[Photos by: Ryan Muirhead]
On a patio in sunny Los Angeles, Bert McCracken, frontman of the Used, has his legs curled up in a chair while chainsmoking, spewing knowledge about life and death. The release of The Canyon, the band’s emotionally charged seventh studio album, is only days away. McCracken is afraid, but not because of the criticism the music might receive.
“I’m more scared than I've ever been in my life about this record coming out,” he confesses, “and it has nothing to do with what people will think of it. I’ve created something that’s as important to me as a child and now I am literally going to kill it by giving it away. It won’t be mine anymore—which is why I made it.”
Add it to the list of losses McCracken has to face. The Canyon is more introspective and personal than anything the Used have put out to date. The 17-track-long record explores themes of mortality, inspired by the tragic death of McCracken’s best friend Traegan, who shot himself a week after discontinuing his antidepressants.
“Because we die, we get to be brave. Because we die, we get to love so intimately and so emotionally”
For someone who suffers from depression himself, McCracken is remarkably positive rather than gloomy when he talks about loss. “It’s often that we feel lost when we think about these deep heavy philosophical truths, the unavoidable realities of mortality,” he muses. “I think I’ve gained a little bit of perspective and understanding that because we die, we get to be brave. Because we die, we get to love so intimately and so emotionally.”
The now-sober McCracken has an ability to feel more deeply than ever—to process emotions in a way that allows him to stay mentally well and make art. He now believes in letting pain sink in to fully understand it, which is a stark contrast to the practice of avoiding his feelings by drinking during his days of alcoholism. “The change from escaping feeling at all costs to feeling everything all the time was shocking, jarring,” he reveals.
He traded his drink addiction for a reading addiction, which he claims is just as unhealthy. “I think that without that exchange of addictions… I 100 percent wouldn’t have been able to connect on the level I did,” he says about creating this record. “Everything I’ve ingested has become exactly what I throw up onto a record… this is a homage to all the greats that I’ve ever loved and had moments with.”
“The change from escaping feeling at all costs to feeling everything all the time was shocking, jarring”
Aside from his sobriety and obsessive reading, there are two other elements—or people—that helped make The Canyon so special: Justin Shekoski (the band’s current guitarist, formerly of Saosin) and Ross Robinson (producer of The Canyon who has worked with Korn, Slipknot, the Cure and others).
“Justin lost his dad 10 years ago and wasn’t really around a bunch of people who were there for him or had the ability to try to digest mortality, to try to digest the inevitabilities of life.” He continues, “It was around January when I was at Justin’s house working—just me and him—on what the record could maybe be about, and we had a moment that became the monologue in the first song. We wanted to capture that moment, if we had five minutes with the people we lost.” Together, they were able to grieve and create.
McCracken, says he wanted that opening monologue to serve as something similar to Hamlet’s ghost in Shakespeare’s iconic play, haunting the listener throughout the full album. “It’s important to know about Traegen right at the beginning because the first half of the record is his story, his struggle. The second half of the record is my struggle with his story and the reflections.”
“The mistakes are part of who I am. It’s the honest fight for the note that allows you in”
As for the production of the album, everything was recorded on tape as a live band, never with more than three takes, which makes the album all the more honest and unique. “With Ross Robinson, it was all tape, no click. The mistakes are part of who I am. It’s the honest fight for the note that allows you in, you know? When you tune every note and it’s all perfect, it’s just the computer’s work. We didn't use the computer as an instrument on this record,” he says.
With The Canyon, McCracken hopes to make people feel less alone. “I think some of the reasons why I went as personal [as I did], why some of the record feels like journal entry prose, is the same reason why I’m teaching my daughter Shakespeare soliloquies: Because I think that when you understand that you’re not alone in thinking about these huge, unbelievably complicated things like mortality and love and loss, knowing you’re not alone is a comfort that we can all use,” he insists.
For someone who’s been fronting a band for over 15 years, McCracken surprisingly admits that until this record, he never fully experienced music’s healing. “I’ve never been closer to anything cathartic. I never understood the psychological power, the healing power of music.” He asserts that, possibly, there are only a couple songs in the band’s catalog that “kind of” reach the “apex of emotion” that all the songs on The Canyon do.
He adds, “I forgot about everyone else. Inside the process of creation, I’ve never experienced more pain, almost to the point that when I was done, I could never imagine making another record or writing anything ever again.”
“This record is about letting yourself feel, letting yourself know that you're not alone in feeling any of the crazy, darkest things you could possibly feel”
The pain is definitely evident throughout the album, and every word is sung purposefully with a knowledge and understanding that only can come from living through such tragedy—and reading lots and lots of books. When The Canyon is released——and thereby dead to McCracken—the emotion will be passed on to the listeners.
“This record is about letting yourself feel, letting yourself know that you're not alone in feeling any of the crazy, darkest things you could possibly feel. A lot of people out there feel the same way and use music in that way to save their lives,” he says. “Until we find a cure for depression, we can only lean on these things.”
The Canyon will be released Oct. 27 via Hopeless Records. Check out their tour dates below: