Tom Mullen’s Quest To Restore The Word ‘Emo’ From Easy Target To Respectability

In 2007, a record industry executive named Tom Mullen started a blog devoted to the emo bands he grew up loving in the ’80s and ’90s. At the time Mullen’s labor of love, which he called Washed Up Emo, was out of step with what was fashionable in music. A commercial heyday earlier in the decade headlined by MTV favorites like Fall Out Boy, My Chemical Romance, and Dashboard Confessional sparked a nasty backlash that turned “emo” into a dirty word. But Mullen nevertheless persisted, eventually starting a Washed Up Emo podcast in 2011 that was devoted to interviews with the scene’s most important figures, from its roots in ’80s hardcore through what Mullen calls emo’s “hair-metal” era in the 21st century.

After 10 years as a genre historian, Mullen has compiled several of those interviews into a new book, Anthology Of Emo Volume 1, that includes chapters on The Promise Ring, Dashboard Confessional, Texas Is The Reason, The Get Up Kids, American Football, Mineral, Knapsack, and Rainer Maria. Mullen deliberately had Anthology Of Emo designed to look like a reference book, to underline the seriousness of the enterprise. For Mullen, emo remains perpetually understood, no matter the so-called “emo revival” that has elevated dozens of worthy underground bands this decade.

The first sentence of your book is, “Emo was never a four letter word to me.” This is also a running theme on your podcast: You’re very protective of that word. Why?

It you ask 10 people on the street, eight out of 10 are gonna say, ‘Oh, it’s those people that are cutting themselves, with the haircuts, that go to Hot Topic.’ Unfortunately, the word has always been hated. I’ve done 100-plus interviews; I don’t think anybody has been like, ‘I’m so happy we are [considered emo].’

What exactly is so offensive about “emo”?

There’s an instant thought of: It’s not as good if you say it’s emo. It marginalizes bands. I think there are some writers out there that like to crack a joke. It’s an easy target, and they’ll make a joke about the crying. I don’t blame bands for being like, ‘We’re an indie rock band.’

Was it hard initially to get bands to appear on a podcast called “Washed Up Emo”?

1000 percent. I would say the majority of people didn’t answer emails. They weren’t interested, they didn’t want to talk about it. You basically had this giant scene bubble up, that didn’t sound like anything, and it was popular, and then I come along and want to talk to them about 1998. They weren’t ready yet. The open wound was still there. Some people that I’ve had on, it took three years to get them to do it.

When I interviewed Refused, I was ecstatic, because I absolutely love that band. I have a little history with them, with one of their last shows before they broke up being very, very personal. You could see how nervous they were when I walked up, so I instantly started talking about hardcore with them. They relaxed.

I think just there’s a level of understanding that when you’ve got a writer, they get the press release, they see emo, and they’re like, ‘Cool, just gonna mention Hot Topic and crack a little joke.’

But there’s also been a wave of emo nostalgia in recent years, particularly for the ’00s stuff that was big on MTV. You’ve referred to that era as emo’s “hair metal” period.

It’s 10 years since 2007, 2008. [Those fans] are in their mid-20s. They’ve got a first job. Maybe they’re married. This is their time to remember their youth. The problem is that those fans, the majority of them, are just fans of that song or that album, not necessarily the band. I mean, at our emo night, we call it shooting fish in a barrel. Those [early ’00s] songs are obviously gonna be the hit. My favorite moment is when I’m playing something that I don’t usually play, and someone comes up that’s been screaming along to the Promise Ring, and they’re like, ‘What is that? That’s cool.’

My first favorite band was Warrant. I loved them, and then I found Nirvana, and it was off to the races, realizing there was an underground scene. I think there’s a lot of people that stopped at the hair-metal phase of emo, and didn’t go deeper.

Emo has also been associated with sexual assault and a “boys club” atmosphere, which came up again recently in light of allegations against members of Brand New and Pinegrove.
It’s definitely troubling, but that’s nothing new. It just happens to be right now, like everyone’s scrolling through social media, and that’s what’s happening at this moment. But it’s everywhere. It just happens to be emo right now. I’m glad that all these things are coming out, and these stories are happening, because hopefully it changes something. I just don’t think it’s unique to emo or punk.

You’ve titled the book “Volume 1,” which suggests future installments are in the works. But this book focuses primarily on the foundational artists of the genre, from the ’80s and ’90s. Is that the “golden era” for you, as opposed to the commercial heyday in the early ’00s?

I actually like all of it. I was working during the heyday. I had bands on TV. I was going to MTV to for meetings, as [the representative of] an indie label. It was awesome. The phone was getting picked up when I called. It got to be derivative when it got to a point of saturation, where everyone was trying to sound the same. That’s when I kind of moved away.

Definitely the ’90s were big [for me]. I call it the pre-Bleed American, and also pre-internet era — that moment where you go to a show and you don’t know what [the band] looks like. You know what it sounds like. You don’t know what they have for merch. You haven’t seen any videos on Instagram. You haven’t even heard from your friend about it, and it’s that sense of discovery that I loved from that time period.

You’ve interviewed most of the major figures in emo. Is there a guest that you’re still chasing?

I would love to get Mr. Jeremy Enigk. We’ve met. He knows who I am. We’ve had multiple correspondences back through multiple people, friends, and he’s not ready. It’s okay. I think Enigk hates the name. That’s my guess.

There’s another artist that I won’t mention. It took three years of me just randomly emailing him. There’s actually someone right now that I’m emailing. I’ve spent four years doing it, reminding him every six months that I’d love to talk. I hope that they look at the list of 100 people, and realize that this is not my full-time thing. This is for love of the music, for people to find out about you again, and hear the whole history.