Bert McCracken has lived a lot of lives. From humble roots as a rebellious teen in Utah to becoming one of the most prominent frontmen in the world of the modern punk scene, it’s safe to assume he may be jaded, or just over it. For most punks 20 years in, they’re lucky to even be alive—let alone in good shape—but Bert’s somehow found a way to harmoniously string his past intensity with a new, cleaner, and healthier lifestyle, complete with a wife and two kids, and citizenship in Australia.
It wasn’t an easy road to get here, though. The Used has a long history of being the loudest in the room, and while shouting tragic stories that could shake the most stoic, Berts lyrics have always offered an insightful perspective years beyond those he’s lived. With live performances such as this, that which rival any of the greatest to showmen in history, the highs and lows are definitively polar. Like many in the limelight, Bert struggled with addiction, loss, and an insane schedule that pushed him to the edge, and into situations that were hard to perceive the magnitude of in the moment.
Now, almost two decades into a career celebrated for mysterious and strange antics, dark emotions, and consistent heartbreak, this seasoned performance vet has truly found the greener pastures. After going through recovery and using cannabis as part of his treatment regimens, relocating and reconfiguring his life, Bert has emerged stronger than ever, and remains as insightful and creative as he was as a teen.
Today the band has just finished it’s eighth studio album, ‘Heartwork’—which was once again produced by long-time compatriot John Feldmann, and rest assured—the energy remains. Releasing in full on the 24th, check out the exclusive premiere of ‘Bloody Nose’ off the album below.
I’ve been a fan of The Used for over 15 years—in fact, I love some of their songs so much that I have fallen for a girl pretty much solely off the fact that she crashed her car while getting excited and dancing during ‘The Taste of Ink’—so when I got the chance to get an early screener of the band’s new album ‘Heartwork’, it wasn’t an opportunity I was going to pass up. Then, after hearing the album, and probably because of the level of sheer excitement exuding from my email responses, their PR team set up some time for us to chat. What follows is an intimate conversation with a lyricist I not only consider brilliant—but damn entertaining. Enjoy!
*Writer’s note: There was supposed to be a video interview that went along with this but unfortunately I’m an idiot and the audio didn’t pick up in that part of the recording. The below is from the actually recorded part of our conversation—and this is a humble reminder to always have an audio backup! Sorry Bert!!!*
HT: Tell me how The Used got started—is there a big scene in Utah?
Bert: Well, at the time all the four members were in kind of different bands in the local scene in Utah, but one person had been kind of reaching out to me, and so I tried out with these guys and the first-first day I tried out and wrote the vocal parts for ‘Maybe Memories’ and the whole the whole thing is kind of whirlwind from there… They gave me that demo before we hooked up. And yeah, we wrote that song. That was kind of my real tryout because I think that they were trying out other dudes for the band. And that was my tryout – this insane song right out of the gate, so we kind of had this crazy feeling that it was going to be awesome and special right away.
Our influences were also different. I couldn’t stand the type of music they liked, and they couldn’t stand the type of music I liked. So I think that kind of weird mix helped create this other sound that was right on the verge… I think that a lot of bands are steering toward a more mix of, kind-of-heavy/kind-of-post-grunge, like indie and hardcore, kind of mixed with punk rock, mixed with a little bit of… a little bit of a lot of things.
So we got our demo to John Feldman [editor’s note: who at that point had produced Goldfinger and Mest] and it was a whirlwind from there, man. Like, a bunch of labels trying to sign us, and that was a pretty big deal back then…
Utah though—not a huge scene, but enough to where you kind of knew all the other bands. Small enough scenes where you knew everybody in that scene. And Brandon and Jeff had been playing in a band for a long time—I remember seeing their band ‘Strange Itch’ and then seeing their band ‘Dumb Luck’. So yeah, we knew we all knew of each other—the scenes probably a little better nowadays than it was. There was no place to play growing up—when I was old enough to play rock shows we would just have to find anywhere that would let us play—the comedy club, the Veterans Hall…
HT: How does it feel looking back on those days, almost 20 years ago?
Bert: It does feel like another life, but I think as humans, the older we get, we’ll just never be outside of that world like—wait I was just barely a teenager, right?
I think that being a band for 20 years… you’ve seen a lot of bands either fade away, or come and go, or maybe they disappeared for a long time and they’re coming back now, but it does give you a lot of pride in what you’ve done. And, like we have, you know, for a while in an artist’s life, you’re like, ‘Am I just fooling everyone?’ And it’s kind of hard to think that after 20 years… You kind of get a more grounded sense of a more egoless type of confidence. I guess, being a dad also kind of brings that up but yeah, it’s a crazy, it’s a crazy new world. The band’s never been tighter than we are now in this kind of family friendship. We’re, you know, like we rehearse a lot now compared to when we were kids.
HT: Is living in Australia tough on the team, or have you convinced them all to move yet?
Bert: Well, I got lucky and I met a wonderful, beautiful young woman down here on our first trip down, so I had a reason to move down. The world is so small nowadays and our bands stay so busy that it’s not, you know—I was well well aware that I was going to be away from home a little bit more than everybody else, but I live in Australia so that’s a beautiful sacrifice to make.
HT: So you love it down there? Not going back to Utah?
Bert: Yes, it’s a great life and I have two daughters here. It’s a beautiful, diverse kind of healthy trauma-free… I mean, there’s a lot less worries for a parent here unfortunately, you know… We have free health care and a lot of other things that kind of makes it easier on parents. But on the other side of it, the cannabis situation down here is terrible. They’re way, way far behind the US on just how things have progressed—there’s some slow movement down here. So there are real differences.
HT: Is it like ducking away in Australia? Do people know you as well as they do in the states?
Bert: No, I’m pretty good. I’m hiding out. And I guess I’m not really aware. My wife would be like, ‘Do you know everyone in there was looking at you?’ like I wouldn’t even think about it. That’s just Bert. When I’m walking around at home, I’m Rob. It’s a different story.
HT: Does looking back to your old life feel like a different person? By that I mean, for a lot of people, looking back at their old style or haircut can drive them crazy, but you’ve maintained this same type of insightful yet angry pain in your lyricism that is so relatable even now—have the decades wore on you? Or does it still feel like 4 o’clock in the fucking morning?
Bert: Yeah, I think it still does feel like that. It’s the same kind of energy. This new record has just reminded us of our love for music and the whole process—being in the studio with John Feldmann, it’s just kind of like a refresher on that. Those same feelings we had when we’re recording in 2000-2001.
So for us making music was always about getting to the heart of things, and the exploration you can have, the journey you can have—spiritually, psychologically, or mentally—however you want to put it. However you want to look at it, the journey you can have with music is kind of, you know, you can’t find it anywhere else… It’s this beautiful type of healthy escape, and that’s always been our therapy, our religion, our church is music.
So yeah, it just makes sense to me. I feel like The Used is a band for the type of music fan that I am. We make songs for the same reason that I listen to music and that’s ‘cause music is my everything.
HT: For me it’s been probably 17 years since I first heard ‘the Taste of Ink’ and I remember I was immediately captured by the video—and by your energy in particular. Listening to this new record I feel a lot of that same color—I’ll be honest, I haven’t been able to turn it off—it brings me back to a simpler time. Was that the intention? What does ‘Heartwork’ mean to you?
Bert: I wanted to remember what it felt like when I first met the guys in the band. And when I first heard Sunny Day Real Estate or Converge or any, any of those bands that really touched and changed my life, whether I was a teenager or a little bit older. I wanted to kind of shut everything else out and kind of focus on those things, whether it was Nirvana or Coalesce. I wanted to capture that and I wanted to make a record that had everything I love in it. So not only the musical sounds, but all my favorite books, and all my favorite poems, and everything… it just feels like a more selfless way to kind of maybe pay tribute to the things that I love. And yeah, 20 years in this and I realized that inspiration is a really nice and secret word for like, ripping somebody else’s stuff off. So, I have to pay homage to all the great things that I’ve ever listened to, or read, or looked at, that have really soaked in and become who I am—it’s a celebration of a lot of art, and not just mine.
HT: I noticed you have a few features on this record, including with the Blink 182 guys on two separate tracks. How is it bringing guys who come from a pretty distinctively different vibe into your mix? Lighthouse, for example, feels much poppier, and generally happier than a lot of the rest of the tracks—was that Mark’s influence? That’s a pretty heavy bassline there.
Bert: Every new day in the studio was a new adventure—like, what kind of mood do we want to try to capture? The focus was definitely more on feeling, and the type of song would come out after we would kind of pick, pick it—like kind of sort through what the song kind of was going to capture. It was a really, really nice process that way, and really quick-fire. We would do a song a day and just stay there until the whole demo was finished. And you know, we were only in the studio for about 30 something days, but that’s about how many songs we ended up with. So the day that we decided to do a song with Mark [Hoppus of Blink 182], we just met him at the studio whenever everybody was up and ready to work, and we’d eat like three boxes of donuts and drink all the coffee. It would start out with like, ‘What are we trying to say? What are we trying to say in the song?
The song in particular has a really cool kind of backstory to it, that I’ve told a few times but it’s so sweet. The song was initially this kind of, other side of the message—the chorus used to be ‘I can’t be your lighthouse’—like, I CAN NOT, but I sent the demo home to my wife and daughters and my six year old said “Dad, can you change it to ‘I can be’ because you CAN be!” and oh my god—it’s the cutest thing I’ve ever heard. So yeah it was changed for her. It ends up being real positive… so it’s just like The Used, when, you know—I don’t think I can, but saying ‘I can’ maybe makes all the difference. And that’s a good kind of representation of this record. Even the darkest moments are painted in this other light which feels nice. That comes from the positive headspace that we’re all in, but also just, you know, years and years of doing this has kind of created a new-found grateful feeling for what we do.
HT: That’s really adorable. I mean, I know that you can’t like you know, just let your kid pick the single, but I think that’s a good sign of this one being a hit…
Bert: Yeah, it’s one of the sweetest stories I have with my band so far. It’s just like those stories are what make life worth living. Being a dad, you kind of know immediately that you’re just another part of somebody else’s story. It kind of takes you out of the center of the universe that we all are forced to live in our whole lives. Your life becomes about someone else. Nice feeling.
HT: Well not to detract from the cuteness, but we’ll be premiering the ‘Bloody Nose’ lyric video with this interview—how about that track in particular—what does ‘Bloody Nose’ mean to you?
Bert: This is like a classic Used jam to me. I think The Used has always written powerful songs about what it takes to get up after you’ve been knocked down, and I think that’s something that everybody can relate to no matter where you’re at in your life or what kind of person you are, what kind of background you come from… I think that little tiny moments of setting a goal and reaching your goal… those little victories, especially after hardships, or after a failure those are the types of songs that we kind of all live for. You can turn it on and feel powerful, feel like this surge of inspiration.
What I love about ‘Bloody Nose’ is this record, it has so many different colors, and so many different types of songs, and sounds, and you go from ‘BIG’ which is, you know, it’s so full of production, and the drum track sounds like like weights being lifted, and all these other crazy sounds, to ‘Bloody Nose’, which sounds like a Used song just straight from the stage—it sounds like what The Used sounds like live.
For everyone I’ve shared the record with, and kind of passed it around amongst my friends, ‘Bloody Nose’ is a friend and family fave!
HT: Finally, I gotta ask—and not to detract from Bloody Nose but—do you really hate “I Hate That Song”? It’s so SO good!
Bert: That song… It’s been like 15 years in the making about all the horrific kind of soulless songs that I actually do hate. There’s way more than one… there’s so many from the past 15 years… Music has kind of… The introduction of Pro Tools and Autotune, and just kind of being able to cheat making a song has allowed for so much garbage, so many garbage songs. So it’s been a dream of mine to write that song about the song that I hate. But it really, it’s like The Used has the ability to kind of touch on something that’s a little more fragile and sensitive, like the song became about music’s ability to connect you to a moment, and sometimes that’s very, very painful. It’s like sometimes the smell can take you right back, like travel through time. It’s the same with a song and sometimes what was going on in your life during those records, during the songs, is just kind of too hard to deal with. So yeah, it’s a beautiful kind of moment, the power of music.
HT: Given your range, even when you only had the first two records, you provided a soundtrack to the full breadth of human emotion. I can only speak for myself here, but because of that The Used are ingrained into some of my heaviest and most important memories—do you feel like a mainstay of the scene? Or is this all still surreal?
Bert: I think there’s, there’s a couple different sides to it. I definitely feel the energy out there, and the love for The Used that we still see at our live shows and from like, from a wide array of ages. You know, some of the fans who come out, they bring their kids. So I do, I do feel the energy of it. But I think that, being me and living on the inside of it, it will always feel like I’m this kid from Utah and kind of got lucky to be able to be on stage…
And, you know, I, I think as humans, we always feel, like, a little bit of an insecurity about something that we take so, so seriously. I mean, it’s my journal at times. And so to kind of try to put it into a place of success or legacy or anything like that, I guess… Being older and being a dad, that kind of that kind of thinking turns me off when maybe 10, 15 years ago, I would have been more driven by the idea… but we’re, we’re living up to what I think everyone would kind of have hoped to see. I think that being 20 years in, it’s our responsibility. If that’s the case, then we should practice more than we ever have. And try harder than we ever have, and try to push ourselves outside of our comfort zone, and, and, and try different things, and continue to just make music for the same reason we always have, and that’s just for the love of it, because we love creating it with each other, and then taking it out on the road. It’s kind of beautifully simple.
This last record was the most fun I’ve ever had in the studio. I’ve never felt further away from work, so yeah, we’ve never been more stoked. We’ve never been more, kind of just blown away and humbled.