As they release new album ‘Toxic Positivity’, The Used's Bert and Jepha chat with us about the writing process, lyrics, artwork and more in our latest digital cover feature.
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“I was probably in the best place I’ve ever been in my life. It’s crazy. Super fit, super healthy, never had problems with my voice, playing different sets every night. And then, crash, bang, boom – the pandemic punched everyone in the face.”
As the world came apart around him, Bert McCracken readily admits that he fell into a dark headspace, one that he may not have been able to pull himself out of without the help of his bandmates. Channeling that rage and despair into the music, The Used’s ninth studio album ‘Toxic Positivity’ is a perfect encapsulation of what it means to have been alive through the chaos of 2020. But, rather than simply being a ‘pandemic album’, it is an open letter to their audience, encouraging those who are struggling to find the light to lead them out of the fog. Bert joins us alongside bassist Jepha to unpack their creative reconnection and their most cathartic and unexpectedly hopeful record to date.
After so much time away from the band while dealing with his own health struggles, Bert was keen to hit the ground running when it came to making music, finding the album-making process to be a really useful and fruitful outlet.
“We don’t waste any time in the studio. We do a song a day, whether or not we think its good. It’s a pleasure – even when you are detoxing from drugs and in a horrible, horrible state.”
One way to push past that ‘horrible state’ was by wrapping up those thoughts in a catchy chorus and melody, as heard on the standalone singles ‘People Are Vomit’ and ‘Fuck You’. Although not included on the final album tracklist, Bert is keen to convey that they are still very much part of this era.
In the case of ‘Fuck You’, the decision to drop the track around their appearance at When We Were Young Festival helped to further their reconnection with their audience.
“What an incredible show” says Bert. “There’s so many good ones but that one was just insane. You are looking out and you can’t see the end of the crowd. It’s reminiscent of a dream”
As they returned to finalise work on the album, they found themselves unafraid to experiment and push the boundaries of their sound, with playful instrumentation and, in the case of ‘Dancing With A Brick Wall’, a full-on dance beat. Again, the contrast between the lyrical themes and the musical style is what grabs the listener’s attention.
“Everybody loves the beat” comments Bert. “I think at the time we were contemplating death a lot in this weird way. Thinking about what the fuck happens to humans after they die. Do they go into the oblivion? I think they might. So, death is inescapable, unbelievable and radical. Humans can’t even wrap their minds around it.”
“I’m just hoping for a UK dance remix of this song” Jepha adds. “I want to hear it in a club at some point.”
Elsewhere, ‘Cherry’s piano and acoustic guitar-driven backing gives extra space to Bert’s impassioned vocal before exploding into a full-band chorus. ‘Dopamine’ meanwhile is set to an oom-pah-pah rhythm complete with plucked strings and a full-on screaming breakdown
“It’s so open and so easy and everyone is just throwing ideas out in every possible way” says Jepha. “No idea is a bad idea, nothing is terrible to say. That’s how the best ideas come out – if I’m playing bass and Bert is humming something and saying ‘hey, how about these notes?’. Because it is something I would never think of – I’m coming to it as a biased bass player and he is approaching it as a singer. It’s totally different. That’s how the fun stuff comes out.”
Once again, the band teamed up with John Feldmann behind the desk, a producer whose time with the band stretches all the way back to their self-titled debut over 20 years ago.
“We love recording with John” says Bert. “It’s just a pleasure. So whenever we can, we will.”
Given the difficulties leading up to the album-making process, having someone in the studio who they not only enjoy working with but trust implicitly as a friend was deeply important to the group.
“He’s very kind and very understanding” Bert continues. “During the record, I’d been taking valium for about a year. During the record process, I was detoxing. So a lot of the elements of the record are from my sadness. Feldmann is such a shoulder to lean on. He’s like a brother to us. It’s like he is part of the band. It’s really cool.”
“We’ve all been through it with Feldmann – the positive, the negative, fights, hugs, all of it” says Jepha. “There is unsaid things. We know each other so well now after all these years. We know how each other works really well. He lets us do what we want to do, the way we want to do it. He understands each one of us individually.”
“He’s also one of the biggest Used fans” he adds, with Bert agreeing that “He loves The Used and always has, always will. He’s like a fan who is obsessed. He would fight for us.”
While previous record ‘Heartwork’ featured contributions from Blink-182’s Mark Hoppus and Travis Barker, Fever 333’s Jason Aalon Butler and Beartooth’s Caleb Shomo, the band decided that this time around, it was most important to have the four of them at the front and centre throughout the writing process.
“We needed to make our own record” says Bert. “The music world is so full of features. It seems like every record has mad features on it. So it’s kind of cool that it’s just us as friends taking care of each other, trying to understand each other. We didn’t need anyone else.”
“It was never a plan to write from the pandemic” Bert tells us. “But it feels completely amazing. It kind of helps get a bit of the yuck out. But I know that people are still struggling and it fucked us up big time. So for anyone out there, feeling fucked, had to go on medicines, had to see therapists, we’re still fucked after all of it.”
Although writing from his own personal, hellish experience, by expressing these feelings openly he has found a new wider connection with his audience, many of whom had gone through similar struggles within the madness of the last few years.
“It feels good to share that. I think humans all have tragedies, they all have pain, they have struggle. So it makes sense to put that out there and they can understand that they are not the only one. Even a person like me gets fucked.”
Recent single ‘Numb’ in particular has resonated with fans, particularly within a live setting, much to the surprise and delight of the band themselves.
“The thing that struck me about ‘Numb’ is we played it in New Zealand when it wasn’t even released yet” comments Jepha. “That’s a big no no. You’re just gonna have people staring at you with their mouths open because they don’t know what’s happening. But the opposite happened – there were kids singing along by the end of that song. It connected that well.”
“It’s crazy to see the crowd when we play it” Bert adds. “It’s very repetitive so I think it’s easy for someone who hasn’t heard it to get in it and understand it. And I think everyone has those moments, no matter where you are at in your life. I think that humans share that in common.”
A skeleton vomiting pink roses adorns the cover of ‘Toxic Positivity’, a visual portrayal of the themes found within its 11 songs.
“We just thought that it was perfect because being stuck in a place and feeling skeletal, it almost feels like when you are down and out that your body has no positivity in it. It’s a bad feeling” says Bert.
The image itself was created by artist Cam Rackam who began the processing by creating a physical storyboard involving a real skull and flowers to demonstrate the idea to the band who were immediately delighted.
“Cam is a fucking phenomenal artist” says Jepha. “Watching that dude paint you are like ‘how is this possible? How do people paint like that?’ It blows my mind man.”
To Bert, ‘Toxic Positivity’ comes from a moment where “you’re so low and so down, in my case at least, I couldn’t even pick up my phone to text my closest friends. Just detached from reality. Its weird, you kind of start to resent people who seem ok.”
Social media, as ever, only helps to highlight those feelings – the fakery of an online persona, endlessly upbeat.
“Everyone is putting their best face forward” Bert continues. “For me, looking around, feeling like I hate everybody. And I’ve had that feeling before – I had that when I first quit drinking. I think everybody shares that emotion, even if it’s just for a second.”
It is no secret that the mainstream emo scene that The Used helped to pioneer back in the early 2000s is currently in the middle of its biggest commercial revival in years. How do the band feel this latest album will resonate with newer audiences just discovering the genre?
“I hope they see the honesty, the possibilities” says Bert. “Emo has come and gone as a phrase that people hated and now it’s a phrase they love. Because we love honest and emotional music.”
Beyond ‘Toxic Positivity’, the guys reveal that they have 10 more songs that didn’t make the record which they still plan to release.
“We’re gonna put everything out” Bert confirms. “Everything we do whether it is the best or the worst, we are just gonna put it out. It’s kind of hard to do a deluxe album…maybe we’ll try and do it as a separate thing. But there’s lots and lots of songs and it was tough to pick the ones that made the record”
He adds that further new music plans are also being put in place – “We could go record a new record right now, we’ve never been tighter as a band” – but whatever form these next steps do take, it is clear that as a band, they are in a more positive, clearer state than they once were, as stated on the album’s hopeful closing track ‘Giving Up’.
As Bert confirms, “The first line kind of sums it up – ‘YESTERDAY, I woke up wanting to die’.”
“The yesterday word changes that whole meaning” adds Jepha. “It’s past, it’s done. It’s a super positive coming out of something so negative.”
Bert continues “It’s a little bit of something to hold on to. Digging yourself out. Having that one little moment of clarity. Hopefully that message touches people and helps people and inspires them.”