In 1997, the first installment of Deep Elm’s 12-part series, The Emo Diaries, was released. Jimmy Eat World, Samiam and Jejune appeared on the 48-minute compilation, and so did Tampa’s very own Pohgoh, which closed out the disc with “Friend X.” Contractual circumstances led the song to be excluded from Pohgoh’s post-breakup debut album, In Memory Of Bab, released the same year.
“Basically, we signed the song away for Emo Diaries for two years. When we said it was going to be the lead-off track on the album we were reminded that we couldn’t use it,” drummer Keith Ulrey told CL in 2017. The track, however, still managed to have a big impact on the trajectory of a subgenre of indie-rock and punk that is enjoying an ongoing resurgence in 2018.
“Pohgoh was everything I’ve ever wanted in a band when I was playing music back in the day,” Tom Mullen, vice president of catalog marketing for Atlantic Records, said in May.
Mullen is also the founder of Washed Up Emo, a website and podcast dedicated to the genre, and the editor of Anthology of Emo: Volume One, a 376-page book featuring interviews from the podcast plus rare photographs and ephemera. In a recent episode of the podcast, Mullen and Pohgoh frontwoman Susie Ulrey (who replaced original singer Kobi Finley) catch up and talk about a brand new album from the group, which is set for release on September 7 via Susie and Keith’s long-running Bay area label, New Granada Records (which also reissued Pohgoh's 1996 split 7-inch with Braid).
In the 21 years since Pohgoh called it quits, the band grew beloved by fans drawn to Susie’s vulnerable vocal and the band’s masterful adoption of the best qualities of its influences, which include bands like Superchunk, Ida, Versus and even Rainer Maria, which emerged at the same time as Pohgoh. On Secret Club, the Ulreys — along with guitarist Matt Slate and new bassist Brian Roberts — don’t just tell the story of a band getting back together after two decades, but also shed light on Susie’s long battle with multiple sclerosis (her diagnosis came in 2001, after the band broke up).
“Initially the diagnosis was a relief, because I had a name I could put on the way I was feeling,” Susie told CL, adding that the prognosis was, and still is, a black hole of unknowns. She never had a plan of attack because there was no way to anticipate the next relapse, so Susie just keeps trying and hoping that some combination of drugs, diet and therapy eventually works.
“I walked until I needed help, and then I used a cane or a walker or crutches, and then when I couldn’t walk, I found another way to move. I take the hits as they come.”
Susie has cataloged those hits in gut-wrenching fashion on Secret Club, where lead single “Business Mode” literally, and poignantly, details the falls she’s taken as her MS has progressed. Keith — who became Susie’s husband after Pohgoh broke up — is also her care partner, which lends itself to a very particular kind of heartbreak. In June, Susie told FADER magazine about the sheer panic she and Keith have endured over the years and explained some of the complications surrounding her own fear of being a burden on her husband. In the hands of her bandmates, “Business Mode,” despite all the woe and uncertainty it lays out in the lyrics, is a gigantic, power-pop anthem.
“As [the song] took shape, if felt like the right tone to describe what falling feels like and the collateral damage of having MS. When I took it to practice the arrangement kept getting bigger and fatter and more cathartic,” Susie said.
“It encapsulates a lot of different feelings: fear, panic, despair... It always feels good to play it.”
Secret Club — which was engineered and mixed by J. Robbins (Jawbox, Burning Airlines) in Baltimore before being mastered by Dan Coutant in New York — feels good to play over and over again, too. The album’s propulsive second track, “With A Smile,” gives way to warm harmonies on “Try Harder” and the tragically gorgeous arrangement on “Reprise.”
On “Bunch,” Pohgoh extols the power of positive thinking (and uncontrollably catchy lead guitar lines from Slate) before switching gears and turning existential (“Who’s The You”), a little angry (“Unfortunate Face”) and painfully plaintive (“Easterberg”). The songs, as she told Mullen in their podcast, continue to save Susie’s life, and on September 14, Pohgoh plays Crowbar in Ybor City as it kicks off an 11-date fall tour that takes the band all the way up to New York’s Mercury Lounge.
Touring was an opportunity Pohgoh never fully took advantage of before; the issues that led to the band’s end were already in motion, and Susie chalks it up partly to the group just acting like dumb kids.
“The idea of leaving Florida every five weeks for a week or so seemed daunting and something we weren’t prepared to do,” she said. “I know I was scared of failing but I can’t speak for anyone else.”
Touring will be daunting in a different way this time around. While Slate and Roberts have experience hitting the road with King of Spain, Saves the Day and Hey Mercedes, 40-year-old bodies just don’t hold up the way Pohgoh’s 20-year-old ones used to. Keith — who booked the entire tour himself — had to nix a few venues due to accessibility issues, but Pohgoh is packing two ramps just in case.
Surprisingly, Susie isn’t the slightest bit skittish about sharing and then taking this collection of deeply personal songs on the road.
“I’m really stoked to share this record,” she said. “Every song is poignant to me. No nerves at all — only excitement.”
And after 20 years of being one of indie-rock and emo’s best kept little secrets, it’s nice to know that the secret about Pohgoh is finally out, in a big way, once again.
Listen to Pohgoh and the music that influenced it via a band-curated Spotify playlist streaming here. Get more information on the band's LP release show and tour kickoff below. Call your local record store to see if it is carrying the release.
Pohgoh w/DieAlps!/Blacksmith/Emo Night DJs. Fri. Sept. 14, 7:30 p.m. $10. Crowbar, 1812 N. 17th St., Ybor City. More info: newgranada.com.