When Knapsack called it quits after 1998’s This Conversation Is Ending Starting Right Now, it probably didn’t feel like they were going anywhere. The Davis, California quartet weren’t about to break into the nu-metal and post-grunge scenes dominating alternative radio. They didn’t have the grassroots community that was starting to develop around the Midwest emo scene. Hell, they didn’t even have the following that early ‘90s indie and punk bands picked up when everyone wanted to find the next Nirvana.
Or as guitarist Sergie Loobkoff put it, “SPIN wasn’t coming around 30 years ago.”
But as it turns out, Knapsack was just a little ahead of their time.
By the mid-2000s, the generation of emo kids who grew up listening to Knapsack had started their own projects. Bands like Brand New immediately drew comparisons, and suddenly Knapsack’s fingerprints were all over alternative radio — even if they were there as influences on other bands’ songs.
Upon reuniting in 2013, vocalist-guitarist Blair Shehan, drummer Colby Mancasola, and Loobkoff found themselves performing to larger crowds than they’d seen the first time around. A decade later, Spartan Records is re-releasing all three Knapsack albums on vinyl as a box set, complete with bonus tracks, exclusive variants, and a 72-page oral history of the band called This Version of Truth.
SPIN spoke with the influential emo band about the re-release, their lasting legacy, and looking back on misguided nostalgia.
SPIN: What’s it like to see all three albums get re-released on vinyl in this neat little package?
Sergie Loobkoff: People really enjoy vinyl and having the physical artifact that they can hold and look at, rather than just have it flying around in the digital space. It’s a little collectible for everyone.
Blair Shehan: It’s also the first time that we’ve done any sort of bonus track, and each album has a bonus track. We were not that prolific of a band, so I think it’s nice that it’s everything in one place. There’s really nothing else that Knapsack did.
In addition to the bonus tracks, there’s also a pretty significant written version of Knapsack’s story in the box set. What made you want to write the whole story down?
Loobkoff: Colby had the foresight to have the guy who did it interview my twin brother. I don’t know what he said because I haven’t seen it yet, but my brother was probably one of Knapsack’s first fans outside of Davis and Sacramento. Before I joined the band, he kept telling me for a couple of years about how good they were. But I was like, “Yeah, I don’t know. All these young kids and their dumb bands. They suck.” or whatever. But he took me to see Knapsack like three or four times, and obviously it clicked at some point. I saw the genius of these two fellas right here. I saw my friend who laid out the book at a party, and he said, “I think [your brother] is actually in the oral history more than you.” I was like, “Oh man, he’s still trying to be a bigger Knapsack fan than I am, and I’m the one in the band!”
Shehan: Colby spearheaded all of it. He’s always been the archivist for the band. I really have nothing. I don’t collect anything, so it was neat to see. It just all kind of flies by, and those things don’t seem important at the time, but when you tuck them away and then dust them off and bring them back out so many years later, it’s pretty awesome to see it all in one place. It can definitely trigger lots of that “time and space” feeling you had for that particular time and space.
Colby Mancasola: I’m a geek for that stuff. I watch any sort of rock doc or read any sort of book about bands. I just consume as much rock content as possible. So I wanted to do something like this. It also felt really cathartic to dump everything in one place and be like, “OK, now I don’t have to worry anymore about if there’s a couple things up in my parents’ house or this stuff in this closet.” I found a place online where there was a list of shows we played, but it wasn’t all of them. The way my brain works, I pulled it all together and put it all in one place because it makes me sleep better. The fact that it became this type of content that I love to consume just makes it even better for me. I hope that it’s as much about that period of time as it is about our band.
Speaking of that time, it feels like no one really sounded like Knapsack while you were around, but then everyone sounded like Knapsack 5-10 years later. What was it like seeing that influence build up after you’d called it quits?
Shehan: It’s always funny to me because it always just made total sense. I was always like, “This is the kind of music you should make,” so the fact that not many people were doing it at the time kind of baffled me. I didn’t really think anything we were doing was particularly unique — it was just what I wanted to hear. It seemed like what bands should be doing. You could be a very cerebral, artsy band or whatever, but if you’re gonna be a rock band, you want some fist-pumpers, some anthems, some rock stuff. That made perfect sense to me. I just feel like everyone caught up with what we were thinking about.
Mancasola: I think that’s why, when we stumbled upon bands like Mineral or Boys Life or a lot of the other bands mentioned in the book, it made us feel like we weren’t crazy. They were other people that thought that this was normal, while so many bands were playing ska or nu metal or whatever. The way more popular things than whatever the hell we were doing.
How does it feel to see the future generations of bands — including kids today — discovering your music and getting into Knapsack 20-plus years later?
Loobkoff: When we did our tour a couple years ago, we had some really good shows. But there’s this one video on YouTube of us in Brooklyn — which was probably the biggest show we played besides festivals — and right at the end of the last song, there’s a young girl with a backpack on, who got onstage, ran by us old farts and did a stage dive. The fact that she’s a girl, she’s young, she’s not too jaded to go “What is this bullshit? Who are these old dads? What the hell is this?” and that it was something that she was into… It was one of those little moments where — with all the strife and pain of being in a band — it’s like “Ah, this wasn’t a total waste of time.” It was a really worthwhile endeavor, just because people like that girl in 2014 or whatever year felt compelled to stage dive right in front of Blair.
Mancasola: I think just to be one person in the world’s favorite band is a really special thing. There are bands that we played with that come through town all the time and play in pretty small rooms just because they didn’t connect on that same level. So it feels really special to me when someone feels that way about Knapsack.
Shehan: I think with the advent of the Internet, you can just accumulate fans, year by year by year. If you wait long enough, you’ll have a big fan base. It might only be 10 new fans a year, but eventually it’ll get there.
Considering that Knapsack was never really a huge band, is there a sense of justification or success that perhaps more people are into your music now than when you were making it?
Shehan: You know, I’ve had other bands and made other music since Knapsack, but I think there’s just something that’s present in the music about the struggle of being young. It’s the imperfection of it all. I probably write better lyrics now. I probably have better vocal takes. I’d like to think I’m better at songcraft now than I was then. I have a broader palette to use and to express myself than I did then. But I think there’s just something about the music being bottled at that time that creates a certain energy — an angst or whatever you want to call that tension of not knowing what you’re doing or your place in the world. Everybody that grows up goes through that feeling in time, so maybe that’s what connects with people.
Loobkoff: Another thing I’ve seen with Blair’s other bands, my other bands, and especially Knapsack is that we all do a style of music that really didn’t fit in with anything that was going on at the time. In 1996 or 1997, it would have behooved Knapsack to sound more like NOFX or Limp Bizkit.
Shehan: “Can you just skank a little?” “No, I cannot.”
Loobkoff: In the short term, that would’ve really helped us do bigger tours, but that was never gonna happen. I think that hurt Knapsack at the time, but in the long term, maybe it helped us. There are bands that were way bigger and vaguely in our genre in 1997, but they’re long gone and forgotten — or they’re so small that no one would buy a box set in 2023. The fact that we were different hurt us in our day, but I think people appreciate being different after enough time.
What goes through your heads when you hear the old albums these days?
Shehan: I hear a lot of the awkwardness of it. I hear myself working through things and not having the most clever phrasing or what have you. But then I’ll see these lightning bolts of stuff that have been some of my finer moments all the way through the music I’ve made. I just scratch my head as to where they came from or how they arrived, and that’s just the mystery of it. The magic of making art is that you never know when the gold’s gonna show up. Some of it’s not gold — not by a long shot — but some of the work, I’m really proud of. It’s interesting to look back at being that person that really had no idea what they were doing, figuring it out, and how sometimes I stumbled into things that I can appreciate still to this day.
Mancasola: Tell me if I’m misquoting you, Blair, but I think one time you said that you listen back to that stuff and you’re not embarrassed by any of it. If that’s something you really did say, then I think that’s a notable thing, because I feel that way. If someone said, “Hey, here’s something you said 30 years ago” or “Here’s a photo of you 30 years ago,” I’d be like “Oh geez, what do you got?” But to have made these records 30 years ago and not be embarrassed, that’s a pretty cool thing.
Is there anything that you would want the next generation of fans to know about Knapsack, if they’re just discovering you now?
Mancasola: I think there’s a lot of romanticism about the time when we were touring and making records. People look back at old flyers and they’re like, “Oh my God, look at that show! It was Knapsack and At the Drive-In and Mineral and Sense Field! It’ll never be as cool as that again! I wish I was there!” Hopefully some of this comes across in the book, but a lot of those were poorly-attended shows… And one of the bands probably had an off night… And the PA probably sucked or went out halfway through the show. We were just dumb kids — like you probably are right now if you’re sitting at home thinking that. There was nothing special about it. We were just dumb kids in a different decade. Sure, all those bands made some great records, but they were just kids figuring shit out.
Shehan: Being in a band is awkward, humiliating, and exhilarating all at the same time, because you’re putting everything out there, and sometimes you miss the mark. Sometimes you make stupid mistakes, and it’s only in hindsight that you can see what those are. When you’re in those moments — especially when you’re young — you’re just lost in the world like a babe in the woods.
Loobkoff: Both of the things you guys just said made me think about how if someone saw a flyer of Knapsack and At the Drive-In at whatever college we played together, they’d probably say, “Wow! What an amazing show! That must’ve been so crazy!” What they don’t know is that after we checked in, it looked so bad and so empty that we went to get something to eat and decided we didn’t even want to go back and play that show. As we were driving out, we looked out the window and At the Drive-In waving at us like “Fuck you! We wish we could leave!”