Ahead of the album that might just define their career, we look back on what it took for The Menzingers to become the best punk band on the planet.
By Ryan De Freitas
Punk bands, so we’re told, aren’t supposed to give a fuck about success. They’re supposed to stay hungry, broke and righteous until, eventually, they have to pack it all in and get a real job when the capitalist demands of real life take over. But, as unbecoming of a punk band as it might consequently seem – especially for an outfit now based out of Philadelphia, the unofficial DIY Capital Of The World – The Menzingers always wanted something more.
“From the moment we started out,” starts guitarist/vocalist Greg Barnett, “it was very apparent that we wanted to do this for a living. From the very first practice we realised that this is what we were going to do and that we were about to dedicate our lives to it.”
And they really were dedicated. Immediately, Tom May – who shares guitar and vocal duties with Barnett – immediately started looking for a real practice space, realising that the band, completed by Eric Keen (bass) and Joe Godino (drums), would soon outgrow the room they’d used at Keen’s house and got the band to start recording as much as they possibly could.
Despite their determination, The Menzingers still faced an uphill battle, living as they were at this point in their hometown of Scranton, Pennsylvania. (Yeah, the same one from the US adaptation of The Office.) The former coal-mining town had no established ‘scene’ to speak of, so while their counterparts in cooler areas were thriving – Chicago’s Rise Against were becoming a force nationwide, The Gaslight Anthem were about to explode out of New Jersey, and the heroes of the day were a little band called Against Me! from the punk-hotbed college town of Gainesville, Florida – The Menzingers had to make do with what they had.
“The vibe then was just playing just to play and playing every show we could,” says Barnett. “We wouldn’t get paid, either. Eric’s parents helped us buy a van and Eric would throw gas money onto his credit card. We just did what we could do get by. We didn’t have any fans or support, but it was like, ‘even if people tell us no, this is what we’re going to do’. So we’d play fire halls, basements… anywhere in Pennsylvania that would have us.
“We weren’t really cool enough to play in Philly yet either. We didn’t get invited down there for a couple of years, but in the coal towns around Pennsylvania – towns like Scranton – we played in and started making friends with people. We started getting out to Pittsburgh eventually… But New York and Philly, those were cool scenes who had real bands. We were just rednecks to them.”
Eventually, those ‘rednecks’ started making a name for themselves. Having befriended New York punks Bridge and Tunnel, as well as New Jersey’s Static Radio, The Menzingers started to get support slots in Brooklyn, Asbury Park and, eventually, Philadelphia, the most vital places on the east coast for an upstart band to play. This, in turn led to their signing with Go-Kart records for their first LP, 2006’s scrappy A Lesson In The Abuse Of Information Technology.
“That felt so life-changing for us,” says Barnett. “We learned so much then. We’d only done basement recordings with friends and had never been in a real studio and now we were recording with [renowned producer] Jesse Cannon.
“I was still in college at the time and we were all still living in our parents’ houses and apartments in Scranton, so it’d be tough to say that that was the moment, but it was a big one.”
The moment, however, wasn’t far off. Their hard work was paying off and a buzz was building around the band. The band signed to Red Scare records for an EP, 2009’s Hold On, Dodge and a full-length, Chamberlain Waits, a year later.
“That was when it really started to happen,” Barnett recalls. “We got our first support tours and started playing out west for the first time. We played with Anti-Flag and NOFX and managed to get on a tour with Against Me! and the Swingin’ Utters. That really kicked us into gear.
“I took a semester off of college because Gaslight invited us to do a tour with them and it was too good to be true. And then I went back to school and started writing On The Impossible Past.”
Coinciding with Barnett finishing college and the band signing to punk rock juggernaut Epitaph Records, 2012’s On The Impossible Past was the moment that the band had been building to all this time. Packed to the brim with heartfelt nostalgia, intimate stories and the band’s best songwriting to date, OTIP was met with deserved critical acclaim and saw enough commercial success that the band could quit their jobs and just work on being The Menzingers.
Darker though it may have been – the album’s bleakest moments possess an entirely defeated air – Rented World was loaded with huge rock songs, many of which will surely be setlist mainstays for as long as the band are active. They toured that record long and hard, filling bigger venues with each run. By the album cycle’s end in 2016, The Menzingers had established a reputation as one of modern punk’s greatest bands.
Ten years on from that fateful first practice at Eric Keen’s house, The Menzingers had achieved their goal. Finally, their band could be their life.
But of course, The Menzingers’ story doesn’t end there. On February 3rd, the band are releasing their fifth full-length record, After The Party.
The title is, primarily, a reference to getting older. With every band member now in their thirties, this record serves – Barnett says – as “an ode to our twenties, which were spent kinda like a wild party.” What, you didn’t think touring in a band, even one as fiercely industrious as this, was all work and no play, did you?
“But the whole thing is a love story, too,” he continues. “Not just in the sense that there’s a story and theme throughout the songs on the record, but also a love letter to that time period in our lives – and a lot of other people’s lives – that you never get back. Y’know, that thing of being carefree and able to travel and not having to worry about the things that older people are supposed to worry about.”
The storytelling aspect that The Menzingers made their hallmark is back, as Barnett and May cast their collective lens towards the past once more.
“I feel like I’m obsessed with the past,” admits Barnett. “My biggest influence in writing is Vladimir Nabokov; in all of his stories he talks about being obsessed with the past and he writes in a view of looking at the past to gain some type of perspective. I fell in love with that idea after reading his books and it transformed the way I write.
“I find myself always writing about times maybe six months to a year ago. I find it hard to really write about situations that are happening right now. When I can analyse something and put it into a greater context, I think that I can get the themes and the stories… They can be larger than life that way.”
The distance created by the passage of time allows aspiring novelist Barnett (“I have a million ideas for books on my computer and so many scrapped chapters – it’s a dream of mine”) to exercise a little poetic license.
“That’s my favourite part about it. You can tell some things differently if you want to see them differently. You’re able to change details that you normally wouldn’t and you can blend different ideas and people and stories from your life together to make one thing. It gives you a lot more creative room to express what you’re trying to convey.”
And on After The Party, those ideas and those people and those stories are conveyed expertly. Characters are seamlessly carried over between songs and the two narrators – Barnett and May each offering a different take – tell their deepest and most fulfilling tales yet.
“Tom comes from a different perspective,” Barnett, who approaches his songs with a Springsteen-esque romanticism, says of his narrative counterpart, “and was able to add a different element to it and that’s what I think makes the album a whole, instead of just one person’s story.
“If you wanna say that I’m more of a Springsteen” – and I do, at least in the sense that Barnett’s lyrics read almost like prose – “I know that Tom’s biggest influence is Joe Strummer. And if you look at Strummer’s songs, he and Tom have the same approach where they centralise a topic but tell it through a bunch of metaphors.
“Having two songwriters, I think, has always been one of our strong points, because we can always make the stories a little more complex and distinct than just one narrative would be.”
This is more than just Impossible Past II, however. On After The Party, those stories are woven through huge radio-ready, punk rock anthems reminiscent of the bands they’d have opened for in their Red Scare days. And, retrospectively, it’s clear that The Menzingers’ aptitude for such anthems had merely been hinted at on Rented World.
“I’m appreciating music a lot differently now,” Barnett says of his growing fondness for these bigger songs. “In my early twenties, I would want a band to just be sloppy and loud and I didn’t really like refined, tight music. It just wasn’t for me. But the older I get, I’m appreciating musicianship a lot more. I like going and seeing bands that perform at the top of their level, y’know?
“Not that I don’t still like sloppy punk bands. I love that, but I can really appreciate seeing bands that have honed their craft to an exceptional level. And with that, I’m trying to grow as a musician myself. The four of us always wanna improve and make sure that if people are coming to see a show, they’re seeing us perform to a high level.
“We’ve done this for so long now and I don’t ever want to see us get stagnant and stop challenging ourselves. That’s what has lead to those bigger songs; it’s honestly just us developing as musicians.”
No sign of their work ethic abating, then. But now, five albums deep, their wildest dreams realised, and with a legacy that would be heralded in punk circles for generations were they to hang up their instruments tomorrow, has the goal changed for The Menzingers? Are they now aiming for success on a more mainstream level? After all, songs like ‘Lookers’ are more than worthy of it.
“I don’t know…” Barnett pauses. Even the most ambitious of punks can be made uncomfortable by such suggestions. “You always want your project to grow as big as possible.
“We’ve never written songs for a mass audience. We’ve always written songs for our friends, our immediate community and ourselves. Those are the people that we really care about. It’d be awesome to have ‘Lookers’ played on the radio all the time, but it’s never been our goal.”
Well then what is the goal? Is there an end-game?
“It’s hard to say, because we’re not near the end.” Fair point. “I think right now we’re still in the thick of it and we’re just trying to find the most joy we can out of it all.”
Barnett speaks of finding that joy in the simplest things. Sometimes it’s figuring out new stage lighting setups or planning setlists. Others, it’s simply playing acoustic shows in bars, as they did recently for a charity event. But whatever it is, Barnett and his band seem to approach it all with the same wide-eyed enthusiasm as they no doubt would’ve possessed when they were playing those same bars the first time around.
Clearly, this is a man – and band – who defied punk stereotype when they decided that they were going to make a living from music, and who have done so again with their refusal to become jaded even this far into their career.
The Menzingers don’t have, as Barnett says, “grandiose plans to take over the world” – and that’s fine. But what they do have in After The Party is a future classic of a record. And after more than a decade of hard work, they deserve every drop of success that it’s likely to bring. Even if they’re too humble to admit it themselves.