Interview: Tom May and Joe Godino of The Menzingers on Reimagining Exile

When The Menzingers arrived in Australia for a four-day tour in support of their 2019 full-length Hello Exile earlier this year, everything seemed fine. By the next day, however, grim news headlines around the worsening global COVID-19 pandemic quickly cast a long shadow over their plans. In fact, if the Philadelphia four-piece had waited one more day to depart from the United States, the tour would have been cancelled, and they never would have left at all.

For a band entering the early stages of an important touring cycle for a new record, the timing could hardly have been worse; the songs still felt fresh, and the record didn’t get the benefit of the full touring cycle that it deserved. Rather than waste time feeling down about the situation, though, the band took a couple weeks to decompress, then got back to work remotely rewriting and rerecording acoustic versions of the tracks from Hello Exile.

The result is From Exile, an acoustic and electronic reimagining of the record that goes beyond what one might expect from a typical “unplugged” collection. We caught up with guitarist and vocalist Tom May and drummer Joe Godino to discuss learning how to record themselves with no prior professional experience, revisiting and reworking Hello Exile, and more.

You were on tour in Australia right when the pandemic started and then ended up getting flown back home and presumably have been there ever since. What kind of thoughts were going through your heads when the pandemic first started and you were having to cancel tours, and everything regarding the band and live music was up in the air?
Tom May: The month before we were in Australia, we were in Europe. It was February earlier this year, and the news of the coronavirus had gotten there a little bit earlier than it did in the United States. We followed a couple different people online that were a bit more plugged in, and were already looking at these kind of things, and we looked at it and thought, “Damn, these people who are very sane, are what we would consider overreacting, are being very serious about this.” They were calling for the cancellation of SXSW already in February.

We saw that while we were in Germany, and the first case had gotten there. A businessman had met with other businessmen from Wuhan down in Bavaria and got it. So, it was kind of a funny joke for us as we were going through Europe, as it was for everybody. That’s when I saw a compilation of news headlines from the end of February, beginning of March that were all talking about how we had to worry about something else besides the coronavirus, and all that stuff aged very, very poorly, very quickly.

So we got home, and I’ve said this before, but if we had left a day later for Australia we would not have gone, and if we left a day earlier, we would have been absolutely, totally sure that we were going to go. We got on the phone the day that we were leaving with our manager, Tim, and our booking agent, Tom, and we talked about what was going to happen when we were in Australia, whether or not it was a good idea to go, whether it was responsible to go, whether it was responsible to have people at our shows, and I was starting to realize that everyone’s all over the place.

Then, we got there, and it became such a bizarre and wild-ass experience, for sure. Our show, if it was the next day, would have been canceled because of Australia’s policies. So, our very last show in Melbourne got to happen, but it was super weird, dark, and fucking strange. Then, we had to cancel the rest of the tour and fly home. It was weird.

Joe Godino:  Every day was changing. We were in Australia for a total of like, a week? Ten days? I don’t even really remember exactly about the travel times and everything, but every day that we were there was just, like … it got more and more real, you know? We’d have to come together in our hotel rooms and have little band meetings of like, “What do we do?” And every day, there was more information coming in, and people back home were sending us information like, “Shit’s getting crazy here. Let me know what’s going on as soon as you know.”

Every day, it was more and more tension almost, and you can feel it around you. Ultimately, like Tom said, we decided that we had to just play the last show and get on literally the next flight out. I think it was the next day. And that day that we were leaving, we had just played the show the last night before in Melbourne, and that day, it was just the strangest day.

We were flying out that night, and I remember going into a grocery store, which was the last time I was at a grocery store since in Melbourne, and even the shelves were getting light and everything. People were in there going crazy and I was like, “Wow, if this is happening here, then back home must be pretty crazy by now,” because it takes a little bit to catch up in Australia.

Those 48 hours were some of the weirdest hours that we’ve gone through on tour, for sure.

Yeah, no doubt. When you were initially having those discussions, once we all started to come to understand what was happening and what the situation was going to be for the near future under quarantine, how did you settle on the on the idea to acoustically rework Hello Exile as being what you were going to do next, or how you were going to remain active and productive as a band when touring was taken off the table?
May: We got home, and immediately the travel home was a wild-ass experience as well. We had to go through LAX, and they began just waving everybody through customs because you get there, and you’re just slammed with 1,000 people from all over the world in a room.

So, we experienced that; there’s people on our flight … wild paranoia, as everyone experienced. On the plane there’s a girl behind me complaining about how she just got out of Italy. The kid next to me was sloppily spilling mucus all over the place. He was super sick.

I was like, “That kid’s got it. I got it now.”

But, we got home, and we had 14 days of confusion, whatever you want to call it, what everyone else experienced because we were traveling. We’re like, “OK, we literally can’t go outside because we don’t know what’s going on.” And it became very apparent, very quickly that touring was off the table. We talked about maybe there would be something in June, which was when we had another tour booked. We were like, “Well, maybe it will be under their control by then.” That obviously didn’t come close to happening.

That got pushed to September and then pushed to the next year, and we’re talking about even moving those things. It became very apparent, very quickly that all of our money was gone, everything was completely gone. So, we tried to figure out what we can do and how we can stay active, creative, productive, and in touch with each other. The idea came up to rework the last songs into a “recorded remotely” version; that would be something that we can be productive with, and we’d be able to learn the techniques and technology while doing it and also get a chance to work.

Godino: I think too, it’s important to note that we had just cracked into the cycle of touring for Hello Exile. That album had come out in October, and at that point in March, it was, what, five or six months? We were right in the thick of it. We had just done a U.S. tour, European tour, and Australia, and we had plans to repeat them all this year. It was just like the carpet getting pulled out from that whole album cycle.

For me personally, I don’t know if I speak for everybody, it was just cool to be able to still work on those songs in a different way to keep those songs fresh. Especially for us because we learned so much about the songs by playing them and touring, and now we’re just home. It’s cool to keep cracking away at them in a different way. It keeps your mind really active, keeps your creativity flowing. It was cool to be able to do that with those songs and not just a new batch of songs. We were still really excited to play the songs, so we wanted to keep that going.

Do you guys typically go back and rework songs or change things or play with the structures and lyrics of things after you’ve put out a record?
Godino: Not so much. I don’t know. I mean, maybe on the fly, live?

May: Well, we definitely rework stuff because a lot of times, what we bring to the studio doesn’t make it onto the record, whether it’s extra verses or some other parts and things like that, so sometimes, we’ll revisit those for doing live, acoustic stuff or something for a charity compilation. Or oftentimes, like Joe just said, when we’re doing live shows it is really fun to rework things so that they flow better.

In fact, there’s a couple things that we’ve reworked that, listening back to our songs, trying to re-rehearse them or just listen back to them or whatever reference, it’s not the same as we’re used to because we play it differently live.

That’s the extent of the reworking. It’s usually, like, a purposed thing, or unless when we’re rehearsing or you’re rehearsing by yourself, you might grab an acoustic guitar and try to get the vocals or relearn some harmonies or something, but there’s not usually a conscious reworking of the songs.

You’ve done a somewhat similar project before when you did On the Possible Past, which was the acoustic version of the record On the Impossible Past. How would you say this project differs from how you approached that one, aside from being socially distanced, and obviously having to record all the pieces individually?
May: The fundamental, top-down difference between those two is the fact that On the Possible Past was actually a collection of demos that we made before recording the record, so those were the original workings of the songs and the electronic parts grew out of it, whereas this one was backwards.

We had the electric versions already, and of course we already had somewhat acoustic versions and stripped-down versions. This time, it was basically covering our own band in a lot of regards, so it was a different challenge, for sure. It wasn’t as easy. [laughs]

Godino: Last time, we went through, and were like, “Wow, we have these cool demo versions, and they all sounded really home-quality because they were just living room quality recordings or bedroom recordings or whatever. This one was just like, “Alright, let’s put some gear into our houses and just barricade ourselves for a couple months and just work at it.” Like Tom said really well, like covering our own band.

It sounds as though with this record, it felt like you really opened things up where no idea was off the table in regards to how you might tinker with some of these songs. Was that always the idea that you would go into this just being completely, “Every idea is on the table?” Or did you arrive at that point more organically as you sat with the songs and made a conscious decision that, “Oh, you know what, maybe we could do more with this; maybe we could take this beyond just being a simple, acoustic reimagining of the record?”
Godino: Yeah, I think it was pretty organic. I think it always starts off as a small idea. It’s like, “We’ll just play like acoustic versions,” and then, as we all got more comfortable playing in our own homes and utilizing different gear or software, it took more of a life to be a broader thing. We had versions early on that were very stripped down. And then we were like, “Well, what if we just put this weird synth sound in here?” Then from that, three other people blossom ideas from it. It was insanely collaborative in that way.

May: Yeah, it’s definitely a new kind of collaboration. And, as far as you’re talking about the organic movement of the project, and when I say that what I mean is, like, “Of nothing comes something,” we’re missing the fundamental quote-unquote “organic” part of our band, and that is when we’re in the room together playing. That’s the main way that we talk music and the main way that we jam and write.

We will be in the room, and someone will play something, and then without communicating verbally or on paper, somebody just starts to play with it, and we build off of the things that are coming from that. That was 100 percent, entirely missing this time.

So, there was a new element that I think really helped us grow as musicians and even as people and as friends, And that was that we had to decide what we were going to do before we started to do it, in the meaning that we had to be able to describe what we’re doing or what we wanted to do, and then we had to come to an agreement on it. So, yeah, it was extremely collaborative, just as Joe was saying; it was a new kind of collaboration for us that actually really stimulated the new kind of aspects to it.

When we were first deciding what we were going to do, it was extremely hard. It was a battle not between each other but a battle with ourselves because we are not professional engineers or producers.

Some of us worked in an engineering capacity before, and we recorded our demos, and we’ve spent countless hours in studios, so we know what’s going on, but we all had to use our own software, our own equipment that we had in house, and that was extremely limiting but also extremely opening for possibilities for you to decide, “Are we going to program drums? Am I going to have to copy and paste part of a guitar line over and over again because I can and it actually brings a cool electronic notion to it?” Or, “Are we going to keep this one just because we’re trying guitar and vocals?”

All those conversations had to happen, and it was awesome. It was actually really, really refreshing and enjoyable.

Godino: It slowed the process down to put everything in slow motion, where you can really see what’s happening. It was something to get used to for sure, just sending files back and forth. It slowed everything down to a point where you could really take some time to breathe. There would be times when it was, like, five or six o’clock at night, and I’d be like, “I’m just going to check out for the rest of the night, sit on this for the night and see what I can come up with in the morning,” instead of just rushing it.

It was over a two-month process. It was really awesome, everything that came out of it. We were extremely happy with it because there were no real deadlines, so we could just take the time to do it. So, that was that was awesome to be able to just slow it all down.

You worked with Will Yip to master the record. How much input or assistance did you get from Will in terms of being able to take all these independent recordings that you had to make separate? Like you said, you’re not professional studio engineers, and yet this record sounds like remarkably polished given the circumstances—so I’m curious how much help you got from Will to make the finished product really sound like something where you were all in the studio recording together.
May: I gotta first give a huge shout out to Will for making it sound incredible and our friend Andy for helping us out with some technical aspects and answering some questions as we were going on. Not to sound too cocky, but we ended up doing a really good job recording it ourselves. So yeah, big shout-out to an online course called that’s a for-profit institution, but they do classes and certificate programs through different universities around the country and the world. They partner with them and do courses with companies that you would buy the shit from if you were in that field.

We took a couple of classes there; I did a full certificate program through them while we were doing this, and we each, the four of us, did a good enough job tracking and going in with. We talked a lot about the philosophy of the recording while we were doing it. We were like, “OK we want it to sound as good as we can going in so that anything that has to be done afterwards is easier on whoever is going to mix it.”

It’s just a philosophy that we try to abide by, to be like, “Oh, well, this track that I did is good enough because we can quote-unquote fix it in post,” or, “We can quote-unquote stretch it” or whatever you know you would normally.

The idea just exists that it doesn’t have to be good enough, but on this one, one reason I think it took so long is that we really made it sound really good, but with that said, Will did an absolutely incredible job taking what we gave him, we tried to make our EQs as flat as possible and tried to not be too picky and choosey with the effects and vocal effects that we used, and then Will really knocked it out hard. He absolutely fucking crushed it at his house; he brought some equipment back from his studio and did an incredible job of very quickly and fantastically making it sound incredible. It really does sound like we didn’t record it in our bedrooms or it was recorded in this attic.

Godino: I actually surprised myself. I’ve never done any digital audio anything; these guys have been trying to get me to do GarageBand for years and just mess around with stuff, and I went into it with this real lack of knowledge except for just being in the studio a lot and knowing the ins and outs of that kind of stuff. But recording myself I never really did much of, and so I was really nervous sending the files over to these guys and then ultimately to Will because I was literally in our office. My girlfriend and I, she has some instruments in there, but I don’t really play as much as her so I’m like in there like, “Hey Kaylee, help me set up this microphone,” like, I don’t know what the hell I’m doing.

But I learned, and it was really cool to be able to do. Now, I feel, like, really confident about what I did, and then hearing it after Will had treated it a little and cleaned it up made me, and I know everybody else, really proud to say, “Wow, we recorded that right in that room with just this one microphone,” or whatever we did. It was really awesome. Like Tom said, Will just made us, like he does, just takes what we do and makes it sound better.

I understand that as part of the process of revisiting these songs, there was some amount of time spent looking through old notebooks with lyrics and adding in more parts to some of the songs and tweaking some of the lyrics, and I think that something that is particularly interesting about that with this record specifically is how much Hello Exile really felt unknowingly prophetic at the time when it came out last fall, and just how much some of the lyrics felt tied up in how it feels to be a human person in the United States right now.

So, I’m curious are there any lyrics in particular that were added in that you can talk about a little bit about because they felt like they fit now in a way that they didn’t before? Or maybe because they feel more prophetic in some way or fitting to the moment or anything of that nature in regard to the lyrics on the record?
May: Actually, of the songs that I sing, I didn’t really change many of the lyrics. But, there is one of note; one of the first singles that we just put out is called “Strawberry Mansion.” And I was very wary at times of the lyrics that we used on Hello Exile because it was a very—nihilistic is absolutely not the right word, but it is very fatalist, defeatist, and I don’t usually try to remain in a situation that is unhopeful.

But, as you mentioned before, it’s not prophetic by any means, and we weren’t subconsciously tapped into some conscious energy that predicted the fucking pandemic, but it was very bizarre how a lot of the songs that we wrote really fit the time. We kind of felt that way within the political and cultural kind of layers of the time when we wrote the record; it was very weird and divisive time. Still is. Even more divisive than it was a year ago.

Even as the kind of thing that we’re doing, punk rock and getting into our early 30s, it’s different than what we were doing, we have to become new, and a lot of us feel distant from those kind of things. And then, now there’s no shows. It’s completely removed, completely gone. But yeah, in that song “Strawberry Mansion,” it talks about how civilization will eventually crumble at our own peril because of the decisions that we’ve made and decisions that we’ve allowed other people to make, and here we are not really seeing the end of humanity or the end, there’s no end of the Earth, humans may go, but the Earth is just fine.

So, the idea that we may be seeing the end of our civilization akin to the fall of the Roman Empire, and how that fell in name and then just dispersed out, it almost feels like we could be approaching that situation in the United States, especially with the extremely bleak presidential choices, and the fact that the country’s being run by the greatest charlatan in the history of the game.

It’s a very bizarre time that those songs kind of came back, and it was weird to relive them and repurpose the lyrics that we have for them even just in meaning because of what was going on in the world around us, which is, you know, I’m sure everybody listening to this or reading this can agree with or at least empathize with.

Godino: I can say it as a fan of our lyrics that I agree wholeheartedly, but yeah, nothing to really add.

Moving forward, maybe it’s too soon to be asking this question, as you just put out From Exile, but what what’s next for you guys? Is that something you’ve talked about, or had time to give much thought toward? 
Godino: We’re in constant contact with each other. I think we had that two-week maybe grace period when we first got back when we were all just like, “Let’s just get back home with our partners and our families and just make sense of all this and lock down for a little bit and see.” But then, it was pretty immediate after that, that we started the ball rolling on this project because we can’t really stay away from each other. We all live within a four-block radius.

We were constantly in contact with each other and our team of people that are awesome and still working hard for us at this time too. So, we talk about it constantly. Everything’s so uncertain with every industry now it seems, especially arts and things like that, so we’re just riding the wave and seeing what we can do.

This was a big one for us to do and to release, and we’re in the midst of that right now. Long term, we’re just at the mercy of everything. We’d like to start playing shows just as much as anybody, but it’s tough to say. I think we’ll probably just continue to try to write. It’s hard. It’s really hard to say right now, but we do discuss it.

May: Yeah, absolutely. I totally, wholeheartedly agree with the fact that we are at the mercy of everything [laughs].

There’s two parts of this, I think, and they inform each other going forward. One of them is the fact that 85 to 90 percent of all the money that we make to pay our bills and live our life comes from touring, and that’s gone.

So, we have to figure out a way that we can compensate for that. We’ve got some really cool, creative stuff that we’re working on, and that’s definitely going to involve music. After all, that’s what we really do is make music and bring that music to other places and play in front of people, and that’s out the window. So, we have to inform the music that we’re going to be making next, and the easiest way for us to get paid is to put out records.

We might look at all kinds of shit. Some bands are doing Patreons and things like that. It’s all like Joe said, we’re at the mercy going forward, and as far as the writing goes, I know that I’ve been feeling pretty fucking creative, as well as Greg. I know Greg’s been cranking songs out, and we’re going to take some new approaches to writing this record that are going to be informed by the fact that we’re greatly informed by all the work that we just did on From Exile.

We don’t necessarily have to meet up with each other every single day, or also the way that we write, it can have these”electronic” or at least software influences in the way that we can share music with each other.

I think that that’s going to bring a conscious and mindful effort to the writing that we’re doing, so instead of being in a room smashing everything as loud as you can and vibing, one big contrast on doing this From Exile was that we were able to look at each and every single part and ask, “Is this the best part that we should be listening to? Is this the part that is supporting the other one? Should I actually be putting anything here or playing something?”

I think that the blessing in disguise from this entire travesty, for us personally, is that we’re going to be able to write better music, so I’m really optimistic about that. When it comes to touring, who knows how fucking traumatized people are going to be; who knows where it’s going to be allowed. We’re going to start on a tour and then three days later go home, or we can only tour regionally with a fucking proof of vaccine or some shit? Who knows where it’s going to go?

Godino: I will say too, though, something that we always talked about doing, when we’re writing a new album, in the early stages of writing a new album, we start sending files back and forth, but we ultimately get into a room together and practice them, and that’s how we write music, like Tom said. It was a blessing in disguise, I suppose, but it forced us to do it this way.

Now, we have a lot of confidence going into potentially writing a new record. We did this project so early on in quarantine and all that; we have a lot of confidence going forward knowing that we can pull it off again with a new batch of songs if we need to. Sounds like we’ll probably need to. [laughs]

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