Pedagogy of The Used: A Conversation with Bert McCracken
It felt like I was in middle school all over again. Walking over to The LC Pavilion in a beat-up pair of Chuck Taylors and haphazardly applied makeup, I sported a grin I’m sure wouldn’t subside for a week. Despite the addition of a few years in age and experience interviewing musicians, it didn’t shut up the screaming pre-teen in my head. But getting to interview my childhood hero in person, front man Bert McCracken of The Used, can have that effect on a girl.
I’m reminding myself how to breathe as I get the call from the tour manager to head back to the buses. Looking around, most of the gathered crowd is around my age, having what I assume to be a similar history with the band as I do. The Used was that comforting, angry music that exemplified our frustrations, while In Love and Death was the only thing that understood our broken teenage hearts. Now, we’re all grown up with our newly acquired adult problems, but hopefully just a little less misguided heartache.
Taking measured steps out in the back lot, I walk by the tour buses as Adam Lazzara shoots a basketball at the parking lot hoop with other tour members, amazing in the moment as I watch another musician I look up to with his guard down. Finally, I see Bert walk down the venue steps, steal the basketball from Lazzara and start to dribble, with his legs far apart, crouching low to the ground. He shoots, it’s up, and it’s an air ball. With a shrug, he walks away from the court towards me. A smile, handshake, and quick introduction later, we enter the tour bus, taking a seat across from one another. As he plays with a box of mints and I adjust my recorder, I tell him I wanted to pick up right where we left off with the last Substream feature we did together, focusing on the new album Imaginary Enemy, tour, and most importantly, the state of the world. And what better place for a follow-up than my hometown and the start of his second half of tour?
Substream Magazine: So, it’s the first night of the second leg of the tour. Are you excited?
Bert McCracken: Very. It’s nice. We’ve all been on tour for a really long time. It doesn’t really feel like that first day of the tour. We just played a show a together a week ago in Manila and all over Australia.
So we’ve been going pretty hard.
SM: Are you excited to be back in Columbus?
BM: Always excited to be back in Columbus.
SM: I remember you guys played last year at the Newport when you took a break on Warped Tour.
BM: Yes. Incredible shows in Columbus. We have some really great friends around here.
SM: What made you guys want to do another round with Taking Back Sunday? Was it already in the works, or was it something you all spontaneously agreed that you wanted to continue?
BM: Yeah, it was pretty much in the works before, but we saw how successful the first one was and how much fun we had. Everybody out here just loves music, so it fits right into our precious ideology.
SM: Do you think there are going to be any differences between the first and second legs, whether it’s the cities, crowds or just overall feel?
BM: I think so. The first run was all major cities like Los Angeles, New York. This is more of a “B Market” tour. You know, Idaho, Montana. So you get maybe a bit more passion from the crowd. I feel like major cities are a bit more jaded towards what’s going on in music. Their exposure to the music is a bit more intense.
SM: I did travel up to Detroit to see you guys at the Fillmore on the first leg of the tour in April because I thought that was as close as you guys would get to Ohio.
BM: The Fillmore is a great club.
SM: It is a really cool club. I actually really like Detroit. It’s a cool city, despite the bad rap it gets.
BM: Yeah there’s a burgeoning menace of anarchists movements happening in Detroit. Private sectors of the world are starting to take over in the broken economy. It’s really cool. Just opening up facets for any kind of new way the world can work, I think is always good. There are always a lot of art projects happening in Detroit, like the art homes and installations, which is really cool.
SM: The graffiti towards downtown Detroit was breathtaking. There’s amazing arts and sciences museums in Detroit that a lot of people don’t know about. They just write the city off automatically. I think that city is poised for a renascence.
BM: That’s cool, I’m right there with you. Hopefully we see that all over the US.
SM: So getting back to the new tour, are you expecting to switch up the set list a bit from the first half to the second?
BM: Yeah. We’ve been jamming some new stuff and it kind of all depends when we get up there what we’re feeling. A lot of the stuff that we love to play is the crowd’s favorites. I guess the reason why they would be our favorite is because everybody loves them so much. I mean “The Taste of Ink” is something you’ll probably always see on our set list because the passion is there and that’s what it’s all about.
SM: Even though you guys had a bit of a break from this tour, you still kept busy on the road, like Riot Fest, Moscow, Paris and a ton of other places. Did you have one of those dates that was just really amazing?
BM: Yeah, Greenfield Fest in Switzerland. It’s just like right in the middle of the Swiss Alps, the most breathtaking place to play a show in the entire world. That’s definitely day worth playing a rock show on.
SM: When we spoke earlier this year for the feature, we talked about how you like to spend your down time reading and checking out new music. Did you happen to read any new books or listen to any new albums worth mentioning?
BM: Yeah, I read quite a few books. It’s so hard to pick one, I read way too much. There’s a book I just got into called “Agent Storm.” It’s about this Danish jihadist who fought with Al Quada for ten years and later was forced to work with the CIA, it’s a pretty cool story. But, I like fiction too, Murakami is an amazing Japanese fiction writer. He has a new book called “Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage.” It’s a really amazing book about a guy who wants to kill himself.
SM: Another thing I saw you did this summer was write an amazing, short Huffington Post article called “The War on Poverty” and I really liked it.
BM: I wrote three essays for the record. They’re actually in the lyrics. There’s one for the War on Terror, the War on Drugs and the War on Poverty. It’s really worth checking out the kind of world we live in and the kind of ideas they come up with to fix the problems in the world. I think we should pay a little more attention to them.
SM: What was it about “The War on Poverty” that made you want to speak out on such a public platform?
BM: The state of inequality in the United States has got to a point where it’s a dire situation. It’s a lot more dire than people think. The US economy cannot survive on Trickle-Down Economics any longer, and if you look at any leading intellectual and what they’re actually saying about the gap in inequality, it’s never been this bad. It’s a really timely situation and I think if we don’t do something about it now, we’re doomed. They’re trying to create the same thing for the internet. Net Neutrality is very important. All of these things we should be concerned about if we want to participate in the world we live in, or have a say or have any rights.
SM: For me, I’ve noticed that there’s a certain attitude that we hold towards poverty. It’s always seen as a stigma, the view is overwhelmingly negative and instead of seeing this group of people as a great potential if given the proper education and tools, they’re seen as just a drain on society.
BM: Those are smart words, and that’s the way that the powers that be have set it up, to stigmatize. Just like drug users, people with problems with addiction, society has demonized these issues to the point of more people having a tougher time even seeking help. Poverty is not something that we should look down upon at all and this country was built off of poor immigrants, and look at the way that we treat poor immigrants now. It’s backwards, and it’s bullshit.
SM: Do you think that there is a way that we could foster a cultural attitude shift where we could not only change the attitudes of society but change government policy as well?
BM: It’s happening. I think that it’s natural human evolution. It takes a lot longer than people would like to admit, because it’s going to be my daughter’s generation that comes up who has no idea why people feel differently about other people with different color skin or different sexual orientations or whatever it is. The Baby Boomer generation, the older generations that are still alive are still so set in these weird and backwards ways that no longer apply to our society. Antiquity; these people are antiques. It’s about the bigger picture. Everything affects everything a lot more than we choose to admit sometimes. I’m a strong believer in the Butterfly Effect, not necessarily karma, but the unconscious ability of one person to affect the entire world, is a real thing.
SM: How do you recommend people go about helping or fixing these issues, especially if they don’t know how to go about it or where to being and they feel like they can’t do anything about it?
BM: Education, like you were saying, is key. All we can do now is understand the world and that will help us to have a say in the sway or shift in the way the world works. It’s just every little tiny thing we do attributes to something, like us having this conversation right now. If you don’t know where to go look, democracynow.org is a really good place for unbiased new about the oppressed, about the state of democracy all around the world. From there, you will discover a plethora of authors, political thinkers, scientists, environmentalists and activists. Vice has really incredible documentaries telling the truth. There are lots of places you can go.
SM: Your fans also noticed that this album kind of took a bit of lyrical shift, geared towards social change. How would you say everyone has been reacting towards it? Are you fans digging it?
BM: You’ve kind of seen in the last two years, even the shift in popular culture. Miley Cyrus is a philanthropist now. So if it’s cool to fucking save the word, then so be it. Good for people. I think the reason why people are so open to the idea is because it is kind of culturally acceptable now to give a shit about the world. Not only that, but such a selfless message, if you take the time to really understand why we made this record, it’s important. It’s not hard to have compassion if we let go of ourselves and our Twitters, Facebooks, Instagrams and everything else. It’s a good thing.
SM: When we had talked earlier this year, The Used had just launched GAS Union. How has it been releasing a record on your own label?
BM: It’s amazing and it’s a really good example of how hard it is to fight the powers that be. This money that kind of makes the world run and this backwards, broken system of economics we have is really tough. There’s a lot of money to fight. iTunes is a huge entity. But just the fact that we’re doing something small and slow and we really feel that music should be free, we feel that artists deserve to have the ultimate support of their fans, without any go-between. As a patron of art, I love to support my favorite artists, but I understand that there’s this big roadblock that takes half the money. It’s still a struggle, but hopefully we’ll find some cracks in the wall and break the wall down. Music if free anyways, so I don’t know why so many people are so concerned with trying to block all the holes in the wall so the money doesn’t leak out.
SM: How have other artists in your community been responding to GAS Works?
BM: You get a lot of people who are excited about the idea, but then it’s really scary to try to take a step away from what you know, and what their manager is telling them, and what the record labels are saying, so we’ll see. It’s slow moving, but evolution is slow.
SM: Speaking of new releases from you guys, you just put out the 10” vinyl split with TBS. What made you want to do a vinyl?
BM: It’s just a really special kind of way to receive music. We like to encourage people to listen to records, it forces you to hear the whole thing and the actually quality. It’s a cool, special thing for those people who understand vinyl, collect it and actually listen to it, it’s a magical thing for music. Lots of people don’t know anything about it in this generation, even coming from tapes, to CD’s to MP3’s, we’re still missing something.
SM: Agreed. So after this tour, what are your plans?
BM: I get to spend a little time with my family, and then, we’ll see. December, there’s talk of doing a few weeks here or there. The future is bright.
SM: What about 2015? Should your fans look out for something next year?
BM: A tsunami of political dissidence.
SM: Sweet. So I can keep writing cool articles about you guys.
BM: Right. Thanks to all the hardcore The Used fans, the real music lovers out there. You’ve not only made our dreams come true, but you’re making everyone else’s dreams come true as well with this real selfless movement of passionate humanitarian rock.
SM: Thanks, Bert. Enjoy the rest of tour. It’s always amazing to talk to you.
BM: Thanks. Enjoy the show.
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