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The Used’s Bert McCracken on the new album ‘Heartwork’

The Used’s eighth studio album ‘Heartwork’ somehow feels new and old.  New because it’s the first album to feature guitarist Joey Bradford (replaced Justin Shejoski in 2018).  Old because John Feldmann is back in the producer’s chair (he’s done six now). New because it features the most guest spots – Jason Aalon Butler (Fever 333), Caleb Shomo (Beartooth), and Mark Hoppus and Travis Barker (blink-182).  Old because their lyricist and vocalist says it feels like a return to their first two albums. New because it’s their first record to come out on label Big Noise (Feldmann is A&R head there). Old because there’s talk of The Used reuniting with My Chemical Romance on tour.  

So is it neo-nostalgia?  Modern antiquity? Listening to the album might unearth some answers, but what’s better than hearing from Bert McCracken himself? “This record feels to me a little bit more like the first two records,” he says.  “It’s not necessarily written from my journal so much like ‘The Canyon’ but it seems to be about someone who is a lot like everyone of us; some series of letters or different parts of the same story … I’m not talking about real problems – survival, like poverty – but humans all feel like we’re all stuck in the same weird boat right now of entitled boredom and over stimulus.  That kind of affects art in a really cool way … music recorded on a computer with Pro Tools has come full circle in 20 years. Now everybody has the same tools and knows the same tricks, so it forces artists to shine once again in their own natural ability and personality, and that seems refreshing. So this record really feels like that story told about someone that everybody knows.  It’s just as general as it is personal. Lyrics you can find yourself in … those are the songs that become your favourite timeless songs.”

Since McCracken got sober in 2012 at age 30, he’s replaced drinking with reading – in a big way.  A self-described book nerd, he’s been soaking up classic authors from the non-fiction and fiction world; though he’s careful not to over intellectualise.  Yes, he loves a good metaphor, but he still prefers the simplicity of gut wrenching relatable lyrics and melodies that blend pop sensibility and hard rock. “We weren’t trying to be an intellectual rock band.  The music is simple enough. A huge relief of mine from alcohol and addiction was literature, so I’m really lucky in that way that I had a different escape. As an adult, one of my favourite parts of being in this band is adding my love of the literary world; kind of force feeding it into the songs.  People love a good challenge. Your typical music fan is happy with a bit of a challenge.” McCracken says fans are more open to moving between ‘emotional’ rock and ‘party’ rock than they used to be. “I don’t think there’s a lot of disparity between genres like there used to be. What you could maybe consider ‘butt rock’ still works at the same stage at a festival with an indie rock band and a punk rock band and everything in between.  A band has all the options to be as open and free with the genres nowadays as possible.”

McCracken, who moved to Sydney and married in 2013, now has two daughters.  His inspiration has always been environmental, so it felt completely natural that he went down the road of looking at the different ways the world works.  “After I stopped drinking, I was able to really take a look at myself and the world I wanted to bring kids into.  And now that I have kids, the one thing that I’ve learned in the short little time that I’ve been involved in reading is that it’s so incredibly helpful to learn to take in both sides.  Everybody comes from this environmental circumstance, so whether or not you’re reading (Noam) Chomsky or Ayn Rand, it is just depending on where you were that day and who you were around and who you looked up to and who made you feel important and who made you feel welcome to their ideas.  So if I can read something that’s counterintuitive to what I might have been reading before and I can understand both sides then make a conscious step in one direction or the other, I always have a bit more respect for the other side that way.”  

While McCracken loves political essays, his passion is fiction.  The song 1984 (Infinite Jest) is a nod to George Orwell and David Foster Wallace, while Gravity’s Rainbow pays tribute to Thomas Pynchon.  Then there’s the album opener Paradise Lost, which is John Milton’s poem of the same name.  “I fell so in love with fiction that it feels like my duty to inject the music with some of the best books that I’ve read … three of my top five favourite books (are) in the song titles, so it’s really exciting for me as a book nerd.  1984 is one of my favourite books of all time. Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace is one of my favourite books … Then Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon could be my number one, if not share number one spot. I would never expect Used fans to have read these books in order to understand or like the songs.  They’re so far apart. And what I loved about Milton and Paradise Lost was that he used this incredible epic story that everybody thought they knew to inject his own personal story in there; in this deep, deep metaphor that’s hard to unbury, and I love to work hard for my art. Just the concept of using the metaphor to insert yourself into the story has always been the best part about art.”

The Used hope to play these songs in a live setting “as soon as possible”, but McCracken acknowledges this might take a while.  “What a hard time for live music. When it does return, it will be just as exciting as it’s ever been, if not more exciting … What a perfect time in my mind, because it feels like this is a real resurgence of music that’s for diehard music fans, which is great.”  Asked why the band postponed their May and June UK and Europe tour on February 26, McCracken deflects with his trademark silliness. “We’re still waiting to announce this surprise announcement that was the coronavirus taking over the world. We knew in advance. We were gonna surprise people but we just decided to keep it to ourselves.  We’ve all had corona for years,” he laughs. “Maybe everything will still go ahead as planned. It will just have to be postponed just like the entire world is being postponed, and hopefully the rescheduling of everything puts us right in line to do those European dates like we were supposed to alongside this other thing we are obviously postposting as well.”  Is that the possible MCR link up? “I don’t see why we wouldn’t play with My Chem everywhere in the world,” he laughs. “Even if we’re not at the My Chem shows, you can just imagine that we were, because why wouldn’t we be?”

This is the third studio album McCracken has recorded as a resident of Australia. While the four of them write demos away from each other and send those back and forth, nothing beats getting in the studio together. “Usually we end up writing a tonne in the studio,” he says. He flies to the US and links up with Bradford, Jeph Howard (bass) and Dan Whitesides (drums) for the better part of a month. “It’s just the sacrifice I decided to make when I decided to move down to this beautiful country.  It’s not easy for the wife or my daughters but when we do have writing sessions, we do try to split it up.  So maybe I’ll be gone for three weeks or a month total but that’s what it takes to make music nowadays.”

As for promoting the record on social media – he’ll let the PR team handle that and he’ll stick to his books, thank you very much.  “For me, life is a lot simpler without it. I guess I spent a lot of time trying to rally the troops against it but I understand why people use it.  There’s so many opportunities for me to be doing something else. I was on Instagram in the first year of it and I totally understand it and I get it.  I don’t think any human exists that’s above the algorithms they’ve written, so it’s not like I’m above it or better than Instagram. It’s just I’d rather do business with billionaires who aren’t trying to suck my soul and my data,” he laughs.  The frontman isn’t in the business of lecturing people, but he does hope to educate his daughters about the pitfalls. “I don’t want to start some tribunal; get up on some horrible soapbox, like ‘It’s fuckin’ evil, blah blah blah’. Everybody knows the truth.  All the information is out there. I’m just lucky enough that I don’t have to have it in my personal life. I can set a cool example for my daughters because it’s the worst for young women. It’s the worst thing ever invented for peoples’ security levels.  It’s a crazy world. It’s totally changed too. To be fair, The Used have an Instagram, so there you go,” he laughs.

Bert McCraken doesn’t have social media, but the band does.  He reads books, but he also watches YouTube. He loves reading Karl Marx and Chomsky, but he also tries to understand the other side. Heartwork is a mix of old and new. Maybe balance is just what the world needs right now.

Heartwork is out April 24 via Big Noise

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