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Brick by brick 

The Bouncing Souls built their legacy by hand. They never scored a big radio hit. Instead, they established a fan base town by town, across the country, for years. During the mid-'90s, "wherever you lived, we were there twice a year," says Souls bassist Bryan Kienlen.

Over the past two decades they've expanded their following and scope, graduating from a fun party band to earnest punk anthems, and finally, a hard-charging rumble that retains both the earnestness and joy. They're currently celebrating their 20th anniversary with a new song available for download each month this year, collected quarterly on 7-inch vinyl (with a bonus track unavailable digitally). It's a nod to the modern era, where album releases are practically passé and monthly singles can potentially maintain the birthday excitement throughout the year.

"We wanted just to keep it fresh for ourselves as well as the rest of the world," says Kienlen from his home on the Jersey shore. "We never really made much `from album sales`, so `file sharing` wasn't a big deal to us. We're a live band, that's something technology can't and won't change. People need to go out and be around other people."

Indeed, that desire to be around like-minded individuals sparked the band itself and took the Basking Ridge, N.J., rockers from their backyard bike and skate ramps to the Warped Tour's main stage. As a tween, Kienlen knew guitarist Pete Steinkopf as the leader of a rival BMX crew, eyeing each other warily until they started hanging out in high school. Singer Greg Attonito hung out with them a lot and didn't have a role, so they made him the singer.

"Music was an extension of the backyard ramps — a reason to hang out," says Kienlen.

Drummer Shal Khichi joined after being blown away by their first incarnation, Brad Karma and the Absent-Minded Fruit Bats, at that group's only performance. Khichi's enthusiasm fueled them early on ("We were kinda slackers," Kienlen admits). When high school ended they decided to forgo college.

"Ultimately, in our hearts we didn't want to go away, split up and separate. We wanted to keep hanging out, making music and going to punk shows every weekend," Kienlen remembers.

They moved out of their parents' homes and got a house in New Brunswick, where they held parties all the time. After getting a primer on releasing a 7-inch from an older area punk who put out their first single, they started their own label, Chunksaah, in the early '90s. BYO Records owner Shawn Stern took a shine to them, licensing their first two LPs and taking them on tour with his band Youth Brigade and 7 Seconds.

"It was really an organic, tight-knit little family `on that tour`. I have great memories from that time. It was at that point that we realized that all we wanted to do from that point on was to tour," recalls Kienlen.

They toured incessantly. They sent postcards to alert fans of their arrival, culling their names and addresses from a garbage bag crammed full of notebooks. They'd address the postcards individually — thousands of them — in the back of a van while they traveled and during the rare periods they were at home.

But the constant touring paid off when Epitaph signed the band. After their self-titled third album, they broke through with 1999's Hopeless Romantic, which took the band's exuberance to another level with bigger hooks and a more anthemic tone.

"The self-titled `album` was cool and our audience broadened, but Hopeless Romantic was a bigger leap," says Kienlen. "You can trace the origin of our modern sound to Hopeless Romantic."

Drummer Khichi began to chafe at the new direction. "As time went on he wanted to play slower and slower and I wanted to play faster and faster," Kienlen recalls. When Khichi departed in 2000, drummer Michael McDermott came on board, breathing life and a new aesthetic into the Souls.

"Instead of getting off on drunkenly escaping into a fun groove, we got off on playing hard and locking in real tight. A toughness and sharpness came to the band."

They switched gears from high-spirited, Descendents-inspired pop-punk to a steely, keener-edged, hefty growl. They've pursued that sound on three LPs, beginning with 2001's How I Spent My Summer Vacation, all the while retaining a playful spirit.

"The core of the Bouncing Souls has always been the spirit of finding fun and good times no matter where, how or what your situation is," says Kienlen. "Our perspective hasn't changed. The tools have, but who we are hasn't changed in our hearts. It's the same feeling. You want to hang out with your buds, create with your friends and then you want the world to hear it, so you take it out on the road."

To aspiring musicians his advice is simple: If you want a long career, don't quit.

"People give up too easily," says Kienlen. "We didn't quit. That's why we're here and that's why we're successful. Not for any other reason. We stuck to it long enough to get pretty good at it. We weren't any good at it in the beginning. People come to me and say they want `success` so bad, but they want it quickly. They want it now. If that's how you want it, then you really don't want it that bad."

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