20 Years Ago, Kid Dynamite Reshaped Pop-Punk in Just 27 Minutes
On their debut LP in 1998, Dan Yemin's post-Lifetime project fused hardcore and pop-punk together in a way that would be copied for years.
The Shape of Punk revisits some of the seminal albums turning 20 years old in 2018, tracing their impact and influence on the future of the scene.
Though pop-punk has been around nearly as long as punk rock itself, it wasn’t until 1994 that the genre became truly visible. Following the release of Green Day’s Dookie, the genre would go through a boom period, with many of its early practitioners, such as Screeching Weasel, The Queers, and The Mr. T Experience, all attempting to capitalize on this sudden windfall of interest. But by 1998, the genre would become a playground for juvenile songs and increasingly homogenous music, as bands attempted to cash-in on the brash, snottiness of Dookie. There would still be innovation within the form, but its walls were only expanded when a hardcore band entered the arena.
Kid Dynamite formed in 1997 after the break-up of Lifetime, the New Jersey band that spent the bulk of their career vacillating between styles. A cursory listen to 1995’s Hello Bastards or 1997’s Jersey’s Best Dancers revealed that Lifetime were students of Embrace, a band that attempted to reframe hardcore as something more genteel and poppy. As a result, Lifetime’s sound could be described as pop-punk, hardcore, or even emo, refracted in whatever way matched a listener’s reference points. But when Lifetime ended in 1997, guitarist Dan Yemin was already looking to expand on what his band had built, attempting to find a way to ratchet up Lifetime’s aggression without cutting out the bubbly guitar melodies he’d become so adept at crafting.
Yemin quickly joined up with bassist Steve Ferrell and, before long, they began their search for a drummer. Ferrell recommended Dave Wagenschutz, a former Lifetime drummer whose relationship with Yemin had soured after being booted from the band. But with Ferrell as a makeshift mediator, the pair slowly made amends, repairing their friendship and kickstarting a new era for them as musicians. While it was clear Yemin wasn’t trying to distance himself from Lifetime, the songs he was writing in the wake of that band were shorter and punchier, with riffs that exited as quickly as they entered. Ferrell’s bass was noodly and nimble in the way of Descendents, and Wagenschutz pummeling drum thwacks united their disparate approaches. Together the trio would write six songs, and with Yemin not comfortable to take up vocals just yet—aside from the stray shout of “Go!” here and there—they’d begin their search for a vocalist.
Recording all their songs as instrumentals, the embryonic version of Kid Dynamite began passing cassettes to everyone in the scene in the hopes that fate would match them with the right vocalist. The tapes would circulate widely, ultimately landing in the hands of the former singer of Bound, Jason Shevchuk. He initially heard the demo when a friend was trying out for Kid Dynamite and asked Shevchuk to help him with vocal phrasings for the audition. The band passed on this submission, so Shevchuk went ahead and tried his hand at it, too. By then, Kid Dynamite had been looking for singers for almost a year, and when Shevchuk showed up, well rehearsed after a month of listening to the band’s demo while screaming along into his pillow so he didn’t disturb his neighbors, the band found their singer.
Even without a vocalist, Yemin had most of Kid Dynamite’s debut album already written, and, given his previous relationship with Jade Tree, the band was signed to the label relatively quickly. At the time, Jade Tree was on a hot streak, releasing records by many of the most exciting bands in that orbit, such as AVAIL and The Promise Ring, and once word was spreading that a new, post-Lifetime band was together, people were chomping at the bit to hear what they had cooked up.
When Kid Dynamite released their self-titled album that October, it rippled through the the punk rock universe. The opening track “Pause” was outright startling, as the band started on a downbeat, as though the record had skipped a few seconds ahead into the middle of the song. It was a deliberate move, giving people no time to think about what they were hearing and, instead, sucking them up into the band’s giddy energy. When the vocals came in, Shevchuk sounded like a snarling dog, a far cry from the mealy-mouthed delivery of Lifetime’s Ari Katz. The band threw another curveball when, around the 45-second mark, they paused briefly only to rush back in with a burst of Descendents-inspired poppiness. Shevchuk’s voice was still harsh, but his ability to offer up joyful whoas showed Kid Dynamite wasn’t solely concerned with aggression.
In 17 songs across a scant 27 minutes, Kid Dynamite established themselves as a different kind of band. While melodic hardcore had its own set of standards, Kid Dynamite felt outside of it. They were taking the framework of Descendents and making a more modern version of it, one that could be heavy without forgoing melody. They were a hardcore band playing pop-punk without any shame. “K05-0564” had the kind of melodic guitar lead that would have fit on a three-chord, Ramonescore album, but it pivoted into a singalong that packed an even bigger punch, with Wagenschutz’s drumming giving the song a heavy pulse and allowing Shevchuk to actually sing. And as the song jumped into an outright breakdown at its end, Shevchuk offered up an inhuman scream in the song’s final seconds, and all but shattered perceptions of what pop-punk or hardcore should sound like.
The band had no standard approach to songwriting, as they were able to take three 20-second songs and make them feel fully realized on the album. These tracks, “Sweet Shop Syndicate,” “Scarysmurf,” and “32 Frames Per Second,” condensed the band’s approach into micro bursts, yet each one felt complete due to the band’s ability to effortlessly slip into a hook-laden section even for just a single measure. When the band actually spread out, as they did on the mid-paced tracks like “Bookworm” and “3 O’Clock”—two of the longer songs on the album—Kid Dynamite showed they were capable of pulling off songs that functioned as quasi-ballads. These songs took hardcore’s chugging rhythms and softened them, allowing Shevchuk to show he could carry a tune without losing his raspy edge.
While Shevchuk’s voice drew people in, his lyrics provided plenty to chew on, as he openly challenged the rampant egotism of other men in the punk scene. “Sweet Shop Syndicate” was a blunt, feminist anthem, a pointed declaration against false allyship that, while not nuanced in the way one would hope for in 2018, sent a strong message in 1998: “Caress her emotions / Caress her trust / Squeeze them tighter then take her soul / Polluted by the crimes of my gender, she surrenders to the sweetness.” He explored a similar subject on “Showoff,” balking at those that used progressive politics for their own gain: “Put others down to put yourself on top, despite the people that you hurt / The life you glamorize, exploit, and advertise, means nothing to you.” Shevchuk effectively used songs to call bullshit on the sloganeering that had long fueled punk songs, challenging bands to actually take action instead of just singing about it.
The same year Kid Dynamite was released, Saves The Day released Can’t Slow Down, and a Florida band, then going by the name A New Found Glory, would also make their intentions to marry pop-punk and hardcore together known. Neither band had the caustic bite of Kid Dynamite, but it was clear a trend was emerging. But where those bands would take a few albums to find themselves, Kid Dynamite was fully formed.
After one more album, 2000’s Shorter, Faster, Louder, Kid Dynamite broke up, as Shevchuk wanted to finally finish film school. The band would reunite for benefit shows in 2003 and 2005, and by then plenty of bands were following in their tracks. Unlike AVAIL, whose influence felt more like a mutation of melodic hardcore, Kid Dynamite devotees just tried to sound like the band they loved.
In the mid-2000s, a rash of albums by bands such as Shook Ones, No Trigger, Crime In Stereo, and even Polar Bear Club used Kid Dynamite not just as their main influence, but as their entire stylistic goal. Each of these bands would grow in ways that broke that mold, but they’d carry that association with them all the while, rarely allowing them to step outside of the shadow of the band they so desperately wanted to be. There were subtle variations in each of their sounds, but it was effectively Kid Dynamite worship, so much so that they could never unring that bell. Before long, bands like Caleb Lionheart would be attempting to pull from the second-wave Kid Dynamite acts, effectively becoming a photocopy of a photocopy, yet bold enough to title their first EP Think Hardcore, Play Pop Punk as if they came up with that notion.
In 2009, the label Black Numbers released Carry the Torch: A Tribute to Kid Dynamite, which saw every one of Kid Dynamite’s songs covered by a different band. It showed how deep the band’s influence had permeated, with hardcore acts like Comadre and Lewd Acts paying their respects, and boasted just as many pop-punk covers courtesy of The Ergs!, Broadway Calls, and The Wonder Years. The involvement of The Wonder Years drew the most direct line outward from Kid Dynamite. As the pop-punk phenoms were clearly versed in bands like Saves The Day, their tribute to their Philadelphia forebears helped give them some credibility with those that questioned them. Though The Wonder Years would pull from more commercial sources, their lineage was indebted to Kid Dynamite, even if it was only acknowledged through a cover.
Like most bands do, Kid Dynamite reunited in 2010 to play a few festivals, including This is Hardcore, The Fest, and FYF Fest. The band never returned to full-time status, instead opting to pull the plug again in 2013, having given new fans the chance to see them and allowing the band members to soak up the adulation one last time. And though Kid Dynamite’s discography remains small, it’s a testament to what they did the first time out, making an album that reframed what pop-punk would sound like over the next decade, and spawning a litany of imitators, all in just 27 minutes.
David Anthony is on Twitter.