Interview with guitarist/vocalist Tom May | By Derek Nielsen | Photo by Vince Sadonis
It’s been more than a decade since The Menzingers collectively relocated to Philadelphia from their hometown of Scranton, Pennsylvania. Their breakthrough 2012 album, On the Impossible Past, showcased a young band already flexing on some serious nostalgia, while 2014’s Rented World took a desaturated detour into Gen X territory. 2017’s After the Party knocked the ball so far out of the park, it left everyone else throwing their gloves in the air, yelling, “Ham, you idiot! Now we can’t play no more!”
For their sixth album, Hello Exile, dropping Oct. 4 via Epitaph Records, The Menzingers didn’t need to pull any stunts; instead, they continue weaving the melancholy—and the infinite sadness—we all carry around inside of us into meticulously crafted punk anthems.
“We didn’t have a mission statement, but we did do a few things differently consciously,” guitarist and vocalist Tom May explains. “We spent a lot more time figuring out what it was to have a song and what made a song a song and what we liked about certain songs. We also went for more vibey guitars, and by that, I mean there’s more true player’s tone, where we use the dynamics of playing to change what were actually doing instead of just smashing through with a bunch of power chords—which is still cool, but mostly, we tried to have more space in the instrumentation to have the songs feel more open. It’s still us; there’s no indie whispering. We just tried to not play over each other as much.”
Just like Springsteen, Dylan, and Petty, The Menzingers’ lyrics lean heavily into themes of nostalgia, love, loss, and redemption. It’s this blue-collar approach to songwriting that has made them reliable narrators for punks old enough to remember 9/11 but too young to remember Reagan. Hello Exile’s opener, “America (You’re Freaking Me Out),” is a marching manifesto that so perfectly and cathartically captures the zeitgeist, it practically whispers tauntingly to the subsequent tracks on its way out, “Yeah. Try to follow that.”
“I read something today that’s been fucking me up,” May segues. “If you take how often you see your parents, and you enter their age, where they live, whether they smoke or not, you can see, at this rate, how many times you’re going to see your parents before they die. It boils down to, like, 50 times! Those painfully real moments, this record has a bunch of those.”
Emotional maturity is a tricky bitch, because sharing an identity with others while also developing your own independent moral agency requires a level of negotiation that is often, well, painful. On the song “Strangers Forever,” vocalist and guitarist Greg Barnett sings, “Maybe it’s for the best we stay strangers forever / Maybe it’s for the best we just act like we never met / Forget everything that we’ve ever known / Maybe it’s for the best we stay strangers forever.”
“A lot of the change that comes with this lifestyle,” May reflects, “we’ve had a lot of friends come and go, some of them because we aren’t in the same realm anymore and some of them because they’re dead. There’s been a bunch of that experience, which definitely colored the record this time, and that makes you think about your own mortality, and that changes your lens on the world.”
Throughout these changes, there’s been one constant for the four members of The Menzingers—each other. Whereas other bands reaching the 10-year mark often take a hiatus or ease off the gas a little, The Menzingers are busier than ever.
“We started the band with a foundation that has allowed us to grow, and we communicate on the same page,” May explains. “I have been drunk with those three guys talking about life and the future more times than most people talk to their fucking husbands or wives in their entire lives. We have such a shared intention that we have spoken out loud: ‘Hey. We’re in this band together.’ Laying this foundation out means there’s no uncertainty and no one builds any grudges or all the things that you think a relationship should be. Our [relationship] is social and business all at the same time, but having that open communication is really what set us apart.”
“We came from Scranton, and we’re used to working, and that’s how we figured life was gonna go, so we don’t mind putting in the hours,” he adds. “In fact, the hours give us purpose. What makes life worth it is working all day with the band. It’s fucking awesome. No, we never did any of that hiatus shit! If we need a hiatus, we just don’t go on tour for a while.”
After the Party opened with Barnett frantically repeating, “Where are we gonna go now that our 20s are over?” and “I don’t mind telling lies.” It’s clear-cut denial, for sure—but denial is simply the first step. Hello Exile ends with “Farewell Youth,” a midtempo college-radio rocker on which Barnett croons, “Farewell youth, I’m afraid I hardly got to know you / I was always hanging out with the older kids.” There it is—acceptance. These two songs bookend a journey that most of us have or will embark on, a coming-of-age lesson that a tearful farewell is simply setting the stage for a new hello.