The Future Of The Used: “We Recorded 26 Or 27 Songs That We Love”
It’s Thanksgiving morning and Bert McCracken has woken up several thousand miles from his usual bed in Sydney, Australia. Instead, the vocalist of The Used finds himself in Los Angeles, where he has been working on the band’s eighth studio record – which was finished less than 24 hours ago. Today there will be a place for him at the table of his manager’s family home, but the 37-year-old hasn’t celebrated the holiday much since moving away from the land of the free six years ago. “Other than [being a] typical American and sending everyone a useless text saying how thankful you are,” he laughs.
One person that’s already received a (sincere) message of thanks from the singer is John Feldmann. The producer responsible for more than half of The Used’s catalogue has reunited with the band on this new album, having not been involved with 2017’s The Canyon. Bert is quick to draw a line under that 80-minute, live- tracked, experimental last record, promising something more in line with the energy of the band’s earlier sound with these new songs. Blow Me, the first single from this era, certainly fits that description. An anguished sledgehammer of a song, it features FEVER 333’s Jason Aalon Butler, and rages against the United States’ lack of gun control. We asked Bert to talk us through it…
What is Blow Me about, Bert?
“All of the songs on this record have double, or even triple, meanings, so it’s really going to be difficult for me to go into what it specifically means. Is it about my friend’s suicide? Is it about Kurt Cobain? Is it about the power of the expression of words versus violence? Maybe it’s about what you think it’s about.
“But I think the imagery is overpowering: in the world we live in, especially in America, gun violence has gone beyond what is rationally acceptable. Well, what kind of gun violence is rationally acceptable? We all have sincere feelings about what’s happening to the world and guns and people’s ability to walk into a public place and shoot the whole place up. But we are also very aware of how impactful small statements can be, and in this world where everyone feels like they are almost the centre of attention with social media, I think that it’s important to accept how powerful words are.”
Will we be seeing more of a political steer with this new album, then?
“No, this record is really a cornucopia of different messages. A lot like the first record [2002’s The Used], we wanted to just go in with John Feldmann and write a huge, large stack of great songs that are catchy. We never really tried to push a concept or narrow things down into anything digestible that’s cohesive. The songs have a basic underlying theme, and that theme is very prevalent in the world we live in – I think there’s so much boredom and so much complacency and so much entitlement. Just those three words alone you could write 10 records about.”
Why did you choose Blow Me to lead this new chapter?
“I think it’s a cool statement. And maybe we should all be having a conversation about what’s important to us and how crazy the world has gotten as far as gun violence [is concerned]. I also think that it’s something really, really special for the old school Used fans. It sounds like a cool mix of something from our first record that’s heavy, and it still has a really catchy chorus.”
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It does sound like some of your earliest stuff. Was that intentional?
“Definitely not. But a lot of this stuff sounds like the first record in a way that it’s speaking out to the emptiness, to the boredness, and the entitlement of the moment. It’s a feeling of being stuck but not stuck. I think that this music is having a bit of a resurgence because it had such a feeling to it, and people just want to feel things and feel like they belong.”
Blow Me features FEVER 333’s Jason Aalon Butler. How did he get involved?
“I’ve known Jason since the early letlive. days. What an incredible machine! He’s barely human. Honestly, he’s one of the most intelligent and expressive people you could ever talk to. He’s a true inspiration to me, he’s a hero of punk rock, and I always wanted to work with him. Luckily he was available to come thrash.
“When we work with other artists, we like to leave it wide open, because other artists are special for their own reasons. We want you to be in our band for a little bit, use your own creative expressions in the way that you would without us. So Jason came in and we had all the parts recorded that he didn’t sing on, and I gave him the lyrics, and he sat in the booth for maybe three minutes and then recorded his parts and just nailed it. He’s like a really sick hip-hop artist in that way. He’s got this crazy flow. He moves quick.”
Is Blow Me a good indication of what the rest of the record sounds like?
“If we picked out any one song, it would be a bad indication. A little bit like [2007’s] Lies For The Liars, this record is a force of many colours. It’s got so many different sounds you’d be really surprised from one song to the next, how different it is. But it still cohesively sounds and feels like The Used.”
What other themes will these new songs be exploring?
“I think we’re talking about the same things that kept The Used relevant for this long. We’re talking about love in life and heartache and mortality. We’re talking about the state of the world and communication and media. We’re talking about ignorance, and eradication from ignorance. We’re talking about friendships and cages. I think we recorded 26 or 27 songs that we love, so we’re going to have a really awesome B-sides record, too.”
You’ve got John Feldmann producing again. What drove that decision?
“He is on fire. He’s one of the most talented songwriters on the planet, and I’ve said it in interviews before, but nobody works harder than John Feldmann. He will be up before you and have two songs written before you even get up, and then he’ll work all day long until you’re way too tired. He’s a force of nature that I’ve not come across on this planet before. I’m so glad we stayed friends; we had a really rough couple of records together, and I can be such an absolute fucking dickhead sometimes. I’m just so grateful that we’re still able to make music together.”
You recorded previous album The Canyon live to tape. Is that something you’ve moved completely away from now?
“It’s just so time consuming and expensive. It takes so much fucking time and effort, and it’s really trying on the band. I mean, we learned a lot, and, for any band out there thinking about recording: if you attempt to record those songs live, it’s going to be some of the most brutal and worthwhile rehearsals you’ve ever had. Jeph [Howard, bass] and Dan [Whitesides, drums] got so much tighter as a rhythm section. It’s incredible. But it’s just so tough. And I like playing around in the studio with ideas and being able to go in and replace something. If I want to change a lyric or a melody real quick, I can just do it on that one part.”
How did it feel making the record in the studio this time?
“The last record was so trying, and towards the end it almost felt like, ‘This is not fun. This is actual work.’ With this record, every day just felt like a short little adventure. Feldmann’s so positive and the band is in such a good place. Everyone was so in the moment and so present. I never had any homework – all the lyrics were finished right there and then, and if they weren’t, we stayed ’til they were. It’s crazy to say I’ve never worked harder on a record because of the last record, but I feel like this was more fulfilling work. It wasn’t like trying to drag something out of myself.”
You’ve mentioned these new tracks being shorter. Obviously The Canyon was quite a lengthy record – was that change deliberate, or did it come naturally?
“None of us really liked the length. I mean, none of us really like The Canyon all that much. It was really an experiment in art – see how deep I could get. I’m really grateful that the band allowed me to go there and really do something that was, I feel, severe: a record about a suicide. All the songs were recorded in a way that they don’t really sound on par with the modernity of today’s sound because of the tape recordings. We’ve always wanted to do a record like that, but it ended up being this long-winded expression. Which I’m fine with – most of the art that I enjoy is very challenging; I feel like the more I’m pushed to understand the artists the deeper I can get with the art.
“But with this [new] record it just felt like these songs were making the points very quickly. There’s also not a lot of points to be made, nothing pressing that I need to get off my chest. I’m in a really great place in my life right now, I’m very healthy and active and everything’s good at home. So it wasn’t like I needed to pour these feelings out in order to save myself.”
Is there any pressure when you make new music now, or is that long gone?
“I think at this point, being a band for this long, there are a lot of plusses and a lot of minuses. Like, we know we’re going to be able to go out and play a tour – there’s not going to be zero people there. But it’s also negative in a lot of ways that people already have their minds made up. They’ve heard of The Used, like, ‘Yeah, I heard The Used back in the day, that shit’s not for me.’ So there’s a bit of pressure to go outside the box and try to understand where music is headed – I think there’s a lot of new music with a lot of elements that are wonderful and exciting.”
You’ll be returning to the UK for Slam Dunk Festival in May. Is it too early to ask what we can expect from your set?
“I’m very excited. We’re good friends with a lot of the bands on the bill, and those UK festivals are always some of the – if not the – best shows in the world. They’re just wild and crazy. I think that you can always expect The Used to put on an impassioned and exciting and lively performance. We’ve never been in better places mentally. I’ve never been in a better place physically. I go hard almost every day, so the energy level is off the chain.”
The Used return to the UK next year for Slam Dunk festival. Slam Dunk North takes place on May 23, 2020 at Temple Newsam, Leeds, and Slam Dunk South rolls into Hatfield Park on May 24, 2020. Get your tickets now.
The Used have cancelled their spring UK and European tour, and have also pulled out of Slam Dunk Festival.
Farewell to the man who influenced everyone from Jimmy Page to Lingua Ignota to Stanley Kubrick…