I'm kind of obsessed with Scranton's The Menzingers. Their album On the Impossible Past dropped in early 2012, and it hasn't left my car stereo since. It's a basically perfect album, tightly written, hugely energetic and deeply sad. The pop ska-punk band has been quietly dominating the East Coast punk scene for a while, but their albums have yet to achieve the tier of public recognition that they deserve. Their tracks about simple regrets and everyday grievances ache. And it's no wonder - here's how lead singer Greg Barnett describes his two favorite bands:
"Besides Springsteen, my favorite band is The Mountain Goats. Both John and Bruce (we're on a first name basis now) have a way of breaking your heart and gluing it back together again in 3-5 minutes. I love that. I've always loved bands that were brutally honest, and I constantly push myself to do the same. The best songs are the ones you're afraid to share."
I spoke to Barnett the same day NBC series The Office - also based on Scranton, Penn. - ended. He let me express my deep obsession with his work and even spoke to me a bit about that famous TV show.
The Menzingers will play tonight at the Hoosier Dome.
NUVO: I'm kind of obsessed with this album. I'm not sure if it's because when I first heard it, I was a waitress and I was in a deep, dark place in regards to my career, but something about it really speaks to me. I remember listening to "Casey" over and over and over again.
Greg Barnett: [Laughs]
NUVO: If you could tell about writing that song - I read an interesting interview from a year or so ago where you said it was actually inspired by hearing someone else play a song.
Barnett: Yeah! Exactly. We used to have this practice space, a long time ago, probably 2006, I want to say. We had a practice space in Trenton when we were living there. I was 18 or 19. It was an excuse to have a place where we could all go drink and then play music all night. We went out there late at night. One time, my buddy came out - his name was Danny - he played this song called "Casey" that he had and I fell in love with the song. The chorus was pretty close to the version that we have. The first line or two [is close]. I just changed it to include two people instead of just one person - his [song] just described one person. I was like, "Dude, do you mind if I borrow that first line for our new record?" And he said, "Yeah, sure!"
And my experience around the time of hearing that song inspired the song, I think.
NUVO: You said that was a while ago - has that lyric been rattling around in your brain since?
Barnett: Yeah, it's one of the themes on the record. It's a nostalgic look back on everything, where we're at now. The whole record's theme is based on that and what I was going through. I remembered the stories, and thought, "Hey, that would be great for that song!'
NUVO: Your song structures remind me of how a lot of great novels are written - they have someone for [the reader] to recognize, a universal feeling. But the structure has something you don't expect, so you stay wrapped up the whole time you're reading. How conscious are you of your atypical structures? Or does this writing style just pour out of you?
Barnett: I think it's right in the middle of there - you can never think about something too much, because it kills the spontaneity of what the idea is supposed to be and what it becomes. There's a conscious thinking going into a song - you want each song to complement the other ones; you're working towards the whole and the whole is the album. There's definitely a conscious idea of trying to put things that complement other things.
But then again, a lot of it is the four of us getting in a room and just feeling it without us having to say [anything]. It's a mixture of the two. There's a part of us that just has to play and not say, and another thing when you're constantly thinking out about what songs complement the other songs and build the whole story, which would be the album.
NUVO: I feel compelled to ask this because The Office series finale is airing tonight - and you guys of course are from Scranton, where the show is based. I was thinking about Scranton, and The Office and your songs and thinking about how ... they remind me in a way of each other. They're about normal people - waitresses, paper salespeople - just wanting to connect and find some kind of not-failure.
Barnett: I totally agree with that comparison. That's why I think they did such a great job of picking a place for the show. At least for me, humor is all around. It's all around you. You're stuck with these crazy people who are your neighbors and the people that you love. They're not cool, they're not attractive, they're not hip. They're just normal everyday people. I think a lot of times, especially in music and any type of art, that kind of idea gets lost, just because it's not that interesting to think about.
But when you find interesting things about it, you can relate to it so much more than someone in L.A., someone in New York, or a story or an album set in those kinds of places. Most people don't live there. I think that's what makes the show so great.
NUVO: There's also a real undercurrent of darkness through both that show and your music. The darkness of just everyday life, how much regret you can have over something very small. I kept reading reviews of On the Impossible Past, and many mentioned, "Well, somebody in this band fucked up [something in their life] enough to write about it like this.
Barnett: I don't even know if it's that serious. I don't even know if I would go that far. We're okay [laughs].
NUVO: I just got off the phone with Japandroids, a band that, like you, channels the power of the majestic punk chorus. Very anthemic. How much do you think about writing those great singalongs when you're writing?
Barnett: I haven't listened to our last record in over a year, but I play the songs every day. I want them to be able to translate live. You want people to get excited at a show that way, to pile on top of each other and sing along. That's the ultimate goal. It would be lame to write a bummer record where no one moved or no one clapped.
NUVO: I've just got one more question, and this one, you can feel free to say "I'm not going to tell you," but I've go to ask. Is there a significance to the engagement ring prominently displayed on the cover of this latest album?
Barnett: You know what? No, but there's no [laughs], there's nothing - how do I say this - it's just the idea. It's supposed to imply certain things. There's no special significance on the ring. It's supposed to imply in your mind some kind of connection that could be there, could be lost, through an old photograph.