Emo isn’t dead. At least not according to Saves the Day’s Chris Conley, who’s been in the business of making emotive, yank-on-your-exposed heart strings music for just about two decades.
In fact, if you ask Conley, emo — a genre that’s seen countless evolutions and reincarnations (some great, some terrible, depending on who you're talking to) throughout the late '90s and early aughts — is making a resurgence.
“[There are] a lot of new bands coming along that have that same spirit, that authenticity, and honesty and good songwriting,” he says. “You see a lot of bands coming up that have that sound, like they listen to music of the '90s now, so maybe it goes in waves. I think that honest music is making a comeback for sure.”
As for any residual stigma associated with the angstiest genre around, he thinks that it’s on the decline. “I think some of the negative connotations might be disappearing,” he says. “I think that the phase of the haircuts is probably over, where the band’s MySpace profile picture mattered more than their first demo. It seems like that’s gone, I think people see through it. I think people are reaching out for the real groups again.”
If anyone would know, it would be Conley. The only remaining founding member of one of emo’s definitive bands, he’s stuck with it through eight studio albums and a revolving door of bandmates through which almost 20 members have come and gone. It’s all been worth it though, he says, because there’s nothing else he’d rather be doing.
Conley, who played the cello for seven years as a kid before discovering the guitar, started Saves the Day with his high school buddy Brian Newman. Self-described as an “extremely alienated teenager,” Conley escaped by listening to Zeppelin and fooling around in his garage with Newman (who played the drums). Soon enough, they’d started a band.
All good emo stems from pain, however, and Conley is more attune to his feelings of existential angst than most. Newman left the band in 2001 and is now a therapist (“coming from emo, that makes sense,” laughs Conley). His abrupt departure left Conley reeling. “When Brian left, that really hurt. That felt like, 'Where is my friend going?'” he recalls. “I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do it without him. But once I got over that, and he encouraged me to keep going, it felt like just carrying on as usual.”
Conley’s done just that. Despite a marked evolution from very dark, somewhat morbid songwriting in the early days to Saves the Day’s just-dropped eponymous album, which can almost be described as upbeat, he’s remained true to that one constant: honesty in music.
“I’ve been on a personal journey of trying to keep my head above water, and stay healthy, sane and positive. It’s difficult living in such a complicated world,” he says. “I did a trilogy that was specifically part of my personal therapy, and it was to dig myself out of a dark place. I started with the root of the anger, all of those negative feelings and thoughts. The second album is dealing with the transition and knowing that’s not a healthy way to live.
"The third part of the trilogy is finding understanding, and seeing why we are the way that we are, and stop being the fight, and surrendering to what it really is. I’m on the other side of that now. This is the first album that I’ve written on the other side where I feel comfortable and content.”
Listening to Conley reflect, his love of the genre and dedication to self-exploration is undeniable.
"It's just a crazy experience to be alive, it’s actually overwhelming,” he continues. “Our bodies are so fragile and our life is just poised on this vulnerable edge of impending doom. To me, as a sensitive guy, I just felt completely lost in the midst of this world, just trying to find some sort of safe place where you can just be who you are and it doesn’t matter. Why do you have to try to be a certain way, just to belong, when maybe we could belong just being ourselves? It’s the enormity of the human experience.”
Despite the title of Save the Day’s sophomore album, for Conley, you can’t really stay what you are. “I’m a completely different person [now] and, oddly enough, it was through accepting what was under the surface, the enormity of the turmoil, that helped me find this peace,” he says.
“It’s almost counterintuitive, but it’s like you get thrown in the water, and you think you have to flail around to stay afloat but it’s the opposite. You let go and it is what it is — you are floating.”