It was like the brake line on Ryan Pope’s car had been cut. When his band, the Get Up Kids, released their emo opus Something to Write Home About three years ago, the group didn’t expect much. The Kansas City quintet had spent the back half of the ’90s counting highway lines, touring constantly, playing any dive that would pay the group enough to eat. “It was either go on tour and scrape by or stay at home and work crappy jobs to pay rent; the decision was easy,” the drummer says. And there was no reason to think things would change much, even despite the fact that the band had just spit out its best album to date.
But then the momentum started building. Reviews for the album came back sticky. The crowds began to get thicker. Sales started to jump higher than Shaq on a trampoline. Within months, the band was the benchmark for the emo underground, fans using the Kids as the control group for the then-untested scene. Even the big boys wanted a piece of the band, acts like Weezer and Green Day offering up the coveted opening slots on their arena tours.
The result of it all: The Get Up Kids lost over two years of their lives to the road. Nearly every night was like a campaign stop, the group pressing the flesh and banging out the hooky rhetoric fans went gaga for. “We just couldn’t stop,” Pope says. “We couldn’t turn down any of those tours. They were too big.”
The back end was hell, though. Once things calmed down, the Kids had to get away from each other. Pope moved to Los Angeles for a year. Singer-guitarist Matt Pryor took off for Boston with his new wife. A follow-up—even the idea of writing songs—was put on hold indefinitely.
It took several months of tour detox before the Kids would even consider reconvening in Kansas to start work on a new album. When the quintet finally did get back together late last fall, it was obvious things had changed. The dense melodies and wrenching emotional impact were still there, but the spastic and punky riffs of Something to Write Home About had gone the way of D.B. Cooper. In their place were more pensive and poppy strums. The shift makes the group’s latest, On a Wire (Vagrant), sound more like a blurry-eyed after-party than an all-out rager, the Kids coming down from their own three-year buzz. Even the most cheerful tracks feel like they’ve been dipped in weary exhaustion. Songs like the jangly “High as the Moon” and the folkie “Overdue” owe more to R.E.M. then they do to Southern California. Even the few muddied and distorted tracks like “Grunge Pig” plod along on down-tempo grooves rather than sprint for the finish.
All that sleepiness doesn’t change the Kids’ core problem, though: Girls are still unattainable, dreamy and sometimes devilish, while the boys sit around brokenhearted and longing. Pryor always sings like he’s the nightmare version of every ’80s John Hughes film, our hero getting publicly dismantled rather than scoring the girl. There’s very little subtext when Pryor snarls, “I’m watching you fall from grace/While you’re breaking a heart of gold,” on “Fall From Grace.” Added in with the group’s new, more mellow approach, it makes On a Wire feel like a melancholy smile—everything’s crappy now, but it’s gotta get better from here.
Pope says the shift was a result of the quintet wanting to leave its old persona behind. After so many gigs, the group had grown tired of itself. It was either change or move on. “None of us saw the point of putting out the same record twice,” Pope says. “We could have played it safe and recorded another hard pop record, but that didn’t seem like something we could stand. We had the attitude that on this record, we wanted to make something we could listen to. We didn’t want to look back and regret anything. We would have regretted putting out another version of the last record.”
Of course, Pope realizes that the Kids are taking a chance. Sometimes fans will accept a retooling of things. Sometimes they just get pissed. And after six years of being emo’s sad-sack heartthrob heroes, it’s a tough call on what will happen. Either way, Pope is just happy to be taking a step forward.
“It’s hard to say what will happen until the reviews come in and we see the crowds react,” Pope says. “Live, the songs tend to be more rocking than on the record. And we had a good response when we did a few shows on the East Coast earlier. For me, though, I’m just exciting to be sticking new material in the set. It’s different, and that’s a good thing, at least for me.”