"The end result was us really wanting to recreate the beginning of The Used, which for us felt like this pure, heartfelt and honest connection to music" - Bert McCracken
On April 24, The Used release their eighth, and most eclectic, record 'Heartwork' via Big Noise / Hassle Records. From the guttural 'The Lottery' to the arena-ready 'BIG, WANNA BE', the intoxicating 'Cathedral Bell' to the pomp of 'Paradise Lost, a Poem by John Milton', it's a record made without limit and one that, within the band's universe, feels as fresh and modern as it does familiar and timeless.
We caught up with vocalist Bert McCracken about the record's origins, what it was like working with John Feldmann again and how this era correlates to how things were in previous ones.
Off the back of making ‘The Canyon’, what have the last few years looked like for you and the band and how has that led you to making an album like this?
“I think what I learned when I was making ‘The Canyon’ is that we’re a really tight band. I knew that before, but it really sunk in when we were making those songs the way that we made them. The connection that I have to the emotional side of music and what I’ve always considered to be my reason for being a die-hard music fan was because of that almost religious journey you take with yourself. It’s the contemplation and the philosophical side and that connection to the heart.
“We’ve come fairly full circle from when we were making ‘The Canyon’ really. We were in a good place and tied together, but there was a lingering poison in the group. Once we got Joey Bradford [lead guitarist], it was a refreshing new beginning to things. Things had almost a carefree lightness to them. Also, I don’t think I ever really plan things out. I think I’m always conscious of great moments and whenever I feel a little bit of inspiration for anything I make a voice note or write it down. It’s never planned. It’s always a poem or something on the creative side and I’ll stash it things away.
“So I think that all these things happened at once. Joey’s energy brought this positivity to the band and reunited us as friends and at the same inspired me to get into the best shape I’ve ever been in. I found this insane addiction for being in the gym and understanding how far that’s taken my mental health. The end result was us really wanting to recreate the beginning of The Used, which for us felt like this pure, heartfelt and honest connection to music.”
It’s interesting you wanting to return to the beginning of the band in such a way. Going from where you were then, fuelled on catharsis and anger, to now where it seems much more considered is a pretty remarkable and fascinating look into both you and the band and how both have changed.
“I think what’s cool about our connection to our own band is that we love to be a part of the nostalgia of the beginning as well. There is so much of The Used inside this record. The Used has been my little personal journal and playground for so many years. It’s a place where I can go and take my clothes off and run around naked and throw up and everything. I know that nobody is going to judge me there. It’s my safe spot. This time around I felt free to make a record that felt like the same sort of story that we’ve always been able to get lost in. I’ve been able to write lyrics that make us feel like we know exactly what this person, that person being all the stuff that I have read or listened to, is talking about. Inspired is one word, but it’s more of a subconscious stealing of stuff. And the older we get, the more stuff is in there. There’s more opportunity to go outside of the wheelhouse that we are so comfortable in.”
Aside from Joey coming into the fold, on the studio side of things working with John Feldmann again must have had an incredible effect on your creativity. It’s once again returning to that original place where The Used was forged but with a different head on your shoulders.
“There’s a newfound love for the man John Feldmann. When I first knew John Feldmann I was just a boy and we’ve always been family-style tight like brothers. There’s just so much respect and love there now that we can allow ourselves to be little kids. I can go into the studio and cry when I need to and that’s a really crazy thing to allow the music to take you to that place. What’s so special about John Feldmann is that he’s not just the hardest working producer that I know of, but also human being. He’s so driven. He will work as long as you and longer, no matter what the situation is. It’s overwhelming to be around that type of person anyway, but the drive and partition aspect of making a record with him, where he almost forces me to compete with myself, is a really special thing. It’s different now that I’m a dad and there’s so much different perspective and respect, but I still admire the man in the process the same.”
So, what was the process ultimately like?
"We weren’t in the studio for very long at all. It’s crazy how quickly this record was made. It was a song a day on quick-fire repeat. We would go in for like 10 days and it would be a 10-song session. Then we would take a few weeks and then go in for two weeks and it was a 14-song session. It’s exhausting to work at that pace and be able to spill your guts like that, but it’s also so exhilarating. It really does feel like it did at the beginning of The Used’s career again. Everyone has shown up and that’s a big part of it. It was more of a family than a band and everybody’s opinion matters. I think it was only because of ‘The Canyon’ that we were able to make a record like this AND have fun doing it. It’s a really sentimental record and there are a lot of dark moments, but with the position we’re in now we’re now able to paint a different sort of darkness. It’s more of a neon dark."
The variety of feeling, both from you and the artists who have inspired you, on show across this record is pretty incredible. From ‘Paradise Lost, a Poem by John Milton’ to ‘Wow, I Hate This Song’, there are so many different levels and nuances and moods here, and sometimes nothing is as it seems. What was it like working from either end of that?
“It takes a real childlike perspective to laugh at something like death. There are two very different types of people who can laugh at death; a child-like person who feels far away from it or a person who is close enough to it or at one enough with it to be almost monk-like. But I also think it’s the same with making songs. You know, I’ve wanted for the longest time to write a song about how much I hate this fucking song. It was originally supposed to be about the terrible and soulless empty state of pop music. But what the song turns out to be about is how songs stick us in this place. There’s nothing like music, close to taste and smell that can take you back to a moment in such an insane and real way. You can develop these strange and complex relationships with songs because it takes you back to an amazing time for you or a horrific time for you.
“I think that the more complicated songs on the record may feel the most simple, and vice versa. I think we had a lot of fun with double meanings and there’s a lot of work on the actual words and direction of them. There’s always a lot of talk in the studio about something being a ‘Used Thing’ to do. The Used has always had this way of turning a meaning on its head really quickly. ‘All That I’ve Got’ is a good example of the ambiguity that creates an opportunity for the person who is listening to find their own meaning. ‘I’ll be just fine, pretending I’m not. I’m far from lonely and it’s all that I’ve got’. There are so many different ways you could take those sentences. It’s almost like a build your own adventure. It depends on where you are in your life in that moment that might fill in the blank for you.”
When you’re able to create a record that is able to produce that many feelings and thoughts and questions and answers, it must be a joy as an artist to be a part of it.
“It’s always been what I love about art. The ability to find you in a story or a song or piece of art is what makes that story or song or piece of art. It’s what makes it yours. That’s why we love music because we hear our lives in those stories. We had a bit of a concept going into making this record but we then abandoned whilst in the studio with Feldmann because we wanted this record to fit in that world which the first two records existed in. Those songs are as close to personal that you could possibly get, yet they are still so very open. It’s general enough that somebody can take those lyrics as their own. It’s just what we all share as humans.
“It helps that we have found a little bit of humility within the longevity of the band. Being around for 20 years has made us feel like the connection with the fans is because we have simply been ourselves. I don’t think there’s ever been once where we tried to flex on someone. It was always about connecting to that human story and pondering the human connection.”
Were there any moment in the last 20 years, or even the last 10 years, where you thought that this is what form The Used would be taking at this moment in time?
“I think so. I think there are always these small incremental steps, but in the back of my mind I’ve forced myself to think that I was good enough to always have a place in music. I think I’ve surprised myself along the way, and there would have been moment along there, maybe 12 and 18 years ago, where I definitely thought ‘I can’t keep this up’. This music always seemed like the inevitable next thing though. Though if I think too far down the road, like what does The Used look like in 10 years, I barely get a minute into the thought process.”
Well the beauty of ‘Heartwork’ is that there are moments that people may never have thought they would have heard on a Used record, and the same for you. That’s why you shouldn’t look too far ahead, because anything can happen.
“I think that the experience for us was worth the chance to do anything. We approached the recording process with the mindset that we will say yes to everything. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think how lucky I am to know a person like John Feldmann with whom I can still make music in that way. I know that there are people who would literally die to do what I do. Just sit around and drink coffee with friends and write songs about whatever the fuck we want. I think it’s my goal to be grateful for that and put my entire physical, mental and emotional self into this and to take it very seriously. That’s what we’ve continued to do and it feels good.”
Finally, what is it about ‘Heartwork’ that perfectly umbrellas this collection of songs?
“When I think back to the high and lows of the band’s career, they are all painted in very different colours. So ‘Artwork’ was a dangerous time in my life for myself and everyone around me. Everything was very caustic and could have gone up in flames. What that record felt like, as I was hungover and trying to take a nap under the piano bench very often, was the work of making art. That title felt so appropriate back then. In the actual cover art you have the needle actually forcing the art into the skin. It captured the whole essence of how I felt.
This record was just as cathartic and just as connected and real but in a way that was so full of light and positivity that you could call it heart. This felt like a reconnection in a selfless way. ‘The Canyon’ was this experiment to see how much of myself I could exorcise and if I could really use a record to grieve the loss of a close friend of mine. This album is the return of a band that appreciates the bigger picture. A band that likes to ask questions and give vague answers. A band that likes to have stories to get lost in. This felt like such a parallel to what went on in the making of ‘Artwork’ but in a completely different sense."