Band: The Menzingers
Album: Hello Exile
Label: Epitaph / Indigo
Greg Barnett (vocals, guitar)
Tom May (vocals, guitar)
Eric Keen (bass)
Joe Godino (drums)
Since forming as teenagers in 2006, The Menzingers have shown their strength as rough-and-tumble storytellers, turning out songs equally rooted in frenetic energy and lifelike detail. On their new album Hello Exile, the Philadelphia-based punk band take their lyrical narrative to a whole new level and share their reflections on moments from the past and present: high-school hellraising, troubled relationships, aging and alcohol and political ennui. And while their songs often reveal certain painful truths, HelloExile ultimately maintains the irrepressible spirit that’s always defined the band.
The sixth full-length from The Menzingers, Hello Exilearrives as the follow-up to After the Party: a 2017 release that landed on best-of-the-year lists from outlets like Clash and Noisey, with Stereogum praising its “almost unfairly well-written punk songs.” In creating the album, the band again joined forces with producer Will Yip (Mannequin Pussy, Quicksand), spending six weeks recording at Yip’s Conshohocken, PA-based Studio 4. “That’s the longest amount of time we’ve ever worked with Will,” notes Barnett. “We wanted to make sure these stories didn’t get lost in the music, so we kept it to a lot of room sounds with the guitar and bass and drums.”
Despite that subtler sonic approach, Hello Exile still rushes forward with a restless urgency—an element in full force on the album-opening “America (You’re Freaking Me Out).” With its pounding rhythms and furious guitar riffs, the viscerally charged track provides a much-needed release for all those feeling frenzied by the current political climate. “We’re living in a pretty insane time, where all you can think about every single day is ‘What the hell is going on with this country?’” says Barnett. “But as I was writing that song I realized that it’s kind of always freaked me out, especially coming-of-age during the Iraq War. I love so much about America, but I think you can’t deny that there are some people in power who are absolutely evil.”
Elsewhere on Hello Exile, The Menzingers turn their incisive songwriting to matters of love and romance, exploring the glories and failures of human connection. A wistful piece of jangle-pop, “Anna” paints a portrait of lovesick longing, complete with dreamy recollections of wine-drunk kitchen dancing. And on “Strangers Forever,” the band shifts gears for a searing tribute to parting ways, backing their spiky guitars with brilliantly barbed lyrics (e.g., “Maybe it’s for the better if we both stay strangers forever”).
An album fascinated with home and displacement and belonging (or the lack thereof), Hello Exiletakes its title from its heavy-hearted centerpiece. With its aching vocals, graceful acoustic guitar work, and beautifully lilting melody, “Hello Exile” draws inspiration from Anton Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Dog” (a short story set in the Black Sea resort city of Yalta). “I grew up in a tiny town that’s essentially a cross between a summer-vacation spot for New Yorkers and a retirement home, so for most of my childhood there were always people coming in and out of my life,” says Barnett, who hails from Lake Ariel, PA. “Reading that story made me think of how isolating it felt when my friends would leave to go back to the city at the end of the season, and I’d still just be stuck way out there in the woods.”
In looking back on the songwriting process behind Hello Exile, Barnett points to the starkly confessional “I Can’t Stop Drinking” to illustrate the band’s commitment to total candor. “We’ve written so many songs about fun times with alcohol—but the older you get, it’s not always fun anymore,” he says. “With ‘I Can’t Stop Drinking,’ I wanted to be completely truthful and get away from glorifying anything. Sometimes it’s tough to look at yourself and at others that way, but it felt important to make it as real as possible.”
With the band achieving that soul-baring intimacy all throughout the album, Hello Exileemerges as The Menzingers’ most emotionally daring work to date. “We’ve always been in love with good songwriting and the beauty of taking a song to its fullest potential, but with this album I feel like we’re really becoming the band we’ve always wanted to be,” says Barnett. Not only a creative turning point for The Menzingers, that uncompromising honesty helps fulfill their mission of leaving each listener with a potent sense of solidarity. “A lot of these songs are looking at different life challenges—they’re stories of people at some sort of crossroads,” Barnett says. “We might not have the answers for anybody, but hopefully the songs will help them to see the light at the end of the tunnel, and know that they’re not alone in whatever tough decisions they’re facing.”
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Band: The Menzingers
Album: After The Party
Label: Epitaph Records / Indigo
For their fifth full-length After the Party, The Menzingers set out to make the quintessential jukebox record: an unstoppably melodic album primed for bar-room sing-alongs. Delivering anthemic harmonies, furious power chords, and larger-than-life melodies, the Philadelphia-based garage-punk four-piece amply fulfills that mission while achieving something much more deeply nuanced. With its delicately crafted storytelling and everyman romanticism, After the Party ultimately proves to be a wistful but life-affirming reflection on getting older but not quite growing up.
“We spent our 20s living in a rowdy kind of way, and now we’re at a point where it seems like everyone in our lives is moving in different directions,” says Tom May, who joined fellow singer/guitarist Greg Barnett, bassist Eric Keen, and drummer Joe Godino in forming The Menzingers as teenagers in their hometown of Scranton. Adds Barnett: “We’re turning 30 now, and there’s this idea that that’s when real life comes on. In a way this album is us saying, ‘We don’t have to grow up or get boring—we can keep on having a good time doing what we love.’”
The Menzingers explore the tension between recklessness and responsibility all throughout After the Party, with the chorus to its opening track “20’s (Tellin’ Lies)” brashly asking “Where are we gonna go now that our twenties are over?” On lead single “Lookers”—as in, “You were such a looker in the old days”—the band pays loving tribute to their time spent in Asbury Park, weaving in memories of smoke-filled diners and Jersey-girl heartbreakers. Equally soaked in nostalgia, the bittersweet yet blistering “Midwestern States” offers what Barnett calls “an ode to being in our early 20s and touring across the country for the first time, and just how eye-opening that all was for us.” On “Bad Catholics,” meanwhile, The Menzingers match their heavy riffs and high-powered rhythms with a gorgeously detailed narrative of running into a lost love at a hometown church picnic.
Produced by Will Yip (Title Fight, Balance & Composure, Pianos Become the Teeth) and recorded in Yip’s Conshohocken, Pennsylvania-based Studio 4, After the Party finds the band breaking into new sonic terrain, such as in the stripped-down reverie of “Black Mass” and the drinking-song-inspired waltz of “Bars.” At the same time, The Menzingers bring that sharpened songcraft to the lyrical element of each track, with songs like “Thick as Thieves” candidly recounting their shared misadventures (“Building castles with cans and bottles/Drinking like they do in novels”). And on “After the Party,” the band spins poetry out of moments as mundane as listening to Minor Threat on a laptop, turning the track into a dreamy meditation on the innocence inherent in unabashed love of music (“Everybody wants to get famous/But you just want to dance in a basement”).
With each song unfolding as its own fully realized story, After the Party came to life thanks largely to an introspective yet outward-looking lyrical sensibility on the part of Barnett and May. “I take notes on pretty much everything I see and experience—things that my friends say or my family members say, things that I see or read,” says Barnett. “And then when I go to write, I go back to those notes and try to think about what they meant, and then build something from there.” Working in a similar way, May points out that “a lot of my songs come from things I took down in the notepad on my phone when I was out at night and then came back to months and months later.” The Menzingers’ most refined album to date, After the Party was also shaped from an intensive writing and pre-production process that involved holing up for five weeks in Yip’s studio. Along with sculpting more expansive arrangements, the band focused on experimenting with new effects and production techniques to forge the album’s dynamic but intricately textured sound.
After the Party’s sophisticated yet emotionally raw songwriting also owes much to The Menzingers’ broadening their palette of influences in recent years. May, for instance, mined inspiration from the off-kilter song structure of Regina Spektor. “Listening to her made me realize that you can go in with an idea and build the song around that, without it really having to go anywhere in particular,” he notes. Barnett, on the other hand, found himself swayed by their bus driver’s constant spinning of Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell on a summer 2015 tour of Europe. “You can say what you want about Meat Loaf, but his ability to craft catchy melodies is absolutely insane, where there’s ten of the strongest melodies ever written all just in one song,” says Barnett.
In the making of After the Party, The Menzingers also returned to longtime influences like The Clash, who were key to carving out their sound in the band’s early days. Formed in 2006, The Menzingers made their debut with 2007’s A Lesson in the Abuse of Information Technology and relocated to Philly in 2008. Over the years, the band steadily built up a devoted fanbase and—in 2012—saw their highly acclaimed Epitaph debut On The Impossible Past voted Album of the Year by Absolute Punk and Punk News. In 2014 they put out their fourth album Rented World, praised as “driving-around-with-the-windows-down music, ready for maximum blasting” by Pop Matters and “one of the best pop punk albums” of the year by Blurt.
For The Menzingers, the emotional depth attained on After the Party took years of determination and perseverance. “When I was younger, I don’t think I had the ability to experience how cathartic making music is to me now, even though I’ve always had so much passion for it,” says May. With May adding that “it’s really reaffirming and amazing that we’ve been able to create an existence out of all this,” The Menzingers are quick to note that the album was also born from a certain newfound sense of ease and freedom. “In the past our records have tended to come from some kind of struggle, like from being broke or going through hard times,” says Barnett. “This record really came from enjoying life and enjoying the friendships we’ve formed with each other—we had so much fun throughout the whole writing and recording process, and I think you can really feel that in the songs.”