THE MENZINGERS are just four regular guys who play in a punk band hailing from Scranton, Pennsylvania. Seriously. There’s nothing “super spectacular or outrageous” about them — at least according to the band — and it’s arguable that this factor of normalcy is the driving force behind what makes their work anything but average. Like many other artists, their discography details their lives and experiences but Tom May (guitar), Greg Barnett (guitar), Eric Keen (bass), and Joe Godino (drums) do so with such honesty and familiarity that it’s hard not to feel like the fifth wheel in this foursome.
That in itself is why 2017 has been their year. With the help of producer Will Yip, The Menzingers released After The Party in February and saw it become a record that demonstrates a true mastery of their craft while refining a sound that is distinctly their own — something they’ve been developing since 2012’s beloved On The Impossible Past really put them on everyone’s radar. What’s perhaps even more remarkable is the attention it’s received from NPR and Pitchfork — outlets who don’t normally dabble in punk due to it being a genre typically adored by teens and seen as little more than nostalgia for adults.
After The Party redefines that sentiment as it sets the standard high for what a mature punk rock album should feel like. Lyrically, the record continues The Menzingers’ legacy of vivid storytelling while mixing in the occasional metaphor to leave some of the detective work to the listener. Certain phrases draw parallels to their previous efforts while others reference musicians and literature, and it’s enough to make any super fan take notes in an attempt to figure it all out.
Regardless of intent, the result is lyricism that is so intimate and relatable that it’s easy to feel like these experiences are your own, and maybe that’s because some of them have actually happened to you, and recently too. The 13 tracks on the album approach topics such as love, loss, vices, personal growth, and reflection of self worth. They even tackle daily nuances like hotel breakfasts where the coffee always seems to be empty and the awkwardness of making small talk with your ex-girlfriend’s new husband.
Even after listening to the album on repeat all year, it’s left me with so many unresolved questions. Are there any Jersey girls who aren’t heartbreakers? How did The Menzingers manage to escape the Peter Pan curse of punk rock’s permanent immaturity? And most importantly, does the party actually end when you turn 30? I sat down with Tom May a few weeks ago to find answers and discuss their creative process, growing alongside a fan base, and what makes After The Party their best work to date.
Punk rock is often viewed as a genre fans will “grow out of”. Why do you think that is?
I think it’s because punk rock has always been associated with a youthful energy and youthful ferocity. Like a pushing away from/pulling back against the establishment which parallels this new consciousness you get of the world around you when you’re that age. You look around and you see the world is not the way you want it to be, so you fight against that. But as people get older they become a part of that system or they become tired and distance themselves.
Do you think that fans in their late 20s and 30s are more critical or difficult to appease when compared to fans in their teens and early 20s?
I think they are more difficult because younger kids are more open-minded and less set in their ways. They’re not as pigeon-holed when it comes to music. But sometimes they are way more pigeon-holed and strict about the social tribes they want to become members of, so they’ll get into the subtle differences between various punk rock bands and draw lines and things like that. When you’re in your late 20s and 30s, it’s difficult to get someone to come out to a show at all. When you’re a kid, you’re going to go to a show once a week and when you’re 29, you might go to one show every six months.
Or hopefully when you’re 29 you’re a little more used to going to shows by yourself.
Or you don’t want to go to a loud show. Or a show where you’re going to be touched by anyone else.
The Menzingers have been able to connect with fans who would have normally left punk rock behind long ago. Do you think this has to do with the sincerity and vulnerability behind most of your music?
I hope that it does! That would be the idea — that we could actually be attracting those people. I think it also has to do with the fact that our fan base has grown and gotten older at the same time. Each album we put out has more people listening to it — they’ve done better — and many of those listeners are our age. I think our albums mirror parts of their lives when we’re trying to express the things that are affecting us at that time. We’re a pretty average group of people. We had a regular American upbringing and there’s nothing super spectacular or outrageous about our existence, and I think people are attracted to that.
When it comes to lyricism, you’ve always honed your storytelling skills. Some songs on After The Party are so vividly clear that the listener is transported to that moment in time with you, while others are filled with metaphors that make it tough to distinguish what they’re about. Can we credit this to the fact that both you and Greg share writing duties?
Absolutely. Greg is a really good, focused storyteller. Like you said he’s able to transport others to a time and a place, and he’s great at outlining the relationship between two people or groups of people in a way that is so clear and vivid. The way I like to tell stories is a little bit more metaphorical. I like to use imagery to tease ideas. It’s just never really felt right to me to say it straight out, and I think we compliment each other well in that way.
It’s always been interesting to me that even though you both share writing duties, all of the songs seem like they’re written from the same perspective. Would you say that you both contribute equally to the songwriting process?
Greg writes more songs than I do, these days especially. The four us of write together when we’re trying to come up with hooks and the instrumentation. I think that definitely contributes to the “one voice” we have because it is planned out and felt by the four of us. We’ve always lived so closely with one another. We’ve always lived in the same city and we lived in the same house for forever and spent so much time on the road. We’ve always had many shared experiences so anything that one of us would be writing would be experienced by the other person anyways, so it was really easy to do that.
Do you have a typical process for writing a song?
It seems that with every album we write, we have a different approach. As we get older, we’re getting a little better at it and more methodical as we find new things to try and new focuses to have. We usually come together with some lyrics that match a melody — trying to find something that can be the core of a song and something where the lyrics we are using match the emotion of the melody and chords underneath it. We bring that to practice and then play it and play it until a discernible shape comes out of it. It’s like hammering a sword until it’s perfect, which is good and bad. It’s good because we can get good at it, but bad because sometimes you get so stuck on something that you don’t want to let it go even if there’s something to do. It’s called “demo-itis”. That’s the scientific term, I think.
Is it sometimes difficult to look objectively at something you’ve written? Like to detach yourself from your personal work?
Absolutely. Anytime a group of people have to build something together, whether it’s creatively or professionally, you become emotionally invested in what you’ve brought to the table. If it isn’t working, it’s easy for that to feel like an attack on yourself. If you have a self-conscious issue with it, even though it’s better for everybody, it’s hard to detach yourself from it and remove your ego. Maybe if I was building a building and someone wanted to change the design of the lobby, I might not be so emotionally invested. But when you’re writing a song, it’s extremely personal, and if it gets cut it’s kind of difficult to let it go. But when you can let it go, that’s when you get the best songs.
Do you write in a stream of conscious style? Or does it take a lot of revisions to finish a song?
I think both. There have been songs that we’ve written very quickly in an afternoon and they turn out to be amazing songs, and there’s been other songs where someone will say something and someone else will comment “That would make a really good song”, and it makes it in and we just finish it like that. Other times there’s songs that have sat on somebody’s hard drive for years and then we finally get the right lyrics or chords or phrasing to go with it and we’re finally able to make it something. It can work both ways.
Is it exciting to unearth a hidden gem like that?
The best is when someone does it in a sneaky way — like we’re at practice and someone starts playing something that is just completely different than what it used to be. That’s always such a funny throwback because it immediately takes you back to when it was written. I really like when that happens.
The Menzingers seem to love making references, whether it’s to an author, another artist or to your own catalogue of music. What’s the intention behind that?
We like to use them as building blocks to create a new scene or a more complicated emotion than the one it was referencing, and just to draw parallels between things. The best is when you notice it because only half the people or less notice those references, but for the ones who do, they’re going to be really excited. They feel like they’re in on a secret or a joke and the people who don’t notice it, they just get to steal it and use it as a new way of relaying that experience to someone. Plus, it just always came naturally for us. Like it felt like the right thing to do.
I’ve always found it interesting how your albums are independently thematic but there seems to be an overarching theme that connects all of them.
There’s this fan that wrote to us online who came up with an overarching story that involved characters and times and places, and none them were actually true, but he took that away from it. It was cool that we were able to do something that would stimulate someone’s imagination so much. I think a lot of the albums have their own theme like that because like I said before, the four of us were basically living the same life at one point. Those themes just carry right over as a direct experience.
With On the Impossible Past and Rented World having claimed spots on numerous “best of” lists, how does it feel to see After the Party receiving so much positive buzz over the past seven months?
It’s great, it’s everything we’ve wanted. It’s the fulfillment of the wish you have when writing the record. I think a lot of people write music because you want to hear songs that aren’t there. So the songs you write are the songs you really want to hear or you think are missing from the world. When it can work out that a lot of other people like it, so they come to your shows, and then critics like it so more people will like it (laughs). You feel good about yourself when a really well-written review comes out and there’s not much more that can boost your ego than seeing other people make connections you didn’t think they would make. It feels great but it can be tough because sometimes it’s more attractive for a reviewer to trash an album than to like it because it’s more controversial.
I could be cavalier and say I don’t give a shit about what reviewers think because to an extent we don’t as we didn’t write this album for them and they’re not making any music. But it’s a weird thing — like they make something that’s really just talking about something someone else did. I don’t mean that in an offensive way at all, but I have read some incredibly well-written reviews and they are timepieces and commentary and almost a study of the work itself.
I totally understand where you’re coming from. I’ve read some reviews that are so intense they’re almost like a piece of art about a piece of art. Or they’re so vague you can’t really tell if the writer even liked the album.
The weirdest thing is when people write reviews of live shows. It’s cool if the band is really into their production or does something really unique at their live show, but sometimes people write reviews about shows and they just talk so much about the direct experience around them — like “This fucking guy was so drunk he spilled beer on my shoe”. I don’t give a shit about that but some reviews are amazing,
Were you surprised to see After The Party on sites such as NPR and Pitchfork?
That’s something we’ve always wanted — like to get on a publication like NPR. That review they did, and the sound bite, is one of the coolest things anyone has ever done in terms of reviewing our band. That was just so cool. I sent it to my entire family and it will stay in their archives forever. It’s an accomplishment to be a punk band and to have a publication like that review your record.
Has the “party” truly ended with your 20s being over or did your idea of fun just change? Alternatively, does the conflict lie in wanting to behave in a way that society has deemed unacceptable for an adult?
I think it’s a little bit of all that, but not so much the latter as we’ve lived outside of those norms for a long time. When you play in a band, you get ridiculous social graces to behave a certain way. If you’re at a bachelor party or at a bar everyone is like “It’s a bachelor party they can act like that”, and the same goes for being in a band like, “He’s in a band, of course he can take three hits of acid at 2:00 p.m. on a Tuesday and not have any social repercussions. He’s going to make music that I like”.
The party isn’t over, but it’s definitely changed. Hangovers are literally so much more intense so it’s not as easy to go as hard in the literal “party” sense but there’s also the whole chaos of seeing who you’re going to crash into if the world was a party or where you’re going to find yourself for the rest of our lives. The idea of fun has changed a little bit. It’s not as much focused on the chaos but the party is definitely not over.
In a world where routine and a 9-to-5 is seen as the pinnacle of maturity and adulthood, what are the advantages of choosing a creative and less traditional career?
I think the advantage is that I don’t think humans are meant to be 9-to-5 creatures at all. If you look at evolutionary biologists who talk about how often hunter-gatherers actually did work or how agrarian societies divided work… I’m getting a little tangential here, but I think the nature of humans is not to sit at a desk for eight hours. I think it’s sick and it’s what makes people snap. I think that’s why we have such high rates of mental illness and problems in a place that has more than enough food and money to go around.
The advantages of being in the creative world is that you can live a more free life. You still have to work and everybody has to work. I get that and without 9-to-5 jobs there’s no one building houses or creating the safety standard for highways or building air planes — I get that all of these modern amenities have to exist in that kind of structure, but there is an alternative to it and I don’t think the wealth is being shared or measured in a way that is fair to everyone.
Again, I know I’m getting a little far out here. But with the onset of artificial intelligence and the automation of a lot of tasks, I think we should look at our society and try to create one in which the individual has more time to pursue the thing they want to pursue without being bogged down by the grind. So many of my family and friends are in unhappy places right now because they find themselves in a job they don’t like. There are great 9-to-5’s and some of my friends have amazing jobs, but there are some people who are just grinding and don’t like what they’re doing at all. If you wake up everyday just waiting for the weekend — that’s not a way to live your life.
What do you hope 2018 will bring for The Menzingers?
We’re going to start writing, so I hope a whole new adventure ensues after that. Every time we put out an album we seem to be on a straight ride upwards, so I hope we can keep that going. I hope we get closer to each other and to our crew and our families, and are able to navigate this life with fulfillment and ease. And I hope we put out a great record. I have no idea when it’ll be out, but hopefully we make a great record in 2018.