genius.com, but I’ve seen that there’s a lyrical chain of “I can’t wait forever” that connects a lot of the Scranton bands.

WALSH: To be honest, I don’t know who wrote it first — Greg from the Menzingers claims he did, which could very well be true. But I do know it’s been used in our songs and Menzingers songs and Captain, We’re Sinking songs ever since, just as a nod to the little community we’ve built together. There’s an impatience or eagerness to that line that changes the mood — you gotta hurry up and do something, which is a representation, at least the way I look at it, about how we had to build our scene and how it was super DIY when we all started. We were throwing shows wherever we could throw them, basements and backrooms and art galleries. There’s this youthful energy to that line, you can’t wait around, you gotta go ahead and try to do something.

COLLINS: A little angst too. The most important thing that I’ve been reflecting on after 10 years — and the difference between us literally being in high school and adults — is how everyone took the initiative to do what we wanted to do, even though it didn’t really fit. I remember Ben doing sound and helping with booking and flyering with our community because it was something for us to do and be a part of. I had so many friends that I didn’t go to high school with, but [we connected] because we all love music and wanted to be part of something bigger than the shitty little town or whatever we came from. I think that’s still possible today, even more so because of how prevalent the internet is, it’s a lot easier to get info out. Having the initiative and excitement to do something. I never thought I could be in a band and then I literally met Adam and Ben, and then, when their keyboard player at the time quit, and all of a sudden I’m in a band and I’ve been in that band since I was 15. It’s a life changing experience and I’m so thankful for Adam and Ben giving me that opportunity.

Here are the Tigers Jaw 10-Year Anniversary tour dates:

09/13 – Amityville, NY @ Revolution
09/14 – Washington, DC @ Rock & Roll Hotel
09/15 – Richmond, VA @ Strange Matter
09/16 – Durham, NC @ The Pinhook
09/18 – Atlanta, GA @ The Masquerade (Hell)
09/19 – Orlando, FL @ The Abbey
09/21 – New Orleans, LA @ Zeitgeist
09/22 – Houston, TX @ White Oak Music Hall
09/23 – Austin TX @ Barracuda
09/24 – Dallas, TX @ Club DADA
09/26 – Phoenix, AZ @ Rebel Lounge
09/27 – Anaheim, CA @Chain Reaction
09/28 – Anaheim, CA @ Chain Reaction
09/29 – Los Angeles, CA @ The Echo
09/30 – Los Angeles, CA @ The Echo
10/02 – Oakland, CA @ Starune Social Club
10/04 – Portland, OR @ Hawthorne Theatre
10/05 – Vancouver, BC @ Biltmore Cabaret
10/06 – Seattle, WA @ The Crocodile
10/07 – Boise, ID @ Neurolux
10/09 – Denver, CO @ Marquis Theatre
10/11 – Omaha, NE @ Slowdown
10/12 – Chicago, IL @ Bottom Lounge
10/13 – Ann Arbor, MI @ The Blind Pig
10/14 – Cleveland Heights, OH @ Grog Shop
10/16 – New York, NY @ Market Hotel
10/17 – Cambridge, MA @ The Sinclair
10/18 – Cambridge, MA @ The Sinclair
10/19 – Scranton, PA @ Montage Mountain

more from Q&A