January 28, 2020. In the haze — and sweat — saturated space of Philadelphia’s Union Transfer, the crowd has already been on their feet for over two hours. They have survived the opening bands, who provided a fun and cheerful set (Point North), a demanding but strangely low-energy one (Belmont), and a third that blew both out of the water (Set It Off). The no-booze-on-the-floor policy means the bar is packed during the break between sets. Onstage, crew members rush to set up for the headlining band: Sleeping With Sirens.
“I don’t think I’ve listened to them since 2014,” was my initial response when my roommate told me the band would be playing in Philly. Sleeping With Sirens burst onto the post-hardcore scene in the early 2010s, making a name for themselves with their musical versatility and lead singer Kellin Quinn’s unique vocals. Their first two studio albums, “Let’s Cheers to This” (2011) and “With Ears to See and Eyes to Hear” (2010), have a heavier sound than their subsequent offerings; it was this sound that I liked when a friend first introduced me to them, so I began dropping them from my playlists when this sound faded with each progressive record. I didn’t love the band enough to follow them afterward. The divorce was swift and final: I sealed off the “angsty high school” period of my life and moved on. For the next six years, Sleeping With Sirens remained frozen in that time bubble, inseparable from the memory of the person I had grown beyond.
On a whim, I agreed to go with my roommate. I looked up the band in preparation for the concert and learned that they recently put out a new album. I queued it up, put on my headphones, and was instantly transported back to my childhood bedroom; their music fueling my insomnia late into the night.
The album, “How It Feels to Be Lost” (2019), sounds like the inner thoughts of a high schooler transposed into a cooler, adult body. It’s all that teenage anxiety and anger clenched in the fists of someone who no longer lives at the mercy of parents and teachers. It cuts through the muddled sound of their more pop-y work and right to the gritty core of the band. This, more than anything else they’ve ever made, is Sleeping With Sirens. You can hear how enthusiastic the band is in every single song on the record, and it comes across as 38:24 of pure freedom.
The lights dim. The band walks onstage to raucous applause. As they launch into their first song, I suddenly realize that, if the studio version of “How It Feels to Be Lost” is already them dialed up to 100, this live performance is going to break the scale entirely. The band screams at the audience, who screams right back. The entire space resonates with energy. Within seconds, I am soaring, swept up in the euphoria of bass, drums, and electric guitar.
People are crowd surfing. A mosh pit opens up. It’s absolutely insane — and yet, it’s the safest I’ve ever felt at a concert.
I mention this because I am used to being uncomfortable in crowds. My roommate and I are both womxn of color; I am visibly queer and she is visibly hot, which people sometimes take as an invitation to talk to her while shooting me not-so-subtle looks of confusion and/or disapproval. Because I often attend events alone, I attract stares as they struggle to place me without a partner who presents clearly as masculine or feminine. Even when I am ignored, it is deliberate. I can feel how acutely aware of and uneasy they are with my presence; hence, the conscious decision to pay me no attention, as if that will somehow make me disappear.
The best thing about Sleeping With Sirens fans, then, is that they care for each other without giving a shit about presentation. The second half of that may seem obvious — the essence of punk is not giving a shit, after all—but the first part takes me completely by surprise. All evening, I watch people steady each other when they stumble in the mosh pit. When Quinn requests that those near the front put away their phones so they can catch crowd surfers, they happily comply until the end of the show. Strangers lift my roommate over their heads when she tells them she wants to crowd surf, too, and she is back at my side in minutes, safe and buzzing from the experience. People are dressed in anything from high goth to rumpled shirts and shorts. No one stares. It’s incredible. It is, like the album, utterly freeing.
About two thirds of the way into their set, rhythm guitarist Nick Martin breaks out the acoustic guitar for “Scene Two: Roger Rabbit,” from their EP “If You Were a Movie, This Would Be Your Soundtrack” (2012). His duet with Quinn is unintentionally stripped down further when the sound cuts out entirely at the end of the first verse. By the time the crew finds and fixes the problem, the crowd has sung their way perfectly through the chorus, prompting Quinn to interject, “Wait, was that fucking off that whole time?!”
He exchanges a look with Martin. Eventually, Quinn just shrugs. “Damn, you guys fucking held it together!”
His nonchalance at the mishap echoes the band description on the event page, in which he talks about his struggle with alcoholism, depression, and anxiety. These experiences are evident in the record, from its very title to lyrics such as, “The last two years of my life are so filled with regret/Try to fool myself, but I’ll never forget” (“Break Me Down”) and “The devil’s living in my head, I’m scared to death” (“Medicine (Devil In My Head)),” the eponymous song of their Medicine Tour. To make “How It Feels to Be Lost,” Quinn states, “I let everything go.”
Maybe that’s why the album feels so much like a release. In concert, every note that Quinn belts into the mic becomes an invitation for the audience to let go with him. I didn’t realize until then just how much I needed to do some letting go myself.
When I first listened to “How It Feels to Be Lost,” I expected to be brought back to that “angsty high school” phase. I thought I would relive it for one night at the concert and seal it back in the past, where it belongs. And that has happened, to a certain extent: their sound here is the same sound I liked them for, nearly a decade ago. At the same time, the band has grown in their musicianship. They’re still Sleeping With Sirens, but older, more sure of themselves. I find myself wanting to return, not only to “How It Feels to Be Lost,” but to their older records. I hear a lot of my younger self in them. Surprisingly, it doesn’t feel like a regression. The time bubble has burst; I can let go of the memory of who I used to be.
It takes a certain amount of guts to write songs about feeling lost, then get up in front of a crowd and make them feel connected because of it. I think I’ll leave that to Kellin Quinn. What I can (and did) do is message the high school friend who introduced me to Sleeping With Sirens, and tell her I thought of her at the concert, and that I’ve missed her, and I hope she’s okay.
Life is too short not to care for each other. In the words of “Roger Rabbit:” “When you have today/You should say all that you have to say.”