‘Through Being Cool’ at 20: Saves the Day’s Chris Conley Looks Back on an Emo Landmark
The original video for Saves the Day’s emo anthem “Shoulder to the Wheel” came straight out of the Nineties-teen-movie playbook. Directed by Darren Doane, who previously oversaw early videos by Blink-182, the 1999 treatment was packed with archetypal American high school shenanigans: a raging suburban house party, assorted costumes and hair metal wigs, and many of the New Jersey band’s real-life classmates. But from the moment cherubic frontman Chris Conley appeared — pouting in a Volvo, donning a bookish red scarf and singing about missing his mom — it was clear that Saves the Day were riding a different wave than their scampish pop-punk predecessors.
“I wrote Through Being Cool when I was at NYU,” says Conley, who now resides in California. “I’d be sitting there with my journal, hanging with the skateboarders and the punks in Washington Square Park, writing lyrics that would become the album.” Conley didn’t make it past freshman year; instead, he dedicated himself to building a lasting legacy in pop-punk and emo at large.
Through Being Cool was the manifestation of an increasingly emotive, heart-on-sleeve revolution taking place within pop-punk. Released on New York’s Equal Vision Records, Saves the Day’s literary and melodic sophomore LP helped them stand out among the hardcore heavyweights on the label’s roster, including Converge, Refused, and Bane. “Heart is on the floor/Why don’t you step on it?” Conley yawps in “Rocks Tonic Juice Magic,” painting a portrait of his ex with the unsparing cruelty of a slasher film. On the flip side, he sets Brian Wilson–esque dreams of married life to a breakneck pace in “Do You Know What I Love the Most?” as he sings, “Even the suburbs would be OK/With you between my sheets.”
The band subsequently signed to Warner Music imprint Vagrant Records, and followed with their 2001 breakthrough, Stay What You Are, which cracked the Billboard 200 at the same time other that emo acts like Jimmy Eat World and Dashboard Confessional were enjoying mainstream success. “Pop-punk, emo, it didn’t matter to us back then,” Conley says. “We just thought of ourselves as a New Jersey hardcore band.”
Two decades later, the band has gone through several lineup changes, and since returned home to punk stronghold Equal Vision. Now, Conley, the sole remaining member from the Through Being Cool era, is prepping a new reissue of their 1999 opus: Out October 25th, it features remastered versions of the original LP, plus never-heard-before demos taped in Conley’s mom’s basement.
On November 2nd, the 20th anniversary of Through Being Cool, Saves the Day will kick off a sold-out four-night tour, on which they’ll play the album in its entirety. The band teases the upcoming festivities with a new animated video for “Shoulder to the Wheel,” which sees Saves the Day’s 1999 house party cartoon-ified by Sarah Schmidt and Ian Ballantyne.
Conley spoke with Rolling Stone about making the original video, writing Through Being Cool, and the New Jersey scene that inspired it all.
In 2017, Rolling Stone ranked Through Being Cool at Number 18 on its “Greatest Emo Albums” list. Did you happen to see it?
It was so surreal. When we were actually making the album, we knew it was special, but we couldn’t imagine that 20 years later we’d be celebrating it in this way and talking about it as a landmark album.
You came up in New Jersey’s hardcore scene — what made you adopt a more poppy, melodic direction after your debut, Can’t Slow Down?
It wasn’t like we made a conscious choice to change; I think that was just my taste evolving. But there was always a hard edge to Saves the Day. That’s just a reflection of coming up in New Jersey and New York. We loved bands like Lifetime, Gorilla Biscuits, and Bouncing Souls — their album, Maniacal Laughter, is all over Through Being Cool. “Freaks, Nerds and Romantics”? That was us. But when we were touring in the early days, [between] 1997, 1998, there were two seminal records that had come out: one was Foo Fighters’ The Colour and the Shape, and the other was Refused’s The Shape of Punk to Come. Those two records were on repeat in the van, and really wormed their way into our hearts and heads. When we went to record it, we were tried to match the tones and the aggressive energy of those albums — even though we were just kids from New Jersey; we didn’t have much to be angry about. Throw in some Jawbreaker, and Weezer’s Pinkerton, and you got the cocktail that is Through Being Cool.
Which song from Through Being Cool was the most definitive of your sound at that time?
“Holly Hox, Forget Me Nots.” It’s my favorite. I remember the first time I played it in my mom’s basement with Bryan Newman, our old drummer. Bryan and I went to NYU together, then we would go back to Princeton on the weekends to see family and friends. It was so exciting to play just the two of us — coming up with that one, powerful riff was just really thrilling. And when we added everybody in the band, it got really heavy, but so melodic and fun. Our producer, Steve Evetts had this really cool idea to add an octave guitar over the chorus, and all of a sudden gave the song an extra dimension that felt like The Jackson 5. When we all heard it in the studio, we all looked at each other — just wide eyed — and we just knew that something great was about to happen. That song was the main reason why Brian and I decided to defer at NYU and just tour the album.
After Through Being Cool, you signed to Vagrant Records and joined this class of emo and pop-punk bands that broke the mainstream pop charts. Did you feel at all conflicted about “making it”?
I don’t think there was much DIY backlash from our scene — they’d say we slowed down, but not much else. I don’t think anybody had that kind of scope, at the time, to be able to know something big was happening. We would drive down to Florida for shows, and the band that would open was New Found Glory. Then you became friends, and the next time you went down there, you’d meet their friends — like Dashboard Confessional. And when you went out to the Midwest you’d be on a bill with Alkaline Trio, then you’d join them on tour with Face to Face. There never was a focus on the finish line, or mainstream success. The reason the emo and pop-punk world thrived is that it was real people doing things that they loved, and telling their friends.
You’ve been the only remaining founding member of Saves the Day. Will anyone from the Cool lineup make a comeback on this tour?
Bryan came out to a show in San Francisco five years ago, and actually got on the kit for “Holly Hox.” He was like my brother basically growing up, but we’ve all moved on to other things since. Becoming professional musicians … there’s a lot of growing pains. In hindsight, I realized that I’ve always known what I wanted the music to sound like. And it took a long time to understand that it was just going to be uncomfortable, having to show people how to how to play it. Especially when you’re younger, nobody tells you how to be a boss or anything. And some people realize that touring is not for them. If you look at how many people had been in Saves the Day, that’s indicative of how difficult being in a working band can be; there’s something like 21 or 22 other people that have been in Saves the Day, which is insane! I like who I’m playing with now. When you finally get that magical chemistry, you wanna keep it that way.
According to Wikipedia, you regretted making the original video for “Shoulder to the Wheel.” Is that why you gave it an update in 2019?
No, not at all — what? I have no memory of feeling regret about that. I don’t know where that started, but at least it can stop now on the record.
The original video was hilarious. It was like Can’t Hardly Wait and Detroit Rock City in one music video. What do you remember about the day you filmed it?
Can’t Hardly Wait was the inspiration for the video, believe it or not. We had the VHS tape, and we would watch it in the van. Somebody at Equal Vision knew director who did the Blink-182 video for “Dammit.” So he flew [Darren Doane] out and he had the idea of us driving around town, looking for this house party, and picking up these random people. And then at the end Saves the Day plays the house party. We got up really early; there was still snow on the driveway when we started filming. We invited a bunch of our friends from the New Jersey punk scene, and shot it all in one day at our guitarist, David Soloway’s house. We could have made a movie about the video shoot alone.
My favorite moment was when you guys were dressed like ravers.
That was New Jersey in 1999! Punks, metalheads, ravers each had their own corner of the hallway in high school. Rave culture was so huge. And it’s funny to think back on that now, because they [built] the foundation for the big festival culture we have now. But back then, they were just a funny group of kids at school, wearing pacifiers for some reason.
So will you go back and change your Wikipedia article?
I really should. The last time I looked was about 10 years ago, and some stuff was completely fabricated. My dad once said, “Your Wikipedia page says that you and I fought all the time when you were writing those early songs!” And that’s so completely wrong. Not true. I had to say, “Dad, you can’t believe everything you read on the internet!”
Saves the Day 20th Anniversary Shows
November 2 – Sayreville, NJ @ Starland Ballroom
November 3 – Brooklyn, NY @ Elsewhere
November 9 – Anaheim, CA @ House of Blues
November 10 – Los Angeles, CA @ Bootleg Theater