Ken Vasoli: Vocals, bass
Tom Gryskiewicz: Drums
Matt Watts: Guitar
Mike Golla: Guitar
On The Starting Line's aptly titled debut, Say It Like You Mean It, the Pennsylvania-based quartet begins where the best bands leave offâ€”with a fully realized sound all its own.
That's a rare accomplishment in itself, made all the more remarkable by the group's relatively young age. Guitarist Matt Watts is the band's "old person" at 23, while drummer Tom Gryskiewicz is 22, guitarist Mike Golla is 21, and vocalist-bassist Ken Vasoli is 18.
At a time when chart tops are overridden with grown men trying to pose as kids by wearing shorts and baseball caps, The Starting Line's members are roughly the same age as their audience--and they wear pants. Despite a relatively short chronology--three years--the band possesses a sweet-and-sour sound informed by a wealth of experience seemingly beyond its years.
Matt and Mike's angular, melodic guitar counterpoint... Tom's propulsive drumming... Ken's poignant vocals and rock-solid bass action... It all equates to a great arrival--and The Starting Line has only just begun.
Like so many modern relationships, the band started via Email.
Subject header: "Jamming And Shit."
Message: "My name is Matt. I live about 20 minutes from you. I checked out your AOL profile. You like a lot of cool bands. I was wondering if you knew anyone who would be interested in singing for my band."
"I was like, 'What the fuck is this?'" recalls singer-bassist Ken Vasoli, the Email recipient. Fortunately he hit "reply" instead of "delete." Soon after, he was rehearsing and hanging out with his future bandmates. The chemistry between the four musicians was instantly apparent, even if the goal at the time was simple.
"We just wanted to have fun, and rock out with friends," says Matt of the band's original vision. But like many relationships sparked in the anonymity of cyberspace, things were not what they initially appeared to be.
"Ken lied about his age when he first started hanging out with us," Matt reveals with a laugh. "He said, 'I'm like 15.' And we thought, 'That's cool. He'll be driving soon.' But we didn't catch on to the 'like' part; he was actually 14."
Not a problem--unless your dream label happens to phone wanting to sign you and send you out on the road with a few of your favorite bands. By 2000, the Starting Line had caught the interest of We The People Records through touring and grass-roots Internet marketing. Recognizing the band's immense potential, the small indie label passed along the band's demos to Drive-Thru's brother and sister team Richard and Stefanie Reines.
"They called me at work and told me they wanted to sign us," recalls Mike. "We all freaked out."
"That was the biggest excitement I've ever had in my life," says Ken. "I heard the news and I did not believe it; I thought it was a joke. I was smiling for weeks after that."
Living up to its name, The Starting Line was moving fast, and the band's members had to accelerate along with it. For one, Ken was still in high school, while Matt was working his way through college. Fortunately, Ken had understanding parents--they understood he needed to finish his education before hitting the road. With the help of a hip guidance counselor, the singer doubled up on classes to graduate early. The downtime also gave Matt time to finish his degree.
"I didn't leave the house, and just did school work," Ken recalls. "But it was only for a semester and a couple summer classes."
Free to focus exclusively on music for the first time in its career, the band experienced a growth spurt. The results are apparent on Say It Like You Mean It. "The songs on the album are more mature-sounding than our early material," says Tom. "We took more time to write what we wanted to write. Plus we're a lot tighter as musicians now that we're free to tour full-time."
"We play whatever we feel like playing, and somehow it works out," Mike says of the chemistry that flows in improvised rehearsal sessions. He also notes that each member of the band has to like each part of every song before it reaches an audience.
For Say It Like You Mean It, producer Mark Trombino enhanced that process, bringing "an extra set of ears to the table," according to the guitarist. It helped, of course, that Trombino possessed the golden ears behind some of The Starting Line's favorite albums, including Jimmy Eat World's Clarity.
"He's pretty much a genius," says Tom. "We can't say enough nice things about that guy. It was amazing working with him; it was pretty much a dream."
Songs like "Up & Go," "Given The Chance" and "Saddest Girl Story" highlight the band's dual guitar interplay, with Matt generally providing the "weird" crunching chords and Mike handling the buzzing melodic runs. "Almost There, Going Nowhere," "A Goodnight's Sleep" and "Cheek To Cheek" showcase Tom's inventive drum thwacking. And throughout, Ken's confessional lyrics and arching melodies detail the pain of separation--whether that uncoupling is for better or worse.
"The meaner songs are pretty much about my last girlfriend," he admits. "It's funny, too, because when we were going out, she made me promise never to write a mean song about her. But then as soon as she broke up with me, I wrote at least six."
Elsewhere, he chronicles more mutually vulnerable moments. On "Leaving," he sings, "Taking sweet time saying our goodbyes. One minute more. The best day of my life thanks to you."
Such lingering goodbyes are the inevitable by-product of the band's non-stop touring schedule, which has included extended stints with Drive-Thru labelmates New Found Glory and Finch, a recent jaunt through Europe, and a spot on this summer's Warped Tour alongside the rest of the label family.
Not surprisingly, the full itinerary has turned an already kinetic live show into a display of breathlessness. Straps break during heroic leaps. Skin shreds on strings and sticks. And post-show bruises appear in unlikely places. That commitment to putting the music across has established a strong bond with fans.
"As soon as I saw kids singing along to our songs, I said, 'I want to do this forever,'" says Matt, who first experienced the sensation in the band's second home, New Jersey.
Accepting the challenge of the debut's title, Ken put that sentiment into words on the live favorite "Given The Chance." "There's not a day that I can't say, 'All this time, I'm living out my dream,'" he sings. "The feeling of screaming out the words of the things I think about, and hearing them coming back from the crowd's mouth is perfect."
Drive-Thru's Stefanie recalls the point at which Ken first vocalized that feeling. While on the road with New Found Glory--one of his early favorite groups, whose members have since become his friends--Ken suddenly realized how far The Starting Line has traveled in the past three years.
"Wow," he said, shaking his head and thinking out loud backstage. "I'm supposed to be a senior in high school."
Then he hit the stage and kickstarted the dream all over again.