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Kids These Days

Growing up is hard to do, especially if you're a rock band. It's the same from Metallica to R.E.M. to the Replacements to Soul Asylum and all points in between. When cult acts abandon the underground sound that granted them status in favor of the slower tempos and quieter guitars that comprise "musical maturity," they never fail to offend their core fans. Kansas City emo-rock kings the Get Up Kids are no exception. After defining the genre with galloping tempos, soaring guitar harmonies, playful keyboards, and singer Matt Pryor's picked-last-in-the-dodgeball-game-of-love vocals on 1997's Four Minute Mile and 1999's Something to Write Home About, the Get Up Kids have taken an abrupt left turn with On a Wire, their first record of new material in three years. On a Wire is bereft of any signs of punk rock, with nary a double-time tempo or an angry lyric to be found. Instead, the Get Up Kids have assembled a new, somber sound that's nearly unidentifiable to their previous recordings, save for Pryor's voice.

"You can't wear the same clothes for seven years," explains the Kids' keyboardist, James Dewees. If they did, drummer Ryan Pope would have to fit in the high school uniform he was wearing in 1997, when the rest of the band sneaked him out of class on a Friday morning and threw him in a van bound for the Four Minute Mile sessions at the Chicago Recording Company. Presided over by Shellac bassist Bob Weston, the Get Up Kids recorded and mixed 11 songs over the weekend. The tracks are clear, but to call them thinly recorded would be generous. "It's no slight on Bob," Pryor tells anyone who will listen. "We recorded in a great studio -- but recording a whole record in two and a half days is ridiculous. Anyone who says otherwise obviously hasn't been in a recording studio." Still, the arrival of Four Minute Mile was eagerly embraced by the backpack-and-glasses set. To support Four Minute Mile, the Get Up Kids embarked on a 200-date-a-year touring schedule that built a formidable fan base, which adopted Four Minute Mile's ode to one-night stands, "I'm a Loner Dottie, a Rebel..." as their break-up anthem.

With their growing success, the Get Up Kids began to field offers from various major labels but decided to go with Vagrant, the indie label owned by their manager, Rich Egan. "We love working with Rich -- he's our buddy," Dewees enthuses. "We don't have to get lost in some huge building if we need to talk about our record. And I know I'm not going to be put on hold by some jackass I've never heard of. If Rich has to put me on hold, he'll tell me himself."

The Get Up Kids' Vagrant debut, Something to Write Home About, took both the band and the label on a huge upswing. Financed by a second mortgage on Vagrant partner Jon Cohen's parents' home, Something to Write Home About is aural catharsis from a band freed from legal wrangling and finally able to take advantage of its legal right to rock. On "Action and Action," Pryor jibes, "I played the fool/Every mistake I made/I couldn't have made without you." While "Action and Action" is presumably a song about girls, Pryor's shotgun lyrical approach hits every type of relationship smack between the eyes. Awarded such platitudes as "pop masterpiece" and "sumptuous" by the music media, Something to Write Home About struck an immediate chord worldwide. Suddenly, the Kids were playing radio festivals. "We played at some Detroit radio festival before Kittie, and the metalheads started pelting us with change," Dewees chuckles. "I got hit with quarters, nickels, dimes, you name it. I collected it out of spite and made $1.38 -- and thanked them for my new iced tea."

For the next two years, the Get Up Kids toured relentlessly as sales for Something to Write Home About crept over the 100,000 mark. Headlining gigs regularly drew more than 1000 fans. Their opening slots with Green Day and Weezer hit 10,000-seat amphitheaters. But the Get Up Kids' initial foray into Australia proved to be a different matter. "We were opening for this band Jebediah who were just huge over there," Dewees recalls. "And their fans hated us! They screamed, 'Go home, Yankee!' But when we played our own gig at the punter's club in Sydney, in front of 350 people who liked us -- instead of 1200 who hated us -- it was cool."

In 2001, the Kids released Eudora, a collection of smash-and-grab covers (the Replacement's "Beer for Breakfast," the Cure's "Close to Me," Motley Crue's "On with the Show"), B-sides, compilation tracks, and reworked old tunes (including the third appearance of "I'm a Loner Dottie, a Rebel..."). After living on the road for most of the past four years and scattering around the country on their time off, the quintet began to settle down. Three of the Get Up Kids (Pryor, Dewees, and bassist Rob Pope) got married. All five members moved back to the Kansas City area and bought houses. "It's amazing to be able to convince a bank that they should lend you money because you play music," Dewees marvels. Pryor recently became the proud poppa of Lilly, a bouncing baby girl currently starring in the Get Up Kids' green room. "It's so cute to see Matt push the stroller around the dressing room," Dewees teases. "He'll be a great father. After all, it's easier to baby-sit one kid than four bandmates."

With domestic bliss the backdrop rather than contract squabbles, no wonder the Get Up Kids' songwriting mellowed. "We added fifth and sixth chords to the mix," Dewees cracks. "Once you go past the fourth chord, it's not punk anymore." Recorded last winter with heavyweight Scott Litt (R.E.M.) producing, On a Wire evokes Son Volt ("Overdue"), the Beatles ("All That I Know"), and Neil Young ("Grunge Pig") without even a hint of Jimmy Eat World or Weezer. The 16-year-olds who loved Something to Write Home About for its bouncy pop and jaded lyrics will most likely scratch their heads and wonder why their favorite band is playing their parents' music. The kids might be able to grasp the acoustic guitars of "Overdue" and "Hannah, Hold On" -- thanks to label mates Dashboard Confessional -- but the vast majority of On a Wire is so steeped in classic rock that one could close his eyes while listening to it and hear the bell-bottoms bounce like it's 1969.

The Get Up Kids make no apologies for their new direction. "I'm going to do nothing but weep over power chords on the whole thing," laughs Dewees. Yet the band is more than willing to accommodate fans who want to hear the old material. To make the backpack crowd happy, the band has added a half-hour to its set. "We're doing 90 minutes, like a freaking Phish show!" Dewees declares. "There's a little something in it for everyone. Just like a Hallmark card."

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Tom Bowker

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