Four years ago, THE STARTING LINE were on the cover of this magazine, heralded as the princes of pop-punk. Soon thereafter, they were stalled by their label and forced to sit idly by while their peers packed arenas. Now armed with their best record to date, the band are finally ready to make peace with the past and carry on with the business at hand.
Story: Jonah Bayer Photos: Dave Hill
If you think you’re surprised to see a Starting Line feature in AP, just imagine how frontman Kenny Vasoli feels. When we last left him, he was just a teenager, stoked on his band’s latest music (2005’s Based On A True Story), rockin’ the mainstage of Warped Tour and being primed-alongside acts like Fall Out Boy and My Chemical Romance-to be pop-punk’s next big thing. But while what happened in the early days of their career (being upstreamed from Drive-Thru Records to MCA, which eventually merged with Geffen Records) should have been the next step in their plan for world domination, it almost ended the band.
“I think [Geffen] didn’t really get the stuff we were writing for our second album because it was a lot different than our earlier material,” says Vasoli from a tour stop in Birmingham, Alabama, when asked to explain where their problems started. While the Starting Line saw truckloads of money being dumped into supporting their peers, they felt like they were being ignored. Worst of all, the label was unresponsive to the band’s demos, pressuring them to imitate acts like Simple Plan and New Found Glory instead of encouraging them to explore their own sound. “The bottom line is that I don’t think they really knew what to do with our band, so we tried to bring that to their attention in the most courteous way possible,” Vasoli states diplomatically.
The Starting Line’s frustration came to a breaking point backstage at a show on the Nintendo Fusion tour in 2005. The group-who also feature drummer Tom Gryskiewicz and guitarists Matt Watts and Mike Golla-finally got Geffen co-president Jordan Schur on the phone to discuss their future. The result was a mind-numbing 55-minute conference call where the band beg to be released from the label and Schur curiously responds via a series of non sequiturs, the most inexplicable being when he metaphorically likens the band to Cleavon Little’s character in Blazing Saddles, the Mel Brooks film that was released a decade before Vasoli was born. “Oh, my God, it was the most irrelevant story you could ever tell,” Vasoli says with a laugh. “Our theory was that he was sitting on the couch watching the movie and smoking weed and he forgot what he was talking about, so he tried to make that analogy.”
“They wanted to leave MCA after a difficult time on the label,” says Geffen’s Schur in an email to AP. “I had just arrived as we were merging MCA into Geffen. I did my best to make them feel wanted as I have tremendous respect for them. They said, “let us go,” and I did. Not sure about the Blazing Saddles reference, though the film is about a guy who is blindly hated as he tries to do a job no one else wants-[something that’s] not easy. I do remember spending 55 minutes on the phone with some very unhappy guys [who] didn’t want to hear anything except ‘goodbye.’ I wish them well always, they are a great band.”
The band were let go soon afterward. However, when they decided to stay off the road for a year to write songs, being out of the public spotlight not only scotched their potential for mainstream success-it killed it dead in the water. “As soon as I heard we were doing a co-headlining tour with Paramore, I thought, ‘Here we go again,’” Vasoli says when asked if his current tour with “Team Hayley” reminds him of the Line’s 2005 double bill with Fall Out Boy. “We’re not the easiest band to sell to mass appeal, and I’m okay with that. I embrace the level of success that we have, because I’m not the kind of person who feels the need to be really famous. In some ways, I almost cherish how little recognition I get. I like not being noticed when I’m walking down the street.”
Having finally come to terms with the past few years, the band-who recently enlisted touring keyboardist Brian Schmutz to their ranks-found their morale rejuvenated, holing up in their practice space in Philadelphia to begin working on material for what would become Direction, which was released on the band’s new label, Virgin Records, in July. “I think ‘Need To Love’ and ‘What You Want’ were the first songs we wrote for the new album,” the singer says, “and right off the bat, we knew we were onto something good.” He adds that his “girlfriend” Mary Jane helped him out along the way. “When I’m smoking and playing music, it goes together like peanut butter and jelly,” he says, laughing, when asked if marijuana helped make him more productive. “I feel like I’ve written some of my best songs stoned as hell.”
That said, you don’t have to be a lobbyist for NORML to enjoy the expansive collection of songs on Direction. From the driving title track to the gentle acoustic ballad “Something Left To Give” and upbeat pop-inflected tracks such as “Somebody’s Gonna Miss Us,” there’s a remarkable amount of variety inherent on the album. Most importantly, it sounds like the Starting Line; which, believe it or not, is something that a lot people still want to hear.
“People are really reacting well to the new stuff,” guitarist Watts chimes in. “This tour has made us feel a lot more of our place in all this. I’m just glad that people know a song other than ‘Best Of Me.’”
Despite the fact the band are currently in the middle of an unexpected renaissance, watching the group’s former peers’ ascensions must be a little bittersweet, right?
“Two years ago, I would have been kind of bitter about things and wondered when we were going to get our shot,” Watts responds.
“I realize that we have a career, and that’s the most important thing,” Vasoli adds. “If I had my vote, I’d rather be a small but influential band like Saves The Day than have 15 minutes of fame. I mean, if that ever happened, it would be a blessing. But I feel like bands like Saves The Day and Jimmy Eat World are going to have more of an impact throughout [music] history than a lot of the bands that are around right now.”
Although the members of the Starting Line are still in their 20s, they are already seen as an influential band for the current crop of punk upstarts. It wasn’t surprising when this writer heard Paramore guitarist Josh Farro covering “Are You Alone” acoustically at a post-Warped Tour BBQ this summer. “We were on tour with Four Year Strong, and those guys are huge Starting Line fans from back in the day who I’d never expect to like our band,” Watts says, beaming. “It’s totally weird to hear that stuff because I still kind of consider us a baby band and see so much room for growth for us.”
Even though the quartet are starting over in a lot of ways, they’ve also grown considerably. As musicians, they’re not content unless they’re constantly challenging themselves; and as people, they’ve learned from what has happened to them in the past. Nobody stays in a band to be miserable, and as long as the noise in their practice space moves them, the Starting Line will always be up for doing the work.
“I think we’re the best band we’ve ever been right now, and I feel like we’re writing the best songs we’ve ever written,” Vasoli says. “But I feel like we still have something to prove to people, as far as our worth and place in the scene. I enjoy that.
“I don’t ever want to be the guy who lets up later in his career and stops realizing why he’s doing this,” he resigns, recalling the final days of the influential California punk act Face To Face. “I don’t want to talk shit about that band-they were my favorite act growing up. But the last few times I saw them, they were just standing there, not really talking to the crowd and not looking so into [playing together]. I don’t ever want to forget how awesome this is. I enjoy the challenge of people not loving it right away. I like having to win them over.” ALT
DON’T STOP BELIEVING
Like all relationships, the one between a band and their record label can often be volatile. Although leaving your label without a back-up plan may seem like a career-ending decision, sometimes it can be the best thing that could possibly happen (check out the oral history on Jimmy Eat World elsewhere in this issue). Listed below are three more acts who not only survived, but thrived after finding a new home for their music.
It’s partially Soul Asylum’s own fault that they started out on bad terms with A&M Records, considering their final album before signing to the label was Clam Dip & Other Delights, a parody of Whipped Cream & Other Delights, the record by label co-founder Herb Albert (the ‘A’ in A&M). After releasing two albums with marginal success, the band left the label and considered disbanding. They instead signed to Columbia and their 1992 release, Grave Dancers Union-aided by the singles “Runaway Train” and “Somebody To Shove”-went double-platinum, thereby affording homeless-looking singer Dave Pirner the not-so-rare opportunity to bump uglies with Winona Ryder.
SAVES THE DAY
Saves The Day built a healthy fanbase in the late ’90s with their melodic brand of Lifetime-inspired punk rock. However, their relatively experimental major-label debut for DreamWorks Records, In Reverie, was met with mixed reviews. After getting dropped from DreamWorks in 2004, the band re-signed with their former label, Vagrant, and put out the return-to-form effort Sound The Alarm last year. They recently followed up that disc with the artsy Under The Boards, proving they’re still not scared to try new things, regardless of the blathering critics and purists post on message boards.
Propelled by the unexpected success of “The First Single” from their debut EP, the Format were picked up by Elektra Records who released their 2003 full-length, Interventions + Lullabies. Shortly afterward, the label’s roster was absorbed by Warner Bros. and the band were eventually shifted over to Atlantic Records who failed to promote them. After years of legal wrangling, the Format got out of their contract and released their sophomore album, Dog Problems, on their own Vanity Label, distributed through Sony/BMG. The album features “The Compromise,” a song that summarizes the whole sordid experience via three-and-a-half minutes of pure pop bliss. Now that’s what we call sweet revenge. [JB]