Pennsylvania punks look back on a decade in the music industry, and prepare to move forward
The Menzingers' most recent album, After the Party, from 2017, wasn't intended as a loose song cycle documenting the decade the Pennsylvania punk quartet has spent making music together, but that's precisely what ended up happening.
“It kind of subconsciously took hold,” said singer and guitarist Greg Barnett, who will join his bandmates in concert at Skully's Music-Diner on Tuesday, May 29. “All of us were at this turning point in our lives and with the band, and we were really reflective of what we'd done. … There are a lot of emotions that we didn't really talk about, but they just kind of came out in the songwriting.”
The album starts at the end — “Where are we gonna go now that our 20s are over,” Barnett, who only recently turned 30, repeats on opening track “Tellin' Lies” — and then proceeds to hopscotch through the previous decade. Over the course of 13 propulsive, anthemic songs, Barnett and Co. detail the early tours that barely kept the musicians economically afloat (“Midwestern States”) and the late-night, on-the-road revelry that steadily evolved from harmless fun to self-destructive crutch. “I used to care,” Barnett sings on “The Bars.” “Now I stare into the sunken eyes and strangers' faces/I fall asleep in the strangest places/What the hell am I doing?/Where have my friends gone?”
But After the Party is far from some cautionary, “Behind the Music”-esque tale. Instead, the four musicians inject the proceedings with so much heart and melodic heft that even these more harrowing moments play like temporary hiccups.
“I think there's a lot of struggling with the idea of being a career musician. It's a theme that runs rampant through our albums … where it's almost like, ‘There's no way this is going to work out, but let's go for the ride as long as we can,'” Barnett said. “My dad was telling me, ‘You know, everyone thinks their 20s is the golden age in life, and it's so not true. Your 30s, 40s and 50s, that's when life begins.' He's right, but there is something about your 20s I do romanticize, and that's how much you're granted that right to mess up. It is the one time where you can try anything.”
Barnett has made some peace with the aging process by applying this attitude to the band, continuing to stretch himself both as a songwriter — on the title track, the frontman presents a slideshow of small, easy-to-miss details (coffee grounds, a tattered denim coat, etc.) that collectively tell the big-picture story of a changing relationship — as well as in the studio, where the bandmates have advanced far beyond the bash-it-out ethos they flaunted on early efforts.
“I think we're trying to use the studio almost as an instrument these days,” Barnett said. “We've fallen in love with production and recording and technique, and I'm obsessed with guitars and amps and pedals, so it's always fun to run a million things through each other. The studio has really become a tool for writing for us.”
Expect this evolution to continue on future albums, based on the early songs Barnett has only recently started sketching out for the group's next record.
“I think I've almost said enough about myself after all these years, so all the ideas I'm coming up with to present to the guys are definitely more outward looking,” Barnett said. “Now that we've told the story of the band … there is something in the back of my mind where it feels like with the next one we can do literally anything we want.”