When Anika Pyle first moved to New York City, in the summer of 2007, she left her guitar behind in Monument, Colorado — a small suburb fifty miles south of Denver with a town motto that boasts, “Proud of our past, confident of our future.” The guitar — a white Takamine acoustic — had been a gift from her friends back home, a symbol of support when she was still learning to strum her first chords as a teenager.
But as Pyle readied herself for her freshman year at NYU — envisioning a future in metropolitan studies — the guitar, as well as the punk and emo music that helped shape her early years, just didn’t fit into the plan.
“When I first came here, I sort of had this idea that I was over that aspect of my life and that I needed to invest myself in my education and career path,” Pyle, now 26, tells the Voice. Dressed in a loose-fitting gray sweater and blue jeans, she’s sipping a beer at Old Stanley’s, one of her favorite bars on Wyckoff Avenue near her home in Ridgewood, Queens. “But going straight from Colorado to living in Union Square, everything seemed bigger than me. I felt like I had been absorbed by the machine.
“So I started listening to music in a different way,” she continues. “Just leaning on music to get me through this really difficult period of time.”
Pyle would eventually retrieve her acoustic from Colorado and, with guitarist Drew Johnson and drummer Dan Frelly — two friends from Monument and recent transplants to New York City — form her first band ever: Chumped.
As first bands go, Chumped’s rise was meteoric. The group toured the country, recorded a handful of much buzzed-about EPs, and finally released their debut album, Teenage Retirement, on Anchorless Records in 2014. And though earlier this fall Pyle informed fans that Chumped would soon take an indefinite hiatus, over the course of the last three years she has steadily found her footing as a leader of a still burgeoning pop-punk and emo revival. With the band broken up and a new solo project in the works, Pyle will now step out on her own, once again turning to music as a form of catharsis in times of personal upheaval.
“It’s called emo for a reason; it’s emotional music. And I don’t know, maybe people have been afraid of their feelings,” Pyle says, explaining the pushback against the genre following the great pop-punk and emo boom of the early 2000s, which saw all-male bands like Taking Back Sunday and Brand New sell hundreds of thousands of records. “I had no qualms about identifying Chumped as a pop-punk band. I just wanted to hear a different narrative in the style of music that I like. I wanted to hear a band that sounded like Saves the Day, that sounded like Alkaline Trio, that sounded like Weezer, that was from the perspective of a growing young adult woman. And I couldn’t really find it, so we just started to do that ourselves.”
While much has been written about the resurgence of punk and emo in recent years, many of the groups now steering the movement are fronted by women, a stark contrast to the old boys’ club of the genre’s previous iterations. Chumped was a pop-punk band in the truest sense of the word — their m.o. banked on fast, catchy melodies about heartbreak and longing laid over churning, power-chord-driven guitar — but this time spoken from the other side of the fence.
Last year Pyle penned an article for Vulture, hailing 2014 as the year women took over punk. She cited bands like Ex Hex, White Lung, Against Me!, and Perfect Pussy (fronted by Voice columnist Meredith Graves) and chastised those in the community who pretend that female contributions to punk music ended with Bikini Kill, Kathleen Hanna, and the riot grrrl movement almost twenty years ago. But it’s not that women-fronted punk bands haven’t existed between the Nineties and now; the mainstream just hasn’t been listening. Like many conversations concerning diversity, the problem centers on issues of opportunity and visibility. Pyle likens the climate in the punk community to Viola Davis’s acceptance speech at the 2015 Emmys, in which the actress quoted Harriet Tubman and criticized the entertainment industry for failing to create more roles for African Americans.
“It was so moving. It’s so fucking true. You can’t win an Emmy for roles that don’t exist, and you can’t change a scene if no one gives you a spot on the bill,” Pyle says. Earlier this year, after opening for the Menzingers, Chumped went on tour with Cayetana, Thin Lips, and Worriers — three punk bands all fronted by women. “If you write about music, if you book shows — I’m talking about people who book for Webster Hall to people who book basement shows — you accept a responsibility and you curate a space of power. Giving someone a microphone and a public venue gives them a space to been seen.”
Though Pyle is grateful for the years she spent performing with Chumped, her new project, Katie Ellen — which, for the time being, consists solely of Pyle and Frelly — is an opportunity to create music entirely on her own terms. The word “autonomy” continues to pop up in conversation — the ability to control each step of the songwriting process, or the freedom to tell a sound guy to fuck off if he’s messing with the way her amp sounds.
The project’s name is taken from Pyle’s great-grandmother, a twentieth-century radio star who used the moniker Katie Ellen as a nom de guerre while performing on the airwaves. After losing a lawsuit with her employer, she suffered a nervous breakdown, was given shock treatment, and lost almost everything.
“I think she was just robbed of her creativity and her power in a way,” says Pyle, who will perform on December 5 at Suburbia in Brooklyn with Mikey Erg and Lauren Denitzio of Worriers. “I’m a very candid person and I don’t feel the need to censor myself, but I like the idea of writing under a name that means a lot to me, and that feels very personal to me, but isn’t my own.”
Last week, Katie Ellen premiered their first song as a band — a fuzzy, midtempo track titled “Lucy Stone,” which features Pyle repeatedly crooning the words “Love is not enough” over her distorted, open-chord guitar. And though the track in many ways feels like a departure from Chumped, it seems the goal for Pyle remains largely unchanged: She wants to create emotionally impactful music while continuing to diversify the punk community that raised her.
“Punk is not about a meritocracy,” Pyle says. “It’s about giving people a space to be weird and fuck up and learn about themselves. And people haven’t often given women that space.”
Anika Pyle plays Suburbia on December 5. For ticket information, click here.