Permanent Records is an ongoing closer look at the records that matter most.
In the wake of Nirvana’s cross-cultural success with Nevermind, mainstream rock radio and MTV began welcoming bands with punk roots or indie proclivities. For those that were able to crossover, this was an encouraging push toward bigger shows and better record sales, but for others it served as an obstacle course that offered little reward to those that traversed it. These circumstances serve as the basis for the now-clichéd story of bands that could have been huge, but it’s also the story of California’s Knapsack, a band that walked the line between indie rock and emo, always hinting at a breakout beyond those confines.
Though there’s no debate that the band’s earliest work—up to and including its debut album, 1995’s Silver Sweepstakes—pulled heavily from the early-’90s emo elite (to call it Sunny Day Real Estate-worship isn’t entirely unfair), but even then Knapsack’s use of loud and quiet dynamics had a layer of anthemic power-pop underpinning it. This, coupled with vocal range of vocalist and guitarist Blair Shehan—he was nimble in his shifts from hushed breaths to explosive shouts—created the band’s most distinctive trait, allowing it serve as a fitting replacement for the soon-to-be-defunct Jawbreaker. That is not to discredit the rest of the band—guitarist Jason Bokros locked in with Shehan to create hummable guitar lines, while the rhythm section of drummer Colby Mancasola and bassist Rod Meyer propelled songs forward—who created a sound distinctly emo, but with a slick veneer of professionalism placed atop.
Silver Sweepstakes spawned two singles (“Cellophane” and “Effortless”), both of which were given the standard ’90s music-video treatment. But even with this additional push toward MTV’s fruitful airwaves, neither made a splash with audiences. The band took it in stride, opting to cut its teeth touring on the DIY circuit, while also being afforded opportunities to open for future legends such as Pavement and Drive Like Jehu. The two years spent supporting Silver Sweepstakes prepped Knapsack to offer an even weightier follow-up, and the result was 1997’s Day Three Of My New Life, the album that would become the band’s crowning achievement.
Announcing itself with the bouncingly immediate “Thursday Side Of The Street” (which spawned yet another dated video) Knapsack declared, perhaps unknowingly, that it had finally come into its own. The record treads on similar territory as its precursor, but the time spent on the road smoothed the band’s edges even further, as the 10 tracks on the album benefit from Knapsack no longer living in the shadow of its influences. Instead, with each ripping pop-emo anthem (“Decorate The Spine,” “Courage Was Confused,” “Henry Hammers Harder”) and laidback quasi-ballad (“Boxing Gloves” ad “Steeper Than We Thought”) Knapsack proved it was growing into something worthy of the same attention as its Midwestern peers, a scene that was becoming synonymous with mid-’90s emo.
However, the physical distance between Knapsack and the bulk of emo’s up-and-comers did it a disservice. At the time California punk was fractured, but its biggest acts were dealing in fast-paced hardcore or mirroring the breakneck pop-punk movements of Bad Religion and NOFX. It was in this climate that Knapsack would attempt to find its audience. With likeminded bands such as The Promise Ring—whose 1997 album Nothing Feels Good feels like a spiritual cousin to Day Three—thousands of miles away, Knapsack was an outlier struggling to find its place in this increasingly crowded field.
Day Three made the case for the band to be mentioned in the same breaths as its counterparts, while also making a play for the airwaves once more. The album overflowed with songs that portrayed Knapsack as emo’s version of the Foo Fighters, but even with its Jawbreaker-gone-accessible sound it failed to resonate beyond the original core audience. The fact that Day Three was, in a sense, the last true Knapsack record only sealed the band’s fate, as the departure of Bokros and Meyer kept it from capitalizing on its strongest album, instead forcing it to rebuild its shaky foundation.
Though the band’s focus was always on Shehan, with his vocals and songwriting providing Knapsack’s backbone, it was those surrounding him that helped expand these traits into one singular vision. The band offered up its real swan song in 1998, with the aptly titled This Conversation Is Ending Starting Right Now, and though it features a bevy of songs that would fit snuggly alongside Knapsack’s growing canon, it lacked the desperate declarations of Day Three. The addition of Samiam’s Sergie Loobkoff on second guitar could have served as a boost to the band’s morale, but his brief tenure leading up to This Conversation’s recording limited his contributions.
This Conversation proved to be a fitting end, even if it failed at filling the shoes of the album it followed. Perhaps Knapsack’s legacy is better off falling somewhere between cult status and could-have-been. Knapsack, though not the first, was one of the best to suggest that emo could find a home in the cultural dialogue. In the 15 years since its final tour, one that saw At The Drive-In as the opening act, Knapsack has continued to be a necessary reference point in emo’s history, as it bridged the gap between the sound’s proliferation in its second wave and its profitability in its third.
Knapsack, like many of the bands it toured with or emulated, is currently undergoing a reunion—Shehan’s post-Knapsack act The Jealous Sound adding This Conversation’s “Cold Enough To Break” to its set list this year suggested this as a possibility—and it’s one that’s well earned. Its sound linked indie-rock and emo and indicated a resonance beyond basement shows. Though the band attempted to remove itself from the conversation more than a decade ago, a discourse kept swirling around it that wouldn’t allow its short, fertile career to be forgotten.