The Men are a band that stretch the limitations of what a punk band can be. After forming in Brooklyn in 2008, the group quickly became a must-see band for their impeccable chops and live-wire energy on stage. After their first two records — 2010’s Immaculada, and 2011’s Leave Home — the band began to twist away from the brash hardcore they were playing. With 2012’s Open Your Heart, the band found itself using more melodic vocal passages and incorporating country and surf instrumentation, sounding more like a sure-footed indie act than the best punk band in the five boroughs.
At this point, media outlets like Pitchfork and The AV Club began to take notice, and The Men found themselves emerging as the next (possible) big thing. Over time, those outlets shifted attention again, but The Men continued to get more experimental, going pastoral and acoustic for 2013’s New Moon, inviting elements of blues, classic rock, and swing into their sound on 2014’s terrific Tomorrow’s Hits, and utilizing rock and metal guitar pyrotechnics to their fullest extent on 2016’s Devil Music.
The band has had various lineup changes over the decade, but they’ve proven to be as enthusiastic and experimental as ever on their latest effort, Drift. Mixing ‘80s-era punk, soft rock, and college indie, the record is a beautiful amalgamation of genres that seamlessly blend together. I spoke with singer and guitarist Mark Perro about the rollercoaster of success, inspiration, and getting more revealing with each record.
One of the things that makes it so exciting to hear a new Men record is the fact that you never know what sound or genre the album will tackle. At this point, album to album, how do you find a focal point for that ambition?
It’s something that comes up a lot, that whole issue. We never really sit down and go like, “Alright, let’s really make a record that’s going after this, or that, or the other thing.” It happens pretty naturally, I’d like to think. We just start coming up with stuff. Either Nick has an idea, or I’ll come up with a little part here or there, and we just go from there. I don’t think we consciously try to do something; it’s just a reflection of how we’re feeling of how we’re writing. Whenever inspiration strikes, we just show it to the other, and usually some sort of song emerges from it. We just let it be. We don’t necessarily put any restraints on it.
I think maybe the lack of restraint leads to the variation more so than the conscious intent to do so. There are no rules, so whatever comes in, comes in. I think that leads to some criticism of us too, because they say it’s too hodgepodge, or too all over the place, or whatever. I don’t think it’s good to put limits on what you should sound like, or what kind of band you should be.
That’s interesting, because I got into you guys right around the time Open Your Heart came out. What was so interesting to me about that record is that it felt like it was playing with ‘90s alternative rock in a different way. The next record (New Moon) felt like it was tackling a different era. I think as a listener, or someone in a position to be thoughtful about those things in a different way, it seems to me that that’s what’s kind of going on, that every record has specific influences, or is tackling a different genre to kind of show how the basic tenets of punk can be so elastic.
I definitely agree with that sentence. Again, I don’t consciously think we were trying to do any of that stuff, but maybe some of that ‘90s stuff…we all grew up in the ‘90s, so there’s subconscious things that are resting inside us, influences and sounds that are just part of our upbringing. Then there’s stuff you’re listening to now that excite you, especially as you’re writing or trying to write songs. You obviously take inspiration from what you’re feeling at the moment. We’ve all been explorers. I mean, Nick and I always trade weird records and listen to the full gamut of stuff that’s out there. I think it’s good.
There seems to be more play on this record. This is to say that it feels looser, both in the vocal delivery and instrumentation. What invited this into the writing of the album?
I think we’re a lot more comfortable, you know? I mean, we came from nothing, sort of became the talk of the town for a little bit, went back to nothing, then back up again. Over the years there have been a lot of expectations put on ourselves, or thrust upon us by others. We’ve had a lot of pressure coming from a lot of places, and I just don’t think we feel that anymore. At this point, 10 years in, we’re just doing it for ourselves; we’re doing it to fulfill ourselves spiritually, personally, creatively, and there’s no sort of greater ambition than that. We’re just more comfortable with ourselves as people, as artists. I’m glad that stuff’s carrying across. It leads to a much more easy, relaxing, and fun time.
You said that you’re getting more comfortable with yourselves, and I think that’s invited maybe more vulnerability. You’ve written some vulnerable songs before, but “When I Held You in My Arms,” “Rose on Top of the World,” and “Come to Me” are extremely tender tracks. They have almost an early REM or Van Morrison quality to them in their warmth and subtlety. When you were working on new material for this record, was that something you could feel in these songs?
I think it’s part of that same comfort thing. You know, we’ve typically used an amplifier, or distortion, or some sort of pedal. You can hide behind those things if you want to. You know, if you turn it up loud enough, you can’t really tell what’s going on, which has its own merits. One thing we were consciously trying to do is just strip away all that stuff and let ourselves be out there, for better or worse. We purposely played with the arrangements because of that. We purposely put the vocals up in the mix. There was originally an acoustic guitar on “When I Held You in My Arms,” and we realized we didn’t need it. There’s a conscious effort to be more open in general, more open with each other.
Yeah, there’s just so much more experimentation and play in the last few records. It’s really great. You mentioned earlier that you felt pressure from different camps and different aspects of your life when you’re on that early rollercoaster fo what it’s like to be a popular indie band. What’s the difference between what those pressures were and who you felt you had to be, and then where you’re at now?
There’s pressure in general. We went from just being the cool punk band in town, to this sort of national band that has places like Rolling Stone and Pitchfork writing pieces about us, and throwing around these things about rock, because everyone loves to say, “Rock is dead, rock is back,” and make these grandiose statements, you know? You want to pretend that you exist in a bubble and that you don’t hear any of this stuff, but it gets in your head a little. It’s kind of impossible to not carry that with you when you’re writing, or playing, or whatever.
And then there are your own desires about what you want to be. There was a point where I thought, “I want to be in the best band in the world. I do want to be the biggest band that’s ever lived.” So there’s that pressure you’re putting on yourself. We’ve also been through the complete DIY, hometown heroes, talk of the town, then that whole scene turned its back on us when we got popular on a bigger stage. Then, I guess, around All Tomorrow’s Hits, it became all of a sudden, “Oh, The Men don’t have it anymore.” What came out of that was a desire to just do it for ourselves. I don’t have any desire and ambition to be anything really, because it’s just foolish, and it just hurts you. I mean this in a positive way, but we have no ambition anymore. We’re not trying to achieve or be anything. We just are. It’s a liberating place to be.
I think that’s probably a good place to be. I think that when you you get to be the biggest band in the world, it’s hard not to implode. I mean, if you read Lizzie Goodman’s Meet Me in the Bathroom, one of the main focal points of the book is how fame really messed up the members of The Strokes. They couldn’t handle what the next move was, and it made them cave in.
Yeah, I mean that’s obviously on a much larger scale than we were on, but in a microcosm, it’s that saqme sort of idea. We had no real intention of being a full-time touring band, or on the cover of The Village Voice, you know? It just sort of happened. We were just thrust into a place we didn’t want to be. Part of the near implosion of this band — and we definitely almost imploded a few times — was that tension between being a place you don’t necessarily want to be in and then how do you handle that and maintain integrity and credibility, fulfill yourself spiritually, creatively. It’s really hard. I think everyone starts to have different ideas. You start to have a team. Every decision is made by a committee. Then it’s like, “I don’t even know what band I’m in anymore, so…”
Yeah. One thing that’s different on this record, and I’m curious to know if it was intentional or a committee decision, is the fact that the massive guitar solos and surprise hardcore barn burners you’ve become known for are absent from Drift. Instead, you have these two songs, “Sleep” and “Final Prayer,” which are ambient, and seem to pay tribute to the early goth sound of bands like Type O Negative, Adam Ant, or The Jesus and Mary Chain. I was hoping you could speak to the writing process for those tracks, and whether or not having them replace the typical curve ball rippers was something you consciously wanted to try.
A big thing in our band has always been drone music, we’ve always been very drawn to it. I’ve always been into meditation, or Eastern thought, or however you want to say it. Even in the very, very early sets, we were playing with full stacks at the time, and we’d just turn the amps all the way up, take the head of the guitar, and just jam it into the head or top of the speaker, and it would just create this droning sound. We’d just do that for a full set. It’s that same idea of just repetition and getting lost in that. I think it’s that idea filtered through the fact that we’re older now. We like subtler sounds. We like nuance. We’re going for beauty rather than, you know, pummeling you in the face. It’s that same idea of trying to get in a trance-like, meditative state, and trying to achieve that through sound.
When there is something like that emerging in the songs, or a certain sound emerging in general, is there a point where you become aware of what kind of record it’s going to be?
Not with this one, no. I think this one was weird in the way it came through. We thought the record was done, and then “Rose on Top of the World” was written after the fact. We found out from Sacred Bones that we had a little more time to finish and get masters in. We were like, “Let’s record another song. It could use another song.” The song ended up being the glue, and we ended up putting it on the record. It was only after that that we went, “You know, this is starting to feel more like a record” It kind of just placed itself, but “Rose” was what tied it all together.
Drift is really ensconced in ‘80s soft rock sensibilities. When “Killed Someone” comes in, even though it’s a more straightforward rock song, it isn’t jarring, because the approach and shouted vocal delivery seem to be in line with ‘80s punk. Is having that full immersion into a certain sound or decade important to you as you’re conceptualizing?
Well that early ‘80s stuff comes up a lot. Especially during my more formative years, with bands like Husker Du, The Replacements, The Wipers…these bands mean still so much to me. I think the same can be said for the other members of the band. The thing I probably took from them the most is just that idea of freedom of spirit. Husker Du, I mean, talk about sentimentality! They were loud and fast, but they were going in places that a band wasn’t supposed to do. The Replacements were going in a more pop direction, I guess. There were no sort of limitations, and that’s always stuck with us. You know, just because you’re playing a punk song doesn’t mean you can’t take out an acoustic guitar and sing a song after that. We’ve always tried to carry that, and every record we’ve had that same approach.
Do you feel that there was any point in your career where there was pressure to have those sort of songs? In other words, do you feel that the ambition and progress of the songs was ever at a disconnect from the stringent ethos of what people believed a punk band was supposed to be?
I’m probably the least punk punk, but there was a time when I was fully engaged in punk music, metal, and black metal. I’ve always loved the harsh sounds of black metal, but they’re very one dimensional. We put out a couple of records, played a few hundred shows, and went, “I’m getting a little tired of this. I don’t want to scream and be really loud anymore. I have something else I want to say.”
This transition, which really started with Open Your Heart and carried over into New Moon, and amplified with All Tomorrow’s Hits…you know, the punk scene’s tough. There’s a really stringent guideline as to what’s acceptable and what’s not. We towed that line for a while, and because we had amplification and distortion we got a free pass. As soon as we started stripping that stuff away, people were unhappy with that, or uncomfortable. I don’t know. It’s scary when you’re playing at ten and no matter how hard you scream, no one’s really going to know what you’re saying. Then you take that away, and no matter what you do, everyone’s going to know what you’re saying, and playing. It’s a tough transition to go through, but it’s where we’ve always wanted to go. Even on Immaculada, there are a couple of acoustic passages on that. I mean, we’ve always had that part of us.
Do you think that being a sort of cult or under the radar band allows you to shape shift from record to record, or do you feel like that would still be something you constantly do even if you were touring arenas and the like?
That’s really tough to say. Sometimes I look back and wonder, you know…if we would have just stayed the course, and just kind of kept doing what we were doing, if kept making records like those early ones we were putting out and didn’t switch line-ups, didn’t switch instrumentation, what would have happened? Would things have gone differently? I think about that all the time, but it is what it is, and you just have to accept the kind of person you are and accept where your spirit takes you. It’s hard to answer that question because: A) it didn’t happen, so we plateaued and kind of went down. Who knows? If it did, we might be a different band than we are now. It’s hard to say.
How do you feel the expansiveness of your sound has impacted the writing and composing of your songs? As the band continues to evolve, do you feel that this play and experimentation will get more grandiose or challenging?
I think it’s gonna continue to simplify. In my mind, every record is getting simpler than the last one. The one constant thread throughout it all has just been trying to strip down to that bare, pure sound. So the next one is probably gonna be more simple. It’s probably gonna be, hopefully, more barren. I think Drift is our most barren record, which leads to that expanse, because there’s just so much space there. I think it’s just going to continue forward.
For more information on The Men, or to find their music, visit wearethemen.blogspot.com.