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The Menzingers’ Tom May talks songwriting and selling out

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11020382_10153216655544101_163643040_nThe Menzingers’ Tom May talks songwriting and selling out

By Luke Ottenhof

“What we’re doing essentially is sharing parts of our lives and our creations and emotions that we have with a group of people, and then ask them to buy a t-shirt.”

In no less than 32 of Her Majesty’s English words can Tom May of Pennsylvania punks-cum-poets The Menzingers breezily but pointedly eulogize the life and death of a band. And if you snorted at the last bit, shame on you.

315939_10150305823520662_1127503695_nThe Menzingers, rounded out by fellow guitarist-vocalist Greg Barnett, bassist Eric Keen and drummer Joe Godino, have been a band for nearly a decade. In that little slice of existence they have released four full-length albums, signed to Epitaph Records and toured with a who’s-who of punk-rock royalty.

Between pounding pavement year-in and year-out with East Coast salt like Bouncing Souls and The Gaslight Anthem, the Scranton-bred four-piece has built a bang-up reputation as a heavyweight contender. With lyrics that would have Hunter S. Thompson and Allen Ginsberg alike weak in the knees paired with imaginative, bombastic instrumentals, the band is a home run (speaking of which, go check out Modern Baseball, too). 

11002870_10153216655394101_839727606_o“The interesting part about setting words to music is you can listen to jazz or instrumental music, electronic music, dance music, and it fills you with emotion,” May explains. “It could have songs that are super dark and songs that are really upbeat, songs that just hurt… And you could read a book or poetry that does the same thing. 

“It’s just trying to balance the mood and what you’re trying to say with lyrics, and also having the same vibes sonically is a unique mixture that’s hard to get right. When you finally make it click together, it feels so good.”

1617349_10151971062295662_1810326613_oMay and Barnett together can turn a phrase like few contemporaries. A listen through their 2014 album Rented World illustrates this fact in spades. From the pounding roar of “My Friend Kyle” to the throbbing pain of “Where Your Heartache Exists,” the record conveys a wealthy spread of literate and thoughtful wordplay.

May quickly attributes their strength in songwriting to a solid and reciprocal circle of musical friends. 

“A lot of us are songwriters and we talk to each other about our songs. It’s really interesting to see the way that other people write songs, and the perspectives that everybody can bring to the table as artists critiquing your songs.”

It turns out broken hearts still make for great records. Besides quoting The Airborne Toxic Event’s “Sometime Around Midnight” as being one of his all-time favourite songs (has it been scientifically proven to be impossible to not cry to this song yet?), May sees the value in turning pain into poetry. It is tough to tango with the past, but The Menzingers seem to have a good handle on it.

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Photo by Andrej Ivanov

“[Our songs] are cathartic in the sense that it’s reliving or reimagining the moment that you’re singing about,” he offers. “It doesn’t close the book on things, but it definitely helps you think forward or think in the moment instead of dwelling on the past.”

After the band’s 2012 success, it is tough not to read the above phrase as “On The [Impossible] Past.” Aptly titled, the record marked the band’s Epitaph debut, and arguably the best album of the year. The title, spliced from Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, proves a bang-on thesis statement for the wrenching subject matter; a bitter love letter to a fairer time, signed and sealed with shaky, tear-slicked hands to be sure, but with just enough quixotic romanticism to suggest it might be possible to return to. Naturally, the record has found a place in the hearts of countless listeners.

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“One of the most rewarding parts about playing in our band is when someone tells us that our music helped them out or made them feel better,” May remarks. 

“[It] makes you feel like everything you’re doing is not only worth it, but is doing a small part to maybe make the world a better place in the sense that people can feel better about themselves.”

A gentle pause. The flip side to the coin, the other side of the fence. 

“You can’t revisit those extreme emotions fully in the moment, you’ll never be able to do that,” he continues. “You just have to put yourself in the mind frame that you want to feel that emotion and share it.”

“People always try to put things into hierarchies.” May laments as much as any the ease with which ‘sell out’ is branded onto those artists deemed by the court of loudmouth opinion to have paid in full to have their spines and morals surgically removed. The punk scene is particularly guilty of such charges.

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Photo by Andrej Ivanov

“I was calling people posers and sellouts when I was like 15-years-old,” May sighs. “[The punk scene] is very restrictive in some respects… It can put blinders on and you will start to think in terms of tunnel vision.”

But May is doubly quick to state his attachment to his scene. “I would never wish to have grown up anywhere else. I would not wish to be a part of any other scene, with some of the most wonderful people I’ve met in this world.”

Hierarchies, though. While punk tried to tear ‘em down into rubble, hipsters practically thrive on the cultural capital assigned by them. Either way, both have sticky fingers; read practically any review for Rented World and it will mention it in relation to the universally-creamed-over On the Impossible Past.

529831_10150650815435662_317521979_n“It’s very jealous in the traditional sense. It’s not a healthy way to admire or enjoy something.”

So, the “typical, DIY punk story” of The Menzingers isn’t over. Hopefully its just begun, because like they soaked up punk-rock goodness and slapped it into cassette decks and CD players, the kids of now need the same thing to soundtrack their scraped knees and broken hearts.

“It we are for anybody the way that those bands were for me, then we’ve made it,” May says. “If we’re inspiring people and helping them feel better about themselves than they did before they started to listen to us, then that’s a job well done I think, on this little rock flying through space.” 

IMG_3649Luke Ottenhof

Pictures taken from the Facebook and the bowels of the internet.

See more from Andrej Ivanov and The Menzingers at Pouzza Fest here.

THE SCENE


The Frozen Flame Tour – Miss May I, August Burns Red – Live Music Review

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ABR12The Frozen Flame Tour – Miss May I, August Burns Red – Live Music Review

As the blizzard outside raged on, metal fans of all shapes and sizes inside did the same. Read a review of the opening bands Fit For A King and Northlane here.

Miss May I

Pardon the cliche, but it may be accurate when describing Miss May I. Although can you call yourself a cliche if it was your style that started the stereotype? Since 2007 Miss May I have been influencing a generation of bands and emo kids alike.

MISSMAYI5Miss May I had a full road crew with them, they brought along their own light and sound guys and they were all clad in “MMI Crew” t-shirts. As the stage was set the crowd was still primed from the Northlane set they had just witnessed.

The five-piece band from Troy, Ohio came out on stage to a wall of Orange cabs lined up behind them. The cabs, which were orange in colour, had fake chains draped across them crowned by real drinks on top. The stuff dreams are made of, y’know like the good kind, satanic nightmares.

Vocalist Levi Benton is a fantastic metal frontman. He’s like if Robert Plant sold his soul to the devil for tattoos and a new lease on a music career. Benton’s crazy hair made a frizzy halo around him as he stood, arms opened wide, on the risers brought out specifically for their band. He moved his hands to command the crowd like a puppet master or maestro of hell’s own symphony.

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Commanding chaos when he screams, it is absolutely hilarious to hear Benton talk between songs. His normal voice is so high pitched and squeaky compared to his screams. Bassist Ryan Neff provided wicked clean vocals as well as absolutely nauseating bass lines, seriously they were way too sick. Together the whole band was very tight, you can tell that they have done this before. Jerod Boyd on drums must have the fastest the Bronson Centre Theatre has ever seen, north of highway 417. As the double kick pounded relentlessly, the entire band shouted in unison for hard-hitting, rough (in a good way) group vocals.

MISSMAYI4Guitarists BJ Stead and Justin Aufdemkampe jumped up and down from the risers along with Benton and Neff to highlight solos and riffs that were particularly nasty (again, in a good way). Stead always looked like he was having the time of his life on stage, soaking up every second of playing his music for fans. Majestic is the only word that can be used to describe the moment Benton and Stead joined together and collectively head banged and hair-spun their luscious locks.

Crowd engagement was not issue. Miss May I had possibly one of the most epic group chants as the entire concert punched their fists in the air while yelling “AYE” simultaneously. Complimented by moshers and circle pits, a reoccurring theme of the night, the Miss May I camp provided a heavy show that almost left the crowd without anything to give for the last act of the night.

Thus far the night had been a display of heavy-enjoyment through crowd reaction and entertaining performances. But the underlying feeling in the theatre was “we are not even close to done yet.”

ABR3August Burns Red

As stagehands prepped the rostrum, the audience started slowly chanting for the band to come on. The road crew set up their own lights and the new sound guys cracked jokes to each other while setting up and finding the perfect levels.

Starting ahead of schedule the lights came on to drummer Matt Greiner on stage with his massive two-kick rack kit, accompanied by a guitarist equipped with a floor tom beating out a rhythm. Then, the band began. 

August Burns Red brought a huge concert feel to the Centretown venue. With an incredible light show that must have cost a pretty penny or two, they were really able to amplify their sound and the atmosphere of the theatre. The ever-relevant strobe lights exaggerate breakdowns while spotlights circled the room, blinding the eyes that they found. The lights projected shadows of the musicians on the walls, adding to the ambiance.

All of a sudden the “frozen flame” image that had been hanging on a backdrop all night was defined and much more visibly apparent. It was another piece of the puzzle, elaborating the performance and atmosphere.

ABR15August Burns Red has been a major name in the hardcore music scene since they started in 2003. The five-piece from Lancaster, Pennsylvania have travelled the world and inspired an entire demographic through their music.

Vocalist Jacob Luhrs has gotten his stage performance pretty well figured out at this point. He works the audience in the room like he is one of them; he knows what the people want to see and he knows how to give it to them. Visibly sweating like a whore in church, Luhrs infamously swings the microphone in such huge circles, audience members can only hope that it flies off the cord and smacks them in the face- that would make a great story. He brings classic heavy metal motions to his performance like dragging his thumb across his neck before a huge breakdown, shooting finger guns at the crowd, ‘hanging’ himself with the microphone cord and holding his arms up flexed while two-stepping to the beat. As Luhrs dances around the stage he interacts with his bandmates, making it feel like they are all buddies just there to have a good time. Not to mention the pure power of his vocals.

Bassist Dustin Davidson provided excellent high-pitched screams to contrast Luhrs lows. During one of the many off-stage guitar changes, Dustin left his bass behind and grabbed a six-string guitar instead. For a song the band played with three guitarists and had a fill-in bassist during a very powerful instrumental track. Right near the end Luhrs came back on stage toting the microphone stand and dragging it back and forth across the stage.

JB Brubaker was sporting different variations of his iconic racing strip Ibanez while both he and Brent Rambler, bounced on and off the risers to highlight particularly technical guitar parts.

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At one point when the lights went blue and the music slowed down, the entire mosh pit got down on their knees for a brief moment of serenity, followed by a heavy wave crashing down and reigniting their fire.

The tour was brought to town by Ottawa’s Spectrasonic, usually the company has signs plastered all around the venue telling attendees not to be overly rambunctious in the name of everyone’s safety. However, there were no visible signs inside the theatre and the crowd seemed to take note.

Crowd surfers galore started making their way over top the metal fans and at one point Luhrs announced “let’s put these guys to work”- referring to the security guards between the barrier and stage charged with safely fishing the surfers out of the hands of the audience. The instantaneous look of sheer terror on the faces of the security was immediately followed by a tide of bodies being washed in the direction of the stage.

ABR7The crowd had been wearied from a long night of heavy metal but they still had more than enough energy to give to August Burns Red. Instigating a bout of complex clapping patterns all by themselves. At one point Luhrs mentioned that they had played in Montreal the night before and the crowd responded with a very audible booing. Luhrs told them “not to hate” followed by a seemingly sincere, “this is the best crowd we have had yet.”

The Frozen Flame tour proved itself quite literally, as August Burns Red was finishing their “last song” a weird ringing sound began, at first it was hard to tell if it was coming from the band or not. After the show Spectrasonic announced that the smoky haze of over 500 metal-heads had actually triggered the fire alarm. The authorities were alerted in time so as to not need to clear out the theatre but the fire department still showed up to check it out and reset the alarm.

The audience clearly had a little bit left in them so August Burns Red was called back on stage. The started with a gimmick similar to the one they opened with, as each band member came out on stage with a piece of a drum kit and started wailing away. The effect they created was like a heavy metal drum circle and primed the audience for a final two songs. Greiner let a killer drum solo rip and pumped the whole crowd up for one last push. For the final two songs the band went to six-piece mode again and rocked out irrevocably.

The show spoke testimony to Ottawa’s thriving heavy metal scene. Attendees represented all age demographics and many socio-economic, racial and societal groups. They caucused in the dead of winter, amidst a storm that would likely shut down the infrastructure of a more southern city, to experience some good bands and blow off a little steam- too much steam actually, according to the Ottawa fire department.

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Read a review of the opening acts Fit For A King and Northlane here.

Written by Griffin Elliot

Photos by Joey Fitzmaurice

THE SCENE


August Burns Red, Miss May I, Northlane – Ottawa January 29, 2014

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10865979_792512647487421_4411723179745869729_oPOTW – August Burns Red, Miss May I, Northlane – Ottawa January 29, 2014

Who: The Frozen Flame Tour August Burns Red, Miss May I, Northlane on tour with Fit for a King and ERRA
When: Thursday, January 29th 2014 at 5:30pm
Where: Bronson Centre Theatre (211 Bronson Ave.)
Price: $32.50 + service charges

Thursday night come see one of the heaviest tour packages of 2015 so far come crashing into the Bronson Centre Theatre! The Frozen Flame Tour is featuring Lancaster, Pennsylvania five-piece August Burns Red on tour with Ohio heavyweights Miss May I, and the thunder-from-down-under Northlane. Fit for a King and ERRA are opening up for the huge North American tour. This is also the first Ottawa show for Northlane since the international talent search they conducted after their lead singer left this past fall.

Come warm your black hearts with the heavy fires of hell at the Frozen Flame Tour this Thursday.

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Kingsfoil, Rookie of the Year, Saywecanfly – Ottawa August 17, 2014

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POTW - Kingsfoil, Rookie of the Year, Saywecanfly – Ottawa August 17, 2014

Who: Kingsfoil, Rookie of the Year, Saywecanfly with local support from Bearings, Keek, and City Limits
When: Sunday, August 17th 2014 at 6:30pm
Where: Cafe Dekcuf (221 Rideau St., Upstairs)
Price: $15 adv/$17 doors

Pennsylvania pop rock band Kingsfoil will be coming through Ottawa on tour with Rookie of the Year and Saywecanfly on Sunday, August 17th. Local support from Ottawa’s own Bearings, Keek and City Limits, don’t miss the party at Cafe Dekcuf this weekend.

Presented by The Diamond Mine Agency.

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THE SCENE


Dave Hause is the Jack Kerouac of music

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Dave Hause follows in the footsteps of great American icons like Jack Kerouac and James Dean; he is truly a rebel on the road. Chasing the daunting hope of success and happiness while respectfully and wholeheartedly rejecting the societal norms and pitfalls of contemporary music.

Photo by Jen Maler

Photo by Jen Maler

Constantly on the road and constantly inspired by everything he hears, as a teenager Dave found his niche for playing music through punk bands in his hometown of Philadelphia. After years of playing with acts such as The Loved Ones and Paint It Black, Dave branched off in order to start recording solo albums. He released his second solo album last year entitled Devour, which solidified his singer/songwriter role.

This is what Dave had to say.

Photo by Mike Drzal

Photo by Mike Drzal

What was the first song that really made you fall in love with music?

Oh yaaa, that was probably “All These Zombies” by a band called The Hooters in Philadelphia. I had listened to lots of music as a kid but around the age of eight I discovered The Hooters. They were a local Philadelphia pop band that had some national success and due to their catchiness and their ubiquity around Philadelphia I was very very taken with them, and that was probably the first time.

Having played in a lot of bands and currently being on a successful solo run, do you prefer playing with a band or solo?

I prefer the freedom to do both. I recorded the record the way it was supposed to sound, that is with a mostly full band, there will be shows that we do that way but for now the idea was just to get to as many places and sing the songs as intimate a way as close to the way I wrote them originally. It’s kind of nice to have that freedom to do both. I really do get bored easily and its good to stay challenged.

Do you think it’s easier to write when you’re by yourself or in a band?

That depends on the alchemy of the band. I do like the challenge of writing songs on my own, I wrote all these songs by myself and I feel good about the way they turned out. It is sometimes nice to have someone to collaborate with, to bounce ideas back and forth. But sometimes it does water down the view, it can have either effect, it just really depends on who you’re collaborating with. Sometimes you get something that’s greater than expected and sometimes you get a really hokey line that your friend was demanding end up in the song. It really just depends.

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What do you think about when you’re writing songs? Do you have to be sad to write a sad song?

Nooo, no, no, no, certainly not, no I think that you don’t necessarily have to be caught up in that specific emotion to do the craft of writing. You can tap into that kind of thing, the craft of it is something you learn as you go along. You figure out what works and what doesn’t for you and you’re always studying other song writing and paying attention. You don’t have to be sad or angry to write a sad or angry song, you don’t have to be happy to write a happy song. You just have to know how to write.

What kind of music influences the stuff that you write?

Oh all kinds of music, everything from Slayer to Neko Case, to Kanye West. I listen to all kinds of music, there’s no specific genre or band that would win out over others.  I just love music and I’m always inspired by it.

How does Ottawa compare to anywhere else in the world that you have played?

1557671_606736902731664_2069970338_nI like Ottawa. It’s got a beautiful falafel restaurant called King Shwarma, it’s my favourite falafel in the entire world. There’s a red paste, it’s a hot paste that they put on the falafel that makes me wild. I’m looking very forward to having that King Shwarma when I get there. That alone is a reason to get to Ottawa, not to mention all the other lovely things about it.

In your opinion what is the most important part of writing an album?

Just songwriting to me. It’s very important to pay attention to all kinds of details but I do think that if you have great production and great players and terrible songs, the record can’t be saved. You can have shit production and a terrible studio and an engineer that’s half asleep and if you have great songs they will cut through and people can relate to that.

What has been your best experience recording in a studio?

Ya, this experience was the best one yet. I was dealing with people that are very very good at what they do and it was a real joy and pleasure to work with all of them. They all played expertly and recorded expertly and had great suggestions. It was very painless to actually make the record. The songwriting process was a lot more difficult and a lot harder and a lot more emotionally taxing but the record making, the recording of it was a joy. Very very good experience.

Why do you say that the songwriting process was much more difficult?

Well it’s a heavy record. There’s a lot of themes of loss and frustration, it was hard to come up with a silver lining for the record. I was really trying to figure out where I come from and where I’m at and where I’m trying to go. In order to do that I did a lot of mining of deep wells of emotional… troubling stuff that I went through in life. It was nice to get into the studio and have it just go without a whole lot of hitches.

Did you figure it out? Where you’re going, who you are.

For now were going to Halifax, then we’ll be in Ottawa ha ha. That’s as much as I’ve figured out. But no, it was cathartic to write, it always is. I’m happy with the way Devour turned out. I’m excited to be playing the songs for whoever’s coming out to these shows, there’s been audiences who are appreciating the work kind of all over the world, which is a trip and I’m honoured to have that happening. That’s not lost on me, it’s really exciting.

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This is not your first tour with Matthew Goud as Northcote and I understand that you have been friends for years, what makes you guys get along so well?

We have similar backgrounds. Despite [the fact that] we grew up in very different parts of the world, he’s from Saskatchewan and I’m from Philadelphia but we both came up listening to a lot of the same songwriters and we both got influenced by punk rock and kind of cut our teeth learning to play music in punk bands. We both were raised religiously and for the most part rejected it or at least are super critical of a lot of the things that we were taught. And were both pretty committed to what we do in a really singular way. We both do a lot of solo work, without bands we just get out and do it with a guitar or whatever. We’re sort of singer/songwriters playing in a rock vein. We like lots of melody, we like a lot of the same soul music, a lot of the same punk music. Matt’s a great guy, he’s very good-natured and we like to have a goof, sit around and have laughs and things. That friendship started when we did a cross Canadian tour in 2009 and here we are flash forward- we’re both two records in and doing it again in a way that we can really measure a lot of growth, and that’s exciting. It’s cool to be doing it together.

You have had a successful career as a musician, are you happy with where you are now?

That’s an interesting question because I think the odd thing about “are you happy with where you are,” is that you need to find contentedness and balance to not drive yourself crazy, but in order to do what we do, you have to have a pretty high level of ambition. You have to set goals, you try to meet those goals and then you set higher goals. For instance, if we sell a show out in a particular venue we go up to a bigger size, or if you sell X amount of records you want to sell a little more the next time you put one out. So yes, I feel very fortunate to do this kind of work. I feel very fortunate to have an audience, but I’m looking to always expand that. You do want continued success in what you do just because it is the straw that stirs the whole drink, its what puts gas in the tank and gets us to Halifax or Ottawa or London or wherever, Tokyo. It’s part of the equation.

The past few years vinyl has been making a screamin’ come back, how do you feel about the resurgence of vinyl?

Well I don’t feel anyway about it other than its nice that people want a recorded piece of music in their hands because it does help things. But I’m not a purist about vinyl this or mp3 that or whatever. To me a song usually stirs a feeling and the fidelity of the recording is important. Its good to get it on a good format and hear it the way that we sort of intended, in the studio, but im not doing any special jumping jacks over vinyl. It’s cool. It’s cool that people like it.

What are your plans for 2014? What do you want to do this year?

Well 2014, that’s the one were in right? The plan is we gotta do this tour, this tour goes clear till April 7th, so that’s a big chunk there and then back to Europe for festivals, and then just heavy touring. I’m writing already the next two records, I would like to get in the studio maybe this year to do some work on at least one of them, but really it just depends on how much touring we can do. I’d like to do some full band work on this record. Ya so a lot of festivals in summer season than some more North American work in the fall. You know just touring, making music, same thing really year in year out is what the goal is, keep the creativity going and get music to the crowds.

What do you love about music?

Everything.

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Don’t miss Dave Hause in Ottawa on Sunday February 2nd with Northcote.

Interview and words by Griffin Elliot

Pictures taken from the Internet

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