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Look Back To Move Forward: The Menzingers' 'After The Party'

Thursday, 26 January 2017 Written by Huw Baines

When you look like Robert Redford, there’s an expectation that things will go your way. Hubbell Gardiner looks like Robert Redford and spends most of The Way We Were, Sydney Pollack’s glossy ‘70s romance, expecting things to go his way. Your man’s got blonde hair, blue eyes. At college, he rowed, threw a mean javelin and laughed his way through pickup football games. He’s charming, intelligent and gets paid to put words in actors’ mouths. By the end of the film, as he shares a few beers on the deck of his old friend JJ’s boat, he’s also a cheat who’s about to walk out on his family; a political inactivist who might lose his career to McCarthyism. But can he still crack a cold one and reminisce about his favourite Saturday as the California surf goes about its business? You bet he can.

Nostalgia can be a dangerous drug. Hubbell wants his life to be fun and smooth, so he retreats to his carefully catalogued summers. But life often isn’t fun or smooth. Katie, played by Barbra Streisand, knows that. She’s willing to fight for her beliefs and take the consequences. She understands that she might not make any friends along the way. She swaps the east coast for LA (which she hates) for her husband’s career. By regularly revisiting times when his life was easy, with friends whose lives were similarly easy, Hubbell pointedly places the things he learns from Katie on a shelf. To him, nostalgia is a Get Out Of Jail Free card and he knows it. “In a way he was like the country he lived in,” he writes in a self-aware short story at the top of the film. “Everything came too easy.”

On Midwestern States, a pivotal song on the Menzingers' new LP, 'After The Party', Greg Barnett's compass is also pointing west. His words describe the boundless possibilities and encroaching hardships of being in a touring punk band, placing a couple with "worthless diplomas from worthless universities" on a path to that classic rock destination: anywhere but here. It’s an important moment on an album that has nostalgia on its mind constantly. As a whole it is a celebratory experience, reflecting on the band’s 20s (which are all in the rear view mirror now) as a means of driving home how much they love what they do and, by extension, each other. But here Barnett is at pains to remind us that rose-tinted glasses are hard earned. He doesn’t take Hubbell’s easy way out and it’s the grit under Midwestern States’ fingernails that makes the record’s other stories of lost evenings and romantic entanglements pop.

“The story of that song is telling to the life that I, my bandmates and a lot of my friends lived this last 10 years,” Barnett says, picking up the phone at his Philadelphia home on a morning when his neighbours opt to jackhammer their whole garden to pieces. “We’ve spent a lot of time travelling around and soul searching. I wanted to be able to paint a portrait with lyrics of what it’s like to be in your early 20s, just getting out of college and travelling around because you don’t want to stay in one place any longer. This album is very much a love letter to our 20s. That element was so defining for my life and who I am today, struggling with the band and personal relationships. With the band, we couldn’t make a living off it but we were still trying. That element is important.”

The band’s past is a constant companion here, bringing their present and future into greater focus. Lyrically, Barnett and Tom May, with whom he shares duties on vocals and guitar, have woven a patchwork quilt of knowing asides, lyrical clues and callbacks to their earlier work that reward long-time fans just as they sow seeds for further investigation somewhere along the line. The Menzingers are in fine shape now, but their time prior to the release of ‘On The Impossible Past’ took some surviving. Their story is a bittersweet one. “Not perfect but we’re good together,” Barnett sings on Midwestern States. “Me you and our bad tattoos. All our stick and pokes, all our inside jokes that we’ll regret when we’re dead and sober. But we’re still breathing and the party ain’t over.”

The titular party means a few things. It’s a literal focal point on Charlie’s Army (a song that updates the playbook the Bouncing Souls read from while writing Kate is Great) and when May takes up the reins on House on Fire. But the scrapbook of DIY imagery that Barnett flicks through on the title track posits ‘the party’ as a whole segment of the band’s life. The song offers a final underlining of the fact that the drawing to a close of their 20s doesn’t mean that there’s nothing left to achieve, or celebrate at a basement show, anymore. By the end of the record the metaphor has stopped being a narrative device and instead become a welcoming, romantic ideal founded on a better understanding of yourself. “Everybody wants to get famous, but you just want to dance in a basement,” Barnett sings. “You don’t care if anyone is watching, just as long as you stay in motion.”

“We’ve been the four of us for so long that all these themes are relevant to all four of our lives,” Barnett says. “I very rarely sing a song that only pertains to my life and the others can’t relate to. Actually, I don’t think I’ve ever done that. That’s a really cool way for Tom and I to write off each other since we’re experiencing the same things at the same time. He can take a different perspective on things. You have Midwestern States, this couple travelling around the country trying to figure out their lives - they’re not perfect, the party’s not over - then there’s House on Fire and this wild house party. I think we’ve finally hit the nail on the head with this record of matching up lyrical themes and making them flow.”

The suspicion that the Menzingers would continue to develop their writing in terms of character and storytelling has been growing with each song to emerge prior to the arrival of ‘After The Party’. It all began last summer with the release of Lookers, which hinges on a fond remembrance of the band’s scrappy early days playing shows in Asbury Park, particularly at the now deceased Asbury Lanes, and Barnett seeking out a memory: Julie at the Wonder Bar. It speaks of the desire to be around people who knew you for who you were (and perhaps still are) and also the salve of clinging to memories as you push on into an uncertain future. “Lost in a picture frame, the way our bodies used to behave,” Barnett sings. “The way we smiled in the moment, before it permanently froze.”

But Julie is more than just a memory on a shelf. On Charlie’s Army she’s there again, waiting at a party as Barnett dodges a vengeful ex-boyfriend. “Tell your man I ain’t afraid to die, if loving Julie is a capital crime,” runs one of its addictive hooks (there are several). If Lookers’ setting makes you think Springsteen (Midwestern States’ highway-as-means-of-life-changing-escape also qualifies) then Julie’s reappearance hints at an inter-connected world ripe for exploration in the manner of Craig Finn’s work with the Hold Steady, where his recurring characters, Gideon, Holly and Charlemagne, inhabit a world beyond the band’s ‘everyday’ or personal songs. Barnett’s on board with that, so we might see Julie and her ‘After The Party’ castmates again in future.

“There’s so many parts to jump off of,” he says. “Tom and I have so much more material. Part of me wishes it was a double record, you know? There were so many songs we had to cut and there were five or six verses to each song. They could have made other songs. There’s such a big story to tell here. There’s so much for the future.”

The history that drives ‘After The Party’ extends beyond the lyric sheet, though. It will be apparent to anyone who has followed the Menzingers’ progress since ‘Chamberlain Waits’ was released back in 2010 that it contains some of their best moves buffed to a fresh shine. It’s reflective, sentimental and liberally doused in the sort of hooks that make going to shows worth it. Its middle eights are monstrous singalongs, while its half-time moments are pogo-ready.

Satisfyingly for the band, this refinement occurred despite the record having an open-ended writing period and many ideas entering the rehearsal space unfinished. They worked five days a week, noon to five o’clock (roughly) at Will Yip’s Studio 4 in Conshohocken, Pennsylvania for over a month. That freedom to experiment hasn't stifled them, it's sharpened their tools. Charlie’s Army, a song so alarmingly simple and enjoyable that it surely must have been meticulously engineered, actually came together in a flash. Barnett brought in the hook and basic verse melodies and two hours later they emerged blinking into the light in search of beers and burgers.

“That’s every goal as a musician,” Barnett says. “To go into a space and just let things fall out of you. That’s what happened with this record. It was surprising to all of us, too. The writing process wasn’t difficult. We didn’t struggle with ideas and themes. In a way it felt like writing some of the first songs we ever wrote, where you stop over-analysing. We would write a song in a day. Sure, we’d go back and clean it up, but we’d leave and be like: ‘We just did that today.’”

Barnett’s mention of the writing process mirroring the band’s early days is revealing. It directly acknowledges the nostalgia at the heart of ‘After The Party’ and also the fundamentals of their songwriting. From the manner its opening lyric - “Oh yeah, everything is terrible,” from 20s (Tellin’ Lies) - mirrors Good Things’ cathartic lead in to ‘On The Impossible Past’ onwards, the album is happy to show that their ability to look over their shoulder in order to move forward isn’t a fresh acquisition. A song like Time Tables, for example, could easily slot in here if it wasn’t one of the highlights of ‘Chamberlain Waits’. It has the same reflective nature and a dash of the specificity 'After The Party' gathers by naming its characters and settings. “A tale of two lovers in the thick of the summer, there in the moment we kissed in the hammock,” ran Barnett’s words on that occasion. “We argued over which Bad Religion album was better. I thought ‘No Control’ or ‘Suffer’.”

“I don’t have a longing for my past in any sense. I’ve always looked at the past as a learning tool to analyse where I am now,” he says. “Writing Time Tables was eye opening for me in terms of development as a writer. I learned a lot about myself. It wasn’t an immediate story. It was a story from a year or two back that I wanted to write about. But, with that I learned stylistically how I wanted to approach songs and where they hit you the hardest. That was a song I used to advance myself.”

The major difference, of course, is that the emotions on ‘After The Party’ aren’t as bloody as they used to be. The Menzingers, as a band, are a decade old and used to their surroundings. They understand how things work and that their wrong turns, sleepless nights and break ups have added cement to their foundations. They are now in possession of some road-worn wisdom and they’re happy to pass that on. Philadelphia, as it did when they took their first steps in a city crowded with great bands, possesses a rampant, exciting punk scene pocked with emerging groups like Cayetana and Petal. The Menzingers are elder statesmen these days and Barnett takes that responsibility seriously.

“It’s a tough thing to analyse from my perspective without sounding pompous,” he says. “The responsibility [to your scene] absolutely changes. We’re very fortunate to be able to make a living off of playing music. A lot of our friends’ bands and the bands that I listen to aren’t necessarily able to do that. There’s a part where you have to look out for people and help them out. It’s always been such an important thing to us to return favours, help out our friends and bands we like and do the right thing. It’s something we will always continue to focus on. Just giving back to the people who helped us get here. When all of your friends play in your favourite bands and are incredible people and incredible musicians, it’s a lot easier to help out. It’s an incredible thing to be surrounded by so many talented people.”

So, the party ain’t over. It’s just changing gears. At this stage you might expect the Menzingers to get a little heavy-lidded around midnight, but that’s not their style. There will be more shows. There will be more beers. There will be more singalongs. There will be more miles on those jean jackets. There will be more grey around the temples and few complaints.

'After The Party' is out on February 3 through Epitaph.

The Menzingers Upcoming Tour Dates are as follows:

Tue April 18 2017 - SOUTHAMPTON Talking Heads
Wed April 19 2017 - LONDON KOKO
Thu April 20 2017 - MANCHESTER Manchester Academy 2
Fri April 21 2017 - BRISTOL Bierkeller
Sat April 22 2017 - GLASGOW Oran Mor
Sun April 23 2017 - DERBY Venue - Derby
Mon April 24 2017 - NORWICH Epic Studios

Click here to compare & buy The Menzingers Tickets at Stereoboard.com.





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