The Menzingers’ Greg Barnett and Tom May on their perfectionist approach to their raw new record, Hello Exile
The punk veterans on Teles, “tasty” Les Pauls – and why they’ve finally embraced their classic-rock influences on their raw new album.
Image: Miikka Skaffari / FilmMagic
It’s very easy to start a punk band. It’s very difficult to keep that punk band going for a decade and these days, it’s almost impossible to make a living from that punk band. Almost. The Menzingers have been around for 13 years, countless shows, six albums and zero line up changes – they are the ones who made it out, the heroes of Philly house shows now safely ensconced in theatre-sized venues thousands of miles from home.
Since day one, their success has been defined by the creative interplay between guitarists and co-vocalists Greg Barnett and Tom May and on the band’s new LP, Hello Exile, the duo are in sparkling form. Having graduated from ragged, scream-along songs to Americana-indebted narrative work, here, they have settled into a space where they can combine the two with a knowing sort of precision.
“I say this a lot, but I really do believe it – it feels like we’ve become the band we’ve always wanted to be,” Barnett says. “When we first started out, we would be driving around in the van listening to CCR, Tom Petty, Tom Waits. We grew up playing in punk bands, but we had this classic-rock thing that we always wanted to mesh with what we do. This time around, I feel like it was very important to bring that element to the songwriting. We just went for it.”
As they did while making 2017’s After The Party, the band decamped to producer Will Yip’s Studio 4 in Conshohocken, Pennsylvania for an extended period of time. Across six weeks, they finessed a collection that spans anthemic road songs, Full Moon Fever-style acoustic layers and the pogo-ready punk they cut their teeth on.
“We really wanted to try to write a lot in the studio, we try every time, but we’re just not that kind of band,” Barnett says. “We’re perfectionists on our own, so we came in with everything that we thought was at 100 per cent. What was great is that we then just deconstructed what we had already built up.”
Keeping the peace
This is where Yip enters the frame as a creative mediator who commands the band’s total trust. “The thing with Will, specifically his personality and the way it mixes with our personalities, is that we are much more likely to put things out there without the fear of our egos being destroyed,” May says. “Will completely smooths everything over when it comes to coming up with ideas. Sometimes, something might be too far away from where we’re going and it’s just not meshing with everybody, but sometimes you need to get really far away to get anything exceptional. He is really, really good at taking personalities and making sure everything becomes a really wonderful, productive experience.”
Reflecting on the muscular, spick-and-span presentation of After The Party, the decision was made to leave a few more rough edges in place on Hello Exile. It’s a call that brings added warmth to songs like Anna, the lead single and a lament for an absent lover, while delivering the requisite propulsion for May’s Strawberry Mansion, a furious screed about the need for action on climate change.
The Menzingers have always been quietly political, long favouring tales of young people cut adrift by their surroundings, but here, they leave their frustrations out in the open. Honest presentation better serves songs like the opener America (You’re Freaking Me Out), where Barnett wonders: “What kind of monsters did our parents vote for?”
“We love studio tricks, we love studio production,” Barnett says. “But we also really wanted to capture what we are as a live band. We play 200 shows a year and that’s us. We wanted it to feel raw and organic; the kind of record that we grew up with, like The Replacements and shit like that. We wanted it to have that rock ’n’ roll feel to it, just make it feel live.”
Specifically, the band opted to utilise the sound of the room at Studio 4. They littered the place with microphones, leaving Joe Godino’s drums as a huge, boomy centrepiece with everything else orbiting them: bassist Eric Keen’s varied tones, tailored to each song for the first time on a Menzingers record, plus Barnett and May’s jousting vocals and guitar lines. As a duo, they pulled apart their contributions, ensuring that they would balance each other out rather than stepping on each other’s toes.
To begin with, they had to appreciate the respective needs of the songs – including their bandmates’ contributions – and then interrogate them further, from lead phrasing all the way down to the nuts and bolts of strumming patterns. “We wanted to dial back our guitar tones so that they weren’t just on top and clouding the whole mix,” Barnett says. “We played a lot of Telecasters and a lot of Fender-style amps, a lot more twang.”
May adds: “As a punk band, you might think that we’d normally return to the down-stroke driving kind of thing and rhythmic chord changes. It’s actually not that easy to do when there are two guitar players and the guitar tones are naked. You’re going to get all kinds of rhythmic noise. Oftentimes, when you want to strum along and play something, you’re boxed out because it’s just too much rhythm. Then you have to come up with something new that doesn’t take centre stage over the vocals, but adds a little bit of melody or rhythm by itself.”
The heavy Telecaster influence is a new one for both guitarists. Back home in Scranton, a couple of hours outside Philadelphia, Barnett wrote his first songs on a white Strat before picking up a Les Paul around the time The Menzingers were working on album four, 2014’s riff-happy Rented World, while May has also changed things up in recent years.
After learning to play on a cheap Strat copy he modelled on Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong’s iconic Dookie-era guitar, he has subsequently split his time between a semi-hollow FGN Masterfield and, in recent years, a 1982 Les Paul Custom called Tasty, which he bought from Pete Steinkopf, guitarist with New Jersey punk legends The Bouncing Souls. At Studio 4, May fell hard for an American Elite Tele, but also continued to call on Tasty. “Nothing sounds as good or has played as solid as that Les Paul yet,” he says. “Almost every time that I was going to get a tone, we just ended up grabbing it again, no matter what.”
As a left-hander, it’s more difficult for Barnett to simply show up and see what fits. Fortunately, he’s something of a gear hoarder and brought an arsenal with him from home. “I like to play Les Pauls live, they’re big and beefy, they stay in tune, they do everything for me,” he says. “For the album, I really want to switch up from that. I started playing Telecasters and I have a Heritage 535 hollowbody that I played a lot, plus an SG.”
Seven years ago, The Menzingers brought On The Impossible Past, their breakthrough album, to London with a febrile show at the 250-capacity The Fighting Cocks in Kingston. Next year, they’ll headline the O2 Forum in Kentish Town for the second time, with a couple of thousand friends in attendance. In that context, Hello Exile feels like a fitting capper.
It’s a record that understands its place in the band’s catalogue and one that continues to display songwriting smarts that look at home in big rooms with proscenium arches. “It’s been a really fun climb all the way up,” Barnett says. “I wouldn’t trade our career trajectory for anything. You know, a lot of bands go to play the Forum overnight and they kind of skip everything. That sounds weird. There’s so much fun in between it all.”
Hello Exile by The Menzingers is out now.
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