"When I was a child, I always dreamt one day I'd have lymphoma," jokes singer/songwriter Robert Nanna, the 37-year-old Chicago musician who is best known for his raspy, impassioned vocals in legendary band Braid. He was diagnosed with cancer back in 2005, but luckily, he had started working at Threadless, an online arts community known for its T-shirt designs. The company offered health insurance, something being in a post-hardcore band—no matter how storied—didn't provide.
After four rounds of chemotherapy, the cancer is in check, and Braid, who called it quits in 1999, have reunited. Armed with a new four-song EP, Closer to Closed, they'll share the stage at Pomona's Glass House with friend and labelmate Mike Kinsella of the band Owen, formerly of Illinois bands Cap'n Jazz and American Football.
For those not familiar with Braid, the harsh vocals and wonky rhythms can overwhelm timid ears. "We were so drawn to the quirky, angular, loud [and] a little harsh music that was coming out of D.C., such as Fugazi and Jawbox, even Shudder to Think," says Nanna. Formed in Champaign, Illinois, in 1993, the band—Nanna and Chris Broach (who share vocal duties), Damon Atkinson (who replaced Roy Ewing) on drums, and Todd Bell on bass—recorded three albums and reached their creative pinnacle with 1998's Frame and Canvas, a 12-song LP with titles such as "The New Nathan Detroits" and "Milwaukee Skyrocket."
Patricia Wysopal, label publicist for Polyvinyl Records, declines to get into specifics, but she says Frame and Canvas is an "evergreen title"; released more than a decade ago, it continues to be a top-seller for the label. Anchored by angular guitar assaults and the dueling screams of Nanna and co-guitarist Broach, it's an album that tends to get stuck between your ears. Simultaneously abrasive and compelling, it's peppered with unexpected, melodic noodling. "Everybody at that time was super into the D.C. scene," says Kinsella, who remembers watching Nanna play drums in the band Friction before Braid formed. "It was our take on a melodic Fugazi."
But '90s bands such as Braid and others from the Midwest took things a step further, infusing their music with influences from pop punk bands of the day and scrawling lyrical narratives about love, loss and angst. In the song "Collect From Clark Kent," Nanna wails at the limits of his vocal range, "Once in your arms, we'll rise above the clouds, you and me in a beautiful, aerial view." As he defiantly declares, "I'm never coming down," Broach screams rhythmically in the background while a cascade of guitars erupts in a dramatic, grooving crescendo.
Following the release of Frame and Canvas, Braid embarked on a series of grueling national and world tours, which took a toll on the members' sanity. "Personalities start clashing, and you start fighting about shit you weren't fighting about before because you have zero personal space," Nanna says. "And what was nuts is we'd get off tour, and we all lived together."
Though the band toured briefly in 2004, no new music was recorded. In the intervening years, Atkinson, Bell and Nanna went on to form Hey Mercedes; Broach split to work on his solo project, the Firebird Band.
While Braid contemporaries such as At the Drive-In garnered mainstream attention, other genre pioneers had to be satisfied with underground success, and day jobs became a necessity. Today, Nanna is the marketing manager at Threadless, Atkinson a production manager for the Warped Tour and Bell a Milwaukee schoolteacher; Broach recently earned his college degree in psychology. But for a group of born musicians, punching a time clock was no match for the call of the road.
"Chris [Broach] and I were deejaying every week at this bar in Chicago called Bar DeVille," Nanna says. "I started telling him about this Record Store Day [band] list I saw and how cool it was, and I really wanted to be a part of it."
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And so it came to be—personality clashes, careers, even cancer be damned.
"My only goal in life was to play music," says Nanna. "I always figured if I ended up doing anything else, I would be unhappy."
This article appeared in print as "Scream On: Post-hardcore Braid shout down obstacles to come out of retirement."