Pennsylvania's the Menzingers have been operating on a cycle of great expectations and fulfilling them since before breakthrough album Chamberlain Waits was released in 2010. And on their new full-length, much-anticipated Epitaph debut On The Impossible Past, they exceed expectations once again. Kicking off with "Good Things," a song that starts small and explodes (not unlike another standout, "Ava House"), it's a track about a touring act's road weariness, but in the context of the album's 13 tracks, it's a steady unravelling as a band of great, young American storytellers. Anthemic is a word that easily gets overused when talking about pop-punk, but it'd be a disservice to the Menzingers to not mention their knack for the grandiose. "Gates" is a masterful (and very Clash-like) pop song that successfully expands their musical scope, while "The Obituaries" and "Nice Things" get dirty enough in the choruses to satisfy the stage divers once more. On the Impossible Past's ambitions may be bigger than its punk britches, which is good, because it shouldn't go overlooked.
Where are you guys currently?
Vocalist/guitarist Greg Barnett: We're actually home; we just got off the tour with Rise Against. We're hanging out before we go to Australia in two weeks.
I'm sure the arena tour is a little bit of a different beast for you guys.
Yeah, it's so different from anything we're used to or have ever done. We're not the kind of band that have the stage voices that go out like, "okay, Chicago, are you ready!" We still operate like we're playing in front of 50 people in a basement. Then you look out and there are 5,000 people in an arena. We just play as many songs as possible and don't talk, basically.
You guys have had a big few years over the last little while. From the outside it seems like you guys haven't stopped.
Absolutely. I think we've been on this routine of tour for a month, come home for a week, go out for another month, come home for two weeks. It's been like that pretty steadily. I think we're all kind of used to it and comfortable. It feels weird to come home sometimes because you're so used to being out.
Watching you guys blow up a bit after Chamberlain Waits, it's maybe hard to say if this success is something you guys had planned, but does this at all resemble a vision you had for the band at all?
Sure, I mean, I don't know if I could say I actually saw it to this level, but it's definitely what we always wanted and hoped we would achieve. Things are definitely going on the right path.
Has there been any high or low point that especially stands out over the past two years?
Signing to Epitaph was definitely a surreal experience. Getting phone calls from Brett Gurewitz and flying out to L.A. to meet him, and things like that were weird. Honestly, just the first time that we did a European tour. Getting on a plane, leaving the continent to play music that we wrote in our basement and doing some big European festivals with big bands ― it's just insane. We're all from a really, really small town in Pennsylvania that no one has ever heard of [Scranton], besides a TV show, The Office. It's just funny to be able to do something this big, and not take any of it for granted, and remember where we're from.
I assume you tour enough not to worry about day jobs now.
Yeah, this is essentially our jobs, which is funny to say. We're going to be filing taxes and I guess I'm going to be writing "musician" this year. That's definitely something I never thought would ever happen. That's another one of those cool turning points, which is nuts. But I guess that kind of happened after Chamberlain Waits.; we weren't making any money, but we were touring so much. Now it's more financially stable. And when I say, "stable" I do mean it in the loosest way possible [laughs].
Did you receive any backlash from the punk community on the success you're experiencing? You know how easily people will throw the sell-out word around.
You know what, no. I think Against Me! were sort of the scapegoats for that. Everybody kind of just took it out on them, then after that, it was like, "you know, everybody has to try to make it somehow." One band get it really harsh, then other bands start to do well and it's like, ultimately, no one's making money. Everybody's been really supportive of everything we've done. We've tried to make the smartest decisions possible and turn down a lot of things that aren't what we agree with.
You mentioned getting the call from Brett at Epitaph. Tell me a bit more about that.
We found out he was a fan of the band and he wanted to work with us and the label did too. They asked us to send over some demos, they liked them and asked us to fly to L.A. to meet. We were like, "hell, yeah!" I was actually finishing my senior year in college and I was on spring break. It was funny to fly there while everybody else was going to Mexico. We hung out for a couple of days, met everybody, had a big barbeque and it was just a perfect fit. It was exactly what we wanted from a label. Everything worked out great.
It was a good get for them too, I think.
It seemed like a lot of people were really happy for it. I know when Off With Their Heads, Frank Turner and Alkaline Trio signed, a lot of people were getting excited that they were going in that direction too, and I kind of agree.
What were you studying?
I was a Political Science major. You know, the punk rock degree. It was perfect, because I was able to actually tour every time I was in school. I took one semester off when we did a tour with Gaslight Anthem. But besides that, I was able to take two weeks off every semester. I would just talk to my teachers and say, "I've done this every other semester, and my teachers are always okay with it. I'll get all my work done; I have great grades." And it always worked.
Where did you go to school?
Temple University in Philadelphia.
Are you guys all still in Philly?
Yeah! We've been here for about three or four years now. We all live in south Philly. Actually, three of us live in the same house, and our bass player Eric lives on the corner of our street. So we're all together.
So for the album, you guys worked with Matt Alison again in Chicago.
Yeah. Picking studios and producers is a daunting task. We had a list of ones that wanted to work with us and in the end, we just felt comfortable with Matt. We wanted to do it with him, we trust him and he's one of our really good friends. I'm really glad we decided to work with him, because the record came out phenomenal. He really knows what he's doing and it's a really comfortable atmosphere. I wouldn't change anything.
What were your influences from the past little while that you guys brought in this time?
Musically, we were kind of all over the place. I was really influenced by Nirvana, Smoking Popes, Weezer and those kinds of feelings. We were listening to a lot of that in the studio. There's always the obvious Clash influence. I was reading a lot of Vladimir Nabokov, so that was an influence. And when it comes down to it, our friends and the relationships we have with them will probably always be our main influence.
Musically it's a bit broader. On something like "Gates," it has such universal appeal. Is that something you aimed for?
We weren't trying to make it universal sounding, per se, it's just one of those things that came out that way. I'm just always a sucker for poppy, storytelling songs. It just kind of turned out that way. I think we were listening to a lot of "Lost In the Supermarket" when we wrote that [laughs].
What kind of effect did the few years of solid touring have on the music?
It had a big effect on it actually; I was thinking about this. We were on tour so much and our personal lives were all put on hold. We sat down to write the record and most of what happened in the last year didn't really make the record. Some songs, like "Good Things," are an example of touring too much and being burned out, but everything else is more looking back, more reflective of probably five years before or something. We just kind of dug in the back of our brains and picked out that stuff we never said.
And having had plenty of opportunity to figure out what you guys like best when on stage, did that have any impact on the approach?
Absolutely. It was cool because we had a lot more time with it. We messed around with a bunch of things, got some guitar pedals and did things that last time we weren't able to do. Even just meeting other bands, and seeing what they play with ― they were recommending certain types of effects, and little things like that.
Maybe the next one will have more arena anthems.
No! I don't think that will happen.
Lyrically, there's obviously personal subtext, but you've always been pretty unambiguous.
Yeah, I think that's always been my favourite take on a songwriter ― when they dive into a subject and really put themselves on the line. I always kind of wanted to be like that as well.
And going back to writing about being on tour and being burned out, is that something you encountered a lot? What's the recovery from that like?
After Chamberlain Waits came out, it was such a crazy year that we just took every tour that was thrown at us. I'm glad we did it now, but while we were doing it, it was definitely rough, especially towards the end. At the beginning it was exciting and so great. At the end it was pretty intense. "I haven't been home in months and months, and I'm broke, and I'm in the middle of nowhere, and I'm freezing." It definitely hit us pretty hard. "Good Things" is about being in California and just being burned out and losing it. And you're doing what you love, so it's that weird feeling of "why am I not excited?" In the end, you get over it, but it's hard sometimes, definitely.
You ultimately just need a few days to sort of recover?
Yeah. You have good days and bad days. You got to realize you're in a position that not many people get to do and they'd be jealous and love to do this. And that's what it comes down to. (Epitaph)