Stay What You Are: A battle of rival Emo Nights is brewing around Boston

Featured photo by Nick Karp // Emo Night Brooklyn

Ask someone to define emo and you’re likely to get multiple answers. Ask someone which Emo Night they are attending around the Boston area this week, and you’ll get more than one answer to that, too.

The idea of two competing Emo Nights — on back-to-back days of the week like this, no less — may seem like a decadence for a subculture already oft-defined by self-obsession. First, Emo Night Boston returns this Thursday (May 25) for its monthly residency at The Sinclair in Cambridge. Emo Night Brooklyn: Boston follows on Friday (May 26), at Brighton Music Hall in Allston.

By 2017, Emo Nights have become such a national thing that discussing what an “Emo Night” is hardly bears repeating. Yet Emo Night Boston and Emo Night Brooklyn: Boston are so different in vibe and style, that a basic context is necessary.

For the most part, Emo Night is when people, typically in their 20s and 30s, gather and listen to music from the ’90s onwards, played loudly in a bar or rock club. Depending on the night’s aesthetic, music ranges from the Promise Ring and Mineral to Taking Back Sunday to PUP. Many nights devolve into sing-alongs. Many think pieces have been written about their success.

The nights, which could easily have first been dismissed as niche, have become such successes that Emo Night Boston won a 2016 Boston Music Award for Best Music Night, besting competition like Soulelujah at ZuZu and Heroes at the Middle East. And, perhaps more peculiarly, they’ve resulted in nights like Emo Night Brooklyn, which travel the country like a band on tour.

And now both are going head to head here in Boston.

Emo Night Brooklyn was created in 2015 by best friends Alex Badanes and Ethan Maccoby. The two grew up in England but went to college in Boston, and began bringing the night (titled Emo Night Brooklyn: Boston when it’s on the road from New York) to ONCE Ballroom in Somerville back in February. Emo Night Boston is helmed by local writer Luke O’Neil (an occasional Vanyaland contributor) and originally began at Cambridge bar Brick and Mortar in 2014, with O’Neil and fellow founders Texas Mike and Jeremy Karelis spinning tunes off a Spotify playlist. O’Neil moved the event to The Sinclair in 2015 and today, Texas Mike and Karelis both live in Los Angeles, although they have nothing to do with Emo Nite LA. (We’ll get to that later.)

This may seem confusing.

Choose your favorite lyric about taking a deep breath, let it out slow, and we’ll break into the details.

Across the country, Emo Night: Brooklyn plays rooms from 300 to 1,000 in capacity, depending on Badanes and Maccoby’s location. The party operates like a roving rave, and they usually bring a guest DJ. (Their first event featured William Beckett from The Academy Is…) Maccoby and Badanes are the on-stage party hosts, jumping to keep the crowd hyped, and people face the stage like they’re watching a set at Coachella. At a point, black balloons may even descend from the ceiling, stamped with the evening’s hashtag. A step-and-repeat photo op (again, correctly branded for ultimate social optimization) allows you to say thnks fr th mmrs and capture the evening’s festivities before you get too drunk while screaming to your favorite songs.

At The Sinclair, Emo Night Boston (usually) takes place in the venue’s restaurant, sprawling over two floors and onto the roof top deck. O’Neil stations himself on the first floor, in the corner of the bar, a laptop open in front of him. Across both levels, people cluster around tables, singing along to the songs they know and Shazam-ing the songs they don’t. The night begins at 9:30 p.m. and 15 minutes later, the downstairs is already filled.

“We just want to have the most epic party,” says Emo Night Brooklyn’s Alex Badanes. “We were happy in our basement with our friends. If we stopped at the first bar we did it at, with 100 capacity, that would’ve been epic, too.”

Badanes explains the conceit of Emo Night Brooklyn as “the ultimate pre-game.” The vibe of Emo Night Boston, however, is more like the cool house party that makes you decide you don’t need to go to the game after all.

If we’re trafficking in sports metaphors — possibly uncomfortable terrain for fans — Emo Night Brooklyn knows that when they lose home court advantage, they face comparisons to whatever market they’re entering. “Like any other industry or business, when something becomes successful, there’s going to be competition inevitably,” Badanes says. “Certain people choose to use one service over the other. That’s just kind of how things work. We try to just focus on our own thing and focus on what we love to do.”

But are people even comparing different Emo Nights?

At Emo Night Boston’s April event, Jenna Calderara, fan of various incarnations of emo nights, perks up when she hears we’re doing a story on the dynamics of different parties. “Oh, I know all those guys. I know TJ [Petracca of Emo Nite LA] and the Emo Night Brooklyn guys,” she says, picking up her phone. While she texts, she explains her experiences at other national nights, like Emo Night LA, which operates on a larger, club scale and also occasionally tours.

“It’s a fun night with friends,” Calderara says. “And the spectacle is impressive.” She pauses. Around her at The Sinclair, groups sit on stools surrounding iron-legged biergarten styled picnic tables. Heat lamps give the roof an amber glow and everyone is either talking or drinking.

“It’s fun for Boston to stay this size,” she concludes. “I don’t know if I’d come here if this got any bigger.”

Suddenly, Calderara laughs. She’s just gotten a text from TJ.

“He says to tell you Emo Nite LA is going to Webster Hall [in New York] next week. To crush Emo Night Brooklyn.”

We’re on a roof in Cambridge, and whether it’s emo ego or good natured teasing between peers, a declaration has been cast from Los Angeles to New York. Even if fans aren’t tracking other nights, it seems one thing is for sure. Promoters are.

Emo Night Boston at The Sinclair in Cambridge.
Emo Night Boston at The Sinclair in Cambridge.

O’Neil first explains what Emo Night Boston is by what it isn’t.

“Our thing is not a nostalgia night,” O’Neil says of Emo Night Boston. “People approach emo like it was this four year period on MTV. It has this ‘lol’ attached to it. Ours has nothing to do with that and I really don’t want it to.”

While O’Neil doesn’t put his emo in air quotes, and isn’t in it for the lulz, he’s also the first to admit that he knows Emo Nights are a weird thing to be so earnest about. “I know it’s silly to take a genre so seriously,” he says. “I make jokes myself.”

What O’Neil is serious about, is creating a playlist and experience that move beyond emo’s eyeliner references. “The framing of emo as this tiny pocket of time I find to be really reductive and cheesy. It’s literally been a staple of rock and punk music since the ’90s,” he says. “To me, the funnest part is playing brand new stuff. It’s a super exciting time, especially locally. Some of the most critically acclaimed rock and punk records for the last few years have been The Hotelier, Modern Baseball… Those bands are huge. They sell out shows everywhere and it has nothing to do with nostalgia or eyeliner or Hot Topic or skinny jeans.”

For Maccoby and Badanes, however, nostalgia isn’t necessarily a dirty word. They admit that recreating the feeling they had as teenagers and in college is, sort of, what Emo Night: Brooklyn is all about.

“I think our party is really unique in terms of the relationship between me and Alex,” says Maccoby. He and Badanes have been best friends since they were two years old. “You have two guys who have been best friends for more than 25 years. When we’re on stage, we see people in the audience with their best friend. You get to travel through time.”

He continues: “This is literally what we were doing in our parents’ basements and in our dorm rooms. We rock the fuck out. We jump around. It’s pretty awesome, it’s really organic energy. It’s always been a goal for me and Alex to keep the vibe of ‘This is the best night ever.’ We love to party, and listen to great music, and our goal is to make the parties more and more epic. Our main motivation when we began was, maybe if we bring people to listen to the music we love, the bar will give us free beer.”

“I know it’s silly to take a genre so seriously,” says Emo Night Boston’s Luke O’Neil. “I make jokes myself.”

Emo Night Brooklyn’s digital presence — its website urges attendees to “SCREAM. DANCE. RAGE. REPEAT.” — doesn’t shy away from leaning into the nostalgia of the era, either. The Facebook event description for May 26 sets the night’s expectations by framing a series of questions, meant to tug at an emo heart’s delicate strings: “If this is your first ENB, ask yourself this: Do you miss Jesse Lacey’s lyrics on your AIM away message? Do you still wear your skinny jeans? Is “Decade Under The Influence” STILL your top played song on Spotify? Welcome Home. Join us, while we leave Brooklyn (and) party like it’s 2005 so we can Dance Dance the night away to a Decade Under The Influence.”

It’s a different approach than Emo Night Boston’s presence, which is minimalist down to the spelling and simply promises to play “all your 9ts, 2kz, and new emo, pop punk, and post-hardcore favorites.” If anything, comparing the two highlights that “Emo Night” isn’t a one-sized-white-belt-fits-all nomenclature.

But with the same key three words in each night’s name, it’s almost too tempting not to juxtapose.

Weeks before Emo Night Brooklyn’s March event at Brighton Music Hall, a fake Facebook event page appeared: “Emo Night Brooklyn (Boston) featuring Emo Night NYC in Boston Brooklyn Emo Night Foam Party.”

O’Neil admits it was him. He deleted the event not long after creating it.

“My point was how confusing it is that there’s an Emo Night Brooklyn: Boston,” O’Neil says, adding he has no animosity towards Brighton Music Hall’s booking agency (The Sinclair, it should be noted, is owned by rival outfit Bowery Boston). “I love the Crossroads guys. They do a great job and book a lot of great emo bands. We just fundamentally disagreed on if it’s cool to do a night by the same name in the same town. I happen to think it’s very confusing to have a night with the same name with a parentheses at the end, for the consumer. If a night called Soulelujah (Brooklyn) came to Boston, that would be super weird.”

O’Neil doesn’t pretend to have claim over the name. A search of “Emo Night” on Facebook will leave you lost in the infinite scroll, as nights pop up from San Francisco to Nashville to Tampa to South Africa. It’s not an event anyone owns — although in 2015, Emo Nite LA did, briefly, try to trademark the term “Emo Night.” (The internet responded swiftly.)

“It’s not the end of the world. I didn’t invent emo night. I just saw a lot of people do it in other cities. I don’t know.” O’Neil laughs. “This is pretty emo.”

Emo Night Brooklyn explains that, when they tour, they come in peace. They make no claims to Emo Night Supremacy. “We want to make sure when we go into new cities that we really respect the local scene and that it’s not us invading the city,” says Maccoby. “It’s just creating a space and an awesome party for people to have the best night of their lives. Alex and I don’t take ourselves too seriously. We just like to travel, have fun, and party. I don’t think either of us are trying to take over the world, one emo night at a time.”

“We’re trying to do our own thing,” says Badanes. “We work really hard. We just want to have the most epic party. We were happy in our basement with our friends. If we stopped at the first bar we did it at, with 100 capacity, that would’ve been epic, too.”

No matter the differences in approach, using music as a way to connect friends is the shared theme — strangely or obviously — of both nights.

“I know it sounds corny but it really is super fun to bring people together to sing along and get stoked about this very vital music that’s being made right now and really just to have fun,” says O’Neil. “People just want to come hang out with their friends and make friends who like the same music that they do. That’s always been what any sort of punk rock scene has been about. That’s not a trend. That’s just what music is.”

EMO NIGHT BOSTON :: Thursday, May 25 at The Sinclair, 52 Church St. in Cambridge, MA :: 9:30 p.m., 21-plus, free admission :: Facebook event page :: Bowery Boston event page

Emo Night Boston Flyer

EMO NIGHT BROOKLYN: BOSTON :: Friday, May 26 at Brighton Music Hall, 158 Brighton Ave. in Allston, MA :: 8 p.m., 21-plus, $10 :: Facebook event page :: Advance tickets :: Featured photo via Emo Night Brooklyn

Emo Night Brooklyn Boston