INTERVIEW: Author Mike Damante

INTERVIEW: Author Mike Damante

By Ash Bebbington

Jun 4, 2021 11:24

“If you’re new to this music... then you start reading the book, and look up the Menzingers, the Descendents and the Ataris, that’s awesome.” These are the words of Mike Damante, an author, journalist for the Houston Chronicle in Texas, and pop punk fan. His upcoming book, ‘Hey Suburbia’ charts the unlikely rise of pop punk and emo from an underground scene to a legitimate global phenomenon in the late 90s and early 00s. With today’s musical landscape being as it is, it’s startling to remember how quickly some of the bands in the scene blew up.

Green Day went from being punk rock darlings to a global behemoth, touring arenas around the world in only one album cycle following the release of ‘American Idiot’. Good Charlotte were catapulted from poverty to international acclaim almost overnight off the back of their second record, and in the late 90s, a cult band by the name of Blink-182 became one of the biggest bands of their generation following the release of ‘Enema of the State’. For anyone who was around during these heady days when one great record was enough to launch a pop punk or emo band to unthinkable heights, ‘Hey Suburbia’ is a great read that provides a hit of nostalgia on almost every page.

“I grew up loving this music and covering it too for my work [at the Houston Chronicle],” says Damante. “When I got the opportunity to write about some of these bands, I said, ‘Look, I already work here. I’ll do it for free, I’m going to this show anyway. I can cover it and interview the band.’ I’ve done so many interviews [since then], so about 5 years ago I decided it would be cool if I turned this into a book.”

The book contains interviews from some of the biggest names in the scene. Tom Delonge (blink-182, Milo Aukerman (the Descendents), Matt Skiba (Alkaline Trio, blink-182), Chad Gilbert (New Found Glory) and Billy Martin (Good Charlotte) all make an appearance, giving their opinions on the scene during the boom years.

For anyone who grew up listening to these bands –  going to shows, and wearing baggy band shirts and cargo shorts – going back and listening to music from that time provides a huge dose of nostalgia and it’s key theme in the book. In Damante’s own words: “That was the whole point of the book, to look back. The book’s not 100% the authority on the scene at all, but it is meant to make you remember certain things, and be conversational. If you want to look at the ultimate playlist” – a chapter in the book is dedicated to a playlist of Damante’s essential tracks – “and say this list sucks, I’m making my own, then that’s cool.”

As well as being a welcome nostalgia trip for pop punk and emo fans everywhere, the book also acts as a guide to the genre for newcomers. It tells the story of pop punk and emo from its genesis in the 90s, through its heyday in the 00s, and all the way up to what’s going on in the scene today. Damante says: “[The book is] also for kids who are getting into this music now. Maybe they went to an emo night, or their dad or brother is into this music…. [In the book] I start all the way from the beginning and end with where we’re at now… if you’re new to this music and you only know My Chemical Romance and Paramore, then you start reading the book, and look up the Menzingers, the Descendents and the Ataris, that’s awesome.”

So how was this genre of music able to blow up in the way it did? Damante is eager to stress the importance of radio and music channels, such as MTV, as a key factor: “Now, bands are able to use social media, and the internet to get their name out, but back then if you were on the radio and MTV it was the difference between touring in a van and touring in a bus. It was that big, it was that important. It’s just crazy to see some of these bands get that exposure. They’re on TRL or MTV for maybe a month and then they start blowing up”.

Naturally, the Vans Warped Tour features heavily in the book. Warped is often credited as a major factor in the growth of pop punk and emo in the 90s and 00s. So just how important was it to growing the scene in the US?

“Oh yeah, it was huge. People would go regardless of whether they knew the bands or not. All these cheerleaders and jocks who didn’t know the bands would just go because it was something to do… That’s why so many of these bands were able to blow up, and that was one of the biggest selling points if you’re a band – you’re playing in front of all of these kids who you probably would never play to otherwise.”

However, for the bands, Warped was notoriously brutal. It was an eight week slog across the US, living in a van or on a bus, playing shows in weather that could be extreme. While there was often a sense of camaraderie among bands, there are many tales and rumours of fallings out and frayed tempers behind the scenes. For example, UK punk band Gallows infamously used their sets at Warped to publicly berate other bands on the lineup in 2009. Damante puts it this way: “Being a band and touring all summer, it is really gruelling… their routine is just shot. You wake up on a bus, you do press, you do interviews, then you’re back on your bus. Do a couple of signings and meetings, then you play your gig and it’s on to the next town, from parking lot to parking lot. For the bands it’s kind of a rite of passage, you have to do it at some point… Even though it is gruelling it’s kind of like a badge of honour for the bands to go through it”.

Another factor in the pop punk explosion was the scene’s close connections with skate culture. If you wanted to be a skater, you had to get on board with punk music. Even before the pop punk and emo boom, the official soundtrack to skateparks around the world included bands like Refused, Rancid, and Bad Religion. With the release of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater on the PlayStation in 1999, which had a soundtrack made up almost entirely of pop punk, punk and emo music, the genre was put in front of even bigger audiences. Reflecting on the impact of the popular game series, Damante said: “Those video games were like a gateway drug for a lot of kids… I remember playing the Tony Hawk games and I remember the energy of all of those really cool skate bands. It was definitely pivotal in getting a lot of kids interested in these bands”.

So, could pop punk ever be the biggest genre on the planet again? Damante considers this for a few seconds. “Maybe. We’re seeing a resurgence now with all these hip hop and pop acts incorporating emo and pop punk into their music, so I think kids are starting to hear the sound. So maybe they’ll hear a Machine Gun Kelly song, which referenced a [pop punk or emo] band and they’ll go look them up. So I think slowly it’s creeping back in. I’m not sure it’s ever gonna be as big as it was during that era just because the time was different, with radio and MTV being huge then.”

Pop punk and emo fans who have stuck around have seen the genre decline in popularity gradually over the last couple of decades. While Green Day, My Chemical Romance and blink-182 can still pull in arena sized crowds, other fan favourites from the time have seen crowd sizes dwindle from what they were at their peak. Newer bands like Joyce Manor, the Menzingers, PUP, and Modern Baseball release amazing music and have dedicated fans, but sell far fewer records and gig tickets than bands who were at their peak in 2002. So why aren’t these bands bigger than they are?

“I don’t know man, I work with a lot of their publicists and I hear how hard they work. I hear some of these songs and I’m like these songs should be on the radio. Some of these songs are as good as any Top 40 pop song,” says Damante. “What’s missing, I think, is radio and TV which is just not as big as it used to be. If some of these bands hit radio I think they could potentially pop more. But rock music in general is just lower on the totem pole for radio and TV these days so it’s hard for them, even though they’re writing songs that are really catchy and could be big. There’s so many times I’ll review an album and think that the singles could be huge if they got the proper promotion.”

The further and further we get from the pop punk boom of the early 00s, the more surreal it seems. Did Green Day really inspire a Broadway musical? Did US restaurant chain Denny’s really name a sandwich the ‘Sumwich’, to ride on the coattails of Sum 41’s success? Did ‘Enema of the State’ really go platinum? Remarkably, the answer to all of these questions is yes. It’s almost unthinkable that any of that could happen to a pop punk band starting out now. If reading this has given you any nostalgia for pop punk’s heyday, go and read ‘Hey Suburbia’ by Mike Damante. It’ll put a smile on your face and make you remember a time when your favourite bands were the world’s favourite bands as well.

‘Hey Suburbia: A Guide to Emo/Pop Punk Rise’ is release June 10th via Di Angelo Publications.