With one of the most talked-about guitar albums on the planet under their belts, The Men are on fire.
Yet to Mark Perro, one of the band’s two remaining founders, it’s nothing but a progression, another step in a journey which has never seen fit to bend or compromise. In fact, this sudden surge in interest seems almost an inconvenience, the album’s long-awaited release not much more than a relief to a man used to ploughing through the album/tour cycle at a rate of knots. “We recorded (Open Your Heart) a long time ago”, at this point he almost sighs. “It’s more that I want it out there so I can stop thinking about it. Move on.” For much of our conversation, in fact, Mark appears unphased, perhaps even disinterested, in this rapid surge of attention. While The Men sit on the brink, Mark just keeps being a dude in a punk band. It’s all that he knows.
And as anyone who witnessed a leg of The Men’s recent European tour, including a spectacular stop-off to Shoreditch’s CAMP Basement, it’s on the stage as much as in the studio where he and his bandmates thrive. Their fuzzy, frenetic punk attack is punctuated by more considered, elongated pieces in an exhilarating hour. It’s hard to believe they’ve expelled this level of pure visceral outpouring over each date of such an extended sojourn, and Mark confirms the tour was a physical demand. “It’s been a long tour. It’s been great, but we’re pretty looking forward to going home.” Praise for the European kids is quick in coming, though he is still drawn invariably to his home crowd. “It’s different to America, I guess it’s more supportive. But I wouldn’t say it’s more insane than New York. New York can be pretty crazy.”
As much as he’d like us to simply stop talking about a record which, by his standards, seems a tad stale already, it’s difficult to stop us. Open Your Heart burst into life in The Men’s home stamping ground of Brooklyn; their friend Ben Greenberg’s studio in the Greenpoint district, to be exact. The sound achieved is a refreshing amalgamation, embracing the raw power of garage rock in its bright and gripping rhythms, true breadth in the unrelenting barrage of guitars and an inbuilt sense of melody only hinted at in the past. “I think we were trying to achieve a certain warmth”, Mark tells us. “We were going for something different on this one. Something with a bit more clarity.” But as to specific sonic reference points, he’s quick to distance himself. “In terms of trying to mimic something else, definitely not. We had a specific idea in our heads of what we were going for, hopefully we came close to it.”
Ascertaining further details proves difficult. Are they on a creative roll, with this release coming around so soon after the acclaim for the album which preceded it, 2011’s magnificently eclectic Leave Home? “No more so than in the past, that’s the way we tend to work always, regardless of what’s going on around us. We work at a pretty quick pace.” Did they feel like they were onto something special with that record? “No, I don’t think so. If anything, it felt like a logical continuation of what we were doing in the past, but people decided to pay attention to it, or finally heard it, or got it … I didn’t think of it as something better or anything.” And seeking a response to their acclaim results in a reaction which is passive at best. “We try not to let it get to us too much. We’ll just keep doing our thing whether it goes noticed or unnoticed. You can’t start believing what people say about you, it never leads to anything good.”
So perhaps it’s best left to us to join the baying pack in thrusting enthusiasm upon the band’s material. And in Open Your Heart, we’ve found something very rare. It’s a truly celebratory listen, at times joyous and free in its discordance, but with endless hooks supplied by both voice and guitar. The title track borrows so unabashedly from the Buzzcocks’ timeless Ever Fallen In Love that you’re surprised when the unmistakeable top guitar line doesn’t rear its head. Oscillation’s lofty fuzz fades from sight only to surge immediately back in the form of the reckless, restless, hopeless and hopeful paean Please Don’t Go Away, essentially the same song, yet an individually perfect, breathtaking moment. At times the tracks appear to vie against each other, bustling for attention in their stylistic variation. But even in an album of highlights, closer Ex-Dreams stands alone. As reference points go, the unavoidable mention of Sonic Youth masterpiece Daydream Nation is just about as laudatory as it gets. Ex-Dreams takes that album’s fervour and scope and wraps it up in five and a half-minute of absolute fucking dynamite. As with the album as a whole, it cherry- picks effortlessly from the cream of the subject matter of Michael Azerrad’s definitive retrospective of the American indie underground between ’81- ’91, Our Band Could Be Your Life.
The majority of writing about The Men seems, in this way, to talk about bands that have influenced them as much as the band themselves. It seems pertinent, therefore, to ask whether they consider themselves truly indebted to a certain musical heritage. Mark is quick to agree. “Oh yeah, we do think that. I don’t think we try to exaggerate that or have it be our whole identity, but we can’t deny that stuff. In a world where so much has come before you, you can’t deny the fact that it’s going to have some impact on you. That’s just the way it goes, and we’re totally aware of and embrace that.”
While this much-discussed referentiality remains a staple, Open Your Heart’s stark contrast to Leave Home is exemplified no more than in the latest example of The Men’s tendency towards sharp and unexpected deviation. Where Leave Home suddenly plumbed appallingly grim and tuneless depths in the doomy and guttural L.A.D.O.C.H, and further back 2009’s Immaculada wandering into more extreme territory still on the almost black metal-tinged Grave Desecration, country music is now the avenue of choice. Country Song is a wordless, heat-frazzled drone, while Candy is a bona-fide moment of accessible country twang, Perro drawling defiantly that “When I hear the radio play / I don’t care that it’s not me.”
Of course it doesn’t bludgeon in the same way as those past diversions, but to the untrained British ear it resonates as a major curveball. “We were definitely listening to a lot of country music at the time. Nick (Chiericozzi, fellow founder)’s been the one who brought all that stuff to the table and he introduced me to it”, Mark relays. “People like Gram Parsons and George Jones – that stuff was definitely heavily on our minds. We like it, and the same with some of those other styles you’ve mentioned; we just like to play it, so that stuff comes out.” That as recently as 2009, The Men were creating bizarre, almost meatheadish, heads down punk-rock patchworks with names like Sketchy Pussy is testament alone to their strange and wild unknowability. Everything about The Men, from their none-more-vague monicker down, smacks of the unpredictable.
Yet one concern remains, and it’s perhaps a concern reflected in Perro’s attitude. That when a band with foundations built so firmly on stomping the cloudy waters of music’s underground begins to soar into the public consciousness, onto the websites of the broadsheets and onto early evening Radio One, that they may begin to lose ownership of themselves, of what they do, and of the connection between band and fan so distinctive to punk rock and the world of DIY. To open the package containing the Leave Home LP and feel the unmistakeable texture of a hand screen-printed cover was to forge an immediate attachment. It’s clearly something which rings true to the band. “Our drummer Rich (Samis) actually screen-printed almost everything. That’s important to him and it’s important to us, and we’ve made sure that every record we’ve ever put out, every single one, has been screen-printed by our own hands. How it looks and everything, that’s part of the whole process to us.” It’s a feature that the band seems determined to stand by to the end.
A sense of ambiguity around the band remains. This is no deliberate attempt at enigma, but a reflection of a certain detachment. Attempting to contact them as they scale the continent without phones proves a trial, and when, on that night in Shoreditch, we discover that there’s now – perish the thought – a lady amongst the Men, we learn that Chris Hassell, who so memorably vomited forth the vocal on the previously mentioned L.A.D.O.C.H, is no longer part of the band. Drummer Rich, meanwhile, was not a fixture at the time of recording Leave Home, Mark himself finding himself behind the kit for their live show: “I didn’t really know how to play drums, but what we really needed was someone who understood what we were doing.” What may appear to be a revolving door policy, replete with one of rock ‘n’ roll’s finest cliches, the constantly changing drummer, Mark is quick to insist is still an approach based firmly on connection and understanding between members. “Nick and I have been playing together for probably 5/6/7 years, and we’ve all known each other for a long time, played in bands with each other and gone to see each other’s bands.”
So if we leave the confusion about line-ups, the seeming withdrawal from the world at large and the inescapable conflict of a band so clearly anti- mainstream somehow accidentally courting that same beast, to one side for a moment, we find that all we can be utterly certain of is the music. As the dust is left to settle on Open Your Heart, and with the band set to return to the studio in May, we’re in line to find out just how far The Men’s caterwauling has spread, just how many curtains in the neighbourhood are twitching. And if, as we suspect, they explode skyward in a flurry of piss and squall and the odd ring of country twang, then maybe the world’s openings its ears at just the right time.
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Open Your Heart is out now on Sacred Bones
Words: Geraint Davies