Interview: The Men - By Volume

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Interview: The Men

Robin sits down with a few good Men and chats about difficult folk songs, accidental homage and the problem with having too simple a band name. Author: on April 1, 2014
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The Men keep busy. Their new record, Tomorrow’s Hits, is their fifth in as many years, and it was their idea of a holiday: they took time off after touring through 2012 and ended up heading into the studio in search of new songs and fresh sounds. Call them busydedicated, obsessive, sure – but not prolific. This isn’t some Robert Pollard nonsense; with the Men, the idea comes before the album. 

Tomorrow’s Hits follows in the spirit of its predecessor, New Moon, in making its gut-punches accessible. The noise is stifling, but the songs are often heart-warming; its most memorable moments are the piano motifs and adorably plain-spoken country lyrics, and at its most raucous, it sounds like bodies flying into pub tables, not kids playing hardcore in practice rooms. At once, it sounds sloppy and composed, a very produced kind of silly.

Live, the Men still deal the punk bruises they’ve been dealing since their very beginning. Their new set-up, which includes founding member Mark Perro hauling up behind Wurlitzer keyboards in one corner, is frantic but has an odd cosiness to it. Call it familiarity; part of getting used to listening to the Men is knowing they can put noise rock in whatever corner they want to. Before their performance at Leeds’ Brudenell Social Club – their last UK show of the season – I sat down with members Mark Perro, Ben Greenberg and Kevin Faulkner, who were kind enough to teach me where the speaker is on an iPhone. 

I feel you kind of branded Tomorrow’s Hits as a best of record, and the title is tongue-in-cheek in that sense. Did you go into the studio thinking it was going to be accessible or was that tacked on at the end?

BEN GREENBERG – It just kinda happened. We just recorded what we had.

It was recorded at the same time as New Moon, right?

BG – No, everyone keeps saying that, I don’t know why. It was recorded before New Moon came out.

Would you say there was a specific kind of aesthetic you went into the studio with? Obviously you’ve changed a lot in the last four or so years.

MARK PERRO – No, not really. I don’t think so. I think we just had some songs and we recorded them. I don’t really think that much thought was put into it in that sense or that way. I think we were just trying to capture whatever was going on in the moment that those songs were written and you know, the record is what it is.

To me it sounds like this kind super well-done jam session, songs that sound like you start with an idea and tear through a vortex together. It sounds like it was really seamless to make. Was it?

MP – It was really easy to make. I mean, it was definitely the quickest record we made… A lot of our songs are all kind of based on one real simple part, so in that sense, yeah, there is a certain amount of jamming going on. We did the whole thing in three days. Everything was live, real simple and seamless – that’s a good way to put it.

I guess there’s a sense that maybe you all find an ease with each other, you’re all doing your own thing. Did you brainstorm much with this record before it came together? Was there much pre-establishing stuff?

BG – We rehearsed a lot. We tend to just play. We don’t tend to talk about what we’re playing.

Is that because you know what you like and have the same ideas?

BG – I think we trust each other.

MP – Yeah. There’s a good level of trust. If someone brings an idea forward we just try to serve that song the best that we can do. You know, I don’t think anyone passes any judgment on what is going on. It’s just kind of, “this is a song, and how can I contribute best to this song and make it the best that it can be?”. I think everyone [in the band] has that attitude and I think we keep that in the forefront.

My favourite thing about this record (and New Moon) is that they have a real warmth to them. It’s like you juxtaposed the noisy side of your sound with tenderness. I was wondering how making those sweeter songs came about? Were you always making them?

MP – I think they were always definitely there. I think it’s maybe just being a little more confident in them and maybe just wanting to really try something different and put ourselves out there a little more. In a way, doing something like that is a lot scarier for us than you know doing like a noisier song or an experimental song, because that’s kind of where we all come from. We all live in that world.

The noise world?

MP – Yeah, so, just to you know, pick up an acoustic guitar and sing a song, is something that’s pretty… it’s a little scary!

That’s interesting to me, I feel like “Settle Me Down” on this record is one of the most content sounding songs you’ve made ever. It sounds so breezy any confident and happy… kind of like, “they’re too happy to be making noise rock!”

MP – Yeah, I mean I had a tough time with that song. And it’s because it has that sound. You know, it’s like so out of –

BG – You’re saying you had a hard time with it?

MP – I have – current to this day – a hard time with that song, ‘cause it’s so out of our world. But it happened very naturally too, so, you know. I guess the good and the bad of the way we function is that if an idea’s out there we run with it, go with it and then put it out there without thinking about it. It’s like, “wow, we did that, and it’s pretty crazy”. I can’t say anything negative about that song, but it’s interesting, because for me that was a big step away from our comfort zones. Which is maybe why we did it. I don’t know.

BG – Yeah, I think there’s always been a push to get out of the comfort zone, you know. It’s a lot easier to play loud than it is to play quiet, and it’s a lot easier to play fast than it is to play reliably.

I guess the narrative I feel I’m being fed by critics when I read about you guys is like, “you’ve realised the music of your upbringing!”, and these dudes love Tom Petty and Springsteen and Young and stuff. Is that how it is? Are you bringing it from a long time ago?

MP – That stuff always makes me laugh when I hear it. I mean, yeah, obviously we were into Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen. It’s like – duh. I’ve known those songs since I was like six. But you know, we’ve never done it consciously. Even with Leave Home and Open Your Heart we never consciously were like, you know, we’re gonna try to embrace this or embrace that. It’s just the way it is.

But at the same time, we definitely have had a respect for history and tradition. Even on Leave Home or whatever there was definitely nods to bands and homage to things going on. I’m very much into that – rock ‘n’ roll is a continuum and we’re just another piece of it.

So you wore your influences on your sleeve a bit? It’s probably a bad example but when I saw Leave Home I thought… Ramones, in the title.

MP – Oh yeah, that was directly [from that]. Of course. I think it’s ridiculous when people try to claim they’re original, you know. If you’re playing guitar music, you’re playing guitar rock music, to say you didn’t draw from anything is insane, so instead of trying to hide that, we celebrate that stuff.

You’ve mentioned travelling and touring had made you interested in other sounds and aesthetics – is there a specific aesthetic after this you’d like to bring in? I guess if it’s seamless you don’t have that kind of drive?

BG – Yeah, we don’t know what’s next.

MP – Our band has always had a record done and we go on tour and there’s always a record we’re keeping secret. We put the breaks on a little bit to focus on this record and these shows.

I guess you kept this record a secret for a very long time? Was that hard?

MP – It was hard to do, yeah. ‘Cause we recorded it a long time ago, it was hard to go on the road. We went on the road [at first] and played these songs, and that was weird, and then we decided not to play these songs until the record came out, and that was a little weird too.

What was behind the decision to switch that up?

MP – We were just playing these shows and there’s always this disconnect going on. We’re playing all this material that nobody knows. You know, people want certain things. And also, it’s just sort of creatively catching up to yourself a bit. It’s hard.

BG – Also there’s interest in… it’s always been that one way, so why not try something new?

You were playing them and thought maybe it was time to put them away?

BG – Yeah. Maybe we should try to play a record that’s actually… out.

MP – Yeah, so when the record comes out, everyone’s like, “I wanna hear this, I wanna hear that”, not “God, I’m sick of that song!”.

You brought your friends in to play horns on this record. Was that something that happened with live shows in mind or because you thought it would sound really good on the record?

BG – We had horns on one show.  But we haven’t really pursued it live too much beyond that, just because logistically getting the five of us in one place is hard enough.

MP – It would be awesome. But it’s just not something that we have in our world right now. The studio is a different thing, you can play with those things.

BG – They only had to come for one day.

It would be interesting to come back and look on this period and come back and do like a variety show later, or something.

MP – It would be great. It would be awesome to have the ability to do those kind of things, but the reality is we’re still sitting three across in a van and loading everything in there. There’s literally not even enough room for another person or a saxophone. That’s just the reality of it.

You have five records now, so when it comes to live shows do you have a system? On some nights are you just like, “fuck it, we’ll just play a really noisy show”?

MP – I think we typically always play really noisy. That’s the one thing live I think really hasn’t changed. We’ve pushed it pretty hard live. I like that. We talk about bringing some of those quieter elements in, but you know, maybe it’s our nature, where we come from, that when we’re live we’ll still play loud as shit.

BG – Yeah, that’s the way we like to perform.

It’s interesting for me to hear the softer stuff is not of your nature, or aside from it.

BG – It’s not so much that it’s not of our nature. It’s just a different part of it than what we’re used to exploring, maybe? It takes time

MP – Yeah, you spend like, a decade playing in punk rock bands. And then you decide to record an acoustic song? It’s a very, very different thing.

BG – You have to learn how to perform it. That was something a year ago when we were recording and playing a lot of songs off Tomorrow’s Hits. We hadn’t played any of that stuff live before those tours – or most of it – so once we got out on the road was that we didn’t really know quite how to do it yet. So that was part of putting it down and now it feels much better – just giving it time and getting some perspective on it. It’s good that we did it because it gave us perspective.

Do you guys plan on keeping to the one record a year schedule? Is that something innate to this band?

MP – I’m not opposed to that idea. I like the idea but you can’t force those things either, you know. All those records happened very easy and very naturally, and hopefully more will happen, but I don’t think it’s something you can plan on. I think when you start making that kind of decision that you’re gonna make a record every year you start making records that you don’t feel that good about because you’re not inspired to make them.

BG – You can’t put that kind of pressure on your process.

So there has to be a catalyst behind it?

BG – It’s got to feel right first and foremost. There’s so many bands out there that just barf out content, just to have it. Like I look at that Live At Leeds poster over there and I just think uh… lot of content goin’ on there.

One more question, which is essentially a bad joke: Have you guys heard of a noise rock band called Women?

BG – Yeah?

MP – Where are they from?

Calgary, Canada?

MP – Ah, okay. There’s a band from Philly called Women who we’ve played with several times a long, long time ago. There’s a bunch of bands! Ben used to be in a band called Little Women, too.

BG – Every once in a while, someone’s like, “what’s your band called?”, and I’m like, “The Men”, and they’re like “Oh… any women in that band?”, as if they’re the first person that ever thought of that.

MP – No one understands it either. They ask you and you’re like “The Men”, what? The Men? What? It’s the simplest name. Maybe it’s too simple.

KEVIN FAULKNER – That guy at the rest stop asked three times what our name was, and just said “I’m sorry”, and walked away.

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