Greg Barnett of The Menzingers discusses the band’s brilliantly warm new album Hello Exile.
Where are we gonna go now that our twenties are over?” The Menzingers set out to answer that question on their 2017 epic, After the Party. Now, almost as if to say, “here,” The Menzingers have returned with a much more serious follow up Hello Exile. Throughout the new album, the Philly quartet tackle environmental crisis, alcohol abuse, and loss.
Throughout Hello Exile, The Menzingers offer more wisdom and reflection than any of their previous records had. From the brutally honest, “I Can’t Stop Drinking”, “High School Friend”, and “Farewell Youth” to the nostalgic “Hello Exile” and “Strangers Forever,” there’s a sense of existential dread that creeps through the record. Singer/guitarist Tom May expresses the album’s core truth in “Portland:”
It was recklessness
What we came here for
Started out on the bed
Ended up on the floor
Through backstage binge-drinking and long-distance relationships, Hello Exile sees The Menzingers painting a picture of their early 30’s, both the good and the bad. Atwood spoke with co-vocalist and guitarist Greg Barnett about drinking, playing acoustically, and aliens.
:: A CONVERSATION WITH THE MENZINGERS ::
Atwood Magazine: Let‘s hop right into it! My understanding is: if you sing a song, it means you wrote it. If Tom May sings a song, that means he wrote it. How do those songs get fleshed out when you each bring them into the rest of the band?
The Menzingers: It’s complicated to explain, but it’s not a complicated process. Typically, if I sing a song, I’ll come into the band with a verse or a chorus or something like that. We’ll build upon that idea at practice. Typically, I’ll go home and rework what my original idea was to fit what we’ve been doing. We’ll change keys; we’ll change tempos; we’ll completely flip it upside down. Then, edit from that and go back the next day and do it. Go home, edit again, go back and work on it. For this album, that was pretty typical of our experience, but that’s not the only way that we write. There are times where songs will just come out of us jamming, in particular the song “Hello Exile.” We were just jamming on those chords one day and made the bass-line. I had lyrics that were in a completely different style, and that song became that. I wouldn’t say that it’s all the time that Me and Tom write on our own and then bring in, but more often than not, it starts with some idea of a melodic verse and lyric or something.
Do you ever write a song and end up thinking, “This sounds more like a Tom song” or vice versa?
The Menzingers: Not typically, because at home, when I’m starting to write, I’m working mainly on lyrics and melody. For me, chord structures and things like that, that takes on life with the band. I’ll have some really simple chord structures just so I can write melody and lyrics over. I would say since it’s a lyrical base at home, I’m writing those ideas for myself, and I feel like it’s the same for Tom. There’s definitely been times where all of us are writing music in the practice space, and me and Tom just kind of looking at each other like “Who’s gonna dive in? Is this you? Is this me?” If he starts going in and putting lyrics and melody over the music, I’m like it’s [yours].
Between Rented World and After the Party, as a fan, it felt like there was a huge gap with very little in between. Between releasing After the Party and Hello Exile, was it an intentional choice to release singles in between like “Toy Soldier”, ”The Freaks“, and “No Pennance” to tide fans over?
The Menzingers: Absolutely, I feel like we learned a lot from Rented World to After the Party. One, we toured for two and a half years on Rented World, and then, when it came time to write [After the Party], it fell in a weird place for releasing, where we were going to release it in November of 2016. Epitaph was like, “Listen, we don’t feel this is a good idea, because the music industry shuts down in December. You’re putting out an album when everything is slowing.” They really believed in the album and thought stretching it out to February would be beneficial for everybody, and they were absolutely right, but that meant that we had to wait so much longer to put out this album. I think we recorded it in April 2016, and it came out February 2017.
Nearly a year after.
The Menzingers: Exactly. It was insane to sit on it that long. That was a big learning experience for us, where we knew we didn’t want to do that. Music is changing so quickly with regards to streaming that we felt it was in our best interest, and in our interest as songwriters, to constantly be releasing singles between full-on LPs. This time, we had “The Freaks” and “Toy Soldiers.” We weren’t writing for the album just yet, but we had those songs, and we said, “Y’know what? These are great songs, but I know that we’ll be able to write more at least to the same caliber. So, let’s release them as singles in between, and make that a thing so we’re constantly releasing music.
“America (You’re Freaking Me Out)” – The Menzingers
I love the “America (You‘re Freaking Me Out)” video. It‘s a hilarious visualization of the song, even if it does turn comically menacing. Was that all your concept or Rob McConnaughy?
The Menzingers: It’s a bit of both. Rob did the “I Don’t Wanna Be An Asshole Anymore” video. His video for that changed so much for our band. It skyrocketed that song. There are people that don’t even like our style of music that loved it. I remember walking into SiriusXM, and the hip-hop department had cut outs of it on their wall being like “Man, I’m not into punk rock, but this is the coolest video I’ve seen in years.” It took on a life of its own. We were all such a big fan of Rob’s music videos. We knew we wanted him to do the “America” video. The only thing is Rob wants to write the concept. “These are my babies-I want to come up with these ideas.” That being said, we had this idea already. We really want this idea of an alien coming to earth and being completely freaked out of landing in America. Thankfully, he loved idea. We pitched some themes and things we wanted to have happen, but we were like “I think it’s best if you just do you. Go film it, and go do everything.” Very loosely, we came up with the story line, but he really honed it in and made it a reality.
It‘s a great video, and I know that Tom is a big conspiracy theory guy, so I was like ”This totally makes sense.“
The Menzingers: Absolutely. I think somebody was designing merch for us and put an alien, knowing that Tom loves aliens, on a t-shirt. I think it was Eric who was just like, “Whoa, I’ve got an idea for a video.” We all just sat there and started cracking up at how funny it would be and how eerie it would be for an alien to land in America. It worked out great.
It‘s a bold way to start out the album with a straightforward political song. You mentioned in the Kerrang interview that you gave recently that you've always been a political band, and songs like “Who‘s Your Partner”, ”Nice Things“, and “Freedom Bridge” all come to mind as political songs, but none are really as direct as “America.” Was it a conscious choice to go full out there and say, ”We‘re doing a big political number?“
The Menzingers: Absolutely. I don’t think in this kind of climate, you can not go full in with it. I think we’d be doing a disservice to the song and how we all feel if we didn’t fully go in and make a statement. That was one of the most difficult parts of writing that songs. I wrote like 20 verses-I can’t even count. We wrote them over and over again, because it’s hard to say everything you want to say in three and a half minutes. It’s really tricky. I wanted to stay on theme of who I am as a person. I didn’t want it to come off as pretentious. I wanted it to feel how I typically write songs. It was a challenge to hone in the lyrics to a way that I felt comfortable with and happy with and said as much as I wanted to say. At the end, I was really happy.
With each release, you guys have gotten bigger and bigger. I have friends that as far as I know have very little in common with me that are fans of you guys. I've only seen you in New York, but I imagine across the country you must have fans on both sides of the political spectrum.
The Menzingers: Absolutely. I did think there was going to be more of a backlash. There really-I don’t know. I don’t dive around too much on the internet with comments. I feel like it can definitely drive you crazy a bit. There wasn’t as much of a backlash as I thought there was going to be. It kind of made me feel a little bit more optimistic about the future. Maybe it’s just the fanbase. My dad was talking to me about the song. He really likes it. He said, “I thought you did it in a really nice way-You have to be crazy to not think that this is all crazy.” There’s no name calling. There’s nothing, but I think it’s so universal that everybody understands that this is madness.
Hello Exile still sounds like you guys, but it does feel like you guys stepped out of your comfort zone a little bit instead of doing straight punky songs. I hear more classic rock and grunge throughout. Were you trying to experiment more with this record?
The Menzingers: In spirit, we’ll always be a punk rock band, but we definitely have way more influences than just that. We wanted to try new things. I love singer-songwriter, country-styled, Americana-type music. I wanted to bring that into our songwriting process in a way that felt organic and real. I know everybody else comes from different musical taste too, and that’s the beauty of playing in a band with people for so long. We can bring in these influences, and it still just feels and sounds like us. That’s what this record feels like to me. It’s really pushing boundaries, but in a way, staying true to who we are.
Two of the themes that I noticed came up a lot throughout the record are death and funerals. Can you talk about how those came up in such a big way? Specifically, I'm thinking about “High School Friend” and “Farewell Youth.”
The Menzingers: Those songs, in particular, were forced to happen with personal life. They weren’t things that I’d dwelled on for years thinking about and this is what I wanted to write about. All of a sudden something happens, and it changes a lot of aspects of your life. I have this image in my head of having to drive back to Scranton for funerals, of driving up the turnpike. Whenever I’m doing it, it’s so surreal, and it’s-I don’t even know what you would call it-existential. You’re just dressed in a suit, driving back home, and all you can help but thinking about is your entire life. To me, that’s what “Farewell Youth” is. I love the line: “PA Turnpike, northbound on a dark night.” Starting the song off that way-it just feels that’s how my life is. I don’t know what I’m trying to get at really. How do you talk about losing friends? It’s difficult.
I wrote “Farewell Youth” for some other friends who were dealing with a death that was really close to them and seeing how much they struggled with it. I wanted to write something for them. For “High School Friend,” that was a difficult one to write too. I lost some friends, some bandmates from my first band. It’s a difficult thing to think about. I do have some really close friends from growing up in that time and having late night conversations with them really helps. I grew up in a really small town and moved to Philadelphia. I’ve been living here now for eleven years or something. It just feels like the person I wrote the song about is in the same exact situation as me, and sometimes, it feels like we’re the only ones that truly know each other, because we’ve gone through all these experiences of growing up this way. I feel like that’s probably a pretty similar idea for a lot of people. I wanted to write a song about that in particular.
It‘s interesting to compare this record to After the Party in that sense. I feel like After the Party was marketed as the big ”We‘re more mature“ record. I feel like that was stating that you guys were more mature, and this is actually living in it.
The Menzingers: (Laughs) That’s a really great point.
I feel like the themes of loss and coping come with that. It also brings to mind the song ”I Can't Stop Drinking.“ One of the things I love about going to your shows is everyone's hanging out, having a good time, and drinking. There are a lot of boozy references in lyrics. I'd read that you'd been working on it for a while, but what inspired you to write that song now?
The Menzingers: I have a collection of songs that almost feel like they’re too personal to share with anybody. Sometimes, I like to write a song for myself. That one was definitely in there for a long time. I think I was concerned about revealing too much about myself. When I’m writing songs, it’s not always necessarily these stories are exactly about me. I pull a lot from people around me-family members and friends. This song-I definitely wouldn’t say that the song is all about me, but there’s a lot of myself in there. I started writing it one night, and it wasn’t a conscious thing to sit down and want to say this. I think I had the chorus first. I think I woke up with a hangover from drinking champagne and wrote the first line. It just took on a life. It was something that I felt-I wanted to finish it. I kept it around for a year and slowly worked on it. I wasn’t sure what I was ever going to do with it. I didn’t know if it was too much for the band-if it was too country or too slow. When we started writing, right when we got into the vibe of writing everyday, I knew that this song had to be on the album. When the band stepped in, it took on a life of its own. It just felt like it needed to be said.
Having seen you guys live a number of times, you don't tend to do the slower and softer songs. Do you think it‘ll be in the set for the upcoming tour?
The Menzingers: For me, I think that it has to be. I think it’s a big statement piece on the record. It feels like, to not do it, would be strange in a live setting. I’m really looking forward to playing it live, because it’s a really fun song to play. Everyone I’ve talked to really likes the song. I definitely want to play it live.
You hinted at maybe a bigger production in the upcoming tour. Is there anything fans can expect or are you trying to keep it under wraps for now?
The Menzingers: We’re trying to keep it under wraps, but we’re still trying to figure it out too of exactly how much bigger we want to do. Here’s the conundrum that we’ve signed ourselves in is that people tend to go really really hard at our shows. So much so, that whenever we tried to pushing playing an hour-fifteen, an hour-twenty, people are burnt out by then. We want to play longer sets, but we need to find a way how to do it in a way where people don’t get so worn out that they’re like “Alright, I’m tired. I’m ready to wrap this up.” I think it’s easier for indie rock bands to play longer sets when people aren’t sweating –
Just kind of standing there, nodding their heads.
The Menzingers: Exactly. We’re trying to find the middle ground of wanting to play our entire catalog and play longer sets, but not just completely tire everyone out. I kinda write the setlists. As the setlist writer, it’s pretty difficult to tie in all of this now. We’ll figure it out.
Do you think you‘ll throw in an acoustic set in the middle?
The Menzingers: We’ve definitely talked about it! It’s something that could happen. I always like it when bands do that. It feels like a nice little break. If it turns out that way, we’re definitely open to it.
My other favorite song on the record was “Strain Your Memory.” Can you tell me a little bit about writing that song and what it‘s about?
The Menzingers: I wanted to sum up what it’s like to be at a crossroads in a relationship, where you aren’t financial secure, but you want to take the next step with somebody. It shows that these two characters are constantly trying to change things in their relationship to make things smoother to, to make them better. When the chorus comes in, there’s this honesty in them being like, “Listen, we’ve always been in love. We know that this is gonna work out. We don’t have the answers. Life is difficult. Life is ever changing, but we’re in this together.” That’s what I wanted to sum up with that song. It’s a difficult thing where you’re constantly changing things in a relationship to be like “This is what’s going to make this smoother. This is what’s going to work.” You kind of see that in these characters. They’re moving around a lot. They’re not really stable, but the question of a marriage, “When you gonna marry her?” That’s the big statement of the song. I didn’t want it to come off too hopeless, but I wanted it to be pretty desperate in making those decisions.
Watch: “Strangers Forever” – The Menzingers
My last question: can you tell me anything about Fucked Up at Frankie‘s?
The Menzingers: [Laughs] I can tell you a lot about Fucked Up at Frankie’s! We started this running joke where there’s this charm that I love about our band where we’re a band where we could play places like Webster Hall and big historic theatres and headline them, but we’re always going to be the band that plays little dive bars. I don’t ever see it changing for us. We’ll always be a band that’ll go to Toledo and play in front of a hundred people, then the next day go to Chicago and play in front of 1500 people. It’s the spirit of our band.
As we were doing that, we were like, “How fun would it be if we started a live series of playing dive bars?” There’s so many of them. We’ve got Fucked Up at Frankie’s. There’s a place in Lansing, Michigan called Mac’s Bar-Maxed Out at Mac’s. We have a list of like ten of them. Literally on Fire at the Fire. We were like, “Why don’t we just go Replacements-style and get completely lit before the show and see what happens?” We did that at Frankie’s a couple years ago when we played there, and we recorded it, and it was horrendous. It was so fucking bad. It’s not even charming bad, where you’re like “This is cool to listen back to.” It was just sloppy and bad and stupid stage banter. We weren’t finishing songs. It didn’t seem that way to the crowd, where they were like “What am I watching?” It felt very organic while we were in there. It wasn’t as exciting as you’d hope it would be. We might have to do a take two of Fucked Up at Frankie’s or maybe we’ll release it.
I heard Tom mention it on his podcast, and I was like, “That's totally up my alley.”
The Menzingers: Way back in the day, we would get pretty lit before shows and go up there and do the thing, but that’s a pretty rare occurrence these days. Maybe a few beers beforehand to get loosened up. I definitely don’t like crossing the line, because it becomes impossible to sing. It gets so difficult to hit keys and talk to the crowd coherently. It’s kind of a nightmare. I’m kind of a three beer max kind of thing before going up there.
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