The Menzingers have been playing punk rock songs about hanging out and drinking beers with their friends for more than 15 years. Not unlike a lot of punk bands, they’ve always wondered what things would look like when they all grew up. The 2019 release Hello Exile was the closest that has come yet to being realized.
Then a pandemic happened. And the band had a lot of time to consider their own friendships with each other. They made it through by recording the same record as From Exile, acoustic versions of the songs that saw the quartet gracefully enter their 30s. And when they arrived on the other side of the pandemic, they were met with a tour with their heroes, The Descendents, and Rise Against. The Descendents have spent 40 years contemplating their mortality; a unique opportunity to learn even more about themselves.
The tour sees the bands open in the South, though, a region that has failed to come near the national average on vaccination rates. So while there has been some trepidation, they’re still excited to be together again. I talked to vocalist and guitarist Greg Barnett of the Scranton, Pennsylvania band about the timing of a rare Southern swing, what they have learned from The Descendents about growing older and the strength of their friendship.
Has it been challenging on this tour to work through mask ordinances and vaccination requirements in different cities?
To be completely honest, yeah. Especially getting down here in the South. It’s a completely different beast. Where we’re from in the Northeast, the case numbers are lower. But with that being said, we’re taking every precaution that we can. There’s a lot of Covid guidelines for the entire tour: we don’t have guests backstage, we mask up when we’re in the venues. You try to do the best you can. We want to get back to playing live music any way that we can; so we’re just trying to be smart and safe.
Do you feel like it’s caused issues among concert attendees or do you find that most of your audience is going to do the right thing anyway?
I haven’t experienced or heard of any backlash from our fans. There [were] masks at the Atlanta show. It just changes so much per city; each city has different guidelines. I think most people are just excited to have live music back and they’re willing to take the precautions to have that. If you don’t and things get really bad, we’re not gonna be able to do this again. I haven’t seen much of it. And as it always goes, the negative folks are always the loudest on the internet, right?
You reimagined Hello Exile as an acoustic record during the pandemic. Is that something you enjoyed doing? Is it something you might do again with other albums in the catalog?
Yeah, we absolutely enjoyed doing it. It was so fun to dive through those songs and change them around and change melodies and put new lyrics in. At the beginning of the pandemic; we were isolated, we had no idea when we could go back to touring. So having that project was so fun for us.
We have no plans as of right now to go back and do that for old songs, but I know that we love doing it, so I don’t see any reason that we wouldn’t continue when we get some available time to.
Is that enjoyment something that comes with age? When you were younger, it was all louder and more aggressive. But hearing your own songs stripped a bit – is that a thing you have come to appreciate as you get a little older?
Yeah, sure. I’d definitely say so. The older I get, I listen to tons and tons of different styles of music now. When I was a kid, I pretty much exclusively listened to punk rock, you know? Or classic rock. The older I get, the more country or Americana becomes some of my main influences. Getting to do that with the music we make has been really fun and satisfying.
And mortality has been a big theme of yours for years. You’re touring with your heroes, The Descendents, a band that has been singing about getting older for 40 years. What have you learned from them about growing old in the punk rock scene?
It’s been so amazing. Just being able to pop into the dressing room and chat and hear stories about everything. The one thing that keeps coming up over and over again is friendship and a love of music. Talking to [Descendents drummer] Bill Stevenson about, you know, “Nobody liked our band forever, but we just did it because it’s fun and we were friends.”
He said something really amazing to us, “I can tell you guys are a real band because you’re friends. You’re real friends. You’re all sitting around on the couch and laughing. That’s how you can tell. A lot of bands don’t like each other and they don’t want to be around each other and they just go off to their own hotel rooms.” And it’s true. Once you find bands that are friends first, and then they make music – that’s a powerful thing. I’m learning the value of friendship in music from them. They’ve been doing it for 40 years. It’s insane.
I’m not sure where you are in the writing process for the followup to Hello Exile, but when you learn these things about who you are from the most seasoned veterans in the business, how does it make your songwriting evolve?
We’re in the writing process, but it’s still moving along. And it’s inspiring. It’s inspiring to have those types of connections. It’s inspiring to write music again after a very long time of not being able to get together because everyone wasn’t able to get vaccinated. Having that bond again of the four of us being able to hang out and be on tour, being able to play live on a stage – you remember why you love it so much. Having conversations with The Descendents about it all is an incredible feeling. And it’s definitely inspiring when we’re writing an album. All of this is going to come into the music.
Now, you find yourselves as veterans. There are new bands coming around behind you. Do you think the future of punk rock is bright?
Absolutely. You’re always discovering new bands touring around. Your friends in other cities are always sharing new bands that you have to check out. It’s awesome. I hope that now that we’re getting older and we’ve been a touring act for a long time and we can take out younger bands and show them the ropes – like the Bouncing Souls or the Descendents or Rise Against has done for us – it’s an amazing thing, that evolution.
I read you talk on the topic in an interview with Dan Ozzi a year or two ago – do you feel boxed in by “punk rock?” Do you wish that you were considered just “indie rock?”
It’s an interesting concept. If you ask a fan of The Menzingers or a fan of punk rock, it’s very rare that you meet people that just exclusively listen to that. If you’re a fan of music, you listen to a lot of different things. The industry and maybe the music journalism industry likes to put things in boxes more than fans. That can be frustrating. But at the end of the day, the four of us feel comfortable writing whatever the hell we want to write. Our favorite punk bands that we grew up on always did the same thing. If people want to call us a punk band or this or that, that’s their choosing. We just want to continue to expand our musical interests and expand what makes for fun writing and what makes for us being inspired.
I don’t feel like you guys have peaked as writers. I feel like every record has been better than the one before it. Do you think that’s true of yourselves? Do you think the best is yet to come?
Oh, absolutely. Not trying to toot our own horn here. We’ve been around a while now, but we’ve never been a band that looks to the past. We’re always trying to push new things. Songwriting is my favorite thing in the world. I wake up every morning and I think about songwriting. It never becomes complacent for us. We want to just continue to put everything into our albums. We never want to feel like all of the glory days are behind us. As we continue to grow, we’ve been very fortunate to write successful songs.
Are you guys still friends? Do you still feel the way you did about this thing 15 years ago?
Of course. Absolutely. To be honest, I think going through the pandemic has brought us closer. We’ve never had a break before. Having to stop for a year and a half and then starting back up; you just realize how incredibly fortunate we are to do this with our best friends. It’s made us even closer. And that’s what’s fun about starting to write music again. That bond is even stronger than it ever was.
Rise Against, The Descendents and The Menzingers are at Avondale Brewing Company on Monday. The show begins at 6:30 p.m. Tickets are available online and at the door.