After 20 years, The Used are still a formidable force. Their seventh record, 2017’s ‘The Canyon’, was a slow-burning epic. A double album recorded live to tape, frontman Bert McCraken described it as “an art experiment, a conscious decision to avoid making any kind of commercial statement and a painful process.” Following the death of a close friend, the album existed inside a grand concept that questioned grief, loss and longing. “We needed to make that record, but it was the opposite of fun.”
By contrast, their upcoming album ‘Heartwork’ sounds like a right laugh – returning to the sort of immediacy and colour that set them alongside Taking Back Sunday and My Chemical Romance when emo exploded into the mainstream at the turn of the millennium. For a taster of what’s to come, look no further than the effervescent call to arms of new single ‘Obvious Blasé’ – premiering on NME below.
From lockdown in Australia, McCraken talks to NME about inspiration, pop music, and those never-ending MCR tour rumours…
‘The Canyon’ sounded like was such a gruelling record to create. Is ‘Heartwork’ a reaction to it?
Bert: “Those records are two completely different sides of the picture. ‘The Canyon’ was a really, really personal record for me and I wanted to use it as a moment for myself and to see how far you could take art and creativity to grieve for the loss of someone. With ‘Heartwork’, we wanted to say yes to every opportunity. We were trying to recreate the beginning of The Used’s career in our hearts. We were supposed to feel like little kids again, when there was just music and a little bit of a competition with yourself to see if you could make something better than you thought you could.”
At times this record takes from arena pop rock like Fall Out Boy or Panic! At The Disco, but it still has this basement grit to it. Where did that come from?
“We wanted it to sound modern and we knew John Feldman [producer] was the guy for the job. There’s always a cool pressure with John to outdo yourself and so this record is all over the place. It covers every base. It’s got the heaviest song The Used has ever produced but it also has the poppiest stuff we’ve ever played around with. It feels good to write such a colourful record.”
Are you worried about the fans’ reaction to the poppier moments?
“I’ve always felt like the same hardcore kid I was when I was 15, where anything that was on the radio was bullshit but that doesn’t make sense anymore. The idea was to say ‘yes’ to every opportunity that came our way, and have no boundaries. We’ve always had those anthemic, catchy choruses that have got us a career of 20 years. Hopefully there are some ‘Taste of Ink’ opportunities on this record and people feel that, because we’d love to do it for 20 more.”
Where does the anger and frustration on the record come from?
“That’s the perfect place for rock music to live. You get a release with music, especially rock music – and it helps to have a little bit of ammunition behind it. A lot of times it’s about living in an over-complicated, modern society where boredom is the number one issue with people’s lives, which is pretty crazy. This record tries to touch on a lot of the sensitive topics and the things that people could be, should be or will be angry about.”
And not so subtly, you’ve got ‘Wow, I Hate This Song’ which seems to be about how much you hate what’s on the radio. Where did that come from?
“I’ve been trying to write that song for 10 years. Recorded music changed a lot when Pro-Tools came around, and some of us are old enough to remember what happened to punk rock when it started getting auto-tuned vocals. If you go back and listen to some of those records from 2002, it’s wild.”
Why do you think that so many people feel like The Used still matter?
“We feel really grateful to still be a part of music. It can get easy to think you’re special if you’re a famous influencer, actor or the singer in a rock band. All those careers dealing with art are susceptible to inflated ego and unhealthy amounts of pride, but I’ve always tried to write from the point of view of when I was a kid. We all share the same problems and we go through the same experiences. The Used family represents all the cliché stuff you’ve heard before but in a real way, it’s for the outcasts, the losers and the people who live and die for music.”
How do you feel about being labelled an ‘emo’ band after all these years?
“The band got stuck in that genre, but we’ll wear the badge proudly. We have always been concerned with the sentimental side of rock music and we love that music can literally take a bad day and make it OK. Music has saved my life so many times and it’s saving my life right now during this horrific lockdown.”
A lot of artists are delaying their albums while the world is in lockdown. Were you ever tempted to do the same?
“I don’t understand why people would delay the release of a record. It makes sense for a movie because you want people to be able to go to theatres and see it but music’s free. All the money goes to the Lords of Spotify so let’s just put it out when we said we would and we’ll celebrate from quarantine.”
What role would you say music plays at a time like this?
“Art is extremely important when there’s so much uncertainty. It can get really easy for people to get stuck inside their own heads but music and art can take us away and give us something to look forward to. Music gives us hope.”
How are you coping with the lockdown in Australia?
“I’m trying to make some beautiful memories with my daughters. We’re cooking a lot, we’re reading a lot, we’re doing school, but I’m letting them rule the house really. My wife is a midwife so she’s at work right now and it’s a trying time to be Mr. Mum but I feel lucky that I’m healthy. My heart goes out to the people who have loved ones in trouble or are feeling overwhelmed by it all. It’s an insane time but let’s all do our part and try and get through this thing together.”
Speaking of for the future, you’ve dropped a few hints about going on tour with My Chemical Romance…
“It’s amazing to drop a few hints, and why wouldn’t we be on that tour? We are The Used. I’ve been talking to Gerard [Way, frontman] a lot, he knows I’ve been saying some funny jokes but he also knows we would kill to go do some shows with them.”
The Used release ‘Heartwork’ on April 24 via Big Noise / Hassle Records.