Band To Watch: One Step Closer

Spencer Chamberlain

Band To Watch: One Step Closer

Spencer Chamberlain

My first attempt to reach Ryan Savitski could not have come at a worse time. “Yo man! I’m actually walking into that Green Day / Fall Out Boy concert rn,” the One Step Closer frontman texts back. We got time zones mixed up, but beyond that, shots fired at Weezer. In yet another glaring example of the discrepancy between Music Twitter and Actual Life, online I’ve mostly seen Hella Mega Tour set up alley-oop dunks about washed bands and their washed fans. But let’s just take a step back and recognize that these are three of the most consistently popular rock bands of the past quarter century. If they do nothing more than “play the hits,” that’s probably a four-hour gig at least. Also, here’s something I’ve learned over the years: I don’t care if your favorite punk band skews mall-core or straight-up powerviolence or whatever, you do not question their love for early Green Day. “I’m not gonna front,” Savitski says. “I’ve wanted to see Green Day since I was 10 years old.”

Turns out it was the right choice. “Dude, it was so sick because all of the bands played all of their old stuff,” he beams as I reach him during a slightly less encumbered time. Savitski takes our Zoom call while sitting in a car outside of practice for his other band, Choice To Make (“I’m just the guitarist, they can deal without me”). Doing some quick math, Savitski estimates that Green Day played maybe one or two songs from their “weird new poppy era,” instead running through about half of Dookie, a sprinkling of key tracks from Warning and Insomniac, and the big hits from American Idiot, a major album in Savitski’s adolescent indoctrination into punk rock. I can understand his excitement as a Green Day fan, but what about as a fellow musician, specifically an artist who is preparing to engage with an audience outside of their hardcore roots?

Savitski points out the Green Day YouTubes he’s been studying lately, the ones from the immediate aftermath of Dookie, which almost instantaneously elevated them from Gilman Street pariahs to playing festivals for tens of thousands. “Their old stuff is more authentic to what they wanted to do from the start,” Savitski explains, compared to the more recent Green Day material, which awkwardly tries to retcon their early-’90s ideals with their reality as a classic rock institution. “If we got to that point, I’d hope our fans would ask us to only play the old shit.”

As today’s new single “Autumn” demonstrates, This Place You Know will not have anyone questioning whether One Step Closer bring anything less than their utmost truth to every single note. Their Instagram bio reads “Wilkes-Barre Straight Edge” and the name itself evokes a rich history of youth crew acts who operated with an ethos of almost monastic purity. The hooks aren’t exactly triumphant, so much as the sound of pent-up, small-town desperation finding an outlet before it inevitably re-accumulates. Whether it’s Turning Point or Thursday or Title Fight, their primary comparisons all relived the origin story of emo — nudging hardcore enough towards melody and vulnerability until it unquestionably becomes something else, without sacrificing the immediacy and intensity that got them to pick up a guitar in the first place.

Savitski already felt exhausted by the structures of hardcore by the time he and drummer Tommy Norton had started One Step Closer; he was 16 years old. But that really is old enough to earn veteran stripes in the thriving scene of Scranton-Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania. “My first band I was ever in was a ska-punk band doing real crazy Reel Big Fish-type stuff,” Savitski admits, which would’ve played much better in Scranton. Lest we forget, Scranton was way ahead of the latter-day ska revival, led by the likes of Kos Mos and Bob And The Sagets, which featured three future members of the Menzingers. Wilkes-Barre, that’s more of a straight-up hardcore town. Though every band from this area will owe a debt to Title Fight, Savitski notes that it was the oldest Russin brother who put the city on the map: “For me, the start of Wilkes-Barre hardcore was Alex Russin starting Magnus which turned into Frostbite and then Cold World.” The last of those incarnations, Cold World, presaged most of the past decade’s rap-rock fusions with their combination of nu-metal riffs, at-times questionable appropriation of Five Percenter terminology, and streetwear branding; their last album, 2014’s How The Gods Chill, managed to feature Meyhem Lauren, Kool G Rap, and Max B. There was also Posi Numbers, a beloved local hardcore festival which, ironically, ended prematurely in 2005 after violence broke out.

All of this meant One Step Closer were seen as part of an honorable lineage as they worked their way up from a couple of introductory EPs to 2019’s From Me To You, their breakout release on hardcore stronghold Triple B. This Place You Know does everything its predecessor does, only with more emphasis and craft — stronger melodies, bigger production, and a few time-tested “level up” tricks like a spoken word intro and piano interlude. Which means that One Step Closer are firmly within the “classic” sound of their new label, Run For Cover, the Boston-based imprint which has experienced tremendous success with chiller crossover acts like Pinegrove, Turnover, and Alex G while staying rooted in more aggressive forms of mainstream punk. “RFC is hardcore again,” label head Jeff Casazza joked upon sending me This Place You Know — and later, when announcing their signing of Anxious (who share OSC’s Grady Allen as a member), “RFC is pop punk again.” “When they released [Title Fight’s] The Last Thing You Forget, that was the first ‘This is what Run For Cover is’ for me,” Savitski explains. “And every time a new Tigers Jaw came out, it would be, ‘Oh, Run For Cover.’ Those are my local heroes.”

These are the bands that have given One Step Closer a clearer idea of attainable success for hardcore band in 2021 than, say, Green Day. They consider labelmates Fiddlehead to be mentors of sorts, having perfected rugged, literate grown-man punk after the demise of hardcore heroes Have Heart; Fiddlehead’s Pat Flynn even wrote One Step Closer’s bio. It’s also conceivable that One Step Closer could benefit from the spotlight Turnstile’s Glow On has given hardcore in the indie sphere; they were tourmates in Europe during early 2020.

And, of course, given the minuscule possibility of new Title Fight music on the horizon, One Step Closer will surely be seen as picking up where that band left off. But at least for now, Savitski sees his band following a similar trajectory to the punk rock icons of Lackawanna and Luzerne County in that he’ll probably also end up leaving. Therein lies the eternal conundrum of Scranton-Wilkes Barre: On the one hand, there’s an accessible arts scene that’s produced an incredible amount of talent relative to its population. On the other, most of these bands get started because there’s absolutely nothing else to do. Explaining the social dynamic of his hometown, Savitski states, “You’re either a weirdo nobody kid or you’re the complete opposite where you’re a preppy football player-type person. That’s the sheer divide, there’s no in between.” He goes on to point out how Wilkes-Barre doesn’t even have an official skate park. “They can’t even give us that, to say, ‘Hey, we want to give back to the young generation,'” Savitski grouses. “And we’ve been fighting for that for years.”

Though a debut album, This Place You Know is a document of finality, an attempt to put everything that inspired Savitski behind him — a painful breakup, the death of his grandmother, and most of all, a sense of alienation he felt within his hometown throughout the past year. “I was on the road so much and when I came home, I realized it just didn’t hold the value it once did,” he explains. This is especially true as he’s gone all in with One Step Closer; Savitski completed an associate’s degree in graphic design at Luzerne County Community College and considered moving on to a four-year university before “things started picking up like crazy.”

These breaks can seem relatively minor if you’re accustomed to quantifying success with streaming numbers or festival slots: For example, winning over “Defend Pop Punk” crowds while opening for Knuckle Puck, a string of solid merch nights, not just getting to stay in hotels in Europe but having fans offer their own apartments for lodging. “Random people we never talked to before said, ‘Yo, you can stay at my place! You can hang out!’” Savitski recollects. “‘I’ll literally give you my room and my whole apartment, I’ll stay at my friend’s and you can have fun.'”

But after that surreal experience, One Step Closer returned home in March 2020 with their lives immediately put on hold. Savitski describes the recording of This Place You Know as a surprisingly grueling process. They had to adjust their schedule around the recording of Anxious’ upcoming LP, as well as that of their their producer, who was holding down a full-time job that limited the availability of studio time. (“He could only record on weekends. And he couldn’t do it every weekend.”) The pandemic only emphasized the limitations of Wilkes-Barre’s options for a hardcore kid: write music or skate. Savitski credits Turnstile with rejuvenating his interest in the latter activity. “I brought a board to Europe and we were skating every day before the shows,” he recalls. “When I got back, I was like, ‘Wow I forgot how much I loved this.’ Writing music and skating, that’s what kept me sane.”

In the meantime, getting back to the grind of being a full-time hardcore band has helped keep One Step Closer’s success in proper perspective. Regardless of the hype that accompanies This Place You Know on indie-leaning sites like this one, they’ll spend the next week as the sole East Coast band trying to win over California crowds alongside Orange County upstarts Dare, new Epitaph signees Drain, and the headliner, quintessential LA beatdown act Terror. And after spending a year and a half giving his entire life to This Place You Know, Savitski welcomes the challenge. “There’s pressure to be that band where people come to see us,” Savitski says. “You know, ‘They were fucking awesome. They deserve this.'”

This Place You Know is out 9/24 via Run For Cover Records. Pre-order it here.

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