The Medium: How Tom Mullen Took a Stand for Emo

Music Features
Share Tweet Submit Pin

“Ten minutes to downtownnnn, is 10 minutes tooo far.”

On a frigid Thursday night in February, at Jerome’s on the Lower East Side, these words erupt from the mouths of 75 or so nostalgia-drunk music fans. Few here are acquainted, but nearly everyone knows The Get Up Kids’ “Ten Minutes,” making them part of the same tribe.

At the back of the dingy, low-lit room, 36-year-old Tom Mullen pats his chest to the beat as Texas is the Reason’s Norman Brannon cues up Jawbox’s “Cooling Card.” In his Warby Parker frames and grey pullover sweater, occupying space between Comparative Lit prof and handsome J. Crew model, Mullen jots down song requests from Twitter and members of the crowd. Occasionally he reminisces with them about emo—the night’s centerpiece—sharing memories of niche bands and record labels and the house shows and dive bars that provided architecture for the genre before it went mainstream in the mid-aughts. Soft green projector light bathes the DJ booth in elegant warmth. A puny disco ball spins slowly above.

Four years ago, on Valentine’s Day 2011, Emo Night NYC evolved from Washed Up Emo, a blog Mullen started in 2007 out of frustration. The genre he cherished as a fan, college radio DJ, promoter and marketer had detached from its stylistic and philosophical roots, and Mullen worried its legacy risked being tarnished. In the late-‘80s, emo grew out of Washington D.C.’s storied punk and hardcore scene, where a sense of community, DIY ethics and the music itself—initially an only slightly more nuanced and melodic iteration of those styles—were prized above all else. Its Bush-era dalliance with radio and MTV, however, ushered in a confusing sense of what constituted “emo” at all. Eyeliner-wearing mall punks (“emo kids”) vied for space on Total Request Live next to Lindsay Lohan. Misanthropic power ballads, marketed as “emo,” shared Billboard charts with sugary dross by boy bands. Mullen knew something had to be done if future generations were to have an accurate portrait of the genre that means most to him.

Three days after Emo Night NYC—sub-branded “Do You Know Who You Are” in tribute to Texas is the Reason—Mullen and I are sitting at a bustling Think Coffee in Manhattan, and he’s speaking in zen-like terms about emo’s salad days. To Mullen and other emo purists, this era fell a decade or so before the genre entered its “hair metal phase”—the phase, it’s worth noting, that “emo” nights like L.A.’s Taking Back Tuesday are trying to capitalize on.

”It’s that tension,” he begins. “It’s that moment in the song when you think something is about to go wrong and doesn’t. You think the place is about to combust. The dissonant guitar. The chaotic scene. That’s the moment I want to get across. Seeing Refused in ‘98 was unfuckin’ real…that was tension.”

Mullen’s grey-blue eyes widen; his forearms bear harder on the table.

“I thought, ‘These fucking bands are messing with their hair, they’re cutting themselves, they’re wearing goth clothes, and they’re calling it ‘emo,’ except they only know Hawthorne Heights and Fall Out Boy,” he continues. “I couldn’t find anything online about Sunny Day Real Estate or Mineral or American Football”—three venerable acts from emo’s second wave (there are four, counting the recent iteration that heavily borrows from the second and eschews the third; it’s complicated)— “so I said, ‘Let me do it.’”

That meant running Washed Up Emo until 2 a.m. or later nearly every night after biking home from Sony Legacy, where as director of digital marketing he services the catalogs of Willie Nelson, Miles Davis and The Clash, among others. (In a strange bit of kismet, nostalgia defines Mullen’s day job too.) That routine intensified when Mullen started Emo Night NYC and the podcast, where he interviews the genre’s most totemic fixtures—Jim Adkins of Jimmy Eat World, Chris Conley of Saves the Day, Matt Pryor of The Get Up Kids and more than 30 others. And, as new bands propel emo’s fourth wave, he’s now producing a radio show, sponsoring tours, speaking on CMJ panels and collaborating with the label Jade Tree on a 7” series. Somewhere in there, presumably, Mullen sleeps.

“He pursues things out of pure wonderment,” says Joyce Lee, Mullen’s roommate of six years. “He’s like a big kid, and I don’t mean kid in the sense of he needs people to be responsible for him. When you’re young and you like something, you just go do it. You don’t question the repercussions. He’s driven by what he loves and wants to share with others.”

That wonderment can at least partially be ascribed to growing up in Jericho, Vermont, a “one blinking stoplight sort of town,” Mullen says. “I didn’t have noise. I had a quiet dirt road, my guitar, my thoughts. Growing up there influenced how I see the world.”

Mullen was exposed to independent music and its idealism almost by default. Thanks to its size and location, Jericho’s 5,000 residents had to travel far—north to Montreal, say, or southeast to Boston—to catch acts popular on radio and MTV. Instead, Mullen commuted to nearby Burlington, where punk and hardcore bands booked their own shows at the all-ages club 242 Main. The scene was small but tight-knit, and little distinction existed between performers and listeners: Most everyone Xeroxed flyers to promote shows, gathered at the same record stores, geeked over the same underground releases. The community was nourishing and worth protecting. If you squint, you see that all Mullen’s emo-related endeavors nod loosely to his nostalgia for this inclusiveness and DIY determinism.

“I didn’t feel like a number there,” he recalls. “I felt like I was part of something. That’s stayed with me. I want people to remember it meant a lot to have those connections. You needed to work at it.”

The scene’s activist impulse loosely informed Mullen’s lifestyle choices as well. Listening to the hardcore band Earth Crisis, for instance, introduced him to animal rights awareness, which led him to vegetarianism. And Mullen’s been straight edge—he doesn’t drink alcohol or smoke—since high school, where he was involved in drunk driving awareness groups.

In 1996, Mullen moved south to attend North Carolina’s Elon University, where on his second day he joined the staff at student-run WSOE radio. Emo’s second wave was in full swing, and Mullen leveraged the new platform to promote his favorite emerging bands, book shows at a local pizza shop and cement connections that would open doors for his eventual 15-year-strong career in the music industry—many of which were spent at labels such as Vagrant and Equal Vision, two major players in emo’s pre-“hair metal” heyday.

“Tom’s the most genuine, sincere, non-ironic person I know,” Norman Brannon says, standing outside Jerome’s after wrapping his Emo Night set. “When I think of ‘emo,’ the things that make it cringeworthy to a lot of people are also the things that make it special. Not everyone has to be detached to be cool.”

Brannon’s former band Texas is the Reason is an influential second wave act, and his inclusion on the bill continues Mullen’s tradition of recruiting the genre’s most recognizable names to augment his DJ sets at Emo Night. The December event, for instance, featured Say Anything’s Max Bemis and Saves the Day’s Conley.

“Tom is a medium,” Brannon continues. “I think that’s valuable, to have these people who are bridges of memory.”

This work is time-consuming, though, begging the question of whether Mullen has time for anything other than nostalgia. When we meet at Think, he cops to the rare night of tuning out to Mets games or English Premiere League soccer—“the opposite of music,” he says—and Mullen visits his girlfriend of three years on the West Coast as often as possible. Otherwise he spends nearly all his waking hours working, or as Brannon puts it, bridge-building: between older and younger versions of the same person, between different people with similar tastes and experiences.

An illustration: The first voice I hear on entering Jerome’s shouts, “We’re the only people who still listen to this fucking music!” To my left, air drumming and harmonizing in a u-shaped booth, childhood friends Greg Thornberg and Rhonda Kolaric bob like tipsy sailors as “Ten Minutes” thrums through the room. If they care what others think about their performance, you can’t tell—which is fitting since neither Emo Night nor the genre itself ever played well with stoic ideals of New York cool.

“My best friends came from this scene,” Kolaric says as Thornberg gets up to grab more beers. Now 25 and 26, respectively, the two met as middle-schoolers in Fairfield, Connecticut, where they and a meager group bonded over emo and pop punk. “They have this sense of loyalty that I haven’t found elsewhere.”

As Thornberg returns, Mullen drops Motion City Soundtrack’s “Everything is Alright,” sending the friends into another frenzy. Long a favorite, they sing it a capella on the way to Jerome’s to stave off a couple types of cold—Mother Nature’s, certainly, but also heartbreak, as Thornberg has just ended a relationship of seven years. It’s almost as if Mullen knew.

Recently in Music