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What-ifs are a dangerous prospect. The dream-like hypotheticals project alternate histories like, "What if Kurt Cobain hadn't died?" and attempt to derail reality for something "better."
I was at a mighty fine BBQ joint in Chantilly, Va., with brothers Mike (guitar) and Chris Taylor (vocals) when Mike dropped a huge what-if on me about 30 minutes into some pre-interview chit-chat: Right before pg. 99 broke up in 2003, the band was booked to record with Shellac's Steve Albini. For five years, pg. 99 (also spelled as "pageninetynine") spewed some of the most chaotic, creative and rebellious punk rock from its base in Sterling, Va. For a moment, it was hard not to dream up how Albini would have captured pg. 99's textured fury, especially after the band's defining 2001 album, Document #8.
This coming Friday, pg. 99 will reunite to perform Document #8 in its entirety to a sold-out crowd at the Best Friends Day Festival in Richmond, Va. And, on August 27 at the Black Cat in Washington, D.C., pg. 99 will perform another sold-out show with the Baton Rouge sludge-metal masters in Thou, plus Circle Takes the Square, a kindred band who once shared a split 7-inch record with pg. 99 and is currently recording its first album in seven years. Both shows coincide with a couple of vinyl reissues out now on Robotic Empire.
During its first run, pg. 99 would feature six to 14 members at any given time, and when talk of the reunion first began, Chris Taylor said, "If we come back, we have to have three guitar players. We have to make it as absurd as it used to be." At both reunion shows, eight people will cram onstage with Pygmy Lush guitarist Mike Whitman (who also joined us at Willard's BBQ) as the newest member.
Now, it's not as if Chris and Mike Taylor have stopped making music. In the last four years, they've focused their energy on Pygmy Lush, a dark folk-pop band whose punk roots seep through. But the timing of this reunion couldn't be better. After almost a decade of streamlined screamo (a tag that most bands dislike, but which has been attached to pg. 99), there's a renewed interest in the emotional post-hardcore that bands like pg. 99, Orchid, Circle Takes the Square and Majority Rule pioneered, mostly by an audience that was far too young to hear it the first time around.
As we finished up our pulled-pork sandwiches and collard greens, the three of us got into an hour-long conversation about growing older, if pg. 99 would ever consider recording again, and the rejuvenation of a spirit that faded away — including this bit from Chris Taylor just before the digital recorder ran out of space: "The part of being in pg. 99 that I took for granted, but never knew was there, was how young and energetic and basically unstoppable our motivation was."
It's been about 10 years since Document #8 came out. I've been thinking a lot about reunion shows lately because so many bands from 20, 15, even 10 years ago are getting back together. Some of them turn out really great and some — it doesn't really matter that the band reunited. I think about Pavement. I was really excited to see Pavement, and it was one of the most soulless shows I've ever seen in my life. But then again, I saw Frodus' "secret" reunion show, a band I didn't get to see back in the day, and it as if Frodus just picked up where it left off and raged on. When I asked [frontman and guitarist] Shelby Cinca about it, he told me, to paraphrase, "The reason that I'm doing this is because all the stuff I was writing about 10, 12 years ago is coming true."
Chris Taylor: Total Shelby.
But at the time, it was true! Banks were failing and being bailed out, corporations were getting away with white-collar crimes — he had a reason to scream these songs again, which I thought was interesting. And I was wondering: What brought back pg. 99? Do the things you're screaming about still have relevance to you now? Does the music you play still have relevancy to you now?
Mike Taylor: That's a pretty interesting question. Yeah, pg. 99, musically, still has a lot of relevance to me. When we got together to rehash these songs, it's similar to what Pygmy Lush is doing with our loud, aggressive punk music. The main writers for pg. 99 are still the main writers in Pygmy Lush. When we went back and revisited those songs, it kinda blew me away. The only thing that's different is that they're a little faster. Hearing those songs at that volume got me just as excited as I remember hearing them for the first time.
Oh, at the end of pg. 99 sets, there would be all of the members on the floor, a pile of people. Mayhem.Mike Whitman
To me, that band is kinda my baby. Those songs were a complete expression of picking up a guitar and not knowing what I was doing — "This is a Dazzling Killmen riff" or "This is a Born Against riff" — and just throwing it together. That was my first crack of playing punk music. To this day, I'm still trying to shape... it's an extended project, and I'm still trying to shape those songs. Going back and hearing them, there's a primal, raw nature of that band that only that band can generate for me.
CT: You talk about Shelby [Cinca] and how he wrote about stuff. We wrote about stuff and had these internal ideas that never got completely articulated through lyrics. But the idea was like a giant field trip of friends playing punk rock and making something out of nothing. That's what we were all about, even if the lyrics didn't say so.
[Getting pg. 99 back together] has been a joke for the longest time. But the last time [Mike Taylor] asked me, it seemed to make a whole s---load of sense. I've spent most of my life playing music. I'm in my 30s, so at some point recently, I started taking more ownership for my life's endeavors.
MT: The day the reunion was announced was the exact same day that we announced our breakup nine years earlier.
Forgive the term, but I've been watching the screamo scene change a lot in the last 10 years. There used to be more creative bands like Circle Takes the Square and City of Caterpillar. And then it took this route where screamo got really streamlined and unrecognizable to the point where someone hilariously invented the term "skramz" to distinguish the first wave of screamo bands. And it caught on!
MT: [Laughs.] Yeah, Chris was telling me about it.
CT: I screech for a skramz band.
Have you guys paid attention to how screamo has changed?
CT: Someone sent me an email a while ago to this website called Your Scene Sucks and there's this token dude labeled "skramz revivalist."
MT: And he's wearing a pg. 99 shirt!
CT: And my friend's like, "You've made it!" And I'm like, "What is this?"
MT: That's when we got cued in. That was what? Two years ago?
CT: We never liked that whole screamo thing. Even during our existence, we tried to venture away from the fashion and tell people, "Hey, this is punk."
There are all these really young kids — like 18-, 19-year-olds — forming "skramz" bands that sound like Circle Takes the Square, Indian Summer and pg. 99. Are you guys clued into any of these bands?
MT: Just recently, Eric [Kane], who's the drummer in Strike Anywhere, joined Pygmy Lush, and when we started talking about this show, he's the one who started cuing us into all of these bands. I had no idea. Bands like Touché Amoré.
I really love Touché Amoré's new album.
MT: I saw them open for Converge last year and they must have had a bad night — an amp fried. But Eric backed them up: "They're just young kids who have good taste. They like all that old stuff — the good stuff." Pygmy Lush just played with Pianos Become Teeth and they sound like Envy. If that's what's happening now, it's better than the junk we started seeing at the end of pg. 99. We saw a hundred of 'em that just didn't know how to play.
I felt like it was good at the time when we were doing it. But when bands like Orchid and City of Caterpillar starting breaking up, I just felt like that whole scene died. It was too quick for people to catch on to. I feel like it happened in the existence of our band, maybe five years. And then it was just gone.
These 18-year-old fans now were obviously not old enough to have even heard of you guys while you were active. This is the first generation of kids that grew up their whole lives with the Internet. When I was 16, I used to hang out on message boards as soon as we got the Internet in our house. That's how I discovered emo and a bunch of hardcore bands. Now there's unlimited access and information. You can essentially bring back anything. And hearing bands that look back while looking forward like Touché Amoré — it makes me feel like I'm 18 again. It's incredibly youthful. It reminds me of when I still had hopes and dreams.
But then it reminds me that I still have them. Do you feed off that energy — that a new generation looks to your sound, but wants to do their own thing, too?
MT: That was always a huge thing for pg. 99: audience participation. It's the crowd that gave pg. 99 its delivery. The audience and pg. 99 fed off each other, and I'm hoping that it happens with these shows. We met these kids. Everywhere on this Pygmy Lush tour back in the spring, every night, kids would say, "I'll see you in August." I know that some bands are booking their tours just to be there.
The idea was like a giant field trip of friends playing punk rock and making something out of nothing.Chris Taylor
CT: I think we're ready to listen to that sound again. We've broken away from it. You spend most of your 20s yelling and screaming and have people yelling at you. Even if they're just in what they're doing, it gets tiresome after a while. We've been so mellow for half a decade, so seeing Capsule and other righteous bands on our past tour, we're ready again. If you have that energy and you're 35, you can screech your ass off. But if you're as tired as I am, you don't have the energy for it or even listen to it. But I've been so rejuvenated.
MT: The idea of a whole new, young crowd being into it and older friends coming to celebrate it — that sounds like a really good time to me.
It's essentially bringing together two different communities in one space. And it's serendipitous, because your old mates in Circle Takes the Square are recording again.
CT: They were one of the last of that ilk.
MT: And I think they brought people to pg. 99. I was just talking to Drew [Speziale] about [CTTS' new album] and he's all excited. He's been meticulously going over songs.
Is that something you would ever consider? Recording as pg. 99 again?
CT: We have that outlet with Pygmy Lush. The only reason to realistically do that is being an old fogey and not making any money and being like, "This could make us some money." I wouldn't do that, but Mike would definitely do that before I would.
It's the crowd that gave pg. 99 its delivery.Mike Taylor
MT: Yeah, I would before he would, but when I think about it, Chris is right. We have the same outlet. When Pygmy Lush plays loud, it's essentially the same thing, if not better at times. But what pg. 99 always had on any of the bands that we've done is delivery and audience participation. Not just craziness, but the feeling, the vibe. Mike [Whitman] can attest to this, because Mike wasn't in the band the whole time, but he was on those tours. It's definitely different playing in Pygmy Lush than it is pg. 99.
Mike Whitman: Oh, at the end of pg. 99 sets, there would be all of the members on the floor, a pile of people. Mayhem.
MT: It would be vanity [to record as pg. 99 again]. There are four members of pg. 99 that play in Pygmy Lush. "Here's our alter-ego. We're the exact same people as Pygmy Lush, but now we're gonna write this music for this band that hasn't done anything in 10 years." If there's any one person, I could push it along, but I see less of a point for it to happen.
The thing I feel like I would be interested in investing with this band [would be] learning some more songs and doing something small. We've all halfway hoped that Envy would see that we're together and ask us to tour Japan.
CT: I keep it open as a possibility for opportunities.
MW: You can play shows for people who never saw you.
CT: Yeah, and that's a thought that lingers. I know it doesn't need to happen, because there a s---load of people who love Born Against but will never see 'em.
If you have that energy and you're 35, you can screech your ass off. But if you're as tired as I am, you don't have the energy for it or even listen to it. But I've been so rejuvenated.Chris Taylor
CT: But if Born Against did play, would we like 'em? Would it be the same because we're older and all of our anger is a little diffused? It's funny how much thought goes into the relevance of a funny high-school hardcore band. But you get this old and you put that much time into it...
MT: I still cannot believe that people still care about those old pg. 99 records. I didn't think it would happen. And the fact that it has is overwhelming and awesome. To be honest, we're much better than we were at the end. We have better equipment, we're better musicians, we don't all pass one tuner down the line during a live set.
CT: I mean, you talk about tuners and better equipment, but we should be talking about [being] reckless and energetic like we were back in the day. It was one giant circus. But if we got back together like Melvins or Unsane and were just locked tight and didn't move...
MT: But it would be sweet if we sounded like Unsane.
CT: I like watching Unsane, but it's not that same vibe. Everything hits on the exact accent. We tried being like that.
MT: But if you throw that many instruments into one little... it's not gonna be that good. [Laughs.] When we got together and played, we definitely had to hone it in. It's not gonna be perfect. There's no way it's gonna be perfect. That's too much sound.
By the way, why were there so many members of pg. 99?
MT: I think because we had so many friends. [Laughs.] Who was first third guitar player?
MT: And why'd we do that?
CT: Basically, anybody who played guitar who was hanging out at time. I remember Mike used to sit in the basement and be like, "What do you think about so-and-so joining?" And then you'd talk about another bass player.
MT: As it is, trying to figure out Document #8 again on the bass is nearly impossible. There are all these opposing bass lines that are actually really neat.
That's the cool thing about listening to pg. 99 chronologically. You started out as this scrappy punk band and evolved into a chaotic but intensely energetic force. Did all of these parts force you to experiment further?
MT: Definitely. And toward the end, I was really hoping to go somewhere with that stuff. More orchestral, starting to use those guitar players for different parts. The only times we used all of the members were the heavy parts where we all played the same thing, then branched off for more melodic stuff. In the beginning, I just wrote most of the stuff, but [as] more people were starting to write. It started getting more interesting. We were referencing Sonic Youth like crazy on that last record. It could've gone anywhere.