INTERVIEW BY: Mitch Demmler
PHOTO FROM: Stereogum
Sometimes I fail to realize how special Philadelphia’s underground music scene is. On any given weekend there’s a slew of basements opening their doors for people to enjoy an array of eclectic bands.
It’s exciting. Philly might just have the best underground music scene ever, who knows?
I thought of the long list of prolific bands that emerged from the basements of Philly rowhomes: Marietta, Modern Baseball, Alex G, Title Fight, Algernon Cadwallader, just to name a few. What’s so special about this place? Is it something in the water?
I don’t think there’s a definite answer, but if there’s someone who could help me get to the bottom of it, it would be Joe Reinhart: Philly house show vet and self-proclaimed “pro surfer/amateur musician.”
He’s currently a member of Hop Along, co-founder of Headroom Studios, and former guitar guru of Algernon Cadwallader. Hailing from my hometown, Yardley, PA, Algernon was a legendary Philly DIY band crowned “the heroes of emo revival.”
Like many other midwest emo bands, they split ways in 2012, but still have a cult following to this day. Their masterful house show anthems possessed the bodies of listeners into suffocating, sweating, and moshing in basements all across the city.
Reinhart has been involved in the scene here for nearly 20 years, and although he’s not playing house shows with Hop Along (he would if he could), he’s still very much involved in the Philly underground music scene. At Headroom, he’s produced for a lot of bands you probably would know—Remo Drive, Joyce Manor, Modern Baseball, Beach Bunny—but also for a bunch of bands that you probably don’t know… yet.
I was lucky enough to talk to Joe on the phone about his long history of playing shows here, and what he’s up to these days.
After chatting a bit about our similar hometown roots, Joe gave me a peek into his experience with the Philly music scene. Despite being spit at, punched, and literally electrified while playing shows, Joe seemed to share a proud passion for his years doing the DIY thing.
As with all good stories, I asked Joe to start from the beginning,
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Mitch: Tell me about the first time you were exposed to a Philly house show, what were your impressions?
Joe: It was probably 44th and Locust.I was probably in highschool? Maybe my first year of college. It was this scene I just knew nothing about, and yeah, just played in the basement. I found myself slowly going back there to do the same thing. It was awesome. I was used to the idea of throwing shows anywhere you could but the fact that they weren’t getting shut down, and were always free… it was a wild concept.
Mitch: As you know, house shows get pretty personal. The audience is almost always on top of the band. There’s lots of sweat, spit, and beer flying around. How does that dynamic change the experience for you as a performer?
Joe: You get to look into everybody’s eyes. As a performer, it’s a streamlined “does this song work?” sort of test. There’s no barrier. You’re getting the visceral reaction of somebody standing a foot in front of you.
Mitch: Was it ever difficult to play the technical guitar parts of your songs under these house show conditions?
Joe: *laughing* Yeah, definitely. It was extremely difficult. I eventually found a way, like, “this part is coming up, it’s time to turn my back and hold my own.” At some point I got pretty good at getting punched in the face and still keeping it together. I had one pet peeve, when somebody stepped on my pedals. Literally anything else could happen, I mean at one show I was being electrocuted the whole time, but the show must go on. The pedals… that bothered me.
—A word of warning for those who like to get close to the bands—
Mitch: Speaking of things like being electrocuted, were there any other strange or weird memories you can recall from house shows?
Joe: Uh… wow… uh *pauses*
Mitch: There’s probably a lot of them?
Joe: *laughing* Probably a lot of them is right. Sometimes just the heat in some of these places, it was unbearable. I would think, “wow, I’m really hot. It feels like I jumped in a swimming pool,” and we were on the second song. The cool part is, everybody else in that space is feeling the same thing, and it’s not slowing anyone down. It would get dangerously hot, but everyone was still going insane, sweat was flying everywhere. I played a couple like that that really come to mind.
Mitch: I think that really speaks to the whole idea of a house show. There’s no separation between the audience and the band. You’re all in it together.
Joe: Exactly that. They’re hot. I’m hot. Nobody’s any less hot than the other… we just had to go for it.
Mitch: What was it like for you and the rest of Algernon to see your audience transform from random house show goers to people who came to see you guys?
Joe: The growth from the first album to when we broke up, it was measurable. The basement would be packed as opposed to it being just crowded, but it wasn’t like internet overnight success. I feel like if we played a show now I would be like, “okay this feels different.”
—The suggestion of an Algernon reunion was a pleasant surprise. Nonetheless, I moved onto the next question—
Mitch: Over your time playing at more DIY shows here, did you notice any changes or big growth in the scene? It seemed like around the 2010s Philly had a huge boom in its underground music community and was kind of the ground zero for the infamous “emo revival.”
Joe: I saw a lot of bands coming to Philly. I saw a lot of bands starting that had the same vibe of what Algernon and our friend’s bands were doing. I will say, it’s hard to step back and look at it with any clear lens when you are living in it.
Mitch: Philly, the colleges here, and its suburbs seem to produce a lot of super talented bands. Do you think that’s mostly chance or that Philly has something that’s bringing out all these bands?
Joe: I think they attract each other in some way. People think, “oh, Philly, that’s where things are happening.” There are always cool Philly bands—it seemed like a hub to me. It’s also affordable to live here and then f*ck off and make art with the rest of your time, but still live comfortably enough. I mean everyone has different standards of comfort. I worked as little as possible, ate out of the trash, and made music all the time. *laughs* There’s lots of like minded people. You can come here with 6 dollars and a dream, then start a band.
Mitch: Do you think being in Philly—playing the house show circuit— helped you get where you are today?
Joe: It absolutely helped. There was very little jadedness. Everyone was there for the love of music. Playing in 10 bands at the time, meeting people. It was a great incubator. I can’t say for sure if it would’ve been possible somewhere else. My experience would have been different. The people I met at the right time in my life shaped who, what, and where I am now. Maybe there’s a parallel timeline where I did everything the same but in Chicago, but now I’m a famous pizza maker, not musician. I still play of course, but just for fun on the weekends.
Mitch: What was it for you that drew you into Philly?
Joe: One of the things that drew me to Philly that was so appealing was the willingness to let people in. Everybody gave each other their due justice. Whether people liked it or not [the music], they were nodding their heads… the fact that nobody was being judgy. Everybody had the chance to share what they love. It was the attitude, and open mindedness… I remember seeing that and thinking, “holy sh*t this is special”… it was an incubating feeling.
Mitch: Being a part of Hop Along, you’re probably seeing much more official venues these days. How’s it different for you playing on a stage vs. a Philly basement?
Joe: Both have their advantages and disadvantages. It’s definitely nice when things sound really good. When a band all hits a note together and it sounds ginormous—that’s really kinda magical. Sometimes in the basement the power might not be right so your amps sounds mushy, the PA is pointed at everyones’ legs. I’m a sound guy, so when things sound awesome it excites me. To be crushing it on a big stage, it’s a very good feeling. But the minus of it is sometimes you’re not connecting with people on the same level. It’s a double edged sword—cool sword though.
Mitch: To talk a little bit more about Headroom, how did you make the transition into professional production? I mean DIY shows are always, I guess you could say lo-fi in nature, so the setting of a professional studio must’ve been a lot different.
Joe: I just made bad recordings until I made good recordings. I had always been recording bands, like in my parent’s basement, or writing my own songs just to record them on a 4-track. I always had an interest in that [production]. I had to have another job to eat pizza, live in a house, and buy guitar strings, so I had to do something. I really sucked at anything else that wasn’t music, so I thought, “I like recording bands.” That parlayed into loving recording bands, and then producing bands, and then eventually mixing.
Mitch: So it was just a natural progression into production for you?
Joe: It really was, it was just very slow.
Mitch: Do you think all the years you spent doing the DIY thing— playing house shows— has changed you as a musician?
Joe: Yeah. I can’t quite put my finger on anything besides my own kind of drive. Once it got to the point where I knew people were going to be listening to it, I thought, “okay, this has to be as good as I am humanly capable of making it, because I believe in it and I want it to be good. It’s an expression of what I do. If I’m not impressed, how can anyone else be? Putting that pressure on myself is something I still think about.
Mitch: What has, in particular, gotten you to stay here in Philly and set up shop at Headroom?
Joe: Philly has always been home base for me. Growing up in Yardley, it was where things were happening. By the time we were all 21, everyone knew what they wanted out of life, and that’s play music, live together in a big shitty house, eat out of the trash, steal from Wawa, and tour. I always assumed I would live somewhere else by now, but my bands, studio, etc. were here. Now that I’m at a point in my career where I could make it work living anywhere, I’m happy here.
Mitch: Do you have any thoughts on the direction Philly music is headed, specifically what the DIY scene will look like?
Joe: I don’t think it’s a crazy different direction. I think people will be doing the same thing—but I mean that in the best way. It’s not broken. There’s new people putting up shows all the time. There’s people opening new production companies, studios, house venues, DIY spaces. All that stuff has been happening since I can remember and I’m happy to see it’s still going on. The core ethics are just as strong as they’ve ever been.
Mitch: And for my final question, Are we going to see an Algernon reunion anytime soon? 2022 would make it 10 years since you guys were last together, any plans?
Joe: Would it make it 10 years? Holy sh*t. Jeez, it’s so weird to think that was almost 10 years ago. We’re living in crazy times so stranger things could happen. I’ll leave you hanging with a maybe.
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I’ll take a maybe.
I figured that was a fitting sentiment to end our discussion on. Maybe me and Joe don’t particularly know what makes the Philly music scene so special—I don’t know if anyone does. I definitely have some ideas and my time speaking with Joe about his experience has given me a lot more.
Maybe someday you’ll realize why, when you get that feeling in the moshpit of a row home basement. Maybe not. Maybe nothing in particular made Philly the mecca for underground music it is now, it just always was.
In the spirit of Algernon, let’s not think about it too hard. Start a band, see live music, “share what people show you,” and get on with your life!