Emo Never Dies: A Conversation With Emo Nite Founders T.J. Petracca and Morgan Freed [Q&A]
"Anything can happen at emo nite." It's a sentiment that perfectly captures the atmosphere surrounding the Los Angeles-bred event, which, over the course of seven years, has transformed from a karaoke-spurred dive bar one-off to a lauded party series that regularly sells out shows across the country. But that air of unknown promise originates not from the litany of surprise guests - from Avril Lavigne, Machine Gun Kelly, Phoebe Bridgers, to Mark Hoppus, it's difficult to think of someone who has not graced the stages of Emo Nite - it starts with its founders T.J. Petracca and Morgan Freed.
As I fiddle around with my camera's settings, T.J. sits across from me and asks if I know of any good trending underwater sounds. In between trading off SpongeBob and TikTok references, he informs me tonight's Emo Nite's theme is "Under the Sea." Morgan is quick to inform me that "none of it makes sense," but that doesn't really matter, "because it’s really just a fun night that people should go and have fun at. At the end of the day, that’s what it is. It’s fun."
From its humble origin story to climbing towards an apex that seems to grow in scope with each year and litany of special guest appearances, Emo Nite, at its core, has always been about throwing the best party possible. Ahead of experiencing first-hand what was undoubtedly one of the best parties I've been to, I spoke with T.J. and Morgan about throwing the best saddest party in LA, why they choose not to announce any of their special guests, and how they try to make every Emo Nite better than the last.
Ones to Watch: When did your emo phase first start?
T.J.: My emo phase started the summer between eighth and ninth grade. My eighth-grade girlfriend broke up with me and then I found Dashboard Confessional, and I was like, "I’m emo now." I went to Hot Topic, bought a bunch of clothes, and was like if I’m gonna do it, it’s gonna be this summer so I can come back to high school and just be a new person.
I miss that time period where you could disappear for three months and come back as a completely new person.
T.J.: You could change yourself over a summer.
Morgan: I’m really small. It was either play in a band or play sports, and I’m not good at sports, so I chose playing in bands. That's it.
So how did you two first meet and how did Emo Nite come into existence?
T.J.: We met because we were working in the same building, the same company pretty much. We were working at a creative agency in Silverlake called the uprising creative. We just kind of became friends, and I was at a friend’s birthday party and I sang a Dashboard Confessional karaoke song and the place erupted. It was just so fun going out and listening or singing along to music that you actually like versus going out to any club or bar in Hollywood where all they play is like hip-hop or EDM.
Morgan: And you gotta remember this is 2014. This is a long time ago.
Yeah, long before any of your copycats and all that.
T.J.: So, I was like we should fucking do this at a bar. Morgan knew somebody who was a bartender and he convinced him to let us pick the music on a Tuesday night and we didn’t know how to DJ or anything. I literally brought my iPad and we plugged in the aux cable and then picked the music for the night. We put up a Facebook event and the bar was like 100 capacity and 200 people probably showed up. We had a line around the block. And then we did it again the next month and even more people showed up. And then we were like we have to move venues, so we started doing it at the Echoplex. We were working in the music industry at that time, so we were like let’s just see how ridiculous we could make this, let’s shoot for the absolute stars. Let’s try and get Mark Hoppus, and he was down.
So, Mark Hoppus DJ’d at our third one and that was cool, but it was also really weird for a lot of people. In the rock world, everybody comes to a show and they stand facing forward and expect something to entertain them on stage. It took a little bit for us to teach people that it’s not necessarily about what’s happening on stage. This is supposed to be a party, so it’s about what you guys do with each other in this room. That's always a little learning curve any time we come into a new city. It's not about us or what we’re doing on stage, because we literally still don’t know how to DJ. We kind of know how to pick songs on better equipment now, but we’re not doing remixes, mashups, or anything technical. It’s not about what we’re doing; it’s about the party that we all create together. That’s why we don’t announce any of our guest artists. We want people to come to Emo Nite for Emo Nite.
Morgan: Yeah, it was very strange because we did announce Mark [Hoppus] and everybody came expecting a Blink show, and at this time, we still didn’t really know what we were doing - and we still kind of don’t know what we’re doing - we’re playing it by ear. It’s how do we make everything as fun as possible with the people that we like, and now we get to have the bands that we grew up listening to come in and do that stuff with us. We were just literally playing songs and Mark was like, "So do I DJ? Am I going to make a whole mix?" We were like, "I don’t know!"
Essentially told Mark, here's the aux.
Morgan: (laughter) Doing something that didn’t exist was hard for us to wrap our heads around and hard for everybody else to wrap their heads around for for a little bit. We just continuously try and make things that don’t exist, and I think that that’s what we’ve always wanted to do, but within the realm of the music that we really like.
You've gone from selling out dive bars to regularly selling out shows across the country. What's been the hardest part about scaling Emo Nite into what it is today?
T.J.: The first few years of it, Morgan and I would fly out to every single city and we would do the shows and then get on a plane and fly back. At that point, we were throwing parties on a Tuesday and we were still doing our other jobs and it was just really exhausting. But through doing that ourselves, we found a lot of people that we trust in all these cities and regions across the country to kind of like take it over and run their own little fight club of Emo Nite in their city. It’s much more authentic that way rather than us just being like oh we’re gonna find a DJ who does '80s night on Thursday and then Emo Nite on Friday. We want people who really care about the scene and the genre to be representing our brand and doing these parties with heart and authenticity.
So, at what point are you like, "Okay Emo Nite is a massive success. Let's start making burgers?"
T.J.: (laughter) That was kind of just a funny idea that we had when we were still in lockdown, when we were unable to do shows. When COVID hit, we really had to pivot and we pivoted pretty quickly. We started doing digital stuff online, we started building our discord community, we started doing streams, we started messing with this app called jukebox.
Morgan: Nobody knew what the fuck they were doing. No live events knew what they were doing. We just tried to make sure all the people that came to all the events nationwide were alright and they were with each other. Again, learning curve.
T.J.: Yeah, we have to learn a lot of new stuff. We would get everybody on Zoom; Ricky learned how to use OBS and set up all these nice-looking streams. A lot of it was really challenging. We launched our Patreon, we had monthly merch boxes, and we really focused on making this something worth people’s time and money without having the live experience. We can’t do shows, what else can we do with this brand? Emo Nite, emo bite!
Morgan: We’ve almost figured out everything that rhymes with nite.
T.J.: We did a kite as well.
Morgan: We’re running out of words to do stuff with, but we naturally integrate it into the brand where it feels not shitty and we want to do it. We want to do things that other artists and brands aren’t doing, which is risky. It's a risky thing to do, but after doing this for so long, I think at least T.J. and I have continuously tried to make ourselves laugh at what this is and what we can do to make it fun. If we’re having fun, then everybody else who’s coming is having fun. We really tried to do our best to have fun during the pandemic even though it fucking sucked and it was really scary and shitty, and we thought we were never gonna have jobs again.
After over seven years of doing this, what has been the most surreal part of it all?
T.J.: There’s been so many. At the one-year anniversary, booking Dashboard Confessional - that was the reason why we started the event, the reason why I got into emo music in the first place. Being able to book Chris to come play was super surreal. Doing the Emo Nite Vegas vacation was also really surreal. We did a trip to Vegas last year with 2,000 people from our community. It's three days with concerts, pool parties, and a bunch of fun activities. That was kind of the first time that a lot of the people that had become friends over the pandemic - they had all met on Zoom, they had all met in our discord - and it was the first time that they were all in one place. So that was super surreal too, because we were coming out of the Pandemic and we were maybe the biggest event that we’ve ever done with artists like Avril [Lavigne] and Machine [Gun Kelly] and then this whole community that we’ve seen through a screen, seeing all them in real life and seeing them connect with each other, that’s the most important thing to us. That community.
Morgan: That is the absolute most important thing. The most surreal thing for me is the fact that when I was little, I was like, "I'm not good enough to play in a band. I’m not good enough to like do all the things that like I watched you know these people on giant stages do." There’s no place for me to do any of that stuff, and to find a space in this community to be able to do something like that has been really fucking cool. It feels like it doesn’t exist. To be able to talk to all of the artists that we grew up with as friends and to unite people how I felt united at shows when I was growing up, I think that’s the strangest thing about the whole thing. Also, the fact that we get to do like a burger. It’s just not something that I think happens for people like T.J. and I.
You mentioned Machine Gun Kelly and Avril Lavigne. Speaking on not just them but jxdn, Olivia Rodrigo, Willow, and more, why do you think pop-punk and emo have seen such a mainstream resurgence?
Morgan: I'm not gonna candy coat anything. I think we had a lot to do with it.
T.J.: I don't want to toot our own horns too much, but when you’re fighting and pushing a subculture for so long.
Morgan: When everybody’s telling you no -
T.J.: Then it finally breaks into the mainstream, you’re like "I fucking told you."
Morgan: I think there's a lot of other reasons. The world we live in is now much more emotional than it was back in 2012 or 13. I think everybody is feeling a lot of that, feeling a lot of the world. They need a place to release it, and they want the artists that they listen to to relate to them, which is what we always wanted, and now is the time that it's happening. Everything goes around and we just happen to be in right place at the right time with the right people.
A lot of themed parties fall into this pitfall of nostalgia for nostalgia's sake, only to become a passing fad, but Emo Nite has proven to be a success year after year. How much of a conscious effort goes into keeping things fresh and innovative?
T.J.: It's all we think about. I think it would be very easy, and you see a lot of our competitors do it, and it just becomes super nail on the head, "Oh, Emo Nite, cool. Swoopy hair eyeliner dress up in your shirt that you wore in 2005." We try to always go one step beyond that. Yeah, the music that we do play is nostalgic, but we always try to make the party something that you want to go to in 2022 because it’s the coolest place to be, not like I'm going to relive my youth.
Morgan: It’s a risky thing to do. Some of the things that we think don’t always hit and there are some people that do want to just that. But we have tried to build a community that thinks for themselves and stay current. They’re going to be listening to the shit that comes out today and the shit that they listened to growing up, so we want them to be able to wear the things that coincide with this culture and the cultures that are going on. We are aware that there are other things out there in the world. We’re aware that there’s other music. We’re aware that there are other artists. And we really try and stay on top of that, not just for the brand but for ourselves. You can’t stay in one place your entire life, you gotta grow.
Do you have any tips for someone attending their first Emo Nite?
T.J.: Drink a lot of water.
Morgan: Make some friends. You don’t know what you’re going into, so it’s just like be friends with everybody around you.
T.J.: It’s a very easy place to make friends, so even if you’re thinking about going alone, you should do it. I can’t think of an easier environment for people to make friends and connect with each other, because you already have something in common. We’ve seen a lot of really good relationships grow from Emo Nite. Friendships, roommates, marriages, marriages that have kids.
Morgan: There's been Emo Nite babies.
It’s going to be so hard to tell your kid not to do anything after that.
Morgan: Yeah, that kid's fucked.