On its debut album, Meet Me @ The Altar carries a pop-punk legacy into the future
It can be a disorienting moment, when a broken shard of yourself kept cushioned to your chest reflects the light of thousands of others like it. For the last few years, closeted pop-punk fans from all walks of life have been stumbling around sun-blinded from the glare of it: "OK, it's cool that everyone loves Olivia Rodrigo now, but where the hell did you all come from?"
But just because you felt alone setting your MySpace page to play "I'm Not Okay (I Promise)" and using Face down in the dirt, she said, "This doesn't hurt" as an away message doesn't mean you actually were.
It's easy to forget the sheer commercial power of that mid-2000s heyday, with bands like Fall Out Boy, The All-American Rejects and Good Charlotte taking over not just ye olde bastions of popular music MTV and VH1, but spawning Top 40 radio hits like "Sugar We're Goin Down," "I Write Sins Not Tragedies" and "Misery Business." An average of 600,000 people attended the Vans Warped Tour every summer. Pop-punk fans are legion.
That's readily apparent in the number of mainstream artists from a new generation — like Rodrigo, WILLOW and even Billie Eilish — returning to that sound of their childhoods to make music as adults. The band at the forefront of the conversation about pop-punk in the new decade is Meet Me @ The Altar, an Orlando-based group with a punchy rhythm section and a momentum that reaches out a hand to yank potential friends into the fun.
Guitarist-bassist Téa Campbell, drummer Ada Juarez and lead singer Edith Victoria sound playful even when skewering sexist detractors on single "Say It (To My Face)" and 2021's "Hit Like A Girl" or spinning ugly internal thoughts into a scream-along chorus on "T.M.I.," a deft confessional that would make alt-girl SZA proud.
For the many young Black, brown, queer and female fans who obsessed over the 2000s-era Fueled By Ramen roster even when most of its faces didn't reflect our own features, watching the rise of this trio of young women of color feels like a long-overdue vindication for loving a scene that didn't always love us back.
And just as much as the band represents the future of the genre, Meet Me @ The Altar's debut record, Past // Present // Future, out Friday on Fueled By Ramen, proves the band is also deeply tied to its history — especially the 25-year lineage of alt-rock and emo birthed from Northern and Central Florida.
Started out of a University of Florida dorm room in 1996, Fueled By Ramen began as a way to put out local tape samplers and comps with underground artists who Vinnie Fiorello met while touring with his locally based band Less Than Jake, and whatever else caught cofounder John Janick's ear. After the success of releasing Jimmy Eat World's pre-Clarity self-titled EP in 1998, the operation quickly outgrew its Gainesville roots and moved to Tampa. Within the next decade, the label would be situated in New York and partnered with Warner.
In Fueled By Ramen's early years, the label did support Florida bands, like Jacksonville's Yellowcard. But it also plucked the most promising stars from local scenes across the country — artists like Jimmy Eat World, Fall Out Boy, Panic! At The Disco and Paramore — an allegory for Florida's often-unremarked influence on national trends in music. (At the same time in nearby Orlando, Lou Pearlman was building a pop empire one boyband audition at a time — more on that later.)
In those early social media days, that approach was prescient; the insularity of local scenes would give way to diffuse, digital ones as music fandom moved online. (Case in point: Decades later, the members of Meet Me @ The Altar would meet and bond across state lines in the annals of pop-punk YouTube.)
"We all grew up being influenced by almost every single band that has been on Fueled By Ramen," Campbell says. Juarez agrees that getting signed to Fueled By Ramen felt like finding their musical family.
They all mention being inspired by longtime FBR artist Paramore, but individually point out others, like Fall Out Boy and twenty one pilots, too (Juarez's YouTube page that brought her and Campbell together is replete with drum covers). "Before, Fueled By Ramen was just this idea," Campbell continues. "But now we know who the people are that make up Fueled By Ramen, and it really is a family."
Finding your people and breaking down barriers to communication are major themes on Past // Present // Future, from the existential cry of "Same Language" ("Hello is anybody in there?") to explorations of how curated personas keep loved ones at a remove on "Try" and "T.M.I."
But the songs on Meet Me @ The Altar's debut album also reflect that barrier-breaking attitude when it comes to connecting artists from seemingly disparate spheres in its musical palette. The band proudly counts Disney-bred artists like Demi Lovato among its influences alongside the Sum 41s of the world.
"People love to put them as opposite poles," Victoria says, "because there's so many cool guys in pop-punk that don't want to admit that there's a clear connection." Campbell agrees. "You think because some dude is screaming it, that it makes it different."
Meet Me @ The Altar enlisted someone who speaks to that connection to shape Past // Present // Future: John Fields, a producer who has worked on albums from Lou Pearlman's former-Mickey Mouse Club-kid-turned-pop-tour-de-force oeuvre such as the Backstreet Boys, pop-rock rebels like P!nk, emo acts like Jimmy Eat World and Jack's Mannequin, and Disney Channel stars like Selena Gomez, Demi Lovato and the Jonas Brothers.
The members don't hold songs by the Warped Tour boys as more sacred to them than the pop-marketed women of that era, even saying they often prefer the clarity of sound of those Radio Disney acts. "Disney is better because it's written by songwriters who know what they're doing!" Campbell argues.
"That Hilary Duff record, Metamorphosis, it's literally a pop-punk album," Victoria says. (Imagine "So Yesterday" at double the BPM with the guitars pulled up in the mix; she's not wrong.)
You can hear that influence on "A Few Tomorrows," a classic mid-tempo, 2000s pop-rock ballad about passing time and distance-induced lovesickness, anchored by an ultra-polished acoustic guitar and mournful electric lines overdubbed in its chorus; Kelly Clarkson's "Breakaway" meets Dashboard Confessional's "Stolen." (Another Florida emo band, for those keeping score.) Victoria, who soars through powerful hook after hook with seeming ease across the record, says she grew up loving Clarkson, Avril Lavigne and all the big-voiced pop women singing over rock music on the radio.
Meet Me @ The Altar's fluency in mixing that early 2000s pop sheen with its own artistic instincts puts the band in good company outside of pop-punk; Caroline Polachek, SZA and former tourmates MUNA all released albums in the last year that did the same. But it also sets the group apart from the many Travis Barker protégés who have tried their hand at moving pop-punk's sound into the future and often ended up carbon-copying the past. That versatility will carry its members through the next moment.
"First and foremost, we make music for ourselves, and I think that is something that will take us a long way," Campbell says. "I think the fans that are going to stay long term, especially starting with this record, will realize that each record is going to be Meet Me @ The Altar. It's just going to be whatever we're into at the time; we're always just going to be following our hearts."
It's a healthy attitude for a band with the dubious honor of being the face of a genre and its return to the mainstream when its members are not sure they want to be pigeonholed by its parameters. From Gainseville's Against Me! to Middleburg's Red Jumpsuit Apparatus to Ocala's A Day To Remember, now Florida has Meet Me @ The Altar, too — a rock band in whatever form that takes.
When asked about what makes them hopeful about the future, it was pretty simple. "I was waiting for someone like us, and that would have been my answer," Juarez says, adding that now she's hopeful for even more bands like Meet Me @ The Altar — bands of young women, queer and non-binary people, and people of color — "branching out and doing so many different creative things that they never thought they could."
Campbell sums up the band's attitude looking forward most succinctly: "We want to inspire people to just say 'F*** it,' and do what you want because it's your life."
Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.