Arts Desk

PG. 99 Bring Screamo’s Past to the Present

When the band was around between 1998 and 2003, Sterling, Va., post-hardcore group PG. 99 may have been easy to miss. The screamo band bathed its sound in a kind of dark, unrelentingly violent aura that doesn't have much in common with the pop-fueled punk sounds that dominated alt-rock airwaves in the early aughts. PG. 99 (sometimes spelled pageninetynine) was an underground phenomenon, but as is the case with many dormant, independent bands, it's developed a fierce cult in the years since it split—so much that tickets are hard to come by for the band's show at Black Cat tomorrow.

"The band always had an aura of excitement and energy surrounding them, which only seemed to grow during their five years of activity," says Andy Low, who runs Robotic Empire. The Richmond label's inaugural release was a PG. 99 record: Low recently re-released two of the band's albums on vinyl, Singles and document #8. The latter, which came out 10 years ago, is a fan favorite, and it's just one part of what's helped the band's audience grow postmortem. "Since disbanding, I think rumors and legends slowly developed and word sort of continued to spread," Low says. "I've seen it happen with some bands where they become more popular after disbanding, but with PG.99 they just seemed to maintain a healthy following."

The group's legend is rock history-worthy: PG. 99 became known for raucous, cathartic live performances; the group would sometimes perform with more than a dozen people; it cranked out 14 releases, toured hard, and sometimes partied a little too hard before burning out.

All the newfound attention surrounding the group's reunion has been a little surreal for Mike Taylor, PG. 99's guitarist and principle songwriter. He attributes fans' growing interest to timing as well as mystery. "We did a whole lot really quick, made all these albums, and then just disappeared," he says. "leaving in the time the Internet was picking up ... that had a lot to do with PG. 99's ability to come back and still have interest."

Another reason is that a new guard of bands are reviving the style. Groups like Pianos Become The Teeth, Touche Amore, and The Saddest Landscape are at the peak of the new-old screamo scene.

Actually, the Saddest Landscape is an even closer peer: They started up 10 years ago in Boston. Frontman Andy Maddox recalls catching PG. 99 early on in the decade. "When I first heard them, honestly they kind of seemed like a mess to me, but really kind of entertaining," he says. "They would show up and there would just be this force, these amps and these people that would take over basements. It didn't matter to me that they were messy." But Maddox saw the band grow out of that messiness and into a tighter group, with document #8 as its pinnacle. He says that PG. 99 became something of a Fugazi-like band in its scene. Touche Amore singer Jeremy Bolm welcomes the comparison. "When our band started, we threw that out there pretty often," Bolm says. "That was the intention of that sort of style, pretty much '90s screamo hardcore."

PG. 99's also offers a kind of appealing sincerity. "Everyone into this type of punk rock or post-hardcore can definitely see when a band is being honest," says Pianos Become The Teeth guitarist Mike York. "They meant it 110 percent." It's that passion that's part of the appeal for York. "That's one of the coolest things of this kind of music," he says. "It's an honor to be included in it."

As much as today's torchbearers admire PG. 99, Taylor certainly appreciates their work, too. "It's definitely really cool because it gives us a platform to come back and do it again and it still has meaning," he says. A quick look at YouTube videos of the group's first reunion performance last week in Richmond during Best Friends Day demonstrates that.

"It was incredible, it was pretty overwhelming," Taylor says. "But at the same time it was kind of funny cause it didn't hit me that we were doing this PG. 99 show until I was checking out the shirts." Taylor has been playing with his PG. 99 cohorts Johnny Ward and his brother Chris in the dark folk project Pygmy Lush, so their time together preparing for the reunion didn't feel like it was out of the ordinary: While inner turmoil caused the band to break up in the first place, Taylor says that PG. 99's members made their friendship a priority, and it's part of why getting back together was pretty easy.

Taylor says the band had gotten offers in the past, but it wasn't until a festival organizer named Curtis Grimstead, who runs Rorschach Records, asked him in January. "I asked him and he said 'haha, that's really funny,'" Grimstead says. "Later that night he said 'actually maybe we could do that.'" Taylor says, "We liked the idea, so Curtis didn't really have to do much convincing." When all 1,000 tickets to their Best Friends Day set at Canal Club sold out, the band decided to schedule a second show in D.C.

After months of planning and learning all of document #8 for the show, the band delivered a 30-minute set that still affects Taylor. "It seemed more real and authentic to just get up there and make a whole bunch of blistering noise, and that's kind of what happened," he says. "It was beyond my expectations. I didn't expect us to play as well as we did. It was really something special, the crowd and the band kind of wrapped itself into one yet again."

That sets a pretty high bar for tomorrow night's show. The band won't play document #8 again, at least not in order, but Taylor doesn't want to skimp on the performance. And this could be a deciding factor in whether or not PG. 99 plays another show soon. For Taylor and the rest of the band, the future seems pretty up in the air. "I guess we'll just let this D.C. show come and pass and see how that feels."

PG. 99 performs with Circle Takes The Square and Thou tomorrow at 9 p.m. at Black Cat, 1811 14th St. NW.

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  • Patrick

    Very cool seeing them get this kind of publicity -- never would have expected it, but they sure do deserve it.

    I'd really consider them more punk rock than screamo, though. Maybe "emotive hardcore" or something...screamo just doesn't seem to fit their overall style and message, even when the genre is used with its "original" connotations.

    Also, screamo "dominated the airwaves in the early aughts"? I don't think any form of screamo really "hit it big" until late 2004 or so, which I think can be almost entirely blamed on the rise of MySpace and the resulting trends and bands that came with it...and even then, "screamo" bands didn't start getting real mainstream attention until '07, I'd say. But maybe I'm just being too nitpicky. Great article nonetheless!

  • Leor Galil

    Patrick: Screamo falls under the general umbrella of "punk"/"punk rock," so it's not terribly out-of-bounds in that context. But no matter the context, PG. 99 is often regarded as an important part of the screamo family tree, even though a lot of screamo bands that have come out in the past decade or so barely reflect them, though some underground acts are moving back to PG. 99's style. They've often been described as screamo, with that term in quotes and a lengthy explanation as to why they don't fit into what it's often perceived to be, and the term screamo came up in a number of the interviews I did for this post.

    And as far as screamo "dominating the airwaves in the early aughts," yes, it certainly did. The New York Times Magazine even dedicated a lot of space to cover the rise of screamo in the summer of 2003, titled, well, "The Summer of Screamo":

    That's when mainstream screamo's biggest acts--Thursday, Taking Back Sunday, Thrice, The Used--really hit it big, many a one hit wonder popped up around the same time (Finch, Vendetta Red, etc.), and the future scene-leaders first hit the grind (Underoath, etc). So, yes, early aughts.

    Anyway, thanks for the kind words!

  • Patrick

    I stand corrected; I had forgotten about bands like Thursday, Thrice and The Used and how big they were on the alt airwaves (MTV2, Fuse etc) back around '02/'03, particularly that they were thought of as screamo back then. I guess I kind of associated "newer pop-fueled screamo" with bands that rose to fame due to internet popularity starting around '05, i.e. Underoath, From First to Last, Hawthorne Heights and so on.

    Not to be too cynical, but each new "progression" of "screamo" has gotten consistently worse IMO. There was the "first wave" of 'screamo' bands back in the late 90's/early 00's that got zero mainstream attention but had a fair amount of fervent underground followers and all seemed to form and break up in the same five year period (1998 - 2003, give or take a year), then there was the "second, more pop-fueled wave" as you mentioned...Thursday, Taking Back Sunday, Thrice, The Used...which I don't think you can really call screamo either; post-hardcore would be the appropriate term I believe, but again, I'm splitting hairs. After that came the "third wave," aka Myspace and "scene bands" a la Underoath, From First to Last, Hawthorne Heights etc as previously mentioned, which were the types of bands I figured you were mentioning. Now in the past 2 - 3 years those bands have begun fading away to be replaced by a "fourth wave" of screamo with the big difference being the introduction of auto-tune and synthesizers mixed in with the screams and breakdowns, i.e. Attack! Attack!, We Came As Romans, Of Mice and Men, I See Stars and so on.

    So the fact that bands from the "first wave" -- pg.99, City of Caterpillar, Orchid, Saetia and so on, are labeled under the same genre as bands from the second, third and fourth waves seems ridiculous to me, but I'd say the real fault probably lies in people labeling those other bands as screamo rather than labeling the original bands under that genre...even though I'm still not totally sold on those "first wave" bands really deserving the "screamo" label anyway.

  • Jeanette Daphne Thomas

    the first wave of screamo was actually in San Diego in the early 90s, with bands like Heroin and Antioch Arrow, and largely centered around Gravity Records, so your waves are a little off. also, the term skramz is now used to further divide the older, more aggressive screamo from the newer, more pop-oriented fare that followed.