"Trying to be highly creative and productive during a time where you just want to decompress from the world and sit on the couch all day was challenging."
The Menzingers have just released their new album 'From Exile' via Epitaph.
Taking the songs from last year's excellent 'Hello Exile', stripping them back to their bare bones and rebuilding them again, the record served as an unexpected passion project following the unpredecented events of the last six months. The result is a beautiful, dark and at times heartbreaking take on some of the band's most descriptive and intimate examples of storytelling and a find example of what you can achieve when you set your mind on something you love.
We hopped on the phone with guitarist/voclaist Greg Barnett to chat about the ins and outs of the process and what effect the experience has had on him and the band...
So how did this project start to come to life for you?
“We were on tour in Australia and it got cut short. We flew home the next day when all of these lockdowns started happening, we were really afraid that we weren’t going to be able to get back into America at all, and everything was starting to feel really scary. We would wake up in the morning and there would be a completely new reality to yesterday. So we were really conscious of being on the other side of the world and this unprecedented thing was happening around us. We wanted to stay focused and finish the tour but we could also be in a very dangerous situation.
“The first two weeks of being back home we were just really petrified. It was that early time when New York was becoming the epicentre of the virus and we’re down in Philly, which is pretty close. Most of my family actually live in New York so hearing from them made us all feel even more afraid because we had just travelled 26 hours. We had been in airports, we had been playing shows, we had been in the same place as 700 people and then all of a sudden we’re all thinking, ‘Are we infected? Are we going to get our friends and family sick?’ So we all hunkered down and didn’t do anything for two weeks. Didn’t see anyone, didn’t go to the grocery store, nothing. We just made sure we weren’t contagious. We took it really seriously, and we still do obviously.
“So after two weeks when everybody was still healthy, we started hopping on phone calls and saying, ‘Our year of touring is gone’. We’ve been a band for a long time and as you continue to grow your business, your business has a lot of expenses. We have storage spaces and our rehearsal space and tons of bills that come with operating any sort of business. Even from our own end of how we are going to get through this, how do we make sure that we’re going to be able to still have that rehearsal space and everything we’ve worked really hard to have. That’s when we started kicking around ideas.
“This is something that we’ve always wanted to do, but we never really stop. We never take time to create without it being like, ‘We have three months to write the album, then we record, then we go back on tour’. This felt like the one time where everything stopped and we thought, ‘Hey, why don’t we rework these songs’. They were born out of an acoustic guitar and formed from really simple melodies that were then built on into the full band thing. Now we have this time let’s strip things back and try and make something special. That’s what we did.”
The first time you attempted something like this was on ‘On The Impossible Past’, but it certainly wasn’t as thought out and considered as this. But a lot of that comes down to you being a very different band now…
“Absolutely. We modelled this around those demos from ‘On The Impossible Past’ because the fans really liked hearing that. I’m thinking of other bands that I’ve listened to and I’ve always loved having more versions of songs where you can see just how they have worked them into what they are. When we started out this time, you’re right, we’re such a completely different band to the one we were eight years ago. We’ve grown as musicians and these days I can’t just pick up a guitar, play four chords, sing and say, ‘Ok that’s a song’. That’s what those demos were. They were very raw and that’s how it came out. Right now we have refined the craft a little bit more and we wanted to get something a little bit more out of it.
“That was the stressful part of this. We wanted it to have a vibe. We wanted to have a feeling and an emotion and the whole thing to feel cohesive. We also didn’t want to force it. We wanted it to be exactly what it is, and I’m really happy to say that we found that. It took a lot of trial and error though. I feel like that’s where we’ve pushed the boundaries though, in terms of changing melodies and things. At the end of the day we were really just trying to inspire each other. That’s where you get the high from at the end of a day of writing. You’re trying to show off something to your friends. So it became a challenge between the four of us to impress each other, again writing songs together since we were teenagers but in a different way now.”
What was it like working alone in that way after always working together in the studio together previously?
“It was very isolating. It was a terrible time, I imagine it was the same for everybody, in terms of mental health. Trying to be highly creative and productive during a time where you just want to decompress from the world and sit on the couch all day was challenging. Finding that balance of being productive but also making sure you’re in a good headspace for it all.”
A lot of the atmosphere of these tracks feels a lot more of a melancholy and darkness than the versions on ‘Hello Exile’. Did that have a lot to do with the environment you were making these versions in then? Was it necessary to have those songs exist in that way as well?
“It’s kind of strange when you look at it this way. It’s a weird position to be in a band where we write songs in a certain style and given us success and the enjoyment of being songwriters, but sometimes the stories aren’t…some of the stories on this album I feel needed this deconstruction to really pop out. ‘High School Friend’ is a great example of that. When I think of the story behind that song and what it means to me as I was living through it, I hear this acoustic version more than I hear the live band and rock version. There’s something about the storytelling and what I was going through at that time that just matches the acoustic version.
“Yet on ‘Hello Exile’ we wanted to write big rock songs because that’s what we love doing. Sometimes the stories need a different palette. You sometimes need a moment where you can sit back and actually visualise the storyline. There’s a lot of storytelling on ‘Hello Exile’, more than we ever have before, and I think that’s one of the things we were most excited about with this project. Let’s let the stories take centrefold and let the listener actually listen and build it in their head. Like Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Nebraska’, you sit there and listen and it’s like you’re watching a movie.”
It’s very old magic, isn’t it? It’s a timeless way of songwriting and a quintessential way of creating moments. It may have come from an unusual situation but that doesn’t mean it’s been any less effective for you as a band…
“And it really took all of this stuff happening for us to actually slow down. We were never ever going to take the time off to really explore who we are as people and as artists and as friends and as collaborators. It took this for us to go, ‘Stop moving so fast’. It’s just been so regimented for so long, that when we were forced to stop it was this project that got us back to collaborating in a way we haven’t done in years. I don’t want to make it seem like writing our other albums has been formulaic, but this really broke things down to how we were back when we were teenagers sitting around with an acoustic guitar and getting each other excited again.”
When did it really start getting serious then? When did you realise what you were actually working on?
“There were points during this process as well where I wasn’t sure if it would ever actually come out. It just became such a monumental project for us. We went in thinking that we wanted to do it raw and it was going to take us two or three weeks and then it will just be a fun little thing. Absolutely not. That’s when it became a two and a half month laborious thing. We worked every single day. Being the writer, the performer, the producer and the engineer all at once and then having four separate versions of that, we realised we had taken on so much more work than we ever had before. I would want to record and be ready but then I would have to technical understand and figure out exactly how I’m going to record it that would be sufficient enough for everybody else to use. I would send over something and the click track would be off or the drums would be off and I’d have to redo it. It was all about finding that sweet spot of how to not overthink something and also just let it be. The first month was a lot of growing pains and then after that we really locked it in and found out how to let the songs take over. I’m really glad we found that.”
Despite it actually turning out to be more work than you expected, there must have been so many moments where you thought, “This is so great”. It’s just bittersweet it’s come from such hard circumstances...
“It’s so hard for any of us to pump the breaks. We all love travelling and playing music and everything that we’ve built. Why would we ever want to slow down? None of wanted to. I don’t want to speak for everybody, but at the time I was really angry when it had to halt and that brought on a lot of sadness. I have built everything around it. I love being able to travel and meet new people and having that taken away from you for who knows how long, it felt at times really fatal. We’re watching all of the venues closing around us and then you realise, on a personal level, there’s no more income coming in. You start thinking, ‘What are we going to do if this lasts a long time?’ Everything we loved and worked for could have been over, and maybe that worked in to some of the despair that’s actually on the album. We just needed to create through this. If I didn’t wake up at 9am and start recording all day long and working on this, I don’t know what I would have done. Right now I’m much more comfortable with everything but back in April when it was all so knew, you simply didn’t know how anything was going to play out. I’m just very happy we stuck with it all.”
Away from the project, have you used this time for any sort of reflection? How do you feel like your relationship with the band has changed over the years?
“It’s funny, because we’ve always been a band that’s just four best friends and we’ve been doing it for so long. In a weird way, our bond just keeps on getting stronger and having to pause just now we’ve seen how our bonds are even stronger when we’re not around each other every day. You care about these people so much because they’re your brothers and you care about their families and you’re just there to help out each other. It has all been such a wild ride through the album cycles and everything else, and sometimes it’s hard to be there for someone when you’re going through it yourself. When you’re on tour constantly it’s hard to not just focus on yourself and not be there. But within this break, you’re able to reach out and really help each other. It feels like our friendship just continues to get even stronger.”
When you think back on this period of the band in years to come, what will be the things that stick out the most for you?
“This release is always going to serve as the time capsule for this period of our lives. All of us being locked in our houses and not having the creative outlet of being on stage every night and being able to do what we do and continue to do. I’m just going to look back on what we did here. Sitting in my basement in front of a microphone and sharing files via Dropbox to the three people whose opinions I care about and trying to get them excited. I’ll always remember having that at a time when I needed it the most and how important it was to have a sense of purpose everyday and feel good about going to bed at night even if the outside world was so fucked up.
“We didn’t have to release this either. We got through some hiccups and some song now really working and thought that maybe we would just put it up on Bandcamp or something. Then by the end we knew we had something. That was the moment we sent it over to Epitaph and they went, ‘Holy shit’. That was a really fulfilling thing when we actually shared it with people. It was just our own little thing and we didn’t care if anyone else heard it. We got the test presses in and being able to spin this on vinyl and that’s such an incredible thing.”