The Used's Bert McCracken Talks Suicide & Loss, How It Influenced New Album 'The Canyon'
Also, watch an exclusive in-studio video featuring interviews with the band.
On Friday (Oct. 27), The Used will release The Canyon -- an 80-minute, 17-track epic of a rock record. It’s their largest body of work to date, and in many ways, their most important.
It’s certainly their most prolific. The Used’s seventh studio album is their first without founding guitarist Quinn Allman and their first with new instrumentalist Justin Shekoski, formerly of the post hardcore band Saosin. Produced by legendary hard rock innovator Ross Robinson (Korn, Slipknot, At the Drive-In) The Canyon is their first full-length endeavor recorded totally on tape, without the fixtures and overcorrection of modern digital production. Perhaps most importantly, it’s the first time frontman Bert McCracken has written, in aesthetic detail, about a particular and fresh loss of great magnitude: The Canyon is for and about his childhood friend Tregen Lewis, who tragically took his life a little over a year ago.
The record details the story of Lewis, and McCracken’s ex-girlfriend Kate, who overdosed while pregnant with his child 13 years ago. Both play a role in the singer's understanding of timeless art and emotions greater than the confines of song.
Beyond McCracken’s personal tragedies, The Canyon details loss with beautiful universality, layers of dense literary lyricism built to leave its listener searching for particular truths. Diehard fans of the band will enjoy finding elements of the Used’s linear history sprinkled through the text, but all listeners will leave it feeling a kinship for their fellow person. It’s a challenging listen, but one worth working through.
Ahead of The Canyon's release, Billboard spoke to McCracken about how Shekoski has re-energized The Used after Allman's departure, coping with Tregen's death, and why the group's latest album is the deepest yet.
The Canyon is your first release (well, non-live release) without Quinn and with Justin officially in the band. Did it give you a chance to start anew?
We were able to have a new beginning three years ago when we met Justin and he became a part of the band permanently. His lust for life and passion for art is inspiring. It’s been a fire underneath The Used. It’s a new chapter of a brand new book.
Was there ever a point after Quinn’s departure that made you worried about the future of the band, if you’d even continue?
Even in the depths of my suicidal alcoholism, there was never an end to the band. There were tours where I didn’t want to be on the tour, but ever since Justin became a part of the Used it’s been nothing but exciting for the next step. Recording [2016’s] Live & Acoustic at the Palace with Justin was pivotal. We wanted [The Canyon] to reflect the live experience, too.
The immediate difference between this album and your previous work is that you recorded analog, without a click track, without backing tracks, giving it the intimacy of a live space. What was the attraction? You’ve essentially invited everyone listening to the record into that space, the studio…into your room.
It was a natural, evolving attraction. We have a good sense of what it’s like to be a great live band. With [Live & Acoustic at the Palace] we stumbled into something so potent and powerful and that was because of the live energy, the humanity of behind the artist, each of us individually. We want to get as close as we can to that true expression.
The Canyon is also a really long album in a time where albums are rarely over 45 minutes for fear of losing audience attention. Were you planning to make such an extensive work, or did you learn in studio that you had a lot to say?
I love art that challenges me. [David Foster Fallace’s] Infinite Jest was a huge inspiration for this record; it’s a very literary record. It’s full of me finding my way through Tregen’s story. That’s the first half of the record, and my reflections on Tregen’s story, which is the second half of the record.
I was inspired by James Joyce to recreate a timeless story. I’ve always been obsessed with Ulysses and the journey home -- Gravity’s Rainbow [by] Thomas Pynchon -- this reflective parabola. I tried to make the sequencing [reflect that.] The middle is the absence of God or anything divine. Right before that, Tregen takes his life, and after that, it goes deep into symbology and talismanic representations of systems of government and war -- real-life death. It’s a kiss back and forth that makes the record so poisonous.
The Canyon opens with “For You,” a conversation between you and producer Ross Robinson about Tregen. You’re no stranger to playing with spoken word recordings in Used songs, but they’re purposeful personas: you recite poetry. This is different -- this sounds like someone left the tape rolling in the room you were in during a therapy session.
When I was kicked out of high school for missing enough high school to get kicked out of it, I was transferred to a dropout program at another high school and met one of the most popular guys at this school, a track and field star named Tregen Lewis. He was so charismatic and crushing, intellectually. He was like [mythological Greek icons] Achilles or Agamemnon, in a way. He offered a freedom from the Christian indoctrination I suffered as a child. It was all in [Utah’s] Provo Canyon where I grew up -- all of my first, wonderful memories are from Provo Canyon. A year and a month ago, Tregen shot himself in Provo Canyon after coming off his anti-depressants for about a week.
I didn’t know how to deal with it in the moment, and I dealt with it the exact opposite way I dealt with Kate’s death. It’s all connected, we spent a lot of time together. He often blamed himself for her death because of the involvement of drugs. I wanted to open the song with [the idea of] getting to spend five more minutes with someone I’ll never see again. Before Ross recorded vocals every night there would be a huge therapeutic session. Psycho-surgery. We went deeper than I ever wanted to go. That’s what you hear. You get the ghost right away. That moment is my ghost that begins Hamlet, my drug trip that begins Infinite Jest.
As a lyricist you’ve always used extensive, layered metaphors, but a line like, “You gave me some drugs just like the drugs that killed her” on “Broken Windows” feels explicit. Diehard fans of the Used will understand it’s a reference to Kate’s death.
Fans know me well enough. The last time we played a show in Salt Lake City, Tregen was there and he had a band-aid on his forehead for some reason. When Kate died she wrote me a letter that I burned. [All of that is in the song.] It’s all very literal. I’m going so personally deep hoping it will elicit some emotion from the listener.
All of these songs are so personal to me. “About You” is about a night where Tregen, Kate and I were in Los Angeles, intoxicated. [It was] the most important moment of physical love I’ve shared with a man and Kate was asleep in the room. I went to places I could’ve never gone, with my five years of not-drinking, with replacing alcohol with books [on this record]. I wasn’t ready until now.
I don’t think I’d ever call The Used a political band before hearing a song like “Selfies in Aleppo,” which begins with an Orwell quote. “The Quiet War,” too, there’s a Noam Chomsky reference. Do you feel more political or interested in war as a person, as a band?
It’s apathy, but it’s a strange kind of fulfilled apathy. The problem with us in the free world is that we’re not only oppressed, we’re conscious of oppressing others. The more I look into revolution, they’re [written] biologically -- they’re men, they’re strong, they fight hard and then they die. They rot and they infect everything. Being a little bit cryptic can help open up a different kind of conversation.
But unlike a lot of political art being made now, there’s no real frustration. It isn’t an expression of anger for a particular situation, you’re looking to understand it using historical references.
I tried to warn people with [The Used’s 2014 album] Imaginary Enemy and spoke very literally about political movements. The reason you can’t point your finger at someone and tell them the truth is because they have all these entitlements. The only way people change their mind is with love and a-ha moments on their own. I’m only hoping to start a discussion.
There’s so much to this record -- so much to unpack -- what do you hope people get out of it?
It’s the same reason I’m teaching my daughter Shakespeare soliloquies. When you understand that you’re not alone in thinking about the huge, complex, philosophical questions in life, it might be easier. Every human at some point will have to lose someone close to them. I’m a translator. I’m just trying to give. This is the only way I know how to give.
Below, check out this exclusive, behind-the-scenes video about how producer Ross Robinson brought out the best in the Used. It's the third installment in a series detailing the creation of The Canyon; watch the first two here and here.