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Reaching For A Higher Idea: The Menzingers on Authenticity, Evolution and 'Some Of It Was True'

Thursday, 12 October 2023 Written by Simon Ramsay

Photo: Danielle Dubois

One of the biggest challenges facing any successful band with plenty of miles on the clock is how to keep improving without falling into comfort zones or losing their identity and spark in pursuit of contemporary relevance. It’s a high wire act, yet, on their seventh record ‘Some Of It Was True’, The Menzingers make light work of it.

To the untrained ear it might initially appear that Greg Barnett, Tom May, Eric Keen and Joe Godino are happy to follow the AC/DC blueprint of religiously playing to their strengths, completely untroubled by any notion of progress. As comforting as it is reassuring and welcome, there’s certainly a familiarity to their anthemic punk-rock, nostalgia-drenched tales that rarely strays too far from what we might expect from the band. 

Yet, since they started to refine and define their identity with 2012’s ‘On The Impossible Past’ their story has been about incremental growth. The Scranton-raised, Philly-based quartet have employed a wider range of Americana and classic rock influences with each release, creating increasingly watertight thematic albums rich with sharper and more mature, narrative-driven storytelling.

Such evolution is stamped all over ‘Some Of It Was True,’ a typically kinetic affair full of fun, passionate anthems delivered with unwavering heart, soul and passion. Recorded live in the studio, and partly informed by 2020’s sublime ‘From Exile’, an acoustic reworking of the previous year’s ‘Hello Exile’ that was made during lockdown and, as such, found the foursome improving their skill sets by learning how to record at home, it represents the start of a new chapter for a band who, after 17 years, continue to revise their formula without betraying their roots.

We caught up with co-lead vocalist and guitarist May to get the low down on shaking up the group’s creative process, how they avoided filing away their lovable edges and why he believes, with tongue firmly placed in cheek, Chat GPT wouldn’t find it too hard to conjure up the archetypal Menzingers album.

According to Greg you embarked on a ‘life changing retreat’ to record your new album with producer Brad Cook. Can you explain what you went through during that time and how it ended up shaping the music?

Brad is a magical person. He’s like a wizard. He’s a very tall guy, he’s got a big beard and cool stringy hair and just says incredibly interesting things. He’s an extremely empathetic and observant person. He had us come down to Sonic Ranch, which is a place 30 to 40 miles east of El Passo in the middle of nowhere. It's a complex set up on a pecan farm full of wild characters. There’s a main collective house where you go to get your meals with other people who are recording at the different studios around the entire complex but, essentially, you’re in the middle of the desert, which is already a foreign world. An alien world. 

We’re from the mountains of the northeastern United States. This is the complete opposite and, every morning the sun rises, it’s a stunning different palette of colour. That made for a magical setting. We didn’t always have cell phone service, everything was unlocked all the time, even the smells were different. We were really removed from what we were used to. It wasn’t a situation where we went there to work, like head down and grinding. We did that, of course, but everything was conducive to making music and a lot of it lends itself to the mystic part of the record.

When ‘Hello Exile’ was released you spoke about putting a lot more introspection into that record, making the songs less random, more focused and thought out to create a deeper work. How have you built on that with ‘Some Of It Was True?

The first part of moving further forward was to try and figure out how to be intentional. We were like, ‘What is our process? Do we come up with a concept and then use that from the top down?’ We realised that’s never how we’ve done it, even on ‘Hello Exile.’ We’ve always started to work on the songs, talk about them, and let whatever themes are going to dictate the rest of the record come to life on their own. That eventually warped into a kind of reversion back to how we started, ‘We’re here in a room, we’re live, trying to be ourselves as much as we can, while we struggle to search for what those overarching themes are going to be.’

And we’ve always tried to take things that are happening in our lives and flip them over into the songs and themes so it feels cathartic. We relate it to our fans, to our friends, to our family. And this one, in particular, we are getting a little bit older, so we’re not going to sing about the things we sang about before. I’m 37 now, we’re working on our families and starting to really understand where we are in the world. And one of the main themes we still try to come to grips with is that constant change and evolution, just trying to deal with an uncertain world and finding out what is constant through that.   

The title track represents that very well by touching on how, when we’re young, we think we’ll grow up and have all the answers and life will get easier when, in reality, the questions become even more complex and the solutions harder to find.

True. That’s what we were not so good at articulating, but hopefully did it with the songs. It gets more complicated and unpredictable. But one of the constants is that search for it. That’s a song Greg sings and it hits me real hard because of its exploration of nostalgia. We are a nostalgic band. People love the way we write about the past. It’s one of the attractive emotions we relate in our music, to the point we’re self aware about it and it’s funny. If you asked Chat GPT to write a Menzingers song it would say some funny things about diners, cigarettes, college and car crashes, but that song is an exploration of that nostalgia and realising you don’t know what you thought you were going to know and going back isn’t always good or useful. 

You tackle a lot of existential crises on the album, but something to do with delivering those tribulations in the uplifting anthemic way you’ve done, particularly on the giddy power pop of Try, makes it feel as if you’re putting out the questions lyrically while answering and transcending them musically.

Exactly. Try is a happy sounding song but definitely not…that was unique in that we wrote almost the entire song without lyrics. I had a vocal melody and some lyrics I was kicking back and forth but we were just ripping through it. We wrote almost the entire song and came up with the outro by accident while Eric and I were fucking around. But it took forever to get the lyrics down and we just kept going and going. It was such a pain in the ass. I was having an existential crisis about it. And one day I was walking around, it was pouring with rain out, cold as hell, I was angry, and I bought a pack of cigarettes, which is a once a year kind of thing for me, and was like, ‘Fuck this, this sucks’ and then let the lyrics come out like that.

Prior to making this record you said you were going to take some new approaches to writing it that will be informed by how you made ‘From Exile’. Where can we best hear the results of that intent?

Nobody Stays. We sampled a Mellotron as a background for that song. We would normally never do that and, at the very end of it, also incorporated, for lack of a better word, studio tricks we learned on ‘From Exile’ when we were learning how to use samples and the software as an instrument, or use other instruments we never would have if we weren’t all separated in our bedrooms just putzing around. Nobody Stays shows that the most because we even used computers and a Dropbox to send files back and forth when doing the demos. I don’t think that song would have been written in that way if we didn’t embrace things we learned during the pandemic.      

Running in the Roar of the Wind is a resilient, cautiously hopeful, and inspiring way to finish the album that also sounds like it was also influenced by the process behind ‘From Exile’.

That one is a 100% a combo of the two. We wrote it using emails, Slack and Dropbox and there was a day where it was just me and Greg at the studio and we did a synth over the entire middle part of it. But when we got in with Brad we were like, ‘No, fuck it, do it live’ and that ended up being a jam. We just rolled it over and over again. Before we had taken up those new philosophies of writing, we would have been so particular about how it looked as an equation on a piece of paper with the parts, how long they are and the measures and stuff. This time we were able to run with it and say ‘fuck it’ and put whatever we wanted in. That was, all things considered, very fun and it really took us to the next level of recorded song making. 

With increased knowledge of your craft and everything that goes into writing and recording, and spending more time on the creative process, how do you strike the right balance between that and retaining the immediacy, instinct and energy that’s part of your identity, and the punk scene you came from, without becoming too polished?

You get so much better that you want to add these new tricks you’ve learnt. You wanna add this new equipment you have access to. You can record in a studio where there’s an engineer and do 15 guitar tracks. That’s cool. But the narrative of it being better and harder and more expensive isn’t necessarily true. A lot of the time the way you cover up a song that’s not well written is by layering it too many times or polishing it. And on this record we returned a little to the punk community, mindset and music we came up with and got past that. 

So we were able to say, ‘No, we’re just gonna do a couple of takes of this. We wrote this song this way and we’re gonna play it live, in the room.’ That sounds like a good punk idea, like, ‘No, we’re gonna do it live, fuck it,’ when a lot of the time it’s executed very poorly because the people playing it aren’t good. We couldn’t have done a live record like this one before now because we weren’t good enough. We were able to take all those things that attracted us to music in the first place and look at what our band is. What’s our identity? Our big thing is we play shows. That’s how we get paid. We don’t get paid to make records. So we took that live energy, that experience, and tried to put it on the record this time.

We’re not trying to stretch back into what we’ve done before and have a return to punk-rock or anything like that, but we do feel we’re getting better at writing records as we write them. Even if some aren’t as popular or objectively good, we’ve been doing it for so long that we’re constantly trying to chase what that higher idea is and on this record we got to a higher idea. Partially because of how good we got at communicating with each other, after so many tragedies and shit, and writing, performing and articulating what we want from each other and from the band.

How have fans of your earlier work responded to that evolution? 

We talk about this sometimes and even get into little tiffs about it because we don’t know how to perceive what our fans think and feel by what they post on Reddit or what people say in comments online. That creates a false representation because a minority of people are the ones that go on Reddit and say, ‘They don’t play anything off their first two fucking albums. That was the only shit that’s good.’ Most people who go to our shows don’t post anything online. It is tough sometimes. People with the most controversial ideas or hot takes are the ones that get heard the most so you let that occupy your mind a little bit. But the reality is they have grown with us.        

You’ve spoken about your artistic growth in very organic terms, suggesting it’s the product of what happens naturally in the moment, but in the back of your mind is there anything rattling around you might like to try that you haven’t done yet?

The first thing that comes to mind, that I really want to do, would be to take the recording of ‘From Exile’ and play that live. I’d love to do a special show in some kind of cool seated venue, an old church or something, because we haven’t played the versions of the songs off ‘From Exile’ live and it would be really cool for the four of us to get up on the stage and tell some stories in between the songs and have some extra musicians with us and play that. That would be a big artistic challenge, and really fucking fun.

The Menzingers' ‘Some Of It Was True’ is out October 13 on Epitaph.

The Menzingers Upcoming Tour Dates are as follows:

Fri February 02 2024 - LONDON Electric Ballroom
Sat February 03 2024 - LONDON Electric Ballroom
Sun February 04 2024 - BRISTOL Marble Factory
Tue February 06 2024 - BIRMINGHAM O2 Institute2
Thu February 08 2024 - NEWCASTLE Domain Northumbria Uni
Fri February 09 2024 - GLASGOW Barrowland Ballroom
Sat February 10 2024 - MANCHESTER Manchester Academy

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