“No one is playing these records in New York:” A Conversation with Tom Mullen

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It’s March 7th, 2015, the first Thursday of the month. Despite the minor blizzard that occupied the daylight hours, the dark bar on Rivington is already filling up with people. The bartender wanders over to a booth and IDs a man with full sleeves of tattoos. After 8pm hits, the first intelligible thing that can be heard through the buzz of voices comes in a disgusted tone. It’s someone saying, ‘Slipknot.’

It’s Emo Night in New York City. (#EmoNightNYC if you’ve got twitter open.)

It’s immediately obvious who’s braved the snow and its resulting chaos of train delays and slippery sidewalks. The same heads turn whenever someone new walks in through the door. There’s a certain sense of community to the room and the emo records haven’t even started spinning yet.

Every first Thursday for the past four years this community has been cultivated by Tom Mullen, one of New York’s most passionate scenesters.

It all started with WashedupEmo.com, a site Tom created in 2007 to cope with the explosion of  mall emo and social media. “I was sort of frustrated that no one was talking about the bands that I loved, with the name Emo.”  Tom explains, “If it was Elliott, or Christie Front Drive, or Sunny Day, no one was talking about them. No one. And it was this time where I was like, ‘No one is talking about this and yet the word is everywhere.’ And no one was mentioning them alongside the mall emo stuff.”

Out of Tom’s frustration, emo night was born; “I was on a bus ride home and I texted my good friend and I said, ‘Hey man we should do a night. We should DJ a bunch of records, and our friends just opened a bar, like do you wanna ask ‘em? Like, do you think anyone would come?’ and it snowballed into us being like ‘Wait a minute, we have everything. Why don’t we just try it?’ So we did an Anti-Valentine’s day show and tons of people came out.”

“It really came out of ‘No one’s playing these records in New York.’” Tom says.  By the mid-2000s, the term “emo” no longer referred to the stylistic characteristics of bands heavily influenced by punk and post-hardcore. The scene that Tom had grown up loving and supporting was redefined in pop culture by new blood that sounded nothing like its precursors.

There was hair, makeup, and clothes that went along with the music. Themes of depression and self-harm colored the public consensus of what it meant to label a band ‘emo’. “When it gets to the hair that covers the face and the clothing… that is punk, that is alternative, that is pop-punk. It’s punk but it has nothing to do with ‘heart on your sleeve’ or talking about things that matter. It just doesn’t.”

Along with those cultural changes came an overarching pseudo-ignorance towards the genre’s deep-seated 80s/90s punk-rock roots. It was as if all the punk kids had disappeared.

“It was just so underground.” Tom recalls, “I was begging to find someone to tell me about a house show. Like where are the punk rock kids? I couldn’t find ‘em in that time.”

WashedUpEmo.com was Tom’s way of preserving the history of a genre as he remebered it, “Everyone was just trying to break. They were wearing things and acting a certain way and I couldn’t handle it.“

Tom’s connection to emo is the exact opposite of everything early 2000s pop culture made it out to be: “The whole cutting, depression… I hate that. It was never about that. When I was listening to Sunny Day, I was happy. Promise ring, I’m happy. Yes, the lyrics were emotional but I took a positive thing out of it, not ‘Oh woe is me.’”

Tom’s favorite record to get sad to is Matthew Sweet’s 1991 release Girlfriend, which isn’t even categorically emo. “If you’ve never heard that album, it is the breakup record. The last song is called ‘nothing lasts’ If I’m bummed out that record’s on. My roommate in college would know if I had a breakup if that record was on when he came home.
He would know.

While the functioning definition of emo and it’s canon varies from person to person, Tom happily welcomes the people who come out for the music everyone labeled as emo in the early 2000s. “Once like, 10:30, 11:00 hits, if I haven’t gone into the 2000s, everyone like, revolts.” Tom laughs, “So we’ve sort of adapted where we play everything. Like, I have nothing against those bands. I just want people to know that there was something before and there was something after, that wasn’t popular.

“You should know the whole history and how they all connect.” Tom continues, “I don’t see how Black Veil Brides connects to Hot Rod Circuit. That was one of my first entries into ‘isthisbandemo.com.’

In 2014, Tom developed IsThisBandEmo.com, a site that allows visitors to enter a band name that the site then spits out emo judgement on. Black Veil Brides, according to Tom and ITBE, is not an emo band. The ITBE engine will give the result, “Black Veil Brides is not an emo band. *HONK HONK* Your mom is out front to pick you up.

Between the snarky comments on IsThisBandEmo and calling his website ‘WashedUpEmo’ there’s this obvious air of humor that Tom encourages around defining the genre. He wants the focus to remain on the music so he pokes fun at the elements of the ‘emo’ label that aren’t about music.

Defining the genre is both a tricky and touchy subject. In some ways, it’s a task best left to people like Tom, who were there to connect the dots. As Tom explains, “You really had to grow up in it. You had to just know that there’s connections with bands. Like hardcore bands used to play with emo bands. Like, Texas is the Reason used to play with Earth Crisis. That today would be so weird, but back then it was normal. They were into the same bands, they kind of came up in hardcore, post-hardcore. There was a connection to it.”

That connection is what sites like WashedUpEmo and preserves. The website, the podcast and even the DJ Night all exist to archive a vein of punk-rock culture that existed before the internet.  “People who are like, ‘Fuck genres. It’s just music.’ It totally is, but there was a community involved and the other part about it is that the community was before the internet. It was show-to-show. It was ‘maximum rocknroll’. It was zine to zine. You traded tapes. You traded VHS live shows. There was more of a personal connection.”

Emo Night itself is a sight to behold. Jerome’s at Rivington quickly transforms into the only bar in Manhattan to play “Everything is Alright” by Motion City Soundtrack, followed by “The Taste of Ink” by The Used in 2015.  Every single person in the room knows the words to Brand New’s “Okay I Believe You, But My Tommy Gun Don’t.” If you close your eyes, you can almost pretend it’s 2005 again.

The preservation of this culture is at the heart of what Tom is trying to accomplish. He’s a man obsessed. He politely pauses the interview to make sure that his DJ set starts right on time, keeping true to his passionate belief that it’s all about the music.

Recently, two individuals got married as a result of emo night. “Someone got married because of emo night.” Tom explains incredulously, “Their second date was emo night.”When he’s told that it’s all thanks to his curation, he vehemently refuses to take any credit, “It’s crazy but it’s the music, it’s not me. They’re connecting on the music. They’re connecting on the records and that’s all that matters. Those bands needs to be remembered and that’s what i’m trying to do every time I’m up there.”

Tom’s crusades of emo preservation didn’t stop at emo night. In 2011 Tom launched the WashedUpEmo podcast. The regular podcast has come to feature veterans of the genre like Mike Kinsella of Cap’n’Jazz, and Jim Adkins of Jimmy Eat World. “It’s great because there’s so many people that I’ve met, so many people that I’ve found.” Tom reminisces, “I met someone from Marvel. I met someone that works on this like, radio show that I love. It’s crazy and it’s fun to meet those people ‘cause we have an instant connection. You know who Elliott is or you know who Promise Ring is? Done. We’re friends. Come over on Sunday. Can I help your cats on the weekend? Like, it’s instant and I love that.”

When Tom isn’t spinning emo records or interviewing emo veterans, he works with dead people. “I work at Legacy Recordings, which is part of Sony. I’ve worked at indie labels and major labels and this is my first time with a catalog label so you’re responsible for the catalog for Johnny Cash, Miles Davis, Elvis… And I also work with artists that are alive.” Tom amends,  “Like Willie Nelson, I work with him. It’s like you have all this 50 records, 60 records, and you’re in charge of making sure people know about it, reintroduce them to the records. And then also we have new releases so we’ll find a Jimi Hendrix record in the vault, or a Michael Jackson record in the vault, like literally we’ll find things that Michael recorded on VHS and it’s of significance and so we’ll re-release it. So I do digital marketing for them. So any of the big digital ideas around that stuff I come up with. It’s fun.”

There’s a theme in Tom’s endeavors. Between death and the rise of the internet, he’s constantly working to preserve music that popular culture often overlooks. When asked if he thinks emo will survive death, he’s hopeful, “I think so. I think the labels that had them, if they survive, they’ll put out a retrospective. People will find out about them. It will be smaller and smaller as the years go by.”

For now, Tom is living an emo veteran’s dream. “It’s almost like I’m in 1998 again and there’s all these new bands out and I’m like, kind of in the best of both worlds.”

WashedUpEmo.Com / IsThisBandEmo.Com / Twitter (Washed Up Emo) / Twitter (Is This Band Emo?) / Twitter (Tom Mullen)

Hayley Ionia

About Hayley Ionia

Hayley Ionia is a ghost haunting Philadelphia, PA.