For many punk bands getting a spot on the Warped Tour is a dream come true. But for the Menzingers singer-guitarist Tom May, the dream was more of a nightmare when his pop-punk band finally landed on the tour.
"It was an interesting experience because when we were younger, we would go to Warped Tour," he says. "That was the only place you could go as a kid and go and see all the bands that you wanted to see. And then to play it and see what it's become, whether it's a good thing or a bad thing, it's up for debate. There are a bunch of strange bro, misogynistic bands that instill weird ideas into young kids. You have the military there recruiting cannon fodder. The level of sponsorship that makes the tour function is really disgusting in a lot of respects."
Given the DIY approach that May has taken, it's easy to see why he would be turned off by the commercial nature of the Warped Tour. May put the Menzingers together in 2006 with drummer Joe Godino and bassist Eric Keen, high school pals with whom he played in a ska band together. They recruited guitarist Greg Barnett to join May on vocals so that the two could trade lead singer duties. Their self-released demo tape got enough attention that they signed to Go Kart Records, which then issued their 2007 debut A Lesson in the Abuse of Information Technology. The band would subsequently sign to Epitaph Records, home to veteran acts such as Bad Religion and Rancid, in 2011. While it didn't necessarily lead to a change in sound, it did grant the group a certain legitimacy.
"I guess inevitably it's going to change the music somewhat," May says of the switch to Epitaph. "Our music is reflected upon the lives we're living. We didn't consciously say, 'Oh my god, we're on Epitaph, we need to sound a certain way.' We definitely said, 'Oh my god, we're on Epitaph, we have to sound better.' So, it changed in that we started to take it more seriously. We've always taken it seriously, but this time, we had to make sure that we liked everything that we were doing. No fillers you know."
The band has certainly sharpened its pop hooks on its latest album, Rented World. Songs such as "Bad World" and "My Friend Kyle" feature call-and-response vocals and chanted choruses. They're the kind of anthems you expect more from bands such as Gaslight Anthem and Rancid. With its distorted guitar intro, "Transient Love" goes for something more esoteric. May says the band didn't want to make the same record again and sought to push the boundaries of its sound.
"With every record that we do, we try to challenge ourselves in a sense that the things that we write, we want them to be difficult for us to play at first, you know we're not really used to it," May says. "So, this record we didn't go out and say, 'Oh, we need to make some conceptual rock record' or something like that. We just kind of got together and thought that this is what we've been listening to and this is what we want to play over a period of a couple months in a small room up in North Philly. We kind of just smashed all the songs up."
Famous for having worked with artists such as Sharon Van Etten, the National and Kurt Vile, engineer Jon Lowe engineered the album.
"Sonically, he brought everything the album is to it," May says. "I remember a lot of times where we'd be playing and he's like, 'Woah, do you really need to be playing anything there?' And it would be like, 'Okay.' He brought an idea of contrast to recording that we never really thought of before and how every instrument can have its own space within a song both sonically and as part of the music and he definitely brought a perspective to it like we weren't used to ourselves."
The video for "I Don't Want to be an Asshole Anymore" shows the guys don't take themselves too seriously. The video centers on a serial killer who does his best to stop killing people.
"We had been given a couple of treatments for the video," says May. "We didn't really like very many of them and the director sent that one and all four of us were like, 'Yes, this has to happen, so whatever we need to do to make it happen, we gotta do it.' It was filmed while we were in Australia and we didn't see anything until the video came out. Well, we saw it before it came out, but we didn't see anything until the video was done. It was pretty cool. It was like the coolest thing we've ever done and none of us had anything to do with it."
The Menzingers have moved on from their punk/ska roots to deliver a more polished product. But what does Hall think will become of punk rock?
"I'm not a 17-year-old kid who listens to punk and I'm not even in a punk band that's just playing whatever basement show they can play," he says. "When I go and see my friend's bands, all my friends play in bands of all different sizes. The smaller bands that lean toward the indie side. I think I really don't know where the political part has gone. I mean everybody has philosophically political lyrics, stuff like that. There's no real Anti-Flag holding up the scene like there was when I was younger. I really have no idea where it's gonna go. I think maybe another genre of music will fill that spot. Some kind of electronic movement or something."
The Menzingers with Lemuria, Pup, and Cayetana
7:30 p.m. Wednesday, June 4, Grog Shop, 2785 Euclid Heights Blvd., Cleveland Heights, 216-321-5588. Tickets: $14, grogshop.gs.