The Menzingers Learn From the Past
The Menzingers have always been a band that sings about their bygone days. Across 14 years of writing narrative-driven punk memoirs, co-frontmen Greg Barnett, 31, and Tom May, 33, have penned oodles of lyrics about old friends, former partners, youthful shenanigans, and the many beers that catalyzed it all. Their 2012 masterpiece was literally called On The Impossible Past, and the record’s obsession with the rearview codified their signature cocktail of aching nostalgia, stinging self-loathing, and the pervasive vertigo of their weary and woozy young adulthoods.
Although 2017’s After The Party was an attempt to reckon with the sudden entrance of their thirties, it felt more like them desperately reaching for the dog’s hair to quell a hangover than an actual moment of clarity. On the Pennsylvania quartet’s sixth album, Hello Exile, the boys soberly confront the consequences of their reckless abandon, and question whether clinging to their supposed glory days came at the expense of their futures. Many of Barnett’s lyrics stare down alcoholism, political anxieties, and myriad regrets without the rose-tinted glasses of his previous records. However, his fixation on what’s behind him hasn’t faded.
“I feel like I’m always going to be somebody that’s constantly looking back on my life and trying to put things into perspective,” he tells TIDAL. “[Especially] now that I’m getting older and think that I’m more sensible about life.”
The song “I Can’t Stop Drinking” is perhaps the album’s most striking instance of self-reflective candor. In it, Barnett croons, “Cause I know what you’re thinking / but I can’t stop drinking / every time you try to ask me to / I just throw a fit and storm out of the room,” with a guilty affect. It’s a song he’s been trying to write for years, and although a lot of it is autobiographical, many of the lyrics are references to other people in his life who’ve also struggled with alcohol.
“That one in particular is one that I knew that I really wanted to write about in a way that felt honest,” he says. “Everyone I’ve showed it to, they can see themselves or they can see people that they love [in it]. . .And I think, in my mind, that’s what makes it a good song. It’s relatable more than just being relatable directly to me.”
Pulling stories from the lives of those around him was something Barnett experimented with for the first time on Hello Exile, and it resulted in an album that frequently extends beyond their personal bubbles. The record’s fiery opener, “America (You’re Freaking Me Out),” is one of the most overtly political songs they’ve written in years, and it’s an effective Menzingers song because it includes observations about both Barnett and the world around him. After setting a scene of homeless tents next to pricey condos and bigoted religious billboards on Southern highways, Barnett acknowledges his own inaction and commits himself to making change in the world rather than merely dwelling on his anxieties.
“I just thought of starting a new decade and [thinking], ‘What am I doing to make this world a better place besides just bitching about it?’ And just feeling a little anxious about all of that and asking the question: ‘What can I do to help out?’”
Read on to learn why Barnett wanted to confront these difficult topics on Hello Exile, how his relationship with his youth has changed, and why America has always freaked him out.
You’ve been singing about your life for almost 15 years now, so I’m curious what stories you wanted to tell on this album that you hadn’t touched on before? Or that you wanted to touch on in different ways.
I tend to write a lot of notes about everything that’s going on around me and for this album I may sing from first person perspective, but I’ve taken in a lot of stories from other people too. More so than I have done in the past. So I’ve definitely taken parts of myself but a lot of these songs are bigger than that, they’re more connected with my family and my friends and the people that are around me, their stories as well.
Were there any stories or particular lyrical themes that you knew you wanted to sing about on this record?
Yeah, absolutely. Probably the toughest song on the album [is] “I Can’t Stop Drinking,” the idea of that has always intrigued me. I’ve been around a lot of people who’ve struggled with alcohol, I’ve definitely had my fair share as well. Family members who’ve struggled with it, very, very close friends. I just felt like we’ve always written songs from a more youthful approach when it comes to substances. And the older that you get it gets a lot more complicated. And I knew that I wanted to write a song that kind of touched on all of that.
And that was one that took a long time to write. That took over a year to make right, I just really took my time with it and then when I brought it to the band we all made it its thing. But it took a long time for me to almost get courage enough to bring it to the band, to feel comfortable enough doing it. It’s also one of the most rewarding songs on the album because of that.
You’ve always been a band that sings about nostalgia in a very visceral way, and a lot of this record is nostalgic as well. But now that you’re in the thick of your thirties and you’re singing songs called “Farewell Youth,” how has your relationship with nostalgia and writing about the past changed over time?
You know, it’s a tough question. It’s something that always gets summed up in our writing, that we’re very nostalgic. I guess it’s not something that I really strive to do, it’s more so something that just comes out. I guess I’ve always been obsessed with analyzing the past and looking back on it and trying to find answers to things that, at the time, I didn’t really have answers to.
What’s changed? It’s tough to say, I guess reconciling with a lot of those ideas and themes. There’s a lot on the album that lends itself to that. There’s a song “High School Friend.” Sometimes little things in your life just happen and all of the sudden it sends you down a road where you’re digging up things that you thought you put to bed 10-15 years ago. Just having a late night conversation with a friend from high school, staying up drinking, and all of a sudden everything comes flooding back and the songs come out of it.
“Farewell Youth” is an interesting way of exploring the past because you’re singing about how you blew through your youth getting wasted and acting older than you were. And it seems like you’re looking back on that from a place of regret, but I’m wondering what sentiments you were dealing with on that song?
What I’m trying to get across on the song is obviously the idea of going to a friend’s funeral who was, when you were growing up, a best friend, a very close friend. And how intimate that relationship is when you were young and you’re just getting your friends and you’re discovering the world, and then you grow older and you grow apart and they almost become an acquaintance. And it’s a pretty wild song that people could be so close to you at one point and then not so close.
And I guess the bit of regret is when that happens, when it’s too late, when people pass and you can’t really reconcile and you can’t fix things that you wanted to fix. You can’t say things that you wanted to say. And that’s kind of where that’s coming from, of regretting just growing up too fast and running from what you love. Running from a time that was really pure and awesome.
You start the record with the song “America You’re Freaking Me Out,” which also feels like a very intentional opening statement. What was the inspiration behind the lyrics of that song in particular?
I probably struggled with this one the most, lyrically, because I had about 100 drafts of verses and lyrics and everything. There was just so much that I wanted to say and I really was intentional about it, I wanted to sound like me. I wanted to be overtly political but I still wanted to have my spin on it and I wanted to feel honest. And I wanted to write a song about travelling across America, like we’ve been fortunate enough to do in this band for 14 years, and experiencing how crazy it is firsthand.
Going to San Francisco for the first time and seeing tents set up next to new condos, it’s a striking thing to see and to think about. Driving through the bible belt and seeing all of these ridiculous billboards through the highway that are just so absurd, and just see people believe it because it latches onto their religion. . .I wanted to make a point that it’s not just now that it’s freaking me out; I wanted to get across that America’s always freaked me out growing up in this country. It’s always been fucking ass-backwards.
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