Album review: The Used – Toxic Positivity
The Used give the human mind a probing on fascinating but flawed ninth album…
An intense, brutally honest conversation with The Used frontman Bert McCracken…
In 2018, we caught up with The Used vocalist Bert McCracken in the midst of promoting the band's ambitious new album The Canyon. In a revealing, no holds barred interview, Bert opened up about sobriety, survival and the scars left by grief. Today we bring you that conversation in full. Enjoy.
Bert McCracken is driving from Downtown LA to Orange County. The 36-year-old singer has spent the front end of the summer playing shows on the last ever Warped Tour with his band The Used, a run which ended two days earlier in Nashville. After pulling over at a local nutrition store so that he can chat properly, he explains that the detour to LA on the way home to Sydney, Australia – where he lives with his wife and two young daughters, having migrated from the States six years ago – is because he’s afraid of flights that last longer than 20 hours.
The singer goes on to paint his life away from the band with the warmest tones. He makes the school run sound like a well-rehearsed dance routine. He explains that he’s been teaching his eldest daughter, Cleopatra Rose, Shakespeare soliloquies, and he even recites Hamlet at us. When asked what he misses about living in the United States, it’s a flat “nothing” in reply, reneged slightly to approve of the legalisation of marijuana in parts of the country.
Admittedly, this chapter of calm in Bert’s life stands in stark contrast to some of those that have come before it. The singer finds himself heading into his seventh year of sobriety, after his drinking threatened to derail both his band and his marriage, while his turbulent relationship with drugs has been used for song subject matter as early as The Used’s first, self-titled album in 2002. Still, it was this same openness and honesty that helped the band take flight in the early-noughties, as their colourfully unhinged post-hardcore became a vital part of the emo scene responsible for breaking bands like My Chemical Romance, Fall Out Boy and Taking Back Sunday.
As The Used’s sound has grown and matured over the years, that shard of truth has remained firmly wedged in their music. On last year’s release, the 80-minute long The Canyon, Bert detailed the recent death of Tregen Lewis: a lifelong friend who died by suicide after taking a week off from his anti-depressants. Poignantly, Tregen was also the friend who provided the drugs to Bert’s ex-girlfriend, Kate, when she tragically overdosed while pregnant with the singer’s child in 2004. His death understandably left Bert looking back on the darker events of his past, and finds him in a reflective moment in his life.
What was your introduction to music?
“I grew up in a very conservative musical house. There were a lot of church hymns that I grew up knowing first. But my dad’s a fan of rock’n’roll to a certain degree and his record collection was huge. So I grew up listening to The Jackson 5, The Beatles, Neil Diamond, Heart and Journey. The first thing that I really grabbed on to, and the reason why I do what I do today, is Michael Jackson’s Thriller. I was only eight, but I was obsessed. And then I saw him live on TV – I pretended to be sick so that I could stay home from school and watch him perform this live show on MTV. It was the most insane thing I’d ever seen. I remember seeing the crowd and all the smiles on everybody’s face and thinking that was what I wanted to do with my life. It was so incredible. So I made up my mind early that I wanted to be onstage in front of people, making a fool of myself.”
What about bands that would inspire the type of music that you make with The Used?
“I got kind of thrown out of my school and put into this other school for troubled youths, and there was a kid in my class who had been into hardcore music, but he was giving up his material possessions for a Krishna-devoted life. So he gave me a giant box of CDs full of everything that I considered to be the base of where The Used came from – everything from Sunny Day Real Estate to Converge to Ink & Dagger and Texas Is The Reason. All of my favourite bands to this day were in that box. His name was Blake Donner and he drowned in a tunnel – rest in peace. It was international news at the time; there were a bunch of kids who got stuck in a tunnel in Utah County and they all drowned. It’s a really, really sad story.”
You grew up in a Mormon community. What was that like?
“Utah County is a very populated Mormon area. And so if there was a family in our neighbourhood who wasn’t Mormon, it was an extreme judgement situation. I felt that kind of reality very heavily. I had a friend whose dad was a veteran who smoked cigarettes and drank coffee, and they didn’t go to church, and the whole neighbourhood was kind of… it was all whisper, whisper, hush, hush, judge behind their back. And I felt that was such a horrible and unfair thing. At such an early age all these little things started to affect me. With such taboos you create little deviants and curiosities that really can’t be filled. Early on I wanted to smoke cigarettes because it was against the word of wisdom, and early on I wanted to drink coffee. The idea that I was going to go to Hell for having sex before I was married was insane to me. I was like, ‘I’m going to Hell, then. That’s what it’s going to be. That’s the choice I’ve made.’”
You subsequently left home at 16. Where did you go?
“There were a couple of months where it was couches and friends. I had a job really early – they hired me before I was 16 – at Subway, as a sandwich artist. The boss was this stoner lady who lived in these little apartments not too far from where I grew up. So I ended up moving in there for a while. And then I moved out to a real nice trailer park. From there to an auto garage, where I smoked meth for quite some time, until I went to jail for crystal meth amphetamines and got bailed out by my dad within a week and a half. Then I heard that The Used – or they were just called Used at the time – were looking for a lead singer. So I called Quinn [Allman, guitar], and he came and picked me up from my parents’ house. I went through two and a half years real quick.”
How long did it take before people started to take notice of the band?
“We recorded demos of Maybe Memories, Just A Little and Zero Mechanism. They were our first few songs. I remember I got the guy at the bowling alley to play the CD, and people were flipping out to it, and he played it over and over, like four or five times. I think then we knew, like, ‘Wow, we might have something cool.’ It was about six months before John Feldmann got our demo. We sent it to him when he was on tour in Sweden and he called us the next morning and was like, ‘Hey, I’m going to record you guys’; then flew us out. It was a whirlwind situation.”
What was John’s role in The Used’s success?
“He started showing people our demo, and within, like, five days every major label in the United States wanted to sign us. We had nine contract offers or something – they were flying us back and forth all over the place. It was kind of like one of those bad movies that are obnoxious to watch, because you’re, like, ‘This is bullshit, this doesn’t happen.’ Because it doesn’t happen anymore. I think that was the end of the big bank record label days, where they had all of this money to throw around, and they thought they owned everything and ruled the world.”
You became part of the emo scene that emerged in the early-noughties. Looking back, what do you make of it all?
“We were one of the bands that kind of made it awful for all the true punk rock bands. Immediately, we were like, ‘Fuck it’, and signed a major contract and weren’t afraid of the radio, we weren’t afraid of MTV. Our music was coming from an honest place, so I felt that we had nothing to hide, getting it out there. It wasn’t so calculated, nobody saw an ‘emo’ scene. I knew emo existed in Sunny Day Real Estate and bands like that. It wasn’t such a thing. It wasn’t a name of a genre back then, so we didn’t care. We still don’t care. You can call music whatever you want. Emo was just such a strange thing, because what is music without emotion?”
But it was huge. Why do you think that so many people connected to that strain of music?
“That’s a good question. I feel like it was honest. And I feel like it was raw in connecting all these other parts of genres that people really enjoyed. I think it happens so often, there’s a need for something that feels new and fresh, but also has integrity of honesty of true expression as well. And from the very beginning I felt that The Used deserved to have my life, and deserved to have my private, personal stories to hopefully connect and reflect what I felt growing up, and how music saved my life.”
Why do you feel The Used have prevailed as a band when others from that period have fallen away or become nostalgia acts?
“I think that there’s always a huge combination of factors. I think that the emphasis was never on getting my face out there, or becoming the biggest band in the world, or about how much money we made. I think that money corrupts art indefinitely, and whether or not the shows are huge and selling out or small and still truly, emotionally intact – that’s where we’ve been. And The Used have always been a live band, I think, first. Or at least we enjoy what we do and it shows. So that, plus luck, plus a good ability to write a song.”
Your latest album, The Canyon, deals primarily with the loss of your friend Tregen. What do you think you gain from being so personal in your music?
“I wasn’t trying to gain anything. I often felt like I needed a release in the moment, but what a selfish and egotistical way to think about it. Since we’ve released the record, I’ve kind of released control of my own feelings about it. So many people come up to me and talk to me like a brother, like, ‘I lost my father, I needed this,’ or, ‘I lost one of my best friends, I needed this.’ I think just the true expression of art is enough. It’s so worth it. And it sounds like a live record. Even when I hear it, I’m like, ‘When did we do a live version of that?’ Then I’m like, ‘Oh, shit! That’s the actual record.’ I’m so proud of us.”
In the past you’ve mentioned that Chester Bennington from Linkin Park saved your life. Could you expand on that?
“I lost a close friend, a girlfriend, in 2004, and maybe we toured too quickly after that. We actually went on tour right after, now that I’m thinking about it. But I was having a really rough time that summer. I was devastated, and I shared what happened with him. And he would come to my bus every day, just to chat, or smoke a joint. He was a true compassionate person; he was one of the good ones. He will be so tremendously missed. They did so many good things for so many people. I can only hope to be that type of influence on the world and I aspire to affect that kind of positive change. A lot of people tell me that he saved their life.”
You’ve been sober for six years now. What was the catalyst for your decision to make that lifestyle change?
“The last month of me drinking was just hospital after hospital after hospital. I was about to lose everything, that’s the truth of it. So it didn’t happen honestly. My wife was going to leave me, my band didn’t want me around, and so I begrudgingly agreed to go to rehab, thinking that I could live a lie for the rest of my life, like [Seinfeld character] George Costanza – maybe hide alcohol, hide vodka in water bottles. I’d made it through about two weeks of rehab, trying to sneak around, and it’s such an effort when you’re in that dire situation. I don’t know if people know the effort that you put into serious addiction. At that point, hearing so many people talk around me – because I was doing the meetings at the time – in that environment when you’re hearing stories that are way worse than your own… All these stories feel like they’re being told specifically for your existence. So that was it.”
Do you think it was easy to be in a band with you before you went to rehab?
“Well, it’s hard to play shows with a singer who’s too drunk to play. There were a lot of good times. It wasn’t all bad times. But there were a few times where I don’t remember any of it. I’m such a better frontman without alcohol. I’d always take things far too far. Like, ‘How much did you used to drink per day?’ And it’s like, ‘Every last drop!’ Every bit of it. All of it. And then I’d go looking for more.”
You’ve since described reading as an addiction. How did that come about?
“I had a copy of Carrie, which is Stephen King’s first novel, and I read it. And I was like, ‘Holy shit,’ because I’ve always loved to read, but I just forgot. It was like, ‘I’ll read every single Stephen King novel in order!’ And so I did.”
In a way, was that voracious appetite for reading and obsession with literature a replacement for alcohol?
“Yeah, definitely. In fact, on a daily basis I’d spend more time reading than I ever did drinking. There’s a lot of unhealthy parts to that too, but maybe I just needed to hide away for a while. I still read a lot, but not 12 hours a day. That was all day, every day.”
Have there been any particularly important books in your life?
“I read Infinite Jest when I was in rehab, and I believe that it’s one of the most important books ever written – rest in peace, David Foster Wallace. I don’t think there’s a book that comes closer to truly describing the face of depression, and it does such a great job summing up and dissecting addiction for what it really is. It’s also a great tennis book, if you love tennis. He also predicted [the rise of Donald] Trump and Netflix and FaceTime, and all this other shit, in, like, 1996 or something like that. He was a true genius and his prose is simply insane. I think he was greatly inspired by this book called Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon, which I would have to say is my favourite book of all time. It’s such an insane read.”
Outside of music, do you have any aspirations to write something yourself someday?
“Yeah, I’m working on it. But I kind of feel like I have to read every single book that’s ever been written before I write one.”
That might take a while. When you get around to it, what kind of book do you think you might write?
“I like a lot of post-modern fiction where the true psychological essence of the book lies in-between the details of the mundane. I’m kind of bored by books with endings and beginnings. But I don’t know, we’ll see. I have a lot of songs left to write…”
The Used give the human mind a probing on fascinating but flawed ninth album…
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…
With new album Toxic Positivity arriving this Friday, The Used have previewed the record with poppy new single Giving Up.
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“There are times in all of our lives when we just have to say: F*ck you!” says The Used frontman Bert McCracken.
The Cover Story
Growing up with a father addicted to heroin, Mat Musto (aka blackbear) found comfort and escape in music. Originally losing himself in the alternative scene, he soon found a career in R&B, but is now revisiting his punk roots and confronting his past on new album In Loving Memory.