WORDS: BECTON SIMPSON | PHOTOS: BRIAN COX
“When people need music, that is the time to put it out and I think people have never needed music more than they do now,” reflected a high-spirited Bert McCracken via Skype from his own locked-down home in Australia. It’s certainly an uncertain time for the music industry, and humanity as a whole, but thankfully The Used’s new record ‘Heartwork’ is here to bring some light in the darkness. Bert told us he hoped the fans would enjoy hearing “the songs they know they can look forward to hearing live in the future…Eventually we’ll get out on the other side of this thing.”
The album definitely contains plenty of uplifting material to get us through, born out of the sheer fun the band were having during the writing and recording process, which Bert described as “the most fun we’ve ever had in the studio.” A lot of the most important parts of the record came from just “friends having a great time” and jamming around. “Being in the studio and being a good head space, you’re able to bounce ideas of each other really freely.”
As such, the more experimental and funkier pop sounds on the record were “more unconscious than planned,” with the band wanting to tap into the types of music that had always influenced them and inspired them. “A lot of these songs feel kind of routed in the places we grow up…but we never talked about anything other than let’s make some songs that we loved, felt connected to, and also had catchy melodies that get stuck in your head…Some of that stuff was even jokes that when we listened to them seriously we were like ‘oh, that actually is awesome.” Such as the slap bass which Jeph Howard wasn’t even sure he’d be able to pull off since it wasn’t his usual technique. “What you hear is just the first thing that came out, we were all like ‘woahhhh’.”
“WHEN PEOPLE NEED MUSIC, THAT IS THE TIME TO PUT IT OUT, AND I THINK PEOPLE HAVE NEVER NEEDED MUSIC MORE THAN THEY DO NOW.”
Working with producer John Feldman once again – who’s had a hand in some of the band’s most classic records – it was like being amongst family. Describing Feldman as a “legend” and “one of the most hard-working” people in the industry, Bert talked about their “close, tight relationship” and said he always knew they’d end up working together again eventually. “We do like to keep ourselves out of our comfort zone as well though…and making a record with Feldman is maybe the most comfortable thing. It’s always a good time with him but we’re all a lot older now and responsible, we know how to have a good time AND get the work done. We know when to cut the shit and get serious, and when to cut the serious and get….” A load of cool features for the album, apparently. With a whopping four guest artists – a record for The Used – ‘Heartwork’ has appearances from Jason Aalon Butler, Mark Hoppus, Travis Baker and Caleb Shomo. Bert told us this was all about saying yes to things. The band’s last album, 2017’s ‘The Canyon’ had been “so protected…it was really a personal project for me, an art project in a way…I was really passionate about controlling what happened to the record…These weren’t just metaphors…this was my actual journal.” On ‘Heartwork’ then, he wanted to “take the opposite approach.” As such, the band all agreed to “say yes to every opportunity that came our way. I never wanted to be the end of the argument for the record, for what happened or didn’t happen. I wanted it to be a group effort, all hearts on the table.”
Sonically, ‘Heartwork’ is what Bert described as “different and colourful” but as he also pointed out, The Used are a band who have “always experimented with a lot of the lighter sides and poppier sides of music from the very beginning.” It seems he’s full prepared to get some level of backlash from certain types of fans, however. “I know its easy for any fan to talk shit on a heavy band when they do anything poppy, I’ve been that type of fan too, I think we all have,” he chuckled. “But I think the hardcore Used fans know the journey we’ve always been on and that underneath the songs – in the sentiment and the emotion – is where that edge lies.”
Underneath the songs then, are multi-layered lyrics with multiple meanings, metaphors and literature “easter eggs” (1984, Gravity’s Rainbow, Infinite Jest, John Milton, The Lottery etc). One of Bert’s favourite parts about being in the band is “getting to force feed my love of books, poems and plays into the music” although he “wasn’t trying to alienate anyone who hasn’t read these books…what inspires us kind of gets stuck in our conscious and becomes us, and we can only create what we know.” And while there’s no need to have any knowledge of the books to appreciate the songs, it adds another interesting layer to the many complexities of The Used’s lyrics. “The more layers the better…Some of my favourite pieces of art, I’ve had to dig and dig. I appreciate the challenge.” And if the literature references inspire people to read, then great. “I don’t really care what people read or don’t read…but if anyone caught a vibe and ended up picking up any of these books or getting inspired by them then I would be absolutely stoked, I’d feel like that was something positive I did, for sure.”
“WE’RE TRYING TO GET TO THE DEEPEST, MORE INTIMATE PARTS OF FEELINGS, AND PUT THOSE INTO THESE SONGS.”
Fans of the band are sure to notice the resurgence of the old ‘In Love And Death’ hanging heart motif, linking in neatly with the idea of the band writing songs rooted in their past, but it’s a little more than that too. “We’re connected to that symbol,” Bert explained. “It’s such a powerful image and I think it says a lot about the band. We’re really trying to get to the deepest, most intimate parts of feeling, and put those expressions into song. It’s the same when we play a live show,” he added, which is why you won’t catch Bert doing any online shows during lockdown anytime soon. “What’s special about live music is just that…you’re connected in that way by closeness. I wanna be able to grab onto you and smell your stinky breath.”
Harking back to the old logos and imagery is also perfectly timed with the band celebrating their 20th anniversary this year (they started jamming together back in 2000). The guys don’t have anything too specific planned for the anniversary though, except “stand in front of people and sing” which they’re dying to do as soon as safely possible. “Everybody’s gonna be so excited to get back at it that these are gonna be some of the most exciting rock shows of all time.” Not just in terms of The Used, but for every single band who’s been halted by the pandemic. “Our plans have only been shifted, not cancelled. My Chemical Romance are still gonna take us out on all their tours, of course,” Bert informed us with a mischievous smirk, ticking the box for mentioning MCR in every interview. “Gerard knows there’s been a lot of jokes,” he added. “Even if they don’t end up taking us out, you can imagine that we’re there.” Sure, but we’d still love to see it.
Meanwhile, The Used have been announced on the new September Slam Dunk line-up, so pandemic-permitting we’ll have the guys back here soon. Until then we have ‘Heartwork’. “The love of music will carry us all,” Bert gave us the final word. “Especially through this really dark time.”
Heartwork is out NOW via Hassle Records.