Rank Your Records: Brett Detar Rates The Juliana Theory’s Four Divisive Albums
The frontman explains how the band injected pop into emo and spent half a million dollars on a record (without a cent going towards drugs).
In Rank Your Records, we talk to artists who have amassed substantial discographies over the years and ask them to rate their releases in order of personal preference.
The Juliana Theory formed in Pennsylvania in 1997 by current and former members of more aggressive acts like Zao and Pensive, and while the band often performed alongside their peers in the hardcore scene, they were an unabashedly pop-obsessed emo band at a time when that wasn't only uncool, it was largely unprecedented. This often lead to them being mocked by some in the scene as being a "boy band" while simultaneously embraced by tens of thousands of fans who were sick of detuned mosh parts and angry dudes screaming about animal rights.
After releasing two records on Tooth & Nail Records, the band signed with Epic Records in 2001 and recorded Love with the Talking Heads' Jerry Harrison. However, in classic major label fashion, the Epic inexplicably decided not to promote the record a week after it came out and although it sold over 100,000 albums on its own, there's no doubt that the Juliana Theory could have been a massive rock act had they been able to utilize the label's resources. Like their peers in Jimmy Eat World, the band decided to take their career into their own hands and make what would be their final album, Deadbeat Sweetheartbeat, themselves. Unlike Jimmy Eat World, though, they never had the same mainstream crossover success and broke up shortly afterwards.
The band reunited in 2010 for eight shows and recently announced plans to get back together to celebrate their 20th anniversary. In addition to touring this summer, the group will put out an exclusive reissue of their most celebrated release, Emotion Is Dead. We caught up with frontman Brett Detar to have him rank the band's four records and, in the process, we discuss his most embarrassing moments, the way that "pop" was a dirty word in the emo scene, and how exactly someone goes about spending $450,000 on a Juliana Theory album without a cent of it going toward drugs.
4. Deadbeat Sweetheartbeat (2005)
Noisey: Okay, Brett, what's your least favorite Juliana Theory album?
Brett Detar: I'm about to bum out my entire band on this one and they're all going to disagree with me, but my least favorite would be our last record, Deadbeat Sweetheartbeat. Maybe if you asked me that a couple of years ago, I wouldn't have felt that way, but in order to do these upcoming shows I went back and re-listened to everything and I guess I remembered that record being better than I hear it now.
What specifically rubbed you the wrong way about it?
It's odd because in one sense, as far as the band playing in a room together, that's by far the best record we ever made. We did it mostly live and were really tight, but I don't like the way I sing on a lot of it. I try to not let that affect me and focus too much on myself but maybe it's the same thing as when you take a selfie with five people and the first thing you look at is yourself and you go, "I look terrible in that photo, don't post that one." I'm also kind of bummed on how we mixed it. We were really trying to be a live rock band and it's really mixed like a rock record with the guitars extremely loud and the vocals are kind of quiet—and I think anytime you try to write semi-poppish music, it just buries vocals. But it's a great time capsule to me and I especially appreciate how we made it and how good everyone played on it. They were on fire but I don't know, it's my least favorite.
It's a common occurrence these days but what was it like self-releasing a record in 2005?
That was a really weird situation at the time because we made our first two records for $6,000 and $10,000 respectively and then that third record [2002's Love] cost $450,000 so it was just a totally different stratosphere. Epic decided that they weren't going to push Love a week after it came out; they called us and said, "This record is dead." and we were like, "You didn't do anything for it, you didn't market it, and we didn't shoot a video." It still came out and sold like ten thousand records the first week or something but I guess the point is that we were really bummed out about how that went down. Luckily, we had an out-clause in our contract where we didn't have to make a second record with them and they still had to pay us so we used some of that money to make Deadbeat Sweetheartbeat on our own.
3. Love (2002)
You spent a lot of money on Love. Is there anything you like about the record?
I think Love was sonically our best record, for sure. I just think that Love is really bloated and there are four or five too many songs on it. I despise the song "Congratulations." I absolutely hate it. It embarrasses me more than anything else I've ever done in my career and there are a lot of things I'm embarrassed by. That said, some of my favorite and the band's favorite Juliana Theory songs are on that record; I think "White Days" and "Jewel To Sparkle" are two of the best songs we ever made. So it has some things that are really cool and that I still look back and appreciate and am proud of for the time, but I don't know, it's hard to explain.
Do you feel like any of your experiences coming up in a heavy band like Zao seeped into this?
Definitely. I was always really into heavy music, but when The Juliana Theory made our first record, I was still in Zao at the time so there was this separation in the sense of "this is my heavy band and this is my melodic band and they can be completely different worlds." I think after I wasn't playing heavy music anymore there was always a part of that that seeped into my writing but it didn't really come into play until this record. We were like, "Let's incorporate riffs and heavier guitar tones and just bigger rock-related things in our music." We had bits and pieces of that on Emotion Is Dead but we amped that up on Love and I think a lot of that comes across as butt rock and leaves a bad taste in my mouth. On that song "Congratulations" in particular, there are two riffs that could have been Zao riffs and they shouldn't have been in a Juliana Theory song, but at the time you're spreading your wings and trying different things to see what works. There was a backlash when we released Love because it was so different from Emotion Is Dead and a lot of our fans were really bummed out. But these days I get people who tell me that's their favorite record.
How exactly does one spend $450,000 on a Juliana Theory record?
That's a great question. [Laughs] It's so utterly ridiculous to think of it now. There was just a bunch of dumb things that cost money that didn't need to. For instance, our producer, Jerry Harrison from the Talking Heads, was billing the label every week to rent his ProTools rig. I'm not talking trash because he was just doing his job, but he was charging us $800 a week for this rig which we used for four months or something. Then at the end of the recording session, we bought it from Jerry after using it the entire time. It was just stupid stuff that you see when you watch Behind The Music. We weren't doing lines of blow off the consoles but we were just spending money on stuff that we could have been smarter about. Then the record took so long that our engineer had to leave to adopt a daughter so we ended up hiring a second engineer. We were like, "Oh, we're on a major label now." We were just dumb kids.
2. Understand This Is A Dream (1999)
How do you look back on Understand This Is A Dream?
I love that it's short and sweet and it is definitely not bloated. I think I was 20 when we made this and a lot of the other guys were teenagers so there's this pure excitement of being like, "Oh my god somebody is giving us money to go to a recording studio in another state to make a record!" We definitely did not have any demos of songs and we hadn't recorded them previously, so we didn't really know how they would sound like in the studio. I remember first hearing the backing vocals on the chorus of "August In Bethany" for the first time on real speakers in the studio and thinking, "Wow. We sound like a real band." Because we just played these songs in a basement. There was just that magic of doing something for the first time and I don't think anything was overthought because we didn't even know how to overthink it. I'm pretty sure we had 12 days for recording and mixing so you don't have time to second guess too much, you just have to sort of slide through stuff and there's a power in having to commit to things because sometimes having too many options and too much time makes things worse. That record just came about at an innocent and exciting time in our lives and when I listen to it I really feel that spark.
Were you still in Zao when you made this record?
Yeah, I was. Or maybe I quit right before we made Understand This Is A Dream, but I remember Zao made the record I played on [1998's Where Blood And Fire Bring Rest] and when I was making that record I thought it would be the coolest thing ever if The Juliana Theory could come down and make a record with [Barry Poynter] because it was such a great vibe. It was a tiny little two-car garage, totally unimpressive and unassuming but I remember calling a couple of the guys and going, "This is crazy! If The Juliana Theory ever got money we could make a record down here and it would be incredible." Basically what happened is that I gave a three-song demo tape to the owner of Tooth & Nail and was like, "You should check out my emo band I sing for," and he actually liked it and was like, "Okay, I'll give you six thousand dollars to make your first record." I wanted to do it with J. Robbins. I can't tell you how big of a Jawbox fan I was at the time. So the idea of making a record with him, I couldn't even believe that it was possible. But it ended up being that we could have seven days with J. Robbins or 12 days with Barry and my brain was like, "We've never made a record before and I think those extra five days will come in handy." Sorry, J. But he's doing fine. [Laughs]
What was the transition like between those two bands for you?
What's cool is that the Juliana Theory used to open for Zao a good amount and I would do double duty. It didn't happen on a whole tour or anything like that, but any time there was a show not too far from Pittsburgh, Zao would have The Juliana theory open and we would play six of these happy pop songs, which is what our first record is, and then I would take off my jacket and throw on my guitar and get up onstage and play heavy music. I remember way more Zao fans liking The Juliana Theory than I ever would have expected them to. There's always been that cross pollination of hardcore and emo; if you look back at old Sense Field flyers from back in the day, they were always playing with heavy bands and I think that's just part of the scene in general. Because of the Zao connection, The Juliana Theory always ended up playing with heavy bands, whether it was touring with Snapcase or Haste The Day. But some of the earliest Juliana Theory fans were Zao fans, and for about three years we could not play a show without someone yelling a Zao song title at us. You know how people would always yell "Free Bird" back in the day when a band would play live? For us, someone would always yell for something by Zao. [Laughs]
1. Emotion Is Dead (2000)
What makes Emotion Is Dead your favorite album?
I think it's just the strongest record from top to bottom. There's probably two songs that I would leave off of it if I could go back and do it today, and I don't absolutely love the mix on it, but in general I think it's the best representation of the sound of the band. I think one of our biggest strengths was that we never shied away from trying to write hooks, and at that point in time, we had a lot of people in the scene talking trash on us and calling us a boy band or saying we were too pop to be punk rock. The album had songs like "If I Told You This Was Killing Me, Would You Stop?" and "To The Tune Of 5,000 Screaming Children" that I wouldn't say were heavy rock songs but they were high-gain guitar rock songs that were more aggressive. Then it has pure pop songs like "Don't Push Love Away" and "We're Still At The Top Of The World (To The Simple Two)" and then the sort of in-between melancholy anthemic pop songs like "Into The Dark." To me, that's the quintessential Juliana Theory song.
Did you have a lot of influences outside of emo and hardcore at that time?
I know we were really trying to spread our wings at that time. We used a lot of drum machines and keyboards on that record. I remember I was completely obsessed with DJ Shadow and Unkle at that point, so if you know that and then listen to "Emotion Is Dead Pt. I," it's obviously a horrible version of me trying to do that. [Laughs] I like that the first record is pretty much a stripped down, pop punk emoish record, and then on Emotion Is Dead, we were like, "Hey, we love Pink Floyd so we're gonna end the album with 'You Always Say Goodnight Goodnight,'" which clearly is us trying to channel Roger Waters and Pink Floyd. Then you've got the blatant pop songs and then you've got the synths and drum machines. We were trying things and I think this set of songs from top to bottom is the best thing we ever did. Most people won't argue with me on that. It's always the popular choice.
This album also came at a time before bands like Jimmy Eat World exploded and pop music was still at odds with what was happening in the punk/emo world.
It was unbelievably uncool to be into pop music at the time. For instance, I remember, on a Zao tour, being totally obsessed with that first Third Eye Blind record, and both of my bands used to listen to it all the time. At one of the shows, I got in a really heated argument with a guy in an emo band who was like, "How on earth could you debase yourself listening to that garbage?" There were so many people who were coming from that school of "pop" being a dirty word. Then I went through this weird phase where I excommunicated myself from the rock music scene and the first time I brought my head up and met some friends they were like, "You should come to this bar Angels & Kings and hang out." I met all these kids who were in a generation of bands younger than mine and every single one of them was talking about how they co-write for big pop writers and how all their favorite records were pop stuff and it blew my mind. The whole culture has shifted that way. Everyone listens to Taylor Swift or Beyoncé or Lorde; you could be tattooed from head to toe and identify with any underground subculture, but the chance is you're listening to pop music unironically and it's not a guilty pleasure. But I definitely remember people being pissed at us at the time, like, "You're a boy band, you can't be this pop!" And we didn't care. We liked pop music.
Patience is still waiting for Jonah Bayer on Twitter.