Leave Your Heart At Home: An Interview With The Men

New York punk crew The Men are set to play at Field Day this Saturday 2nd June in London's Victoria Park. In advance of the day, Robert McCallum spoke to the band's Mark Perro about the pressure to keep moving forward

The Men’s Leave Home scorched eardrums upon its arrival last year. A relatively low key release from a relatively unknown New York band, it announced its arrival with wonderful audacity, wilfully drawing in elements from a whole host of sounds – punk, jazz, experimental guitar noise, straight-up unabashed pop – into a raw and heady eight track blaster of an album. There were traces of their forebears scattered across its length – the pop nous and fret pyrotechnics of early-to-mid period Sonic Youth were a common reference point – but it never lapsed anywhere near straight-up copyism, delivering a rocket up the backside of the eternal naysayers shouting about the so-called ‘death of guitar music’. Enough already, please. One listen to the spiraling piledriver riffs of album highlight ‘Bataille’ was enough to grab that notion by the horns and send it whimpering towards the nearest source of shelter.

So after its often raucous effectiveness, you could have been forgiven for expecting the band to return with more of the same for its follow-up. Instead, never ones to stay predictable, they emerged earlier this year with Open Your Heart, a startlingly different prospect. Toning down some of the caustic energy of its predecessor, their new album functioned as something like the ying to Leave Home‘s yang, often sweet and thoughtful where its elder sibling would have beaten you to a pulp and left you for dead. In came a greater sense of space, backing singers, tangents into country music, and the sprawling desert vistas of album centrepiece ‘Oscillation’. A seven minute tangle of crystalline guitar melodies, sweat, summer dust and curls of water vapour, it shimmered like heat on the horizon, gradually growing to a deafening extended climax. Somewhere deep within the stew, buoyed by a driving motorik pulse, Mark Perro’s vocals were hurled around, occasionally leaping into earshot enough to identify a word or two before vanishing again into the fray. The rest of the album lived up to that high water mark – Open Your Heart is a multi-faceted album of great songwriting intricacy, but still bears the impressive physical weight and power of their previous work.

Almost immedeately off the back of Open Your Heart, The Men followed up with ‘A Minor’, a slice from Sacred Bones’ Record Store Day compliation Todo Muere Vol. II. It proved a shift again: a single that switched from the album’s sweetness into deeper, Sabbath-infested psych. The Men just won’t stand still. The Quietus spoke to Perro from his house in Greenpoint, Brooklyn talk about the importance of continually moving forward, and drawing from many wells for inspiration.

Both of your records seem constantly forward thinking, and somehow forward moving from start to finish. Are you intentionally setting out to write ballsy, up-front music?

Mark Perro: I think it’s just the product of playing together and the type of people we are. We all come from punk rock – so we’ve always been around aggressive music. If anything, we were probably all drawn to that because we are naturally aggressive people, and punk music is a natural outlet for that.

Leave Home seemed a slow burner in terms of success, yet contains some of the boldest song writing I’ve heard in a while. Do you think it just takes time for that kind of record to settle?

MP: Not really. If I’m being totally honest I was really surprised at how well Leave Home was received. I’ve come to appreciate it quite a bit now, the further away from it we get. But when it first came out I didn’t think it was that great. I didn’t think that the songs were that strong. I thought our first LP Immaculada was a lot more cohesive as an album, as well. I’ve kind of changed my opinion on that now – so I guess, yeah, maybe it does take time to settle. It took time for it to settle with me.

The new record is far more instant. Was there any change in approach in the writing and recording of the two?

MP: Not consciously, but looking back I guess there were some differences. We wrote Leave Home primarily in our rehearsal studio, with our amps turned up loud and drums, full band situations. The majority of Open Your Heart was written on acoustic guitar, in either Nick’s or my apartment. That’s naturally going to have a different affect on how the song’s turn out. We were definitely trying to strip down on this record. Leave Home has a lot more going on. There’s more noise, more ambient things. On Open Your Heart, we were really trying to focus on just the songs, to strip away everything else and write the best songs possible.

There does seem to be a hell of a lot of contempt in Leave Home songs like ‘L.A.D.O.C.H’, yet the full length has hints of doo-wop, surf and also wanders into a country-esque jam. Was there a change in atmosphere when recording the two?

MP: Well, Nick and I had just quit our jobs to do this band full time when we were recording this album, so there was probably an unspoken sense of urgency going on, a "this is it" kind of mentality. There was also an excitement and sense of freedom that allowed us to really dig in to this record, with no other distractions. Leave Home was recorded on our free time, squeezed in between work and life. It was stressful. Our lives were much more stressful. There was a lot more rage and discontent. The freedom we had doing this one, I think it allowed us to open up to some different emotions in our lives.

‘Country Song’ wanders into rather different territory – what’s your affiliation with country?

MP: Nick grew up listening to country music. He opened that door for me, showed me basically everything I know about country music, introduced me to George Jones, Buck Owens, Waylon Jennings, all the great ones. So we’ve been into it for a long time. There have always been little ditties and jams we’ve messed around with throughout the years. They just never made it on to the records. Maybe ‘cos they weren’t strong enough or maybe we weren’t confident enough to show that side of us, I don’t know. But those influences were always around. I think we just got more confident in them.

You seem as comfortable venturing into country music as you do hitting complete instrumental meltdown. How long have you all been playing in bands together?

MP: Nick and I have been playing in bands together and in the same musical circles for going on seven years now, probably. We’ve been friends for longer than that. Chris, our old bass player, was playing in bands with us couple years before The Men started too. We could make a pretty long laundry list of all the bands we’ve played prior to this one. It’d be a pretty embarrassing list, but we’ve all been playing around for a long time. None of us have any proper musical training or schooling.

Yeah, I saw that your bassist changed.

MP: Yeah. Ben Greenberg is now playing bass for us. He recorded Leave Home and Open Your Heart. There’s always an interesting story when something like that happens. It’s a devastating thing, especially when you are as close to your bandmates as we all are with each other. We’re the type of band where there is no leader. We’re equals and we’re all family with each other, so when there’s a break-up it’s really hard personally and emotionally. The story behind it is really no one else’s business but the people in the band, so I’m not gonna comment on it in any detail. All I will say is our old bass player Chris is an amazing musician and was a huge part of what the band was and is, and I love him. Our new bass player Ben is an amazing musician and is now a huge part of what the band is becoming. And I love him too.

During ‘Presence’s motorik jam there’s some pretty deep, almost ritualistic chanting. It sounds like some kind of Ayahuasca ceremony.

MP: Um, well it’s interesting you say that. In the spring of 2010, the day after Immaculada came out actually, I went to Peru and spent time with a shaman taking part in Ayahuasca ceremonies, trying to figure some stuff out. But if anything, that had a much bigger impact on Leave Home for me than this one. We started recording that pretty shortly after I got back.The lyrics of ‘Presence’ are really simple. It’s just one line repeated over and over again with some variations, with some meditational chanting. That was the intention, to have a meditational moment, to focus on breathing and sounds, where words are the least important thing.

How did you find the whole Ayahuasca experience? It sounds like they can be pretty far out.

MP: I’d rather not delve into the details of this too much. It was very personal and difficult and it’s not something I celebrate or gloat about. I had my reasons for doing this, and the people that know me personally know the experiences I went through while I was down there. All I’ll say is that it is a very serious commitment, physically and spiritually and if you are not serious about it, absolutely do not do it, because it is difficult and dark. It’s not a fun, wacked-out acid trip. You need to be ready to really face some things and look inside yourself. If you are not prepared for that, stay away.

You seem to have quite an old school approach as a band. Playing shows, writing records and not submitting too heavily to the blog/YouTube mill.

MP: 100% of our focus is on writing and recording. We get very frustrated if there is not a constant influx of new ideas and things to keep us excited. That’s why we do this, to express ourselves, and if we are not continually moving forward, that is when this band will end. We are not a band that will ride on past accolades. We are going to keep moving forward and when we can’t do that anymore, it’s over.

It does sound a lot like the band like to constantly step outside of your comfort zone.

MP: Personally one of the worst things I can think of is to make the same record twice, and we definitely do try to achieve new sounds on every record and on every song almost. I don’t see the point in repeating yourself, or in resting on past laurels. We try to constantly move forward, never backwards and never sideways. If you stop moving forward, then really there is no point in continuing on. That’s the way I see it.

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