Interview with vocalist/guitarist Matt Pryor | By Ben Sailer
The Get Up Kids have never been content to try the same thing twice. From their early genre-defining records like 1997’s Four Minute Mile and 1999’s Something To Write Home About to the alt-country influences on 2001’s On a Wire to the experimental synth-driven stylings of 2011’s There Are Rules, the only constant along the Kansas City, Missouri, band’s creative trajectory has been change.
Now, back with their first full-length record in eight years, Problems—out May 10 on Polyvinyl Records—they’ve combined a little bit of everything they’ve done before, presenting what is perhaps the most comprehensive vision of where they’re at to date. Vocalist and guitarist Matt Pryor offers his thoughts on Problems, why now is the perfect time for a new record, taking younger bands on tour, and more.
Was there anything in particular that made now the right time to get back together and write another record?
Nothing that deliberate. After the last record cycle, we took a break for a couple of years. [guitarist] Jim [Suptic] went back to school and [drummer] Ryan [Pope] moved to France. Everyone did other projects and stuff. We’d still get together once or twice a year if a festival got booked or something like that, and we’d always be talking about writing again and see how it goes. It was never off the table.
It took us a while to go from talking about it to—well, to get off the couch, really [laughs]. You know, talking about it and then actually putting it into motion. That’s going on two years ago at this point, of just like, “Hey, we should try this” or “Hey, we should record a couple of songs, see how it goes,” and “Hey, let’s find a record label” and all that kind of stuff. Anything takes time, you know? We never really had any intention of not doing it again—unless we got together and it sucked, but so far, I don’t think it has.
So, if it starts to suck, that’s the cut-off point?
That’s fair enough. So, you recorded the record in about a three-week span. Were the songs written in that space of time too or is that just how long it took to record?
We did a couple of pre-production sessions, one in February of  and one in May, where the guys who don’t live here [in Kansas City] came to town and we would just sort of see what—you know, Jim’s songs mostly, he’d come in with a complete song. A lot of the other ones would be like, “You got a part? OK, let’s build something out of that.” Then, we’d do a demo of that, and I would take it home and write lyrics to it.
So, when we went to [producer] Peter [Katis]’s and he had demos of everything, nothing was coming in completely blind. We didn’t really write much in the studio. We didn’t start any of them from scratch in the studio, which is what I think you’re asking about.
One thing that’s interesting about the creative trajectory of your band is that every record has felt a little bit different from the one that’s come before it while still sounding like a Get Up Kids record. With that in mind, what do you feel makes Problems unique from your previous work?
There’s a lot more clarity of intent with this record, as far as when we started making this record, what we wanted it to sound like was discussed early on. Whereas, on previous albums, we’d go in knowing more what we didn’t want to do and then working from there and being like, “OK, we don’t want to have this same thing that we did 10 times on the last record, so let’s not do that on this record and take that off the table completely.”
On this one, we were like, “Let’s not take anything off the table, but let’s challenge ourselves, and if it works, it works.” Don’t be like, “Oh, that’s too much of a ’90s emo thing” just because, even if it works as a song. “Let’s not be afraid of that. Let’s not get in the way of our own process by overthinking it.”
Musically, I think that there’s the entire span of our catalog in this record. Like, there’s bits and pieces of weird shit and there’s bits and pieces of Americana and there’s bits and pieces of drum machines, then there’s also ripping guitar solos and big, big guitars in some songs. There’s a little bit of everything. It feels like the most comprehensive—when we were done with it, we were kind of like, “Well, you know, if you can’t find something on this record that you like, then you’re just not into our band, and we just have to accept that fact, because it’s an amalgamation of all the different kinds of things that we’ve tried over the years.”
That’s how I interpret it, anyway.
Given that the record is so comprehensive and offers a complete vision of where you’re at musically, were there any riffs or ideas that did get cut—not necessarily because they were things that you’d outright reject, but because you just determined, “That’s too far out there. That’s not us”?
There’s this weird, and I don’t even know if anyone remembers this, but this kind of really weird synth intro in a song on the record called “Waking Up Alone” that is kind of like—when I’m showing that to people, I’m like, “This is what happens when you let [keyboardist] James Dewees play with all of the analog synthesizers in the studio.” Because he’s just a fucking wizard with it. But he ended up writing this synth part, and then he was like, “OK, let me add a harmony on it,” and then, “Let me add a third harmony on it,” and by the end of it, it sounded like 8-bit “Super Mario Bros.” there were so many harmonies on it. It was kind of like, “Yeah, that’s too far.” [Laughs]
We kept one lick that has all of that stuff on it in the song, and it’s kind of buried by guitars and stuff, but it’s still there. Consider it an Easter egg if you will.
There’s also a couple of things in there that were kind of silly or dumb that just stayed. There’s one where James was doing his backup vocals, and he was doing his impression of Dr. Teeth from the Muppets band, and so he’s like, “OH YEAH!” [Laughs] We never told Peter to take it out when we sent him the stuff to mix, and he just mixed it in, so it’s still in the song. You can’t hear it unless you’re listening for it. There are little things like that that kind of keep it interesting.
But for the most part, the general rule was, “If it works, it works,” [whereas] our previous records would be very much so, “Oh, we’re not doing that.”
When did you make the conscious decision to be like, “We’re not going to say that things are off the table” in the same way that you would have in the past?
I don’t think we made that decision in the beginning. I think that was a decision we came to in the process. It was the EP that we put out last year, [Kicker], because we’d start working on something and somebody would be like, “Play it faster,” and it was like, “Oh, OK,” and we’d play it faster, and it’d like, “That sounds better.”
I guess we did try some things. There was a couple of emo half-time breakdown things that we didn’t end up doing. But it evolved that way, and I don’t know if it was totally conscious, but what was conscious was that we knew in the beginning that we wanted to make a rock record. We wanted to specifically be like, “This is a rock record.” It’s not an experimental record. It’s a hard thing to quantify.
In the press materials for Problems, there’s a quote where you mention how you sometimes feel isolated or alone even when you’re playing shows and you’re surrounded by hundreds of people. Is that a phenomenon you’ve always felt as a performer? How do you cope with that feeling?
Well, hindsight being 20/20, yes, that’s something I’ve always dealt with. I didn’t recognize it as being an actual anxiety until the last couple of years [when] I really learned what anxiety was, and then I was like, “Oh, I definitely get that.” Looking back on it over the years, I definitely have always had that—and you know, I’ve pretty much dealt with it by drinking. [Laughs]
The way my anxiety manifests itself, it passes fairly quickly. You have to flip this switch when you walk onstage to be like, “OK, it does not matter how I feel. It does not matter if I have the flu or if I’m having a panic attack, these people paid to see me perform and they’re gonna go home happy.” That work ethic kicks in that overrides the anxiety at least for the duration of the set. Then, sometimes, it comes back, but usually, you’re hopped up on endorphins by that point.
I realize that my stuff is triggered by anticipation, and waiting to go onstage is really stressful for me. Once I’m onstage, it’s fine.
I saw you play in St. Paul, [Minnesota], last November—
Yeah! That show was awesome.
Yeah, that show was fun as fuck. I got a hoodie from that place. That was so much fun.
Nice. I’m trying to remember the name of the opening band. They were super good. Was it Retirement Party?
Yeah. Yeah, Retirement Party. Wait, was that who was on that run? It was Remember Sports on that run.
Okay, this is really bad. See, I get both of those bands mixed up because the names are so similar.
That was Remember Sports. Retirement Party was with us out on the East Coast.
Both phenomenal bands.
Yeah, they’re both great.
Watching them and then watching you was like, “This band is pretty young, but it all feels like it belongs.” It was striking how much there didn’t seem to be a generational divide between the two bands. How do you feel about touring with younger bands? Do you feel like everything is part of one scene or do you see there being a divide between the older crowd and the younger crowd?
When you talk about things like scenes, we collectively never—even though we did associate with certain people, we never felt we were a part of a scene necessarily. Mainly because we’re not from a part of the country that has a really strong punk rock community, you know what I mean? I feel like we were isolated in that regard, and so we’ve always been like, “Well, there’s us, and then there’s the rest of the world.”
It sounds selfish, but to your point, I don’t really see us from a scene perspective. That doesn’t really move the needle for me at all. What I do really like—and I definitely went through a period where I did not like a lot of younger bands, maybe going on 10 years ago now, and I’ve kind of had an awakening to it. It was also when my daughter started showing me the music that she and her friends are listening to and the bands that they were playing with that I was like, “Oh, this totally makes sense to me.”
I feel very excited by that, and I feel rejuvenated by it to a certain degree. Not to say that I’m drinking the blood of the young to stay alive [laughs], but it is kind of like, “Oh yeah, this makes me stoked, and this makes me want to go out and do what I do.”
We’ve always been in favor of using our shows as a platform to promote bands that we like and bands that we’re friends with, and, even more so now, I like being able to promote bands that have a different perspective than we might: people coming from a femme place or a person of color or not just three bands of straight white guys. It feels like we’re in a time right now where that’s really where the good stuff is to a certain degree. That’s what’s moving me right now anyway. I really like it.
The band that’s going on tour with us in July is this band Great Grandpa that my daughter turned me onto. For the longest time, whenever we would get submissions for openers, I’d look at that list and I’d be like, “I don’t have any idea who any of these fucking people are.” [Laughs] Now, I’m the one who’s like, “Oh yeah, they’re rad. We should take them out.” It brings me a lot of joy, for lack of a better word. I don’t know why I had to say for lack of a better word choice. Joy is a perfectly good word.
Elsewhere in the press release, there’s a quote that says part of the reason you got back together to write new songs, or the reason that you would ever get together to write songs, is because you have something to say about the present moment in time. Did you mean that in a personal sense, in a political sense, or maybe both?
Well, the record’s called Problems, so there’s that. There’s nothing overtly political. Like, there’s no “fuck Trump” songs on the record, but I wouldn’t be opposed to it. So, I would say there’s more personal politics and personal things to say. I don’t know if I totally like that quote. Am I the one who said it? Or did Jim?
You know what, I can’t remember.
I think I said it.
You’re both quoted in there somewhere.
The way that it reads, it’s not untrue, but the way that it reads, it sounds like I’m being very profound about my opinion. Like, “Well, I really feel like the world needed my—” you know? My humble Midwestern sensibilities won’t allow me to sound that arrogant.
Yes, we do have something to say, but we always have something to say. Everybody always does. It wasn’t like I woke up with this declaration in my head and was like, “We need to do this now. Now is the time,” or something like that. That’s what that quote makes me think of, like “Hamilton” or something. [Laughs]
The Get Up Kids, Problems, the “Hamilton” of emo rock ’n’ roll.
No, no, don’t do that. [Laughs]
No, I would never make that claim. [Laughs]
If only it was that successful.
Selling out shows for months at a time in New York?
Yeah, I’d be fine with that.
It could happen. This could be the record.
I would not turn down that “Hamilton” success money.
Good, just so long as we’re clear on that. So, when you’ve played the new songs live, does it seem like the older fans are into the new stuff as much as the old songs? And is the energy around Problems and Kicker pulling in younger fans who might be coming out to hear your new stuff as well?
To answer the first part of the question, I’ve had several people on several different occasions when we toured last summer on the EP—because we’ve only played a couple of the album songs live, and it’s kind of hard to judge. It’s not the best barometer of the fanbase. But last year, when we’d play new songs from the EP, we played all four songs every night, and multiple people would be like, “I love the way the new stuff just fits in. You’ll go from a song that’s 20 years old into something off the EP, and it doesn’t feel like, ‘Oh, here’s a new one.’” You know what I mean? It blends really well.
So, that’s positive. That’s a positive response that I get. A lot of people heard our first couple records at a particular time in their life and they associate them with it, so I don’t know if they’re going to like anything we do as much as those [laughs]. So, I hope that answers the first part of that question.
The second part, as far as younger fans go, I don’t know if we’ve had all older scene folks anymore. I think its three things: One, people who either had older siblings or their parents were into our band. Two, people who are interested in some of the newer bands that have cited us as an influence and then they go backwards from there. Then, [three], people who are interested in new music and don’t care if the band is their same age group. It seems to be a good mix, actually. It seems to be a good blend. It’s not all parents who are our age.
Not everyone’s calling a babysitter.
Yeah, and that’s always the joke. If we’re having a really great show and we’ll put more songs on the encore, it’s like, “Nah, man, these guys gotta get home. They’ve gotta pay their babysitter.” [Laughs] No one wants to watch a three-hour set.
Until you get that sell-out “Hamilton” business going.
Right, right, right. Then, the sky’s the limit. We could do whatever we want.