The Menzingers recently issued their debut album for Epitaph, titled On the Impossible Past. The Scranton, Pennsylvania band has toured extensively over the last several years, releasing a significant amount of quality music along the way, and as a result have become one of the most popular bands in independent punk rock. Their new record features improved musicianship and experimentation with different genres, yet simultaneously encompasses all the things that fans have come to love about the band. We spoke with singer/guitarist Greg Barnett and discussed the group’s new label, what recording the album was like and what some of its songs are about. We also talked about their recent shows in Australia, the various tours that they have scheduled later this year and more.
Bill – What sort of things transpired that led to you guys signing with Epitaph?
Greg – I wouldn’t say that we were going out of our way to find a new label, but we were definitely entertaining the idea. They were obviously our first choice out of all the labels that we wanted. They were interested and we sent them some demos and they liked them for some reason, (laughs). They wanted to do a record with us, so it was great. We flew out, met them and hung out. We decided it was a good fit and just kind of went from there. They let us do whatever we wanted, so we got to go back and record with Matt Allison again. It was awesome.
Bill – What are you most looking forward to regarding your partnership with them?
Greg – It’s pretty much just having more at our disposal. You go in there and there’s like twenty people working. You say, “Oh, what do you do?” and they’re like, “Oh, I do tour promotion.” That’s someone’s entire job, just that one aspect, which is crazy in this day and age of music. They’re so dedicated, everybody that works there, at making sure that every part of your band is successful. It’s something that would’ve never happened before that’s really great. They have a presence all around the world too. Our friend from Tokyo just bought our record at a record store over there, which is nuts. Things like that are so much different than anything we’ve ever experienced before. And Brett has been great too, (Epitaph owner Brett Gurewitz). He’s super helpful and the very first day he gave us his phone number and said if we ever needed anything to just give him a call. He’s been helpful with every little thing, he has great advice and he’s been doing it forever. He’s always there and it’s great that someone who’s so busy can take time out of their day for our little questions.
Bill – This is the second album that you’ve made with Matt Allison at Atlas Studios. In what ways was recording with him different this time around?
Greg – We had more time. We had three weeks for this one and we did our last album, Chamberlain Waits, in ten days. That was probably the biggest thing. It was also that Matt knew us. We’re going in already being friends with Matt, as opposed to just meeting him and he’s learning who we are and who we are as musicians. So, I think he knew a lot when we were coming in and he had a lot of ideas. He was really, really hands-on and we took so much time with everything. Everything was really thought-out and crafted-out. I think that was the biggest change, that we just experimented a lot more with him.
Bill – What aspects of the recording do you like best?
Greg – I think the drum sound is incredible. I think Joe and Matt killed it. It’s going to be corny to say that I like everything, but I don’t like one thing more than the other. I’m really, really stoked on the vocals and I think Tom did a great job. I’m not going to say anything about myself, but Tom did a fabulous job. Eric’s bass tone is also unbelievable. I feel that a lot of times it’s hard to get good bass tones on recordings, but I think Eric and Matt did a really good job there too. Eric used a lot of different pedals and he got a really deep and dark tone. We didn’t record the album live, but we kind of approached everything like we did. We did a lot of preproduction for it. We didn’t build the songs while we were recording them, they were written live and then we put them all together. It definitely has a raw, live feel to it and we wanted that emphasis of it being a live record. That’s what we are, we’re a live band. We wanted to make sure we could do everything that’s on the record in a live setting and not throw in ten guitars or something like that. It’s pretty straightforward in that sense; we wanted it to sound like a live album. I think it all came out great and I have a nice glockenspiel solo in “Gates.” I think I killed it on the glockenspiel, (laughs).
Bill – What kind of instrument is that exactly?
Greg – They’re like chimes. They’re kind of like a keyboard or a xylophone. I just hit one note in that song.
Bill – Speaking of the song “Gates”, it’s a bit more mature than some of your previous work, but still retains a lot of the signature characteristics that Menzingers fans have come to expect. What inspired this song?
Greg – Man, that’s tough. I kind of went into it wanting to write in my head what would be the perfect song about me at 18 years old. I thought about all that and I just threw everything I could in, like my best memory or whatever, and that’s what it was. It was just kind of the basic kid growing up in a small, shitty town. It’s a pretty average story, but I think that sometimes when you get a really average story it’s kind of like super-relatable. I think it means a lot more when you have things like that.
Bill – “The Obituaries” seemingly talks about the pressure that you guys are facing lately, given that you’re now playing to larger audiences and your music is reaching more people. Would you say this is a fair assessment of what the song deals with?
Greg – Sure, it’s basically like you’re about to sign to Epitaph and it’s kind of a pessimistic way of looking at the music industry and our personal role in that. There are so many bands now, it’s insane, and everyone’s putting out a record every year or so. You have to constantly stay current. It’s kind of depressing that music has become that way and people’s attention span is so quick now. It’s like we can do whatever, we can work our ass off and write what we think is the best possible record we can do, but in the end there’s going to be another record that comes out next week. It’s this pessimistic way of looking at it, like we can put everything into it, but in the end there’s just so much out there. How do you compete with everything that’s going on? The song is saying like, “Fuck it. Why look at it that way? It is what it is.” If it doesn’t live up to expectations or if in ten years people don’t like it, then they don’t like it, but we love it.
Bill – Both “Gates” and “The Obituaries” have somewhat of an introspective tone. Is this a theme that’s present throughout the album?
Greg – Yeah, absolutely. It’s definitely a nostalgic record in a sense. I think once you write one or two songs like that the others just kind of continue down that path. It’s like starting a book and you’re on the first chapter and you just keep going. It’s hard to do something different at that point. I don’t want to call it concept record, but it’s kind of like an accidental concept or a trend.
Bill – “Mexican Guitars” is one of the more personal songs on the record. It speaks of an old friend and a desire to get away from a bad situation. What motivated you to write this song?
Greg – It’s that exact thing. I don’t want to give away too much, I like to keep some of it open for interpretation, but it’s more kind of that I wanted to mix multiple people into one. It’s not just one person that the song is about, it’s about two or three people actually. I think it builds a better story that way. But yeah, it’s the same thing where you get yourself in shitty situations and sometimes you see your friends go different ways that kind of bum you out. That’s what the song’s kind of about.
Bill – You guys recently played a show here in Chicago where you opened for Rise Against at the UIC Pavilion. What was that experience like?
Greg – It was absurd. There were like 8,700 people there. It was the biggest show we’ve ever played, obviously, and I think it was about 100 people shy of selling out, which is nuts. It was awesome, it was just unbelievable. We had all our Chicago friends in town and got to hang out with them. It was cool to see Rise Against with their hometown crowd too, because it was absolutely crazy. It was a really fun show and my personal highlight of the tour. The first couple days of touring with them was definitely nerve-wracking, being up there in front of so many people, but then you kind of get in the groove and know what to expect a little bit. I don’t want to say that you get used to it, because you still look out and there’s a fuckin’ scoreboard in the background. You never get used to that, but you do feel a little bit more comfortable at least.
Bill – What was the most fun part about your recent tour in Australia?
Greg – We had so much fun there. I think just having Toby with us, (Red Scare Industries owner Tobias Jeg) made everything so great. We had seven days off while we were there, so we went to the beach a lot and got to see all the cities. We did fun, touristy sightseeing things and that was a blast. And the festivals, they just cater to you so well. You just hang around and they’d have endless booze and food, and you’d watch all the bands all day. Out of all the bands that we played with at these festivals, Marilyn Manson was probably the most fun to watch, he was unbelievable. He’s an entertainer and a frontman for sure. You go to punk shows and you don’t see that. The crowd had no idea what to do and they weren’t applauding at the end of his songs, because he was just blackout drunk and fucked up on pills. He was falling over and blowing out his voice. He had his personal assistant running back and forth, bringing him water, and right away he’d throw it on the ground and ask for another one. He was a mess, but it was awesome in the most ridiculous kind of way.
Bill – What else do you guys have planned in terms of touring this year?
Greg – We start a tour next Thursday in Pittsburgh and then we play Chicago on Saturday at the Beat Kitchen. It’s our first-ever proper headlining tour and we’re super excited for it. We’re a little nervous, but not really in the end because we’re just going out to have fun. We’re taking Cheap Girls and The Sidekicks with us, and that’s going to be great. I love both of their new albums so much. Then we go to Europe with The Bouncing Souls and we’re going to play Groezrock festival in Belgium. Then we come back and go up to Canada for Pouzza Fest. We’re doing two more dates with The Bouncing Souls as well, and then we go out on a summer tour that I can’t fully announce yet. We’ve never toured with The Bouncing Souls before, but we’ve played a couple shows with them and we’ve become really close. They’re great and their manager Kate Hiltz is one of our best friends. She’s just like the most wonderful person.
Bill – When you think about the future of The Menzingers, where do you hope to see your band five to ten years from now?
Greg – I guess just still happy and still wanting to do it. That’s what it comes down to. Whatever happens is going to happen, but as long as you’re having fun doing it then that’s all that matters to me. I don’t care if we’re still playing in front of the same amount of people, that’s fine with me as long as we can look over and we’re all not just doing it to get by or because we don’t know what else to do.