Interview

Emo Revival Heroes Algernon Cadwallader Are Back (In Print)

Meet the influential Philly band and stream their formerly elusive catalog

The most influential emo bands are almost invariably mourned using the lexicon of incompletion and imperfection – they break up on the precipice of something bigger, are misunderstood or scorned by contemporary critics, leave a cruelly small recording legacy cited by more commercially successful peers as a primary influence. And since Algernon Cadwallader is a cultishly beloved and defunct emo band, it’s only right that Peter Helmis fondly remembers there being “something unattainable” about the Philadelphia trio.

“Crap name, ace band.” So said NME of Algernon Cadwallader in a 2009 “Notes From The Underground” blog post. The original lineup of Helmis on bass and vocals, drummer Nick Tazza, and Colin Mahony and Joe Reinhart on guitar took shape in 2005, as they transitioned out of melodic pop-punk and hardcore into the “whole Chicago ’90s emo thing” — i.e. Cap’n Jazz, Braid, American Football. This effectively describes how the emo revival was created in the image of their 2008 LP Some Kind Of Cadwallader. Mahony and Tazza both left the band in 2008 when Tank Bergman joined as drummer.

“That was not something people were talking about at the time, so it was cool to discover it,” Helmis notes during our conversation. Many other bands would soon gravitate towards a similar set of stylistic tropes that would be lovingly mocked as “twinkle”: rapid-fire arpeggios, guitar tapping, hammer-ons, and capos upon capos. In the span of four years, Algernon Cadwallader created their own label, released two albums — sparking a revolution in indie rock that continues to this day — and then called it quits on their own terms. By nearly all metrics, the short-lived Philadelphia trio achieved all of their stated artistic goals and bent not a centimeter.

So if Helmis really does see something “unattainable” about Algernon, he might be projecting a bit, in the voice of fans who never had the chance to see them in a Philly basement and can’t access any of their out-of-print albums on streaming services. Well, at least the latter part will change in November, as Lauren Records and Asian Man Records have joined forces in reissuing Some Kind Of Cadwallader, its overlooked follow-up Parrot Flies, and a new self-titled LP that collects the band’s demos, EPs, and rarities.

“We were handling everything ourselves, and we just fizzled out pressing the record and doing the label thing,” Helmis admits, referring to the Hot Green label whose tiny discography includes Hop Along’s Get Disowned and Hurry’s Everything/Nothing, crucial documents of early 2k10 indie rock in Philly. “I never got around to the digital side of things, never really cared about it too much at the time.”

During our phone conversation, it’s unclear how much he’s really invested in the actual stewardship of the reissues; “Oh, that’s on it?” he jokes when I mention the hyperbolically yelpy cover of Elvis Costello’s “No Action” that appears on the jewel of the reissue campaign, a self-titled “third LP” consisting of their inaugural demo and the 2011 Fun EP, plus a couple of B-sides and rarities from alternate and foreign pressings. Then there are the covers: “Our friend Corey in Richmond asked us to be his wedding band, playing some ceremony music and stuff,” Helmis recalls. “We played a bunch of instrumental Beatles and Beach Boys songs, some of it we decided to record and put vocals on it.”

Some Kind Of Cadwallader is essentially the starting point for the entire emo revival and thus also required listening for anyone interested in how DIY indie rock took shape in the past decade — more sincere, more reminiscent of the ’90s in both sound and style, and also vaulting Philadelphia from an afterthought to the nation’s capital of guitar music. Parrot Flies arrived three years later — a literal lifetime and thensome for most emo bands. Without any kind of label pressure besides their own, Helmis says the band essentially recorded it twice, as much a tribute to their disinterest in capitalizing on their success to their increasing curiosity and ambition.

In 2012, it became clear that Algernon was no longer the best vehicle for each of them to continue exploring their muse. Reinhart would help expand Frances Quinlan’s solo project to the forceful, full-band version of Hop Along you see today, while producing a number of modern classics including Joyce Manor’s Never Hungover Again, Modern Baseball’s Holy Ghost, as well as recent Heavy Rotation inclusions from Thin Lips, Nervous Dater, Bad Moves, and Smidley, the solo project of Foxing’s Conor Murphy. Tazza is now playing in Everywhen, a revival supergroup of sorts with members of 1994! and Prawn — their Summer Singles EP was just released on Lauren Records and is worth your time if the bands mentioned in this paragraph mean anything to you.

Helmis’ most high-profile project in the time since was Dogs On Acid, a trio of himself, Tazza, and Nate Dionne, who played in the seminal Glocca Morra (go listen to Just Married the moment you’re done reading this) as well as Snowing and Street Smart Cyclist. Dogs On Acid released a self-titled album engineered by Reinhart on the rebooted Jade Tree in 2015, which “pretty much did a horrible job,” Helmis smirks, ultimately validating his decision to go the independent route back when the original Jade Tree was courting Algernon. “DOA is DOA,” Helmis sighs, less due to the vagaries of the music industry (Jade Tree quietly shut down operations and was acquired by Epitaph) than the mundane difficulty of matching schedules and levels of commitment. For now, Helmis and Dionne are focusing on Yankee Bluff, which he calls “the easiest band I’ve ever been in.”

But as for the possibility of Algernon Cadwallader ever getting the band back together, Helmis prefers them to stay difficult. “It was cool how people had to search it out to find about it,” he says of their soon-to-be widely available discography. “So I’m definitely going to make them wait for a live show.”

STEREOGUM: When Algernon Cadwallader first got started in 2005, Philadelphia had almost no presence in the larger discussion of indie rock, and now it’s seemingly replaced Brooklyn as the go-to for jokes about careerist indie rock cliches. What changes have you personally seen since then?

PETER HELMIS: It’s absolutely true — it’s almost like the music scene’s been gentrified along with the neighborhoods. There was definitely cool shit going on, but you had to try a lot harder to find it, and there were still some legendary pop-punk and hardcore bands that were around for a little bit. There still was a house show community going on, and it seemed big enough at the time to have fun doing it. Maybe the bands stayed more in Philly? I dunno, but I remember it very fondly — all kinds of genres, different houses that leaned towards different genre shows. It was totally normal to see shows that were very eclectic.

STEREOGUM: Is that not the case anymore?

HELMIS: For the most part, it’s that you go to one show and the band you’re going to see has three other bands that sound like them opening up. It’s not always that way, but it felt more eclectic back then.

STEREOGUM: A lot of the demand for these reissues comes from self-identifying emo bands that followed in your wake mentioning you as an influence. Were there ever times where you struggled with that description? I feel like that’s the case with every single band who’s ever been called “emo.”

HELMIS: [laughs] I was trying not to think about how people label things too much, and it didn’t affect what we were playing. I just feel like we did lumped into a scene that got more and more homogenized in a way, like the show scene in Philly — you still want to play good shows, but you end up with bands with a lot of similar guitars. But it was a good time, I don’t have anything bad to say about it.

STEREOGUM: I’m always curious about how bands from that late-2000s era managed to find their audience without Twitter and without any mainstream coverage.

HELMIS: I doubt that our Blogspot had much to do with it, but that was pretty much our social media presence back then. We definitely didn’t put effort into trying to get out there or anything or talk to media at all. That was not really our interest and we didn’t have anyone doing it for us — it was just hustle, doing some touring before the first record came out, word of mouth. That’s it really.

STEREOGUM: How were you linking up with other bands in this scene?

HELMIS: The internet was definitely different, but it was still the whole Soulseek thing and looking through people’s folders. If you see something you like [in the folder] and then something you don’t know, “Oh, I should check this out.” We were digging wherever we could and if we found something cool, we’d show each other. Also, playing with bands and finding out more through touring.

STEREOGUM: By the time you had started touring outside of the East Coast, did you have any idea whether five or a hundred people were going to show up at a gig in, say, San Francisco?

HELMIS: We definitely didn’t know, we were just stoked to go to the West Coast and travel the country. After the first record, you could tell by then that people were listening and the record was selling a bit, you could tell people knew about it. When audiences started being active at our shows, that was a surprise at first. And then, once we kinda got used to it, it was a ton of fun.

STEREOGUM: When I interviewed both Joyce Manor and Tigers Jaw, they mentioned touring with you as one of their first “Wow, our band is really getting somewhere” moments. Were there any times like that for Algernon?

HELMIS: I think it was our record release show. It was in a west Philly basement, and the record had been out for a month, but it was not just our close friends. There were strangers that were singing along — “Holy shit!” Besides that, it was a slow build. It wasn’t like overnight that it jumped up 100 people more at shows. The first tour would be 50-100 kids and the next one 100-200.

STEREOGUM: Algernon also got to play with a lot of long-running bands like The World Is A Beautiful Place And I Am No Longer Afraid To Die, Restorations, and so forth in their infancy. What are your recollections of them at the time?

HELMIS: It was cool to meet them when they were at the same level we were. They were all a pleasure to play shows with together. I feel like most of watching them succeed came from more watching the records come out and being more impressed with them. I’ve been to some of Joyce Manor’s more recent shows and it’s totally insane. It’s like watching a band in a punk arena.

STEREOGUM: But seeing where some of those bands ended up, do you wonder if Algernon could have achieved the same kind of success if you put more focus in playing the game?

HELMIS: We definitely set out to do things our own way and be super pure about it, and we think we achieved that goal. We really weren’t interested in that whole professional music industry type thing. It would feel weird if we had to change course in the middle of it, and I’m glad we followed through. The last tour we did was with Joyce Manor in support of them, and that’s the closest we came to that sort of lifestyle, where everything was all planned out. It wasn’t bad! It’s just not something we would do on our own.

STEREOGUM: Shortly after Algernon called it quits, there was an explosion of coverage of this scene, and you guys were being mentioned as the Patient Zero of the “emo revival.” What are your memories of this time?

HELMIS: I definitely remember being…not embarrassed of it, but hmmm…I was kinda glad that we weren’t still going then. The “next generation” sort of thing — if we were still a band then, I wouldn’t want to get pigeonholed into that and then feeling we had to cater to that idea or disappointing a bunch of people cause we didn’t want to cater to that idea.

STEREOGUM: How often do you revisit the Algernon albums?

HELMIS: It’s been a while. I do check them out maybe once a year or so, and a lot of times, they’ll come on the Drexel radio station. I’ll be driving around — “Oh, this is cool, I get to see what it sounds like again.” It’s cool because I don’t think about playing that music anymore, but when I hear it, I think, “This is cool, I would listen to this.”

STEREOGUM: I gotta ask, is there any chance of a reunion?

HELMIS: I’m still very comfortable with letting [the band] rest in peace for now. I kinda hate the whole reunion culture. It’s way too often, not enough time. We’ve only not been a band for six years. Let’s give it 10 or wait til we’re 50 or something.

Here’s the tracklist for the self-titled Algernon Cadwallader comp releasing alongside the first two LPs:

01 “Second Rate Machines”
02 “Breath Wish”
03 “Look Down”
04 “Sailor Set Sail”
05 “Shirt”
06 “Serial Killer Status” (Unreleased Version)
07 “Katie’s Conscious” (Unreleased Version)
08 “Spit Fountain”
09 “Fun”
10 “Foggy Mountain”
11 “Black Clouds”
12 “I Wanna Go To The Beach”
13 “Responsible Party”
14 “Simulation”
15 “This Boy” (The Beatles)
16 “No Action” (Elvis Costello)

The Algernon Cadwallader reissues are out 12/14 via Lauren/Asian Man. Pre-order them here or here.