The Menzingers Riffs, Rough and Raw
Published Apr 25, 2014One listen to the Menzingers's new album, Rented World, and it's very clear that this is a band whose members were raised in the '90s. The Philly area pop-punk band, best known for their self-depreciating and cult favourite 2012 opus, On the Impossible Past, went into the writing of their fourth full-length with a clear vision that their new album would be louder, bigger, and, well, a little dumber. Some of the riffs on Rented World bring to mind early Weezer, others late-era Green Day, and still others the wonderful world of '90s nü-metal (seriously). We recently spoke to the Menzingers' guitarist Greg Barnett about those big, dumb riffs, (kinda) growing up, some warm and fuzzies about punk rock's the Fest, and the slightly more optimistic tone of Rented World.
This is very different record for you guys with the big, stupid '90s riffs. I've heard a "what the fuck is this?" reaction from some people. What's been the reaction that you've heard so far?
That's the reaction that we hoped for. That there would be some people who would say, "Oh, this is fucking cool. This is awesome. Big, loud guitars…" and other people would be like, "What the fuck is this?!" Overall it's been a pretty positive reaction, but there definitely is a "what the hell is going on?" aspect to it, which is pretty cool, throwing people off their guard a bit. It was mostly just trying out new guitar stuff and we wrote songs that were centered around a guitar riff, and instead of just playing an acoustic guitar and writing lyrics over it, we said, "Let's just crank the amps up and see what we can do."
How did that come about?
It was mainly the fact that we actually have a legitimate practice space now. The four of us used to live in a house together and we'd always practice in that basement and it sounded terrible. Then we all moved out and got a practice space in the city. The songs weren't all structured around an acoustic guitar this time. So it was a whole different process from what we normally do and that really affected the songs.
You guys are obviously big fans of '90s alt-rock and it shows on this album. Was that something you talked about before writing, or did it just come out naturally?
Yeah, it definitely was something we talked about. We love the Smashing Pumpkins and Weezer and we weren't trying to rip them off, but there are definitely things that those bands did, and the aesthetic that they had, that was just fucking awesome and we missed it in current music. We didn't want to do whole grunge rip-off thing, but there are definitely elements of those bands that we wanted to try out.
You've always been known for your self-depreciating lyrics, and it's always fun to sing along to your songs about being a fuckup and whatnot, but on the new record you seem to have turned a corner a bit and you seem more positive. What's changed for you?
Honestly, I think the four of us are in a much better spot than we were a few years ago. And there is some self-deprecation on the new record, but not as much. The last record was definitely a pretty dark time in all of our lives. We were just constantly broke, we couldn't pay our bills, relationships were just falling apart left and right, and that's not to say it doesn't happen now — it's still the story of all of our lives — but I feel like the four of us are just happier as people now. We're more stable in the routine of going on tour, coming home, and going on tour again. And it used to be so chaotic and so new; we would just go on tour and drink ourselves to death and then come home and not have a dollar to our name, just trying to get by. That was the pattern of living for so long, so now we've just found a way to make touring in the band work. And that just helps our overall mentality and our stability.
Have you been able to cut back on the alcohol intake at all?
Um, yes and no [laughs]. I mean, when I was writing that last record I was still in college, you know? I was still really in the mindset of drinking cheap beer every night and waking up and if someone has more beer in the morning, that's cool. I guess if I said I'm more of an adult now, that would be a lie, but I'm definitely a little bit more of an adult than the last record and it shows in the songs.
Was there some anxiousness about writing a record after On the Impossible Past, because people just love that record so much. Was there some hesitation?
Totally. It's crazy. That record really took off in a way that it's bigger than the songs almost. People really took a lot from that record and the goal of being a songwriter is for something like that to happen. So that was really fucking amazing. At first, yeah, there was this huge pressure. We were like, "Man, we just hope that these new songs can connect to people the way that they did before." That was the concern when we first started writing, even the first note it was like, "Oh, where do we start?" But, as we went on, it just wasn't even a concern anymore. When you have confidence in yourself then you don't even worry about those things. We've always just done whatever we've wanted from the start, so we didn't really care in the end. The only care was that the songs would mean as much to people as they did on the last record, but we were confident that we were onto something good.
What's the one song on this album that you want people to connect with or understand?
That's a tough one. I think the last track, "When You Died," it's an acoustic song. It took awhile to write, and it wasn't about one specific incident about one specific death, it was about a bunch of them that happened really close together and I tried to make it one thing and as broad as possible for anybody else who was going through some dark times with friends or family members passing away, so that they could relate to that. It's a pretty heavy song, so I hope that for somebody out there it does them some good.
What's the meaning behind "Nothing Feels Good Anymore"?
It's a song about relationship issues and it's about that apathetic feeling after you realize it's not working out anymore and you think, "What do I do? What can possibly make me happy? The one thing that I love doesn't make me happy. Is anything ever going to make me happy?" So that's the theme of the song. It starts off in this dream scenario and it moves forward really rapidly into present tense. I'm sure everyone's felt that way where you believe in something so much and when it doesn't work, where do you go next? That's what the song is really about.
The four of you have been together for a while now and you're all very passionate about being in the band. Is it tough for you guys all to stay on the same page?
It's honestly not. We're all just so invested in this band and in the idea of what the band is. The band has become so much bigger than just the four of us getting together and playing songs. It's become our lifestyle. All of my friends are the guys in the band. It's corny to say, but it's true. Everything about our lives is centered around this thing that I started when I was in high school, which is crazy to think. It's such a passion that we all love and support and believe in, and no one's ready to let it go.
Tom seems like a real character. What's it like hanging out with him?
Yeah, he's great. He's definitely a character. I've got so many good stories. Like, I woke up this morning and he said his friend spilled a entire glass of water on his laptop and he was going to throw up based on the fact that all of his stuff was ruined, and that was at nine this morning, so, yeah, I dunno, he's a good guy.
Out of all the bands you've played with, who's the one band that sticks out as being brothers for you guys?
Just thinking about Canada, immediately the Flatliners come to mind. We've been playing with them for so long and if I could pick one band to go on tour with, it would probably be them. They're so fucking good live and they are just such great guys; they're the best. I immediately just think of them.
Tony Weinbender from the Fest was talking about how cool it was that you guys are now the senior bands at the Fest when you started out a few years ago as the babies.
Totally. We've played every single one since the Fest 6 and we haven't had a year off. It's so weird to think back. I was under 21 and we were opening up a show at [Gainesville, FL venue] 1982 and there were three people there. And that's not a lie, like there were 20 people, no, there were three people there, and they were our friends. I think the Flatliners headlined that show, and there were some people there, but it wasn't like it is now. It's become something crazy, and it's great.
What does the Fest mean to you guys?
It's like a family reunion, essentially. Even if we didn't play, I would still go, just because I love being able to see a band and then hang out with my friends that I only get to see once or twice a year. And it's cool because it immediately feels like everyone is just picking up from the last one. Back in that mindset, and here we are again. There's no catching up like, "What have you been up to?" It's just like being with your buds that would hang out every day. And that's what so cool about it, I think.
What would you say is the overriding theme or message of Rented World, if there is one?
It's a loose idea, but Rented World came up in a poem by Philip Larkin called "Aubade," and at the end of the poem he mentions that it's about death and the realization of death and the routine-ness, almost, of it. And he mentions the term "rented world" and it really stuck out to me. I started thinking about the record and about how everything that you love, relationships and people and everything, could be taken away from you any instant. And the theme of the record would be that you have to realize that and appreciate that those foundations of your life could be gone any second. With the themes of the record, with death and relationships and wanting to better yourself, like "I Don't Want to Be an Asshole Anymore," it's just about the betterment of yourself and your friends around you.
Were there any riffs where you thought, "No, this is just way too stupid to put on the record"?
Totally. We wrote this one song that didn't make the record, but we had this riff and this first verse and it sounded like '80s hair metal, like Van Halen. It was so corny, but it was so fun to play, so we would always start off our practices playing it and it and everyone was like, "Goddamn it, no way, we're not doing it."