Getting It Just Right and Trying New Sounds: An Interview with the Menzingers
Punk rock's the Menzingers are back with a new album, Hello Exile, that takes the group in a more straightforward rock direction. Co-vocalist and guitarist, Greg Barnett talks about the record, the pressures of success, and the desire to be better.
4 October 2019
Having just returned from a well-earned vacation at the Jersey shore, Greg Barnett, co-vocalist and guitarist for Pennsylvania punk rock band, the Menzingers, is basking in the last, calming glow of normality before the release of the band's sixth album, Hello Exile. For Barnett, this is not only a chance to savor the last vestiges of relative calm before being swept up in an all-encompassing storm of touring and publicity. It's also that nervy time before the world finally gets to hear the songs the band has spent months writing and perfecting.
"It's wild. It's an insane feeling to have to be sitting on something that's going to dictate the next two or three years of my life but also your career," he says betraying a palpable sense of excitement. "Everything that you've worked towards. It's an insane feeling just to be waiting around for that to happen and to be kick-started. And then there is the anxiety of it all, of just waiting around. I mean I love the album, I hope everyone loves it just as much as I do. It's a pretty weird thing."
One would have thought Barnett could afford to relax a little considering the success of their last album, the rollicking, heartfelt, modern punk classic, After the Party. It was an album that saw the band grapple with aging, maturity, and loss as they watched their 20s disappear in the rearview mirror. It was a critical and commercial triumph that saw the band's popularity hit new heights.
Barnett admits that After the Party marked something of a turning point for the band. Coming at a pivotal time in the Menzingers' already lengthy career, its success meant they could finally financially sustain themselves. It's an experience that Barnett still sounds as if he's trying to process. "I couldn't fathom any more success than what we got from After the Party. It's an interesting thing to look back at it because we got a lot of success from that album. The shows doubled in size. We were on the Billboard charts when the album came out. It was kind of everything we wanted. We got to play a bunch of really cool festivals, open up for cool bands, play our own headline tour in giant shows in venues that we never thought that we could play. The success of the album was everything we wanted and more."
Once any band has had a successful record, the onus is then on to follow it, and the Menzingers were fully aware of the pressure involved. However, reacting positively to those demands can produce great art, as Barnett knows all too well. "It's good to have that kind of pressure on you because it makes you work hard. From writing on my own to writing six days a week when we were writing the album and not letting anything fly by. The pressure is good because it continues to drive you on to do this kind of stuff. If it wasn't for the pressure, would I be waking up at 4:00 am with a song idea and go and write for four hours? I probably wouldn't, but when you have that pressure and that drive, you want to create, and you want to do the best you possibly can."
Musical history is littered with groups that became so creatively paralyzed by the pressures of following-up a successful record that they forgot why they were so championed in the first place. To prevent that happening, Barnett developed an important coping strategy. "I think it's important to turn that off sometimes because we need to do what the four of us do best, which is to write what comes from the heart and what is honest. The pressure can really get to you of 'OK, is this song going to be big enough for it to get on the radio?' "Is this going to be the big smash song we play live?" "Is this going to be our big live anthem?" That all becomes nonsense if you start writing differently. I need to turn that kind of thinking off and feel comfortable with what we do and hope it's successful, cause that's always what we did. It's a delicate formula that the four of us are really happy about. We don't want to change. We want to continue writing the songs we love, and it seems that our fans trust us because they love that style of writing too."
One of the reasons why After the Party resonated with so many people was the unifying theme that ran through it - the notion of growing up without any real idea of what that really means. It's was an accurate summary of where the band found themselves at the time. While the theme presented itself pretty quickly during the writing of that album, the group was initially a little less certain about the direction of what would become Hello Exile. "There was no thematic plan." Barnett declares emphatically. "That was a little daunting at first. We stepped into it with a couple of songs, couple ideas, but there wasn't necessarily a general theme. This album we needed that. We were writing songs that were storytelling songs, and they all spoke for themselves, so we developed the theme around that."
With no overarching theme to bind the songs together, the album took a while to find its true character. "It took a few songs before it really clicked. The song, 'Hello Exile', that's one that marked a real turning point for us. In all of these songs, there's a sense of desperation and loneliness and a sense of searching for something that's not there. There's a relevant theme in a lot of the songs and that song shaped up a lot of things. A feeling of nervousness for the future but a feeling of looking for answers to find it. After the Party was not knowing where we're going and who knows what's happening, but we're just going to screw it all and go for it, but the themes are a bit heavier on this album. As you get older life gets more serious and that's definitely reflected in the songwriting."
That maturity and thematic weight is also reflected in the music. On hearing Hello Exile for the first time, the most obvious and immediate difference is the very definite change in sound. Largely eschewing their early, more overt punk stylings, the band has embraced a more polished, anthemic rock sound while also folding in elements of Americana and country.
"I would say that was intentional," admits Barnett. "That might have been the only thing that we went in beforehand, and we wanted to change things. We didn't want to make After the Party part two. We were very adamant about that. We had a very successful record, and I think it could have been very easy for us to use the formulas that we did and rewrite the same kind of thing, but we were not into that idea. We wanted this record to stand on its own for what it is. To have a catalog of albums that all have their own place. That have their own themes, their own ideas. That was important to us."
So, what were the band's influences when writing? "Sonically, as we were writing, we wanted to try something a little different. We wanted to write rock 'n' roll songs. We love big anthemic rock 'n' roll, and we were like, you know we'll always be a punk band, and there'll always be that edge to us, but we don't have to rely on that. Why don't we expand on that? We all love people like Tom Petty, Springsteen, CCR, a lot of the bands that we grew up with.
Those influences freed the band up to focus more on their songcraft. "We started opening up our songwriting more than we have in the past and it's liberating. I say that, but it still feels so familiar. I think one of my friends said that it's like reconnecting with an old friend. I love that analogy of hearing our songs and thinking that way. Things change, you grow up and you maybe haven't checked in on someone in a while, but it still sounds fresh and new but like an old friend in the same way."
Lyrically, Barnett's approach has always been more storied than that of co-vocalist Tom May. His lyrics often detail personal experiences of love, loss, and regret or at least reference characters that journey in and around familiar places. He has noticeably expanded this further on Hello Exile. For example, on the first single, "Anna, the listener follows the protagonist as her life spins further out of her control, while "Strangers Forever" is a vivid portrayal of a couple in crisis.
"This time, I wanted to go more into the storytelling road as hard as I possibly could. It takes a lot too because, one, you don't want to tell a story and it not mean anything. And also, we as musicians need to put together music that's captivating enough to carry it, so you want to listen to these stories. So there is a bit of a change."
While Barnett and the rest of the band have done their utmost to avoid repeating themselves, one constant remained, producer Will Yip. The producer has an impressively lengthy CV having worked with everyone from Tiger's Jaw and Turnover to the Bouncing Souls. Yip's contribution was crucial to the success of this record. "I think there's magic in a producer that is hard to describe in words. First up, when you go in for pre-production, it becomes a straight-up boot camp. All of a sudden you start playing better, you're singing better. I'm singing like eight hours a day, you know. Not just a little bit but to the best of my ability. You become a better player and a better musician. That's even before the songwriting part."
To many, that may sound slightly masochistic, but for Barnett, it's that personal and professional motivational push that the band needs. "Even when it's so stressful and so hard, you want to be in the studio, and you want to be proving yourself, wanting to get better. There are no dark studio days which is awesome. Also, the idea of songwriting. I love how much of a geek Will is for songwriting. We'll go in, and we'll play the song, and we'll record it in the live room, and then we'll go into the control room, and we'll talk about it. He'll have a bunch of notes from when we sent him the demos, and it'll be typically the tempo has to change. We have to go a little faster or a little slower. Maybe the key is in the wrong spot. Maybe you're singing too low or too how. Let's work and find the right spot for a key. The chorus. I think you could add a little chorus here. Just having the confidence to try other things is awesome with him, but he's got a very quick and smart brain when it comes to the studio."
With Yip's encouragement, the band felt encouraged to expand their existing musical template further. "Any idea you try, you can record, track it back and then you can get an idea of what he is envisioning, and he can help bring that idea to life. So the songs go through an amazing change with Will. Some in obvious ways and some not so obvious ways. I love the way he has become a member of our band, and we can through an idea off at him, and he can make it a reality. Whether it be a sound or whatever. With this album, more so than After the Party we locked in with that. Doing a second record with someone you know a lot about how things work and what to expect, and we pushed our boundaries even more."
That desire to push themselves musically also extended to the vocals. Displaying a range only hinted at on past albums, Barnett's powerful, accomplished vocals on Hello Exile stand apart from anything he has done before. It's something he puts down to application and sheer bloody-mindedness. "The vocals were crazy, man. I kind of already set a high bar for myself. I wrote these melodies that were probably just outside my comfort zone, so I did have to push myself to really go for it. When we got in there, we just committed to it and made sure we got it done. Will has got such a good ear for harmony and for melody too. It's funny listening back to the early songs as I'm just screaming at the top of my lungs without any real technique. Now, this is my craft, and I just want to be a better singer. "
With the imminent release of their sixth album in a career that has lasted well over a decade, the band has achieved more than many of their peers and influences. When asked what he is most proud of, he is unequivocal in his response. "It always comes down to the albums. I could say, like, sell out a headline show of 2,600 people. That's a huge achievement. That's something I'm unbelievably proud of. That's pretty incredible, but it really does come down to the albums. I'm so proud to look back at our catalog and be proud of everything that we've written and continue to write. We're not a band that's slowing down. Our albums are getting better. They're at least just as good as the other ones. That's an exciting feeling. I'm excited that we continue to write albums that people love."
- The Menzingers ›
- The Menzingers: After the Party - PopMatters ›
- The Menzingers: On the Impossible Past - PopMatters ›
- The Menzingers: Rented World - PopMatters ›