There's blood dripping from the mouth of Schoolyard Heroes frontwoman Ryann Donnelly. She's wearing her signature tattered prom dress and seems frightened and invincible at the same time, a riveting conflation that's borderline erotic, but more unsettling and strangely beautiful than anything so basely perverse.
Schoolyard Heroes (CD release) With the Birthday Massacre, Kane Hodder, In Love, and War. El Corazon, 109 Eastlake Ave. E., 381-3094, www.elcorazonseattle.com. $12 adv./$15 DOS. All ages. 7:30 p.m. Tues., Sept. 18.
Thankfully, I'm not actually looking at a bloody-mouthed Donnelly in person. She's in the booth across from me at Al's Tavern in Wallingford, surrounded by an early-evening crowd of blue-collared old-timers, sipping on pints of Rainier while a Mariners game plays on the dusty TVs. This image of her is on a MacBook screen belonging to bassist/co-vocalist Jonah Bergman. He's showing me a rough cut of the video for "Plastic Surgery Hall of Fame," the first single from the band's third record and major-label debut, Abominations. It's the vision of fraternal directing team Brian and Brad Palmer that has left Donnelly with a bloody cupid's bow, coal-rimmed eyes, and a demeanor that's both fierce and feral, panic-stricken and passion-channeling.
After eight years, two full-length releases, and a staggering amount of blood, sweat, and torn taffeta, Schoolyard Heroes are standing on the precipice that young bands dream of, even if they're too self-consciously cool to admit it. Former SPIN writer and all-around New York it-grrl Sarah Lewitinn signed them earlier this year to her new label, Stolen Transmission, an imprint with the powerful backing of Island/Def Jam records. Their forthcoming record, Abominations, drops on Sept. 18, and their feverishly loyal fan base is so eager to hear it that the band's message board is overflowing with theories about track listings, heated critiques of album artwork, and anxious concerns about the band "getting too big." After Bergman (a bespectacled, verbose character with a mop of ringlets dwarfed only by guitarist Steve Bonnell's massive Afro) shuts down his computer and we pay our tab, he, Donnelly, Bonnell, and drummer Brian Turner have to hurry back home to finish packing for their tour with Warped Tour headliners Sum 41.
Three days prior to our meeting, SYH performed for a crowd of thousands on Bumbershoot's mainstage at Memorial Stadium, acting as welcome replacements for the band +44, who canceled at the last minute. Inducing mosh pits while scaling scaffolding seemed like second nature to them. And while Bergman admits it was "probably the largest crowd we've ever played for," the band was utterly in its element. "Really, it was just a lot of fun," says Donnelly.
Looking back on Schoolyard Heroes' history, and watching them interact with one another offstage, it seems they've been poised for this pinnacle from the start. Young bands that have stuck it out for more than a few years often exude a strong sense of camaraderie, but SYH tend to one another like devoted family members. They admit to the occasional intraband passive-aggressive moments, and cross-talk during the interview with animated enthusiasm, but their affection and respect for one another is obviously rooted in the reality that they literally grew up together. Donnelly and Bergman met when she was just 14 and he was 17.
"I feel like this started with Jonah," says Donnelly, gesturing to him across the table at Kabul Afghan Cuisine, where we're eating dinner before heading over to Al's. "We were both on student council together. One day we were the two earliest people [at a council meeting], and we started talking about music. I was completely enamored with Jonah, honestly, because he knew such a vast amount about music that I didn't know about. So we started trading records."
That record trading led to a friendship built upon a shared affection for the Vandals and the Misfits, the latter of which provided them with the cover song that got them yanked offstage early in their career during a battle-of-the-bands show at Tacoma's Club Impact, a now-defunct all-ages venue run by conservative Christians. "We were supposed to cover 'Last Caress,' and we got cut off because of the lyrics, explains Jonah, referring to the song's campy refrain about raping and pillaging. At that point, guitarist Bonnell was handling vocals, but Donnelly was soon added as the band's singer, after a misguided attempt at playing guitar.
"I was obsessed with the idea of starting a band, and it seemed like Jonah was going to do the same thing," she admits. "But I was a terrible guitar player, and it was kind of ridiculous that I was even trying because I had been singing since I was 8." Indeed, not only had she been starring in school musicals, but she had studied opera and was already honing her calling-card siren, a disarming fusion of classical technique and scalding punk delivery. Sonically, however, Bergman and Bonnell had yet to find their footing, and were playing what Bergman and Donnelly both shamelessly describe as "poppier, mall-punk stuff."
Thanks to the encouragement of Rush-loving drummer Turner (whom Bergman met during their first year at the University of Washington) and the assertions of avowed metalhead Bonnell, Bergman heard their mix of Iron Maiden–inspired riffs, aggressive, angular bass lines, and ornamental female wailings with a fresh perspective. The eventual result was a sound that was not only commanding and unique but that appealed to kids burned out on (or, more likely, bored to death by) the disingenuous-but-fashionable whimper of emo.
"Our first record was a mixture of songs that came before and after that turning point," explains Bergman. That record, The Funeral Sciences, was released in 2003 by Nabil Ayers' label, the Control Group, as was their sophomore effort, 2005's Fantastic Wounds. Despite their youth (now just 25, Bergman is the elder statesman), they immediately exhibited a precocious work ethic, touring whenever they could and cultivating a devoted fan base. "[Our fans] baked us a cake the other day," gushes Donnelly, who now attracts a handful of female doppelgängers at their shows. "We really do have amazing fans," agrees Bonnell.
The formidable brawn and beauty that colors Abominations will undoubtedly help broaden that fan base, even if Lewitinn hadn't set them up for a classic major-label push. Wise choices abound, from hiring producer John Goodmanson (responsible for breakout records by Sleater-Kinney and Blonde Redhead) to the decision to rev up the band's inherent vitriol and pageantry while razor-tuning the goth-pop notes for broader appeal without blunting the edges. This approach makes tracks like "Cemetery Girls" and "All the Pretty Corpses" sound like darkly catchy future teen anthems, while even indie elitists will have to admit that home runs like "Plastic Surgery Hall of Fame" and "Sometimes They Come Back" have something to offer nostalgic At the Drive-In fans and current Blood Brothers enthusiasts.
Despite the excitement and pressure that await them on the eve of their tour, they collectively remain both pragmatic and optimistic. "It always seems like there's a next step," muses Bergman. "I used to sit in my bedroom and think, 'Damn, if we could just play Graceland, I would die a happy guy.' Now I just hope that people get to see us for who we are."
Bonnell leans over my tape recorder and adds, "And that we keep taking care of each other."