There are punk bands, and then there are punk bands’ punk bands. The Menzingers belong in the latter category — over the course of six albums released in the past decade, including their excellent forthcoming LP, After The Party which comes out this Friday, 2/3, the Philadelphia quartet have forged a strong following among punk fans as well as their fellow musicians. On numerous occasions while interviewing punk groups, I’ve heard the Menzingers name-checked as one of the scene’s most consistent recording acts and most galvanizing live bands.
Outside of punk circles, however, the Menzingers remain largely unknown. But there’s reason to think that might soon change. The invisible line that exists between the punk and indie-rock worlds has been breached in recent years by groups like the Hotelier, Pup, and Joyce Manor, all of whom have recently garnered positive press from indie music sites after being largely ignored in the past. Will the Menzingers be the latest band to cross this pointlessly large divide? Singer-guitarist Greg Barnett, who shares songwriting duties in the Menzingers with fellow guitarist Tom May, doesn’t seem optimistic.
“People in indie-rock circles write off our band because we’re immediately thought of as another punk band,” Barnett says in a phone interview from the Menzingers’ home base in Philadelphia. “We’re never going to be [well-regarded] in these pretentious indie scenes. It’s just who we are. That’s the kind of people that we are, the kind of shows that we go to, we just hang out with open-minded people. And if there are people or critics who write us off that quickly, about something as f*cking dumb as the kind of bands that we play with, I guess we never really wanted them as fans anyway.”
Based on the musical merits of After The Party, The Menzingers certainly ought to be the new favorite band for anyone who appreciates songs that marry big, anthemic rock hooks to smartly observed, story-oriented lyrics. On older albums such as 2012’s On The Impossible Past, Barnett and May proved adept at mythologizing the milieu of the punk underground with cinematic flourishes fleshed out by bassist Eric Keen and drummer Joe Godino. Standout track “Gates,” for instance, has the arc of a classic coming-of-age movie — Barnett paints vivid scenes about getting drunk backstage at a Lion’s Club show, falling in love during the after-party at an all-night diner, and then ending the night by getting busted in the parking lot of a CVS.
On After The Party, The Menzingers have created nothing less than a song cycle about the band’s life up until now, a reflective act inspired by the members all hovering around the age of 30, the unofficial gateway to adulthood. (Barnett is 29, and his bandmates are about two years older.) The characters in the Menzingers’ latest songs no longer have the freedom to hang out all night outside of convenience stores — Barnett and May now write about young men like themselves who are trying to put their hard-partying ways behind them, in order to preserve a more fulfilling existence as partners in long-term relationships.
But growing up is never easy, and the weariness that inevitably accompanies taking on adult responsibility permeates After The Party. In “Lookers,” an old photograph marks the distance between a carefree past and an uncertain future. In “Wings (Your Wild Years),” the protagonist lies awake at night, worried that he won’t be able to be the partner that his girlfriend deserves. One of the best character sketches occurs in the album-closing “Livin’ Ain’t Easy,” in which a touring musician goes back on the road to escape dire financial straits at home. In the chorus, Barnett closes with a metaphor for an unsettled life worthy of John Prine: “Continental breakfast in the lobby / But they’re always out of coffee.”
Fortunately, the Menzingers have set these fraught tales to the most rousing music of the band’s career. With assistance from producer Will Yip — the in-demand punk producer who has become synonymous with sumptuous guitar-driven records due to his work with Title Fight, Balance and Composure, and mewithoutYou — the Menzingers have never sounded as powerful as they do on After The Party, pumping up their bar-ready pop-punk with arena-rock heft.
Barnett spoke to me about the process behind writing After The Party, along with some other important topics, like drinking and Bruce Springsteen.
This is a big, powerful rock record. From a purely sonic perspective, this is the best-sounding album you’ve ever made. When you’re a punk band, how do you balance that desire to make a record that sounds great without losing your original grittiness?
It’s tough, because we’ve evolved a lot from our early days of just wanting to, you know, record live in the room on a 7-inch. The band that we are today isn’t the band that we once were. I guess you would say we were more of a stereotypical punk band back in the day. At this point in our band’s career, there’s more energy and excitement in a well-thought idea than the explosive, “Let’s record it in one take,” kind of thing. Our first record [2007’s A Lesson in the Abuse of Information Technology], I want to say it [took] like two weeks, maybe just 10 days.
After The Party unfolds like a song cycle — all of the songs touch on growing out of your twenties, and there’s a narrative arc on the album that mirrors the process of growing up, culminating with the last song, “Livin’ Ain’t Easy.” How deliberate were you and the band’s other songwriter, Tom May, about writing songs that fit this theme?
When we sat down and started writing the record, it became very apparent that this album was going to be a love letter to our twenties. It was going to be a testament of ten years of what our band is. When all those things start going in and then you start thinking about it, you’re like, ‘Wow, this could be the statement of our band.’ It really does feel — not that we have any desire to stop making music — but it does feel like it could be the last statement that the band ever made. I think that was the intention of the record — we wanted to focus on what happened these last ten years as a band, our entire twenties, and where we’re going to take it from there.
There’s a scene that recurs in several songs on this record, in which there’s a guy who drinks too much, and he’s trying not to let the woman in his life down.
That’s all real life right there. I don’t want to make it too dramatic or go into it too much, but we’ve been known as a band that likes to party and have a good time. I’ll speak for everybody, knowing that alcohol has been a really difficult thing for all of us to deal with at some parts in our lives, through our twenties. A lot of that comes with how we felt with relationships. I think abusing alcohol and being sh*tty to a partner is unfortunately the reality sometimes. It’s a tough one. It’s easier to write about than talk about, I guess.
The Menzingers have a reputation for a being this boozy party band. Is it hard to move beyond that, when you’ve reached a point in your personal life where you you’ve grown out of that?
I think it’s a really difficult thing, and it’s always been a really challenging thing, too, for the four of us of being on tour, with so many friends across the country. When we come into town, for them, they take off work the next day and it’s their big night out. But for us, it’s like, ‘Okay, we still have another four weeks of this.’ Every day just cannot be the kind of party that maybe it once was.
On a personal level and on a friend level, it’s really difficult to maintain that persona. I love our band’s live performances. It just feels really fun and communal. There’s this party atmosphere. Everybody’s having a great time. I definitely want to keep that. Maybe alcohol was an essential role in it, but hopefully it doesn’t have to be anymore. Hopefully we can all have a good time with or without it.
Was there ever a time when you had to drink in order to have the courage to get on stage?
There’s the three beer rule: You have three beers and you feel good. You can get up and do it. We’ve kind of grown out of a lot of those bad habits, I think. Not to say that they don’t exist still, but maybe not so much as in our mid-twenties when we were touring that we kind of realized it’s not really a good habit to have.
In “Wings (Your Wild Years),” you sing about driving home late one night from The Stone Pony in Asbury Park, N.J., and looking at your girlfriend sleep next to you while driving over the Walt Whitman Bridge in Philadelphia. It’s really evocative — I can see that scene unfold in my mind whenever I hear the song. I’m curious: Did you recognize in the moment, ‘Oh, this could be a great scene in a song’? Or does that happen later?
It’s kind of a mixture of both. I do find myself a lot of times getting caught up and missing out on what moments could actually be and enjoying them, [because I’m] trying to observe and analyze them for a song. That absolutely happens many times in my life. But without those experiences there’s nothing to reflect and write on, so I try not to get too overwhelmed as the writer, as someone who’s trying to write observational-style lyrics.
That song in particular was written in order, basically. That first verse and the second verse, at least — driving home and and realizing a lot of things about a relationship and then getting home, about to go to bed and not being able to sleep, and going in the kitchen to make a cocktail to calm your nerves about things.
As a writer who also draws on his own experiences, I often wonder: Have I constructed this moment in order to give me something to write about, or did it unfold organically?
Totally. That song in particular was maybe the biggest question of that for me personally. I knew I had these really strong moments between those two verses, and I wanted the rest of the song to be a little bit more descriptive. I had ten verses of how I wanted to tell the whole story. I guess I’m never satisfied with everything. Once you record it, that’s what it is, and I love it. But the song lives on. The idea lives on.
That storytelling aspect is clearly important to you and May. Who influenced your writing in that regard?
Every songwriter is going to say the same thing, but Springsteen is my main inspiration when it comes to storytelling. You go to “Thunder Road,” the first couple lines set the scene for the entire album. I think it’s incredible, and I’ve always wanted to do that.
With Springsteen, I always go back to “Downbound Train” — the guy has a girl in the first verse, he loses her in the second verse, and then he has this emotional catharsis in thee third verse. It unfolds like a two-hour movie in three minutes.
One of my all time favorite songs is “The River.” It’s just one of those songs that stops me in my tracks every time I hear it. I have such a vivid movie in my head, like you’re saying, that I can’t get out. I’ve always wanted to be able to craft those types of movies. Oh, you’re getting older. Oh, you’re looking back on your twenties. Yeah, but what exactly does that mean? What do those moments mean to me in where I’m going? Taking the little and making something bigger out of it is what I guess we try to do.