By Carly Wedding

February 26, 2009. I’m sitting in the La Plata High School auditorium watching members of the student body display their talents in the annual variety show. One of these students entertains the audience with his interpretive dance piece, “The Evolution of a Caterpillar.” Four young men from the senior class cover “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen, a song ranked 166 on Rolling Stone’s list of 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. One of the school’s most well-known thespians performs a monologue from a popular Broadway musical. With the exception of the Queen cover, none of the performances appeal to me. Towards the end of the show, though, two tall, slim, clean-cut guys walk out with acoustic guitars and announce that they, too, are playing a cover.

“This is a song called ‘The Quiet Things That No One Ever Knows’ by Brand New,” the younger guy says.

I squint my eyes at the stage and realize I know that guy; he’s in my seventh period algebra class. I think to myself, “Damn, I didn’t think anyone at school had good taste in music.”

Fast forward to October 4, 2014. I’m standing amongst a crowd of people at the Broadberry in Richmond, VA. Everyone is anxiously waiting for the opening acts to play so the touring bands – Praise, True Love, Hostage Calm, You Blew It, and Citizen – can begin. The incredible part? That same kid who played the Brand New cover with his older brother in ninth grade is the local opener for this show.

“Hey everyone,” he announces to the crowd, the lights dimming. “I’m so honored to be here. My name is Jonny Mays, and this is my project WATERMEDOWN (link) .”

“Yeah, Jonny!” I scream. I feel my heart rate increase. My eyes water slightly. It’s an understandable reaction. I mean, how often do you get to see a high school friend open for one of the biggest bands in the pop punk scene right now?

The purple and blue spotlights focus on the 20-year-old musician as he begins his set. I have a perfect view from where I’m standing in the crowd. I can see the sweat drip down his face as he screams “I will overcome this hell,” a lyric from “Cold Decembers.” I witness the veins nearly protrude from his neck while he hollers throughout “Nothing Yet,” a track from his most recent release, the four-song Perfect Is Pointless EP. His face softens as he transitions to “#2,” a song detailing the emotions that come with the reality of growing up. After his final piece, a new track entitled “God, I Found Hell,” Mays thanks the crowd once more, informing them that he has a merch table with cassettes and hand-burned CDs at the front of the venue. With that, he begins to pack his gear and exit the stage.

Jonny Mays, known by many as WATERMEDOWN, has gone from playing small, school-sponsored events to embarking on self-planned DIY tours. A junior at Virginia Commonwealth University, Mays has made quite a name for himself since he started the project his senior year of high school. But before there was WATERMEDOWN, which draws influences from the likes of Brand New, Taking Back Sunday, and Mansions, there was Collapse the Night.

“I started Collapse the Night towards the end of sophomore year,” he recalls, sitting across from me on the floor of his third-story Richmond apartment. “I had played a Tom Petty song at the talent show that year, and after that, my friend Jacob suggested we start playing music together.”

Although Mays’ taste nowadays ranges from Tom Waits to Tancred, when he was 16 he had a fondness for what he calls ‘dad bands.’

“I was really into Tool, Killswitch Engage, all those kinds of bands back in high school. But then I got into Four Year Strong, and that’s what we wanted Collapse the Night to sound like.”

The needle on his living room record player stops tracing the grooves on the Free Throw LP. He flips it over and laughs at the thought of his the motley crew.

“God, Collapse the Night was such a cringy pop punk band.” He shudders at the thought of his previous endeavor, though it’s all in good humor. “We recorded all of our songs on a Rock Band mic. It sounded like complete shit.”

Despite a short-lived run of about two years, Collapse the Night was a household name in Mays’ hometown in Southern Maryland, an area about 45 minutes outside of Washington, D.C. The band frequently performed at churches, backyard festivals, and My Brother’s Place (MBP), an all-ages venue in Waldorf, MD.

Mays pauses to take a sip of his Gatorade and reminisce on the now-defunct venue. He smiles, declaring that “MBP was the best place ever.” He admits that, like many of his classmates, he spent much of his youth at the community center. Although MBP was a Southern Maryland venue, it had quite a track record of performers, including Good Charlotte, Wakefield, MxPx, Patent Pending, My American Heart, and I Am the Avalanche.

Mays credits MBP as being fundamental to his music career. “If it weren’t for MBP – all of the crazy good bands that came through there – I would probably still be playing shitty pop songs somewhere.”

A few less-than-impressive demos and t-shirt orders later, Collapse the Night slowly started to disband. “We all kind of saw it coming,” he explains. “There were a lot of member changes, and everyone started losing interest. I mean, it was just a high school band. It happens.”

In the midst of the breakup, Mays began writing songs that strayed from Collapse the Night’s formulaic pop punk style. Instead of continuing on under the moniker, Mays decided to bury the hatchet altogether and start an entirely new project: an indie/emo band that relied on exploring complex lyrics and vocal styles rather than four-chord progressions and stupidly memorable choruses.

That new project was WATERMEDOWN. Originally a full band, Mays mostly plays solo acoustic shows now, though the recorded music still incorporates all of the typical band instruments.

“It used to be me, my friend Corey on bass, and our friend Jed on drums,” he explains. “But after I graduated, my family moved to Sterling, VA. Corey was still in Southern Maryland, and Jed moved to Florida. I wanted to start touring, so it was just easier to make this a solo project.”

His family’s move played a large role in early WATERMEDOWN songs. Tracks like “The Phantasm,” “The Aftermath,” and “#2” were very much inspired by the abandonment of his old life.

“Those songs are definitely about moving,” he confirms, “but a lot of my earlier songs aren’t really about anybody.”

He shivers. His apartment is a bit chilly. He gets up to turn on the space heater, but continues talking. “I’ve gotten more personal in my newer songs, but they don’t reveal too much. I like to keep some things to myself.”

While the young business major fumbles with the heater, I use it as an opportunity to gaze at his apartment décor: an Into It. Over It. flag adjacent to his entranceway; a television area dedicated to 20th century Nintendo Entertainment Systems; and a Maryland state flag hanging proudly on the wall behind the futon. His one-room apartment is small, but it’s full of his charismatic personality.

Mays reclaims his spot on the floor. “So where were we?” he asks.

“Tell me about your first tour,” I suggest.

“Ah, my first tour.”

He describes to me his first tour, a weekend run of east coast shows that took place shortly after releasing the Accept/Except Yourself EP at the end of summer 2013. He reveals that it was his first experience playing out-of-town dates.

“I met the guys from Head North (link) on my Pittsburgh stop,” he explains, adding that one of the members presented him with the opportunity to tour with their fellow musician friend, singer/songwriter Casey Bolles (link) that winter. Mays, a man with no interest in slowing down, accepted the offer. During the months between, Mays recorded the Ghost Stories EP, a compilation of lo-fi demos.

“My first tour was cold,” he laughs. It’s a believable claim; the dates were mostly in the northeastern region of the country, with a few stops in Ohio and its bordering states. “But the Head North guys came and took care of us. They had been on tours before, so it was nice to have someone experienced around.”

Between tours, writing, and school, 2014 was a busy year for Mays. In 2014 alone, WATERMEDOWN played with well-known acts Koji, Have Mercy, Teen Suicide, Lost Years,and Front Porch Step, as well as hometown favorites Centerfield (link), Class Picture (link), andMy Heart, My Anchor (link).

While 2014 is coming to an end, the rise of WATERMEDOWN is just beginning. Mays plans to self-release his first full length, Somewhere Sleepless, in early 2015. In addition, he and Rachel Cooper, the genius behind Somewhere Sessions (link), are embarking on a two-week tour at the beginning of January.

For more on Jonny Mays’ music projects, follow WATERMEDOWN on Facebook, Twitter, and Bandcamp.

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