Last we heard from the Get Up Kids, the polished Kansas pop-punk band had released 1999's Something to Write Home About, their second full-length. Last we heard of the Get Up Kids, they were poster children for "emo," a nebulous genre of emotionally charged punk that's edged further and further away from its hardcore roots and toward diary-type lyrics and pop structures. And they were still touring after nearly a two-year stint that included landing a killer spot opening for Weezer.
But these poster children are now adults -- and the poster could easily read, "Have you seen this band?" With the Get Up Kids' third recording, the new On a Wire, the band has held onto the heart, if not the recognizable form, of emo.
"It's like playing that game 'Telephone,' where you pass the 'rumor' and everything gets fucked up by the end of the circle," says keyboardist James DeWees, the group's spastic show-stealer, who joined the five-piece in 1999 and also plays in Reggie & the Full Effect and Coalesce. "That's what determining what 'emo' means now is like. It's a mess, but I wouldn't say it applies to us anyway. We play rock 'n' roll."
So the rumors are true. The Get Up Kids -- emo's shining light -- are, for the most part, no longer writing what DeWees describes as "cuttin' steak music" -- the kind of churning pop-punk that slices quickly back and forth. Listening to the swaying acoustic strum of "Overdue" -- On a Wire's first track, which plays out like an Elliott Smith outtake -- you'd think the Get Up Kids' get-up-and-go got up and went. But nothing really went away on the new album. Rather, more aspects of the band went into it. On a Wire explores a more classic roots-rock sound, from the alt-country of "Stay Gone" to the calliope crunch of "The Worst Idea" to the obvious Beatles influence of "All That I Know."
"I don't know if our decisions are so much mature," says DeWees. "I'm still pretty immature -- you can ask my parents. But we decided that, for the first time, we were all going to write, instead of one or two people. And we all got into new kinds of music, so maybe our tastes matured. There's a world beyond pop-punk and the indie section. There's a whole record store."
The Get Up Kids are currently touring with Superchunk, whose energetic indie spirit, nasally wail and later focus on production over pogoing could easily be seen as a pattern for the Get Up Kids' progress.
"For the first couple records, you're all like, 'Wow, we're making a record, we're touring, and that exuberance can be heard in your records," recalls Superchunk guitarist/singer Mac McCaughan. "But I think at some point, it becomes easier to go in more directions when you slow it down. There are ways to write fast, catchy melodic songs. But after a while, the limitations become obvious. You can have certain instrumentations -- like strings -- in a really fast song, but it would sound bizarre. And slower songs give the most space to execute ideas."
While Superchunk's evolution was aided by producers like Chicago's Jim O'Rourke and North Carolina's Brian Paulson, the Get Up Kids turned to famed R.E.M./Indigo Girls/Patti Smith producer Scott Litt to help develop their 26 demos into 12 actualized songs. The result is a loose but confident collection that succeeds where other emo bands attempting to redefine their sound (e.g., Milwaukee's The Promise Ring) have failed, by eschewing the gloss while retaining the variety.
"Recording [which took place over five weeks in Connecticut] was structured pretty much the same as always," recalls DeWees. "But [Litt] opened up everybody to 'less is more' recording. The album was this way when we went to the studio; he just helped us realize it."
So while the amps on On a Wire may be turned down, emotions still run hot.
The Get Up Kids play Thurs., June 27, at the Masquerade, 695 North Ave. Superchunk and Hot Rod Circuit also perform. 10 p.m. $15. 404-577-8178.