The Menzingers: Tom May on nostalgia, growing up and Donald Trump

The Menzingers
Tom May (right) (Image credit: Charles Wrzesniewski)

Formed in Scranton, PA – some 130 miles northeast of Philadelphia – The Menzingers have become one of the USA’s great bands over the past seven or so years, evolving from scrappy ska-punks to nuanced punk rockers. Their songs have an incredibly widescreen vision, telling stories that are about the country and the people who live in, many of whom are haunted by the distance between the American Dream and American reality. Forever nostalgic and defiant in equal measure, with fifth album After The Party, The Menzingers – vocalist/guitarists Tom May and Greg Barnett, bassist Eric Keen and drummer Joe Godino – have turned their attention towards growing up and growing older, but kept within the framework of a broken America that’s been their setting for a while, as Tom May explains.

What, for you, is the overriding theme of this record? It seems like it’s focused a lot on being and getting older.

Tom May: “We called it After The Party, which is quite literal, in the sense that we spent all of our 20s touring in a really hard way. Now that we’re a bigger band, it’s not as difficult because we’re not sleeping on floors anymore. We spent our entire 20s living in a whirlwind – a lot of relationships were haphazardly handled, and while all our friends were getting careers and normal jobs we were just pushing forward to see where we could go and it had the chaos of a party – where as much is at stake, it’s also a big celebration and that kind of came to a head. Three of us just turned 30. But it’s not necessarily in a bad sense at all – After The Party can be a great time as well. It’s when everything comes together at the end of an evening. So it’s a metaphor for moving part that section of our lives.”

Menzingers songs have always looked back on the past with a sense of nostalgia. Why do you think that is?

“I think part of it is because hindsight is 2020. The emotions that you associate with more nostalgic things and the past, might not be true – they might be muggy and you remember them the way you want to – but those are the strongest felt of all emotions, as opposed to what you’re processing at the moment. When you reach back and feel what was – or try to remember or re-experience what was – you can learn about now and the future. It feels natural to look back and relate that to now.”

That’s the important thing – you can get lost in nostalgia and stuck in it, or you can use it to move forward and get on with your life.

“Totally. And you can apply that to the way that a lot of people live their lives. One of the big revelations – at least in my own life and with a lot of my friends and family members – is that when you realise you don’t dwell on the past or have pity or think any of those negative things, you can use it to fix now and the future.”

How has your rising profile and growth in popularity affected your mindset when it comes to writing songs, if at all?

“I don’t think that any of us are to the level of focus or artistic genius where it wouldn’t matter what’s going on that would affect your artwork and you just do it to do it. As we get bigger, the stakes become a little bit different, especially now that we’re financially reliant on the band – if we were to put out a record that sucked and our popularity waned it’d be a big life change. So all these things seem to weigh a lot, but in the end I don’t think it affects us in a negative way.”

But in terms of putting your hearts on the line – both you and Greg seem to tell very honest stories in your songs, so when you have a bigger audience you leaving yourself open to many more people.

“That’s true. But we also knew what we were signing up for. This is what we wanted to do. It can be emotionally taxing, and there are certain days when for some reason the thing that you’ve written that song about was really powerful that day and it can be difficult to share that with a thousand people, but at the same time, if other people are enjoying it and it’s cathartic for them and everyone’s experiencing it together it can be healing for everyone.”

I imagine, too, that you and Greg almost act as crutches for each other, sharing these moments from your lives and bouncing these emotions and experiences around.

“Yeah, I think that’s the nature of our relationship – and even with the four of us. It’s inherently personal like that. I will say that Greg’s definitely the person I’ve had some of my most intense emotional conversations with. He’s always been there for the bad parts. And so, having stripped away a lot of the things to begin with because of the songwriting, what’s left is already an openness that totally can work as crutches – that’s totally true.”

Is there one song on After The Party that means more to you than any other, that sums up where you’re at in your life more than anything else?

“There’s two. One is the first track on the record, Tellin’ Lies. It’s a Greg song and it’s a huge sum up of where I feel like I’m at in life right now and the way I’m looking at the world and experiencing it. And lyrically, I think it sums up the theme of the record the best. Of the songs I wrote, I think Boy Blue – my family went through a whole lot of changes since the last record came out, and this song is just a really weird mixture of all of those things at once that felt really good to frame that way. It’s one of the most intense songs that I’ve ever written emotionally.”

It sounds like it was a difficult song to write…

“It was definitely difficult. Not because I wanted to keep emotions inside and not share them with anyone, but because I wanted to do them justice and kept feeling like it was really hokey. I have a lot of siblings, so while I was writing that song I was trying to write from the position of all of us at the same time, not just myself. We’ve gotten a lot closer over the last couple years. I was framing and writing the song from my own viewpoint, but the entire time I was trying to picture it as if it were from all four of us.”

It’s interesting that you mentioned Tellin’ Lies as a song that sums up your life, but it’s one that Greg wrote. Because a lot of the songs you guys write fit together as if coming from one person, not two – let alone from other people’s points of view. So do you have a veto if you think someone’s written a song that doesn’t fit with the mood or tone of the rest of the album? How do you reconcile those differences?

“That’s the thing. I don’t think any differences would desire to be rectified. In the end, songwriting is a personal thing, but we’re also just writing songs – so we could write a song about something that didn’t even necessarily happen to one of us. It’s not a complete diary – it’s making music and sharing it with people to bring emotions out of them. There’s no rule that it has to be totally, fully felt by everybody.”

One of my favourite quotes is something Blake Schwarzenbach from Jawbreaker said about the idea of writing truth through fiction, that you don’t have to be completely honest and you can still tell the truth.

“Absolutely. That’s something that I’ve always thought, and it’s funny for me to hear people talk about, too, because for the most part when people listen to a song, they can be very vocal about how sure they are it’s a real, true story or experience. They just assume that it happened to the person who wrote the song – which I’ll say isn’t 100% the case ever. You can speak a lot more truth through fiction that way, using a metaphor to highlight the things involved with what you’re trying to say.”

Speaking of which, your albums always seem to serve as a kind of metaphor for the reality of the American Dream – that it’s broken and run-down and America is full of these downtrodden characters with nothing left to lose. Especially On The Impossible Past. And since then, things have only got much worse. How do you see your music fitting in with Americas bleak current landscape?

“With On The Impossible Past, a lot of that came from the area where we grew up and our experience there. We grew up in a place that was very promising at one time – it was very resource-rich and a special kind of coal, anthracite coal, came from there, so a lot of money poured into the area. There were a lot of manufacturing jobs – it was a place where, let’s say you were a traditional family, you could have a job at a factory that required technical training but not necessarily a college education and you could own a car and a house and have a good life. And that started to go away. You’re told in school as a kid that you can do whatever you want, or you watch television shows like Married With Children where the dude works at a shoe store but owns a house and can support his family, but this wasn’t the truth by the time that we got older and I don’t know if it ever was. So you start to see people spiral into drug use – specifically in our area there was a lot of heroin and prescription opiate use by our peers. Our friends died from it. It was very bleak, and I think that it always was. So right now – keep social justice issues aside – there’s so much more information available to everyone now that I think the economic disparity that existed before, and some of the ideas that were pushed on us before, aren’t going to be able to hold on much longer. Sure, Donald Trump got elected President and that’s completely absurd and I think people are still trying to figure out why that happened. I can’t speak for the entire band, but in my mind a lot of that happened because of the large disconnect between groups of people in the United States. A lot of people who voted for Trump felt economically disenfranchised, and a lot of people who would normally vote for Hillary and a lot of people within the news media treated those people like a silly afterthought – they looked at them like an animal in a zoo. And I think now that people have more information, if we can find a commonality between all of us – racism and total pandering aside – I really think that people could start coming together, and I really hope our band, with our music, help people feel like the change they want to become and feel good about themselves and make other people in their lives feel good, and we can all live a more loving and good existence, as opposed to all this hateful rhetoric that divides everything.”

With that in mind, this actually seems like a very hopeful record – more so than on the past couple of albums, despite the hangover of your 20s and the state of the world.

“I hope that’s what people take away from it. Music brings people together, and we didn’t want to write songs that make people feel bad about themselves. You want to create an art and a community where people feel accepted and happy.”

You can pre-order The Menzingers’ After The Party,which be released on February 3 through Epitaph. A UK tour follows in April.