The Menzingers Find Hope in the Past

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The Menzingers interview

If you’re a thirty-something from Scranton or Philadelphia, chances are you know someone who has a connection to one of the dudes from The Menzingers. They’re a hometown band made up of homebodies, whose songs relish those fleeting moments of getting fucked up with your high school buddies or driving nowhere to nowhere on the roads of eastern Pennsylvania (or both at the same time). You know these guys. You’ve seen them at your hometown bar during Thanksgiving break. You know the characters in their songs, like Casey, Anna, or Julie from the Wonder Bar. You may even be one of them. 

Even if you don’t know one of The Menzingers personally, chances are you at least know someone who has felt a deep connection with their music. Their songs are like a drunken hug from your best friend that you didn’t know you needed. They make the kind of music that is meant to be tattooed on your arm, so you can literally wear your heart on your sleeve. 

If this all sounds like hyperbolic nonsense to you, just ask a Menzingers fan. Many of them have been there since the very beginning, when the band was barely old enough to legally drink. The Menzingers have been at this for a long time. They’ve built a loyal fanbase beyond the Pocono mountains of northeast Pennsylvania who have connected with the rose-tinted tales of reckless youth that The Menzingers have explored throughout their discography, most recently on 2019’s Hello Exile. 

After what’s been the longest gap in Menzingers releases to date, the band make their return with new album Some Of It Was True, their fifth release through Epitaph and seventh album overall. As the title suggests, the album is about trying to understand who we are by looking at the past through a different lens. Sure, some of it was true, but it also implies that many of it wasn’t quite like we remember. Menzingers singer/guitarist Greg Barnett has always looked fondly at the past in his songwriting, but on this album, it feels different, like there’s an acceptance earned with age that wasn’t there before. 

“It feels like a rebirth of the band,” Barnett admits over the phone on what feels like the first day of fall in Philadelphia. “We’re at this pivotal point here where we could try new things and really understand each other creatively.” As he speaks, Barnett sounds refreshed and hopeful. And how could he not be? He—along with bandmates Tom May (guitar), Eric Keen (bass), and Joe Godino (drums)—is about to release their most confident record to date after a four-year wait. By no fault of their own due to 2020 being the shitshow that it was, they had some time since Hello Exile to formulate a plan for the next record. “I think having the time and having a couple of years in between releases allowed us to start from scratch and kind of figure out exactly what we wanted to do. If we had written another album two years after Hello Exile, I think the songwriting would’ve been in that same world. We wouldn’t have had enough time away from it to experiment more.”

Recorded with Grammy-nominated producer Brad Cook (Waxahatchee, the War on Drugs, Bon Iver) in El Paso’s legendary Sonic Ranch studios, Some Of It Was True sees the Menzingers stepping out of their comfort zone, recording live in the middle of the desert rather than meticulously tracking it piece by piece in a studio in the Philly suburbs. The result is a rawer, livelier record that harkens back to the sound of those early days. For a band closing in on their second decade together, The Menzingers didn’t opt for a slick arena-ready makeover. Instead, they went back to the beginning, to try to tap into that youthful naiveté. 

“You know how there’s a spirit bands have on like their first or second record where they don’t really know what they’re doing yet?” Barnett asks me. “There’s a magic to that that we wanted to capture on this record. We’re so different than we were when we started, but there’s still this same youthful energy that we have when we create music together.” 

That energy is tangible throughout the record. You can hear it in the bounce of “Hope Is a Dangerous Little Thing,” in the lively power pop singalong “Try,” and in the Definitely, Maybeesque momentum of “Alone in Dublin.” There’s a bit of a dusty ruggedness to the music too, like on “Take It to Heart” or within the first-single “There’s No Place In This World For Me,” the latter of which was originally a straight-ahead Ramones-y punker until Cook suggested they change it up. Elsewhere on the record, “Come on Heartache” and “Ultraviolet” imagine an alternate universe in which The Replacements actually took their disastrous 1989 tour with Tom Petty seriously. 

Barnett says working with Brad Cook helped them find this magic by being spontaneous and trusting their instincts. For a band that’s been at this for so long, it can be easy to get stuck in the usual processes or meticulously agonize over every note and every verse. Although he comes from a slightly different corner of Americana and indie rock, Cook’s approach aligned with what the band wanted in order to break out of their habits.

“We were looking for that spiritual leader, somebody who could help us get out of our heads a little bit and capture the energy of what we set out to do,” Barnett explains. “There’s a lot of things that we do just by force of habit that we’ve picked up over the years, and he helped us break out of that.” 

When recording a take, Cook would stop them if they started overthinking what they were doing: “I mean I didn’t realize how much we second guess things. I never really trusted my artistic instinct as much as I thought I did.” 

I’ve never thought of myself as an overly nostalgic writer until everyone else told me I was

If Hello Exile was something of an ode to Philadelphia, The Menzingers seem to have discovered something about themselves beyond the streets of Philadelphia on Some Of It Was True. After all, you can only learn so much getting cheap-beer drunk in a bar off Passyunk. (“The stories are just different now. I don’t hang out in bars every night.”) Akin to Bruce Springsteen expanding his thematic palate beyond New Jersey, both Barnett and May are writing in broad universal strokes. “The Philly stories have been told. It was time to start thinking about other things in my life,” he says. 

It’s all part of growing up for The Menzingers. They’re not the kids they used to be, and it’s not lost on Barnett that the fans have been growing up alongside them. “It feels like so many people in my life are all trying to come to terms with the next chapter in their life—getting married, having kids, career changes, things like that,” he says, “everyone is going through the same thing at the same time. The band’s songs relate in certain ways when people are going through that, which I think is really amazing and really important and that’s something I hope that continues.” 

The Menzingers have always bristled at the thought of growing older. What happens when your twenties are over? Where have all the good times gone? For the first time on Some Of It Was True, however, there is an acceptance that the past is the past for what it is. On the title track, Barnett sings about not trusting nostalgia, about how over time you’ll only remember the good parts. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it makes the present feel unfairly negative in comparison. 

“I’ve never thought of myself as an overly nostalgic writer until everyone else told me I was,” Barnett chuckles. “Looking back I see it now. I like writing about the past and understand it that way. It helps me understand it. I was trying to do it in less of a nostalgic way. It’s not longing for what it was. It’s more so just trying to use that to try to understand who I am now.” 

That’s what time does. It offers new perspectives and changes priorities. Nobody stays, no feeling is final. How you handle that change is up to you. Do you accept it or brush against it? Do you see hope or despair in what comes next? Barnett grapples with this hope throughout the record. At the beginning of the album, he warns that hope is a dangerous thing. Then one day, he took a bus ride. 

Feeling stuck in a rut, he needed a fresh perspective. “I was writing so much and was like what do you sing about?” he says. “Like you’ve written a lot of songs to this point, what comes next? So, I hopped on a bus and took a trip to New York City just to walk around and clear my head.” 

Out of this trip came album closer “Running in the Roar of the Wind,” the song where Barnett and his band seem to finally close the door on the past and look towards the future. “It’s so hard to be hopeful but I promised you I’d try,” he and May sing in harmony. It’s a fitting end to what comes before on the album. It can be easy to lose sight of hope amidst the feelings of loneliness, loss, and heartache. But on Some Of It Was True, The Menzingers sound ready for what’s next. Ready for anything at all. 

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View Comment (1)
  • Great write of up this record, this is definitely one of my favorites of theirs to date, and yet it is so different. I appreciate the nuisance you captured in the quoted lyrics and understanding the path they are headed.

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