I first met Tom Mullen back in 2008 when we worked together on some projects while he was at EMI Records and I was at a digital marketing agency called Total Assault. While we may live on opposite sides of the country, we've kept in touch throughout the years since our first work collaboration. These days, Mullen works at Legacy Recordings, the catalog arm of Sony Music Entertainment in New York City.
But Mullen is best known throughout the music industry for his tireless devotion to one of the most polarizing indie music genres: emo.
Through his WashedUpEmo.com, you can navigate to the several ongoing emo-related projects Mullen has going on at any given moment. Whether it's his popular Emo Night party in NYC, or his Washed Up Emo podcast, the guy lives and breathes for bands like Sunny Day Real Estate and Boy's Life.
Since he's got so many projects in the works, I decided it was about time I chatted with Mullen about his growing emo empire.
Where did you grow up and what kind of music did you first fall in love with as a kid?
The first type of music I fell in love with was hair metal and grunge, and thanks to Nirvana, I relentlessly searched out independent labels and bands versus the major label bands on mainstream media. That led to learning about punk, indie, metal, and hardcore bands—which, coming from a small town, was a lot harder to research and find out about back in the early '90s than it is today.
I grew up in Jericho, Vermont which is about 30 minutes from Burlington, the largest city in the state. Coming from such a small state, very few bands made the trek up to Burlington, and most times it was on the way to or from Montreal. Those bands were most often hardcore and punk bands. I wasn't exposed to the mainstream media because it took about seven years for a trend to make it that far north from a major city. It was really about the local community and being D.I.Y. Hardcore played a huge part in my musical upbringing and philosophy to this day, and I thank bands like Nirvana for helping me see that underground scene that was hard to get at in the days of few outlets and many gatekeepers.
Did you play an instrument growing up?
Yes, I got a guitar after seeing Nirvana's video for "Smells Like Teen Spirit," and told my parents I had to get a guitar immediately. The song hit me that hard. I spent hours in my room playing and learning everthing I could. In high school, I was in a band called Loobie. Don't ask why we named it that. We played covers from Primus or jazz stuff and even some punk. It was a classic "first band" sound. The best part about being in a band? The girls.
Were your parents supportive when it came to your love for music?
I'll be honest, they weren't at first. I was doing fine in school, but the constant practicing in the basement or jamming with friends, they thought I should then pursue a career at Berkeley or something if I wanted to be serious. It was hard to explain that I had to see Madball on Sunday night before school, or give a reason why I needed to be driven 45 minutes away to a friend's house to jam. Also, I got heavily into collecting music and t-shirts, which overtook my room. After a couple years they realized it wasn't a phase and tolerated it. I think in college it hit them when I was going to shows three or four nights a week, working at the college radio station, and still doing well with classes that maybe I could balance it. Those college years certainly primed me well for the music business, that's for sure.
Do you remember the first time you came across an emo band/record?
While at some show I couldn't remember, someone mentioned to me that there were all these hardcore bands that were sounding "emo." At first I thought they meant they were post-harcore, which was singing over heavy riffs and not as fast as hardcore, i.e. Quicksand. But then I realized they meant "screamo." Around the mid '90s, that was what I thought emo actually was: an aggressive sounding hardcore band with super emotional lyrics both sung and screamed. The first screamo/emo record I heard was by the Philadelphia band Frail. They absolutely blew me away with their live show. They were so chaotic, yet it was more open in their song structure, with lots of time and tension between parts of the song. That's what emo is to me. The tension of a song that has you wondering what's next, or that the whole band is going to explode. I'll never forget seeing Frail or bands like Sleepytime Trio and feeling the whole room didn't know what was happening next. Also, fun side note, to know if you were at an emo show or a hardcore show depended on where your hand was. If you were hitting your chest, that was emo, and finger pointing was obviously hardcore.
Let's talk about how you got your foot in the door of the music business.
In college, I started a fan website for the band Shift. They were a hardcore band from NYC on Equal Vision Records. One day freshman year, I get an email from the drummer saying she saw the site, loved it, and wanted to meet up at an upcoming show. I was blown away. Someone in a band saw something I did and wanted to meet. Mind blown. That started a great relationship with the band and especially the drummer, Samantha [Maloney], who around that time was one of the most respected female drummers, who has since gone on to drum for Hole, Mötley Crüe, and Peaches. So fast forward to senior year, I'm meeting more and more industry people through the radio station and shows. Samantha mentions a friend at a label started a new company and they needed some digital help. That company was marketing company Cornerstone/The Fader. I had a couple other interviews after graduation, but Cornerstone stuck out as the best opportunity; but, unfortunately, they paid the least and offered no health insurance. My parents wanted the salaried job, but it just didn't offer the same potential. They relented and I packed my bag for NYC with only $400 dollars to my name from a guitar I sold, stayed on a friend's couch, and started working for $10 dollars an hour. First two projects I had were on a couple baby bands at the time: Linkin Park and The Killers.
Can you give me a quick rundown of the places you've worked at in the years since then?
I started at Cornerstone/The Fader in 2000, then after a few months got an offer to join the radio department at TVT Records. TVT is no longer around, but at the time they were the largest independent record label in the country. After leaving radio, I went back to Cornerstone as an account manager in digital, then coming full circle with my fan site, I got a job at Equal Vision Records handling marketing overall for the label. It was a dream come true and I packed my bags for upstate New York. After a few years, the sun of Los Angeles called and I worked at Vagrant Records as a product manager. After a year out west, I missed the east coast and started at EMI for a role in their digital marketing team in New York City. It was great to get that taste of both an independent and major label worlds. Prior to EMI being sold to Universal, I jumped to Legacy Recordings, the catalog label of Sony Music, handling digital marketing. Through every change, I've learned a lot about company culture and change. It's been a great asset to have different jobs under my belt.
I know you launched WashedUpEmo.com in 2007, but what inspired you to launch the site?
While at Equal Vision Records, the independent scene was growing like crazy. The bands were getting on the radio, TV, and mainstream media seemed to take a liking to the sound. As my job was getting easier with getting my foot in the door at breaking artists, my heart wasn't as happy as these bands got tagged "emo" based on their clothes, hairstyle, or cutting. That started to be how almost all emo bands were classified. No one was talking about the bands from the late late '80s or '90s. I wanted a home for the bands that were part of the hardcore/punk scene and being forgotten as every single band of the mid '00s swung their bass around their body or dyed their hair black. The early years of the site were angry, and in the years after it slowly has turned into a place to discuss and talk about the era's pre- and post-"mall emo" phase. It's been a fun ride, and I've been so grateful for all the support and met so many new friends through the site that love the same music.
How did the site evolve into the monthly DJ night?
I was talking with a friend about how we had all this music from the era and so many of the songs were great to sing along to and that we should set up a party. We both had experience being college radio DJs, we both worked in the industry and felt we had the connections to bands/industry to promote as well. It was really as simple as that. Coincidentally, my buddy and I had a mutual friend that had opened up a bar in New York City and needed some DJs for a night. At the time, there wasn't anything like it happening other than a night in Philadelphia. After four years, it's nice to be the elder statesmen in this genre. I can't tell you how many new friends we've met through the DJ night. Recently, it's been amazing to see other nights pop up around the country. Some have mentioned our night as inspiration, which is great to hear. I just hope they all remember to play something from the late '90s.
What was the first night like? Did a lot of people show up?
The first night was on Valentine's Day, so we set it up as an anti-Valentine's Day party. We had the bar packed and had many technical difficulties throughout the night, but it was one of those nights you'll never forget. So many friends came out to support and it was fun to feel that rush of excitement from the crowd as a song starts or cheering when it was over. I've always loved turning people onto new bands, and this DJ night has turned into another extension of that.
Who are some of the guest DJs you've had throughout the last couple of years?
We've had 40+ guests in the last four years, I couldn't begin to mention all of them. From official after parties for Braid, Armor for Sleep, Modern Baseball, and the latest Saves the Day, Say Anything, Reggie and Full Effect tour to guests DJs most every month from popular punk sites, bands from all eras, and those tastemakers in the scene. To have DJs as varied as Eric Richter from Christie Front Drive and Jeff Caudill from Gameface to Gabe Saporta from Midtown, Bob Nana and Chris Broach from Braid, everyone in Texas is the Reason, Adam Rubenstein from Chamberlain/Split Lip, Tucker Rule from Thursday, and Bryan Gassler from The Jazz June. I still don't believe it even after thinking back. It's been such a fun ride having guests get that same rush I do when you start playing songs from that era. Nothing like it.
Recently, I got a message from a fan of the night on Facebook. He knew we were hosting an official after party for the Saves the Day, Say Anything, Reggie and the Full Effect tour and wanted to make sure he could get into the bar. I obliged and asked why. He said he was going to propose to his girlfriend during the Saves the Day show and wanted to celebrate at our emo night to commemorate where they had their second date. I couldn't believe it. Someone had a date at Emo Night and then were getting married. Holy shit. So for all you single ladies and guys, come on down and meet your future husband and wife. Knowledge of Rites of Spring and Mineral are preferable.
Who is your dream guest DJ get?
I'd love to get the dudes in Jimmy Eat World to guest DJ on their next tour through NYC. I think they would have a blast. I've had Jim Adkins on the podcast and with his knowledge, I know he'd play a great set.
Some purists would say that some of the songs played during your emo night aren't really emo. Can you give me your take on that?
[Laughs] Purists like that don't hang out past 9pm. Seriously. I was the same way, early on for the night, I was pretty adamant about not playing the mall emo phase. It was sort of a long-running joke with some of the regulars. After about a year, I realized that after 9pm, the 30+ age group all went home. They have jobs that require them to think critically, kids, dogs to walk, etc. Around 10pm, those in their 20s didn't grow up on Sunny Day Real Estate, they grew up on Vagrant Records or Drive-Thru. They can stay out later, they're louder, more friends aren't all tied up in marriage or a house. They're ripe for getting nostalgic to what they know. So the night morphed into different phases based on the crowd. Trust me, I'd love to just spin late '90s/early '00s, but like in radio, you gotta play a balance of new and old. I love spinning songs from a certain era then playing a song from the late '90s that is close and having someone come up and ask what that was. That is how I justify it. If one person finds out about Elliott because of a song I played in-between some bands from the mid-'00s, I've done my job for the night.
Tell me about the podcast.
The podcast started like the website. I did a search on iTunes and realized no one had interviewed the bands from the late '90s/early '00s. Sure, there were some oral histories done by Alternative Press, but nothing where you could actually hear them. I had some connections through working in the music industry and the site and just started asking around. It's been a dream to be able to chat with bands that I grew up loving and now they're getting to tell their story. From Jim from Jimmy Eat World to Chris from Mineral to Eric from Christie Front Drive, etc. I've had some amazing feedback from the community and especially recently with the resurgence of the medium. The A.V. Club, The Pitchfork Review, and iTunes themselves have all said nice things or featured the podcast. There is a neverending list of bands I want to interview and feature. I hope to keep doing it forever.
In late 2014 you created IsThisBandEmo.com.
IsThisBandEmo.com was an idea I had for years. I thought it would be a fun way to once and for all tell you if a band was emo or not. It took a month or so of inputting bands and when I launched it I thought I had every emo band in there from all the eras. I thought it was going to be people looking at actual emo bands. Nope, a big majority of them were searching bands I didn't even think of. People wanted to know if pop, metal, indie, etc. were emo or not. It's been fun since then checking Google Analytics to see what people are searching and add in bands, events, easter eggs, etc. We've had some great press and subsequent traffic since launch. My partner that helped build the site tells me we had 1.5 million page views in a few days. What that says to me is that people liked it. Since launch, I've been approached for some ideas/marketing things around the site which have been amazing. I guess people liked my jokes. The Emo Council, who decide if a band is emo or not, have been a big part of those jokes, too. Some haven't been too good about the jokes, including an unnamed punk site that bought a domain in response to the site with one line of text on it discrediting what we're doing. Fantastic use of $10 right there, but it's a joke. Best part of all of this has been hearing from friends about the site. The day IsThisBandEmo.com launched, a friend who teaches second grade told me a student gave a report on music and they referenced my site! How did my site get to a scond grader in New Jersey? Holy crap. The Internet is crazy.
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Your latest endeavor is a weekly show on Dash Radio. Is the plan to keep that an exclusively music-driven show or are you going to have interviews on there as well?
I heard about Dash Radio through a friend at SideOneDummy Records. It's a free app and desktop site playing music online 24/7. One of the channels is run by SideOneDummy Records. I found out they were looking for some new shows and thankfully they said yes to a show. Since getting my start in the industry through college radio, I had missed turning people onto bands and new music since leaving the airwaves. It was a perfect complement to the podcast. I record my show each week ahead of time and get to play whatever I want. It's been a great way to stay in touch with new bands and turn people onto older ones. I hope to have interviews and features on there in the future. The medium of radio is changing and with everyone on-demand or at your disposal whenever you want, this is still a one-time thing. I record my show, it airs, and then that's it. I kinda dig that and it fits right in line with Washed Up Emo. Little old, little new.
What else can we expect from you in the near future? I know there's some stuff you told me about that isn't public knowledge yet.
I have a lot planned for 2015. There is more nostalgia than ever for the genre. I hope to increase the podcast output and interview more bands from the 2010s. This spring, I'll be launching a clothing line to help show your love of the late '90s and partnering with a record label on some projects. It's been a fun ride since 2007 and every day when I get home from work I can't wait to promote and educate others about the bands I love. It's a dream.
If you had to pick one song that best defines emo music, and why it's so important to you, what would it be?
That's like asking about a favorite child. If I had to choose, it's Sunny Day Real Estate's "In Circles." Man, I can hear the boos all the way from DC. I know I didn't pick Embrace or Rites of Spring or Moss Icon. But hear me out. Sunny Day Real Estate's first album is absolutely amazing. Regardless of the emo tag, it's fucking brilliant. "In Circles" was on MTV, they did late night TV and played the song, etc. The song still sounds amazing to this day. It's a moment in time when a cherished band was about to be put in the public eye with major label money, tours, etc. It never happened, the second album was released after they broke up. There were subsequent reunions, albums after, but nothing hit me like hearing Sunny Day Real Estate for the first time. It was almost perfect that they had their shot and walked away.
There is a supposed finished album done but will never see the light of day. The song they released for Record Store Day with Circa Survive is a clue to that album's life. Sunny Day Real Estate may run away from the emo tag, but they're so well respected and appreciated by their fans that it doesn't matter anymore what you call them. "In Circles" hit me almost as hard has "Smells Like Teen Spirit," and both are still referenced constantly, plus spawned thousands of bands. Regardless of the emo tag Sunny Day Real Estate hated, it's not a bad place to be. I'd rather be remembered than forgotten. In all honesty, that's my goal with these bands, like it or not, I'm showcasing how great they were. Thankfully, most have accepted the fact and embraced it. Let the rest come around one day and tell their story. I'll be there to greet them with open arms.