The 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.
The 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 TheÂ 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).Â
“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.Â
“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.”
May 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.Â
“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.
“[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.
“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.Â
“[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.Â
“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.
“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.
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.”Â
Pictures taken from the Facebook and the bowels of the internet.