“I’m grateful for the people who saw potential in us and value in what we were doing at that time. ‘What Are You So Scared Of’ was essentially the inception of a deeply meaningful and fulfilling project for us all.” – Jenna McDougall (Instagram)
Can you believe it’s been ten years since Tonight Alive released their debut album, What Are You So Scared Of?! A band’s first album is iconic, but nothing is more stimulating than hearing how five teenagers from Western Sydney seemingly uplifted their lives, travelled to the USA and recorded their first album. Not to mention how they managed to evolve Australian pop punk from that point on.
Like the band themselves, we’ve all evolved and matured over the years. Especially me. Upon WAYSSO?’s release, I’d just graduated from uni and had zero intentions of going straight into a 9-to-5 work lifestyle. All I really wanted to do was leave the country and travel, which ultimately led to me applying for my first working holiday visa in the USA. I guess that’s why the leading single from this album, ‘Starlight’ struck a chord with me. I’m pretty sure that whole album was on my playlist during that 14 hour flight to LAX. I wasn’t as cashed up as you’d want to be overseas, but I managed to make it over with just enough to get by — as I’ve always done in life. I was happy and “I didn’t wanna worry about how I got so broke.”
What Are You So Scared Of? came embodied with a spirit of hope and newfound freedom that gave me (and I’m sure many other fans) the motivation to focus on your happiness, over others. While songs like ‘Fake It’ and ‘Listening’ ignited a new kinda drive in me, it was the title track ‘What Are You So Scared Of?’ and ‘Sure As Hell’ (one of my all time favourite songs by the band) that still resonates most with me to this very day.
You can’t argue that this band helped push the pop punk genre in Australia down new avenues back then though. Rewind back to 2008-2011, the scene was vastly different to the diversity it is today. Dominated by a heavy male presence, MySpace misfits Short Stack were scoring major brownie points with young teenage girls all over the country, Gold Coast outfit Skyway were transcending upwards, off the back of their debut album, Take These Days and Sydney party pop punkers Heroes For Hire were stirring up a storm all over the city with their debut album, Life of the Party. Enter in a young, fresh-faced Tonight Alive — Jenna McDougall (vocals), Jake Hardy (guitars), Whakaio Taahi (lead guitar/vocals), Cameron Adler (bass) and Matty Best (drums) — it felt like a breath of fresh air for the pop punk community.
Being an underage band, I don’t ever recall Tonight Alive playing Hot Damn! or Trash back in the day (they finally secured an 18+ gig in 2010 at SFX though), like their Western Sydney besties Heroes For Hire were doing. I vaguely remember my first Tonight Alive gig. It was at an all-ages show in Castle Hill, opening for Heroes where I quite literally fell in love with songs like ‘To Die For’ and ‘Rooftop to the Street’ (off the band’s All Shapes and Disguises EP).
Wall Of Sound writer/photographer Renae Egan has been a longtime TA fan since way back in 2008, and recollects the moment the band announced they were heading overseas to record What Are You So Scared Of? and then just over a year later, the album tour:
“I remember when they announced that they were going to LA to record their debut album with Mark Trombino and how proud I was that this little band from Castle Hill were working with someone that had worked with Blink 182. I remember the album tour. They played at the Metro Theatre in Sydney. It was the first time hearing a lot of the songs, but everyone went nuts regardless. I lost count of how many times I listened to WAYSSO? when it first came out but I dare say it’s at least over 100 times.”
“The day the album came out I walked 4KM each way (didn’t drive at the time) to my closest JB Hifi to pick it up. I listened on my headphones in my room and was hooked from the first listen. I cried hearing ‘Amelia’ for the first time. The year prior I had lost a high school friend AND my mum lost a baby who was going to be named Amelia. To this day I find it hard to listen to that song. Every time I have seen TA play it live I cry.
I tweeted the band after I listened and said I cant wait to learn every single song before their album tour which was less than a week later. Jake bet me there was no way I could so of course I had to prove him wrong. I sung every single word to every song and Jake watched me laughing the whole time. He hi-fived me after the show and said ‘well played!’
I probably saw them play 20 times on that album cycle. I have seen them live over 50 times now all over the world & will always remember the special experience we had over that time. Jenna is now a friend for life, even came to my birthday dinner a few years ago. I am so lucky to have been able to watch it all unfold & their journey to explode into what it is now. WAYSSO? is more than an album for me. It’s like this surreal chunk of time that forever holds a place in my heart.” – Lili Jean Berry, TA fanatic/Unified Merch Queen
What Are You So Scared Of? opened up some incredible opportunities for Tonight Alive, from collaborating with blink-182’s Mark Hoppus on ‘Thank You and Goodnight’ (a massive feat for any band back then) to heading across the Pacific to jump on the infamous Vans Warped Tour, an absolute bucket-list moment for young Australian bands of that time. The band’s first year on Warped Tour was also my first year of attending the legendary US festival. Seeing fellow Sydneysiders kill it on the Kevin Says stage amidst the sweltering heat of Las Vegas definitely gave me some homely feels and cured the momentary bout of homesickness. Seeing these kids going from playing tiny all-ages shows around Western Sydney to an international destination was pretty surreal, and just made my heart so full.
The world was immediately perplexed with who these guys were, where they came from and all eyes turned to Australia for everything pop punk. Over the years, more and more Aussie upcomers have appealed to the worldwide audience, with iconic labels like Hopeless Records consistently looking towards our scene, launching the careers of Stand Atlantic and Between You and Me internationally. Between You and Me bassist James ‘Bassy’ Karagiozis remembers how inspired he was at the international potential for future pop punk acts like his own band:
“When I first heard ‘What Are You So Scared Of’?, it blew me away. It made me realise that great pop punk music can come out of Australia. The fact that Tonight Alive were such a young band, making waves early on overseas, and bringing over bands that I’d loved for ages. Seeing them break out on festivals like the Vans Warped Tour, it made me feel like my dreams had some possibility.”
What Tonight Alive managed to unlock early on in their career is inspiring as heck and still continues to influence the Australian pop punk community to this day. In fact, if it wasn’t for them, we definitely wouldn’t have current female-fronted groups like Yours Truly and Terra. Yours Truly frontwoman Mikaila Delgado revealed how a casual encounter with Jenna at a Tonight Alive gig when she was 13 years old inspired her to start her own band:
“I remember hearing What Are You So Scared Of? and becoming instantly connected to the songs and just loved the way it made me feel. I saw Tonight Alive a couple months later in January 2012 when I was 13 and met Jenna in the bathroom of the Annandale Hotel and told her that I wanted to be in a band. She told me to go for it and start that band. The album soundtracked that year of my life and it will always be so so special to me. Being a girl from Western Sydney who wanted to be in a band, that conversation and those songs were a huge inspiration that I’ll always be grateful for!”
Cassie Sutton, who fronts Melbourne-based pop punk act Terra, found WAYSSO? at a time when she just discovering the punk/hardcore scene and this record seemed to resonate with her due to its feelgood pop punk style, which inspired her to pursue music. Even today, Tonight Alive remains one of her band’s biggest influences:
“What Are You So Scared Of? was one of the first albums that inspired me to want to be in a band myself. I was 15 at the time, had just started discovering music in the punk/hardcore genre and Tonight Alive and this album really resonated with me. It was one of those albums that was really there for me when I needed it. When Terra write music, we tend to naturally draw inspiration from the bands we grew up with and Tonight Alive was one of those for us. When we were first learning our instruments, the songs we would practice were songs from What Are You So Scared Of? and The Other Side. They shaped the way we write and our evolution as musicians has been influenced even as Tonight Alive’s style has changed over the years. I feel like Tonight Alive in many ways paved the way for female musicians in this genre, especially in Australia. It was a totally different time back when they started out and I believe they were a catalyst for influencing the next generation of bad ass women to take the stage.”
“The first I ever heard of Tonight Alive, was at a show of theirs I attended with a mutual friend, I left (blown away) and with a burnt CD that just had “TA” written on it in blue marker (I still have it in my car). Some of those songs went on to feature on What Are You So Scared Of and I remember how cool it was to hear those songs evolve *cough Mark Hoppus feature cough*. That’s when it really hit me that Australian pop punk was making its move on the world and Tonight Alive were at the forefront of that movement with this release. ‘Breaking & Entering’? Banger. ‘Starlight’? A f*cking hit. I think the most important thing that What Are You So Scared Of? did was ignite a fire in a lot of young female musicians to showcase their talents and chase their dreams. Without it, I think there would be a lot less music in the world right now.” – Scott Eckel, Aussie Drummer of US based acts MAKEOUT/Five North
Today, the NSW music scene continues to rise above and beyond anywhere else in the country and is overflowing with pop punk upstarts, inspired by what Tonight Alive pulled early on in their career with What Are You So Scared Of? and the album’s overall essence. PSTCRDS vocalist Steve Reid recalls how hooked he was to everything the band released a decade ago:
With ‘What Are You So Scared Of?’, Tonight Alive absolutely changed the game for the Australian pop punk scene. My personal favourite thing about this album was that the first time I heard it was the first time I’d heard — and really taken in — lyrics that were so raw and straightforward to understand. From the get-go, Jenna is telling you exactly what she wants to say and put across, and that’s something that I’ve tried to incorporate into my songwriting for as long as I can remember. The slight sounds of heavy influence and straight up riffs on this album are something you can hear in so many pop punk bands today, PSTCRDS included!”
The musicianship and production value on WAYSSO? for such a young band back then was ever so evident, as Ryo Sprott, guitarist from Sydney upcomers A Swift Farewell, remembers how inspired he was to becoming a better musician from a young age:
“I’ve always wanted to be in a band and their performance motivated me to practice and made me want to be a better guitarist. One thing they weren’t scared of (ha — get it?) was experimenting and adding production elements/ear candy that took their songs to the next level. You didn’t hear this in other mainstream pop punk bands till much later on. Some of the lyrics on WAYSSO also really helped me through difficult times. I remember being 14 years old and singing along to the title track and being like, ‘hell yeah, I should stop being scared and try things. What am I so scared of?'”
Like many iconic albums though, What Are You So Scared Of? was made not just for the band’s love of creating good music, but for the legion of fans that have stuck by them (and still do!) since their inception in 2008. Diehard Tonight Alive fan Ashlee Kellehear reminisces on what the record brought to her life on the album’s day of release:
“I remember the day WAYSSO? was released. I remember that first play through after driving 30 minutes to the closest retailer; I remember smiling so hard, singing along to the few lyrics I knew among an otherwise brand new album. I remember reaching Amelia and pulling over. Repeating it. Again and again and again. I remember thinking how amazed I was that such young people were creating music like this; mature far beyond their years. And then I remember the weeks of repeating What Are You So Scared Of?, playing along on my guitar, connecting with other fans. Fans that eventually became some of my closest friends; who’d happily give you a lift to a show, or walk with you back to the train station after a show, who’d let you crash at their house in another state when you took the time off work to follow the band around Australia, who’d say ‘fuck yeah, let’s go to America and see TA!’
This album was the induction to a myriad of happy times, adventures and fun. I can’t fathom what my life would look like now if I hadn’t picked up WAYSSO?. I am truly thankful for everything I’ve experienced since its release and will always hold it and Tonight Alive in such high regards.”
If I may indulge in a little story time, I first met Jenna in our high school’s music room. I had to wait around on Photo Day and all my friends had left so I was wandering around the music halls and heard someone thrashing out on the drums to Blink 182. I snuck in the door and watched this girl rip into it with pure joy on her face — not knowing she had an audience. I clapped after she finished a few songs. We bonded over our love of pop punk and a few weeks later, being in Year 12, I had a free period and was using a computer in the same lab where Jenna had a class and she told me to add her band on MySpace.
Fast forward to hearing WAYSSO? and seeing Mark Hoppus on a track totally changed my perspective of the band from “the girl from my school’s pop punk band” to legitimate band that is touring the world, living the dream and being recognised and collaborating with a member of THE VERY band that brought us together. Mind blown. Not only that, but seeing the influence change in their music to have songs that were more introspective like the title track just proves how much they had grown between their releases.
I think the most significant part of WAYSSO? for myself was seeing the same familiar faces coming to not one but all of their shows during their tour cycle — fans who became friends, who became family that I’ve traveled around Australia and across the world with, to enjoy “the summer and the Warped Tour”, to get matching Tonight Alive tattoos and to see our favourite local band slaying stages everywhere they go.” – Krista Jenkins, Tonight Alive fan
Like Renae, WAYSSO? instilled a newfound confidence in herself that hadn’t been uncovered before:
“When I’m feeling a bit nervous or uneasy about something, even to this day, I still ask myself, ‘What Are You So Scared Of?’ If that doesn’t tell you how important this album is, then I don’t know what will. I’ve met so many of my friends by going to Tonight Alive’s shows, some of which are still my best friends to this day. I’m always so thankful for finding them all those years ago. My life wouldn’t be what it is today without them.”
Fast forward ten years, and as we all eventually do, I have most definitely grown up from my 23 year old self. I still have that similar carefree mindset from 2011, I’m still an avid traveller, and I even ended my Warped Tour stint the same year that Tonight Alive did (during the festival’s final cross country run in 2018). But while my reckless travelling days are over for now, I probably wouldn’t be the person I am today without being exposed to What Are You So Scared Of? back then — “Now I’m finally content and I sure as hell meant all of it.”
Happy 10 Years What Are You So Scared Of?, thank you and goodnight.
Written by Tamara May @citylightstam