Over the past (almost) two decades, The Used has made one of the most meaningful impacts on the rock scene to this day. With the addition of ex-Saosin member, Justin Shekoski, the band is experiencing a new beginning, and their excitement could not be more evident. The Used’s new album, The Canyon, digs deeper and is more emotional and personal than any album the group has ever released. I had the chance of speaking with vocalist, Bert McCracken, on the spiritual journey the members of The Used embarked on while creating this work of art.
Congratulations on the upcoming album. Are you doing anything special in preparation for the release?
Thank you so much! Yeah, talking about it a lot. [Laughs] We have such a busy schedule, and not a lot of time to celebrate. But I think the record is celebration in itself.
Can you tell me why you chose the title, The Canyon, and why you chose the album cover that you did?
The Canyon is a pretty heavy metaphor on a couple different levels. One, a more actual side of the canyon. I grew up near a canyon called Provo Canyon, and all of my earliest memories were developed in this canyon—spent a lot of time there with my family and a lot of early moments of just happiness. It’s also where I learned freedom from beliefs that I was raised with. It’s where I found music, and my spiritual connection to music, and how lyrics were so important to me—the most important thing ever.
Aside of the metaphor, it’s really about what the theme of the record is—what it takes to create a canyon. It’s hundreds of thousands of millions of years. Endless time of water cutting into stone. I thought that was pretty valid. Around this time last year, or a little bit longer than that, one of my closest friends shot himself in Provo Canyon. So it became this yin-yang. I consider that to be one of the worst things that ever happened in my life, so The Canyon is this representation of what life actually is to me.
Coming from more of a philosophical standpoint, I love Plato and I don’t know if you’re familiar with Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, but it fit really well into the political side of the record, as well. The artwork, we didn’t really want to show an actual canyon, but we wanted something that felt like maybe the talismanic, symbolic undertones of the record. Something that felt modern yet still captured a Walt Whitman type of naturalism. I guess I could talk about that question all day long. [Laughs]
What was the writing and recording process like in comparison to other albums’?
This record, we had a very clear idea of what we wanted going into it. The last three years have been really productive for The Used, and since the addition of Justin Shekoski to the band, there’s been a crazy new inspiration—a fire under the ass of The Used. It’s really just reinvented the band and we consider this a brand new book. So, our idea from the Live and Acoustic at The Palace we recorded, we wanted to make a record that sounded like the band sounds live. When we started talking, producer, Ross Robinson, was undeniably brave and confident in that aspect of what we thought a nostalgic rock and roll record should be like.
When I think of sincere recordings, I think back to Tom Petty and Pink Floyd and the rock ‘n’ roll studio work being recorded on tape and it wasn’t about how perfect it sounded—it was about the true expression of the artist behind the artist and the connections of humanity through pain and loss, and the exact opposite side of that, joy and love.
I guess in contrast to the older records, this record was full of inspired, intimate spontaneity, and there was never endless amount of tracks recorded. We’re all minimalists when recording—maybe three or four takes total. And the way Ross records is to get really, really deep into the psychic, spiritual, mental, emotional side of the music like we never have before. That involves about an hour or two of really deep soul searching before we record any lyrics. The mic was always running during this time, so that’s the monologue you get in “For You.” This record is so full of sincere moments of trying to get to the absolute middle of the emotion.
I know you touched a bit on this already, but what was it like having Justin record the album with you?
Justin has an understanding of the language of music that’s unparalleled to artists and musicians and rock bands in our genre that are fluent in music and understand keys and changes and signature. The music of language is so important just like actual language, and that connection is kind of–not kind of–that connection is absolutely where the true emotion is from with this record. With this cool and compassionate respect, Justin understands music like no one I’ve ever met.
How has the reception been of, “Over And Over Again,” and do you think that is how the reception of the whole album will be?
It’s very polarizing and maybe we picked the song on purpose. It’s a very, very poppy track and I think that we knew the reactions would be mixed, but it encompasses something The Used has always stood for, and that’s embracing the failures in life, and learning from our mistakes, and allowing what you feel is important to be important. It’s a lot of experimentation on this record so a lot of the songs sound so different. There’s a collection of motifs that when you put them together in the right order, you get exactly what I was trying to say from this record, so I think people will be pleasantly surprised that the first song released is a great representation of the record’s true, honest intention, but also it’s just a tidbit of the sound. It’s just a small piece of what you can expect.
Can you talk about the thought process that went into the video concept for, “Over And Over Again”?
We wanted to create an idea of a physical representation of the expression without actually telling you step-by-step what every single lyric meant to me. I think in the world we live in, it helps for people to kind of find meaning on their own because everyone has such an entitled belief about how things work and why things are the way they are. We wanted to help people find that meaning on their own and I think the representation of the ominous blob above you, and kind of authority and everything in between, I think that it represents life and death, childhood, ideas, society and the ethos of now. We didn’t want to give too much away.
The song is pretty much about a moment in my childhood where I stayed home from school and told my mom I was sick so I could watch Michael Jackson dance on TV, and that forever changed my life. From that moment on, I knew that I wanted to do what he did on stage and make people smile like he made me smile. It’s also a lot of references to Kurt Cobain and Nirvana, and John Lennon and “Imagine.” It’s just like the whole record. It’s everything that I love that got me to this point.
You spoke a bit about this before. The first song kicks off the album in a very emotional way. Can you talk more about the intro to, “For You”?
To be blunt, it’s Hamlet’s ghost, and I don’t know how many people are familiar with Hamlet, but that’s the very first thing that happens in the play and it really sets a precedent—becomes the ghost of the play. Those therapeutic sessions, which were called psychic surgery, that I had mentioned before with Ross, the cool thing about the session we had before the vocals were recorded for “For You,” was that the whole band was in the band for that moment and sometimes those sessions would go two hours, but that night what you hear at the beginning of the record was the “psychic surgery” in its entirety.
The beginning of this year when I was working alone at Justin’s house trying to come to grips with what the songs might be about and what the lyrics could possibly tell, we had the idea and it always sounds insane at the beginning of the record, but we really wanted to write a song that was an expression of a moment that could never happen, but if we had a chance to be with these people we’ve lost—Justin lost his dad 10 years ago—if we had a chance, what could we possibly say to these people? From that, the record was born. I think the first half of the record you’ll notice is his story, and the last half is my reflection.
“Selfies in Aleppo,” has a similar type of intro with a quote from George Orwell. Can you explain why you chose that quote and its relevance?
“Selfies in Aleppo,” is a very political, politically-forward thinking. Like the visuals for, “Over And Over Again,” I would rather create a situation where people can ponder ideas. The quote is from Homage to Catalonia, and the book is about George Orwell’s time fighting for the POUM and the Marxists in the Spanish Civil War against Franco’s Fascists, and what I find confusing about most things political and literary is the problem with antagonist/protagonist. As I was tracking the talismanic number from the Book of Revelation, because I think that the Battle of Armageddon is just like Syrian Civil War, like the Spanish Civil War, like the American Civil War, when I read the Bible, I always thought God was the bad guy. So, I guess I’m just trying to paint a picture of the actualities of trivial war and how maybe the talismanic numbers from the Bible are just as frivolous as political systems and their ever changing motives.
What is your favorite new lyric or song?
Wow that’s a good question, I haven’t been asked that before. [Long pause] Wow. I guess one thing that kept coming up over and over again [laughs] during the record is, when Chris Cornell committed suicide, things got really heavy and we talked a lot about this record being a love letter to “my future self” knowing that things can always be alright. Things can always keep going. “For finite/For forever,” was a lyric that we said over and over during this record. I think it’s really representative. “For finite/For forever.”
Were there any songs that almost didn’t make it?
“For You,” and “Moon-Dream.” We were ready for the entire record and we just didn’t really know how to put them in or if we were going to be so bold with a wedding/funeral sounding song. “Moon-Dream,” was written, but the arrangement confounded us. I guess in the end, we decided to arrange the strings. “For You,” was really the last thing we recorded and I can’t imagine this record without both of those songs.
Wow and you put it first!
Yeah, for a lot of different reasons. I think Hamlet’s ghost is one, and it’s tough for me to get into it because it’s all very literary. I kind of structured the record around a few things that I’m completely obsessed with. David Foster Wallace was inspired to write a book, Infinite Jest, because of a book called, Gravity’s Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon. These books function on a reflective parabola, so the divine absence being the lowest or highest point. “For You,” kind of reflects on “The Mouth of the Canyon,” and the song is kind of a reflective kiss in metaphoric, and maybe a parable type of telling of each side of the story.
What was the biggest take away you personally got from the whole process of creating The Canyon?
I never understood catharsis and the true meaning behind psychological healing through artistic expression. At the same time, I never knew how painful healing was. It’s almost the same thing. I also realized that what I’m really good at at this point in my career is retelling things. I think that I could read a really long poem and tell you about it in a couple sentences. Only trying to give the best way I know how. It feels good to make such a selfless record in that way.
Your tour kicks off in about a week. What are you planning your set to be like?
I’m going to ease into it. The record is really big. We don’t want to smash everybody to pieces. So I guess the first week we’ll probably play two or three songs, and then as the tour goes on, we’ll add new songs. The new songs feel the most comfortable out of the entire corpus because it’s Justin’s. It’s what Justin wrote with us—it’s us as a band. We recorded it live, so when we play it live, it’ll be more live than the live version of the record [laughs]. But yeah, hopefully about a month into this tour we will be playing more than half of new songs.
Is it tough to work in new songs when you know everyone loves hearing favorites like, “The Taste Of Ink,” and “I Caught Fire”?
Sort of. I respect where The Used has been and those songs are retold and reimagined. “The Taste Of Ink,” means so much more now than it did in 2001. So it’s our pleasure to be in that moment. At the same time, we are so lost in the emotion of these new songs. Excited is not even the word in my vocabulary. We’re ecstatic.
I feel like it’s super rewarding to you to be able to play it.
Yeah, it’s the most terrifying thing I’ve ever done. And it’s not about what they think of it. It’s not about how they will perceive it. It’s about how intimate I was in the process. I literally created a child and now I have to kill it [laughs].
It’s very courageous that you put so much into it and I can’t imagine how scary it is to put yourself out there. It’s very respectable.
I’ve had to forget about what my parents taught me about being a man. I’ve had to really learn how to feel comfortable crying in front of people because I can’t talk about these things that mean so much to me without forgetting who I am. Losing everything that I have because this person meant so much to me. Life is still worth living.
I know it is long over, but I just wanted to ask about the tour where you played two nights in every city. What was that like?
It was amazing. To see the amount of support left for the band was overwhelming and it was humbling. To see the type of respect and love—I mean, when I meet people, they tell me the most intimate secrets. They tell me things they wouldn’t even tell their best friend. For me, I’m so happy to be a vessel and to soak it all up and devour it. And at a show, I think if you can reach your happiest or your saddest moment, it’s such a release.
What are your plans for after the tour?
Plans after the tour… Hmm. Well, just keep going. We’re going to do this U.S. tour and at the beginning of next year do Europe. It’s a bright future. We’re going to keep touring. We have so much material to work with with this new record and I can’t wait to work on a new album already. The future is bright.
The Used’s latest album, The Canyon, is available now through Hopeless Records. Catch their tour with Glassjaw coming through to Terminal 5 in Manhattan on Nov. 8, The Fillmore in Philadelphia on Nov. 10, and Starland Ballroom in Sayreville, NJ on Nov. 12. Visit theused.net for more information.