Interview: Dan Marsala and Ryan Phillips of Story of the Year

Story of the Year

Recently I was able to schedule a Zoom call to connect with Story of the Year members, Dan Marsala (vocals) and Ryan Phillips (guitar), to discuss their memories of recording and writing the now 20-year old album Page Avenue. I also asked the band members about other album anniversaries coming up, including In The Wake of Determination, and their plans for celebrating these key milestones. The band is currently touring in support of the 20th anniversary of Page Avenue, and they have released several merch items on their webstore to celebrate.

Thank you both for your time today! Let’s start off by talking about how Page Avenue recently celebrated its 20th birthday, which coincided with a vinyl reissue. What are some of your most vivid memories from recording that album?

Ryan: 20 years, it’s crazy. I don’t know…I have no recollection of doing it. <Laughter>

Dan: And it’s so crazy that we were in California at John Feldmann’s house. It had so much energy and I remember just going crazy, making records. It was fun. It’s a good memory.

Ryan: For me, I remember the first batch of songs we recorded. And then we went, I remember we got in Feldmann’s car, and we listened to it when we drove up through Malibu, and we went surfing. It was either sunrise or sunset. I don’t know. It’s just beautiful outside, and we drove around in his car. And we listened to the music for the first time outside of the studio. And I just remember thinking like, oh my god, we sound like a real band! We sound like the bands you hear on the radio. It sounded so good that it freaked me out. We only had shitty demos recorded in our hometown with no money, and we’d never heard a professional recording of Story of the Year…at the time we were called Big Blue Monkey. It just sounded too good.

So speaking of John Feldmann, he was the one who produced Page Avenue. What lessons did this veteran hitmaker and songwriter teach you about making albums that you carried forward in your career?

Ryan: Yeah, so I can only speak for myself as the guitar player, but something that he taught me that I remember to this day, that’s front and center is that it’s about the song. And I’m a guitar player. I have a tendency to be like, Oh, check out this riff, check out this cool guitar solo. And I’ll just try and try to fit it in and make it fit in, a lot of times. But it doesn’t make the song better, and doesn’t serve the song. And it’s just kind of about my ego as a guitar player. And I remember doing all this stuff I thought was cool, and he’d be like,”If you think this is making the song better, that’s just dumb. Let’s try and make the song better.” And I remember just being so young and being like, Man, he hates my guitar riffs! And now, it’s like, oh, he was so right.  You should play stuff that makes the song better and elevates the song and makes it just bigger in scope and not just like, hey, look at my guitar playing…It’s not something like that. To this day, 20 years later it’s front and center in my mind. Simplicity is key. And every note you play should be about serving the song and evoking emotion in the context of that song. Yeah, it’s such an important lesson for a young musician to learn.

Dan: Yeah, he definitely improved our songwriting abilities. Like Ryan was saying, we were just always trying to show off. And we were just young kids, but we didn’t really have the skill set of writing a really good song. We had the chorus of “Until The Day I Die,” but the structure was all crazy. It didn’t make any sense, and he was just really great. He really has us focusing on our style, and allowing us to figure out what we even sounded like. And, yeah, there were a lot of lessons to learn in the early days and there still is. Songwriting is an ever-evolving thing and there’s no right or wrong way to do it. But yeah, he helped a ton on that record.

Nice. So why do you think the lead single, “Until The Day I Die” had such an immediate impact on the music scene?

Dan: I have no idea. It’s a great song.

Ryan: I think it’s the lyrics. I think more than that, it’s got a cool groove. The music’s cool and everything, but ultimately, it’s about those lyrics. And it’s just about…we were just really young, and our band was everything to us. We lived it, breathed it, and we moved across the country, with $200 in our bank account, to California to chase our dreams and all that. And that’s what that song is about. And I think the honesty of it, and the song is a love letter to our band. That song is about our friendship as a band, and some people interpret it as a love song. I’ve had so many people tell me they played it at their weddings and shit. But at the end of the day, it’s about love. For us, it’s four men loving each other, but the lyrics are pretty undeniable. And 20 years later, they still hold up and we’ve talked to so many fans, and seen so many tattoos on people with those lyrics tattooed on their arm and stuff. So, I think with that one, we just kind of struck lightning in a bottle at this time, in this certain kind of way. And that song kind of just encapsulates that whole time in our life. That youthful energy, and those youthful dreams, and just what it’s like to live and die for another person that you just love.

Yeah, definitely. And can you guys walk me through the thought process your band had when you were writing the song?

Dan: That song was kind of a weird one on the record, because I think Ryan came up with the title first. And that’s never really happened for us. But he just said, “Wouldn’t it be cool to have a song called ‘Until the Day I Die’”? And I was like, yeah, that’d be cool. We I think we’re just jamming the little intro riff and that was the only thing we really had for the song. And the simplicity of that lyric is probably why it connects so much. It’s very personal and connected in a relationship way. But yeah, it’s undeniable. It was just simple. It’s one of the songs we didn’t overthink, it just kind of happened. It’s just, that’s that song. It was meant to be that way…

Ryan: Dude, I remember Dan…I spent so many years since we’ve talked about what I’m about to say, but I don’t know if you remember… I remember being in the van to be on tour in the van or somewhere in the van. And we had acoustics and that was the actual riff. You wrote that, right?

Dan: Yeah, we were just both like, kind of riffing on stuff. And I was like, Oh, this is cool. 

Ryan: Yeah, that’s the biggest riff of our entire career, you know what I mean?

Dan: It just naturally happened. We were just both sitting there in the van. And you just had the title. And I played that little riff. And then that song was born and it just naturally happened. It was crazy. 

Ryan: Yeah, there was the cool thing about that era, and there is a lot of power and just being super naive, because you don’t overthink anything. It’s just like, oh yeah, we can do that. And then we can also just move across the country without jobs and no income and we could just totally go get a record deal. Why not? And I think that whole mindset, and that ethos, carried over to our songwriting to just be like, don’t overthink shit. Dude, if it was fun to play, we were cool with it. That’s it. And Feldmann helped to kind of reel that in and build structure to that. But that ethos is something that to this day is kind of still the operating system for our band. 

Yeah, and for you to catch lightning in a bottle on your first single, there’s only been a handful of bands that have really done that with their lead single to launch their career. So that really catapulted you guys to basically becoming platinum artists on that one…

Dan: Yeah, there was never a question about if that was the first song or the first thing, either. I don’t remember ever really discussing that. It was just like, “Until the Day I Die” is the song we’re putting out, right? Because now there’s always the discussion of what’s the first thing we’re gonna put out? What’s the best song on the record? It just happened and we knew it was a good one right away.

Ryan: Oh, just one more thing about that note. We went in and did a first batch of songs and we sent it to the label. And it was “Until the Day I Die,” “Anthem of Our Dying Day,” and I think “Razorblades.” So we sent it to the label, and they were like, “oh yeah, okay, we’re good. You just do whatever you want. <Laughter> I mean, the old kind of music industry with lots of money thrown around and big recording budgets and stuff like that. And yeah, they heard those. And even though they were just like, oh, yeah, that’s your single, it doesn’t even matter what else you guys record. You guys can go in there and just fart on snare drums and do whatever…

And kind of that outro on the very last song on Page Avenue where you really did whatever you wanted with the “messing around in the studio…” That part is funny.

Ryan: Yeah, after those three, we went right back. And I think that’s when we did “And The Hero Will Drown” and our next songs were like, alright, those songs are cool, but we need a heavy song. And so we jumped right back in and recorded “And The Hero Will Drown,” and it was like, Okay, now our record is coming together!

So, Page Avenue was recently certified platinum in March of 2021. What went through your minds when you heard that?

Ryan: People buy stuff, still? It’s a weird thing now because that doesn’t really happen anymore. I mean, singles go platinum for streaming and stuff. But yeah, we’re like one of the last rock bands that will ever get a platinum plaque for physical sales. Yeah, but it’s very cool. That was like the highest honor you could get…20 years ago. But yeah, it’s just kind of something cool to hang on my wall.

How did the label present it to you?

Dan: With the Gold one, I think the label came and gave it to us after the LA show or something. But the platinum one we had to be like…isn’t this platinum?

Ryan: Yeah, like we weren’t on tour. I think Dan’s right. I think we were just like…that’s gotta be platinum by now. We just had our management look into it and they’re like, “Oh, yeah, it’s now platinum.”<Laughter>

So let’s shift gears a little bit and talk about your sixth record called Tear Me To Pieces. From the album artwork, to songs like “2005,” there’s several nods back to Page Avenue. Did these callbacks happen organically through the writing process?

Ryan: Dude, I would say everything about that record happened organically. A couple minutes ago, Dan was talking about forcing shit and how that never works. And this record was just like…there’s an expression that a lot of creators use called, “killing your babies.” You have to know how to self-edit. You have to be willing to cut some shit out to just make the best piece of art you can. And I really, more than anyone in the band, times ten…I’ve really struggled with that in the past. I would fight and hang on to a song for literally a year, because I love the guitar riff or something…and for this record, I really got out of that as like some of my favorite musical moments. And this whole record was like that. If something wasn’t immediately <hitting>, it was like on to the next. Let’s kill that baby.

Dan: The producer Colin Britton…we owe it all to him with how it all came together. He was really good at getting the energetic, youthful side of us back. He really kind of focused us to bring back some of the feeling of Page Ave, I think, but a new modern <spin>. Musically, it doesn’t really sound anything like Page Ave, but I think the vibe is there. And yeah, a lot of the “2005” song was just random. We were riding with a friend named Nick Bailey and he said, “Wouldn’t it be cool to have a song like the name of the year, and that’s just the title?” And there’s a lot of references to Page Avenue. But yeah, it was very organic.

Yeah, and it sounds like you guys have good good band chemistry still. You know what works and what doesn’t work for you guys, right?

Ryan: Yeah, it’s just it’s gotta be fun.

So I vividly remember one of the first times seeing your band. It was at the 9:30 Club during the Nintendo Fusion Tour. Your band was headlining a marquee list of acts that included bands like Letter Kills, Autopilot Off and the mighty My Chemical Romance. What was that tour like for you guys, as each band was taking off?

Dan: That was like the end of that Page Avenue touring cycle….So, it was just like two years of madness and playing a show every single day. So at that point, we were like, who’s on tour with us? Oh, yeah, My Chemical Romance. It was like, alright, cool! So we were just in prime touring mode, and just going and going and going. And so, you know, it was not any different than any other tours, just a little bit bigger for us. But yeah, I think we were getting pretty worn out after the two years of touring. So right after that, we actually took a few months off. And that’s all I remember. I was like, Okay, that was like the end of that touring cycle. But it was an awesome tour. It was like our biggest headlining tour, probably still ever done to this date. And it was definitely a good one.

Ryan: Yeah, for me I don’t know if it’s because I have a certain degree of ADHD, or the way I focus on certain things, but I didn’t know that Story Of The Year was a big band until after that first record cycle. And then, years after that, when we had some hard times, I didn’t realize we were like that big of a band until we kind of weren’t. I was in the moment on those tours and shit. It was just day after day. More tours, more tours, 300 days a year. And I never stood back and looked at the whole picture and said, oh shit, there’s like 1000’s of people here! Before, we couldn’t draw 15 people in Kansas City…

Dan: Yeah, it all became just kind of normal. And you were just slowly gradually getting bigger and bigger, and then you didn’t really notice it. Because it’s just happening around you all the time. And then when it starts to go away, you’re like, wait, what happened? Where’d that go? I thought that this was just what happens now. Not that we’re just supposed to have this many people every time we play…

Yeah, did you guys feel any pressure after the success of Page Avenue going into the second record, In The Wake of Determination?

Ryan: We were too stupid to feel pressure. We didn’t know we were a big band. We were just like, oh, let’s go make another record. But this time, it’s going to be really heavy. And we’re going to do everything opposite of the last one because we were really stupid. 

Dan: We were like, we knew exactly what we wanted, and nobody told us otherwise, you know? And yeah, I think we all knew that. Like, okay, you sold a lot of records, so you have to put another good record out…But yeah, we did not care at all at the time. And we knew we wanted to do something heavy. So we did something heavy <Laughter>

Ryan: It was funny, because I do love that record. And especially in other parts of the world that you go to, places like Australia, or parts of Asia, they love <our second album>. And I’m really proud of that record. But I’m sure it’s not the record our label wanted us to make.

And do you think there will be any anniversary plans for that record? A new vinyl pressing, perhaps?

Ryan: I don’t know. We’ll see! I would love to do vinyl for every one of our records eventually, and I think Maverick/Warner Brothers will probably want to do something with it. I have no idea. We’re trying to work on this 20 year anniversary. It is the first time we’ve gotten <an album> to 20 years. So we’ll see how this one goes. We did play our second album front to back on a livestream during the COVID times. And that was cool as the first time we’d ever played every song off of that, and The Black Swan. And it was really fun. So I would not be opposed to doing more of those shows, whenever that anniversary comes.

So did you learn anything from the livestream process of revisiting some of those records?

Dan: It was weird. There’s a lot of songs we had never played on those second and third records, for sure. And maybe they don’t ever need to be played again. <Laughter>

Ryan: There are some songs that should never be played again. And then there’s this record that we’re really guilty of not being very kind to…an album called The Constant. It’s our fourth album. We have a long history of being mean to that album, and there’s songs in an album I don’t even remember. I don’t remember recording them. I don’t remember writing them. Somebody played a song the other day, <from The Constant> and I was like, what the fuck? <Laughter>

Ironic that you call the album The Constant because you’re just constantly forgetting about it…

Ryan: We’re just like, “The Constant” was us. We needed to go away. We just needed a hiatus after that to regroup.

Dan: Our style of music was kind of in a downturn at that time around 2010-11. This emo kind of screamo scene just wasn’t really chopping off anymore, so we just didn’t know what We wanted to do and what direction to go. And yeah, we needed to kind of take a break. So that record caught us at a bad time in our career where there were bad memories of us not liking the record.

As you kind of close out this cycle for Tear Me To Pieces, what comes next for you guys? 

Ryan: I figure we should wait at least seven years or so. Seems to be a great cycle…<Laughter>

Dan: It’s weird that the 20 year anniversary and the new record happened at the same time. So we’re promoting both with this 20 Year Anniversary Tour. But I know that Ryan’s gonna say the same thing. Our plan is definitely to get right back in the studio as soon as we can next year, and keep the momentum going.

Ryan: Yeah, we want to be a real band again. That’s what real bands do. You tour, make new records, and we did that shit forever. So it’s really, really nice. And more importantly, it’s really fun to be a full-time working band again. It’s hard to leave the kids but this is what we’re supposed to do. 

Nice! Any last words for fans are things to be on the lookout for as you guys get ready to go in the studio next year?

Dan: Thanks for listening for 20 years! That’s a lot of commitment. We’re a real monogamous relationship. It’s amazing to still be able to do it all around. And it’s crazy to think that people still love our band. And we still get to do this.

Ryan: Every band says this shit, and it sounds super trite…but in our case, it’s true. We meet a lot of these people through VIP experiences that we do on tour and through Discord. And I know we have some pretty amazing fans that have been extremely loyal and supportive. And most of all, just passionate about the art that we make. And dude, it’s pretty awesome. We’re never gonna play in a stadium or anything, but there are a lot of people out there where if you ask them who their favorite band is, they say Story of the Year. So that’s crazy to wrap your head around. It doesn’t get old. I guess for lack of a better phrase, it’s reaffirming, because Dan and I specifically, as the main writers in the group, we spent so many hours writing. And at least for me, we have mortgages, and fucking health insurance, kids and car payments and all that stuff. And in the back of my mind, it’s like, am I wasting my time? Do people really care? Should I just be doing something else to make money for my family? And then you hear shit like that from fans where people say that your music has helped them through really hard times, or whatever and you’re just like…this is worth it. This is what I’m supposed to do. And that affirmation that you’re doing the right thing, spending your time in the right ways, is the biggest gift you could give an artist.

Well, thank you guys so much for your time, this was really fun. Best of luck to both as you wrap up this tour. Stay healthy, and good luck in the studio when you’re writing the next album!

Story of the Year: Alright, take care, Adam!