A funny thing happened in the early 2000s: Long Island became cool.
Forget Seattle, San Francisco, New York City or even London. If you were an angst-ridden teenager living in Nassau or Suffolk, one of the hottest music scenes in the country was happening right in your backyard. The sound was unusual: hardcore punk, yet melodic and emotionally vulnerable. Music snobs dubbed it “emocore,” later shortened to emo — a name that stuck. Nearly every night there seemed to be an emo show in the area, whether at The Downtown in Farmingdale, Back Street Blues in Rockville Centre or just a basement in your friend’s house. Nearly every day a new band formed, and thanks to CD demos passed from hand to hand — or tracks uploaded to that supercool new website, Myspace — you and your friends instantly knew every word of every song.
Like so many music scenes, it slowly simmered — then exploded. One minute, Brand New was just a band from Merrick with a regional fan base; the next, they were signed to Interscope Records. Amityville’s Taking Back Sunday went from playing obscure venues like The Sahara in Syosset to appearing on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.” In 2003, both those bands — plus Glassjaw — joined the Warped Tour, the legendary traveling punk festival, bringing the Long Island sound to millions of kids across the country.
If you remember any of this, you’ve probably asked yourself: “Was that really 20 years ago?” Yes, but the music still echoes. A massive festival in Las Vegas, scheduled for October, features dozens of emo bands under the nostalgic title When We Were Young. On that bill is Taking Back Sunday, whose landmark 2002 album “Tell All Your Friends,” is being reissued May 27 in deluxe CD and LP formats. Glassjaw is back on tour, and in March played two “20+ Anniversaries” shows at The Paramount in Huntington.
“The songs really became a part of our childhood, our teenage years. They’re still very relevant,” said Melody Butler, a 35-year-old fan in Lindenhurst. “When you think of the lyrics, you wonder: ‘Oh, I listened to this in high school, is this still going to apply to me?’ But they were very reflective. They were really good at bringing out how you felt in the moment, and even today.”
Long Island’s emo scene became part of the life-soundtrack for a generation — and not just locally. We caught up with some of the musicians, nightclub managers, industry insiders and fans who helped make it happen.
One of Long Island’s earliest emo bands was Glassjaw, formed by singer Daryl Palumbo, of Bellmore, in the early 1990s. Glassjaw’s first two albums, “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Silence” and “Worship and Tribute,” became foundational texts for many other Long Island bands. Founding guitarist Justin Beck went on to help launch the music merchandising company MerchDirect and Palumbo briefly fronted the dance-rock outfit Head Automatica, but Glassjaw remains active; the band is currently on tour.
Another early act was The Movielife, founded in 1997 by future Taking Back Sunday guitarist Eddie Reyes. With North Merrick’s Vinnie Caruana on vocals, the scrappy band seemed ready to ride the emo wave with its 2003 album, “Forty Hour Train Back to Penn,” but instead the group splintered. Guitarist Brandon Reilly formed the winsome pop group Nightmare of You, while Caruana put together I Am the Avalanche, a band that remains active today.
“I’ve never been on easy street with music,” said Caruana, 42, now married and living in Brooklyn, where he splits his time between several bands. “It’s always been a grind — but a beautiful one, and one that has definitely provided happiness.”
As The Movielife was imploding, two other Long Island bands were taking off: Taking Back Sunday and Brand New. Singer-guitarist Jesse Lacey left the first band to start the second, and Brand New was quickly snapped up by Triple Crown Records. Their 2001 debut album, “Your Favorite Weapon,” spawned two singles, "The Quiet Things That No One Ever Knows" and "Sic Transit Gloria … Glory Fades," that earned video airplay on MTV2 and the youth-oriented cable channel Fuse.
“When Brand New really hit their stride, it was massive,” said Christian McKnight, 46, a well-known concert promoter at the time who operated under the banner Feet First Presents. “They never really had the scene association like Taking Back Sunday, and I think a lot of that was by choice,” he added. “They became more brooding and isolated, and they weren’t part of the bigger scene at large.”
Brand New’s momentum began to waver around the end of the decade. Rumors of a breakup circulated. After accusations of sexual misconduct against Lacey were made public in 2017, Brand New went into retreat and has remained publicly inactive.
In the end, it was Taking Back Sunday that towered over Long Island’s emo scene. Singer Adam Lazzara, a North Carolina transplant, developed a signature stage move — swinging his microphone to wrap the cord like a noose around his neck — that turned the band into emo icons. Their 2002 single, “Cute Without the ‘E’ (Cut from the Team),” became a singalong anthem not just on Long Island but around the world.
Today, however, it’s the Massapequa Park singer Dan Nigro who’s enjoying massive pop success. Nigro spent nearly a decade fronting the cult indie band As Tall as Lions before calling it quits in 2010. After a move to Los Angeles, Nigro became a producer for hire and wound up co-writing Olivia Rodrigo’s “Drivers License,” the chart-topping, record-breaking hit single from 2021. Nigro also produced her first album, "Sour," which just won the Grammy for Best Pop Vocal album.
“I wanted like to be on stage and I had this idea of myself like, ‘Oh, I want to be performing and for people to know who I am,’” Nigro said in an interview with Newsday at the time. “And then after a couple of years of doing it, you start to realize, 'Oh, maybe that was some high school fantasy that I had.' ” Nigro, who now lives in Los Angeles, said making hits for others suits him better: “It's brought me more notoriety than being on stage every day, you know? Which is kind of funny in its own way.”
Unlike the hippie movement of the 1960s or the punk revolution of the 1970s, Long Island’s emo scene didn’t have a well-defined dress code. Tattoos, piercings, dyed hair and eyeliner were common, but not mandatory. About the only fashion staples were T-shirts and hoodies.
“You would have the Gothic look, but I was more Avril Lavigne — I liked colors, I wanted to look pretty,” said Melody Butler, 35, an emo fan who grew up in Brentwood and West Babylon. If there was one universal sign of an emo kid, she said, it was the ubiquitous band pin.
“You would collect a pin from every show you went to, and you would put them on your bookbag,” Butler recalled. “So your bookbag would be covered. That was a very tailored thing. Like, ‘Hey, you’re one of us!’ ”
Another sign: your jeans might be little tighter than normal. “This was before you called skinny jeans ‘skinny jeans,’ ” said Dave Thompson, 35, who grew up in Setauket and now runs a nonprofit from his home base of Nashville. “You used to call them ‘girl pants,’ and you had to buy them in the women’s section,” he added. “I remember making a mistake and getting these pants with rhinestones on the bottom.”
As for the reigning attitude, it wasn’t cooler-than-thou but more like come-on-in. Bands and fans tended to mix freely, according to Tracy Holland, a West Islip native now living in North Babylon. “I got to meet Incubus, Hoobastank, Taking Back Sunday … At Roseland Ballroom [in Manhattan], the other bands would just be hanging out, so I felt like they were accessible.”
How did fans know who was playing and where? Back then, concert news spread either the old-fashioned way, via paper flyers, or through the website Myspace, which launched in 2003. “It was this incredible time where you had the best of both worlds,” said Thompson. “You could make connections with people.”
And here’s a shocker: This was one rock scene in which drugs and drinking were rare. Perhaps as a result, so were fights and other kinds of violence.
“I didn’t see drugs or even really alcohol. I never honestly thought about it,” said Sage Bice, 37, an Indiana native who spent her high school years in Westbury before returning to her home state. “If somebody ever had a drink, they weren’t sloppy drunk. I never saw fighting. The worst you would see is a mosh pit.”
For Holland, who was openly gay in high school, the safe spaces created by the emo community became particularly important. “To find a group of people and songs that spoke to me and said how I was feeling, I really identified with that,” she said. “I was very alone, and I took to this music to help me.”
Today, Holland, 33, is a social worker with the Roosevelt Union Free School District and uses music to bond with her students. “I show them some of my songs, and they’re like, ‘Miss Tracy, what is this?’” she said with a laugh. “But I always say: What songs speak to you? What songs mean something to you? What can you relate to?”
At first, Long Island’s punk bands played wherever they could: basements, churches, any place with enough room for a mosh pit. The Setauket Presbyterian Church became an unlikely haunt, as did the People With Aids Coalition in Lindenhurst, whose acronym earned it an affectionate nickname pronounced “the peewack.”
“They had a huge room that could hold a thousand people,” said Caruana,, who recalls seeing local punk legends Vision of Disorder at the venue. “I remember that day being like, whoa — I’ve been to concerts with this many people, maybe, but a hardcore show? With a thousand people? Something’s happening here.”
At the time, one of Long Island’s musical hot spots was The Crazy Donkey Bar and Grill, a party-hearty nightclub at 1058 Broadhollow Rd. in Farmingdale. The vibe was less youthful emo than classic rock — the club’s logo featured a donkey with a grungy goatee — but the place had a proper stage and sound system, and held at least a few hundred people. On a given night, you might see a legacy artist like guitarist Link Wray or a local metal-punk group like From Autumn to Ashes.
Long Island’s scrappy emo bands found a professional-grade home at The Downtown, a music venue located at 190 Main St. in Farmingdale. Originally a sports bar, the venue was relaunched in December 2001 under new ownership with expanded capacity for roughly 450 people and a state-of-the-art sound system.
“Actually having a venue changed everything,” said local concert promoter McKnight. “It was teeming in those years, because finally there was a place where we could do shows on a regular basis.”
Dave Glicker, 61, a former managing partner of the Downtown who now runs a trucking equipment company in Huntington, puts it this way: “It wasn’t some rented church in Garden City or some makeshift venue with half-assed equipment. We filled a void, when we opened up, that musicians loved. We took into account to respect them, treat them well, give them lighting and a good sound system.”
Taking Back Sunday and Brand New both played there. In 2003, after John Nolan and Shaun Cooper split from Taking Back Sunday and formed their own band, Straylight Run, they held their first public performance at the Downtown. After Glassjaw singer Daryl Palumbo recovered from one of his bouts with Crohn’s disease in 2005, he reconnected with hometown fans by booking two last-minute comeback shows at the club. Lux Courageous, As Tall as Lions and Bayside all celebrated CD releases there.
The Downtown closed in 2005, leaving a generation of music fans with fond memories of seeing their favorite bands in a sweaty nightclub filled to capacity.
“Did we sometimes put a few extra in? Yeah, we did,” said Glicker. “Those emo-screamo shows weren’t successful unless people were packed in like sardines and the mirrors fogged up.”
THE UNSUNG HERO
If you drew a family tree of Long Island’s many emo bands, way down at the roots would be one man: the guitarist Eddie Reyes.
“He’s really the unsung hero on Long Island,” said local concert promoter McKnight. “When you ask anyone who the most important bands are on Long Island, this guy was in all of them.”
Raised by Colombian immigrant parents in Amityville, Reyes began going to punk shows with friends in New York City while in his early teens. The travel time, however, began to wear on them. “We decided, what’s the point of going all the way to the city when we could start our own scene?” Reyes said.
Reyes got into the habit of forming bands, parting ways, then forming new bands. Among Reyes’ many early groups — some still spoken of in reverential terms by fellow musicians — were No Thought, Inside, Mind Over Matter and Clockwise.
It was Reyes who in 1997 spotted a young music fan named Vinnie Caruana in a Suffolk County basement singing along with his friends from the band Glassjaw. Intrigued, Reyes persuaded Caruana to join his new band, The Movielife, which would go on to become a touchstone of Long Island’s burgeoning emo scene.
“I’m really grateful,” Caruana said of Reyes. “I don’t think any of it would have existed if Eddie hadn’t walked up to me.”
True to form, Reyes left The Movielife and helped launch the group that would be his legacy, Taking Back Sunday. With charismatic frontman Lazzara on vocals, the band earned a reputation for its energetic live shows and went on to become Long Island’s biggest emo export. Reyes finally got his due, touring the world on the strength of two high-charting albums, 2004’s “Where You Want to Be” and 2006’s “Louder Now.”
In 2018, however, Reyes left the band; only later did he reveal that he had been struggling with alcoholism.
“I’m in sobriety almost four years,” Reyes said. “I just decided instead of dying at an early age of addiction, I’d rather be somewhat responsible and be a father, and be in my children’s lives.”
Reyes formed another band, Fate’s Got a Driver, but his heart wasn’t in it. “I walked away from music in general,” he said. “When I lost Taking Back Sunday, a lot of me got packed up and put somewhere. Maybe one day I’ll open that storage unit and unpack it.”
Today, Reyes, 49, lives in Sandusky, Ohio, where he runs a delicatessen while raising two teenagers. If Reyes wishes he got more credit as the Johnny Appleseed of Long Island emo, he certainly doesn’t show it.
“I’m not that kind of person,” Reyes said. “I like knowing I was a part of something, with a few dudes who worked hard and had a passion for something.”
By the end of the 2000s, the buzz around Long Island’s emo scene was clearly diminishing. Few local bands seemed able to replicate the major-label success of Taking Back Sunday and Brand New. The closure of Farmingdale’s The Downtown robbed the music scene of a focal point, and many suburban musicians understandably decamped to New York City, where venues and talent scouts were plentiful.
Also at work were bigger forces that few could have foreseen. As the aughts turned into the teens, rock and roll itself began to wane, replaced by hip-hop and pop. In 2013, several of emo’s biggest bands began abdicating their thrones: Paramore turned to a retro-new-wave sound, Fall Out Boy adopted a glossier pop sheen and My Chemical Romance — arguably the giants in their field — announced their breakup. (The band has since reunited).
At the same time, emo’s influence still resonates. You can hear it in so-called emo-rappers like XXXTentacion, Juice Wrld and Long Island’s Lil Peep (all dead at tragically young ages). The singer-guitarist Machine Gun Kelly is also a torchbearer of sorts, having recently released a single with Willow (the daughter of actor Will Smith) and pop-punk kingpin Travis Barker (of Blink-182) called “Emo Girl.” And several of the bands on the emo-revival festival When We Were Young are relatively newly minted, including the Linda Lindas and Car Seat Headrest.
Some would say the music never faded at all. “I don’t believe that it ever did,” said Caruana, of The Movielife. “New bands kept happening, bands that maybe some of them grew up watching some of our bands, the way that we watched some of the older bands.” He added: “We’ve never called it the Long Island emo scene. It was just shows, you know what I mean? It was just, ‘Do you go to shows?’ ”