The Menzingers were set to embark on tours across the globe throughout 2020 following the release of last year’s Hello Exile. Unfortunately, all those plans were ground to a halt as exile became the new norm in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. With time on their hands and a new album with a title a little too eerily relatable, the band set out to reimagine their latest offering in the vein of their On The Possible Past release. Punknews’ Eric Rossso caught up with co-vocalist and guitarist Tom May on their acoustic reimagining of that album titled From Exile, the unique process of socially distant recording, and the legendary Fucked Up Frankies tape.
First, I just wanted to take a second and ask how you and the band are all doing? I know it’s been a crazy time with everything going on with the pandemic and especially fraught time being a musician with uncertainty surrounding the future. Yeah, totally. Thanks for asking. Considering our income has basically evaporated, we are doing pretty damn good. We just did that record so we were able to stay focused and active musically. It actually pushed into unfamiliar territories where we had to grow a bit, doing it remotely and with unfamiliar technology.
We just moved into new practice space and honestly, I think we were able to prioritize things, to us, that were pretty important and let the things that we didn’t really need to spend time on go away.
The band was on tour in Australia when the United States shut down. I’m curious about how the band tracked with the news at home and going into that tour overseas. There was a giant and intentional disconnect in available information, particularly in the US where we still don’t have the country speaking in voice to tamper the outbreak. What was the mindset going into that tour? If we had left the day before, we would have been completely nonchalant and totally stoked to go over. If we would have left the next day, we would have stayed in the U.S. It was pretty much it. That day was the day we were on the phone with our booking agent who is based in Europe for our tour in Australia. He was in touch with a lot of different festivals and in touch with a lot of places that already started to go harder like in Italy.
It still hadn’t gone hard there yet. But the vibe was very much no one was very worried about it and they had not cancelled South by Southwest in the United States. But for us, interestingly enough and like you said it was an intentional disconnect in information whether it was the Chinese government hiding information or our own government not stepping up to the plate - people other than me are way more qualified to get into that but it was very clearly we had been let down all over the place, going into it we were actually in Europe the month before where the coronavirus had just arrived. It was in the news there.
We were in Germany when the first case happened in Bavaria, where a businessman from China had given it to another businessman from Germany at a meeting, and at that point it was a joke to us like it was for most people. Like, ‘This is another one of those abstract outbreaks that you hear about it, name it after that place that it comes from, and move on.’ Whatever.
We did notice though some other reputable podcasts and journalists that I had followed were taking it really seriously almost like hyperbole. ‘You don’t understand, you need to shut everything down.’ As that information came, we watched that role out in parallel with everyone else in the United States.
It’s pretty crazy to look back at our texts and email conversations from that time. And how much it aged very poorly.
I know I have the same thing. I live in Philly and I remember thinking everything would be back up in a couple weeks and that’s clearly not the case. When we were in Australia, the general vibe there was it was fear mongering on behalf of their conservative media to get everyone scared. A couple days into Austraila it had become clear that in the United States it was a big fucking deal. They cancelled South by Southwest. You know? There’s a lot of money on the line to say the least of anything of whatever you want to use as an indicator.
But everyone there was looking sideways and we were bumping elbows instead of giving hugs and shit like that. That all just did a complete one-eighty the next week.
The Menzingers are a relatively successful band, certainly one of the biggest in punk rock and constantly on the road. As a music fan, I’m seeing venues and touring bands speaking out about what this means for the potential future of music and the industry. This includes lobbying for funds to help sustain venues who can’t overcome this long with a shutdown. I’m wondering if you could speak to that and how this changed the band’s thinking if it all about being a band? At its deepest level, it’s almost an existential crisis. We’re older now. The entire band is in our early 30s. We’ve spent this many years working at what we consider to be our craft. We write songs. We play those songs. We book tours and we are able to execute those tours, keep everybody safe, and all those things that come along with that.
To have that completely taken away, it's a very bizarre and empty feeling that can arise around that. From there, we have to ask ourselves what we are going to do? This all comes from the personal aspect of us and we decided to write that record and keep us busy to create some sounds that we can share with people. We are going to continue to write remotely and pay attention to what we’re doing to make the best music we can.
From the cultural aspect and economy of music, those venues are going to close. The great majority of them are already in danger. Many famous venues that we came up playing have already closed. I can think of half a dozen off the top of my head. They are going to be the first places to close and the last ones to open up again. Besides like jiu-jitsu or places where people are going to be screaming into each other’s mouths, intoxicated, in a small area - it’s not looking good for them.
I don’t understand without specific aid - not just blanket aid or a blanket grant program or any type of assistance program you give to small businesses - these businesses can’t operate at all. They can’t just open. I can see it going a couple ways, but no one knows what’s going to happen.
I can see a somewhat similar thing that happened in 2008 with the financial crisis and housing crisis - a lot of unconventional venues popped up. This time you can’t do that, but I imagine if you return and a lot of the venues close, I could see a lot more house shows, a lot more art spaces that come about. That’s obviously not the ideal outcome that we want so hopefully we can figure out some ways to keep these places alive.
The other scary thought is that a lot of these places could get consolidated by the power of the major booking companies. People like to paint LiveNation and AEG as kind of monsters. They can behave like that sometimes, but overall they are just made up of a bunch of people in those cities who just book shows. We play a lot of those shows. We play a lot of independent shows. It would be weird if they just gobbled up all the venues. I don’t have any idea where they are going to go.
Onto the album. During some of the leadup to the release of Hello Exile, you and Greg had spoken about how the recording process last year was a particularly challenging time personally and how it reflected on the album. What made you want to return to that recording process in its current form? You know, it’s funny to return to it.I was petrified. Like, ‘Goddamnit, we already wrote these songs, recorded these songs. And now we’re going to do it again and relive all this bullshit? And we’re going to do it remotely? And we’re going to do it with extremely daunting obstacles of not having the skill set or the knowledge of what we were going to do?’
So that was really scary at first, but then it became an opportunity to kind of re-do it. It was a way to re-realize the songs over again. It was a way to live through the difficulty of what it was during the writing and recording process previously, but now. It was cathartic for me. It was a growing process for me personally.
What made us want to do it if that was part of it? We just needed to do something.
Will Yip has returned for the third time to produce From Exile for The Menzingers. I’m curious about what the band feels he brings to the writing process and a bit about the dynamic you talked about - given that all you guys were recording in isolation or in a practice space. Interestingly enough, we produced this record and engineered the entire thing. Will mixed it. We actually recorded everything ourselves remotely. We did a little bit of mixing to the extent where we chose the sound and that’s what the sounds are going to be. We remodeled the songs and produced it entirely. We delivered him the final thing and he made it sound incredible. I cannot say enough about how good he was in bringing out the magic of our takes and the edits he did. The way he was able to shape the sound to make everything fit together while each piece of the music was able to live on it’s own? He just killed it.
He brings alot to situations like that, especially when we are able to be together and collaborate, because his work ethic is so strong. It’s so humble as well. It’s not like those hustle Instagram people like, ‘I’m grinding, I’m grinding, I’m grind-.’ Will just works harder and better than anyone I ever met and does not complain. He makes you believe you can do that. He allows you to be the best person of yourself in that regard. He gives you a nudge when you need and is also able to at least navigate our personalities in a way I’ve never seen before. It’s almost a full air of honesty and setting aside of ego. Will just crushes it.
One of the things I’ve noticed with albums coming out during the pandemic is how certain lyrics hit a little differently with new dimensions then maybe they were initially meant with. The Lawrence Arms’ album is a good example of that and I interviewed Brendan about that. He was talking about writing about this post-apocalyptic scenario and then it came true. I definitely felt that with the title of Hello Exile. I’m curious how your opinion on this album has evolved after revisiting it particularly within that theme of exile. It’s spooky. It’s a little bit spooky in the sense that how we felt with our age and place in society when we were going into Hello Exile and how we felt that the world was growing as the stories were told to us in social media and in mainstream media. The way that we were consuming the world was starting to show itself as way more divisive and unwelcoming. We really felt that going into it. Obviously our songs didn’t manifest it, but almost if the world manifested itself in that regard and everyone was forced to go into a type of exile.
I got to bring it back home because it's spooky. We didn’t really have any idea the metaphorical and figurative notion we were talking about regarding exile would become extremely literal. We still think about it sometimes and it’s really bizarre. Little one liners we left in there and don’t necessarily know why we went there in the first place. It became a manifestation of itself.
It almost feels like everyone was waiting for this to happen with everything going on in the United States. Exactly. Maybe there’s another level to it why it’s happening. But it definitely did.
I’m assuming most of the songs started off as acoustics as you were putting them together which means you’ve now had the chance to build up to a full song and then deconstruct to a different version of it and reimagine it. I’m curious which one of these songs was the hardest to reimagine in this acoustic format and why? The hardest one to reimagine in the acoustic format - First off, the song “Last To Know,” the original version was actually written with a clean guitar. We just kind of picked and pulled some pieces from here and there. “Portland” was an extremely ambitious try. That wasn’t that hard. It was really fun. I really wanted to do that. I’ve never done any fingerpicking like that before. So I just tried to learn it for a while.
Surprisingly enough, “Strawberry Mansion” was extremely difficult to get back to. The reason was I kept trying to overcomplicate it. That one was not written as an acoustic song before we wrote it. We wrote it in the practice space just ripping through trying to make it really heavy, loud, and on blast. When we revisioned it, we tried to go really soft and a couple other things. It turned out the best version of the song was just that jumpy acoustic version. I think all four of us like that acoustic version more than the electric version that we did. It was definitely the most difficult to revise because we kept trying to reinvent the song when it was just right there before our eyes.
With the release, it still seems that shows are uncertain, particularly moving forward in the US for the somewhat foreseeable future. How are you making plans with the release in September and November and can we expect any surprises around those release dates? We’re still trying to take it - it might sound cliche - but we are trying to take it day-by-day. As we come up with things, we try to test them in our mind to see where they are going to go. A bunch of us together with varying degrees of other contacts in our lives and who we live with, we aren’t necessarily coming into contact to risk spreading the virus to ourselves and our loved ones.
We do have a surprise plan that I am so fucking pumped for that’s going to be in September. I can’t let the details go right now, but it will be a fun thing to do. (Ed. note: The Menzingers announced a live streamed show filmed by HateFiveSix at Will Yip’s Studio 4 on October 10th) We’ve kept it very quiet this entire time. We haven’t done any live appearances or streamed appearances. Greg and I popped into something for Red Scare where we each played an acoustic song, but besides that we’ve been playing it very close to home.
As far as any live shows go, some bands I know are playing shows now. We will see how that works out. It’s difficult, like we mentioned at the beginning of the interview, that the information isn’t really coming from a central location. It’s kind of hard to judge just how risky everything is. We are in a situation where facts have become politicized to the point where you have almost a side or distance to run down when you try to figure out what’s safe and what’s not. It’s insane, unfortunate, and really dangerous.
As it goes forward, we are just going to play it by ear. We got nothing planned right now so we are just going to ride it out.
Final question, will the Menzingers ever release the recordings for the Fucked Up at Frankie’s show in Toledo? I’m going to say…[Laughter] First of all, I think we talked about it in an interview somewhere, otherwise I don’t know how you would know about it. I would say there’s a 50/50 percent chance that will ever see the light of day. I’m gonna say 50 percent that it will never see the light of day, but it may get to the point that we’re old enough and care so little enough that it will be really fun and we could do some kind of charity thing for it. That would be hilarious.
We have a whole series of them - not just Fucked Up at Frankies. We got Maxed out at Max. We got one for all our favorite dives.