Words by Jonathan Stout
Expect the unexpected. Although it’s perhaps an overused expression, there are few other ways of approaching an album by Brooklyn’s The Men. The band has long followed whatever changing muse that’s grabbed them, which has resulted in a thrilling discography. At one moment they’re rocking with brutal, noisy intensity and the next they could be playing a Neil Young style folk number, a synth soaked new wave jaunt or 70’s inspired power pop gallop.
On this year’s New York City (Fuzz Club Records) the band finds themselves in full on rock n’ roll mode, momentarily shelving the acoustic guitars and synthesizers for distortion filled, fist pumping anthems. You’ll find very few current albums that rock so ferociously and yet so genuinely and unpretentiously. This is a band that exists because its members remain inspired. Their songwriting seems to come naturally and its members share a hard earned cohesiveness that can only come from bashing it out in basements and crusty DIY venues for years.
Off Shelf: You’ve followed many muses throughout the course of your existence as a band, but you certainly leaned harder on folk and new wave influences for your last two albums, Mercy and Drift. What brought you back to the higher energy, aggressive material explored on New York City?
Nick Chiericozzi: The other records you mentioned have some aggressive songs and high energy performances. This record seemed to have more of a template, however. Acceptance is the word I’m thinking of now. You really can’t be all things to all people at the same time, so make something that might only say a few things, but it executes them well. The previous two records have sinister themes, stream of consciousness themes and there’s a lot of exploratory music in there because we had made seven guitar heavy records. We don’t really map things out too much, but we did have conversations of what we were not going to do. We can all play a lot of instruments and can bring a lot to the table, but when you subtract things out of the equation and use certain tools, you become a little more creative or rather, you have to become more creative to present something interesting.
OS: The new record was first done with a slightly different tracklist by the both of you, alone in late 2020 using a drum machine, but you shelved it in favor of a live band set up. Do you think you’ll ever release those demos? It would be really cool to hear these songs that rock so well in a normal band format, presented in a minimalist way as those demos suggest.
NC: I agree with you. That was a fun project made in isolation. We’ve talked about putting that out sometime in the future. Mark programmed the drum machine and played guitar and I did the bass and guitar and I think we both did some synth. I played bass for eight hours one day after we put down the guitar and drum machine tracks. That was a workout for these old hands! There are two songs we did with acoustic instruments that are standouts and not on the new record. We did some spoken word next to a fire- a lot of different textures, but ultimately it led us to what you’ve heard.
OS: In your press release you mention that NYC is a lot of different things to all kinds of people and it’s with that spirit that the record is presented. The concept that something can be both specific and ambiguous is an interesting one to explore. I wanted to ask what NYC means to you, especially after being based there for as long as you have.
NC: I think what I meant by that is New York is a particularly fluid city and is an ever changing reflection of who lives here. The love and hate of existence here is really palpable. I mean sometimes, no one gives a damn about you and other times something lifts you up to an even physical high. I’ve had my ups and downs here and the band has too. I landed here many years ago and continue to find it interesting. During 2020, I would take my son out in the car and explore the city. It wasn’t a great time to be here. We started our ride with John Lennon’s ‘New York City’ every single time.
OS: The world has changed a lot since the pandemic, and many of these changes are being felt most in larger cities. How do you feel that NYC has changed? Does the music scene feel different?
NC: I think people are doing lots of good stuff right now and the clubs are booking them. Whenever I look at show listings, the dates are taken and there’s a lot going on. I do think that what happened really did kill off some good things, though. There are a lot of businesses that just couldn’t sustain during the extreme period and even if they did, then the recent monetary inflation was the final nail in the coffin. But it’s fertile ground here if the rent can be dealt with. The last few years did kill the ‘party band’ from rehearsal spaces. My perspective on positive, interesting and independent places in the City has changed tremendously in the last couple of years. When I was younger, I took record stores and independent spaces, music gear stores and studios for granted. Now, I try to support those places with more gusto and vigor.
OS: Is the patriotism represented in the song “God Bless the USA” genuine or ironic? If genuine, how do you maintain pride for the country?
NC: The song is meant to take a saying or sentiment like, ‘God Bless America’ and turn it around a bit. That’s probably the US’s biggest issue. We don’t look in the mirror and see what there is to see and imagine what it’s like to see it. The media and the way it influences everyone here has really led to some wild consequences and dead-end conclusions. Mostly though, it’s just a good song. I like the line about a ‘bull in a china shop…’, I thought that was a good image he pulled into the song.
OS: What brought you to your new label home of Fuzz Club Records for this release?
NC: A friend, Alex, suggested Mark email them. It was really as simple as that. We met and it seemed like a good place to drop anchor. They’ve been very nice, transparent, encouraging and eager during this whole process.
OS: New York City was played live and recorded to 2″ tape in Travis Harrison’s [Guided By Voices, Built To Spill] Brooklyn studio. You’ve recorded a few of your albums live, do you generally prefer this approach in contrast to recording track by track?
NC: We consciously set out to record in a certain way for the session. There was to be no synth, no this, no that. It made us relax a bit knowing what we were going to do, but also what we were not going to do. The tape machine actually broke two days before the session and the regular tech had COVID, so he couldn’t make it out to fix it. So we were preparing ourselves to go digital. We bought a couple of fresh reels for the session and were a little bummed that it might not be a possibility. Travis was able to get it back in action via the help of a tech named “Midnight Bob.” For what we do, recording everything together is key. It maintains and hopefully enhances the energy. We’re also not a band who has tons of money and we can’t mess around. I mean, we have to knock this stuff out. I was listening to an interview with Rick Rubin and he said there was something like 150 reels of 2” used for some sessions he did in the 90’s. That sounds like torture to me! The studio is a fun house. You never quite know what you’re going to feel like on the other side. I love it, but I don’t want to spend too much time there in one go.
OS: Where did you go for inspiration when composing these songs? Were there any specific records, movies or books that helped shape your writing process?
NC: It’s really a guitar record from my perspective. I wanted to have my parts more organized than my typical improvisation method. We really listened to a lot of things. I think since 2018 or so, I’ve listened to jazz more than anything else. Yeah, just another guy getting older, listening to jazz… but good jazz. Instrumental stuff has always been at our core. At the same time we tore open some things we’d hadn’t discussed in a while. Poetry – Eliot, Berryman, Larkin, Tagore, Ginsberg – and books. Children, escape, searching, a hot smack to a weary head… these are themes. Bands from Detroit really popped out, as well as Misfits-Bullet EP, Heartbreakers-L.A.MF., Blitz-All Out Attack, Sandy Bull, 89.9 KCR. I really got into Steve Jones’ guitar tone on the Bollocks record. Before we’d record I’d text, “It’s Brannon time” for our man John Brannon. I asked Richard Hell about some recording techniques on Blank Generation and he obliged. I think the record really came out of simplicity and Travis got the big sound we were going for on the tape well.
OS: You all have experimented with side projects and songwriting outside of the confines of this band. What brings you back to this project? Do you expect The Men to continue for many years to come?
NC: There’s really no reason to stop doing it as of today. The Men never retreated completely or really took off so far ahead of ourselves that we couldn’t keep up with it. We have a real heartbeat that is still pumping. We played our first show fourteen years ago today, February 20.
OS: How does the rest of the year look for the band? Any tours or festival dates planned?
NC: We have something in the works with Fuzz Club again, which we’ll announce soon. We’re going to play Rough Trade in Manhattan in a couple of months. I’m trying to get a permit to play live in one of the parks, but the Parks Department is giving me the run around. I’d like to record the new material we have in an EP format and if not, just get them down and stockpile good songs.