The Used: “We’ve been an emo band for 23 years. We never stopped, we never broke up, we never went anywhere!”

Among emo’s most enduring heroes, Utah quartet The Used continue to set a scintillating, soul-baring standard on superb ninth album Toxic Positivity. As Bert McCracken explains, this story of struggle might be the most sincere he’s ever written…

The Used: “We’ve been an emo band for 23 years. We never stopped, we never broke up, we never went anywhere!”
Sam Law
Main photo:
Yoshi Flores
Rooftop photos:
Anthony Tran

Misery loves company. Even more than that, it loathes the happiness of others. That was just one of the hard truths Bert McCracken was forced to come to terms with over a turbulent last three-and-a-bit years. Seeing friends and family make the best of the uncertain stasis of lockdown – and the upheaval that’s followed – while he faced the end of life as he knew it, the fiery frontman could’ve capitulated. Instead, that pain became fuel for a striking next chapter of The Used.

"I’ve always struggled with depression and anxiety, but never to the extent that was brought on by the pandemic," Bert explains, unpacking the themes behind imminent ninth album Toxic Positivity.

"In 2019, everything was crazy good for The Used – and for myself. We were playing sold-out club shows every day, switching up the setlist, bringing out some deep cuts. I was in the best health I’ve ever been in. When COVID shut everything down, we thought it couldn’t last that long. But it lasted and lasted and just blasted us. Seeing other people being fine with staying at home or even enjoying the pandemic made me absolutely insane because, for me, every day was a living nightmare.”

The idea of being oppressed by that kind of ‘Toxic Positivity’ started as a tongue-in-cheek play on words, but became key to Bert’s soul-searching and self-examination through song.

“A lot of people I know don’t struggle with depression and anxiety,” he continues. “That makes me furious. It makes me sad. It makes me feel all sorts of things. I’ve come to learn that everyone has their moments, but Toxic Positivity reflects that anger and frustration towards people who’ve been alright and who’ll be alright – and my guilt over being my depressive, anxiety-ridden self.”

More than that, it’s a chronicle of how those feelings evolved. When the opportunity arose for Bert, bassist Jeph Howard, drummer Dan Whitesides and guitarist Joey Bradford to go into the studio with long-time collaborator John Feldmann in autumn 2021, they jumped at the chance to crank the volume, putting in long shifts and emerging with “11 or 12” tracks that could’ve been a finished album, reflecting the numbness and claustrophobia of that singular moment in time.

“It helped to put those feelings out there,” Bert reckons. “Wherever you’re at mentally, physically, emotionally, ‘spiritually’ is what you can write about. Anxiety and depression feels very one-sided: very selfish, very self-absorbed, very all-consuming. And that’s just what naturally came out.”

Having sat with the songs for the best part of a year-and-a-half, however, a decision was made to head back in for a second session in early 2023: to reflect the light at the end of the tunnel, but also to capture the strange, slow grinding of gears as life got back up to speed – and the lingering feeling that nothing would ever really be the same.

“It was a rollercoaster,” Bert says of the 18-month span. “There were a few ups and a lot of downs. Each time we were in the studio, it felt like there was always some sort of prescient, pressing thing going on. During the first session, I was detoxing off an antidepressant, which is very hard to do. In the second one, I was coming off a year-long battle with [medicinal] Valium. The slow climb back to reality was really hard for me. We did a tour with Coheed And Cambria at the end of summer 2021 and I think I spent more time in the foetal position in the back of the bus than anywhere else during that run. And where a lot of people anticipated that when the pandemic was over they’d feel completely different, for most they didn’t. For most people it carried through into our everyday lives. It was a dark, dark place, but so vital to capture that moment because a lot of people have experienced that dark place. For me, we had a perfectly finished record after our first stint in the studio but, ultimately, it was important to go back in and tell the other side of the story.”

The finished product captures that arc perfectly, from the despondency of illustratively-titled opener Worst I’ve Ever Been to the defiance of powerful closer Giving Up, which begins with the admission ‘Yesterday I woke up wanting to die’, and ends with a repeated promise that ‘I’m not giving up on me’. “It felt like it was important that we did have something in there to hang on to," Bert smiles, “rather than ending in a kind of post-modern, ‘Sorry, there’s no ending, see ya later’ kinda way.” In between we veer from the piano-driven atmospherics of Numb via the swaggering R&B inflections of I Hate Everybody to the waltzing hope of glassy love song Dopamine.

“It wasn’t initially supposed to be a concept record,” Bert shrugs, “but I guess that everything becomes a concept if you live with it for long enough. That concept could be the journey from morning through to night – I seem to come around when the sun’s going down – in a normal day in my life. Or you could read it as being about going into, then coming back out of the pandemic.”

With so much material amassed, deciding which songs didn’t make the final 11-song cut was just as important for the vision. Recent singles Fuck You and People Are Vomit don’t feature, and Bert teases that there’s at least another record’s worth of ‘B-sides’ left out – more to maintain the structure and story of the overarching record than out of any quality concerns. It’s still to be decided whether these will make up a bonus release or be incorporated into a sprawling deluxe edition, similar to the one that eventually followed the release of April 2020’s underrated Heartwork.

What is certain, though, is that the process of working through trauma has led to a changed perspective.

“We realise that we’re so fucking lucky to be doing this for 23 years,” Bert expands. “Having it taken away from us gave us this whole new appreciation for what we do. We all take this a lot more seriously now. We rehearse for real. We play a warm-up before every set each night. We’ve never been tighter. And we’re just as tight as friends: knowing when to give each other space, when to be real. This changed me personally, too: everything about who I am. It rearranged my brain.”

That galvanisation has come at the perfect time. With passion for the brand of emo The Used helped popularise as high as it’s been in years, festivals like When We Were Young (where they delivered a show-stealing set) stoking it further still, and a new generation of bands influenced by Bert and the boys raising the bar, it’s about harnessing that momentum to keep moving forward.

“I used to cringe about that term ‘emo’, but I think we’ve swallowed it,” Bert laughs. “We are emo. The resurgence it’s having is crazy. It’s not surprising, though. Music comes in waves. And it’s a perfect time for it. This music has always been about feelings and emotions: the things that fell tragic in people’s lives. Love is tragic. Death is tragic. Everything in-between can have that sense of tragedy, too. Everyone wants to feel something right now. That’s exactly what emo delivers.”

In that, it’s important that the genre keeps its focus in the present rather than getting too nostalgic.

“It’s cool that a lot of people are getting their bands back together, making new records, or re-recording old ones,” Bert nods. “But we’ve been an emo band for the last 23 years. We never stopped. We never broke up. We never went anywhere. I could be bitter about that, but music is music, man. Ultimately, seeing people return after so long makes us grateful that we never left.”

Don’t expect The Used to go anywhere anytime soon. While a few conventional milestones loom on the horizon – 2025 will mark a quarter-century as a band, the next album will be number 10 – Bert signs off by stressing that none are as meaningful as continuing to open-heartedly create.

“I look back over the 100-plus songs in our catalogue and it’s a lot to take in. But I’ve been thinking a lot lately of the quote about how artists have the choice to try to make just one or two truly great pieces of work, or to keep going and make hundreds or thousands. It feels like we’re already on the tip of the latter. It feels like we could go back into the studio with John Feldmann right now and write a completely different record. We’re always ready to. Some artists make those two or three great pieces, then selfishly don’t do a fourth in case it’s shit.”

A flash of that old mischievous grin.

“We’re not a band who’s afraid to throw our hat up and say, ‘Hey, look what we did!’ We’re not a band that’s afraid to make shit!”

The Used's new album Toxic Positivity is released May 19 via Hassle

Read this next:

Check out more:

The best of Kerrang! delivered straight to your inbox three times a week. What are you waiting for?