Growing up and growing old with The Menzingers

On their new album Hello Exile, the Scranton punks ease into their role as the genre’s elder statesmen, wondering how to navigate adulthood.

October 03, 2019
Growing up and growing old with The Menzingers Photo: Jess Flynn  

The Menzingers’ Greg Barnett turned 31 this year, but his fans don’t need to be told that. On just about every record the Philadelphia band has released over the last 12 years, the singer and guitarist has alluded to how old he is and how he feels about it.

The band’s first four albums saw the four-piece navigating youth with reckless abandon: driving drunk, living in rodent-infested apartments, stomaching romantic failures, getting high on shift breaks at shitty jobs, partying way too much, and struggling to pay rent. But the band’s most recent album, 2017’s After the Party, opened with "Tellin' Lies," a song that had Barnett staring down the big 3-0, sobering up, and pondering, “Where are we gonna go now that our twenties are over?”

“My dad made fun of me when he first heard that song,” says Barnett. “He was like, ‘What are you talking about, man? Your thirties are the best decade of your entire life! In your twenties, you have no idea what’s going on. You and all your friends are broke, you’re constantly trying to figure things out, it’s a train wreck. But in your thirties, you start to understand yourself and understand others. You find your career path and things start to make sense.’ And I was like, you know what? You’re right. Why did I put it in my head that it’s all doom and gloom? It really shifted my mindset.”

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Then again, Barnett’s father never played in a punk band. Time moves faster in music than in the real world. One day you’re the new kids on the scene and the next you feel aged out of it. When Barnett started The Menzingers as a quasi-ska project with three high school friends — Tom May, Eric Keen, and Joe Godino — in Scranton, he was a baby-faced teenager who got teased by older, more established bands.

“When we first started touring, all of us were always the young ones. We played a couple shows with NOFX and they just made fun of how little we were. And touring with Against Me!, too, we were always that young band,” says Barnett. “I always think about how we got to play The Lawrence Arms’ ten-year anniversary show in 2008. That was a really big show for us at the time — a sold-out show at The Metro, a historic club. I think I was 19 or 20, and I remember Brendan [Kelly] and Neil [Hennessy] and Chris [McCaughan], they were like my age now, and they had to constantly remind me of what a little baby I was. I was like, ‘What are you talking about? I’m an adult here!’”

But after over a decade of heavy touring and grinding it out, sharing stages with Philadelphia’s next crop of young bands like Modern Baseball, Barnett woke up one day to realize that The Menzingers aren’t punk’s little babies anymore. Now, five albums into their career, they’re on the verge of easing into a new role as the genre’s elder statesmen. Their new record, Hello Exile — out October 4 via Epitaph — embraces that, and kicks off with them already looking ahead at what comes next with the lyric: “How do I steer my early thirties, before I shipwreck, before I’m 40?”

“That line was me thinking I wanted to write a political song but asking: What else am I going to do about that?” says Barnett. “You need to do things besides just saying it. I want to make sure I start off a new decade by making sure I’m fighting the right fight and I’m on the right team and I’m helping the causes I believe in. How do I make sure I don’t let an entire decade go by without helping any type of social change that I believe in?”

It’s a thought Barnett wouldn’t have had the foresight to consider on the band’s early records, which were largely marked by the mistakes of adolescence. But now he’s contemplating how to mature gracefully and, as he’s been discovering, so are his fans.

“Our fanbase has grown with us this entire time. When we first started out, everybody was 17, 18, 19. The fans we get now, it tends to be people who are relatively close to our age group,” he says. “A lot of fans come up and say that it’s special to have a band that they’ve been able to follow as they’ve grown up — a lot of similar life challenges and similar questions and things they’re facing.”

Most fans hopped on the Menzingers train around their breakout album, 2012’s On The Impossible Past, a masterpiece of mid-twenties misadventures. The album is a young person’s idea of what it means to feel old. It’s when Barnett started noticing more Menzingers tattoos and when fans started telling him that his music has helped them transition into adulthood. He’s heard from more than a few people that the album’s love ballad “Gates” has been used as a wedding song.

“We make jokes sometimes that we just need to become a wedding band because the amount of emails we get about playing people’s weddings is insane,” Barnett laughs. “It’s so flattering, the idea that this is the biggest moment in a couple’s life, and they want us to be a part of it. That’s really incredible. A lot of people have connected with these songs in ways we had never even dreamed of.”

Hello Exile, The Menzingers’ greatest statement on adulthood to date, ends with a reflection on how far they’ve come since their scrappy Scranton beginnings. Its closing track, “Farewell Youth,” is, as the title suggests, something of a eulogy for the carefree nights of their impossible past. “Farewell, youth, I’m afraid I hardly got to know you / I was always hanging out with the older kids,” Barnett sings.

“I was a person who grew up really fast,” Barnett says of the track. “I was 13, hanging out with the seniors, going to shows, and they were giving me records. I remember being an 18-year-old on tour, having to wait outside the club because I was under 21. I had to wait until I had to play, and then be kicked out of the club again. We toured a lot like that, and it did feel like youth went very fast in that way. I always rushing to be older, always rushing to change.”

Looking at the road ahead, it’s hard to know whose footsteps The Menzingers should follow. All of the bands they’ve looked up to and cite as influences have faced problems of their own. Their Turnpike brethren in The Gaslight Anthem went on indefinite hiatus after their fifth album. Against Me! still endure, but have gone through their share of member changes over the years. The Menzingers have maintained the same lineup since the band’s inception, and have never gone more than three years without releasing a new album.

When asked to imagine what life as a Menzinger will look like after 40, Barnett draws a blank. “I don’t really have a clear cut vision of it all,” he says. “I guess I’m just optimistic that it’ll all fall into place.”

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Growing up and growing old with The Menzingers