Music/Features

Retracing the Brand New and Taking Back Sunday beef

August 28, 2017

Emo's most infamous feud spanned decades, albums and even pop punk's most sacred space: the merch table.

Forget Run For Cover, the city of Philadelphia, or skramz purists. If there’s one monument to the seeming immortality of emo, it’s Brand New.

But they’re not emo!, I hear you furiously typing (don’t @ me). And you’d be right. Though they were the jewel of Long Island, NY’s nascent mid-aughts emo scene, they’ve managed to stay in the rockist spotlight with the punky Your Favourite Weapon, the Smiths-worshipping Deja Entendu, and the indie- and grunge-inflected The Devil and God Are Raging Inside of Me and their last album, 2009’s Daisy. Which brings us to today: With the surprise release of the atmospheric, experimental Science Fiction, Jesse Lacey and co.’s first album in eight years, band’s on track to land their first No. 1 hit. No, we’re not kidding. And yes, it’s very good.

Ascendant as they might be, however, it’s still hard to view Brand New as a singular entity. Because as good as their music has been, it’s been forever intertwined—overshadowed, at points—by their relationship with another band entirely: Fellow Long Islanders Taking Back Sunday.

Not that it’s exactly a relationship—not in conventional terms, at least. Rather, it’s been a feud filled with hate-encrypted songs, threats of violence, and ample amount of fan theorizing. (Go ahead and ask r/brandnew about the feud; they’re likely tired of the topic.) The Brand New-Taking Back Sunday beef, some wrote, is still sizzling after 15 years. It’s been called the emo feud of the century. And of course, it’s been meme-ified to the dankest of levels.

So, what the hell is the Brand New-Taking Back Sunday feud? Bruv, we’re glad you asked.

 

The genesis of the feud

Like Brutus and Caesar, Jesus and Judas and Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage, the members of Brand New and Taking Back Sunday were initially close friends. Childhood friends, even. And the principal members of this feud—Brand New songwriter Jesse Lacey and Taking Back Sunday guitarist John Nolan—were both childhood friends and members of Long Island’s then-exploding emo-punk-hardcore scene, which birthed eventual ’00s stars in acts like the Movielife, Crime in Stereo and Glassjaw.

Nolan and Lacey were such good friends, in fact, that he was the original bassist in Taking Back Sunday, though he left the band in 2001—before they had any recorded material. Here’s  a photo of the two buds budding away.

So, what was the wedge issue? It’s early ’00s emo—perhaps the most heteronormative of all the genres—so of course, it was a girl. The details, here, are sketchy: Some say Nolan and Lacey were competing for a woman’s affections, with Nolan being the first to kiss her. Some say Lacey’s girlfriend cheated with Nolan. Either way, we’ve never heard the perspective of the girl at the centre of the story (sigh—emo).

What we have heard, however, is the perspectives of Nolan and Lacey, which were unveiled—how else?—in song, namely on Taking Back Sunday’s Tell All Your Friends and Brand New’s Your Favourite Weapon. You ready? Let’s burn some bridges.

“I’ve Seen More Spine in Jellyfish”

Lacey’s lyrical style now veers towards the enigmatic, but on Brand New’s 2001 LP, Your Favourite Weapon, his quotable one-liners and penchant for violent imagery was a revelation. Especially on “Seventy Times Seven,” a track that carries a Biblical reference from Matthew 18:21-22. The passage? “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times? Jesus answered, ‘I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.’ “

There isn’t, however, much forgiveness happening in the song. Rather, Lacey talks of a long-time relationship dissolving (“for twelve years, I’ve held it all together, but a night like this is begging to pull me apart”) to the discovery of a wrongdoing (“everyone’s caught on to everything you do”) to outright insults (“is that what you call tact? You’re as subtle as a brick to the small of the back.”)

But Lacey isn’t exactly a sympathetic sadman. Rather, he ends the track ice cold, uttering threats that, in the modern era, might land him on an FBI watchlist. And those types of threats had Brand New-Taking Back Sunday truthers hooked from the get-go. “Have another drink and drive yourself home, I hope there’s ice on all the roads,” he sing-sneers. “And you can think of me when you forget your seatbelt, and again when your head goes through the windshield.”

So no, Lacey probably didn’t envision Nolan ending up like this dude.

 

“Broken Down in Bars and Bathrooms”

If Lacey didn’t portray himself as a sadman, Nolan certainly did. It’s generally agreed that Taking Back Sunday’s “There’s No I in Team,” taken from Tell All Your Friends, is Nolan’s official clap back, and while it’s not as revelatory as “Seventy Times Seven,” it’s plenty excoriating.

Along with directly referencing “Seventy Times Seven”—directly dropping its famed “is that what you call tact?” line into a bridge—the song paints Lacey as two characters: A sad-sack loser who refuses to accept bygones (“I’ve got a twenty-dollar bill,” Nolan and Adam Lazarra sing, referencing Brand New’s “Mixtape,” “that says you’re up late night starting  fist fights versus fences in your backyard  / Wearing your black eye like a badge of honour”) and a slimy philanderer (“Everything I know about breaking hearts, I learned from you, it’s true / I’ve never done it with the style and grace you have”).

But emo wouldn’t be emo if it didn’t involve scrawny, shag-haired whiteboys uttering death threats. (These were not the types of dudes who’d take off their shirts before a fight.) Nolan and Lazarra end the song echoing each, taking turns yelling “best friends means I’ll pull the trigger / best friends means you’ll get what you deserve.”

Yes, two dudes threatened to shoot Jesse Lacey. They probably know where he lives. HIDE, DUDE.

“I’m sick of your tattoos and the way you always criticize The Smiths”

At first glance, this song has nothing that implicates a feud with Taking Back Sunday. But things get more complicated based off the fact that its opening lines—”I’ve got a twenty-dollar bill”—are referenced in Taking Back Sunday’s “There’s No I in Team.” And that’s led many to interpret this track as an essential element of their emo blood feud.

This much is clear: The song is a breakup song. Which can be interpreted in two ways—it could be Lacey’s seething track about a lost girlfriend, perhaps the one that left on Nolan’s arm. (Some lyrics, like “when I say let’s keep in touch, I really mean I wish that you’d grow up” could be directed at an ex.) Others, however, think it’s a song directed at Nolan himself, who could be criticized for being fame-obsessed (“no one’s ever seen you without makeup / you’re always made up”) or for being the lesser man (the song ends with “but I wish you were my shadow,” something only a deeply sociopathic man would say to his ex-partner).

It’s an emo song, though, meaning that while it may seem like it’s about women, in reality, it’s usually about self-obsessed men. So yes, it’s probably about Nolan.

“You Have it Or You Don’t”

“Timberwolves at New Jersey,” contrary to its name, isn’t actually about basketball. It’s about a dude who seems to have bad luck in love—and, if you notice how Lacey was characterized in “There’s No I in Team,” many have taken it to be a swipe at Brand New’s frontman. Not that it’s a stretch: One lyric—”I’ve got the mic and you’ve got the mosh pit”—seems particularly pointed, and one that could certainly be used to belittle Lacey.

In fact, the whole song’s a brash boast track. It characterizes its protagonist as a debonaire emo man (“literate and stylish / kissable and quiet / that’s what girls’ dreams are made of”), while immediately taking a swipe at a perceived lesser man (“that’s all you need to know / you have it or you don’t). Add to the fact that it not-so-subtly references a penchant for overdramatic one-liners—Lazzara sings “those words at best were worse than teenage poetry / fragmented ideas and too many pronouns”—and it’s pretty fair to say that Taking Back Sunday were targeting another, uh, poet. Not that Brand New would rest on their laurels.

The battle of the shirts

The Brand New-Taking Back Sunday feud, however, wasn’t only limited to band members. They brought the battle into the most sacred of pop-punk milieus: The merch table, hence incorporating fans into the donnybrook. Brand New struck first, taking aim at Lazzara’s penchant for microphone acrobatics while on stage. They started selling this now-legendary shirt, which has since been converted into a $50 tote bag.

Never ones to back down from a fight (or a sellable item), Taking Back Sunday clapped back with this excellently designed emblem adorning their shirts.

So: Now the battle was being waged, jokingly it seems, between shirts. That surely meant the beef was quashed, right? Well, almost. It laid dormant for years, until, 13 years after it all began, something happened.

I’m just a dick, my whole life is a nightmare

More than a decade after Lacey opened up his first LP with “it’s funny how your worst enemies always seem to turn out to be all of your best friend’s best friends,” things had simmered down. That is, until Lazzara—a guy who circled the Lacey-Nolan spat, singing lyrics directed at the Brand New singer from a distance—got himself involved. When asked about the origins of “There’s No I in Team,” he addressed them head-on. “I think Jesse Lacey is just a dick. He just sucks,” he told OC Weekly. “He’s not a good person.”

So how did Lacey respond? Well, he didn’t.

Where we stand now

Though the Brand New-Taking Back Sunday feud has loomed large in the minds of most fans, it’s important to remember that its key events (or most of them, really) happened 16 years ago. And though it’s clear that there was no actual reconciliation between both parties—Brand New has reportedly turned down tours with Taking Back Sunday—both bands have moved on, professionally and personally.

Brand New, as mentioned earlier, has become a guitar-music star, releasing four full-lengths since Your Favourite Weapon. Nolan briefly left Taking Back Sunday to form Straylight Run. Lazzara and co. continued on with their band, which eventually reintroduced Nolan into the fold, and Taking Back Sunday has further refined their sound over six albums, their last being 2016’s Tidal Wave.

On a personal level, both men have also moved on. Both men have started new relationships: Lacey married celebrity seamstress Andrea King, and they have two children, one of them a step-child. Nolan is also married—though, allegedly, not with the woman at the centre of his feud with Lacey—and lives in North Carolina with his wife and two children. Both are, essentially, family men approaching middle age.

The reality is, of course, that the feud may have been overblown in the first place: Nolan was thanked in the liner notes of Your Favourite Weapon,  while Lacey was returned the favour in Tell All Your Friends. Taking Back Sunday also addressed the origins behind “There’s No I in Team,” essentially calling their feud overblown—Lazzara, for his part, said it was a fabricated attempt to recreate the Nas-Jay Z feud, with member Shaun Cooper confirming the basics of the feud.

Meanwhile, Nolan Lacey have appeared together onstage, suggesting the feud isn’t exactly active. Both, for example, appeared onstage with Say Anything.

And even better, in 2002, the two bands came together to combine “Seventy Times Seven” which Lazzara described as “either a Taking Back Sunday song or a Brand New song, depending on which record you bought first.”

So, can we end this feud forever? The answer is, of course, absolutely.

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