Making Music About the Stuff That’s Going On in Your Brain: All Dogs and Punk’s New Sincerity

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It took them a few years, but last fall All Dogs finally released their debut full-length, Kicking Every Day. It’s a painfully sincere pop-punk record that’s not afraid to slow down; built on its sweet vocal harmonies rather than its chunky bar chords, it sounds deeply personal and bleeds emotion, even without its earnest lyrics. “Emo” might not mean anything anymore, but if you were to look for the spiritual progeny of that peak of ’90s earnestness, you could do worse than to start with All Dogs.

The band was born in Columbus, Ohio, a college town smack in the middle of one of the most Midwestern of our United States. The specter of State U (The Ohio State University) looms large; the regular influx of young people and cheap housing helped foster the DIY community that first drew Maryn Jones (guitar, lead vocals) to town. But while the band was born in Ohio, it was conceived in the house shows of the Boston DIY scene.

Jones was a student when she first met Jesse Withers (drums) at a house show in Allston, Massachussetts. She wasn’t even really aware that house shows were a thing — she had just showed up with a friend, looking for a party. But the allure of the environment was strong, and by the time she heard his band Delay cover Green Day, she was sold. They became fast friends; she’d go out to Columbus to hang, and road trip to Gainesville, Florida for The FEST. By the end of 2009, she was living in Ohio.

“I visited Ohio and was just really drawn to how sincere everything was and how excited everyone was to be doing what they were doing,” Jones says. “They weren’t the weird Boston punks who were jaded already before they actually did anything. I mean, it’s Boston, so you’ve got to be tough about everything.” She played in a band called Amelia with her then-partner, and frequented DIY spaces like The Monster House and the bastion that is the Legion of Doom. Like many DIY spaces, its time was fleeting, but influential. “It was only around for like four years, but it left such a mark for so many people, like myself.”

Jones, Withers, and bassist Amanda Bartley started All Dogs in 2012, and released its first cassette — a split with Ohio band Slouchy — in 2013. They added Nick Harris on guitar, even though he lived in South Philly. But as they grew, the scene in Columbus — or at least their place in it — began to shift. The Monster House wound down, and Jones found herself at fewer house show hangs and more bars and clubs. She started touring with Saintseneca, and when she would come home, the connection just wasn’t as strong. And the more friends they made in Philadelphia, the stronger they felt the pull. Bartley was the first to move; Jones expects to be there by the end of summer 2016.

“The house that I hang out at in West Philly, it feels like the Monster House sometimes,” Jones explains. “I think that’s why I’m really drawn to it. “Kyle [Gilbride] from Swearin’ lives there; Keith [Spencer] from Great Thunder lives there; and Jeff, who plays in Swearin’ and all those bands; and Cynthia [Schemmer] from Radiator Hospital…. It’s a cool vibe where everyone is kind of involved, but in different ways.” Gilbride’s involvement runs even deeper — he produced Kicking All Day, recorded in his basement studio Wherever Audio.

These bands are more than just homies. They’re representative of the new wave of sincerity that All Dogs benefit from: a safe space where feeling isn’t just allowed, it’s valued. All Dogs came of age in the post-irony, post-mainstream backlash era of emo and pop punk, where people aren’t ashamed to talk about how much they love Saves the Day or Thursday. And it’s not just Philly; the Western Mass scene has similar vibes, Frankie Cosmos and Car Seat Headrest birthed careers with earnest Bandcamp missives, and Beach Slang’s James Alex is a longtime torchbearer.

Jones’ other bands, Saintseneca and Yowler, are considerably more folk-influenced, and lyrically, she seems spiritually connected to Elliott Smith. “Growing up, my biggest influences were singer-songwriters, like Mira, Phil Elverum — you know, the big ones.” But sonically, All Dogs are rooted in ’90s indie, recalling the best of Braid or Heatmiser at their most upbeat, their songs driven by vocal melodies more than virtuosic pick work. Jones is a self-taught guitarist, and when she’s writing All Dogs songs, the instrument tends to take a backseat to the vocals. “I’ve played guitar since I was 14, but I’ve never learned the actual notes. I just kind of play,” she admits. “For me, vocal melodies are the most important part. I personally think that you can sing over anything, or at least that I can.”

One of the more promising aspects of the new emo and the resurgence of sincerity is the way they encourage us to talk about mental health. There’s no need for artifice; the songs can still mean whatever they want to anyone who listens, but they’re rarely happy. On Kicking All Day, Jones offers youthful perspectives on self-loathing (“I wanna be in the sides of your eyes/ When you’re looking for a reason to feel ashamed like me” from “Black Hole”), alienation (“What does that mean when they say stay away from me?” from “That Kind of Girl”), or even willful petulance (“Don’t you ever say that I’m wrong cause I won’t take it/ I will find a way to justify my pain/ I will cry, I will lie/ And I won’t be satisfied” from “Skin”). In 2016, it’s OK to be sad. “It’s not a weird, big stigma now,” Jones says. “People can feel comfortable saying, ‘Hey, I feel terrible.’ It’s people that make music about the stuff that’s going on in their brain.”

Jones can’t really write on tour, when she’s using most of her energy to preserve her mental health amid grueling van touring schedules. But when she’s home, the writing process is her catharsis. All the things going on in her head, the things she doesn’t talk about, the thing she’s still working out — they come out in the songs. It’s a way to put those parts of herself she’s uncomfortable with out on display. “When I figured out what I was writing about and what was coming out of me naturally, I [thought], wow, this is actually just one giant therapeutic thing for me,” she says. “For me, the album is actually just one big way for me to be like, ‘Here’s this! Take it or leave it!’ But getting there… It can literally be paralyzing. Creativity is so confusing.”

All Dogs have been split between Philly and Columbus for most of the band’s life, so Jones and Bartley living there might not change much. But it should be interesting to see how the new environment will influence them, as Jones plans to write more songs for a Kicking Every Day followup, as well as a Yowler record, and tour. And while they may never get as big as the legendary California three-piece, it’s fitting that the seeds of All Dogs were planted by a Green Day cover — these days, even Billie Joe is a fan.