Zero Pop-Punk Shame: Upset’s Ali Koehler

Post Author: Mac Pogue

Adulthood arrives unexpectedly. About twenty minutes before our scheduled interview, Ali Koehler emails to say, “Sorry. I was busy holding a baby the past couple hours and drinking wine. Let’s just chat and wing it.” It isn’t just any baby. Over Skype, she explains, “It’s my boyfriend’s-fiancee’s-boss’ baby. [His boss] is married to Nate from the Foo Fighters.” Unprompted, she confirms: “It’s a Foo baby.”

And for anyone without instant recall of the Foo Fighters’ lineup, Nate Mendel from the Foo Fighters also refers to Nate Mendel from Sunny Day Real Estate. “Woah,” I muster, and Koehler shares the fannish bemusement. “Yeah,” she replies. “I’m just like, ‘Oh my god that’s so cool.’”

The juxtaposition of newborn baby and Sunny Day Real Estate gets at the heart of Upset, the pop-punk outfit Koehler founded in 2013 following her tenure in Vivian Girls and Best Coast. Her present life involves tectonic shifts: growing up, relationships, work. And then there’s the unabashed Sunny Day Real Estate fandom and the fact of her music’s conscious appeal to what Koehler calls “former mall punks,” at once attempting to define and to grasp for the pop-punk dream in 2015.

Upset’s newest release, ’76, marks a step forward from the band’s first album, She’s Gone, which collected songs dating back to Koehler’s time Rutgers University. Released on cassette through Lauren Records earlier this year and 10-inch last month, ’76 was written as a new lineup coalesced. “I was like, ‘Let’s just get whatever we have right now recorded,” Koehler says. “That way we can kind of learn to play together… It all came together in February.”

An ace lineup—featuring Patty Schemel of Hole, Rachel Gagliardi of Slutever, and Lauren Freeman of Benny the Jet Rodriguez—enabled that rigorous timeline.

’76‘s dusty Polaroid cover intimates hindsight. Instead of the illustrated youths set against a black background for the cover of She’s Gone, which suggests an unflinching focus on the realities of adolescence, ‘76’s imagery assures listeners of greater distance. If She’s Gone was giddy and high on existence, then ’76 is sobered, reserved, and reflective. In other words, the EP allows space for examining the emotional rushes experienced in She’s Gone. “Glass Ceiling” begins the album solemnly pondering the give-and-take of relationships, for instance. Thematically focusing on maturity is a common end-point for pop-punk bands, since bandleaders generally learn to process the emotional overloads engendered by the music’s immediate thrills. As an avowed pop-punk fan, Koehler is especially keen to how songwriters’ perspectives shift across their discographies.

She recalls hearing the mid-period Get Up Kids album Guilt Show in high school. “I was like, this isn’t for me, but it will be,’” she says. The Kansas City band began wrote albums from when they were just teenagers through adulthood, she observes, “So, no matter what stage you are in life, there’s a Get Up Kids album for you to relate to.”

Pop-punk and emo haven’t exactly staked a reputation on inclusiveness, but Koehler lights up at the idea of exposing Upset to fans inundated by the genres’ more retrograde, homogenous contingent. “If I could play Warped Tour—that would be so cool,” says, suggesting that she’d take the opportunity to spin that roving pop-punk cliché in a progressive direction. “I could be just as good as everyone else and talk about the same topics, but from a different perspective,” she reckons.

And yet, as Koehler notes incredulously, Upset counts members of some of the best-known pop-punk groups among its fans already. Look no further than her appearance on stage earlier this year with Blink-182, taking lead vocals on “Dammit”. Indeed, the figures that once adorned Koehler’s walls are now among her peers, if not friends and collaborators. Koehler recalls pinning Spin’s “Emo Fashion Report” to her teenage wall. Upon meeting future Vivian Girls bandmate Cassie Ramone in college, she says, “I messaged her on Myspace, ‘Were you in Spin’s Emo Fashion Report?’ She was like, ‘Oh my god, don’t tell anyone!’”