You’re a fox. You’re standing on the shoulder of I-76, just outside of Philadelphia. It’s midnight. The road is dark and quiet, but there’s a glimmer of light at the horizon and a distant voice gaining in pitch and volume, growing more intense as twinned headlights get brighter and closer. Suddenly, a scream comes across the night. It arrives in a war of rubber and metal hurdling past you. And then it’s gone. You don’t know that it’s Billy Werner—the singer of the short-lived but hugely-influential screamo band Saetia—in the driver’s seat, screaming at the top of his lungs. This is his nightly ritual, his test to see if he can still keep up with his bandmates after a double-decade break. But you don’t know that. You’re a fox. You probably didn’t even know Saetia was back together. It’s okay. Until a couple of weeks ago, no one did.

Then three shows at Brooklyn’s Saint Vitus, which will benefit the Global Action for Trans Equality, sold out in less than a minute. Suddenly, everyone knew. Twenty Three years after their last show, at the collectivist artspace ABC No Rio, Saetia is back.

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And people are losing their shit. Despite producing only one full length record and a pair of 7” singles in their two-and-a-half year lifespan as a band (1997-1999), Saetia’s stature has only grown in the 23 intervening years. Subreddits have popped up to debate whether it was the musical dynamism of the band or vocal expressionism of Werner that made Saetia the best band of the pre-skramz underground.

Critics have claimed that the band “accidentally defined a subgenre.” A generation of younger bands have grown up, wanting to be the next Saetia. How is this all possible for a little DIY band from twenty years ago? It really boils down to one simple reason: the band ruled, and they didn’t stick around long enough to start sucking.

The band ruled, and they didn’t stick around long enough to start sucking

“It happened so fast,” Werner tells CREEM about the reunion over Zoom. “We gelled really quickly. Even the decision making. We now have an endless group text going. We’re talking every day again.”

“We just did six hours in the studio in late May and it was fucking fantastic,” Jamie Behar, one of Saetia’s two guitarists, cuts in. “I love playing with our drummer, Steve Roche. Played for 10 years with him in Off Minor. All the little musical cues we developed over the years are still there. Colin [Bartoldus], who’s playing bass, is a better musician now than he ever was. He never stopped learning and playing. Great intuition, great ear. Adam is the opposite end of the magnet from me. Everything that happens in Saetia happens within the bounds of our two polarized sides.”

Behar speaks like he plays guitar, stringing together forceful sentiments and slicing insightful asides in a barrage of sound until the thought is complete and he falls silent, having said everything he needed to say. He is the only member aside from Werner that was in every lineup of the band from beginning to end. So when he speaks, it’s clear he knows exactly what the fuck he’s talking about. In the 20-something years I’ve known him, I’ve heard Behar exasperated, sarcastic, dismissive, delighted, and thankful, sometimes in the span of a single sentence. But I’ve never heard him so excited.

Werner leans back in his chair. “It doesn’t feel like work. It feels like a labor of love. The energy is really good, thank god. I had a really tough winter. Things felt a little bleak. Doing this has gotten me through.”

This begs the question, if things are so goddamn good, then why haven’t Saetia played, even once, in the 23 years since they broke up? Word is—around the CREEM offices at least—that one of the members is some kind of hot-shot surgeon and doesn’t have any time to play guitar.

“Oh god no, I never stopped playing music,” Behar says. “I was in two bands while I was in medical school. Also, am I supposed to be the hot-shot surgeon? Because I’m an OB/GYN.”

“For 21 years, I was a hard no,” Werner says. “At first it was like, I just want to continue to grow and try new things. And then, when it was clear that people really wanted Saetia to come back, I felt that my time had passed and I wanted to make room for this generation, who are so aware of the importance of elevating unheard voices. It was their turn. I thought, ‘Another middle aged white guy doesn’t need to be up there screaming about shit.’”

"Another middle aged white guy doesn’t need to be up there screaming about shiT"

“Then Covid happened,” Adam Marino, the positive guitar charge to Behar’s negative polarity, adds. “I started to think maybe Saetia would never play."

“But time kept on passing and people still wanted to see us,” Werner says. “It wasn’t fading away like we all thought it would. And we all just kind of said, ‘Fuck it, what if we just got into a room and saw what it felt like to play the songs, privately?’ It seemed innocuous enough. Then I realized, with all the other shit that’s going on in the world, maybe there is an opportunity for us to not only carve out space for ourselves on the stage but also maybe create a platform to uplift other voices, raise some money, do some actual good. My perspective shifted.

“I began to think we might be able to leverage the grace that Saetia has been afforded—through time and remembrance—and do it responsibly, rather than exploitatively. That feels in line with the enduring sense of ethics that we learned way back then.”

The band has yet to announce exactly who will open the reunion dates, but assures they do represent some marginalized communities.

And speaking of way back when: Saetia started in 1998 in the small broadcast studio of the New York institution Crucial Chaos, college radio station WNYU’s hardcore punk show that’s been running since the 1980s. “I met Jamie and Greg Drudy [Level Plane Records founder and original Saetia drummer] and Alex Madeira [Saetia’s original bass player who died in 1998] and even Colin and Steve, who played in the band later, at NYU,” Werner remembers.

“Everyone except for Adam. Adam I knew from working across the street from him in Queens. He was at Haagen Daaz, which has a rich hardcore history, by the way, since Henry Rollins and Ian Mckay met at a Haagen Daaz. I like to think we’re in a hardcore lineage. But the real long and short of it is that Jamie had started Saetia and I kind of swooped in and took over from the singer he was already working with.”

"Haagen Daaz has a rich hardcore history, by the way, since Henry Rollins and Ian Mckay met at a Haagen Daaz. I like to think we’re in a hardcore lineage"

“Billy and I have different recollections of the way Saetia started,” Behar says, smirking. “I remember going into Crucial Chaos—and it used to be a thing where you brought your own 7” collection in and tried to compel [DJs] Dave and Rachael [Rosen of Indecision, Milhouse, Most Precious Blood] to play your suggestions on air—and Billy and I were flipping through each other’s records and it was the heyday of Slap-a-Ham [Records] and we had both brought that Discordance Axis/Plutocracy split. And we just looked at each other and he was like, ‘We should play together.’ And it was like fuck it, why not. But Billy did most of the recruiting, honestly. I’m the least social person in any of the bands I’ve ever [been in.]”

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“Our shows were always pretty good,” Marino says. “But then again, put 30 people in the basement of ABC and it feels full. We played once with [Crimethinc anarcho-collectivists] Catharsis and Hot Water Music. It was a smaller scene back then. The musical moment was secondary to the social movement. People were always heckling back then. Your friends would come out and basically talk shit at you the whole time.”

“The influences that we had starting off were all Bloodlink and Ebullition bands and I don’t think anyone would listen to Saetia and say, ‘that sounds like Struggle, that sounds like Downcast’,” Behar says. “Greg was more into the Shotmaker, Max Colby thing… but he was also playing in Interpol. So a lot of the drumming was outside of what people might expect.

Werner adds: “I remember seeing Frail and it was a huge gateway to another mindset than CBGB’s matinees, because it existed within the same milieu as New York hardcore but rather than focusing on rage, it channeled a depth of pain. Not like, ‘I’m gonna punch the world,’ but more, ‘The world punches me—and how am I gonna recover from that?’”

"It existed within the same milieu as New York hardcore but rather than focusing on rage, it channeled a depth of pain"

Indeed there’s a rawness to the vocal approach of an early ‘fall-on-the-floor’ band like Frail that can be heard in Saetia. “The first time we recorded anything, Billy started screeching into the microphone and the engineer stopped the tape. We all looked at him and he was like, ‘Oh, you meant to do that on purpose?’” Behar laughs. “But I love Billy’s voice. And honestly, [in preparing for the reunion,] he was the one we were worried about. He can’t scream like he’s a kid anymore, right? I thought, he’s gonna screech once and say ‘Fuck this, I’m going home.’ Nope. It’s a marvel that he can still do it.”

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But what is it specifically about Saetia that has not only endured the two decades plus, but has grown steadily in stature and appreciation? Why is Saetia remembered in a way that Closure, Anasarca, Merel, the State Secedes or any of the dozens of their excellent post-hardcore contemporaries aren’t? Each member seems to have a different theory.

“It doesn’t make any sense,” Behar says. “You & I were our older brother band. We were practically riding their coattails at the time. Why are we so remembered? There are kids who tell me, ‘you guys invented this stuff,’ and my answer is ABSO-FUCKING-LUTELY NOT. Closure. Sleepytime Trio. Merel.

“Because of the time that we broke up, I really do think that Saetia benefitted the most from the popularization of the internet. Level Plane [Records] were kind of genius for checking out how it was doing on message boards. That was a new thing at the time… everyone talking about us on message boards. People all over the world.”

“You know that kids in Malaysia and Chile are covering Saetia and putting it on YouTube?” Marino jumps in. I did not.

I ask Behar directly, if you had to guess why people still love Saetia, give me one reason.

“A lot of it was Billy’s lyrics. A lot of people emulated them later. There was an honesty about them and definitely a bit of post-teen angst. He’s gonna murder me for that comment. I think he was able to articulate something in a specific way that other bands maybe weren’t doing at the time.”

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Marino weighs in, “Re-releasing the discography [in 2016] shined a light on the band for some younger people. It was already growing… you don’t know how many messages I get that say, ‘I was born in 2000, and I just discovered your band 6 months ago.’”

My personal opinion is that Saetia left behind a single album—that doesn’t sound like smoldering garbage—with the single greatest opening track of any hardcore record of the time. It was so common in the ’90s DIY scene for really promising bands to bury their best song on a split or a comp, so that when younger listeners finally find their album, they don’t even get a feel for what they were like at the time.

The song “Notres Langues Nous Trompes,” on the other hand, has all the essential qualities of what made Saetia so compelling: urgency, velocity, an elasticity of time and tempo, a unique sense of melody and lyrics that are able to be both visceral and pretentious, without coming across as pompous. Whether we like to admit it or not, we all love a little pretense.

Werner smiles. “The French song is my favorite, too.”

Even the fact that Werner titles the song, “Notres Langues Nous Trompes,” but colloquially refers to it as “the French song,” encapsulates some of the remarkable duality of a New York Hardcore band like Saetia. “In addition to volunteering time at ABC No Rio,” he explains, “You had to be able to rank the Cro Mags records in order from most essential to least, to spend time in the Saetia van.”

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People talk up Saetia’s jazz influence (their name is a reference to Miles Davis’ 1960 album Sketches of Spain, after all) on Behar’s playing but he insists that it’s not as deliberate as some might think. “It was about the phrasings and the voicing,” he says. “Not about the structure. I wasn’t trying to force fifteenths into hardcore. Sometimes you just need two chords played in the right way. Make it kick some ass.”

"I wasn’t trying to force fifteenths into hardcore. Sometimes you just need two chords played in the right way. Make it kick some asS"

I can’t help but ask Behar, point blank, “Do you still enjoy this kind of music?”

“I wore a La Quiete shirt yesterday. Absolutely. We played the French song recently, at rehearsal. It all clicked right back into place and it really does open up a part of you that never really left,” he says.

“I don’t know if I could handle it, if it was exactly the same as it was back then,” Werner jumps in.

Behar concedes the point. “It’s like it was back then, just without all the shitty insecurity and ego we all had when we were kids. All that snipey, childish shit we used to do to each other. We’ve since let go of the voice in our head that says, ‘Fuck my friends. Fuck my life. Self-destruct.’”

“Maybe the internet has flattened things to such an extent that we give equal weight to people who have no idea what they’re talking about,” he continues. “We used to say a lot of stupid, self-righteous nonsense but we said it to 50 kids in a basement… that’s the right venue for saying something stupid. Even the best of things are meant to be temporary. Not immortalized forever. Sometimes your voice is supposed to be small.”




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