After The Party
It’s the evening of Thursday January 19, 2017. In less than 24 hours Donald Trump will be inaugurated as the 45th President of the United States of America. Calling from his home in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 28-year-old Greg Barnett, singer/vocalist of The Menzingers is naturally despondent. “It hurts. I’ve been trying not to think about it,” he says of the historic day.” If there’s ever a time to use music as an anchor for social change it is now.
Tomorrow the band will appear on Don’t Stop Now, a compilation curated by Cayatana’s Augusta Koch benefiting the American Civil Liberties Union. An expression of love, anger, hope and protest on inauguration day, it’s perhaps cold comfort but it’s something.
On the surface, The Menzingers’ jukebox sing-alongs are of simple subject matter: drinking, smoking weed, relationships and growing up, but delving deeper and rooted in their own observations sits a subtler significance. “Immediately when most people would listen to our band they would hear that storytelling aspect. A lot of love songs; unrequited love, falling in and out of love or whatever. But I think there are a lot of social issues that come with that too,” he says. “We’re not necessarily a band that are telling you politically what to think or feel, but I think a lot of subject matter or issues come up one way or another in our music.”
As a member of a full time touring band, Barnett is in the privileged position of spending much of his time on the road, visiting different cities and indeed countries night after night. What started as a high school band has turned in to his life and his experiences now shape him. “On the new record there’s a song called Midwestern States and when I think about that song I think about touring around the U.S at the start of the housing crisis and going to cities and seeing foreclosure signs on every window. That was huge for us and something we really didn’t understand and are only beginning to understand now. That immediately shapes your politics and the way that you think about things. The government can bail out banks but they won’t bail out students who are trapped in student debt and can’t get jobs.”
It’s the most conscious of the album’s thirteen tracks, but The Menzingers are more than happy to be proactive rather than provocative. A fortnight ago, Barnett and band mate Tom May, played an acoustic show in aid of The Welcoming Center For New Pennsylvanians, an organisation and cause he holds dear. “We live in a very vibrant community full of different cultures and ethnicities and it’s been incredible growing up in that type of community for the past ten years. It’s changed me. I look at the world differently. Having block parties where families from Somalia are bringing their foods, there are families from Israel, Cambodia, from Mexico and we can all get together and be one. That really means a lot to me. That’s what I think of when I think of Philadelphia. The current administration is not as respectful to that ideology and way of life. It’s important to me and I want to make sure I can do everything in my power to help maintain that type of diversity.”
When Barnett calls me it’s 6:30 pm in the evening. “I’m just getting home,” he says. “We have a rehearsal/studio space and Joe, who plays drums in the band and I were just cleaning up a bit. It’s a bit of a train wreck over there. We’ve been busy with rehearsals and we threw a New Year’s Eve party there, so we’re cleaning up the rubble from that.” It’s ironic then that he will spend the next hour doing press for his band’s new record, After The Party.
Happy coincidence aside, everything The Menzingers does is intentional. The language, the music and the imagery of the album all enhance the stories Barnett and May sing about and build a connection to their words. The cover of the record is a photograph titled White Shoes, taken by Joe Maloney in 1980 at Asbury Park, New Jersey. In an interview with The New Yorker, the photographer said of the image and its location, “it was a distinctly working-class, non-affluent, semi-urban, slightly run-down beach town, with a music culture and a vibrant street life.” Committing the cardinal sin of judging an album by its cover, it serves as a fitting metaphor for the band and their music: gritty, kinetic and sincere.
Though they resist using the “p” word in press and even in the album’s tags on Bandcamp, instead opting for alternative indie rock, punk rock and the music of the working class is where Barnett is grounded. His formative years were spent listening to records by Dead Kennedys, The Clash and The Specials and anything that appeared in skateboard videos, as he harboured teenage dreams of being a pro skater. When he got his first guitar things changed and music took over. I ask him if there ever was a backup plan if music didn’t work out? “I went to university and studied political science,” he begins, reflecting on his time at Temple University in Philadelphia. “If the band didn’t work out I was going to go to law school and be a lawyer or if not that, I wanted to move to D.C and get involved in politics somehow. But I never really saw that as my life and never really invested myself in it. Looking back on it now, it’s interesting. I was always so dedicated to music the entire time that I was in college that I would take off a month of school and go on tour. If they said no, I’d just drop the class,” he says, in reference to taking an entire semester off to tour with the Gaslight Anthem in 2010.
Barnett’s brother, Bob, also plays in a rock band, in Captain, We’re Sinking. In Midwestern States Greg sings, “we both got worthless diplomas from worthless universities, two bachelors in worthless studies but at least it made our parents happy.” Despite early trepidation from their parents, the brothers now proudly have their seal of approval. “At first it was a little nerve racking for them with our mohawks and playing Anti Flag covers of Die For Your Government in the garage while mum was trying to make dinner,” he laughs. “But they have fully embraced it and are so supportive of us. They love it and come out to shows whenever they can.”
Thirty seconds in to the album’s opener Tellin’ Lies, Barnett deliberates, “Where are we gonna go, now that our twenties are over?” It’s a recurring motif across the album and isn’t so much submissive as it is reflective. “We’re turning 30 now and there’s this idea that that’s when real life comes on,” he says in the album’s press release. “In a way this album is us saying, ‘we don’t have to grow up or get boring — we can keep on having a good time doing what we love.’” Fellow singer/guitarist Tom May adds, “we spent our 20s living in a rowdy kind of way, and now we’re at a point where it seems like everyone in our lives is moving in different directions.” I ask Barnett if there is an answer to his question. “I guess I don’t really know where I’m going to go,” he hesitates. “I guess the answer to that question is that it is ok not to know. Listening to the album, a lot of the themes are of reconciliation with not understanding where you’re going to go but appreciating what you have and what you had.” A couple of months shy of turning 29, he is the youngest member of the band and still has some time to work out the answer, if at all it needs one.
Now five albums in and with a new chapter ready to be written, The Menzingers’ humble success has been in constant motion since signing to Epitaph Records and releasing On The Impossible Past in 2012. The soon to be released album has already showcased two singles and over the weekend the band will shoot a film clip for the third. As their exposure continues to grow so too do the venues they play at. The album’s title track is the most pensive of the twelve around it, as Barnett sings, “everybody wants to get famous, but you just want to dance in a basement.” It’s the line from the album that has stuck with me the most, and like so many of their lyrics, could be interpreted in many ways. I ask Barnett if it was penned about a specific person or even perhaps if it was written about the band themselves to keep them in check? “It can be everything,” he offers. “It was written about one person but it also takes on a much bigger life than that. Me and the person that I wrote the song about went to this big show, a famous old punk band, and it sucked and we wanted to leave. She hated it. She was like, ‘This is so washed up, I just want to go and watch my friends’ band. I want to go to a DIY space and watch young, fresh music.’ She was so right. That story sums up a lot of the lifestyle of my entire twenties. The kind of music and social circles I have been involved with.”
Taking their band name from the phonetic spelling of the German word for lyric poet, big riffs aside, the album centres on poetic story telling. Written largely in the past tense, the writing style is contemplative and biographical and whilst not a concept album per se, could be the third installment in their trilogy. “On The Impossible Past was looking in to the past and Rented World was very much in the present. This album is the past, present and the future and learning from all of those. I look at those three records as very connected.”
Their previous album, 2012’s Rented World was unquestionably their darkest album to date. “Looking back it wasn’t a very optimistic record,” he reflects. “Just feeling trapped and isolated in the world.” I ask if that is the collateral of being in a touring band. He agrees. “These last few years I’ve gone through some of the biggest changes in my entire life. Falling out of love, falling in loving, moving in and out of places. It’s been a pretty turbulent time in terms of all of that. It definitely gave me a lot of subject matter.”
To shift the mood for the writing of their new album the band toned down their touring schedule and dedicated most of their winter to writing. They then spent five and a half weeks in the studio recording the album. “We knew we wanted to make a fun record, a bar jukebox record that we could just throw on and would be fun to play live. In order to do that we needed to have fun writing it. We were able to go in to a practice space around noon, order a pizza and some beers around 5 and hang out and work on songs. That’s a pretty damn good day job.”
One of the strengths of After The Party is that it is reflective without succumbing to the trap of being overly nostalgic. It sums up a period in the life of the band in which things have come full circle, no greater example of when they recently joined teen heroes The Bouncing Souls on tour.
“I grew up with a boom box skating around listening to How I Spent My Summer Vacation and they are some of my favourite memories as a kid. It was so cool to be able to tell the band that,” he says. “They are our absolute idols and it’s so cool to say that they’ve become our best friends. There’s a reason why bands like that have been around for so long. They love what they do and they’re just good people.”
Now as stalwarts of their scene, The Menzingers, just like The Bouncing Souls did a decade ago, are watching young local bands flourish around them, as Tigers Jaw and Modern Baseball, to name a few, release records to international acclaim. “Watching your friends be successful is one of the greatest things that can happen in life,” he says. “It’s been such a beautiful thing. They deserve all the success they get.”
In a fortnight the band will return to Australia for the fourth time, this time however they’ve worked their way to the top of the bill. “It’s so exciting for us, especially the fact that it’s at the start of this album cycle,” he says. “Going back this fourth time will be just as exciting as the first.”
As Barnett packs his bags for Australia once again with his best friends by his side, it’s clear he is living his childhood dream, even before his twenties are over.