Interview: Tom Mullen

Tom Mullen

This past week, I was able to have an enlightening conversation with Tom Mullen (of the Washed Up Emo podcast) ahead of him releasing the next Anthology of Emo book. In this interview, Tom and I chatted about what the word “emo” means to him today, the process he goes through for preparing for an interview or podcast, and vivid memories Tom has of experiencing emo culture. As much as I know about emo and punk music, Tom Mullen puts my knowledge to shame with his expansive understanding and first-hand experience of the scene, and I learned a great deal from just a short conversation with him.

The first volume of Anthology of Emo was wildly successful and it sold out its initial run of physical copies. Volume Two features exclusive interviews from his Washed Up Emo podcasts with artists such as Jim Adkins from Jimmy Eat World and Chris Conley from Saves the Day, among many others. Both Volume One (reprinted) and Volume Two are available for pre-order here.

Thank you for your time today, Tom, and congrats on the upcoming release of your new book Anthology of Emo: Volume Two. So, why did you decide to continue on this path of exploring emo music?

I’ve been a fan and also been of this music for a very, very long time and been doing the website Washed Up Emo since 2007. And so I’ve been working at punk and hardcore labels through the years and major labels and always love that I had those outlets. And so the book came into fruition three years ago because I had all these interviews from the podcast, and I realized, “hey, this would be really cool as a book” and I just tried it. I self-published, did it on my own. A couple friends helped at Polyvinyl Records and then it did really well. It’s sold out in six months and it was a ”try and see what happens” and I realized a lot of people like to read and to have a physical piece of these interviews that I did for the podcast.

Nice! So based on the success of your first volume, what expectations did you set for yourself on this next chapter or volume 2?

The goal of this is to make enough money that I can do another one. So the money that I made from the last one is being put back into making the second one. The expectation is I hope more people find out about it, more people look into the word and realize that it’s maybe not the bands that they knew about in high school, or college, or growing up or maybe there’s other bands. Maybe there’s another subset of this genre that they can learn about.

Sounds like a solid plan. So this series also features interviews with the artists such as Jim Adkins from Jimmy Eat World. Also, Chris Conley from Saves the Day, so how do you narrow down the artists you wanted to work with for this collection?

Well, they’re all from the podcast. So I had basically 170-plus interviews from the last decade. I looked at which one’s kind of I really liked or which ones I thought went together or a special interview that I think people should know about, or an unknown or an underground artist. So I tried to get a bigger artist like you mentioned, Jim Adkins, we talked two years ago. I thought that was a great interview and then having someone like Geoff Farina from Karate a lot of people know about and reference them. Someone might read it for Jim Adkins and then find Geoff Farina. Another one, Jon Bunch, that was a very, very special one, because it was his last ever interview. So sad. It’s an important one for me because it’s his last official words.  I asked his family if this was okay, and I heard back from his wife, and she said I can’t wait to give it to his son. So that to me is like that’s important. So it’s a balance of unknown and important ones for the culture and the history and then really famous people for some people to pick it up. (Laughter)

Yeah, you have to strike that balance sometimes! So what is your approach for preparing for either a podcast for an interview? I know every person approaches their interviews in a different way, so, what’s your approach?

I like that you asked that question because I think about it a lot and I’ve been doing interviews since college. I’m comfortable and I try to remember that I’m working for them. You know, I’m interviewing them. Sure, I want them to be my friend. Yes. But I’m there to work. I’m there to be making sure that their story gets across so I do a lot of research. I look at what hasn’t been asked. I think about correlations, I think about what about their life and what are the connections that haven’t been told in an interview somewhere else or that they’ve never talked about. And a lot of times they haven’t talked about things that I bring up and so yeah, I do a lot of research and there’s more than just research. I went to the shows. I was at the venue, I was at their tours and so more of instead of just book smarts or Internet smarts. I was actually there to pull from memories, or a friend to remind me so as you probably know, you can kind of forget stuff over time. So it’s fun to have friends help me to remember.

So that’s a pretty cool approach. I kind of approach it a similar way when I interview bands, other artists and authors and things like that along the same way of looking at what hasn’t been asked before, because I think it’s going to get somebody to want to read your stuff anyway.

Yeah, and what I found is people or bands be like “you know, I never thought about it like that!” I found out that someone was super in basketball. And so I had all these basketball questions. So I’m able to speak eloquently on it other than just asking “who is your favorite team,” to get deeper on it. So I think that shows that you’ve done research, or you have a conversation. And one of the best compliments I got was early on and when I started the podcast from AV Club, I’m not going to get it verbatim, but it was basically like, “he’s nerding out for you, the listener, but keeping it cool.” So I feel like that’s my secret weapon. I’m nerding out talking to my favorite artist, but I’m gonna keep it cool! (Laughter)

That’s nice! So is there a certain quote from an artist that you really admire that stood out to you in hindsight as you compiled this collection?

Definitely the ones from Jon Bunch, Eric Richter….Leslie Simon, who used to write for Alternative Press. Some of her quotes were great as I was editing the book. Like, “oh my god, like she’s grilling me.” She’s giving me shit, and like I love that interplay. Conor Murphy from Foxing. I was one of the first one to premiere a song by them on Washed Up Emo and it was amazing to have him on and for him to talk about the scene. I loved that it was from his perspective. Enough about people my age. I want to talk to people that are younger and see what they think. So for him to give some quotes, be very well spoken was very, very awesome to have too. 

So what lessons did you actually learn from the process of compiling Volume One that you carried into this book.

What the hell did I learn? …Editing! I noticed all these typos when the book first came out. And I was like, “oh my God! I spelled that wrong, or I missed that comma.” So I’ve gone through Volume Two four or five times, and I’ve had other friends go through for me and editors and already re-edited Volume One. So for me, I learned that I needed to really edit and look more at that. And also really look at the stories and the quotes and just spend more time. I was excited and rushing for Volume One, so for Volume Two I took more time.

And what is your process for actually editing besides obviously proofreading, making sure it all flows… What is your process for that?

I’m kind of doing it when I do the interview. If I was interviewing you right now like in my mind, I’m already pulling quotes. I’m already writing down notes or realizing, “like okay that passage works, let’s take that out.” Editing while I’m interviewing and then when I’m editing the podcast in audio form, I’m doing it as well. I’m sitting there being like we talked about the same thing for five minutes. Let’s make that one minute. How can I make this more succinct? I’m editing for audio mostly and it’s totally different editing for text. 

Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. I mean we go through that all the time editing interviews or editing articles, whatever that the format tends to be. That’s a good point.

Exactly, you’re doing this on your iPad. You’re going to hear it all and be like, “Okay, Tom kind of said the same thing twice, that’s one sentence.” I love that, because as a reader, I’m appreciating that.

So the latest book features a nice forward by Luke O’Neil. What made you choose him as the person to open this book with?

Luke and I met because I’ve been doing DJ nights for almost nine years in New York City. And Luke and I kind of connected early on because he’s in Boston, and I loved his writing and so we connected on Twitter and became friends and he said he’d come down to DJ with us. Sometimes we help each other. So when it came time to think about who would be a great person to write a foreword, Luke was on the top of the list because he gets it. He knows there’s a long history of emo and it’s not just, the popular bands that were on the radio or MTV and he’s excited to kind of get people stoked on the new school. So he was the perfect person. 

What was the process you went through for choosing the actual photographs that made the cut for this volume?

The photographs are hard because you have to get the rights cleared, you have to get the person to agree. I have a small budget, so I had to ask a lot of friends for photos and for flyers and such. Bands have been really helpful because they have photos too. I’m a collector and a curator for Washed Up Emo, so I had a bunch of stuff that I went through but it was hard to choose. Like I had a battle with the designer of the book almost two weeks ago about one photo. And so I think it’s a battle of getting the big group of them and which one makes the most sense. Then does it work within the book. So that was a lot of rounds of figuring out what helps tell the story. But for me it was hard because I had so many. It’s kind of like you know when someone asks you, what’s your favorite album? You have to pick one!

So the last question I have for you today is what does the word “emo” mean to you today?

Mean to me today…It means a lot of genres, a lot of eras, a lot of history, and that’s always been my goal. Is that when someone hears “emo” in Times Square or Hollywood Boulevard or the middle of nowhere, they’re not just thinking about the popular bands: Fall Out Boy, My Chemical Romance, or one of those bigger ones. They are also thinking of Rites to Spring in the 80’s, and they’re thinking about Foxing and Hotelier. I want it to be a catalyst for learning about emo music. Not that I was into emo for two years and I moved on and it was nostalgic. I want it to be something deeper. So that’s what it means to me. Emo means a longer history than what’s perceived today by the public.

That was a great answer.

It’s hard, because again, I’m not a gatekeeper. I don’t care what the genre is, I love Taking Back Sunday. Like I love all those bands, but I also think you need to dig deeper and realize that there’s shit before it and there’s stuff after it. And I think that’s been the hardest thing about it. That’s why it means so much to me, is that I want someone later when they say the word, there’s not a snicker. There’s not a snide comment. It’s respectable. I mean that’s why the book looks like an encyclopedia. It’s not a joke, and I hope the emo is not a joke at some point in the future. 

That’s a great point. I mean the fact that there are sometimes connotations towards the word that maybe not everyone agrees with, or bands kind of push back against it. It’s good to start that discussion with people.

Bands like Fugazi, and Rites to Spring, Guy Picciotto talked about it extensively. I’m going to hopefully have him in the third volume, and he’s at peace with the word emo. And I think fans should be. I don’t think there is another word that people or bands run from faster. And I hope one day that people don’t. I hope that they realize that there’s a history to it instead of running from it. Because the mainstream public thinks: white belt, tight pants, black hair. And there’s so much more to it than that. There’s a much bigger story than that…

That’s great. So thank you so much for your time. Yeah, so you mentioned Fugazi, they are pretty big in the DC music scene where I’m at.

Fuck yeah, they are! Do you still live close to there?

I live in Silver Spring, Maryland. Unless you’ve ever been to the Fillmore in Silver Spring? I’m like 10 minutes down the road from there. Otherwise, I’m a frequent visitor of the 9:30 Club when it was open, before all this madness, and all that. 

I’ve been to the 9:30 Club many times. So in college, and when I go home with him for breaks and stuff, we’d always be hanging out and go to venues like that. What a great place to grow up man. You’re lucky man.

Most of the show’s I went to in college. I’m 37 now, so a couple of years removed from that (Laughter). The fact that I was able to grow up with a rich music scene was very important for me.

You’re lucky!

Cool, best of luck to you, and I wish you nothing but the best moving forward on this publication.

Thanks, Adam!