Interview: Dan Marsala of Story of the Year

Story of the Year

Lead singer Dan Marsala reflects upon the 10th anniversary of Page Avenue, reimagining the record on Ten Years and Counting, and the crossroads Story of the Year currently finds itself at.

The actual 10th anniversary of Page Avenue was two days ago, which is pretty gnarly to think about. Does it seem like it’s really been 10 years to you?

Ah man, kind of but not really. It’s pretty crazy. We’ve been kind of celebrating it all year, just talking about it and preparing with the 10-year anniversary record that we did, and talking about the tour and everything. I’m pretty used to the idea of it now, but it seems like yesterday that we just recorded these songs when we were 20-year-old kids, trying to get a record label to sign us and trying to play music for a living. Yeah, it’s pretty crazy. I can’t believe we’re still a band after 10 years even.

Back in 2011 you did that hometown show where you played Page Avenue in its entirety. Is that where the idea originated for doing this tour?

I think so, yeah. We knew we were going to take a little bit of a break around that time. We had just put out The Constant. We had pretty much done eight straight years of touring, making a record, touring, making a record. At that point we were like, “All right, we need to chill out for a little bit and try some other stuff.” We had some side projects we were starting to work on and everything else.

It was kind of a premature thing at that point. We were like, “I don’t know. Let’s try it at our hometown. It’ll be fun and we’ll see if people are excited about it.” It sold out immediately. It was a great show and such a cool thing. Our booking agent was like, “Dude, you guys really need to do that around the country.” We were like, “Well, it’s not really the time. We should probably wait until a year or two from now.”

Now, the time has finally come. Luckily, the Scream It Like You Mean It people wanted to partner up this fall, so we just combined the two and made it the Page Avenue/Scream It Like You Mean It tour.

As you said, the band has been on hiatus the last couple years. What have you been doing during all that down time?

I’ve been playing a lot of music here and there. I have a shitty punk band called the Fuck Off and Dies. We just rip off NOFX at any cost and play fun, short poppy punk songs, and we say fuck a lot as well.

Ryan and Phil have a band called Greek Fire. It’s a big long story, but for a little while I filled in on the drums. I play the drums and guitar a little bit, too, so I filled in on the drums in their band for a few months. I was just doing odd music stuff and having fun, not taking it as seriously, because Story of the Year has been our job for the last 10 years, technically.

We just wanted to try other stuff. I think it’s good musically for people, and mentally too, just to play other things and play with other people, creatively to try new things and go outside of your comfort zone and then play other music. It’s helped us all in our mindset of where Story of the Year is now and where we need to go in the future. It’s been a cool thing.

Are you guys all still back in St. Louis?

Yeah. Adam, our bass player, did live in L.A. for a couple years, but then he’s back here now. We’ve all been in St. Louis pretty much the whole time.

In addition to the tour, you also have the acoustic reimagining album, which I thought was a pretty welcome and unexpected surprise. How did that idea first come about?

That was along the same lines of how we thought we were going to maybe do the album front-to-back on the whole tour. We wanted to do something special for the 10-year anniversary. A lot of our friends have been talking about this kind of stuff and doing this lately, too, like Yellowcard and Taking Back Sunday. It’s a cool way to celebrate the anniversary.

We didn’t want to do a remix or a remaster of the record. People who love the record for how it sounds love it that way. It’s nostalgic for so many reasons to so many people. I always get bummed out when bands completely change the recording, or just use the original stuff but remix it or something.

We wanted to completely rework the songs and do new versions. We broke them all down and made them as different as we possibly could to showcase more of how they actually are good songs, no matter what form they’re in. It’s really cool. There’s a lot of pianos and strings. There’s some acoustic. We call it acoustic, but it’s a lot less acoustic and more just piano and mellow. It’s very mellow.

Yeah, I heard it yesterday and I thought it was really fantastic.

Awesome, thank you. We’re really proud of it. We did it all ourselves with a friend from here in St. Louis. Technology has allowed a lot of things to become a lot easier now. We did it all ourselves and we’re putting it out ourselves, so that’s fun. We might actually make money on a release for once [laughs].

Who did all the piano and strings?

Everybody kind of plays piano in the band, so we were going back and forth, programming and working it out all together. The guy who engineered and produced the record, his name’s Matt Amelung. He’s a friend of ours from here in St. Louis. He did most of the string stuff, and a lot of the piano work as well. We all would just sit in a room and build stuff. It was really fun.

There are two songs that did not end up getting redone, “Burning Years” and “Falling Down.” Did you guys try to do them but they didn’t work out? What’s the story with that?

When we started out we didn’t know what we were going to do. It was just spur of the moment. Let’s start working on some songs, let’s start reworking songs. So, we originally had six or seven songs, and then we would bring in another one and try to figure out a good way to do it. We didn’t want to do any of the songs if we couldn’t make them different. We didn’t want it to sound like a watered down version of the original, because then you might as well just listen to the original.

Then, it turned out to where we had nine already, and I was like, “Well, we have to at least have 10 on here.” One of the last ones we did was “Divide and Conquer,” and since that was a heavier song we didn’t think we were going to be able to work it in to have it make sense with the rest of the record, but we figured out a weird way to do it and it was really cool.

I wanted to do “Falling Down” somehow, but we kind of just ran out of time. That being a fast punk song, I didn’t really know how to rework it, and then “Burning Years” got lost in that shuffle as well. It was kind of a timing thing. I’m sure we could have figured out ways to do those two songs. We just didn’t have any spur of the moment ideas at that point.

One song that really stands apart is “In the Shadows,” which is almost like an electronic remix than an acoustic version. How did you come up with that one?

Yeah, that’s the random oddball on the record. We had a hip-hop remix of that song that a friend of John Feldmann’s actually did in 2003. It was really cool, but we never used it for anything. At this point, whenever this came up, we wanted to do something like that or use that version, but we ended up just doing a new version ourselves.

It’s kind of similar but a little more industrial almost, but you still get that weird hip-hop vibe. We wanted to make it like a dirty version of a hip-hop remix of it. That was just because we already had that version done a long time ago, and once again that was the only way we could figure out how “In the Shadows” would be cool.

I assume you’re going to be playing electric on the tour. Do you have any plans to perform these acoustic versions live at some point?

A lot of people have been asking that. For the most part, we’re going to be doing everything as normal, the electric version. The version of “Razorblades” that is on the new Ten Years and Counting record is really cool. It’s one of our favorite songs on the record. It’s so intimate and fun, so I think we might end up doing that one live.

We are doing these VIP things through Scream It Like You Mean It every night where we’re doing an acoustic set before the show. I guess we’ll be doing 3-4 songs before the show too for 30-40 people, or however many people buy into the VIP thing. So we’ll be doing more of those versions preshow, and then regular versions at the show.

Now when you look back on the writing and recording process of Page Avenue, what stands out in your mind about that whole experience?

Ah man, it was a pretty cool time for us. We were just five young dudes from St. Louis, and we actually all moved to California. We moved to Orange County on our own. We had some friends who lived there and were like, Well, we’ve kind of experienced everything we can do in St. Louis. We went out there and had no idea what was going to happen. We just had demos and a lot of energy.

We lived there a few months and luckily got ahold of John Feldmann from Goldfinger at a show or something. We gave him a demo and our little VHS teaser video thing we had. It’s funny to think about VHS now, but he watched it and thought we looked really good live and really liked our band, so he took us on tour. We did a two-week run with Goldfinger, and that’s how we ended up meeting him. He took us to Maverick Records, and blah, blah, blah, and then he produced our record.

That whole experience was crazy, because we randomly moved to California. We were like, OK, we’re going to do it. We’re going to make this happen. It actually paid off and it worked. It was crazy. We spent that next year in L.A. with Feldmann making the record off and on, back and forth. Then after that, it was just touring and touring. There’s too many memories. It’s kind of like one big blur about being on the road and making music. It was insane.

If I remember correctly, it seemed like it took a little bit of time for the record and “Until the Day I Die” to take off. Was there a particular turning point where things started to really accelerate?

Yeah, we finished the record in April 2003 and then it came out in September. We were on the road that whole time. It kept getting pushed back and pushed back. We were all mad at the label at the time, like, C’mon, just put it out! We’ve been on the road for seven months.

That song went to radio sometime late 2003, “Until the Day I Die” did. We did a tour with Linkin Park in January-February 2004, and I remember that’s right when “Until the Day I Die” started getting played on radio.

It definitely took four or five months before things started to pick up after the record came out and I think that Linkin Park tour really helped us out. It was one of those huge arena tours with 15,000 people every night. We still have fans to this day that are like, “I never would have heard of you guys without seeing you on that Linkin Park tour.”

That definitely gave us a boost at that point, probably at radio and our professionalism and our live show. Doing something on that scale, you learn a lot. That was the turning point, early 2004, because by the middle of the year we were blowing up. It was crazy that year.

I bet. I think the album still holds up remarkably well today, 10 years later. Is there anything you think about when you listen back to it now, or anything that bugs you about it that you would have done differently now?

Every song and everything you ever record, there’s something where you’re like, Oh, I wish I would have done that one part a little different. I think now I like it just a much, if not more, than I did when it came out. We were really freaked out about everything at first, signing to a major label and putting out a polished, good sounding record. It blew all of our minds.

We grew up in punk rock and the hardcore scene and whatever else, even nu metal and stuff in the 90s, so we weren’t expecting much. I just wanted to be in a band and put out a record. I wanted to be like Glassjaw or Boysetsfire, like that’s as big as it’s going to get for this kind of music. I didn’t think it was going to go any further than that.

John Feldmann, who did the record, is a genius beyond anything I can comprehend. We had no idea what was going to come of the record. He was the smart one who knew how to make things sound really good, and definitely was ahead of his time as far as production and all kinds of different stuff.

When it came out, I was just like, Man, I think he Auto-Tuned some vocals. You can’t do that. That’s not cool. Nobody’s supposed to do that stuff. Then five years later, if every note’s not tuned perfectly on everybody’s record, every kid hates it now. It’s such a different time in music now than it was 10 years ago.

But yeah, Feldmann was a genius. He did things I didn’t necessarily appreciate at the time, but now he’s the reason why it still holds up 10 years later because he made it an amazing record for us. I think it definitely sounds pretty good to this day, and I love it all these years later.

A lot of the songs, even like the songwriting, is weirder because I can’t imagine doing a lot of that now, but I take on new meanings for a lot of the songs now, even lyrically. The stuff that I wrote 10 years ago, I’m like, Why was I thinking that then? But it makes more sense to me now. It’s crazy.

Can you give an example of that?

I don’t know. “Razorblades” was a song we just threw together because we had an old version of it from our older band, which was called Big Blue Monkey. We had a version of that song with a different chorus that was written a little bit different, so at the time we had to throw it together. Feldmann and us worked on a new chorus. He wanted to change it and emphasized that it could be a way bigger song, so we were like, OK. We wrote a new chorus and threw it together.

At the time, I wasn’t thinking lyrically. It was just about friendship and relationships. I think it was an ex-band member deal at the time. Now I’ve had so many friendships, either good or bad, and relationships with whoever over the years, that song seems a lot deeper to me now. At the time, I was like, “Whatever, we’ll just write it about this.” Every song’s kind of like that.

“Until the Day I Die” was originally written about the five of us being in a band and being in a van together constantly and having that relationship. It turned into every couple’s favorite song that described their relationship perfectly. They’re like, “It’s about love and it’s about a girl.” And I’m like, “Well, originally it was more about the five dudes in my band.” But yeah, it was definitely just a love song and it works in any situation, even if it was more about our gay love for each other [laughs].

Do you think your songwriting and lyrical process has changed a lot from the first album to what it is now?

Yeah, I think it did for a while, and then I tried to revert. The second record was a little angrier, a little heavier, but it was still a personal album. By the time our third record came out, The Black Swan, I was trying to be a worldly dude. I wanted to be political all the time. That was all that mattered to me.

I wanted to try to get deep and crazy, and then I realized a lot of that doesn’t connect as well with our fan base. They grew up with the Page Avenue songs, where a lot of it is about relationships and your hometown and whatever the stuff I was going through at that time.

We definitely went into more political or socially conscious songs for a while, which I still love that kind of stuff. I grew up on bands like Propagandhi and Bad Religion. That was my favorite stuff ever. That kind of lyric style is awesome to me, but I realized the more personal, heartfelt stuff is what connects better with our fans. I try to balance that on both sides, but I think it’s coming back to the more personal stuff recently.

Do you feel like maybe one of those styles of writing holds up better than the other?

I don’t know. For us, Page Avenue is definitely still our biggest record, although The Black Swan, a lot of people love that record as well, which is more on the other side. Either way, there’s usually an element of both.

I don’t think anything holds up necessarily better than anything. It’s all preference. If the song’s good, then it’s going to stand the test of time, and if it’s not, it won’t. There’s no rules in music, and I struggle with this stuff all the time. What’s the better way to do things? Should I write a song about this? Should I write a song about that? You never know. There’s no way to tell. There’s no rules.

My personal favorite record of yours is In the Wake of Determination, and I’ve always been a little bummed that record didn’t do as well as Page Avenue did. Is that something you still look back on with some amount of regret, that that album was somewhat of a disappointment?

Kind of, but no. We purposely knew exactly what we wanted to do on that record and we did it exactly how we wanted to. I think it is a great record, for what it is. Obviously, going from selling 900,000 records to 150-200,000 records, whatever that one sold, that was technically a disappointment for the record label and everything else. I think it was a crucial part of us growing and becoming the band we still are to this day, and I think it was a big part in our fan base maturing with us and respecting us on a different level.

If we would have put out a super poppy second record, if it was Page Avenue but just shittier versions that were pop songs, I don’t think we would have stood the test of time. I don’t think we’d still be doing it 10 years later, or we would have written some really great songs and it would have blown up even more. That’s always a possibility, too.

But yeah, I think that is what we wanted to do. We wanted to show our heavier side and we wanted to kick a little more ass. Our live show was always heavier than the first record really was because we jumped off things. We were doing flips and running around. We wanted more energetic songs, I guess is kind of the thing. A lot of the Page Avenue songs are like that, too, but at the time we didn’t know what we were doing.

Steve Evetts, who did the second record, he made some of my favorite records of all time. He had done Kid Dynamite and Saves the Day, and Snapcase and Hatebreed. He did everything back in the day. I was like, “We got to get that guy. He’s my favorite.” He ended up doing a great job. He did it for us super cheap, super easy. We did it at Ryan’s house in a basement, and Steve made it an amazing record for us.

That’s what we wanted to do at the time. It’s not exactly what some of our fans wanted to hear, but people like you, I still hear that all the time. A lot of people like it more than Page Avenue. It was kind of a divided fan base for a little while, like, No, we want to hear the heavier stuff. I love that record, so we’ve been trying to balance that as well.

With The Black Swan, I think we did a good job of doing a little bit of both. That’s a constant struggle with our band, like what kind of band do we need to be. We can pull anything off. We can pull heavy songs off, where I don’t sing at all and I just scream, or we can pull off piano songs where I sing real pretty. We have every polar opposite going on, and that’s a good thing because we never get bored. We can do whatever we want, but I think it confuses some fans.

Do you find that younger kids are still discovering you and Page Avenue, or is it mostly older fans like me who grew up listening to Page Avenue?

We’re getting a lot of both right now, which is surprising. I figured this tour would be all mid-20s, late 20s guys who loved it when they were 17-18 years old. Now, I’ve been talking to more 19-20-year-old kids who are like, “You were my brother’s favorite band. Now you’re my favorite band and I never got to see you guys.” I’m like, “How have you never seen us? We’ve been touring for 10 years.”

But yeah, I hear that all the time. “I never got to see you. When am I finally going to get to see you?” I’m like, Wow, that’s awesome. I guess we have a little bit of both and we’re still connecting with younger kids as well, which is great. I love the old school fans who have been with us since the beginning, but that’s not going to last forever. We need to reach out to some new kids, definitely.

One of the things that is kind of unheralded about being in a band is having someone that can sing backups and harmonies really well, and I think Phil does such a good and that he’s kind of your secret weapon, which probably makes your job so much easier as a lead singer. What’s that dynamic like between you guys?

Yeah, definitely. He was the last member to join the band. We had a different guitar player originally. He was a decent singer, but he wasn’t a great singer. When things didn’t work out with him, that was my number one priority. We need somebody who can sing, and who can sing high preferably.

He was just another friend from another local band in St. Louis. As soon as he joined the band, it just jumped a whole other level. He sings way higher than I can ever imagine singing and he does it effortlessly. It’s ridiculous. He’s a great singer and, yes, it makes it so much easier for me, definitely.

Our dynamic together, at this point we’ve been singing together for the last 10 years and we don’t ever really think about it anymore. I’m just like, “I’m going to hit this note. I’m going to go down to the normal part. You do that other part. Is that cool?” We do little code things, where it’s like, “You want to do that thing? OK, got it.” He knows when I’m going to drop out, like on certain parts if I’ve been screaming too much, he’ll know to take over the main line. It’s perfect. It’s awesome.

It’s definitely like having a back-up voice for me every once in a while. He’s an amazing singer. In him and Ryan’s other band, Greek Fire, he’s the actual lead singer of that band. He finally gets to shine a little bit in the front with that band, which is awesome, and he kills it.

Another thing that’s pretty cool about you guys is that, at least once you became Story of the Year, you’ve maintained the same lineup, which is pretty rare these days. How have you been able to keep that bond and friendship going?

I have no idea how we’ve lasted without any problems. I think part of it is we’re guys from St. Louis. Midwest dudes who are actually friends. We were all friends before the band. We all skateboarded together. We hung out all the time. A few of us went to high school together.

We’ve just known each other for 15-20 years now. Music was our hobby. It was something we did because it was more fun than anything else. It was just a dream, like, Yeah, it would be really cool if we could play music together one day, but that’s never going to happen. When it actually did happen, we were still just those same friends from St. Louis.

Like any relationship with any human, we’ve had our ups and downs. Sometimes two people will not get along for a couple months, and then they’ll love each other again and you’re best friends again. That’s normal. I think we were all smart enough to separate the professional stuff from the friendship stuff and just make it work, and we’re continuing to do that. It’s pretty crazy, the same dudes. It’s even more fitting for the 10-year anniversary to have all the same guys.

Yeah, that’s pretty awesome. So, the musical landscape has obviously changed a lot since Page Avenue came out in 2003. The whole crop of bands and scene you came up with is basically nonexistent in the mainstream now and is just for a niche audience. Does that feel weird for you now? How do you make sense of that?

It’s a little confusing to me that music hasn’t completely changed since then. It seems like 10 years later usually that type of music is totally not cool anymore, nobody likes it anymore and blah, blah, blah. I think our style was a good mix of punk, metal and radio friendly rock. It was like all three of the worlds coming together, and there were a lot of bands doing it before us. Us and a few other bands took it more mainstream at that point, and that’s when it kind of blew up.

Then, I guess that kind of morphed into so many different genres, and it’s still kind of happening today with bands like A Day to Remember, that kind of stuff where it’s still mixing the heaviness with the super popiness. It still works on some level and we still fit in there some way.

I don’t really know how it actually still works, and that’s a question we always have to talk about amongst ourselves is what we’re going to do when we make another record. What direction do we go at this point? How do we try to stay relevant and have it make sense still? I don’t know. It’s weird. I’m just happy that it still works, and that we can still do it and play music.

So as of right now you’re planning on working on another album after the tour’s all wrapped up?

Yeah, that is the plan. We definitely have been talking about a record for a while. It’s just like I said, we don’t exactly know what we need to do. We knew we wanted to get this going first to get back in the swing of things since we’ve been off for a while, just to get our mindsets right. We’ve done a few things already. We did Japan. We did South Korea. We did Brazil. We did a couple weeks on the Warped Tour. We’re back in the right mindset again.

I think we’re going to be writing while we’re on this tour, messing around with ideas, and see what comes out. I know we’re not going to rush anything. It has to be right, or else it’s not really worth it to put out a record at this point. We definitely want to make another record, but we want to make sure it’s something that we’ll love and something that will represent us right.

Are you still on Epitaph or are you completely on your own now?

No, we are on our own at this point. It was just a two-record deal. They had the option for the third one, but since we’ve been off for two years they were like, “Yeah, we’ll just let you guys go and you can do whatever you want.” That’s why we’re going to do this 10-year anniversary record ourselves.

We had some opportunities to do it with other licensing companies and stuff, but we figured at this point with the resources we have just on the internet alone, it’s pretty easy because it’s just a thing for our fans. It’s not something we want to push worldwide, like try to go to radio with it or anything. We just want to celebrate it with our fans. There’s no need for a label at this point on this, but I’m sure we’ll be looking for a new home here in the future, if and when that new record gets written.

Well, I’ve loved you guys since Page Avenue and hopefully you continue to make many more records.

We definitely will try. We have no plans on ever stopping. It’s just music is weird. The business is weird [laughs].