By the early 2000s, nu metal was no longer the undisputed top dog when it came to heavy music. Granted, relative latecomers such as Evanescence’s Fallen would still climb up international charts, but the scene as a whole had become formulaic, with many of its originators moving on or distancing themselves from an increasingly toxic crop of johnny-come-latelys. Alternative music was in sore need of a shake-up, and tonally shifted towards something more nakedly confessional. On The Used’s 2002 debut single, The Taste Of Ink, vocalist Bert McCracken had one thing to say: “Here I am.”
Originally penned for the band’s 2001 demo tape, commonly referred to as their ‘Demos From The Basement’, The Taste Of Ink captured the band’s earnest desire to be heard. Fresh out of rehab and living in then-guitarist Quinn Allman’s dank, tobacco-scented basement, Bert had come to a decision: “I needed to get out of Utah,” he admits today, reflecting on the period that helped make The Used stars of the rising emo scene.
“I’d been living at Quinn’s parents’ house for months, and it was getting to a point where I was in a dark place,” Bert admits. “I’d been doing heavy drugs since I was 16, and I had just quit crystal meth. The guys were all sober and they would take me to Narcotics Anonymous meetings every day. But I was barely scraping by, buying cigarettes instead of food…”
The Taste Of Ink would be Bert’s ticket out of Utah, out of the purgatory of sofa-surfing and living in bandmates’ basements. The band had already recorded an instrumental demo of the track, but it now fell to Bert to dig deep and craft its lyrics. Only, as their frontman was a recovering drug addict with a propensity for benders, the rest of The Used were more than a little concerned he might not actually come through. Putting off the task until the early hours of the morning, Bert found himself scribbling away until, as the song itself attests, “four o’clock in the fucking morning”.
In Bert’s mind, his only means of escape lay squarely within the tip of his chewed-up pen - so on he worked. “As I was writing, there was this feeling of longing, this intense desire to just escape,” he explains. “The verses ended up feeling so desperate and then the chorus was just so free, capturing this want, to do what we’ve always dreamed of doing – to be on tour, to be out in the world.”
Even in its crudest form, The Taste Of Ink was enough to put The Used’s heart-on-sleeve brand of emo on people’s radar. After hearing their basement demos, record producer and Goldfinger frontman John Feldmann offered to fly The Used over to LA to re-record some tracks.
“John flew us out on his own dime,” Bert reveals. “We re-recorded The Taste Of Ink, Maybe Memories and A Box Full Of Sharp Objects.”
Despite Bert’s lyrical dedication, John also suggested that the band change The Taste Of Ink’s chorus. “I can’t even remember the words to the original chorus…” Bert mumbles, after several attempts to recall it. Considering the song’s eventual success would expose The Used to audiences around the world, it was a decision that paid off, and not long after the band had re-recorded the songs, they found themselves fighting off label interest.
“It was insane!” Bert exclaims. “I was barely 18 and getting flown around the country, taken to bars, fancy hotels and strip clubs. Every day, it was the newest, worst hangover that I’d ever had. After all the madness, there was this one moment of us all being on Venice Beach like, ‘I can’t believe this is really about to happen for us.’”
But while The Taste Of Ink was written with a desire to be heard, the immediacy of the spotlight almost proved to be too much. “There was a moment, while we were making the debut record, where I actually just disappeared – I had to,” he admits. “I met some random girl, turned off my phone, and went up to Santa Barbara for two weeks. I was unsure about everything, so uncomfortable around the money people were flashing. I hated the BMWs. I hated seeing myself being blasted on fucking [MTV show] TRL.”
Despite this wobble, Bert completed the band’s self-titled debut album. Released on June 25, 2002, it arrived as emo and its more metal-adjacent subgenre, screamo, were becoming a major commercial force, ushering in a whole new means of self-expression. Alongside bands such as Alexisonfire and Thursday, The Used were not only pioneering the movement, but helping bring it to mass audiences and, a little over a year after the album came out, it was certified gold in the US.
“Everything felt brand new,” Bert reflects. “Music just felt so much more emotional. It was kind of the huge craze of the moment. For me, [90s ‘second wave’ emo band] Sunny Day Real Estate were my intro into what kind of band I wanted to be in, the words I wanted to share.”
Forged out of vulnerability and desperation, The Taste Of Ink was emotionally matter-of-fact in contrast to nu metal’s stifling angst. “I didn’t have much respect for nu metal at the time - I was more of a hardcore kid,” Bert admits. “[Emo] was a new way to express emotions. People were really drawn to it, they connected with it. We wanted to create a kind of mirror of humanity, make music you could explore your own life through. Everyone has heartaches – pain, joy, trouble and everything in between. It was our goal to capture that.”
However, it also meant The Used attracted criticism from those who were still clinging to what had come before, and they were an easy target for people who felt emo was too whiny.
“Moving from this nu metal phase into this type of effeminate posthardcore, post-punk… people said we’d ruined music,” Bert says with a snort. “I think when we were on the radio, or MTV, there was a lot of hate. Admittedly, even I felt weird about it. It felt like we were just putting on a big show.”
But to Bert, The Used’s musical and lyrical approach was just a reflection of his own desire to create music that offered solace and escapism.
“Writing and music was a saving grace for me growing up, a really powerful escape from anything that was going on,” he says. “When emo was just starting up, it felt like this type of music was a saving grace for everyone else. It was almost like a religion where we all felt comfortable crying while listening to songs. A lot of bands had a similar mindset, coming out of the post-hardcore movement with some screaming, some singing… but we were lucky enough to be one of the first bands to get that break.”
The Taste Of Ink may have been penned in total ignorance as to whether anyone would ever hear it, but it ignited the scene and captured something remarkable, as new generations embraced emotional candour like never before. Looking back, Bert admits it’s a track that reminds him of those years of longing to be heard. Now, every night on tour, 18-year-old Bert’s existential howl of ‘Is it worth it, can you even hear me?’ is answered with a deafening singalong from venues packed with fans.
So how would young Bert respond, if he could hear that? He’d probably be quite unfazed, the now-41-year-old jokes. “When I was younger, I was braggadocious, kind of a prick… so I feel like, if you told me The Taste Of Ink was going to be a hit, I would have said ‘Well, of course,’” he says with a laugh. “But, honestly, it is amazing. It’s so humbling seeing fans bring their kids along now, the next generation. We just played Sydney and brought all the kids on stage during The Taste Of Ink, and it just made the song feel even more magical - seeing the future of the world bopping along…”
The first single from their 2002 self-titled debut album, The Taste Of Ink was something special, as much a statement of intent as it was a rallying cry for disenfranchised youths who had grown tired of nu metal’s loudness and wanted to communally and openly name their feelings.
“Everyone just knew The Taste Of Ink was going to be the first single,” Bert says. “Before the record was even out, there was this moment at Warped Tour that made it obvious the song was special. We were playing a small stage, and the power went out while we were playing The Taste Of Ink… and the whole crowd just finished the entire song a cappella. It was such an incredible moment for us. For us, it’s a perfect emo song, and it always will be.”
The Used tour the UK in December. For the full list of dates visit their official website. The Used play Download Festival in 2024.