Certified Scranton: Uncovering a World of Sound

 

 

Scranton: The Electric City

Probably the only famous Scranton exports over the past hundred years have been anthracite coal, Joe Biden, and The Office. (And, in truth, Joe Biden moved to Delaware when he was nine and The Office is filmed in Los Angeles.) Although it is the sixth biggest city in Pennsylvania, Scranton always seems to find itself at the wrong end of the joke. After all, there’s just not a whole lot to do there. Alas, a Scranton native myself, I was excited when I first started hearing about this young Scranton-to-Philadelphia music scene a few years back. All of these bands that had started out playing at community centers and house parties in Scranton — bands like Kite Party, Tiger’s Jaw, and The Menzingers — were really starting to gain attention in the independent music world. Flash forward three years later and the Scranton music scene has only grown more; Kite Party is playing shows in the First Unitarian Church, Tiger’s Jaw is about to release a new album, and The Menzingers’ latest record was just declared “one of the albums of the year” by BBC Music. Yet, despite their respective successes, these bands have all maintained a certain humility to what they do — a respect for their craft, and for their roots. No one has forgotten where they came from.

Around 2008, then little-known punk band The Menzingers decided to make camp in Philadelphia. With one full-length album already under their belts, they knew that Philadelphia would have an abundance of dive bars and concert halls to hone their craft. Meanwhile, many of the younger Scranton bands began moving to Philadelphia too, mostly for school or job opportunities.(Scranton is not exactly a hub of possibility.) But they all found that it was easy to maintain their music, especially in a city as simultaneously bustling and low-key as Philadelphia. As Kite Party frontman Russ Edling explains: “Philly is a place where you can make something happen while also getting a sense of community. Coming from a tiny place like Scranton, Philly was sort of the next logical step.”

From left: Russell Edling, Justin Fox, Pat Conaboy

Suddenly, The Menzingers started getting big. After the release of their highly-acclaimed 2010 album Chamberlain Waits, the band was signed to the legendary punk label Epitaph Records. Nationwide tours and festival appearances followed suite. For the rest of the Scranton bands, The Menzingers’ success helped shed light on the fascinating, frenetic scene that had originated in this tiny little city in the mountains of Pennsylvania. As big as Philadelphia is, it can feel like a small city. And when all of these bands started to reform in Philadelphia, they quickly built a strong network of musicians.

If you follow the Scranton/Philadelphia music culture, you’ll quickly notice a uniquely communal aspect to everything; they all seem to play in each other’s bands. You would need a pretty thorough chart to be able to figure out who plays what in which group. Tiger’s Jaw and fellow Scrantonians Three Man Cannon share a drummer and bassist, just as Three Man Cannon’s guitarist also plays for Idiot Kid, which is comprised of members of — you guessed it — Kite Party. But that’s what’s so great about this Scranton music scene: It’s organic, and it’s fun. Sure, the bands tend to have some punk leanings in their sounds. But they have all share more in common geographically than they do sonically. They’re just childhood friends who enjoy making music together.

In terms of Scranton’s direct musical influence over these bands, Russ Edling again sums it up best: “Growing up in that area, where your parents or uncles or grandparents are blue-collar, you know that if you don’t work really hard at something like this, it’s just not going to work. Because they all think, ‘That’s not going to put bread on the table.’ So you kind of know just how hard you’re going to have to work.”

Perhaps it’s a combination of that blue-collar mentality with the sparse, sweeping wilderness that encompasses Northeastern Pennsylvania, that allowed for so many individuals to develop such an intense appreciation for music. Whatever the case, these young musicians are in Philadelphia now, making their mark on the state’s biggest stage. But don’t expect them to leave their tight-knit home away from home anytime soon.

As Kite Party guitarist Justin Fox says: “It feels more like family and home. There’s such a big support system since we have with each other, and are giving each other opportunities. I don’t think a lot of places have this.”

From left: Greg Barnett, Joe Godino, Tom May, Eric Keen

For more insight, I was fortunate enough to talk with Tom May, the guitarist/vocalist of The Menzingers:

two.one.five magazine: What made you make the transition from Scranton to Philadelphia?

Tom May: Four or five years ago we were in Scranton and we started to tour more, taking everything more seriously. We realized that there wasn’t as much of a thriving scene as we were looking for. There were still shows, but we really wanted to move to a place that had more going on. Also, we spent our lives growing up in Scranton, and just wanted to see what it would be like to live in a bigger city. I moved into a house on 16th and Morris and then [guitarist/vocalist] Greg came down, and we got a house together in South Philly. And we kind of just jumped right into the house show scene. We had some friends who had booked us in the area previously, and there’s one particular place, Titan House, and we just started playing there all the time. That’s how we got to meet more touring bands that were coming through. The next time that we were touring, we would trade shows with these bands; we would play a show at their city, and they would play a show at Titan House. Eventually we got a show with [concert promoters] R5, and after that we started getting more attention.

two.one.five: So now these past few years have been good to you guys. Any plans to leave Philadelphia?

TM: It’s been fantastic for us here. We don’t have any plans to move anywhere else. We’ve talked about it sometimes, but if we split up around the country we would have to fly just to practice. The music scene here is thriving; it’s really unlike any other music scene in the country. It’s pretty amazing.

two.one.five: Can you elaborate on what makes Philadelphia such a unique music scene?

TM: It’s unique in the sense that there are so many DIY venues that come in and out… There’s always house shows, but there’s usually one or two houses. In Philadelphia, everyone who hangs out at [these shows] are all musicians… Everyone who you hang out with, and everyone you talk to plays. And a lot of the bands from here seem to be doing really well.

two.one.five: Along those lines, do you find this Scranton music scene to be a deliberate one, or is it more coincidental?

TM: Absolutely. We’ll go to a house party and I’ll think, ‘Oh my God, everyone here is from Northeastern Pennsylvania.’ I think a lot of kids moved down to go to Temple, and because it is the closest cultural hub that’s still in the state of Pennsylvania. I don’t think it’s exclusively a Scranton scene, but there’s definitely a support group that’s here of people that are from the area.

two.one.five: As a musician, has Scranton affected your lyrics?

TM: Absolutely. On the last record that we wrote, most of the songs are written about the feel that we got from growing up there. We name a lot of places from there, and some of the songs are about people from there. It totally influenced us.

And there’s still a good scene in Scranton. Even though everyone [in Scranton] might play different genres of music, we all hung out together growing up, and have the same kind of vibe. I don’t know if I can put my finger on it… I think it has to do with some kind of colloquial, Northeastern Pennsylvania feeling. There’s nothing like it in the country.

The last album that we did, we actually sequestered ourselves in Lake Ariel, outside of Scranton, and finished up writing the record there for two or three weeks. We all lived in the same house, Greg’s mom’s house, and finished writing, and I think that that’s why that last record reflected a lot of the themes and ideas that we had growing up in that area. And I’m sure on the next record that influence isn’t going to go away.

two.one.five: So what’s next for The Menzingers?

TM: We’re going to buckle down and write another album. We have a tour coming up in two weeks, with The Flatliners, in Canada. That’s going to be fantastic, but it’s really short. And then in January and February we’re doing a full U.S. tour with Hot Water Music and La Dispute. And then we’re going to start working on the new album.

To find out more about some of these Scranton bands, check out the links below:

The Menzingers

Tiger’s Jaw

Kite Party

Three Man Cannon

Captain, We’re Sinking