DS Interview: The Menzingers on “Rented World” and the Philadelphia music scene

The Menzingers have become a well-respected name in the punk community and rightfully so. Since the 2012 release of On The Impossible Past, the band has barely taken a break, touring almost maniacally, and through it all releasing one of this year’s most anticipated albums, Rented World.

During the chaos we had a chance to sit down with vocalist and guitarist Greg Barnett on the second stop of the Rented World tour at Webster Hall in New York City the to discuss the recording process, the Philadelphia music scene, and growing up.

You can read the interview below.

Dying Scene (Drea): On The Impossible Past made its way onto many “Album of the Year” lists in 2012, mine included. Did that create a lot of pressure when writing material for Rented World?

Greg Barnett: Yes and no. Obviously, you always want to be progressive but we weren’t too afraid. It wasn’t really that much of an issue, we were really confident the entire time and we’ve just continued to do the things we always do. I guess that works for us. We don’t really get bogged down with what people think of our band all that much. If anything we care more about what our friends think and what we think. We just try to be honest with ourselves and that’s what we’ve always done. There was more of an internal pressure, just that we wanted to make sure that every song made sense, and every song was important. So that was a pressure, but outside of the practice room it wasn’t all that concerning to us.

You have mentioned that there was an extensive writing process for the album…

Yes.

Was it difficult to chose which songs made the cut?

Yeah, absolutely. I think that after an album like On The Impossible Past, which I think a lot of those songs just fell into place, it wasn’t as much of a thought out process for us. It was like ‘here are those songs and there they are, and that’s the album.’ It just came like that, and we toured on that album extensively. We just became so accustomed to those songs and everything, and when it really just came down to writing a new album it was like “Wow, where do you start?” But I think right when we broke out of that and got one song done, we were like “Yeah, alright, this is it. Now we can do it!” I think “In Remission” was the first song we wrote for the record and once we had that we were like “This is cool, this is going to be good.” And then it just flowed really well. Yeah, it’s definitely hard, sometimes you have a song that you think this is one and then it’s like “Nah, I’m not liking it.” At the end of the day it all worked out.

Rented World seems to resonate differently within the listener than OTIP, the lyrical matter, as well as the music itself sounds more upbeat and less dark and cynical. Was there a conscious effort for that during songwriting?

It wasn’t a conscious effort, I think it was more of a subconscious thing that happened. I think that the four of us, our lives kind of turned around a lot. On The Impossible Past was kind of a dark record, we were touring all the time but we couldn’t really afford too. There was a lot of failed relationships, because of all that. Our lives were definitely more a mess, and after that record and while writing this record we kind of became adults a little bit more in a sense, which is crazy to say because we’re totally not adults. Things just started working out, I guess. People started coming to the shows which is always a relief. I think it’s less of a depressing record, as it is a little bit more angry. As we go on we kind of realized the things that kind of hold you down and bum you out, and I think it just has a different vibe than the last one.

Most bands seem to chose to record outside their hometown, or area in which they now call home. What prompted you to stay local and record at Miner Street with John Low?

We recorded our last two records, Chamberlin Waits and On The Impossible Past in Chicago with Matt Allison and they were so great, it was some of the best times of my life out there. I think that for us, we wanted to do it at home. There were a bunch of reasons for that. One, we had never done it. All of our friends are musicians, these songs were shaped by having our friends come to the practice space and be like “This works, or no cut that,” and we’ve always operated like that. It’s very communal, especially in the Philadelphia scene. Everyone is like, you can play an acoustic guitar in a back yard and show them the songs and everyone helps you out. That was really important to us. We love our scene a lot and it felt like we were missing something by not recording at home. It’s hard because we tour so much, but it is something that really means a lot to us. We just wanted to be able to be involved in the scene as much as possible.

Was there a reason to switch from Matt Allison to have Jon Low as a producer?

No, not necessarily. It wasn’t a reason or anything, we just wanted to try something new. Jon Low is a really close friend of ours, he did the Restorations record. We heard that record and we were like “Oh my god, this is awesome” so through mutual friends we were introduced to him, and became really close. We have a lot in common too. Not even necessarily musically, but ideally. He’s out there on the terms of the way that he does things, and the way that we’re used to doing things, which is kind of why we wanted to go with him for that record. We wanted to be outside of our comfort zone, and we wanted people to be like “No, try this,” and get into fights about it. We wanted that struggle. That’s what happened, and that’s why I think our record is so great.

And Miner Street does a lot of things different than most recording studios.

Yeah, the whole idea is that they are really interested in capturing an organic sound. They don’t really do a lot of editing. There’s not a lot of chopping up the drums to fit it onto a track and everything, it’s played live. The idea is like a picture. They want to record what the song is like in the moment. And that’s the overall philosophy for Jon Low. He didn’t want to make it sound different from what we’ve been doing to a sense. Of course you can add things it, but he wanted it to be raw and organic. He didn’t want to make us sound different, but still wanted to do things out of the box. Like we would record live, but then he was like “slow the track down” and normally we would play to a metronome and we would keep beat to it. But he got rid of it and told us to just start playing slower. We were like “Duh, why didn’t we do this before?”

And that’s not what most producers do.

Yeah, a lot of people will just focus on tuning a guitar obsessively.

Or you can spend two or three days just tuning and mic’ing up the drums…

Yeah, exactly, this was not like that at all. I was like “should I tune?” and he was like “Eh, whatever, if it’s out of tune we will hear that it’s out of tune.” That’s just how it was. I wanted to change my strings and he said to me “Don’t you dare change those strings.” We would get into fights. And they have so much cool, old, vintage gear. We are all slowly becoming gear heads, and that means a lot to us. I’m a lefty so I can’t play all the cool guitars, but Good Charlotte left a drum set there….which definitely didn’t get played but it was cool. *Laughs*

You’re at the point in your career when you can sell out venues, but also play house shows, case in point the record release show at the Golden Tea House (a popular West Philly house venue), do you think that is something you will always make it a point to continue to do?

I think so. I mean, I don’t even think it is something that we think about too much. Here’s a crazy example: You have tonight at Webster Hall, which is absolutely insane. I walked in and was like “This is the wrong venue, there’s no fucking way we can be playing here. This is mind-blowing.” Six years ago we couldn’t even get a show in New York City, and if we could there would be one or two people there. It’s crazy. I don’t think of our band in this sense. And I don’t mean that in a negative way or whatever, it’s just really hard to look at your band and be like “We’re going to play in front of 1,000 people tonight.” We play sweaty, small, intimate shows, that’s us.

Like at the Tea House, with only 150 people.

Exactly. That’s what we’ve been doing for years. Not that I’m not comfortable with this. I love this more than anything, playing in front of a lot of people. It’s kind of who we are. I like going to small shows. I like going to big shows too, but I’ve always gone to small ones. I don’t think that we could continue on only playing big shows. It would just get boring.

Shortly after the release of Chamberlain Waits, there was talk of an acoustic album I believe…

Oh yeah!

Are there any future plans to release one?

I don’t know. It’s not really something that’s been brought up. It’s interesting because Toby from Red Scare was really pushing that acoustic album. We totally agreed. We started writing it, but a lot of those songs became songs for On The Impossible Past. I remember we had early versions of “Casey” and “Sun Hotel.” Those were songs we were kind of throwing around, but then you have an acoustic song and you show it to everyone, and then you try jamming on it, and then it becomes something more than just an acoustic song. It’s really hard to write an acoustic album because you don’t want to make them sound like throwaway songs. You want them to be able to stand on their own, like they can breathe and become something so much bigger than just an acoustic guitar and a vocal. I don’t know. We don’t have any plans, but that’s definitely not to say that it wouldn’t happen. We write a lot of our songs on acoustics, and I love acoustic, so it could definitely happen.

Your music has changed a lot over the years. How would you explain how you’ve developed as a songwriter?

Chamberlain Waits, and all of those records, it was all about trying to write a song where we can get people to pile on stage and break things. It was about what would get the most people excited and would get across your ideas as best as possible. We wrote for live songs. For Chamberlain, we wanted to play everything fast and live and as hard as possible. From there, we tried to shape an album. It was more like if we were in a car with the windows down, what would be the thing that we would want to listen to? It doesn’t have to be as intense where you would want to stage dive the entire time. If anything the only conscious thing was that sometimes throwing a slow song in with a fast song next to it makes the fast song seem faster. In Rented World in particular, we really focused on the dynamics of that. If you’re going to have a big, loud rock song, you can’t have twelve of those because then it doesn’t sound that loud anymore. It doesn’t sound that heavy. It’s the dynamics that make an album, and in my mind that is what makes albums flow so great. While we were shaping the record, we definitely wanted it to flow in a certain way.

Your video for “I Don’t Wanna Be An Asshole Anymore” is hilarious.

Oh, thank you.

It’s a lot different than most music videos that feature footage of the band. How did the idea for it come up?

I can’t take any credit for this, it was Whitey McConnaughy who did the music video. He’s done some of my favorite videos, the Thermals video, and he does a bunch of awesome videos. We all agreed that he was the guy we want to work with. He came up with the concept, he said it was sort of off the top of his head, that he woke up and it came to him. He wrote it down and we were all crying laughing and knew that it had to get done. We were in Australia and he got it done for us in a week. He went to Portland and filmed everything and sent it over. It was unbelievable, and exactly what we wanted. Music videos are tough. They can just end up being so pretentious or boring. When you have these cheesy themes that go through the entire thing, and then you don’t want to even listen to the song anymore.

I can say that that was the first music video in a while that I actually paid attention to.

Yeah, exactly. That was really important. Having sound effects over the music? It was cool. Music videos can be so bad, but that’s why we never did one until now. We’ll do cool ones that we like.

This is only the second stop on this tour, is there a particular venue or city that you are looking forward to play?

Honestly, New York City and Philly. Those are the two in my mind that I can’t wait for. Tonight in New York City there are a million family that are coming out that you don’t really get to see too often, a lot of friends. And Philly obviously, that’s our home town. Union Transfer is one of my favorite venues in the country, that’s going to be a lot of fun. I’m honestly excited to get out from the Northeast and play places where we don’t know many people. I’m excited to be in Iowa, where you are just out there.

I’ve noticed that you guys always have Philly bands open your shows and Cateyana have recently received a lot of great recognition locally. Are there any other Philly bands you would recommend for people to check out right now, because the scene is so thriving?

Oh yeah, definitely. Kite Party, Three Man Cannon, they’re both great bands that have just put on new records. Little Big League is another great band, Address is a great band.

They’re on the lineup for Fest this year.

Yeah, they’re playing. Trying to think of who else…Radiator Hospital, they’re a cool band. There’s so many. Cassavetes, they’re a cool band. They kind of sound like the Foo Fighters. They’re a loud rock band. Of course we’re friends with The Holy Mess, they’re our brother band. They’re the first band we ever went on tour with. There’s this band called Likers, I really like them. Really like Likers. *Laughs*  There’s a lot of good bands.

That’s all the questions I have, thank you.

Of course, thank you!

 


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