Having weathered a lukewarm sophomore outing, the loss of a founding member (and at least one high-profile friendship), THE USED are back in all their turbulent glory.
Story: Brendan Manley
Bert McCracken doesn’t do daytime all that well. Granted, most touring musicians are generally a nocturnal bunch, but the Used’s frontman can be downright scary during the daylight hours. If it’s any time before, say, 6 p.m., approach the man at your own risk.
Today, McCracken-having risen much earlier than usual to make the 2 p.m. photo session-wearily poses for AP’s cover shoot during a gray, drizzly afternoon in Brooklyn, New York’s Greenpoint neighborhood. Photographer Phil Mucci employs mock zombie arms to claw at McCracken, playing off “Wake The Dead,” a high-powered rocker from the band’s new album, Lies For The Liars. The situation generates an irony that’s simply too good to leave unmentioned: Once his portrait shots are finished and the other band members-guitarist Quinn Allman, bassist Jeph Howard and new drummer Dan Whitesides-are called in for their own personal brush with the undead, McCracken stakes out a piece of studio floor and grabs a serious, hour-plus power nap, as if he was sprawled out on the cushiest hotel bed. Even the arrival of lunch, a dazzling sushi smorgasbord, fails to rouse him from his slumber.
“I hate these things,” McCracken says later after waking up for more photos. He sits in a reclining chair, in all his bleary-eyed, messy-haired, crumpled-clothed and unshaven glory, not really looking at anyone or engaging anyone in conversation. After answering some general questions with one-word answers, he says he’s always been one to come alive when the sun goes down. “Even when I was a little kid, I always stayed up late,” he explains. “My mother told me that when I was a baby, I never wanted to go to sleep at night.”
McCracken’s not the only one whose actions betray him. Observing the band over the course of a five-hour photo shoot speaks volumes about the band members’ individual personalities. Allman, the mellow, yet pragmatic guitarist who serves as McCracken’s songwriting partner in crime, is so low-key, you don’t even notice he’s there. The most animated he gets all day is during an irate cell-phone conversation with management concerning the status of the band’s tour budget, which he conducts outside on the studio’s rain-soaked rooftop. Meanwhile, bassist Howard-clearly the most outgoing and energetic of the bunch-chats enthusiastically with all who are present, while scarfing down sushi with the gusto of a true connoisseur (even though he’s largely vegetarian, he makes an exception for oceanic delights). Drummer and fellow Utah native Dan Whitesides-who recently joined the band after the stormy departure of founding member Branden Steineckert-seems grateful just to be there, being photographed for the first time as an official member of the Used. The amiable stickman can barely get past the minutiae-his biggest concern at the moment is whether or not to wear a hat in the pictures. (After conferring with Allman, he opts to don the headgear.) All avid dog lovers, the band are amused by Mucci’s two playful canines who entertain them between shots, as does the studio’s blue screen, which the band goof in front of while friend/videographer C.W. records the antics for future laughs.
After wrapping the shoot, the band board a van and endure the typically brutal New York rush-hour traffic en route to Uniondale, Long Island, for the Nassau Coliseum stop of the Rockstar Taste Of Chaos tour. While McCracken intermittently grabs more shuteye during the ride, conversation with the rest of the band involves quoting the film Borat and C.W.’s admission that he recently fell into such a peaceful sleep, his bladder relaxed in mid-slumber. McCracken suddenly roars his approval.
“That’s when you’ve reached the ultimate level of relaxation,” McCracken remarks, somehow elevating bedwetting to a Zen state, “When you can just let it all go.”
Upon arrival at Nassau Coliseum, McCracken begins his transformation into the kinetic, engaging creature of the night, at one point belting along mockingly to 30 Seconds To Mars’ set as the onstage sound shudders through the arena walls. Each member goes about their own solitary pre-gig routine: Allman noodles on an acoustic guitar in the band’s candlelit, incense-infused dressing room, as a skinny, close-cropped blond female acquaintance borrows his guitar to show him a crude riff, which he almost instantly transforms into a worthy rocker. Whitesides paces, then settles down to warm up on a mini-kit he keeps backstage, donning earbuds and cranking the iPod that he borrows each night from Allman
During all of this, Howard chooses to hang on the tour bus, seated in front of his laptop, warming up on his bass, a large pair of headphones strapped to his head. Taking a brief pause, he mentions the house he recently bought in California, which he’s yet to move into. There are other signifiers of his prosperity; the heavily pierced and inked bassist has a platinum diamond-studded cap on one of his canines that sparkles when he smiles, and the pair of earlobe-stretching gauges he’s wearing are bordered by diamonds. But despite the security of home ownership, a subtle taste for punk-bling and two records that each have sold well above the half-million mark, he candidly shares his concerns for the future, largely due to his threadbare past, as well as the increasingly obvious chaos surrounding the band.
“I don’t know if we can do this band forever, and I have no idea what I’d do next,” the former line cook admits. “This is all any of us knows how to do. All I know is I just never want to go back to being poor and broke.”
Not surprisingly, Howard isn’t the only one questioning the Used’s long-term tenacity. “I always think when I hang out with these guys, ‘Is this it? Is this the last tour? Are they gonna implode?’ Because they are just so out of their minds, you know?” adds producer John Feldmann, in a phone interview from his SoCal home studio later in the week. “But every time, they take a little break after the record cycle, and they’re ready to go. I mean, this is all those guys know how to do. This is it for Bert. I mean, what else would fucking Bert do, dude? He was born to be onstage. He was born to do what he’s doing now. I just think that they’ll always have their difficulties, but they’ll work it out.”
Pulling out all the stops for the big arena gig, the Used pound out an extremely tight, sonically impressive set before an enthusiastic Long Island crowd, complete with Kabuki-themed stage décor. C.W. appears onstage, donning a massive, flesh-colored, TV-shaped rubber mask the band had made of “Chatham,” the mascot (like Iron Maiden’s “Eddie”) they created in an arcane attempt to personify the Used as a collective unit. (McCracken hazily explains Chatham as a way to draw attention away from the personal issues that inspire his lyrics. The actual design of the thing seems purely arbitrary, appealing to some horror-movie sense of aesthetics a la director David Cronenberg’s Videodrone.) Opening with the dramatic lead single “The Bird And The Worm,” the Used command the audience for the entirety of their 50-minute set, with McCracken presiding as an adored master of ceremonies, while newbie Whitesides immediately gains the crowd’s respect with his intensely physical brand of drumming. Even though Lies For The Liars has yet to be released at the time of the show, the new material (including the frantic “Liar Liar (Burn In Hell)” goes over as well as the time-tested favorites. The energy released during the set almost explains the band’s spate of inertia that had plagued much of the day.
With the show now over, everyone can truly relax. Beers are rapidly consumed backstage and cigarettes are smoked with abandon. A meet-and-greet with fans-originally scheduled for before the show but moved due to McCracken’s fatigue-occupies a lengthy amount of post-show hang time, but the exhausted band will accommodate every fan in line, including their pushier followers, some of whom direct the band members to take photos with their friends as if the Used were costumed characters at Disney World. Yet through a mix of loyalty and acknowledgement of their livelihood, they endure it all. “Sometimes, fans will be like, ‘Can I have your hat? Can I have your glasses?’” McCracken will remark the next day, when the subject of overzealous fans pops up. “And I’ll be like, ‘No. I need my glasses to see.’”
Back in the Coliseum, a heated discussion ensues in the now-disheveled dressing room over a seemingly unfair payroll-related issue enacted by the tour’s accountants toward the band’s crew. Allman, particularly enraged, kicks over a chair in a rare burst of public emotion, but given his consistent calm, even this act of aggression seems half-hearted. The last to leave, he wheels a small road case through the Coliseum’s corridors, lost in thought. More fans wait outside the venue’s loading dock and by the tour buses, mobbing each band member as they leave the arena. Again, every effort is made to be accommodating, despite the rapidly dropping temperature. Even after most members have settled on the band’s cozy bus, Howard remains outdoors for hours, surrounded by pie-eyed devotees.
It’s only now, with the morning hours approaching, free from obligation and with multiple beers and bong hits coursing through his system, that McCracken comes to life. Once he hits this nightly stride, the singer dons a much more approachable, personable demeanor compared to his daytime alter-ego. He talks for hours with great enthusiasm and savvy about his passion for film-as both fan and aspiring actor-while the bus’ flat-screen television entertains all with a particularly gut-busting Comedy Central broadcast roasting William Shatner.
For the Used camp, this is generally how evenings wind down on the road: McCracken & Co. drinking and smoking in front of the tube, sometimes until sunrise, when they all flee the light like vampires into their bunks until it’s time to repeat the process. The nightly gigs obviously boost the singer’s manic personality, with the beers and bong hits furthering that transformation. What’s frustrating is you can spend all night seemingly bonding with him, but the next day, it’s as if someone hit his psychic “reset” button, and you’re back to square one until the cycle is repeated. But among his inner circle of touring pals, McCracken seems somewhat less guarded.
“I’ve never been able to relate more to a person that’s in a band on tour,” says wiL Francis, lead singer of gothmo mainstays Aiden, who’s become fast friends with McCracken on the Taste Of Chaos dates. Francis would appear onstage during the Used’s set, holding flowers, embracing Bert with mock amour, and creaming out the show closer, “Box Full Of Sharp Objects.” “Before I went on that tour, I always thought of the Used as being this big band, ’cause they’re a fucking huge band,” Francis says. “Then, going on the tour, meeting them and becoming friends, you just release that they’re normal dudes. They’re just living life and having a great time, You hear these fucking rumors like, ‘Oh, Bert’s on smack,’ and it’s the most ridiculous shit ever. [Bert and I] could relate so much more on a deeper level than just like, ‘Oh, you’re in a band, and I’m in a band, and we’re doing the same thing. Cool.’ Which is most often the case.
“It’s not really an issue of whether you party or not,” he continues, when asked to contrast his sober lifestyle to McCracken’s hardy partying. “It’s just an issue of if you can get along. That’s really the real issue with most people in this world. It doesn’t matter what you do-if you’re gay or straight, if you smoke weed or you don’t-if you can get along with somebody, you get along with them, you know?”
Another bleak sky awaits the next day in Asbury Park, New Jersey, and the damp, frigid air dares all to abandon warmer indoor climes. Even after getting some quality sleep on the bus, which departed Long Island at 4 a.m. for Asbury, McCracken has reverted back to his drab daytime persona, and sits parked in front of the TV most of the afternoon, keeping conversation to a minimum. The band also continues stalling on doing formal interviews with AP, despite the presence of label publicists who grow more nervous by the minute. Adding fuel to the fire, a camera crew from MTV arrives and abruptly begins setting up on the bus an hour early. Sensing the dismay, the always-agreeable Howard offers to talk. Bracing for the chill, he heads to the boardwalk outside the Asbury Park Convention Hall to conduct the interview, while waves crash and the wind whips.
With so much emphasis placed on the songwriting duo of Allman and McCracken (who now even claim to be distant cousins), Howard sometimes seems like the odd man out, left to make his own unique contributions via his frenetic onstage presence, the positive energy he exudes daily, and his perpetual attempts to push the Used’s creative envelope with his bass playing-even if the latter involves the occasional artistic clash. Usually, it’s he and producer Feldmann that end up butting heads.
“Just the way that he looks at music, and how I look at music, are two different things completely….” he trails off. “When I listen to music, I’m bass first, because I’m a bass player. He’s definitely melody and guitars first, which is cool; I respect that. I believe that you can have melody with bass, and not have it clash, but guitar melodies are his jam. Over time, I’ve learned to kind of focus in on where he stands, so I don’t get so irritated at the way he does things.”
However, much to his satisfaction, Howard says Feldmann adopted a hands-off approach with him for the recording of Liars. Howard actually spent most of his production time teaming with engineer Matt Appleton, who Howard credits as a big help along the way. It was only in the later stages of tracking that Feldmann would be presented with Howard’s work. “The new record was the most fun I’ve ever had,” says the bassist. “I actually didn’t record one thing with Feldman. This to me was a different take, and it was really fun and exciting.”
Despite his friendly nature and seemingly endless generosity toward fans, Howard is actually a bit of a loner. An only child who grew up playing video games at home, Howard says personal interaction with strangers still causes him considerable anxiety, which is something he’s constantly working to overcome. When asked about how he spent his time off between the tours for 2004’s In Love And Death and recording Lies For The Liars, he discusses a trip he took to Japan by himself.
“I went for about half a month alone, just to try to find myself and take a deep breath,” he reflects. “I’m all about exploring and overcoming things. That was something I wanted to overcome-to go to another country alone, and see if I can make it. It was pretty scary. But I knew enough Japanese at the time, and I was picking it up as I went. I was actually getting pretty good for a while. I was like, ‘This is awesome. Fuck, yeah!’ That was a really good experience for me.”
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