When I was nine, I was obsessed with the idea of embarking on my very own Pokémon adventure. As my parents dragged me to strange places that I was too young to appreciate, I always had my grubby Gameboy by my side. Be it long car journeys to the grandparents or lazy days by a hotel pool, there’d be one constant – my loyal pixelized Pokémon. As each unfamiliar new landscape rolled by I’d imagine that — just like my tiny avatar on the screen below — I too was training to be the very best.
It’s no wonder that us ‘90s kids were so enamoured with this brightly coloured phenomenon. While to adults, Pokémon probably appeared to be little more than seizure-inducing nonsense, for millions of confused children, it was the ultimate comfort blanket.
The games showed an 11-year-old setting out alone on a journey into the wider world – one of growth, friendship and discovery. Just as everything began to change for kids, Pokémon whispered: “Look, finding your place in the world isn’t strange and scary – it’s actually an adventure!”
Developer Game Freak wasn’t entirely wrong. But as my generation grew up, for most, the dream of catching ‘em all soon became just a warm, fuzzy memory. Yet, for five 30-somethings from Nashville, touring in a punk band turned that Pokémon fantasy into reality.
Gotta tour ’em all!
Meet emo’s resident Pokémaniacs — Free Throw. It’s no exaggeration to say that an obsessive love of the ‘mon is what ties this band together. From matching Pokéball tatts to Kanto-inspired song titles, this shared nerdiness led five friends to form an Elite Four-toppling party of their own.
Sitting across from Free Throw in a field 5000 miles away from their hometown, they’re celebrating a well-received, raucous festival set. As they laugh amongst themselves and guzzle beer in the English sun, they seem just as excited to “talk some Pokes” as they were to whip a sea of fans into a frenzy minutes earlier.
“I think the want for us to be able to go on tour, to meet new people and travel like that, stems from us all playing games like Pokémon,” explains singer and guitarist Corey Castro. “It stems from that idea of ‘I’m setting out on an adventure’.
“Players get to explore a new continent every time a new Pokémon game comes out. With our band getting to the level that we now travel the world and visit places that I wouldn’t be able to normally, it really does scratch the same itch that drew me to playing Pokémon in the first place.”
“We just need the hat, the backpack and the gloves…,” adds lead guitarist Larry Warner.
Beer. Basements. Bangers.
It’s fitting really, that we’re sat here drinking and talking Pokémon – as that’s exactly how Free Throw started. Formed in 2012 while Corey was boozing in the basement with Larry and brother Justin, the trio never dreamed this drunken night would eventually send them on globe-trotting adventures.
“I had the day off work so I was like, ‘Dude let’s grab 24 beers, get sloshed and have fun!'” recalls Larry with a smile. “And er, now we’re here, somehow!”
That ‘somehow’ is actually fairly easy to unravel — it’s because they write absolute bangers. Blending the bouncing riffs of Four Year Strong with the introspective lyrics of punk bands like PUP, the last few years have deservedly seen Free Throw graduate from sweaty basements to sold-out theatres.
While you could listen to Free Throw’s riffy brand of emo completely oblivious to their Pokémon infatuation, the band hasn’t exactly been shy about referencing Game Freak’s seminal series either.
“The first song we ever wrote was called ‘Lvl. 2 Pidgey in a Masterball’,” confesses Corey with a wry smile.
“ — Because we were like, well, what’s the most fucked up thing you can do in Pokémon?” interjects Larry.
“Waste a Masterball on a level 2 Pidgey!” the whole band murmur in unison.
From Pallet Town to Victory Road
Although they started off their career conjuring images of Poké-blasphemy, over time, their homages slowly morphed from a nerdy wink and nod into something more conceptual.
Like many contemporary punk and emo bands, Free Throw’s songs are an exercise in catharsis, digging deep into the uncomfortable recesses of singer Corey’s mind. As the band optimistically started their journey, they commemorated the occasion with the hopeful-sounding ‘Pallet Town’.
“Since Larry and I were writing the songs for the band and our original third guitar player loved Pokémon too, originally we just kind of went with it,” shrugs Corey.
“It started to become conceptual though when we did ‘Bear your Mind’,” explains Larry. “With the song ‘Victory Road’, the lyrical content, it was supposed to be the end of our Pokémon naming — it was the end of the game. We’d all been on a real journey as bandmates, and that chapter of our lives — we were going to end it there.”
But it seems, try as they might, Free Throw just can’t escape their nerdy nature. Two years and one album later, the Pokémon inspired names are back with a vengeance.
“The track Cerulean city is about my current girlfriend — because her name is, er… Misty,” says Corey, as the band laugh. “And she is, of course, the gym leader of Cerulean city…”
Collecting friends and fighting battles
Their latest record is littered with enough Pokéreferences to make a Psyduck blush. From ‘Tail Whip, Struggle’ to ‘Monte Luna’ (the Spanish name for Pokémon Red’s zubat-infested Mount Moon) it seems for Free Throw at least – punk rock and Pokémon are completely inseparable.
“They’re the same!”, Corey exclaims. “Just on tour, instead of collecting Pokémon, I’m collecting friends. I get to go to different places and acquire a giant family of people that I enjoy being around.”
Who knew punk rock could be so wholesome? Yet as any Pokémon fan definitely does know – each lengthy trip across Kanto isn’t without its hardships.
“Touring for a while will bring out the worst in your mental health, because you have no stability,” Corey explains.” All that you have is the routine. You wake up in either someone’s house or a hotel room. You get up, drive. Load all your gear into the venue. You get a couple of drinks, dinner or whatever before a show. You play, loadout and then you do the same thing all over again.”
“It becomes like this weird vortex where it sucks you in,” he adds. “Touring takes its toll. Sometimes your brain just doesn’t process it well.”
After some particularly gruelling international tours, Corey found that all he could do to calm his anxiety was turn to the bottle.
“I just started drinking a lot,” confides Corey. “I like drinking, it’s fun, but when it gets to the point that you can’t survive without doing it, it’s a problem.”
While therapy and learning how to treat touring as a job ultimately helped Corey develop his own coping mechanics (“Therapy is basically your Professor Oak,” Corey says, with only a trace of irony) it turns out, during these dark times, Pokémon became a comfort blanket for the boys once again.
There’s an app for that
“When Pokémon GO got way better, after all the updates, we started touring really heavily again,” remembers Larry. “And honestly, it kind of gave us a reason to leave the venue after soundcheck…”
Yep, Free Throw really are travelling the world catching Pokémon.
But they’re not the only band praising Pokémon GO as a touring godsend. Speaking to Kevin Otten, bassist for rapidly rising metallers Knocked Loose at Slam Dunk Festival, he claims that without Niantic’s app, he’d also have little motivation to leave the tour bus.
“I got back into Pokémon Go on our last headliner tour with [metalcore band] The Acacia Strain, because they were all playing it. They’d be like, “We’re going off to do a raid”, so, I had to re-download it! Back in America, we’ve done so many tours that we go to the same cities all the time, so I’ve seen everything.
“There’s a lot of time spent driving and staring out the window. But now, getting back into Pokémon GO, I’ll walk down the road for 10 minutes, just to see what I can catch around here. I did it a couple of times and I was like, “Holy s–, I’m actually outside!”
Gearing up to spend weeks travelling with groups of people you’ve never met before can be pretty nerve-wracking. It’s lucky then, that most bands are total nerds — and that Pokémon GO is the ultimate icebreaker.
“It’s kind of funny, because you never know if bands are going to think you’re kind of weird for playing a lot of it,” says Free Throw’s rhythm guitarist Jake Hughes. “And then one day we’ll be in the green room and someone’ll be like, “Dude Pokémon GO?! What are your decks looking like?”
So, which of the bands they toured with are the biggest nerds?
“We were touring with (beloved pop-punk band) The Wonder Years and Soupy their lead singer is SUPER into Pokémon GO,” whispers Larry.
“I would say he has the best Pokedex that I’ve ever seen,” adds Corey, with more than a hint of jealousy.
Becoming a Pokémon Master
Disappointing Pokedexes aside, it’s clear that this strong party of world-weary punks are no longer the low-level trainers they once were. In Corey’s eyes, after seven years of touring, Free Throw have now become bonafide Pokémon masters.
“It seems like only yesterday that we were the new band on the block, but now we’re taking bands with us out on tour and showing them the ropes,” Corey reflects.
“Honestly… touring, it’s kind of like Pokémon,” he says with a laugh. “You leave Pallet Town and you kind of have to figure everything out as you move from town to town, and by the time you get to the Pokémon League and Victory Road you’re like a f– master. You know what to do.”
“You learn the ins and outs and the etiquette [of being on the road] as you go,” he continues. “When you finally get to that point where you can do what you love, but without having to worry about yourself mentally… it feels like you really did beat the Elite Four, you know?”
After an hour of nerding out, we say our goodbyes. As the band laugh and head off to the backstage bar, Larry turns around. “TLDR? Pokémon brings everyone together!”
END GAME CONTENT: Free Throw’s albums as Pokémon
Wondering where to start with Free Throw? Here’s Corey’s handy Pokéfan-friendly guide.
It’s obviously a Pidgey. It’s the first Pokémon that you catch, the first one you see, and of course, ‘Lvl 2 Pidgey in a Masterball’ is on there…
I would probably say [Lavender Town is like] Mr Mime, because that was us trying to emulate bands we liked a lot and just kind of miming it. But despite that, Mr Mime can be a strong Pokémon.
Those Days Are Gone
The majority of our fanbase regards it as a classic, for us it’s an album we recorded in Larry’s! So we’re like, ‘Why do people love this album so much?’ I guess… it’s an Arcanine, because it’s a legendary Pokémon that’s not actually a legendary. I don’t think you can ask any real old-school emo fan if this album was on their list of legendary emo albums, but then again, a lot of people who listen to emo might say that it’s legendary.
Bear Your Mind
It’s a Ditto, it’s kind of us trying to form ourselves and figure out what we want to be, shifting into different sounds throughout the album.
What’s Past Is Prologue
The new album is probably Rapidash. It’s the horse full gallop. It’s full of fire and just running for it, because at this point, we’ve kind of figured it out.