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The Menzingers: All Grown Up.

May 29, 2014

MenzingersJFonline12Text by Beth Ann Downey. Images by Jessica Flynn.

The four members of The Menzingers file into a long booth at The Pub On Passyunk East just as they would on stage. Tom May and Greg Barnett, the Philadelphia-based punk band’s two singers and guitarists, are flanked by drummer Joe Godino and bassist Eric Keen.

They’re so visibly the four moving parts of a unified front – no one person the target for this front line of battle. This is how they got here, moving together from Scranton to Philly, seeking better opportunities to play shows and make something of themselves, being signed to one of punk’s premiere labels, traveling the world and creating exactly the kind of music they want to make.

This is how they got here, and this is the way they will remain.

But share a few happy hour beers with The Menzingers and you’ll start to pick up on their subtle differences, aside from varying draft and food orders. You’ll notice Godino is kind of a jokester, the one who will crack the jokes that have everyone in stitches. Keen is the quiet, artistic one who even created some of the props soon-to- be featured in the band’s album art. Barnett, while also deep and well-read, has a goofiness to him that completely washes away when he’s on stage. He’s also the band member most focused on the business, constantly bringing up touring, ticket prices and live shows. May’s stage persona, on the other hand, is close to his demeanor – hard, but still approachable.

They’re a cast of characters who don’t seem like they should have been playing music together since 2005 and living together in the same house for years. Now they all live separately, but still within a two-block radius in South Philly. Despite this, it’s also apparent that around each other they’re at their most comfortable and candid.

The thought of getting sick of each other any time soon is laughable to them.

“We’ve made it this far, so I think we’re good,” Barnett says. “Honestly, if we weren’t doing an interview, it would seriously just be the four of us sitting here doing the same thing. We lived in the same house together for years. Everyone was like, ‘You guys are fucking crazy. How do you deal with that?’ I don’t know why it’s so crazy. Tomorrow, if we all had to move back in together, I could do it. It wouldn’t be the end of the world.”

Since moving to Philly six years ago, they’ve also built a community away from the bandmates. Later tonight, they’ll all attend a house party nearby with members of other notable Philly punk acts like Restorations, Paint It Black and Cassavetes. They’ll share handshakes and updates. Business and tour strategies will be talked about shortly after beers are shotgunned in the bathtub.

They’ve played local shows and toured together, given advice to each other about who to record with and how to otherwise advance their already burgeoning music careers, in Philly and otherwise.

“There are so many different styles of music and people that are doing different things,” Barnett says. “That kind of opens you up to doing different things, as well. I feel like we grew as a band because we started listening to other bands who were from here or outside the area. Connecting with them and seeing how they play kind of made us better, I think.”

“I think our networking skills got better since moving here,” adds Godino. “Adapting to a big city and having to like, sink or swim, you’re forced to get out there and talk to people and meet people and go places. So that just makes it easier when you’re on tour and doing the same thing on the road. It gives you more confidence to put yourself out there.”

Put themselves out there, The Menzingers have. The band’s favorite tour memories have happened abroad, like the time they played in Aachen, Germany in the basement of the first bunker taken by the Allies during World War II – the audience comprised of the grandchildren of the people our grandfathers fought against all those years ago.

They also have a 50-year-old Serbian fan who has traveled to every neighboring country where they’ve played.

“He’s not a master of the English language,” May says, “but from what I understood, he felt like he could relate to the energy and relate to the lyrics that he finds devoid in other music he listens to.”

“He said there was a long period where there was no punk in his life,” adds Keen. “To him, America brought punk bands back, I guess. Somehow he found us but at the same time doesn’t know bands like Propaghandi. So how he found us, I have no clue.”

Being on the road hasn’t always been easy. May remembers early tours when the whole band would file into a fast food joint, the first person would take a $20 bill, order a few things off of the dollar menu, then pass the change to the next person in line until everyone could eat. More recently, while touring the U.K. with The Bouncing Souls in 2012, the band’s tour van was broken into. All of their tour money, an extra $2,000 of emergency cash, iPads, iPods and passports were all lifted. They broke the news to fans on their Tumblr page and asked for help through an online donation drive set up by U.K. label Banquet Records. Not only was there an overwhelming wave of support from fans and other bands but The Menzingers didn’t let the break-in stop them from finishing out the tour.

Despite situations like this, and the general sacrifices they make to tour as much as they do, The Menzingers also find it kind of funny to think of their jobs as being “hard.”

“People wake up at 5 o’clock in the morning and they work their ass off all day, then they come home to this house that they hate for 40 years,” says Barnett. “We’re doing something that we really like, and yeah it’s hard sometimes, but everything is hard. That’s life.”

“I have friends that are biologists, friends that are engineers, friends that are bartenders, chefs, anything you can imagine,” adds May. “Most of them would trade that in a second to do what I do.”

Seeing one Menzinger without the other three is a rare occurrence. But at The Abbaye in Northern Liberties a few days after the band returned from a month-long headlining tour of the U.S., May was the only member of The Menzingers at the table, slugging a few pints of Guinness and a shot of Jameson.

He isn’t alone, though. He walked in with Miner Street Studio’s resident producer Jon Low who recorded Rented World, The Menzingers’ fourth full-length album due out on April 22nd via their label Epitaph Records. The two caught up, Low describing his experience recently recording a band from Japan and May confirming good news about the recent tour and Barnett’s new amp.

Like so many relationships between members of the tight-knit Philly punk community, Low and The Menzingers started out as friends before they embarked on their professional journey.

“It’s always fun working with people you know really well, people who are local to whatever is going on,” Low says. “Yeah, we’re doing a lot of work, we’re making a record, but we were also just hanging out a lot of the time. We were just really close to home and all of the places we’re used to hanging out and going, and it just kind of incorporated into our lives.”

It was a far cry from how The Menzingers were used to recording. The band laid down their last two full-lengths, including the celebrated 2012 release On the Impossible Past, with producer Matt Allison in Chicago. They also wrote most of On the Impossible Past while being sequestered at Barnett’s mom’s house outside of Scranton.

“It had momentum the whole time,” May says of recording Rented World. “Every new thing we did, we would be really excited about it. I just keep saying the best part was being with someone you really like and being in Philadelphia. It was the first time we didn’t sequester ourselves somewhere else while recording. So we went home every night, went home on the weekends. It was awesome.”

Low says they were able to get a lot done quickly, even though songs like “Hearts Unknown,” “Bad Things” and the slow-building and loosely structured “Transient Love” were still in the infant stages when they entered the studio.

“That was the fun part of, like, how are we going to make this song just kind of morph?” Low recalls. “I think we pulled it off.”

“A lot of the guitar parts I played on that I didn’t play until I was standing in the room,” adds May.

Working with Low helped the band realize the power of extremes, and how playing things as loud as possible can sometimes be just as powerful as playing things quietly. Dynamics like these, both May and Low agree, are regularly overlooked or left out from music in the genre.

“That’s one of the first things I usually say when someone asks what it’s like to work with Jon Low,” May says. “I talk about the idea of the contrast he brought to it and just the idea of those kind of dynamics. Paying attention to the tempo and letting things breathe, that was definitely something we weren’t used to. We were used to going full-tilt all the time.”

“I saw you guys a bunch of times before I really dug into the records,” Low adds, addressing May. “I wanted [Rented World] to be a record that really captured that live aspect of all the energy, the emotion and the fact that it’s just kind of bombarding all of your senses. This record has the ability to do that. When you turn it up, it engulfs you in this environment.”

Another thing Low helped May and Barnett to improve was their vocals. He would meet them every morning to do vocal warm-ups, something neither singer had done in the past.

“That’s the first time I ever paid attention to any of those things or knew I had any of those muscles,” May says.

Low helped them both think more about nuance in phrasing and annunciation, and how to convey emotion through more than just singing or screaming louder. The last song on the record, “When You Died,” really showcases this. The all-acoustic, very emotional track was recorded all in one take with just Barnett alone in the live room.

“It was a late night, but every take sounded good,” says Low. “It was kind of crazy because it was so quiet. Greg would finish the song and no one would say anything for a while.”

Barnett can’t leave his South Philly house because he’s looking after his dog, which has just been neutered.

“One of his balls was in his stomach,” he says matter-of-factly. “There were actually three incisions. He kind of looks like Frankenstein and hates the cone. Besides that, he doesn’t seem to be in any pain. It’s just annoying more than anything because he’s super needy right now.”

Is being homebound while looking after your needy, ball-less dog a sign of growing up? Barnett wouldn’t give a straight answer on that, nor on whether or not he thinks the band has “matured” on their new record.

“I guess with anything that you do, you constantly think that what you’re doing is more mature,” he says. “Looking back on where we were before, we just weren’t as good of players and songwriters then. There were different things in our lives that we thought were bigger deals than they were at the time. … I was still in college when we were writing the last record, so that was kind of fueled with cheap food and cheap beer, getting drunk every day and minimal responsibilities. A lot more has changed since then, so I guess that kind of affected everything, the growing-up process.”

It took him two or three years to finish writing “When You Die,” which he says wasn’t meant to be about one particular death. However, he started writing the song when a friend died of leukemia. Then his grandfather passed away and he was motivated and inspired to finish it.

“I just kind of wanted to sum it all up,” Barnett says. “It started having to drive somewhere for a funeral. You’re just kind of alone with your thoughts. While you’re doing it, that’s kind of the inspiration for driving up to heaven, that whole thing. So that’s where that kind of came from.”

Barnett chose Rented World for the album title after reading the Philip Larkin poem “Aubade,” which features the line. While that poem was also about death, Barnett related it to the album for another reason.

“I started thinking about all of the songs, about how short-lived anything could be, from relationships to human life to anything, and how you don’t even really own any of that,” he says. “You think you do but you really don’t, and it can all just be taken away from you. That’s where, I think, the title came from. That’s why I went with it because, for me, the record is just kind of a living-in-the-moment kind of record.”

Back at the P.O.P.E after plates of seitan fingers and bowls of three bean chili are eaten and drafts of oatmeal stout and Kenzinger are drunk, The Menzingers look ahead to where their new album might take them.

“There are so many great parts about releasing a record,” Barnett says. “One is that you get to start your tour cycle over again, so you get to start planning for the rest of the year and next year, being like, ‘Maybe we can go to Japan, maybe we can go here.’ There’s all of these really cool places that you’ve wanted to go, and now putting out a new record, you get this extra push. The whole planning stage of that is really exciting. It’s just kind of cool to see what you’ve been working on for so long, and where it can potentially take you.”

The first time Barnett really felt like The Menzingers had “made it” was when they were dropped off at the airport to fly to England and play there for the very first time. For Keen, it was when they were signed to Epitaph in 2011. For Godino, it was their earlier signing to Go Kart Records in 2006. The jokester has the whole band cracking up recalling how he called his boss that day and told her he couldn’t come in to work because his band had been signed and he’d be on the road a lot – though they did nothing for four months after that. At the time, Godino was 20. When the band technically hits their 10-year anniversary in 2016, he’ll be turning 30.

And though it’s “so lame to say,” there’s one more thing Godino relays that he’s definitely not joking about, though it also elicits laughter from the group.

“We have great fans,” he says. “Everyone has great fans because they’re fans and they like your band. But honestly, we do though. And you see that live. It’s really easy for us to stay energetic and confident in our live set just because of how energetic people who come to our shows are. It’s really easy for us to be that much more into it. You feed off of that kind of energy.

“We’re just lucky to have people who come to our shows who are super intense and love to be right up in front, knocking these guy’s teeth out.”

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