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Bert McCracken - General Vocals
Jeph Howard - Bass Guitar
Branden Steineckert - Drums/Backing Vocals
Quinn Allman - Guitars/Backing Vocals
The Used thrives on friction. You can hear it on the band's combustible self-titled debut. You can hear it on the tension-filled follow-up, In Love And Death. It's what makes a Used album or performance such an exhilarating ride. Throughout In Love And Death, you can make out a faint ticking sound, but you never know until the very last second whether it's attached to an alarm clock or a time bomb.
Both options are just as likely. The Orem, Utah-based quartet is made up of four distinct personalities, each with individual musical tastes that don't always overlap and strong ideals that are often diametrically opposed. The chemistry might have combusted a lesser band before it even started, but the equally passionate friendships and shared hardships that make up The Used have held it together.
"There was pretty much some drama going on during the whole making of the new album," drummer Branden Steineckert says with a laugh. "There's no such thing as a perfect working environment, and I think the music is better because it didn't come easy."
And what friction the band doesn't create within its own ranks, the members can easily find in the world surrounding them. To an outsider, the church-based culture of Orem might seem like the perfect incubator for a new rock revolution. But ask singer Bert McCracken what he's rebelling against, and in time-honored tradition he'll respond, "whattaya got?"
"I've rebelled against all types of conformity throughout my life, not just Utah's conservative culture," he says. "I rebelled against the Mormon Church by going to other churches. I rebelled against my parents by not eating meat. I rebelled against my friends and myself by doing drugs. And I rebelled against everything that was holding me down by playing music with these guys."
"That was my way of rebelling, too," says guitarist Quinn Allman. "Believing in something real and powerful like music. God is just a concept, but music is tangible."
The band's faith in music ultimately provided an escape from their sleepy hometown, as well as an escape from a combined band history that included poverty, homelessness and, for Bert, drug addiction. The Used documented its own history with surprising candor on the Maybe Memories CD-plus-DVD title, presciently capturing its rise from bedroom to enormodome on digital video.
"If you hear a rumor that there's a big party on the other side of the fence, you just want to peek over so bad," Quinn says of the band's desire to flee Orem, to which they've since returned following their success. "We just kept repeating to ourselves, 'We can get out of here. We can do this.'"
"In our minds, it wasn't an option to fail," says bassist Jeph Howard. "We didn't have anything to fall back on."
In many ways, The Used is a completely different band than the one that recorded its debut (the disc has since sold in excess of a million copies). Prior to the release of that album in June 2002, the band had only performed twenty shows in and around Orem. Since then, they've logged a superhuman 600 dates around the world, including successful stints on Ozzfest, Vans Warped Tour and, most recently, Linkin Park's Projekt Revolution tour. Not surprisingly, In Love And Death reflects that accelerated growth cycle.
"I don't think we could have written the first album again because we're all such different people now," says Branden. "Before, we were just writing alone in our house and we were hungry and we were trying to work jobs and we couldn't afford drum sticks and strings. Those things were easier to come by this time, but we had new challenges and new pressures weighing upon us."
The band worked once again with producer John Feldmann. As with the first album, Feldmann enthusiastically facilitated the band's experimental flights and fought alongside--and occasionally with (that friction again)--the band to make the best possible album, one built to weather fickle trends.
"If it ain't broke, don't fix it," Branden says of the in-studio chemistry. "We enjoyed working with Feldmann so much the first time, plus he knows each of us so well as people. He watched us grow from being kids from nowhere who knew nothing to the musicians we are today. It seemed very necessary to do the album with him again. He complements us really well."
"We all knew that the final product we created together last time was totally sick," says Jeph. "And we were confident this time that none of us would stop until we were all happy with the results. We all got what we wanted and I think we impressed each other even though we'd butt heads. Everyone was really pushing themselves and trying new things."
As such, the album has incredible range. On one extreme, there's "Listening," a bullet-shaped juggernaut of syncopated guitar-bass-drums over which Bert alternately caterwauls and croons, simultaneously singing about and approximating a communication breakdown. On the other extreme, there's "Lunacy Fringe," a jaunty, Bacharach-esque pop number arranged for brushed snare, stand-up bass and pizzicato strings.
At the album's center, there's a subtle theme that ties the twelve disparate tracks together. Throughout, you can hear the ticking of clocks, both real (the intro to "Let It Bleed") and suggested (the chiming guitar figure on "Cut Up Angels"). Bert, meanwhile, attempts to hold onto the fleeting moments in lines such as "Yesterday's feelings will all be lost in time" ("Yesterday's Feelings"). Instinctually, the band created an evocative tension between the pining lyrics and the kinetic music. "The life we lead--living out of duffle bags and waking up in a different city every day--naturally creates that feeling of movement and momentum you hear in the music," says Branden.
"I've learned a lot about living in the moment," says Bert, "because that's what you have on tour. Everyone has moments they remember and cherish, and those moments make like worth living. I've been thinking so much about death and love these past few months, and I'm just beginning to realize that it all just exists right now in this moment. This is all we have--right now." The road hasn't always been kind to the band. And in particular, to Bert, whose pancreas famously packed up and nearly quit last year from his excessive excessiveness. On "Take My Life," he attempts to hand himself over for safekeeping while the rest of the band fires off shot-gun riffs.
With a long-term career beckoning, you have to wonder if Bert has decided to rein in the pace and run this heat more like a marathon than a sprint. "That's a good question," he says. "Sometimes things just seem out of my control, but they really never are. That's what 'Take It Away' is about. I just need to take small steps every day."
But that doesn't mean he won't make the occasional misstep and stumble. It's all part of the personal growth process, or as he so aptly put it on the debut's key track, "A Box Full Of Sharp Objects": "Today I fell and felt better." "A lot of shit will continue to happen," he shrugs. "There will always be trials and tribulations. But I have to realize that every mistake I make is part of me. And the only way a mistake is going to remain a mistake is if I don't learn something from it. I try to turn the experience into a positive thing."
Quinn once described Bert as "a chemical mixture of Mick Jagger and a werewolf." The description isn't far off. The yowling vocalist suffers from wild mood swings that he channels through The Used's ever-shifting music, and, if given the choice, he prefers to work by the light of moon. "Night time is just so much more dangerous and aggressive and mysterious," he says, his eyes widening and a smile turning up the corners of his mouth.
Those nocturnal qualities infuse In Love And Death. And on songs such as "Take It Away," Bert actually damns light, love and life itself. But within that total negation, you can hear a blood-sick hope in his voice, a hint of optimism that one day the sun will rise and he'll be there to meet it--and maybe even bask a little--rather than retreat once again into the shadows to blot old wounds. As he puts it, "Something very big is about to happen. I feel it. I've always felt it."