The Get Up Kids were looking for a job and then they found some jobs. After the beloved Kansas punk band went on hiatus in 2011, main songwriter Matt Pryor became a farmhand — “I picked radishes and tomatoes and shit and it was awesome.” Guitarist/vocalist Jim Suptic went back to school and landed with the United States Geological Survey, before taking his current gig at Steps For Faith, a non-profit for low-income amputees started by Billy Brimblecom, his former bandmate in Blackpool Lights. Bassist Rob Pope and keyboardist James Dewees simply returned to their enviable gigs that made Get Up Kids a secondary source of income; in 2007, Pope became a full-time member of Spoon, while Dewees joined My Chemical Romance until they said so long and goodnight. Heaven knows the Get Up Kids weren’t miserable now … until they crossed paths with Morrissey.
“Let me paint a picture for you,” Pryor jokes before outlining how Mozz bent the inaugural and final When We Were Young Festival to his will. “All the vendors are vegan, so if you want to go to In-N-Out, it’s right down the street,” he remembers being told, but they’d have to get their own transportation because all the vans were “at Morrissey’s beckoning.” Moreover, none of the artists had dressing rooms, so the group had no choice but to hang out at the bar all day. You’d think these quintessential annoyances and minor humiliations would validate the Get Up Kids’ choice to become “weekend warriors” in their 40s rather than a full-time band. Instead, like most guys that age who spend more than a few hours posted up on a barstool, they reassessed their career path after years of “job jobs.” “Jim, at one point, announces, ‘I wanna be an artist,'” Pryor recalls. “And then we all snapped our fingers and said, ‘OK, you’re an artist.'”
Two years later, the Get Up Kids are back with Problems, their first album since their self-released 2011 LP There Are Rules and pretty much the only good thing to come out of the otherwise woeful festival. “During that time period [2011-2018], I don’t think we were even thinking about making another record,” Suptic admits, but he and Pryor had silently considered putting their solo and side projects aside and recommitting to the Get Up Kids; during our phone conversation, Pryor and Suptic trade laughs about opening up for the likes of Soul Asylum and Jet at local casinos.
Our conversation frequently goes on tangents where Pryor and Suptic mock each other for any number of reasons, mostly a one-upmanship about who’s the bigger yuppie — the one who wore khaki shorts and Vans to the farmers market earlier in the morning (Pryor) or the one pondering the cost of a stand-up desk and yoga ball at his office gig (Suptic). Or they’re having a laugh at the expense of Dewees, the Get Up Kids’ reputation (“We could make a ska record and it’d still be called emo-ska”), or Kansas itself, whether it’s the Sunflower State’s retrograde politics (“Our government didn’t want to teach evolution in schools, that’s how ass backwards this place is”) or their obsession with college basketball. “I played a show in Lawrence when KU was in the Elite 8 and [the promoter said], ‘You can’t go on,'” Pryor says. “Why not? ‘Because the fucking game is on, no one will watch you.'”
The recording of Problems was reflective of this easy camaraderie between lifelong friends, a much different experience than the previous time the Get Up Kids decamped at Peter Katis’ Tarquin Studios in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Katis engineered and mixed the Get Up Kids’ largely acoustic and thus divisive 2002 album On A Wire while developing a voluminous, elegant production style that would come to define A-list indie rock for the rest of the decade. “He started the first Interpol record [Turn On The Bright Lights], did our record, and finished theirs. I think he already did his first thing with the National before they were even a blip on the radar,” Pryor notes, also pointing out that Katis’ biggest previous credit was working with college quad kingpins Guster. “He worked with us right before his career took off,” Pryor notes, with Suptic joking, “Coincidence?”
The duo have also reckoned with On a Wire being the point where their career started to downshift. After their 1999 masterwork Something To Write Home About jumpstarted Vagrant Records’ evolution into an emo powerhouse, the band assumed that most listeners would mature along with them into more heady and mellow territory. Many of their peers made a similarly risky bet, and On A Wire joined the likes of Promise Ring’s Wood/Water, the Anniversary’s Your Majesty and Saves The Day’s In Reverie as florid, wildly misunderstood emo-indie hybrids scorned by fans and critics, effectively ending emo’s second wave, if not their careers. According to Pryor, “People still come up to [Saves The Day frontman Chris] Conley and say, ‘Hey man, I love you but In Reverie sucks.'”
2019 brings both a new Get Up Kids album and the 20th anniversary of Something To Write Home About, which puts the band in a “tricky spot,” according to Pryor — “we’re in a ‘moving forward’ phase, but there’s this celebrating-the-past part that we really need to acknowledge.” Pryor divides the Get Up Kids’ fanbase into people who only like the first two albums and a smaller contingent of ones who’ve stuck with them the whole time — and Problems isn’t a “return to form” that will immediately placate the former group; their fast and hooky 2018 EP Kicker filled that role. Taking advantage of the goodwill generated by Kicker and also a decade of kinder attitudes towards emo, Problems is a validation and revamp of Get Up Kids 2.0, honoring the indie-leaning sound of 2004’s Guilt Show and There Are Rules with a stronger sense of confidence and melody. “It’s the most Get Up Kids record we could make,” Suptic asserts. “If you don’t like this album, then I don’t think you like our band.”
Read our Q&A below, but before that, check out the premiere of Problems track “Waking Up Alone.”
STEREOGUM: Problems is being released on Polyvinyl, has Peter Katis producing, and there’s a real sense of excitement surrounding it compared to the modest rollout of There Are Rules. There hasn’t been any new music besides the EP since then, so what’s changed to make all of this possible?
PRYOR: You said “modest rollout” — I don’t think that was by choice. That’s why we’re on a record label now that’s doing a great job, really promoting it better.
SUPTIC We learned from the rollout of the last album. I know [There Are Rules] is more of a straight-up indie-rock record and it didn’t get the chance it deserved from a lot of people, for a lot of reasons. Three years after that came out, one of our good friends said, “you guys had a new record out?” How do you not know that! That really opened my eyes — one of our best friends doesn’t know we have a record out.
PRYOR: We learned from the experience of putting a record out, that we’re just not good at it.
STEREOGUM: Reuniting with Peter Katis will inevitably bring up discussion of On A Wire — is that a record you feel the need to defend nowadays?
PRYOR: I’ve been making the joke for a while that On A Wire is our Paul’s Boutique where it’s like … didn’t do well when it came out, but now, “Oh, it’s my favorite record!” That’s not what you said in 2002! Actually, my takeaway from that record is that I don’t think it’s a home run from start to finish, but the songs from that record that are good are some of the best we’ve ever written. Ultimately, it’s part of what brings us to this point, that reception or lack thereof to the record. That which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
STEREOGUM: What inspired the decision to make this reunion happen?
PRYOR: We’ve been talking about that since On A Wire. We’ve gotten along with Peter really well, there’s a similar sense of humor and work ethic. We said, “someday, when we have money, we should do a record together.” It was the most fun I’ve had making a record, the least pulling teeth. Even though we made On A Wire in that same house, it was a better experience. I don’t know if we were more…
PRYOR: I think when we made On A Wire, we thought we were confident, but we were actually just arrogant. “Oh yeah, everyone’s always liked what we do, so they’re gonna totally understand why we’re doing a complete 180.” And some of them didn’t! That was the first record that we wrote in the studio, as opposed to how Four Minute Mile was our live show recorded. There’s something about playing live that changes the dynamic.
SUPTIC It’s got kind of a stoner vibe to it that would be less so if we had toured them before we recorded them — it would’ve been less acoustic and heavier in parts.
PRYOR: We’re promoting On A Wire actually. We should have all the bad reviews as the cover of the reissue.
STEREOGUM: From the time you’ve been working on Kicker, Polyvinyl had been using Superchunk’s Majesty Shredding as a comparison — a late-career, back to basics burner.
PRYOR: Rob [Wilcox, promotions director at Polyvinyl] said it best when someone asked us what the new record’s like — “it’s like the EP, but smarter.” Kicker is kinda lizard brain, come out swingin’. That’s also the difference between our first and second record, “this one’s very base and this one’s taking the same things and thinking about them more.” And that’s what Problems ended up being.
SUPTIC I think we tried to make the album that’s the best version of us that we could be. All the things we thought about, “what is the Get Up Kids” — “what are we as a band?” and finding the things we’re really good at: not being afraid to have tons of harmonies, having a fun synth line.
PRYOR: I think Kicker is like that too, but it wasn’t done with intent, it was accidental. “Let’s get together and make some songs.” And James would always be saying, “play it faster! play it faster!” When we started writing for Problems, it was more thought out, which we’ve never done before.
STEREOGUM: Speaking of 90s indie rock legends, “Lou Barlow” is the song on Problems that immediately stands out as a conversation piece.
PRYOR: Let me rephrase this…I’ve never met Lou Barlow and he’s…
SUPTIC Yeah you have! He was at that radio show at the Whiskey with Jimmy Eat World, he was backstage. That was in 1998, 1997?
PRYOR: The song itself is about a friend’s possibly pending divorce and the moment you realize you’re not compatible with another person. “Oh, you ordered red wine when you know I like white wine,” that sort of thing. Or, “I love Lou Barlow and what a cool thing that we got to see him. And then you were like, ‘whatever.'” But James was telling us some weird story at practice, “remember that guy who was talking to us about Lou Barlow?” And as we often do with James, we said, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” Later that night, I came up with this stupid lyric (“I saw Lou Barlow in the street/ I don’t think he noticed me”) and the song kinda wrote itself. Once you put Lou Barlow in a song, you just can’t take him away. You can’t have that “Lou Barlow song” that doesn’t have Lou Barlow in it. I remember Jim saying, “I like that lyric because it’s funny, but it doesn’t have anything to do with the song at all once you get into the rest of it.” But I swear, I’ve been doing German interviews all week and every single fucking German loves that song and asks me about it.
SUPTIC We can make up a fake story about it.
PRYOR: Here’s the deal, I’m worried about this: They think it’s a song I wrote about the relationship between Lou Barlow and J Mascis and how they don’t get along.
STEREOGUM: I interpreted that lyric as a commentary on how the Get Up Kids have always been dismissed by gatekeepers of cool indie rock.
SUPTIC He’s too cool for us, he wouldn’t even notice us losers.
PRYOR: It’s not wrong. It’s also this thing when people talk to us about “the scene” or something. And we were like, “we were never really part of a scene.” “Yeah, you were.” No, not really!
SUPTIC I think we were sorta by default.
PRYOR: But we didn’t ever feel part of it. We used to call our van The Kansas Embassy: The people in this van are our people are and everyone else is just peripheral.
SUPTIC If a scene has rules and is defined parameters, that’s not where we want to be.
PRYOR: It can be interpreted as kind of a snobby indie mentality, but that’s not how we meant it. Apparently, this song is deep as fuck.
SUPTIC We were talking, “are we even going to play that one live?” And now look, everyone wants to talk about that song.
PRYOR: It’s just an old-school breakup song. But I’m kinda waiting for Lou Barlow to yell at me. There’s gonna be a song on the new Sebadoh album called “Matt Pryor’s A Dick.”
STEREOGUM: With a discussion like this, I think about how it’s becoming more rare to not be completely transparent about a song’s meaning — it seems like 95% of the PR emails I get these days have an artist’s statement explaining the intent of every lyric.
PRYOR: I don’t feel uncomfortable telling you what I wrote it about. Over the years, things we’ve written have come to mean something completely different to people than what the song is [actually] about and I think that’s why they’re meaningful. Maybe the lyrics are vague enough to apply them to your own life.
SUPTIC You know the story behind “Alive” by Pearl Jam, where Eddie Vedder is saying it in a negative way — hey, I’m still alive. And now the crowd has changed the meaning of the song by signing it as a positive thing.
PRYOR: It’s a different philosophy than what I had initially, which is “these songs are mine — you get to listen to them.” But I don’t feel that way anymore.
STEREOGUM: Do the Get Up Kids have an “Alive,” where the song’s meaning has been fundamentally altered by its fans?
PRYOR: It hasn’t happened yet, but we were joking in the studio and even my wife even brought up “I’ll Catch You” — it’s a song about my wife and a lot of people use it as their wedding song or first dance. This [new] song, “Your Ghost Is Gone,” is not a love song, but is very much in that stylistic vein — is this going to be someone’s wedding song if they aren’t listening to the lyrics at all? The lyrics are about someone dying, but the feel of the song could be interpreted as a love song and even my wife was like, “I’m excited for you to start playing that one so you’ll stop playing ‘I’ll Catch You’ all the time.”
STEREOGUM: You’ve mentioned that “Satellite” and “The Problem Is Me” are respectively inspired by your son and a guy you know going through his second divorce — do you ever get any blowback from people you write about?
PRYOR: I try to intentionally make them really vague if it’s about a literal event…
SUPTIC “Tim Smith, this one’s for you!”
PRYOR: People do figure it out, but for some reason, James seems to think that all the songs are about him. There’s two songs on the record that are related to James and then with one of the other songs, “The Advocate,” he’s like, “that one’s about me!” No, not at all! There are songs where I’ve written really scathing things about people who have no idea that I’m talking about them.
STEREOGUM: Is “Fairweather Friends” an example?
PRYOR: That sounds more scathing than it actually is. It’s not really a story, but it is about a friend of ours who was just kinda like, “you guys are still doing it, huh?” Fuck off! Let’s reframe that, “you guys still get to do this, how cool is that?” But it was, “oh, you don’t have a real job, huh? You’re in your 40s … well … cool.”
STEREOGUM: On the upcoming tour, you’re joining up with younger bands that probably wouldn’t be considered within the same realm as the Get Up Kids in 2011, have you experienced any tangible shift in how you’re viewed?
PRYOR: Ten years ago, there was a nostalgia wave that was another reason There Are Rules wasn’t well received. It’s not what people wanted to remember. But now, there’s a crop of younger bands that would’ve been our peers if they started 20 years ago breathing new life into this scene, as it were … even though I was against that term “scene” before. Even beyond that, when we’re getting to take out young bands like Great Grandpa, Remember Sports, and Retirement Party — that’s the next wave.
STEREOGUM: Last time I saw you guys play in 2015, the Hotelier opened.
PRYOR: Oh yeah, they were fucking great! And before that, we had PUP opening for us and they’ve blown up. That new PUP record is so good. I used to have this moment listening to records when I was younger and I’d think, “well fuck, I’m never gonna write anything this good. There’s just no point.” I had that when I listened to the new PUP record. It made me jealous as a songwriter. We’d be opening for them at this point — they’re taking the world by storm.
STEREOGUM: Do any of these younger bands ask you for guidance about how to maintain a career over the span of 20 years?
PRYOR: My experience is that no one in their 20s is thinking about longevity — it’s very much that you’re living in the moment. I do end up having conversations with people about the business side of things — contracts, labels, publishing, and that kind of stuff. You know when you start your own business — which is what a band is — there’s that thing where if you opened a restaurant, “plan on not making any money for the first five years.” That’s a common thing, but no one says it about being in a band, and that’s what it is.
SUPTIC It’s harder now for young bands to get noticed and because of that, we feel like we’re learning from them because the music industry’s changed so much. Promotion-wise, social media didn’t exist. MySpace came right after our band broke up, we never used any of that stuff. We had to learn on the fly and it’s still pulling teeth to make an Instagram post.
PRYOR: It’s easier to get stuff out into the world, it’s just harder to get noticed.
SUPTIC We were in high school bands that weren’t very good, like most high school bands. And the only people who heard us were our friends off the demo tape we made, but now if you’re in a band — you’re on Spotify.
PRYOR: I could probably write a song before this interview is over and record it and get it up on Bandcamp in an hour. It doesn’t mean i could make a career out of that. The thing is, the cream always rises to the top — you find the great bands even if the market is flooded.
Problems is out 5/10 via Polyvinyl.