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The Menzingers: Portrait Of A Band As Cult Heroes

Thursday, 17 September 2015 Written by Huw Baines

One bus and two tubes. The 355 to Brixton, the Victoria line north and District west. Headphones in, likely crammed against the frame of a door. In the summer of 2010, my iPod played the Menzingers' 'Chamberlain Waits'. Every day.

London is a weird, amazing, brutal, lonely city. The underground hums with a tired, anxious energy. ‘Chamberlain Waits' became a second language as I traipsed through it each day, but one that, seemingly, only a handful of others spoke. It wasn't until a couple of years later, as I watched a post-'On The Impossible Past' Menzingers reduce Kingston's Fighting Cocks to a heaving, sweat-soaked mass of bodies, that it became clear: under the radar, this band had actually reached into plenty of lives and left a mark.

As with many second albums, 'Chamberlain Waits' represented a refinement. It was less frenetic and more cohesive than 'A Lesson In The Abuse of Information Technology', even if that was an almost accidental byproduct of the writing process. And the songs were huge. Half a decade on, its best moments still elicit charged receptions at live shows that increasingly represent cathartic efforts at mass bonding. With added yelling.

For the band, it emerged amid a period of change. They were living together at the time, having left Scranton for Philadelphia, and Greg Barnett, one of their two guitarist-vocalists, was taking a second crack at the city after an earlier defeat had sent him back up the road. They wanted to meet new people, to play new venues with different bands. Philly, then as it is now, was a city with a punk scene as welcoming as its quality was daunting.

"It brings back such wild memories," Barnett said, sat in the empty main hall at Cardiff's Clwb Ifor Bach, post-Offspring support and pre-Reading and Leeds. "We were so young and had no idea about anything. We just wanted to write songs that we could play live. We didn't really understand concepting an album. That's the beauty of when I go back and listen to those songs.

"They're so immediate, really raw and in your face. We would just go in the basement and turn everything up super loud. There wasn't a theme going on, it was: 'Let's write songs and drink beers.' We wrote a couple songs in Scranton and finished everything up in Philly. It was probably one of the most fun times of my entire life. In Scranton, there were shows, but there's five a night in Philly. There's so many talented musicians that crap doesn't make it through. The bar is set so high that everybody is writing  great stuff."

Barnett was on a slightly different learning curve to his bandmates - Tom May, Eric Keen and Joe Godino - who were a little more seasoned thanks to a few tri-state tours and decent-sized support slots with their previous band, the Scranton-based ska-punk outfit Bob and the Sagets. His writing on the record bleeds with youthful energy. Its heartbreaks are world-ending, its nostalgia the sort of bittersweet recall that we all like to employ in our early 20s.  On a song like Time Tables, his appetite for fusing the observational with the personal became increasingly apparent: "There in the moment we kissed in the hammock, we argued over which Bad Religion album was better. Well, I thought 'No Control' or 'Suffer'."

"I was a couple of years younger, [when] I wrote about that experience. I was a kid going through all that shit," he said. "I look back on a lot of those lyrics and there's some part of me where I just want to go back and tell myself: ‘Man, it'll work out.’ When you're 18, 19, 20, 21, some things seem like tragedies. That's what I love about it. It was a learning experience in every way.

"It was my first time being in a professional band. I had never played in front of 300 people. It was an absurd thought. They [his bandmates] did that a lot and opened for bigger bands. I was getting into that and it was a really big learning experience for me. I'd never played with musicians who were just like: ‘This is what we're going to do. We're not going to half ass it. We’re going to practice every day, we’re going to book tours.’ For that record, specifically, it was about learning how to do that. How to write a setlist, how to do everything. I think back on those songs and it was just about how to write with new people."

'Chamberlain Waits' was accompanied by the sort of touring that makes a lot of bands question the thought process behind it. They'd draw crowds at home, but elsewhere, to use Barnett's words, it still sometimes added up to a "five people would come type of deal". That would soon change as their third album, 'On The Impossible Past', was released by Epitaph, the legendary punk label presided over by Brett Gurewitz of Bad Religion.

It picked up the baton from 'Chamberlain Waits' and ran for its life. The songs were that little bit richer and more complex, the pacing near perfect. It cemented the surging middle eights that would become highlights live and took on a truly anthemic complexion. The waters were choppy below the surface, though. The lyric sheet was bleak, almost hopeless at times. The Obituaries, a song fit to be screamed at any set of rafters you might think of, hangs on one lyric: "I will fuck this up. I fucking know it."

"At the time we were really struggling," Barnett said. "We all lived together, but we could only just keep the lights on. We were touring a lot and I was trying to finish up college, taking semesters off to do tours. It was a really turbulent time and we started thinking: 'Man, maybe this isn’t a sustainable thing that we're doing.' So there was that kind of context where we were like: 'Just go out on a limb and say what we want to say and write the songs that we want.' We’d got the label, the management, the booking agent, but we still only had $100 in our bank account. How do you keep the lights on? How do you put gas in the van?

"It made you really dive into it more. We went up to my mom's house and she moved in with my grandma for three weeks. We took over her house in the country and wrote probably half the album there. We would go swimming all day and stay up writing songs all night. It was: 'We have nothing to lose, but we have everything to lose. This is it, let's do it.'"

Few albums open with sentiments as broken as 'On The Impossible Past'. "I've been having a horrible time, pulling myself together," Barnett sings over a couple of guitars. In the months after the album's release, the line would become kindling for the mayhem that followed at their shows. They packed the van to drive from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh to start touring, writing a setlist as they racked up the miles.

"What I love about it is that we wrote all that before we were like: 'Wow, we can make a living off this.' Well, get by a bit more," Barnett said. "That's how that record was. We were like: 'Shall we open with a song from 'Chamberlain...'? Nah, let’s try Good Things. Maybe they know it or something.' We went out and played it and the place just went off. I'll always remember that moment. We were playing this art gallery space and played the first note and the place went crazy. So exciting. It felt good, man."

With the band currently writing and tentative plans to record early next year percolating, 'Rented World', the follow up to 'On The Impossible Past', could soon stand as the last act of the Menzingers' transitional 'middle period'. With expectation at an unprecedented high, that album tipped the black, introverted heart of its predecessor on its head. Rather than offering a reprise, it was a case of the band pushing at different boundaries. The problems still didn’t have answers, but there was a glimmer at the end of the tunnel. Similarly, the nuts and bolts of their next move are currently satisfyingly hazy.

"With 'Rented World', we can travel to England and we know that there's not going to be one person in the crowd, just the sound guy walking out," Barnett said. "That was the more uplifting fact. It's like: ‘Let's do us. Let's prove ourselves. We don't have to be so down on ourselves all the time.' A little bit more confidence, I guess, in being musicians.

"We started writing a lot and then did this tour. I always find these things are good inspiration, just long treks by yourself. I've been writing a lot on this trip. We go home and then we have a lot of time blocked off to wrap it all up. I'm really excited about it, too. I think it's going to be awesome. We're definitely going to release with Epitaph, we know that. Everything else, no idea. That’s the beauty. We don’t know where we’re going to record, we don’t really know what we want it to sound like yet. We tend to not put too many limitations on stuff like that."

Five years ago, the Menzingers were learning the hard way. Now, they have pages to fill and the lights look like they’re staying on.

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