HEARTWORK IS A RECORD SO DEFIANTLY LEFT-FIELD THAT NOT EVEN THE MOST INTENSE OF THE USED’S FANS COULD HAVE SEEN IT COMING. IT’S LOUD, ABRASIVE, AND TOTALLY F***ING WEIRD – AND THAT’S EXACTLY WHAT FRONTMAN BERT MCCRACKEN WAS GOING FOR.
Anyone who’s met him will attest that Bert McCraken is one hell of a character: the Utah-native emo legend exudes eccentricity, his communal personality an amalgam of friendliness, hilarity and angst, with just a tinge of mania for good measure. Such rubs off emphatically on his songwriting in The Used, where he pairs acidic, brutally honest quips with an idiosyncratic whimsicality. It’s why The Used are such an extraordinary force – there are no other bands like them, because there are no other bands with Bert McCracken in them.
Though he’s always kept The Used fairly close to his chest – ‘collaborative’ isn’t often a word used to describe him – McCracken is growing wiser and more open-minded as he nears his 40s. He’s less precious about other voices chiming in when it comes to the conceptual process for an album, and the band’s 2020 record, Heartwork, is definitive proof of that. Across its bold and bombastic 16 tracks, the band explore influences from each of its four members. In the end, we’re presented 45 taut, tenacious and twisting minutes of everything from gristly underground punk to glittery bubblegum pop, with chunks of every fruit in the musical forest scattered in-between.
Heartwork is, at its core, a youthful and exciting record to delve into. McCracken is well aware of its childlike joviality, too – he’s described it as a spiritual successor to The Used’s 2002 self-titled album and 2004’s In Love And Death, all the unequivocal urgency and impenetrable passion of those records revived and modernised in only such a way that McCracken and The Used can.
What is it about the early style and ethos of The Used that you wanted to recapture and embrace again?
I think it was the deep honesty of the first couple records. I feel like social media has changed the dynamics of the music world, but The Used has never really had a hard time keeping the bigger picture in mind – for us, it’s just about the love of music. We grew up as music fans, and music has saved our lives since we were kids – so to to give that back has been more than a dream come true.
Our feelings for the first couple of records was that honesty combined with this catchiness that I always look for in a good song – if it gets stuck in my head, then I’m in. That’s what I mean when I talk about the kind of feelings we had on the first and second records – just kind of letting it be what it is, laying all our cards out on the table, never thinking about what kind of record we were going to make or what kind of song we were going to write; just letting it all flow from the subconscious
There’s a lot of variation in the sounds on this record – from heavy, shredding guitars to really cerebral, left-field pop moments. Playing with all these different flavours across 16 tracks, would you say this is the definitive Used album?
Yeah, totally. This is a very colourful record for The Used, I think – there’s something on the record for everyone, and I think that comes down to basic influences inside the band; we all dig such different stuff, and when we get together, we end up having songs that show all of our different personalities. There’s one song on this record that’s maybe the poppiest song The Used has ever written.
We just have a lot of fun in the studio. A lot of the times, when you’re making a song or when you’re creating something, a really fun time and a lot of laughs will turn into a serious moment, and suddenly you’re like, “Well, now we have a slap bass bridge on our record.” We wanted to say ‘yes’ to everything that came up in the studio for this record – that was a big part of it.
You’ve always been the kind of songwriter to really push the boundaries of what a track can be. How did you want Heartwork to challenge you as a songwriter?
Well, like I just mentioned, saying ‘yes’ to everything was a big one. Saying ‘yes’ to anything has been a challenge for me throughout my career; my creative process has always been really specific and strict – when I came up in music as teenager, I was very narrow-minded person. If it wasn’t a pretty heavy, straight-edge hardcore band, then I just hated it. I despised it. But I don’t think kids are like that anymore, and I certainly don’t want to be like that as an adult.
Do you think that heightened dynamic of collaboration comes out in the music itself?
100 percent! I can hear the difference right away; I think it still sounds like me – the lyrics sound like my lyrics – but with kind of a different feel. I think there’s a new kind of honesty and a new kind of urgency behind the realness that makes this record really stand out in my mind.
I mean, I’ve been listening to it so much – I should be sick of it already, but I just love it! It’s such a cool little journey to go on. And we still love making records that you’re supposed to listen to from front to back, so it made a lot of sense for us to have, for people who still love listening to records in the old-school sort of way, something special they could experience.
Of course, this is the first Used album with Joey Bradford on the guitars. How did he gel into the flow of the chaos?
He is like jelly, in a way. You don’t have it in Australia, but in the US, they have this really crazy jar with both peanut butter and jelly in it at the same time. [ Laughs] that’s actually a really bad metaphor, because that shit is disgusting… He’s like a nice scone with jam and cream, right out of the oven – he gets along with everyone, he’s super positive and friendly, and he’s the youngest guy in the bunch so he’s got that youthful energy.
And this is still all brand new for him – when he was in high school, it was bands like The Used that were blowing up. He was a huge fan of us and a lot of bands like us in the same genre, so it’s been really amazing to have his enthusiasm on hand.
And with [producer John] Feldmann, it’s kind of hit or miss – he’s a pretty tough guy to work with in the studio, but Feldmann took to Mr. Jelly right away. That was a good sign.