Woven into the patchwork of tree-lined streets, two-story homes and spaghetti bowls of intersecting highways leading into New York City are pockets of what could be called New Jersey's pop-punk scene.
Every weekend, kids unload amps, guitars and drum kits out of vans older than they are and set up in VFW and Legion halls. Their fragmented community includes neurotic promoters, mislabeled "emo" bands and friends who hope they won't have to stay at the show all night.
This environment gave rise to Warped Tour stalwarts such as Thursday, Saves the Day and My Chemical Romance. Yet it felt uncomfortable to Armor For Sleep's Ben Jorgensen.
While he cites Thursday and Saves the Day as influences, Jorgensen, 24, learned to play guitar only after listening to Radiohead's OK Computer. He stocks his iPod with the Mozart and Bach he listened to as a child in Teaneck, N.J. And, perhaps most notably, he maintains a serious fascination with the song structure and Spanish guitar elements on At The Drive In's 2000 album, Relationship of Command.
"It's hard to break out of the box sometimes, especially when there's a formula that's been working in the scene that you can use to get instant results," says guitarist-vocalist Jorgensen. "That At The Drive In record really showed me that, if you take the chance and do something interesting, it can be exciting and invigorating."
Along with guitarist PJ DeCicco, bassist Anthony DiIonno and drummer Nash Breen, Jorgensen took his first chance in 2003 with Dream to Make Believe, a debut about the lucid dream state. Dream helped Armor For Sleep develop a following and emboldened it to follow up with yet another concept album, 2005's afterlife-focused What To Do When You Are Dead. It was a risky foray into prog-rock territory, but Jorgensen felt entitled to take it, given the changes he'd seen in an industry long on expectations and short on patience.
"I remember when one of Taking Back Sunday's records sold 700,000 copies and the label told them that was a flop, that it was nothing. That worried me," he says. "Now, it's gotten to the point where CD sales don't even matter anymore, and labels just want to see a band that's confident in what it does and has built a fan base."
Under the industry's new model or lack thereof Armor For Sleep had become an ideal, low-maintenance fit for a major label. The payoff came in 2006, when Warner Records signed the band and agreed to put out Smile for Them, a mix of What To Do leftovers and new material that's less conceptual and, perhaps, more accessible.
The band's music has been featured on the Snakes On A Plane and Transformers soundtracks, yet Jorgensen gripes about the "commercialization" of music and an increasingly younger audience of "girls who want to see hot dudes in bands." Such grousing is usually reserved for elder statesmen but then again, as much as it's tried to distinguish itself from its predecessors, the band now is Thursday or Saves the Day for a new generation.
"It's definitely kind of weird," Jorgensen says. "We were on tour and one of the guys from The Academy Is came up to me and said, "I've been listening to you guys since high school, and I think you guys are awesome.'
"I didn't think we were that old."