INTERVIEW: Bert McCracken from The Used
They were an iconic staple for many in the emo and post-hardcore realms in the early 2000s, but Utah quartet The Used aren’t just a blip on the radar of trends gone by, emphatically seeking to evolve and endure beyond any genre confines while continually embracing honesty and change in their own colourful way.
Starting life nearly two decades ago, The Used have gone on to face an ever-changing industry in the wake of their self-titled debut album in 2002 amid poverty, substance abuse and startling success. And while currently all over the globe people attempt to come to grips with the surreal and ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, The Used now sit poised on their most assured and focused offering yet, with the group’s eighth studio album Heartwork due out on Friday April 24 raring to showcase the group’s unwavering progression while also embracing some of the signature Used flair that endeared them so heavily to their perpetually diehard fans so early on.
Offering insights into powerful vulnerability as well as The Used's own unique knack for straddling genres in every corner of the sonic sphere, Heartwork also acts as a bridge between new and old fans alike as the group steer into an offering laced with dance, pop, punk rock and hearty dollop of hope that gifts an energetic and emphatic ride for all who enter. And before the group’s brand new album drops next month (and mid-COVID-19 self-isolation), Tiana Speter grabbed some time with The Used’s frontman Bert McCracken to chat everything from the new album journey to the band’s first ever gig – and why they can proudly be called the pagers of the music industry. Interview below.
PARADISE LOST, A POEM BY JOHN MILTON (THE USED)
TIANA SPETER: Hey Bert, how’s it going?
BERT MCCRACKEN: I’m well! Well, as good as one can be right now!
TIANA: Yes, what an utterly mad time it is. You’re actually the first person I’m having an actual proper conversation with other than my family in days, so if I start rambling you’ll have to tell me to shut up.
BERT: Well, luckily they have us on a timer so either way if one of us starts rambling we’ll get cut off anyways! (laughs)
TIANA: Well, I hope you aren’t being too heavily affected by the craziness so far – but one silver lining for a lot of us I guess is being able to dive into some escapism…and something to help us all with that soon is The Used’s brand new album ‘Heartwork’ which will release finally next month. Aside from all the doom and gloom, how does it feel to finally be at this point of the release process?
BERT: Yeah, it’s really the best feeling. It’s always different with every record and it always depends. But this record was just such a pleasure the whole way through. And we kind of kept it really personal but in a way that’s kind of like, my favourite types of art, some are reflected and it also seems like it’s somebody else’s story. It wasn’t like pages out of my journal, it was a story that we can all relate to about someone that we’re all very familiar with. So – yeah! We’re so excited, and regardless of all the madness we’re just as excited as we were. And we wish we were able to do all of the fun things that we have planned but I think that instead of cancelling anything, of course, everything will just be postponed. And it will all go ahead as planned as soon as we can. But the feelings are really positive and we’re really stoked not only for our hardcore fans to hear it, but I think that this record has a lot of cool potential to reach some people who maybe have never even heard of The Used, which is always exciting.
TIANA: There is certainly so much to look forward to, and we’ve already had some sneak peeks with ‘Blow Me’ and ‘Paradise Lost, a poem by John Milton’ offering some snippets of what’s to come from the album…and I know in your press releases there’s been talk this album will draw on some of your earlier records too. But going into ‘Heartwork’ from day one, what was the game plan, did you guys all have a solid idea of what your dream end result would be for this album?
BERT: We talked a lot about what we didn’t want to happen, we didn’t really want to get bogged down with our own personal attachment to any ideas. I guess we all agreed going into this thing that we were gonna say yes to every single tiny thing that was presented to us. We were gonna say yes to every opportunity that came up and every little single thing, we were gonna at least give it a shot, everyone’s ideas were valid. And we worked it all out together, we had such a crazy personal experience on the last record, and a lot of it was me in my protective, creative process. And I thought a better thing to do for everyone was to just let all of that go this time. And it was full, all-hands-on-deck input from day one. There was never any type of sound or any direction or strategy in that way…we just wanted to make catchy songs that we would love to play live. And everybody has such different influences that you would naturally get a very colourful and different-sounding record that’s kind of all over the place that is, in my mind, genre-less to a certain extent. I think that there’s classic Used songs and then even the hardcore Used fans will be truly surprised and excited to hear it, these are some of the most extremes that we’ve ever taken. We’ve never experimented this much with music, and it’s got some of the heaviest songs The Used have ever produced, and some of the poppiest songs as well. We’ve never been this excited, to be honest!
BLOW ME (THE USED)
TIANA: That’s awesome to hear, and even hearing what you guys have put out already, there are already some significant stylistic differences lurking between ‘Blow Me’ and ‘Paradise Lost’…and it’s an interesting time when people more than ever seem so ready to pigeon-hole bands and define them with specific genres. But you guys have always been able to kind of find your own space, even though people would still fling, you know, the ‘emo’ or ‘screamo’ monikers at you. And I still love you describing The Used as “gross pop” back in the day…and by the sound of it the 2020 version of The Used is more engaging and exciting than ever…
BERT: Yeah, and it’s cool, there’s seemingly a conscious resurgence of this music that’s more connected to feeling. And it’s music that’s more about the hardcore music fan, people like me who kind of live and die for it. We lean on music as a crutch - and it’s our church, it’s our saving grace. It feels good that there’s a lot of music that’s coming back in a big way in 2020 that feels like it’s full of feeling and full of heart and soul. Which is good with everyone in this really strange place right now, we wanna feel things the way we used to.
TIANA: Absolutely, it’s amazing how it can provide that anchor amid some of the craziness. And an exciting thing with ‘Heartwork’ as well, it also brings the return of John Feldmann to The Used family which is, of course, a pretty special collaboration…this is someone you sent demos to, he produced your debut album, and he’s worked on stuff along the way since then as well…and it’s also the first release for you guys on his label Big Noise as well…what was it like teaming up with John again for this adventure?
BERT: He took us right back to the excitement that we experienced when we were first getting signed, and first flown out to LA to record demos. And it just felt like this really magical…actually, that’s a great word to describe it too, it felt like there was this familiar and yet really special magical, child-like energy that was in the room everyday. And it was really laidback, the process was never overwhelming, nobody felt bogged down – and yet we somehow seemed to kind of produce and create a full song a day for all the time that we were in there…and we ended up with way too many songs! We’ll have some really cool B-sides as well, but it was just a cool, positive energy. Way more than half of that you can give the thanks to John Feldmann, he’s just…this unbelievable type of spirit when it comes to passion and drive. And he’s one of the hardest-working human beings that I’ve ever met, it’s great to be around that, it really pushes you to be your best and in competition with yourself to do better than you maybe think that you could have, and show him what you’re really made of. It’s awesome!
TIANA: It's so nice seeing that beautiful connection you guys have, and also reading the utterly beautiful things he has to say about you guys as well. And I particularly loved reading John saying you’re still one of the best singers he’s every worked with, what a lovely thing to still be saying after all this time. I thought that was very adorable.
BERT: I know! I couldn’t believe it, I still blush. And he’s my favourite, we’ve always been brothers since day one when we met. We’ve been through so much crazy stuff together that it’s….well, it’s beyond brothers, it’s really wild. There is something special about when we get in a room together, we’re always pretty close to tears. And the fact that we can just let ourselves get there with music is just…it’s so special. That’s what it’s always been about since day one.
TIANA: It’s an incredible legacy. And for you guys as a band as well, another incredible legacy is that just shy of two decades The Used has been in existence as a band…and obviously you would’ve witnessed so much change, present-times excluded, in the music industry with everything from social media to streaming really ramping up in your early days as a band. And I’d be kind of interested to ask you, rather than what you think has changed the most in the industry…is there anything you feel has actually changed the least in the time The Used has been in existence? Have some things significantly stayed the same for you guys after all this time?
BERT: I think that the quality of the backstage restroom facilities are probably just the same (laughs). And I think there’s a certain element to a live show that is kind of like that healing gathering…that social get-together that seems like church. An event like that where you’re around so many people sharing something. And then you leave there feeling so inspired…I think that will always be the same, that will always be the really special part of live music. But yeah, other than that – it’s gone crazy, it’s gotten wild! I like to think of it like the Deftones and the bands that were kind of big when I was in high school…they were like the hardline phones on the wall with the cords. And when we came out with all these bands…we were like pagers (laughs). We were like in-between the cell phone and the phone on the wall. So we missed getting paid for physical record sales and went straight to streaming (laughs). It’s this wild world of like…well, we’re one of the only bands that kind of saw the change happen in our career, it’s pretty wild. We saw the emergence and the kind of takeover of social media. Now record labels are only looking at your social media numbers first, and if that was the case – we’d be doomed because I’ve always been really against that kind of concept when it comes to art in general. But…yeah, it’s tough. A tough world for new musicians and new artists out there.
TIANA: It definitely is. But I do love the pager analogy…and it’s funny, everything seems to come back eventually and you guys have managed to stick it out so it’s awesome, you’ve flown the flag proudly for the pagers!
BERT: Right on! I was just gonna say the same thing, I think it’s really cool how things really come full-circle on the opposite side of things. With the introduction of digitally-recorded music in the early 2000s – it got really bad for a while because humans are really bad at getting used to new technology, just like social media has been bad for the last 10 years. But I think when we slowly adjust…now you hear digital music that’s kind of reflecting what’s naturally great about the artist once again. Because everybody has the same tools and same tricks, I think in that way everything’s coming full circle and it’s a beautiful kind of new beginning for soulful music.
TIANA: Absolutely. It’s never boring, which is I suppose a bonus too! Speaking of you guys being around for so long as a band…skipping back down memory lane here, can you take me back to The Used’s first ever live show…where was it, who was there and would you label it as a success?
BERT: It was pretty crazy, we played at this comedy store. There was really no live music venues in our county, Utah county, it’s like 45 minutes south of Salt Lake. It was a comedy shop and somehow they let us play there! And we had ballet dancers from the Utah Academy of Ballet in Utah County come and dance throwing a box full of sharp objects. We tried to make it a really big deal and we already had our name out at that point in the local scene as this cool new thing that people hadn’t heard before. So, yeah, it was a little bit of a deal…there were probably like 40-50 people there. My parents were there, and they hated it.
TIANA: Awww! That’s a sign it’s a good time though, usually.
BERT: (laughs) I think it was a really, really loud room, when I bring that up to my mum she’s like: “that’s not fair! I got a headache from the speakers!!” (laughs)
TIANA: Hey, she still showed up, that’s awesome! And it’s incredible because look where that moment led to now…would you ever have predicted you would be poised on your eighth studio release in 2020 looking back to that time in your life?
BERT: I would say no because I was such a reckless young person, I never really thought about the future all that much. But really, honestly…by the time I was 8 years-old and understood that you could travel and play music live onstage for people – it’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. So I would honestly have to say I couldn’t have imagined…I probably did hope though since I was 8.
TIANA: Thank goodness you did pursue it…and on the topic of yourself, you also grew up playing trumpet from a very early age…what series of events led to you becoming a singer?
BERT: I did! Well, I was always a singer, I was singing for people, I think for my parents it was a “first child’ type of situation, they were really excited and showing me off to everyone. And my mum has a giant family, so there was always an opportunity to sing in front of people. So I’ve been singing in front of people since I was really, really little – like 2! And my dad played the trumpet, I wanted to play the drums in junior high, but you had to play one full year of a different instrument before they’d let you on the drums. So I picked trumpet out of necessity, but I ended up loving it, and I stuck with it for a while. I still play! I’m not too bad to this day.
TIANA: It’s an amazing journey that has led to so many things, and I know we will all be eagerly awaiting to see you guys live in action again once all of the craziness has subsided…
BERT: Oh 100%!
TIANA: And before I let you go - to risk stealing John Feldmann’s words, you have genuinely been one of my favourite singers for a large portion of my life too. So I had to just briefly fan-girl and mildly embarrass myself for a moment here. And obviously I’m not alone.
BERT: Ohhh that’s so awesome. I really appreciate that!
TIANA: Well so many of us are so excited to have ‘Heartwork’ to look forward to in the not-so-distant future, it’s going to be an amazing year for The Used regardless of what’s happening right now!
BERT: Right on! I can’t wait for the hardcore fans like you to hear it, because I think that unlike the really tough, painful material of the past, this is told in such a light and kind of celebratory way, and it feels like you could even talk about the darkest things with a smile and maybe have a little laugh afterwards. It’s an incredible record, it’s crazy how long we have to wait still. But I can’t wait for people to hear it! I’m so excited!
TIANA: That definitely sounds like something we all need right now. Thank you for taking the time to chat today and we didn’t ramble over our time limit and get kicked off! Yay!
BERT: (laughs) Thanks for your time as well! You have a lovely day, stay safe!
THE USED'S EIGHTH STUDIO ALBUM HEARTWORK IS DUE OUT FRIDAY APRIL 24, WITH PRE-ORDERS AVAILABLE NOW HERE. FOR ALL OTHER INFO ON THE USED, HEAD HERE.
BY TIANA SPETER