The Menzingers on the possible future

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First Posted: 5/22/2014

The Menzingers have arrived at the Gallery of Sound in Wilkes-Barre less than two hours before they’re scheduled to play a rare acoustic set for local fans who have already started to gather, though they’re still as accommodating as ever, agreeing to an interview in the back room of the store just before they hit the stage.
As the four members – guitarist/vocalist Greg Barnett, guitarist/vocalist Tom May, bassist Eric Keen, and drummer Joe Godino – quickly pose for the Weekender cover photo in front of a wall of records, they start fumbling around, wondering out loud where they should place their hands so the shot doesn’t resemble an awkward family photo. They may have relocated from Scranton to Philadelphia back in 2008, signing to Epitaph Records just three years later and achieving worldwide success with their previous album “On the Impossible Past,” but they’re still the same down-to-earth young punks they always were, albeit a bit more mature.
That maturity, they say, can be heard throughout the 12 songs on “Rented World,” which just hit stores the day before on April 22 to further critical acclaim. To celebrate, they threw a last-minute record release show at the “really, really tiny” Golden Tea House, surrounded by as many fans as they could fit within those enclosed brick walls, and tonight, they’ve returned home to play some of those same tunes on acoustic guitars for the first time. It doesn’t seem like they’d have it any other way.
“Last night was great,” Barnett confirmed, grinning ear to ear. “I think they could only put like 150 people in there and there was like 200 people before the doors were even open, so they had to turn away a bunch of people. It was cool.”
And the new songs are already resonating with those people, “if last night was any indication.”
“We played a lot of the songs for the first time and it was crazy. It was wild. People were jumping off of the banisters. The microphones broke like the third song, so everybody in the whole crowd was just singing.”
Since forming in 2006, a lot has changed for the quartet, including the number of those very people.
“We would do tours where you could say maybe 200 people came to the entire two-week, three-week tour. Some days you were just playing in front of the door guy,” Barnett admitted with a laugh. “That’s a very positive change.
“Another change is that for a couple years, we would tour maybe like once or twice a year, but it was pretty much all we were capable of. We didn’t have a booking agent at the time and everything. That’s changed, where touring has become one of the big parts of your life. You spend half the year, even more than that, on the road and traveling to different countries and stuff, so that’s definitely changed a lot.”
May is happy to note, however, that this hasn’t changed them.
“We’re all still really good friends. That’s how we started out,” he emphasized.
“It’s been a while, a lot of change. I mean, how much change does somebody go through between 20 to 27? It’s a really big life-changing period.”
Coming back home is a less than three-hour ride, but it’s not a drive they get to take very often since the band became a household name outside of Northeastern Pennsylvania. So what must they do on every trip?
“Go to The Bog!” May enthused, referring to the downtown Scranton watering hole. “That and hang out with family, just get to see everybody who still lives here. It’s pretty great.”
Many have gathered to see them tonight. The back door consistently opens throughout the interview, with more friends and family pouring into the room for overdue hugs and handshakes.
“There’s so much great stuff around here. There’s great restaurants and good bars. There’s so many friends and family around that I feel like every time I come home I’m always immediately put back in that, like I don’t even live in Philly. It’s just like, ‘Oh, life is back on here.’ It’s still home. It’ll always be home,” Barnett remarked.
Locals don’t treat them differently, the band agrees, but there are some common misconceptions about the rock star lifestyle, with some assuming they live in “giant houses” with luxury transportation.
“Seriously, people can be crazy sometimes. … Remember when they asked if we had our own plane?” Barnett asked Keen, who nodded with a chuckle.
“That’s usually the kids who are a lot younger and they don’t really get a whole lot of it yet,” Keen responded.
“Sometimes when you come back, people will, maybe in public, recognize you, some younger kids, high school kids and stuff. They’ll say, ‘Hey, I like your band,’” May said, adding that the fans that stick out to him are those that share something personal about “how we make them feel.”
“It’s really cool meeting people and hearing their stories. They’ll tell you really deep personal things about it. It’s kind of cool because a lot of times, writing lyrics, you feel like you put yourself out on a line a lot, and it’s cool that people want to do the same and they tell you really personal things,” Barnett said of meeting fans, another part of their busy evening tonight.
This, not a private plane, is what success means to The Menzingers.
“I remember really early, when we were starting, I think you said something about the curse of a band is, ‘When is enough enough?’” May recalled, turning to Barnett.
“Is there ever just a ceiling that never ends? For us, we make a living doing what we’re doing, and we really like what we’re doing. As far as I’m concerned, we made it.”
“I agree,” Barnett continued. “You look at bands that are on top of the world, but for them, they’re like, “Ah, no, I need this. I need this. I want that,’ and that’s the curse of trying to be successful in something. You already are successful, and there’s a constant fear of always trying to look too far ahead and not enjoying what’s in the moment. I think the first time we ever got to go on tour, that’s when it was like, ‘Yeah, we made it! We’re in a car and we’re traveling and playing songs!’ That’s amazing to me.”
The band was in a “great headspace” and “never had a bad day” recording “Rented World,” mainly because they stuck so close to home this time, renting a practice space in North Philly to work on the songs.
“I was going to sit down and start writing lyrics and I’m like, ‘I don’t want to put anything out there unless I really, really feel this,’ just like always, but more so now with just growing older. Life is a crazy thing, and I think it just gets crazier and crazier the older you get, but you kind of make sense of it a little bit more than you could when you’re like 20, 21. At that time, it’s just like, ‘Ah, it’s all f—ked. It’s all going down the tubes,’ and now you’re like, ‘No, it’s not. You can figure this out,’” Barnett explained.
“We went there for a couple hours every day for a couple months and just kind of hung out with each other and wrote the music. Everything in our lives was good. We were winding down from extensive touring for years. Everybody was happy. We were in our city. It was a really good place,” May added.
“It was really interesting and wonderful to be in Philadelphia while we recorded it. We went home every night, took the weekends off. We really kind of were able to live our lives while recording; that’s the first time we’ve done that. It was a new perspective.”
Appropriately, the coal town natives recorded at Miner Street Recordings, and a fresh set of eyes and ears helped with that new view, recruiting producer Jonathan Low (The National, The War On Drugs, Sharon Van Etten, Kurt Vile) for an indie spin on their distinctive punk rock.
“The studio is amazing. It’s a beautiful studio, and we got to work with our friend Jon Low. You know when you meet people that are just so insanely talented that you want to know every little thing possible? That’s his personality with everything,” Barnett described.
“That was my favorite part, just being around someone that’s so talented. Every day, he would hear the songs and just come up with these crazy ideas of throwing a mic off of here, throw a garbage can here or whatever. He just always had these big elaborate plans, and that’s why I think the record, in my opinion, sounds so great.”
They learned a lot while creating their fourth full-length album, and not just in the studio.
“That’s one of the biggest parts about getting older, especially at this age – it’s that the main thing to realize is that before when you thought you knew everything, you actually didn’t, and now you know that you don’t know everything, so you can’t make such stalwart exclamations of things because you’re just probably going to be wrong,” May acknowledged.
“Writing lyrics, you’re kind of inspired by all types of art forms really, and as a musician, not just lyrics,” Barnett said, explaining that the title of the album comes from a Philip Larkin poem.
“We were kind of kicking around a bunch of ideas. We were writing things down and bouncing them off each other and just kind of came up with it. I was reading that poem just randomly one day and that line just stuck out to me. I was like, ‘Wow. I feel like it really helps sum up a lot of these song ideas.’ I thought it fit great, and we all did, obviously. I couldn’t really see it being named anything else.”
Another easy title came for the opening track, “I Don’t Wanna Be an Asshole Anymore.”
“Joe came up with the title. We were leaving our practice space one day – I love these kind of things, how it turns into something so big – we were leaving and Joe just said that. He was just like, ‘Man, I don’t want to be an asshole anymore.’ I was like, ‘That’s a really good line. I’m going to steal that.’ That’s how a song like that just came about,” Barnett pointed out.
“I’m sure everybody could write the lyrics themselves to a title like that. It’s one of those songs that writes itself. It’s such a great direct line that it can’t really be interpreted any other way. I think that’s what’s cool about it.”
Directed by Whitey McConnaughy, the song’s video depicts “Friday the 13th” killer Jason Voorhees attempting to turn over a new leaf, with hilarious results.
“He sent that concept, and we were just like, ‘OK, that’s amazing. Please do it,’” May recalled.
“They shot it without us while we were in Australia recently – all very quickly it happened – and then we got to see the final cut and we were just like, ‘This is amazing.’”
“We’re declared it the best thing that our band has ever done that we didn’t have an influence on,” Barnett joked.
Even the band’s “casual Fridays” in their practice space resulted in one of the album’s most surprising and experimental tracks, “Transient Love.”
“Even if we only practice an hour and we just hang out playing ping-pong the rest of the time, that’s what our Fridays were always trying to do,” Barnett said. “We were just jamming on these chords and then we were like, ‘How weird can we take this?’ And then we’re like, ‘I think there’s actually something here,’ and then we kind of built a song around it. It’s one of my favorites on the record, and it’s definitely a step out of, I guess you would say, our comfort zone.
“We’ve never done anything like that, and I’m really glad it came out the way it did.”
With the completed record playing on loop in the background as they speak, May hopes listeners get out of it exactly what they put into it.
“I hope that after they listen to it, they can feel a little bit better about themselves and life, I guess, and just kind of relate to the things on the record and do that thing that music does for us.”
Unafraid to play many of those songs for the first time acoustically that night, The Menzingers will perform in a much larger venue, to a much more raucous crowd, at Union Transfer in Philadelphia this Saturday, touring coast to coast from there with Lemuria, PUP, and Cayetana.
“We’ve toured the country so many times that we’ve kind of picked out our favorite venues across there, and we’re hitting a lot of them, and that’s probably my favorite part, going back to my favorite clubs in the country and being able to headline them this time around. That’s a pretty cool feeling, especially just being with such a great group of people, too,” Barnett noted.
“I think one of the craziest parts about it is how one day an e-mail changes a whole month for you, drastically. You wake up one day and you’re like, ‘Oh, looks like I’m going to Australia in September.’ Things like that, they’re just absolutely mind-blowing that one day is normal and the next day, that’s your future. It can just change like that. That’s always really cool to me.”
“It’s also exciting because it’s not something that is really structured, and every time that we release an album, it’s been a different experience, so who knows what’s going to happen this time?” May mused.
Finally able to dig into the stack of trays from Angelo’s Pizzeria after our conversation, May and Barnett enjoy the few minutes they have with those who came to visit backstage before tuning up and walking out front, staying long after to sign autographs and swap personal stories with patient fans. They may not know where to put their hands, but their hearts are still in the right place.