The squabbling, in-fighting rock band has almost become a cliché, partially because it gets online clicks and partially because it’s true. The trials, tribulations, and tension of long tours on the road can become legendary, in some cases helping define the band and artists themselves.
But once in a blue moon, a band comes along who not only make amazing music but who genuinely like each other and do normal stuff when they’re not playing or writing music. One of these bands is Scranton, Pennsylvania’s The Menzingers. This is surprising because of how many long, sometimes-grueling hours they spend on tour each year (they’re known for non-stop touring), but not surprising because that affection and chemistry is evident everywhere—in the music, on the stage, and in this interview.
“Most people are kind of surprised at how close we are. They’re like, ‘Wait, what? You go on tour all the time, and when you come home, you still hang out?’” laughs Menzingers co-vocalist and guitarist Gregor Barnett from his South Philly home where he is within walking distance of the three bandmates he’s been playing with for 15 years. “But yeah, we all live in South Philly, and I love it.
But even more importantly, what this dynamic shows us is that in spite of living in the same geographic area as his fellow Menzingers, Barnett still had the freedom—the physical and creative space—as well as the full support of those bandmates to write and record his very impressive debut solo record, Don’t Go Throwing Roses in My Grave, coming out on February 18 via Epitaph Records. (And when I say “full support,” it’s not an exaggeration: Menzingers Eric Keen was on bass, Joe Godino was on percussion, and Tom May took the record’s pensive cover photo.)
This is your first solo record, right?
Yeah, it is.
I was actually a little surprised at that because for years, I’ve seen you playing solo in online clips … you’ve really seemed to dabble for a long time.
For sure. It’s something that I’ve always wanted to do and yeah, definitely dabbled playing solo shows. But it took the (stop in touring) to have some time to write everything and get my thoughts down.
You took advantage of some of the down time.
Yeah, absolutely. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do but the band is just so, so busy all of the time and is always on tour—it’s pretty difficult for me to write on tour. So yeah, we just took a break, and everybody kind of did their own thing for a year. I was like, OK, now I have some time to really dive into this project. I had a handful of songs for a while that didn’t really fit with the band, and I was kind of mentally building this idea for a (solo) album for a couple of years now.
I know you had some Menzingers as well as Will Yip with you, but did you find making a solo record more challenging? Easier?
To be completely honest, I think it was easier just in the sense that … you know, with the band, you have four people with ideas going in. There’s a lot of changes and a lot of push and pull … in a songwriting sense, when I came up with an idea for this album, that was the idea. (Laughs) You know what I mean?
And in a lot of ways, I didn’t really second guess myself as much as I maybe might have writing songs with the band—when you’re trying to write towards what the Menzingers is as a band and try to write towards collaborating with three other people. This was very much like writing the songs without the fear of how I’m going to pull it off live, who’s going to play this … I’m just going to write everything as it comes to me. It that way, it was a lot easier.
Yeah, that shorter approval process …
(Laughs) Yeah everybody in the band … they’re tough cookies. No, for me, it was fun to trust my instincts and dive into it that way.
Cliché question, but what’s behind the album title?
You know, I wrote the [title track]… that was one of the first ones I wrote, and it just felt like an album title—I wish I had some big, grand, thought-out explanation o f what it means. (Laughs) It’s kind of a heavy record and right when I wrote the line, I thought it really summed up all of the lyrical content on the album of just appreciating life in the moment.
I feel like I’m always looking towards the future or backwards at the past. Don’t celebrate things when they’re gone; let’s celebrate now. Having a year off in the pandemic, just really drove that home … not being able to travel and see my family and friends. I realized how quickly I rushed through things, and I don’t always enjoy things as I should sometimes. I just wanted it be a celebration of life, really.
I read that there were some painful experiences that kind of inspired the record as well.
Yeah, some people close to me were in some really scary situations, and I dropped everything and tried to help them through a very difficult chapter. A lot of that opened up the idea of the album of just appreciating family and friends, especially when you realize how quickly it can all be taken away. Yeah, a lot of the album is influenced by family—the importance of family—and just caring for those that are close to you.
This album kind of feels like a love letter to yourself.
Yeah, kjnd of. I think back on 2020 and remember waking up every day and reading the New York Times and seeing how many people died that day. I became—and I think everyone became—a bit death-obsessed. Just losing people and being afraid of losing people, it became so obsessive. So I think of [the album] as more of a celebration and appreciation of all of your loved ones and everyone around you. Yeah, the themes are a kind of dark on the album, but that was my take from it all. It’s wild thinking back on it all … on those times. Just feeling so utterly depressed and thinking about, where do we go from here? How we try to navigate our way out of it?
One of my favorite songs is the first one, “Oh Lord, What Do You Know?” It’s about questioning faith?
I come from a pretty religious family, and I think a lot of lyrics I’ve written in the past have struggled with that identity. So yeah, the title is obviously questioning God, and it’s kind of about people who have devoted their lives, asking for prayers … I don’t know. It was one of those songs where I was feeling just really down and out. It was about questioning your beliefs and questioning how could life get this way.
Compared to Menzingers songs, there’s kind of sonic shift with this album towards more of an Americana direction. Where did that come from? Did you grow up with that kind of music?
I’ve always loved the singer-songwriter style of music and definitely things that verge on the edge of dark tones. I love Tom Waits, and during the pandemic, I was listening to a lot of Nick Cave and stuff like that. I’ve always really written story-telling type songs, and I wanted to write music that reflects that story-telling vibe a bit. Yeah, I definitely grew up loving this style of music, loving dark themes in songs, and I wanted to take this time to explore that.
What surprised me was how big some of these songs are. Like, this isn’t you stereotypical COVID acoustic album.
That’s awesome. Yeah, that was definitely intentional. I didn’t want to just write it as the standard, acoustic singer-songwriter … like the guy from the band writes the acoustic album. (Laughs) I really wanted to fill out the songs and develop them.
Do plan on any more solo records?
Absolutely. The Menzingers stuff is priority number one, always. So, they’ll happen when I can fit it in. I had such an amazing time writing and recording this album, but right now, I’m focused on the new Menzingers album. I’m really trying to be prolific and write a lot of music.
I have to ask. Are you working on a new Menzingers album?
Yeah, we are in the very, very early phases of writing an album. We’re looking to record it in 2022, but it’s been crazy because we haven’t had any time off from touring to focus. But now, this winter, we’re really going to dive into it. We’ve been bouncing ideas of each other and compiling stuff and are in the very early phase of putting an album together. It’s awesome, and it’s really exciting, and it’s my favorite part of the band getting together to write music. I’m really looking forward to it.
Photo by Tom May