The Menzingers: “It starts to get a little bit crazy when you try to make sense of it all”

With ‘Some Of It Was True’, THE MENZINGERS trade nostalgia for a brutally honest exploration of life in the present, tackling the universal themes of self-discovery and the challenges of staying true to oneself, all while delivering a musical experience that defies expectations and marks a new chapter in their storied career. Check out our latest Upset cover story.

Words: Rob Mair.
Photos: Ashley Gellman.
Studio assistant: Brooke Marsh.

“We’ve always been a band obsessed with understanding the past,” says Greg Barnett, co-songwriter and vocalist for The Menzingers. “That’s always come through the lyrics in our other albums, for sure. This one is much more about existing in the present.”
It’s a typically self-aware appraisal from one of punk rock’s leading lyricists, but he’s bang on the money when discussing the group’s most ambitious album to date, ‘Some Of It Was True’.

The Menzingers are synonymous with nostalgia. Whether it’s pining for your younger self on ‘Lookers’ or reminiscing about shift break shenanigans on ‘Casey’, the Pennsylvanian quartet (completed by co-vocalist and songwriter Tom May, bassist Eric Keen and drummer Joe Godino) have struck gold repeatedly, peering at history through rose-coloured glasses. Heck, even the album titles ‘On The Impossible Past’ and ‘After The Party’ find themselves examining the passage of time with melancholy regret.

But on ‘Some Of It Was True’ they’ve turned heel, and instead of asking ‘Why can’t the present be like the past?’ they want to know whether the you of today could ever match up to the dreams of your youth.

This feeling – of re-examining where you find yourself in the world – is something many people have found themselves asking, particularly post-pandemic. Life has fundamentally changed for millions of people, causing them to take stock and reevaluate what’s important to them.

Bands, stripped of their touring livelihood, also had to re-assess their priorities during this period. The Menzingers – who could comfortably clock up 100-150 shows a year – found themselves missing life on the road and hit it hard on their return to the stage. But that, too, brought its problems as they charged headfirst into the hectic touring routine after the enforced break. This whirlwind life on the road is fundamental to understanding ‘Some Of It Was True’.

“It starts to get a little bit crazy when you try to make sense of it all,” says Greg. “We’ve worked so hard to be here, but then you feel guilty if you’re not having a good day or you’re not happy. You step out on stage and look out, and there’s a sea of people having the best time, and you’re like, ‘Is this where I wear a mask?’ I think it’s okay to be honest with yourself. I love touring – it’s the best gift ever – but it is difficult sometimes, so I wanted to talk about that in a way that felt honest to me.

“It’s like… you ever go somewhere new, and you become overcome with happiness? Like, ‘I can’t believe I get to experience this?’ But when it’s your tenth time in London, it loses that sense of awe. I’d break myself out of it – I’d tell myself, ‘Stop, you gotta enjoy this’. So, getting older and getting to do all these amazing things, it’s a reflection of that – of not taking things for granted, even when it’s so easy to do that.”

This sense of being burnt out – or trapped – by the expectations placed on yourself but also by the circumstance you find yourself in comes through strongest on opening salvo ‘Hope is a Dangerous Little Thing’ and ‘There’s No Place In The World For Me’. In the case of the former, Greg ruminates on the idea of blowing up his life and doing something completely new; in the latter, it’s the idea of being restless in where you find yourself – whether that’s in a relationship, location or career – and is inspired by his own experience of wanting to be in Berlin with friends, but then getting there and wishing he was back at home.

Today, somewhat ironically, Greg has his feet up, enjoying the first day at home after a long tour, concluding three years on the road to support the excellent ‘Hello Exile’ and the 10-year anniversary of their beloved breakout, ‘On The Impossible Past’. Amid dealing with bills and life admin that’s been left for too long, he calls it a “get your life back together day”.

It’s therefore apt to be discussing what is likely to be The Menzingers’ most grown-up – and potentially divisive – record, where the punk rock edges are a little more shorn and the world-weariness a little more pronounced. Of course, it wouldn’t be The Menzingers if it wasn’t borne out of a little nostalgia, with the idea for the title track coming from doing the ‘On The Impossible Past’ anniversary tour.

“Nostalgia’s never quite as it seems,” Greg muses at one point on the song, “I’m so sick of playing pretend, thinking everything was better back then,” at another. The Menzingers aren’t quite burning down the house with such thoughts, but they’re certainly pouring gasoline on the foundations.

Yet it’s great to see The Menzingers playing against type and tackling some longstanding perceptions of them head-on.
“We’d never done an anniversary tour, and it was great – I don’t want to rag on it,” says Greg. “But there was something about living those songs again that sort of reframes the whole thing. That song [‘Some Of It Was True’] is a reaction to that. I’ve always tried to understand the past rather than romanticise it – and I don’t know if I’ve always done a good job of that,” he laughs. “I’m definitely interested to see how people respond to it.”

The other way in which this process of looking back has informed the songwriting on ‘Some Of It Was True’ is in how the themes and ideas are much more general and universal, rather than possessing the specificities of people, places or incidents. They’re still personal – and there’s an authenticity to the lyrics that still shines through – but they’re no longer the musings of an early-twenty-something struggling to make sense of the world.

Instead, there’s a different challenge – how do you remain true to yourself when you’re seven albums and a decade and a half deep? Greg says that the band rejected everything they should be doing at this point of their career and instead approached it like their first album again. The difference being, on your debut, there isn’t the weight of expectation making you second guess every decision.

“I think that maybe people don’t realise that the longer you write, the harder it gets,” he says. Instead, the band found themselves “reverse-engineering” the album from the idea that they wanted to create an album that was fast and loud and fun to play live, to the point where it had broken free from the boundaries they’d imposed on themselves. In short, it had grown into something much more grand, ambitious and adventurous, while still tethered to the idea that none of the songs should be the ‘let’s get a beer’ song in the middle of the live set.

“We could have definitely relied on some old tricks. We could have written songs that we know the fans would like, but this was a chance to try something a little different. We could write ‘Gates Part Two’, but we’ve already written those songs. This album is a reflection of where we’re at creatively as a band. It wasn’t like we thought, ‘We need to have another ‘Anna’ on there’.

“This was a chance to try something a little different”

Greg Barnett

“Maybe, in the past, we’d be like ‘Well, maybe this song – say ‘Lookers’ – maybe ‘Lookers’ can get on the radio and be a big single for us’. Then you see the shape of the music industry and it’s all nonsense, so you do what feels comfortable with you, and your fans will like it if it’s honest and true. I mean, it would have been easier to write some massive, crowd-pleasing songs,” laughs Greg.

Perhaps the strongest comparison to make would be with Death Cab For Cutie’s ‘Narrow Stairs’. At the time, it split the fanbase – and even now, it can be met with some pretty hostile opinions from those who craved a return to ‘We Have The Facts And We’re Voting Yes’. But it also remains their most ambitious album to date – almost like the anti-Death Cab For Cutie record, devoid of the minimalist indie of their early days and possessing a dazzling scope and array of ideas.

This same vision manifests in many ways throughout ‘Some Of It Was True’, but it’s most obvious in the bluesy stomp of ‘Take It To Heart’. Like Death Cab For Cutie’s ‘I Will Possess Your Heart’, it’s built around a slinky beat and nasty riff – and is far removed from anything else you’ll find in the band’s catalogue. For Greg, it means ‘Some Of It Was True’ represents a new chapter for the band, forged from two years of pushing their songwriting further than it’s ever gone before.

“We were so against doing the same thing,” says Greg. “We know how to write a Menzingers song, and we can write a pretty typical song in that way. But there was such a rebellion against that way of thinking. We all wanted to try something new. This record took two years, so it took us a while to get into the groove to figure that out.”

“But, it definitely feels like a new chapter for the band,” he continues. “I think you can group our albums in twos. ‘After The Party’ and ‘Hello Exile’ go pretty well together. ‘On the Impossible Past’ and ‘Rented World’ go well together. Then there’s the first two albums. This is the first record of that next step.”

At this point, it’s an album that signifies their transition from pop-punk upstarts into something altogether more universal. The appeal of ‘Some Of It Was True’ is wider than anything they’ve produced previously, and with it, that broader vision will no doubt open up doors to new fans – all while satisfying those who’ve grown up with The Menzingers as part of their formative soundtrack.

“I’m ready for what’s next to happen,” sings Greg on album closer ‘Runnin”. It’s a reflective, philosophical point to end on, but it feels right to look back at how far The Menzingers have come. They’ve already achieved more than they ever expected; ‘On The Impossible Past’ and ‘After The Party’ in particular have become modern punk rock staples and high benchmarks of a genre in constant flux and evolution.

Last year, they played their biggest headline show to date at a sold-out London Roundhouse to more than 2,600 people. Remarkably, they’ve achieved this as the same four friends who started the band 17 years ago. Whatever happens next, you can bet your arse they’ll approach it in the same way they’ve done the last decade and a half.

“My dream was to play a show to 200 friends in a packed-out club and have them all singing along,” says Greg. “And we did that a long time ago. That’s where the bar was. It’s so easy for bands at this stage of their career to get jaded and for it to feel like a job, or to become the old curmudgeons who don’t watch the opening band – or even talk to them. That’s not us.

“Whether it’s being 18 and playing to 200 people, or playing to 2,600 people in the Roundhouse, it’s the same thing; it’s the same connection. I don’t ever want to lose that.” ■

The Menzingers’ album ‘Some Of It Was True’ is out 13th October. Follow Upset’s Spotify playlist here.