Will Yip | photo by Ryan Mackfall // The Menzingers | photo by Jess Flynn
How The Menzingers and Will Yip used quarantine to reinvent their last album on From Exile
Philly four-piece The Menzingers are a notable pillar of the U.S. punk scene, but they barely had the chance to tour their 2019 LP, Hello Exile, before COVID-19 hit and the music industry was put on an indefinite pause. The second half of 2020 has seen a lot of unrest, whether it be political or social, and The Menzingers took note, using the turbulence as inspiration for a reimagining of Hello Exile, appropriately named From Exile.
With the help of their longtime friend and producer Will Yip from Studio 4 in Conshohocken, the band re-recorded all of their parts remotely and sent tracks back and forth until the record they had was so much more than the album turned acoustic. The learning curves that came with their DIY recording setups led to a warmth, sincerity, and intense lyrical focus that make From Exile feel like a wakeup call.
Where the original record is musically uplifting and vibrant while lyrically regretful and nostalgic, From Exile spins those energetic melodies on their heads, turning the songs into something that will sit deeply within you for a long time after the tracks end. The tone seems to fit the message in an entirely new, heavy-hitting way. You’ll no longer feel a sense of collected nostalgia, but rather a sense of grief…as well as hope.
On a Zoom call earlier this month, Yip, singer and guitarist Tom May, and drummer Joe Godino took the time to explain both albums’ inceptions as well as what recording this way means to them, now and in the future.
The Key: Take me through how this idea came to be. Was this a quarantine-specific idea, or were you always planning on reworking Hello Exile acoustically?
Tom May: The entire thing came to be when we were in Australia, when all of the different protocols started getting put in place and different things were shutting down. We had to cancel the rest of the New Zealand tour and then rushed back to America through LAX back to Philly. And we got home like, “Okay, we’re stuck inside for 14 days.” Then we kind of got stuck in a rut of like, “Ah, we had to cancel that tour. We’re going to have to cancel the next one. We don’t know what to do.” We had to stay busy to figure out a way that we can make money from all the tours that got canceled. And the idea came up to re-record this record remotely, acoustically, and do the challenge of working that story into the entire thing…and then see if our label would make a special arrangement for us. That’s just how it all came together during one call with our manager, Tim Zahodski.
Joe Godino: It was, I think, very late March when we just decided to do it, and it started off kind of slow, like sending each other some files, and then picked up as we got more comfortable with the whole arrangement of it all and the logistics of it. We took two months starting late March to do it all between the four of us just sending stuff and then looping Will into the demos.
Will Yip: Didn’t most of you guys learn how to really record on the spot for the first time?
TM: It was a huge thing. We had to figure out what microphones were where. Some of us have some recording experience, some of us didn’t, so we went full pandemic-technological-work-from-home mode. We had some video stuff like Zoom, but we used Slack to set the songs up in different channels and communicate. We used Dropbox to share the files and everyone used a different piece of software to do their recording. And we had to proliferate out from there and learn from people on YouTube.
WY: It was so sick when I got the files. When we track in here at the studio, we get everyone’s personalities on a track. Your vocals and Greg’s vocals obviously are different, but we’re going through the same thing because I’m recording it all. It was cool to hear everyone’s personality in their recording. I can tell this time that everyone had their own different interface on different things. So it was fun to work on it. That’s what makes this project different from a normal recording.
TK: So you didn’t record in the studio at all. That’s not how I thought this went down at all.
JG: We all tracked from our own home studios, some of which were a little more built-up than others. Like, I had learned how to do an audio interface.
WY: “I learned how to do an audio interface.” That’s amazing.
JG: God, that’s the pull quote. I learned how to record, I mean. Seriously, I didn’t have any experience in that. I got a lot of help from these guys too, just from trying to work and send the files and make sure they all sounded good.
TK: That’s awesome. That’s true DIY.
TM: I love the guiding star that we had. It was the idea just of Will. We were like, “Right, well we’ve got to get the songs good enough to send to him. We know we can make the tracks sound really good.” We just kept pushing harder and harder and harder to try to get it all to that level of being impressive or being able to be molded like. So at least we knew that no matter what we did in the home recording, Will was going to get it straight. That was a really nice crutch to lean on.
TK: Did your collaboration between Will and the band look different this time? Because I know, Will, when you work with a band, you’re very hands-on with the process.
WY: Yeah, this was very different because I think this was kind of like the band was just doing their thing. They were making the decisions. It was their project we were sending back and forth, and I think that’s awesome. That’s why you hear everyone’s true personality and how they kind of reshaped the songs, reshaped lyrics and just the overall dynamic of the songs. And then when they hit me up to help take this to the finish line, we got as collaborative as I think we could get at that state. Let’s just do whatever we need to do because we had a deadline. And I said, “Yeah, if we’re hearing harmonies, let’s just grab it.” But the songs were already done. They were already so good. They were like anyone honestly could have mixed it and it would have been awesome. So I’m grateful I got to be a part of it. But every time we work together, it’s the second that they bring me in that it’s always going to be collaborative to a degree. In terms of the actual reimagining of the core songs, it was all the four of them just going back and forth. I was just lucky enough to kind of be a part of the last post-production stages.
TK: Do you think this is going to become the preferred method to put an album together through the pandemic, and maybe even after? Or do you think that the in-person recording process is too invaluable to ever give up?
TM: We definitely prefer being together in person, especially when working with Will. We go into the live room at Studio 4 and really kind of massage the songs. And Will has an incredible way of using the different building blocks to help us move the songs around. But I would say that something like this really kind of kicked open a door for us so we can do this in our downtime, the four of us. So we’ll be able to write more like this. We don’t have to meet up in a small place and practice as much, especially while we’re still trying to get a handle on the COVID situation and we don’t need to meet up every single day while writing.
But also, as we became more familiar with all these recording methods and these writing methods while we’re doing it, this is going to show up in our songwriting future for sure. On this one, normally we’d all be in a room, we’d be banging it out really loud and not everybody can hear each other’s parts necessarily when we’re getting ready to come into the studio while writing songs. And this time you really had to look at your part and look at everybody’s part and say, “How does this fit in here and what does it do?” And it was kind of like learning the language of the song and learning the language of the parts. I think we’ll be able to take that knowledge to the next situation.
WY: Definitely the silver lining during the COVID creative era is that bands are kind of forced to be creative in the way that they approach writing and collaborating rather than not doing anything at all. I’ve seen a lot of bands, from Circa Survive to The Menzingers, a lot of bands that are proactive firsthand on how they can still get together virtually to make music. And it was so tough because there’s definitely a special energy when we’re able to get together in a room.
But with our resources, you know, everyone’s so talented, and these four guys have such a clear vision on just music in general and in their songs that it works. It makes sense. And I think moving forward, having these tools would help musicians to be able to collaborate greater. We’re at this place where everyone could be comfortable in their own space, at their own pace, and not just have to make a call on the spot. And that’s really fresh. And I think that’s why these songs took such a cool turn because everyone just had a vision they were able to see through. Joe was able to see through his drumbeats and Greg was able to see through different lyrical changes and not be put on the spot. So it’s definitely a cool new tool that I think I think artists will be using moving forward.
TK: You reworking the album in this way was great because you’ve truly had a hand in every aspect of putting it together, and it’s reflective because this is such a unique sound to everything else that you’ve done. It’s definitely a product of the situation all around, which I think is a valuable timestamp. And then even just from a listener perspective, Hello Exile feels nostalgic for positive experiences that you’ve had and you’re grateful for the past and you fully understand that they’re over. But From Exile is really sad and angry and confused. And I think that’s reflective of us all suddenly having to grieve the normal things that we don’t know when they’re coming back. Did you have a different message that you wanted to send with this reworking of the songs?
TM: I think it’s super interesting and fascinating that you heard it that way, because the way that we had written or what had come out of Hello Exile was not a premonition, but it was more that this next stage was almost a manifestation of what we were writing about. That kind of that longing for the earlier, happier times, even though they may be remembered incorrectly, the kind of nostalgia that existed for them. And now we’ve gotten to a situation where we literally can’t have them, no matter what, because of the current circumstances. And we kind of rewrote the structure of the songs and the way they sound sonically is now kind of a little bit more clear and comes forward. And it’s missing the high rock kind of energy which may have made it a little happier sounding, so now it just becomes dismal by default.
TK: When I listened through From Exile, the song that I was most excited for was “Anna,” and I couldn’t wait to see how you changed it. I love the rock version of it and I love this one. It hit me really hard because both versions are two different kinds of sad. The added lyric at the beginning is probably the most poignant part of the whole thing. While it was written about a specific relationship, it feels like such a universal experience and I am so glad it makes me feel the way that it does.
WY: I think Tom hit it on the mark. I think hearing the lyrics four billion times, making Hello Exile, I knew the record was still as sad as From Exile, but it’s because while we’re making the songs, we’re always trying to improve the songs in a way to make them pop and make them jump at you, even if they’re sadder songs. We always want the songs to be exciting and fun to listen to. We played around with a lot of the dynamics, most of the time going the other way, or sometimes we even went higher. But most of the time the lyrics got crushing because we took away a lot of that energy from Hello Exile. I hadn’t thought of it like that but it actually makes complete sense.
TK: When I got to “Anna” and that lyric showed up, I had to pause, and then I went back to that one like 50 times. When I first listened to From Exile I went song for song, original to new version. It was sometimes frustrating because you want to sing along to the way the original sounds, but then you really tune in to all the changes that were made so purposefully and they worked so well. They shouldn’t sound like the originals. I think “America You’re Freaking Me Out” is the one with the most specifically drastic changes. Did you get any sort of reception to that one because of how specifically political it is?
TM: Yeah, a lot. That was actually the one that we changed the most. That was one that we recorded very early on in the process. It’s the first track on the record, so we had a gun and we could never get it to kind of click for us – the new version from its old version. So we had to sit in there for a while and I was like, “I want to just come back to it.” And then after the murder of George Floyd, when the political climate kind of exploded in the United States, there was a lot of energy around the prospect of change that we’re seeing now, whether it was with social media or text messages or talking to people or seeing on the streets and attending some protests. And it kind of ended up reshaping the way that we were writing the song and that’s where it came out. And as far as your question regarding perceptions, we rushed getting the song out. Will got it cleaned up for us and mixed in an extremely short period of time so we were able to put it out and raise money.
JG: It’s cool to be in the process of writing and bouncing tracks back and forth and everything and we had a way to contribute in our way. And so that was really great timing for us too.
WY: It was really cool to see the energy of everyone. Even Greg making last-minute lyrical changes. When you’re making a record – it’s a living, breathing thing. We had to turn it in at a certain time and the guys were handing me new files like the hour before. We already had a mix of the master. And we’re like, “Let’s drop it in.” So that shows how much heart was put into this record. It’s a true living, breathing thing, and not just an acoustic record.
TK: Do any other tracks stand out to you guys as far as finding new meanings for them, either personally or maybe on the listener’s level?
TM: I would say actually the project as a whole ended up becoming a re-living and re-experiencing of the writing and recording process, which is because we were in an interesting spot. Recording Hello Exile was amazing. It was so fun to be back in the studio, and that was the most time that we spent in the studio ever, not just with Will. Ever, at all. That record was a snapshot of that time of our lives, those songs at that moment, and whatever we decided what the final lyric was going to be. Those songs could have been completely different a month later or an hour later.
But actually sitting there revisiting these songs and kind of rethinking about the lyrics and rethinking the parts of the melodies that we wanted to use was really a cathartic and surreal experience. As far as the specific songs, [we] redid “Strawberry Mansion” in a style the four of us enjoy more than the other way that we did it, and that’s what happens. And we usually aren’t in the habit of writing about kind of a fatalist, political ideas in the songs. Usually it’s a little bit more hopeful, it’s a little bit more nostalgic. A straight-up kind of fatalist lyric does feel like it is on the nose a little bit, but that’s just the time period right now. We literally open up a newspaper and it just seems like a dystopian nightmare.
JG: The plug got pulled on the whole album cycle of touring because of the timing of when this happened, and it happened to a lot of people, too. And we were only a couple of tours into the whole album cycle. So then to just stop and be like, “You know, these are still songs that we haven’t been able to play live yet.” So we still had all this energy and momentum from Hello Exile to breathe new life into these songs. It wasn’t like we were reaching back. This would be a lot different if it was a 10 year anniversary of an album and we decided to rework it. It was still really fresh. So like Tom said, specifically with “Strawberry Mansion,” that’s one that stands out to me where the lyrical content and everything just hit more now than it did even when the album came out. So to see those songs in a new light in this climate was really awesome.
WY: “America’ was very relevant then, too. But how much “America” and “Strawberry Mansion” both were huge premonitions for a year after we made the record is so spooky. So those were definitely, in terms of meaning and in terms of feel, they took a turn with the From Exile versions.
TK: Do you think From Exile is going to live in this quarantine moment or do you think it can translate to whatever happens next? Or do you think this is truly a snapshot of right now?
TM: I think in a way, this is a snapshot right now. The whole kind of vision and mission that we had for it was to be a snapshot. We talked about how we didn’t want to write a new record that becomes a quote-unquote “pandemic record,” the one where every song is just kind of on the nose. But I would hope that as people discover our band not at this moment, From Exile could transcend the pandemic. I would hope it would. The older I get, the more I realize that when I discover music or when I’m experiencing a band or song that I love, it is contingent upon that moment in my life that I’ll always associate with it. Some people don’t like a band’s record. People will like an old band’s older record because they like that moment in their life when they heard that on the record, not necessarily because it’s a good record. I think that as people hear From Exile afterward, it might transcend now. But either way, it does kind of live in this moment and we’re totally fine with that because that was the whole idea we had going forward.
WY: I think with every record we make, we make it a point for it to be a snapshot of what we have to say at this point in time, and who we are as musicians. We want to make the best record we can for that time. That changes, like Tom said, by the minute. But that being said, Hello Exile is one of my favorite records I’ve ever done. But even though Hello and From are both snapshots in time of these artists, these are just still solid songs. And that’s what’s impressive about From Exile — I got to work on one of my favorite records twice. It was by the third track that we were working on where I was like, “This is just a solid song.” These are just solid songs that are always going to be timeless to me as a fan, as a listener, even though it’s a very distinct snapshot of the creative time they were in. But I think the guys, just as writers and as artists, are incapable of making songs that aren’t timeless and classic.
TK: Yeah, if a song is that important because of when you found it then you won’t outgrow it. Like I said, “Anna” is one of my favorite songs that came out of last year, and now this version is already starting to define this weird quarantined part of my life. But aside from quarantine, what do these two albums separately make you guys think of either within your personal lives or maybe on a broader level?
TM: I think for me, From Exile for us represents a type of growth. Like a new realization and a couple of different levels, one being the, as we mentioned before, the new use of the technology and the understanding and the re-examination of what we’re actually doing while we’re writing the songs. It’s provided a completely new opportunity for us to make new music going forward. And it also was an extremely ambitious project to prove to us that we are capable of immense, immense things. And I think that even though we’ve been doing this for a very long time, we’re far from any type of reconciliation or finish line of what we’re doing. And I think that all four of us, and all five of us with Will, all grew in a way on this. Big shout out to Eric, our bass player, who was able to do a whole lot of cool effects working with Ableton and even using keyboard bass and kind of deciding what his role was going to be in this. And seeing Joe learn how to do all of these things on the fly and come up with improvised types of percussion and be able to lock it in. And then having Greg be able to record vocals that way and rework lyrics in the way that we all were able to communicate together. That’s the biggest takeaway I have from From Exile. It’s that we’re able to improvise in a bad situation and that we’re going to be able to do a lot more cool things.
JG: It gave me just a huge boost of confidence, kind of just going along the lines of what Tom’s saying, to just know that we’re capable of doing it. And then for myself personally too, to be more confident to just send things to the band. At one point I was hitting a bottle in a room while we were recording, thinking “this is stupid, but let’s see how that sounds, and ding ding, whatever, it works!” But to have everybody be behind and supportive of it all and just kind of throw everything at the wall and have fun with it, I think that’s really what it came down to. It really showed me how much fun this could be when you can just go at your own pace in your own space and just kind of come up with whatever and throw it out there and see how it goes. Not having some of those time restraints, as you might normally have, writing a record or something, was also helpful.
WY: From Exile came up about a month or two into the lockdown. We shut down the studio for a bit so I just invested in a whole new mix rig for my basement so I wasn’t mixing here and I wasn’t mixing my normal stuff, just because I had a feeling that we were going to do a lot more collaborative stuff. So this was the first record that I was just trying things out on. It was all analog, which was a cool exercise. So for the nerd side, you know, it was actually a pretty fun process for me because it was very fresh having to mix on all analog, something I haven’t done in 15 years. This was the perfect record to do it on because it was such a vibe. All of these new versions are such vibey takes of the old songs. It felt like I was working at my own pace. I know the studio is my spot, but I share the studio with us four together. So me mixing in my sweatpants in my basement and texting our group text about the songs we’re working on instead of having Corona Lights in the studio together and partying and being amped up was different. We’re just virtually doing that. It was a fresh thing that I haven’t done before.
TK: This is definitely a testament of how this can still happen, despite not being able to be around people, and I think it’s extremely successful when you guys obviously have access to the best resources.
WY: Definitely. Menzingers forever.
TM: That can be the ending line.
The Menzingers’ From Exile is out Friday on Epitaph Records, and can be pre-ordered here. The band will play a livestream concert for Will Yip’s Live From Studio 4 serieson October 10th. More on that show can be found here.