The last storyteller was wrapping up her tale, something about taking a long flight across country and landing in Tucson, when a small group of twentysomethings started gathering at the Flycatcher bar.
They were at the North Fourth Avenue club that Wednesday night last month to tell their own stories to the soundtrack of Blink 182, Save the Day, Paramore, Garbage, Dashboard Confessional, Taking Back Sunday, Hawthorne Heights and other emo bands they relied on to make sense of their teen angst. As soon as the storytelling crowd cleared out of Flycatcher’s main showroom, the emo kids, now in their mid- to late 20s (or older), filed into the room as Michael Roberts set up turntables and unloaded crates of records.
For the next five hours, from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m., he and his guest DJs stood on the Flycatcher stage playing album cuts of popular 1990s to early 2000s emo bands, many of which are no longer together. And the audience that grew to about 75 by midnight went along for the ride, cheering the songs and singing along.
But mostly, the emo kids hung out.
“It’s a nostalgic thing. It’s stuff that people listened to growing up and now they can sit around with their friends in a bar and indulge in (adult) beverages and listen to the music they enjoyed as teens,” Roberts, 30, explained about his monthly Is This Thing On? Emo Night Tucson, held on the second Wednesday of every month at Flycatcher, 340 E. Sixth St.
“It’s like being back at high school at a friend’s house only now we can drink legally,” added Ryne Leach, a Palo Verde High School grad, now 29, who was drinking beer with buddy Dominic Ruiz, also 29.
Emo Night Tucson, which Roberts and his friend Matt Blankenship launched in March, follows the template of Roberts’ Canyon del Oro high school buddy Morgan Freed, who helped launch arguably one of the most popular emo nights in the country: Taking Back Tuesday Emo Night LA.
Freed moved to Los Angeles not long after graduation to chase a rock ’n’ roll dream. But instead, he found himself doing website design, digital strategies and music videos.
In 2014, after he had been in Los Angeles for a few years, Freed and two L.A. friends, T.J. Petracca and Barbara Szabo, were musing aloud about the music that got them through the hills and valleys of teenhood. In the course of the conversation, someone suggested they throw a big emo party; advertise it on Facebook, rent a club and relive those days before they were tied down to jobs and adult responsibilities.
They couldn’t claim to be innovators of emo night. In early 2011, Do You Know Who You Are? Emo Night NYC was born, based on a concept so simple as to seem, on paper at least, boring: A DJ simply spins vinyl records.
“We’re just playing records. We’re not doing anything crazy,” Freed said, but the crazy thing is, emo fans loved it.
“The first night we did it, we had a line down the block. We did it the next month and we had a bigger line around the block,” Freed recalled of the trio’s Taking Back Tuesday Emo Night LA. “And then we moved locations to the Echoplex and we get about 2,000 kids coming through every month.”
Three months into the venture, the trio invited Blink-182’s Mark Hoppus to join them as a guest DJ. The audience that night went nuts and their little emo party turned into an off-the-charts scream fest and musical revival. Suddenly the media spotlight was trained on them: They were featured in the Los Angeles Times and other L.A. media; Rolling Stone, Fortune, Billboard and other magazines followed with feature stories that credited the trio with single-handedly reviving the Los Angeles emo scene.
“We didn’t expect anything. All we wanted to do was have a good time,” said Freed, who played guitar and sang for several Tucson bands including Table for One and Stepsister when he was in high school.
Freed and his two partners formed Ride Or Cry, a creative agency, and took their emo night concept on the road to cities including Phoenix, Denver, Omaha and Seattle. They also picked up celebrity clients including Lumineers, Tears for Fears, Garbage, Sam Spiegel and Cher Lloyd.
One city not on Ride Or Cry’s Emo Night itinerary is Tucson — Freed said his high school buddies have it covered.
“Tucson is a very, very special place and I think that Michael and Matt have grown up and lived there longer than I have. I think that they’ve got it handled,” said Freed, who plans to slip into Tucson for the September Is This Thing On? event.
Freed will find the event far more low-key than the off-the-rails L.A. events he hosts.
At the July emo night, Leach and Ruiz took a table not far from the stage. They nursed their drinks, chatted with friends and let out a little “yeah” when Roberts and his guest DJ George Moreno played a song they liked.
A couple dozen people wandered onto the patio to smoke while Jenna Jansen started singing along to one of her favorite songs, growing more animated as it went on. If you didn’t know better you would swear she had a front row seat to watch her favorite band live, not listen to it on vinyl.
“It’s crazy,” Roberts admitted of the appeal of hanging out while a guy spins albums. “I’m just playing records.”