Bright Black Reluctantly Embrace the ‘E’ Word
It’s a lonely existence being an emo band in Milwaukee. Although the city was one of the creative hubs for the genre during its ’90s incarnations, emo hasn’t had much of a presence here since the ’00s, when bands like Fall Out Boy and their Fueled By Ramen peers took the genre out of the underground and dropped it into shopping malls. And while the stigma surrounding emo has waned considerably over the last few years, that doesn’t mean the city has embraced it. Even as emo revival bands outside the city like The Hotelier and The World Is a Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid to Die are doing their part to reclaim the genre, making the case that the term need not be a dirty word, Milwaukee has shown little interest in the trend.
And so guitarist Josh Paynter pauses a bit before describing his band Bright Black as emo. “I would loosely just call us something generic like indie rock or post-hardcore,” Paynter says, which is fair. But between Paynter’s sharp, slightly dancey pop-punk riffs and singer Jason Locklear’s expressive, sometimes biting whine, Bright Black is post-hardcore in the same way that Taking Back Sunday is post-hardcore. Which is to say they’re emo.
“We’ve jokingly started calling ourselves fourth wave emo,” Paynter says, though even that term has unintended connotations, since it aligns them with an emo revival movement they haven’t particularly followed. Paynter says he does like Hotelier, from what he’s heard, but says he doesn’t listen to all that much of them, and to bear that out, he isn’t completely sure how to pronounce their name.
“Really, we have our own individual influences; I talk a lot about being influenced by Fugazi and Descendants and bands like that,” Paynter says. “Fugazi is one of my all-time favorite bands. I don’t know how much that comes through in my guitar playing style, but it’s something I consciously look to. And when we started the band, I was listening to a lot of Vagrant Records—bands like Saves The Day, Rocket From the Crypt, and anything that was on that label or the samplers they send out.”
Released online in August, Bright Black’s self-titled debut EP makes the case for how fresh those influences can still sound, and offers a heavier alternative to the more upbeat, indie-oriented acts that are driving the emo revival. Paynter says the band hasn’t quite figured out how to pitch themselves in a city that’s not only deeply leery of emo, but, as he sees it, not even all that hyped about any kind of rock music right now.
“I’ve been on the other side of the curtain with another band I’m in, No No Yeah Okay,” Paynter says. “And in that band, we’ve experienced total embracement. We play these great bills and these packed shows, and I think largely that has to do with the singer in that group, Colin [Plant], because of his connections to the Milwaukee hip-hop scene, which is always thriving. We end up on these mixed-genre bills where we play with hip-hop groups, and it’s a nice complement for them to be playing with this hip-hop soul band. I feel like that kind of music is doing better around here right now than rock.”
But Paynter says that he understands that like any band, regardless of genre, Bright Black needs to prove itself.
“I feel like there’s kind of a peer critique that happens in Milwaukee,” he says. “If there’s a band that can play shows and festivals in Milwaukee and fill a room, they’re going to be apprehensive about playing with you. They’re going to want to check you out first. So I feel like, since we’re so new, we have to still give the right people the chance to hear us or see us live and decide, ‘OK, we want to play shows with this band.’”
Bright Black’s EP is streaming at wearebrightblack.bandcamp.com. The band plays a show on Friday, Sept. 23 at Circle-A Café with the Wastrels at 8 p.m.