Los Angeles is buzzing in the background when I am connected with Bert McCracken by phone on a fall afternoon in the middle of October. “I’m walking back from getting coffee,” he tells me. “It will only be noisy for another minute or two.” McCracken has spent the last several days preparing for The Used’s upcoming fall headlining tour, which will begin on the same day the band releases their seventh studio album, The Canyon. He hasn’t had many opportunities to discuss the record outside his immediate circle just yet, which is clear from the combination of relief and elation that describes the tone of his voice as he discusses adding new material to his band’s upcoming set lists.
“It’s tricky,” he explains. “The tour begins the same day our album comes out, so how many songs can we really go out with and expect people to bang out? If we wanted to play the whole record — it’s literally over an hour and a half long — we don’t have any idea if anyone would’ve even had time to listen to it. I guess we just think about singles and what would be fun. We’re easing through it. The first week of tour we’re thinking about playing one or two new ones and then after a week we’ll play three or four new ones and then hopefully by the end of the tour we’ll be playing half and half.”
Among the first Canyon cuts to make the band’s set list will be “Over And Over,” a track whose radio edit is more than a full minute shorter than the version that appears on the album. McCracken explains the editing process was fairly straightforward (“They sent us a few different options and we said “yup, that’s cool.”), and that he doesn’t mind having to alter the track to aide in promotion. “I’d rather have people hear the song than worry about it,” he tells me. “There’s always a lot of games to play when you’re trying to figure out how to get your music heard.”
The Canyon is not the kind of record fans have come to expect from The Used. The seventeen track release finds the band expanding their already unpredictable sound with material written in the early months of 2017 following the passing of guitarist Justin Shekoski’s father and the suicide of McCracken’s childhood friend. McCracken recounts how the record took shape in the same manner one imagines a former adventurer might recount their greatest expeditions, pairing facts and inner monologues to reveal more of their true selves through speech.
“From the beginning of the year we started talking pretty serious about making a record that told a serious story about not only my friends but Justin’s dad,” he begins. “I think that for those who know a little bit about the record will immediately know, [or] if you’ve read anything you’ll know I lost a good friend last year, he committed suicide in Provo Canyon, which is a canyon that I grew up really close to. It’s kind of where all the happy memories of my childhood came from. So in that same sense, having such an other side of the picture created such a perfect metaphor for what mortality felt like to me. All the happy and sad, the old philosophical idea of yin-yang is so important to remember for me because I take things very seriously and death sometimes feels like it could take me out of anything I really feel like I belong or anything I’ve chosen to do or any kind of creation. So for the first half of the record, and I guess I don’t want to get too deep but it’s important to know that when I was setting up this record I wanted to kind of mimic some of my favorite things, some of my favorite literary themes and some of my favorite authors. I know that David Foster Wallace was hugely inspired by Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, so I wanted to kind of form the record around a reflective parabola and having the absence of God or the divine absence be the vertex of this record and every track kind of kisses on that reflective parabola. So the first half of the record is Tragan’s story and the second half of the record is my reaction and reflection to Tragan’s story and mortality in general and kind of questions about whether I’m going to follow down that same path or not.”
Knowing McCracken’s recent losses and love of literature I cannot help asking his thoughts on CS Lewis’ observation from A Grief Observed that grief tends to feel like fear, and how that fear can often make people feel disconnected from the rest of the world. “I’m very familiar with C.S. Lewis,” he tells me excitedly, “and I love his take on Blake’s The Marriage Of Heaven And Hell. I think The Great Divorce is one of the most incredible stories told. In that way we reflect on purgatory. It feels like fear, it feels like all meaning is lost and you’re walking around in dim-lit streets of CS Lewis’ purgatory. I guess we’re trying to reflect on how art allows us to live, allows us through these moments because without true art, disaster and loss and pain- there’s no other side. And I think the darker you go and the deeper you go the more open you are to what life really can give us.”
We speak about Lewis a bit more before returning to the album. McCracken claims he and the band knew The Canyon would be a massive project early on, but for someone whose career has helped many deal with tough times even he wasn’t prepared for how the recording process would aide his own healing. “We had so much material that we knew from the very beginning that we were stepping into something completely huge. I think that loss was so much of a catalyst in the process, I had no idea how healing music could be. The word catharsis is just this psychological kind of feeling that involves really really deep introspection and a look at why you’re feeling the way you’re feeling. I guess it started to feel like it was going to be this big after about a month of pre-production.”
Even before they entered the studio The Used made a decision that would immediately separate The Canyon from the rest of their catalog. The album was recorded live as a full band without click tracks and no more than three takes of each song were attempted. It’s a bold process that many a group has attempted with middling results, but it works for The Used because it best represents the band they are in concert. In fact, it was a performance that informed this decision.
“That came about probably right after we recorded Live & Acoustic At The Palace,” explains McCracken. “We were so inspired by letting the true human emotion come through and I think that when you hear a band playing live and hear the mistakes for what it’s worth, that’s a connection to humanness and humanity that has been missing in the last 15 years. We wanted to make a record that sounded like what we sound like live because we know we’re very very confident in our live abilities. We’ve played a lot of shows and we’re good at it so in that way we wanted our records to reflect that.”
To better prepare for the album, The Used implored a technique taught to them by producer Ross Robinson that McCracken claims helped greatly in shaping the record. “I don’t know if Ross called it this or we called it this or if it kind of just became the name and what it’s called but he performs a ‘psychic surgery’ before we start recording vocals and finishing lyrics and really that just means getting to the absolute bottom of what the song is about and really opening yourself up to another world that’s, I’ll be honest, so much deeper than I’ve ever thought about music. Ross would tell us to just stop and really get inside “why are you here, what are you doing here?” And I’m like, “I’m making a record” and he’s like “no, fuck that! What are you doing here? What the fuck are you doing here?” Like, I don’t know! What are you doing here?! So, in that way, sometimes it was an hour, sometimes it was two full hours talking about the song and it’s back and forth, it’s a give and take. I guess I decided really early on that I was going to go deeper than I’ve ever gone and let all the painful things out. In the beginning of the record there’s a lot of tears, I’m wondering what have I been hiding, have i been keeping all this stuff inside? Have I been keeping all this pain inside and what is that actually doing to me?”
He continues, “This record became a way to move that pain along, but these little [spoken word] sections were recorded not on purpose, it was just the beginning of that vocal take. Everybody was sitting in for the psychic surgery. And what you hear on the record, the little monologue that begins the record is that night’s session in its entirety. It’s the whole entire psychic surgery with Ross, it was so important and powerful and sharp. And a huge part of it, back to the literary aspect, I’m pretty obsessed with Infinite Jest and for those who are familiar with Infinite Jest know that it starts at the end and Hamlet<e/m> has forever been my favorite thing on the planet and I’ve always been so confused about Hamlet’s ghost at the beginning of the play and whether or not you understand it, the image sticks with you. So this monologue for me is my drug freakout, it’s my Hamlet’s ghost, it’s everything that ties the many literary themes together. When we started to make this record the one thing we wanted to do was stand naked in front of anyone with any opinions about anything and really open up our hearts. Let them say whatever the fuck they want about it. That was our point, that was our goal, but I really had to fight to fix the monologue at the beginning of this record to kind of fit with not only the reflective parabola because at the end of the record, at least I feel alone, is the exact reflection of “For You” and also I needed this Hamlet’s ghost, I needed this specter haunting me the entire record to keep it fresh in my mind that this record is about me losing someone and how I’m dealing with it.”
While still discussing the use of spoken word and the role such moments have played throughout the band’s discography we briefly discuss another Canyon cut, “Selfies In Aleppo,” which utilizes spoken word in a different way than the album’s opening track. “The beginning of “Selfies In Aleppo” is a quote from George Orwell’s Homage To Catalonia where he fought with the POUM on the front line against the fascists with, apparently, the wrong Marxists. I guess I’m trying to reflect the idea of the problem of protagonist/antagonist in any situation and i’m looking at the Syrian civil war through the eyes of George Orwell’s brilliant writing of the Spanish civil war. It’s all been kind of tracked from the book of revelations and the battle of Armageddon. In my mind, God has always been the antagonist of the Bible, he’s always been the bad guy. So it’s really confusing when there’s a epic battle of heaven against the bad guy versus the good guy or the good guy versus the bad guy, I think that one of the bigger points of the song and one of the more important messages is that the talismanic numbers in the book of revelations are just as talismanic as systems of government, and the way that they function.”
That last comment takes me by surprise. The notion that God could be the antagonist of the Bible is something I had never considered prior to speaking with McCracken, which is a realization that I immediately share. He responds, explaining “It’s all reflected in this dictator-like God and this human being versus the freedom fighters in that same metaphoric look would be the devil’s army, which makes no sense. And if you’re looking at the Spanish civil war, its Franco’s ties to fascism and the beginnings of that whole fascist world in 1936 and ’37. And trying to look at any kind of Marxist or anarchist fighting for true egalitarian freedom as the bad guys, it blows my mind. So I guess it’s just a lot to look at.”
McCracken spouts historical events and quotes from notable philosophers the way most discuss their latest streaming binge or the stats of their favorite sports team. For him, reading is an obsession, and it’s one he’s accepted as a replacement for far more detrimental behavior. “When I quit drinking I replaced my very unhealthy drinking habits with very unhealthy reading habits and i’m not being sarcastic,” he says. “In a way it can be just as unhealthy when I lose myself for days. I’m constantly reading, Orwell has always been one of my favorites, and I am a product of everything I eat. Everything I ingest just seeps back out of me. So I mean, of course it’s on purpose, but it’s also on accident that I am just everything that I read. Homer’s Odyssey just comes out everywhere that I don’t want it to. I have read that over and over, just like 1984 and Brave New World, and I think that for hardcore Used fans that care to look beneath the surface will find that is true. This is an album built on nuance. It’s everything that I’ve ever read, but it’s deeper than that as well.
There are some who believe addicts never quit being addicts, but instead replace one addiction with another in hopes of being addicted to healthier activities. After hearing McCracken claim to have done something similar when he replaced drinking with reading I ask if he believes this is true. “100%,” he replies, “and that’s a beautiful point. I think that a lot of people when they think about change or they think about bad habits, it’s that humans are so weak and so momentary, but at the same time I do believe that humans can change things that are kind of useless about themselves. I think that humans were innately born to be challenged and that’s why I wanted to make a record with 17 songs. My favorite moments in life are when I feel challenged by art, and that really speaks to the inside of me and that is a catalyst for change in and of itself to see other people in the world making attempts at change and I guess replacing my addiction with reading could only be good for art, with all of the heavy realities of what I’m doing, I could’ve replaced alcohol with anything else. I think the reason why I’m on this planet is to learn and to share what I learn as a pretty good way to translate something that’s tough to maybe make somebody else have a little “aha!” moment because we truly only learn through love and we only change our minds by ourselves.“
The changes that McCracken has undergone in recent years do not begin and end with sobriety. The thirty-five year old singer is also a father to a young daughter, Cleopatra, whom he says greatly changed his perspective on life. He also claims one Canyon track, “Moon-Dream,” exists for and because of her. “We’ve had that song since the beginning of pre-pro, and we loved the arrangement we just didn’t love the medium or the format. Initially it was tracked as more of an 80s kind of synth song with a repetitive loop kind of vibe and it never really felt like it fit the emotion of the song. It’s a really beautiful love song to my daughter but also to the world in a way, to my daughter’s mom, and in general to the idea that love can be so driving and so inspiring when we have such little time. What I’ve learned during this record is that mortality gives me the opportunity to love hard and to be brave, more brave than I would be if I was going to live forever.”
Mortality is a big theme throughout the record for obvious reasons, but “Moon-Dream” stands out as something special. Even the creation of the song was different, as McCracken explains “we couldn’t really find a place for this song, the genius musician that arranged for the Live & Acoustic At The Palace is my hero, so I don’t even want to mention [The Beatles song] “Eleanor Rigby” because that’s such an epic song, but we had that in mind so we gave the song to him to take it and he just arranged it into a string quartet and we’d just track it that way and we got the arrangement back the next day, it was perfect, the strings came in to record it. I hung a picture of Cleopatra Rose in front of the strings so they could see her face while they were recording it. Three takes later we had it, I think we really only used just the third take, and the third take was the only take we did without a click track, because Ross is just so brave and he’s such an inspiration which is really an achievement when it comes to recording real live music. There’s an Australian lullaby that I don’t think a lot of people have heard and I’m kind of singing it, it’s what Cleo sings at the beginning of the song. It’s a huge part of my life, we sing that together before I put her to sleep every night so I’m so connected to this record that it’s so hard not to feel it all every time I listen to it. It’s really important and powerful for me to feel it all, I credit it to so many people and so many things.”
McCracken claims every record he’s made is special in its own way, but The Canyon feels different. “I never understood that music could be so psychologically feeding and healing and freeing,” he tells me. “I’ve never put myself out there like this and it’s the scariest thing ever but also it’s the most important thing I’ve ever done.”
This revelation may shock some fans of The Used. Hundreds, if not thousands of listeners all over the world have forever scarred their skin with tattoos referencing songs and records the band has made. The idea that one of the main people behind them has never felt more vulnerable than he does here speaks to the unabashed nature of the material. “I definitely don’t want to take any power away from the older stuff. There have been moments where I’ve saved my own life with songs that I’ve written on past records, but it’s never been a record in it’s entirety, and in that way I feel like this is definitely the first thing that I’ve ever created. It’s an awesome feeling.”
This comment leads us to “The Mouth Of The Canyon,” the closing track and second longest song on The Canyon. “I wasn’t aware of it’s potential until we were recording it,” McCracken tells me. “When Justin first sent me the piece, I wrote the first verse to it, which was one of the first things we wrote out of all of these songs. When I sent him back the idea, he really flipped out because he wrote the guitar part for an art project for school that he had to compose a piece over Dante’s Inferno. So when we found that out….I just got goosebumps telling you that story…that’s how powerful it was. There were so many moments on the record that were indescribable like that, it felt like so much magic and we don’t really believe in magic so in that way it’s like putting all that stuff in our face. Ross Robinson and all these things that feel so outside the world of normal musical creation. Once I started working on that chorus, I understood that it was a really tricky lyrical opportunity to tell both sides of the story, how so many times I’ve thought about death especially since Tragen has died, and yet so many times I’ve thought about my true purpose on this planet is to help my daughter understand why and a lot of tricky lines, “I swore I would take care of myself”. In a lot of ways I’m more proud of the lyrical confusion on this record than I’ve ever been about anything. So it’s really personal at points. “Vertigo Cave” and “Upper Falls” were a place in my youth that I found freedom from my beliefs as a child, I learned that music was my religion, I learned that lyrics were the most important thing in my life. I learned how important words could be and how powerful words could be and I learned all that with Tragen. I was in a band with Tragen called Time, there’s just so many little things that are almost too big to talk about so the way that it’s summed up for me was perfect and that bridge, there’s so much of the anger and frustration behind death that can’t really be explained and can’t really be described.”
As clear as it may be that McCracken is excited to be discussing The Canyon and all that went into it our conversation frequently returns to fatherhood and how it has changed not only who McCracken is, but who he hopes to become. Having someone who will carry on his legacy, it seems, has helped put McCracken’s own existence into perspective. “It’s helped me realize that self and the center of the universe-ness that everyone believes in, that I am the center of the world, is so far from true,” he comments. “[There are a] lot of things that I can share with her that would be hard to learn, like I truly believe that artists should be poor because it creates more opportunity for creation. All this obsession with consumerism and capitalism is so confusing that I’ll just be there to answer questions. I’m not going to tell [her] how it works because that will throw [her] off. You have to find out for yourself because that’s the way everybody needs to find out. But at least she’s got a dad who has thought about it a lot.”
McCracken continues down this road of thought, confessing that he hopes his transparency regarding his past makes it possible for his daughter to feel comfortable confiding in him. “It’s really cool to be able to say ‘hey, there’s absolutely nothing you could do in your life, no mistake you could make that I haven’t already made so please understand that Dad is a bad guy, Dad’s been a bad bad dude and he understands any problem that you ever have. What’s the biggest lie you could possibly make up in your mind — Dad’s told all of those!”
As our conversation starts to wind down McCracken and I turn our focus to the future. During our chat he has repeatedly expressed how accomplished he feels for having completed a project as large as The Canyon, which leads me to question if he can ever go back to creating material the way he did before this record. “The day I was flying home to Australia when I finished the record it was such an overwhelming exhaustion that you almost feel like you could never ever create anything ever again and the four months I spent in true introspection,” he tells me. “I don’t want to be dramatic, but it was hell. It wasn’t nice and it wasn’t fun, it was so painful that I couldn’t even think of what anyone else might think of what I was creating. But I think that it’s opened up the door in the future, I was always afraid of people not understanding how maybe old epics were told, and I know that people probably haven’t read Virgil or Ovid, so instead of feeling like “don’t confuse anyone”, now I feel like we can incorporate all the magic that has always been so important to art and we can sort of help people understand. Or at least see where I’m coming from. I want people to understand and read the “Metamorphoses”, but if they did, they would be fucked just like I was [because] it’s so absolutely genius. I guess that’s my point, the fact that I know I can reform in words what’s worth it, and tell people I stole it, and then they’ll read it.”
These attempts to simplify the great thinkers of all-time stem from McCracken’s own troubles with – and fears regarding – the world of art. “Even wrapping your head around something… There’s stuff that I’ve always been scared of as far as art, like some of Faulkner is just so scary… but when I go there, when my brain is working, that’s when I feel the most inspired, when I’m exhausted. That was a big part of this record and that’s why our hours towards the end were so brutal. We could go in at noon, Jeph would record until 7, Justin would record until midnight, I would record until 3 or 4, and then when I’d leave. I’d get back to the apartment I was staying at and I was so exhausted, but so inspired that I had to read and write until 8 or 9 in the morning to sleep 4 hours and go back and do it again at noon. That’s the closet I’ve ever felt in my life to peace and what I always thought peace was was relaxed… I guess I’ve realized something about stasis. And I know this is also Infinite Jest, but there’s no such thing as silence or stillness. Stasis is one of the most violent moments, like entropy. True peace to me is an aggressive, art-driven, selfless, passionate drive at creating something that’s not for you. That’s the closest I’ve come to peace.”
Before disconnecting McCracken and I briefly discuss critics, both those viewed as being professional with some level of influence and those who exist solely as anonymous commenters on various social media platforms. As much as McCracken believes in his latest work he knows there will be some who feel different. “I wasn’t able to think about it while we were making it, but the second we were done is when it turned into…I’ve never been more scared, to be honest. I think that it’s getting popular to be honest, so in that way I’d like to say that I don’t really care about how people take it, but it’s everything that I am so I’ve never been more terrified. I mean, you’ve heard the record, I’m crying in the beginning of the record. I’ve never opened up myself like this before, I’ve never been so specific in my own story only in hopes that it would help other people feel the emotion of where I’m at. i’ve never been so terrified but I just gotta remember why, why I made it. It’s more important.”
The Canyon is available now.