Rank Your Records: The Menzingers’ Greg Barnett
The singer/guitarist plays favorites with the Philly band's five albums.
|Dan Ozzi||Sep 23, 2019|| 16|
Rank Your Records is a longform interview series I started when I worked at Noisey. The premise of it is that an artist with a substantial discography (at least four studio albums) puts their albums in order of personal preferences. Not shit-talking their own work, per se (although some have gleefully done that), but just reflecting on what they like about their past releases and what they wish they would have done differently.
There have been over 100 editions of this series and it has included Grammy winners, rappers, indie rock icons, two-thirds of Alkaline Trio, and Tony Hawk (ranking his video game soundtracks). I’ve personally conducted 20 of them and many have been among my favorite conversations I’ve had. The ones I’m asked about most frequently are the ones with Ben Gibbard and Patrick Stickles. So I guess those were good. I also commissioned writer Josh Modell to conduct one with Scott Hutchison from Frightened Rabbit which, tragically, ended up being the last interview he ever gave. I think about that one a lot.
What I’m saying is: This series is important to me. So I’m happy to report that it will live here now, at REPLY ALT, and I hope to keep adding to it regularly. As always, this newsletter is free, but I am set up to accept payments. If you think longform music journalism is worth a measly $5 a month, feel free to kick in. It helps me pay rent and keep doing this.
Today’s interviewee is Greg Barnett from The Menzingers. I’ve been waiting for the right time to do this one, and since the band has a new record, Hello Exile, out soon, it seemed appropriate. Greg is, in my opinion, one of the best songwriters around today. I’ll go more in depth on my thoughts on that and on Hello Exile in a future edition of REPLY ALT. But for now, let’s jump in...
The Menzingers’ albums feel like waking up the morning after a long, regrettable night. The Philly band likes to be self-deprecating right off the bat on their records, whether they’re swearing that they don’t want to be assholes anymore or lamenting that they’ve been having a horrible time pulling themselves together. But with their sixth album, Hello Exile, the band is—dare they say it—proud of themselves.
“We’ve been doing this for so long and, in theory, progressing as writers and musicians,” says singer/guitarist Greg Barnett, “but this time around, it really did feel like, OK, yeah, we’re actually pretty good at this.”
The Menzingers have come a long way from their scrappy punk beginnings. Their third album, 2012’s On the Impossible Past, saw them hone an identity they’d been searching for since forming in Scranton in 2006, and the four-piece hasn’t looked back since. With each album, they’ve flexed giant strides in songwriting, and with Hello Exile, they’re finally unafraid to admit it.
Before the release of Hello Exile, I had Barnett play favorites with the albums that got the band to where they are today. Here’s what he came up with.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but you guys don’t play a lot of songs from this album anymore.
Greg Barnett: Yeah, I think we played “A Lesson In The Abuse…” a couple years ago but we haven’t played these songs in years.
Is that deliberate?
Yeah. It almost seems like a different band to me on this album. I was 17 when I joined the band, still in high school.
And had recently been in a ska band, for the record.
Yeah, we were in a ska band. We were just learning so much about how to be a band. Also, no one knows these songs. There’ll be one guy in the crowd who will yell, “Play ‘Sir Yes Sir’” and then one day we’ll do it and no one in the entire crowd will know the song except for him. So it’s like, what the fuck’s the point? We don’t like to play these songs, because it feels childish, essentially. I guess I’m being harsh on the album.
What are the flaws on it that you hear?
There are a lot of brick walls to me in these songs. We’d start out with some really cool ideas and then be like, “What comes next? I don’t know!” The songs feel really disjointed in that way. I think some of the melodies are so strong and there’s really good ideas there, but we didn’t know how to trim the fat off of them. There’s songs where it’ll go to these weird outros and it’s like, what are we doing? It had good intentions and we learned a lot from it, and there are cool songs on it, but it’s very much a record that you make when you’re 17, 18, 19.
What were your influences then?
Definitely Against Me!. I think we wanted to be Against Me!, for sure. We wanted to play sweaty little punk shows and stagedive and smash guitars, shit like that. Against Me! was probably the modern band we modeled ourselves after. And definitely The Clash were our other influence of trying to take different genres and blend them together. Those two bands together were kind of the reason we started the band.
And you paid homage to The Clash on this record.
Yeah, we started covering [“Straight to Hell”] and it was really fun. Greg Ross at Go Kart Records was really pushing for us to put it on the album. We didn’t know at first, because it felt corny, but he was like, “Listen, you’re an unknown band, this cover is awesome. It’s really gonna help it stick out.” Looking back, I’m glad we did do it. I forgot that it was on the album until you said it.
Speaking of Go Kart, unless I’m mistaken, this was the last album released by the label.
I think Banner Pilot put out an album right after us. But I think it was us and Banner Pilot that did their last albums.
So it’s sort of your fault, is what I’m getting at.
We destroyed the label, yeah. [Laughs]
It seems like your songwriting made a big jump on this album to the version of the Menzingers that exists today.
If you could go back and give yourself advice as a young songwriter, what would that be?
Maybe I was just afraid to fully be myself at that time. When Chamberlain Waits came out, we had just moved to Philadelphia and started to become pretty active in the Philadelphia DIY music scene. The album really reflects that. These feel like house show songs to me in a sense. They’re really communal, big choruses, easy to sing along to, and I love that about the album. I guess what I’d tell myself is that I wish I was a bit more honest and opened up with what I was trying to say a bit more. I think that came along more with Impossible Past, the brutal honesty. It became the defining thing of our band.
One of the songs on this record that I wanted to ask you about was “No We Didn’t” which is critical of the Obama administration. One, I don’t feel like you write a lot of politically geared songs anymore. And two, I don’t feel like there were a lot of bands at that time being openly critical like this.
Yeah, and you know, that song kind of flew under the radar in that sense. We’ve gotta give that one to Tom [May, guitarist], as that was more his feelings. I wouldn’t say I’m a poster boy that will jump up and down for Obama, but I was probably a little more excited when he won. But there wasn’t really that much punk rock that was critical of the Obama administration when I think back on it.
After eight years of Bush, it seemed like a jump up by comparison but then as we saw, we got a lot of similar activities.
Yeah, there were still fucking Homeland Security trucks coming down our street in South Philadelphia, rounding up undocumented immigrants. We can pretend that shit doesn’t happen but it’s fucking real.
On a lighter note, I know we’re supposed to be ranking your records here, but on “Time Tables,” you ponder what the best Bad Religion album is. Do you really think it’s No Control or Suffer?
I think that’s the safest answer you could have possibly given. That’s the one thing I look back on and it’s really funny. I think it’s pretty undeniable, right? Those are the two best Bad Religion albums.
See, I’m a sucker for big blown out major label records, so I kinda like Stranger Than Fiction.
You know, I think that’s the only other camp, the people who like Stranger Than Fiction. I like it, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t know, the pinnacle is the three of No Control, Suffer, Against the Grain. Those are the best.
A very safe punk answer, Greg.
For sure. And that’s why putting it in the song… Like, if it was Stranger Than Fiction and Suffer, that’s an argument to be had. [Laughs] But to argue about No Control or Suffer, it’s kind of comical.
I was reading an interview where you said this album was created during a darker time for the band and I’m wondering what you meant by that.
I think there was so much success that happened around On the Impossible Past but it wasn’t enough success that it normalized our lives by any means. It just meant we were traveling and got offered so many shows around the world. We were going to Australia and Europe. Our lives just got really, really crazy. We just weren’t making enough money to sustain that type of lifestyle.
All of the work but none of the reward.
Yeah, exactly. So a lot of our personal relationships started falling apart there. It definitely put a lot of strain on home life stuff. And between the four of us, we put a lot into it and it was hard living. That was also the time when my grandfather passed away as we were writing that album. He definitely was like a father figure for me growing up. That was kind of the first big loss I’ve ever experienced. That definitely put my writing in a darker place.
Is that what the last song is about?
Yeah, it is. That was a song I started writing about a friend that had passed away a couple years before but never finished it, and then when my grandfather passed away it all clicked.
These albums, to me, are really inspired by where we wrote them. For Rented World, that was really the first time we had a practice space. We kind of just wrote in the basement and then we got too loud for the neighborhood. So we got ourselves our first practice space in Philadelphia—yay—the only problem is the walls were paper thin and we were surrounded by metal bands. So it was kind of hell to be there every day. So when I look back at writing Rented World, it wasn’t necessarily an enjoyable experience. I think that adds to a little bit of the darkness of the album.
When you’re writing songs and lyrics, what’s your physical process like? Are you the type of guy who sits down from 9 to 12 every day and writes? Do you carry a notebook around and jot ideas down as they come?
It’s pretty much both of those. I have a list of notes in my phone of, like, someone says a line or I’ll hear something and I’ll write it down. I like the way those words flows together. I write a lot in the morning, right when I wake up. I find that I’m most creative either right when I’m falling asleep or right when I’m waking up. A lot of times I write at night and just stay up all night. Songwriting, to me, I feel like I have to do it all the time. I can’t just turn it off. I’m writing constantly. More often than not I’ll come up with an idea, whether it be a verse or a chorus, and I’ll bring it to the band and we build it to whatever it becomes, and I’ll go home at night and edit it and bring that in the next day and go from there.
I wanted to ask you about “I Don’t Wanna Be An Asshole Anymore.” It’s a great example of a theme that runs though a lot of your songs. It’s something I call dirtbag romanticism.
[Laughs] Yeah, I like that.
How much of that is a character you’re trying to portray versus being true to life?
To start off, that line is funny because we were walking out of our practice space one day and Joe [Godino, drummer] said that line about himself. He said it in such a non-joking way but it’s funny, obviously. It was real, and I immediately was like, “That’s a great song title. I’m taking that.” I went home and expanded on the idea.
But how much is real and how much is not? I’ve always written where I don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story. Some parts are true and some parts aren’t. I think our songwriting has always been perceived as brutally honest, and it is to a point, but I also take a lot of liberties in my writing.
Now that you’re six albums in, there are themes that have become reoccurring throughout your catalog—obviously references to Kerouac and jean jackets and East Coast landmarks. Some bands get worried about being pigeonholed. Is that something you’re actively worried about?
In a certain way, yeah, because as a writer I think I have strengths outside nostalgic themes. That’s always the first thing everyone says. “You write all these songs with a nostalgia aspect.” I don’t see it that way but I understand it. That’s just the style of writing I like. I guess I’m concerned about being pigeonholed where people see us as just another punk rock band—just a dime a dozen kind of thing. I think that if I tried to be something I’m not, that would be obvious, and that would be lame. But I mean, I like to wear jean jackets. [Laughs]
Hey, man, same. Another theme I wanted to ask about was on “In Remission,” you say, “We drove back drunk through the busy city streets.” I’m not trying to sound like a dad here but I do feel like drunk driving is a pervasive theme in some of your lyrics. I wonder if you ever worry about what that promotes to people who listen to you.
Now I do, absolutely. At the time I didn’t. Writing about being an idiot when you’re a kid, I didn’t think about that on Impossible Past or Rented World, but now I’m hyperconscious about that kind of stuff. Just for the record, I’ve actually never driven drunk before. It’s not something I would ever do, but it comes up a lot and I get that. I think I was writing about the feeling of being completely reckless with your life and doing something that is just so dangerous. But now I’m hypercritical of that. There’s a song on the new album called “High School Friend” and there’s a part about driving around with a friend. The chorus is “I was getting fucked up with a high school friend.” When I was in the booth about to sing it, I was going back and forth with everybody, being like, “I don’t want there to be a correlation between the idea of me and somebody driving around drinking.”
Yeah, you don’t want to be a DUI-core band.
Exactly. It’s so fucking stupid. Call a goddamn Uber. But everybody assured me they didn’t see it that way. It’s an interesting part about the band. Things started off so incredibly reckless. That was the theme of the band—partying. We’d play shows and play four or five songs in the set and just talk to the crowd from the stage. Then all of a sudden it morphed into this professional thing.
Speaking of “In Remission,” did you ever cash that lotto ticket?
[Laughs] That’s probably the most asked question I get about that song. No, I lost it, actually.
Bummer. How much was it for?
Not a lot. Like, 10, 20 bucks or something, but enough where you’d hold on to it.
Obviously this album is a real fan-favorite. What do you think it is about this record that struck a chord with people?
I don’t know. Still to this day, the four of us talk about it and try to figure it out. I know people are gonna yell at me for putting this at number two instead of number one. That was my first thought. I told the band, “You know people are gonna fucking scream at us.” [Laughs]
Is that how the band feels about it?
They all agree—this is the second best one. I think it really was a time and a place. It was us writing songs in such an honest way. Looking back, it felt so honest to who I was at the time. Maybe other people who were 23, 24 years old at the time were doing things the same exact way. I think that’s what makes it so special. Musically, it’s not like we’re doing anything that exciting on the album. These songs just came together and took on a life of their own.
A lot of people I talk to for this column have complicated feelings when fans flock to one album like this, because they feel pressure to top it. When you were starting to think about Rented World, did you have that in the back of your head?
Yeah, absolutely. But for us, it was almost like, fuck you, you can’t tell us this is the best thing we’re ever gonna do. If you look at our albums from Impossible Past on, it almost feels like Rented World is the outlier. To me, a lot of that came from not trying to do Impossible Past again. I was trying not to write storytelling songs. I was trying to be more poetic. We definitely didn’t want to be defined by our first album on Epitaph. We had two more to write.
Milo Aukerman from Descendents mentioned that he liked this album on Pitchfork. Do you remember finding out about that?
Yeah, it was insane. And the craziest part was that there was a festival in Brooklyn, Riot Fest. It got rained out but we managed to play before the rain came. Milo was on the side of the stage and I swear to god he sang every single word. I couldn’t even look over. I locked eyes with him once while he was singing a song and I was like, this is too much for me. It’s really cool because we’ve been able to play a couple shows with them and meet him. They are our idols.
You and I are roughly the same age and I feel like there are albums that have come out in our lifetime that have solidified their place in punk history—Dookie, Out Come the Wolves, whatever Bad Religion album we decided on earlier. But when modernizing the canon, I think there’s a real place for this record. Impossible Past, Reinventing Axl Rose—I think when we talk about the next generation of punk albums, these will have a place. I’m wondering if you agree with that assessment.
That’s an amazing thing to hear. It’s a difficult thing for me to agree with. I feel like I’d sound full of myself if I agreed with you. I definitely like that assessment. It’s flattering. Still to this day I’m so proud of that album because it changed everything for us. It felt like, for so long, we were just constantly trying to prove ourselves. No one wanted to listen to us. No one wanted to book us or work with us. We were just this weird half-ska band from Scranton. Then, after Impossible Past came out, everything changed. It’s when journalists started writing about us, it’s when cool bands started liking us, it’s when Milo started liking us. It got crazy. All of a sudden, people cared about us.
Is there anything that stands out in your mind as the most surreal in the life this album has had?
Yeah, I remember when people started covering “Good Things.” I thought it was so fucking cool. Laura Stevenson covered it, The Sidekicks covered it, Bayside covered it. It’s one thing to see fans cover a song on YouTube, but to see a band you love doing the same, it takes on a whole other life. That was the first time people started getting Menzingers tattoos. That was just crazy. Then there’s other stuff too where, now, people started a podcast about the album called On the Impossible Pod. I haven’t checked it out yet but I think they just talk about their experiences hearing the album for the first time. It’s just surreal stuff like that that shows how much the songs meant to people.
What is it that endears you to this record the most?
At the time, it felt like the pinnacle of us as songwriters in terms of the quality of songs we were putting out. I think there was a magical charm where we didn’t really know what we were doing on On the Impossible Past. But I think, for After the Party, it was us writing at our peak.
What to you makes for a good Menzingers song?
Something charming, I guess. I love songs where there are lines that you can equally laugh about how corny it can be but it’s true and it’s honest. That’s what I love about being in this band. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, but at the same time it is serious. A song like “Midwestern States” is a pretty good example of a Menzingers song that I love. It’s good storytelling with a big anthemic chorus.
I think your songwriting over the last decade has made a huge jump and I’m wondering what has influenced you as a songwriter? What have you been listening to or reading that’s shaped your writing?
Definitely listening to more singer/songwriter-style music. Not to sound too fucking cheesy here, but getting into Bruce Springsteen around the time of Impossible Past was a pretty big fucking deal. I’d heard the songs that were played around my house but, like, I’d never heard Nebraska before. That was quite the eye-opener. Also, I love Russian literature. Vladimir Nabokov is my favorite writer. That’s where I stole the title for On the Impossible Past, from Lolita. The first time I read Lolita, it was while we were writing Impossible Past and there’s something so insane about that book. The style of his prose just really stuck with me. I’ve always been really inspired by that style. The Russians are really good at summing stuff up. It’s brutal.
You mentioned earlier that your surroundings shape the vibe of a Menzingers record. What was going on at this time that made this such an enjoyable record for you?
It was by far the most enjoyable record we’ve ever made. We stumbled upon this practice space in South Philly just a couple blocks from where we lived. It was an old taxi dispatch service and they were trying to rent it out but it had no heat so no one wanted it. But we took it and it was huge. It was such a fun place to go every day. We’d all hang out, we threw parties all the time. Our favorite bar, 2nd Street Brew House, was a block away, so we’d finish up writing all day and go hang out there and talk about what we were making.
The songs on After the Party came so quick, more than any other album. There were songs we were writing in a day or two. That’s so not typically like us. Usually we’ll write something and it’ll take three weeks to fill it. It was a really big turning point for all of our lives. All of us—I don’t even know if I want to say this—but all of a sudden everyone was single and we started dating new people. It really did just feel like this fuck it, reckless attitude. It was such a freeing time.
That album was reviewed by The New York Times. I know this because I was invited on their podcast to talk about it. But it was nice to see you guys in the Times because, while you’ve had a lot of success in the punk/Fest world, I think your songwriting is a cut above. I say this not to be rude but do you ever feel like you’re stymied by having this punk background?
To go back to that New York Times thing first, that was huge for us. I actually have the review in a frame. It’s cheesy but I have a subscription and have been reading the Times my entire life. It was a really validating thing, to have a good review in The New York Times. That’s huge. I could tell my parents to go pick up a copy. That was really fucking awesome.
But you’re right. It does feel like, if we were just an indie rock band, things would be easier in the press world. But maybe that’s what makes us so special is that we’re the outcasts. I try not to think about it too much. Here’s the thing. We’ve all been to those indie rock festivals. Don’t get me wrong, I fucking love playing them and they’re great, but I don’t judge our worth based on a cool, hip festival these days.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.