Bert McCracken of The Used Photo by Aaron Berkshire

Let's Get to the Heart of Things

"Music is our everything; we live and die for it. It’s our way to be human, so making songs that make that deep human connection is really important for The Used." In a new age of releasing music in a socially-distanced world, Bert McCracken and The Used face the challenge of human connection when physical connection is taboo. HM contributing writer Andrew Voigt dives in with McCracken about The Used's new album, Heartwork, his absence on social media, and why 2020 will be the year of rice.

Photo by Aaron Berkshire

Bert McCracken is a lot of things. He’s a dude, kind of like me. He’s also an expatriate, a U.S.-born Australian living in Sydney since around 2012. He’s also a husband, a father, a Utah-born former trumpet player, and – probably most famously – vocalist for The Used. For fans of the band, it’s incredibly easy to discern McCracken’s voice from the saturated crowd of SoundCloud, Spotify, radio, or YouTube. His voice is definitive and striking, reminiscent of Kurt Cobain and Gerard Way merging into one voice.

Like McCracken, The Used have also sought to defy definition in a world of genres that simply don’t give them sanctuary. The grunge-punk-pop-emo-alternative-metal-infused act has been at it for almost two decades, having just released their seventh studio album, Heartwork. I’d try to explain it to you, but… it’s a bit complicated, defying definition, like being a Utah-born Australian successfully navigating a double-decade music career. So, we found ourselves talking virtually, thousands of miles apart, Charlotte to Sydney, about The Used’s new album, Heartwork, his absence on social media, and why 2020 will be the year of rice.

What led you to move to Australia?
I met a girl down here in 2004 when we first traveled down. It’s like a bad romance novel. It was only two weeks or so before we had moved in together, and she moved with me to Los Angeles and we spent eight or so years bouncing around LA until we started planning a future with kids. With that in mind, we thought, “Why not go to the source?” My wife’s childhood was trauma-free, and it’s a beautiful, beautiful place to raise children down here in Australia. So yeah, ended up here; no plans to leave.

How many kids do you have?
Two. A two-year-old and a six-year-old. Two little girls. It’s amazing. It’s one of those things any parent will tell you kind of takes the “you” out of “yourself.” It’s been amazing for the creative process. I always wanted to be a dad, so showing up and trying to do a better job than my dad is quite the challenge. But I’m doing alright.

With the release of Heartwork in April, how do you think the album has been received by fans?
We’ve had an overwhelming amount of positive feedback. We’ve had more radio-play since maybe 2004 or 2006. I think it really fits in a lot of different pockets. I think the diversity of the record leaves room for any type of music fan to explore their tastes. Just like the title implies, all these songs are really close to the heart, and we really tried to dig deep and find that true emotion that we’ve always connected with.

Our musical past has been a religious one. Music is our everything; we live and die for it. It’s our way to be human, so making songs that make that deep human connection is really important for The Used. We definitely captured some elements of the human expression that we haven’t yet captured in a record. So yeah, it feels good. We’re really proud of it and wish we were out there playing it.

If you had to pick a track off the album, which one resonated with you the most as an artist?
It’s all over the place. I fall in love with different songs as different things happen and time goes on, but I think that, while we were recording, “Cathedral Bell” really had this different feeling when I listen to it. The lyrics and the combination of the bass and the sounds remind me of the music I grew up listening to – ’80s pop music and a little bit different than post-punk and whatever you call our type of music. So yeah, the connection to my childhood is vivid on that song. I think that when we started recording Heartwork, the whole grunge music scene we came up with was prominent and close to the tip of our tongue. We wanted to make stuff that reflected where we came from musically.

I have to ask about the song “Blow Me.” After reading the lyrics, I’m very intrigued. What’s the meaning behind that for you?
Well, like a lot of songs on the record, the meanings take on double-meanings and sometimes even triple-meanings. I started thinking a lot about gun violence in the U.S. and trying to put myself right in the middle of the political situation and not write a song that was about pro-gun or anti-gun. It was just about the fact that there are guns and how vicious and how powerful and how incredible guns are when you really think about it. I think this song kind of reflects the same message as you hear in “A Box Full of Sharp Objects.” Like, what we do with the insanity that we experience in life? What we do with the hard times when we get kicked down and how we deal with learning from our mistakes and how do we deal with getting back up?

When you look at spirituality, how does that play a factor in your life?
Well, I think that religion is that moment for people where we get to reflect and ponder and be philosophers, be a bit philosophical with our time on this planet. Modern life doesn’t give us much time to reflect, and I think when people do have a specific moment or a specific activity that helps them get in touch with who they are as a person and what that means in the contextual realities of being a human being.

Growing up, I went to church and I experienced a lot of really positive moments. When the choir is singing, the whole congregation is singing together and you get this really intense feeling of connectedness. The only thing I feel that is close to that would be camping and sharing those moments with your true friends, or going to a rock show where everybody ends up being as close as family.

Also, just what it brings when you sit down to contemplate and meditate, it fills you with a positive inspiration that you carry with you. I know that when I leave a rock show, I leave inspired and I feel like a better person when I’m leaving. I could carry that with me for weeks at a time. So yeah, that’s the kind of connected aspect of where religion and rock shows meet.

(Social media) has taken a lot of the emphasis away from the things that are truly important. Hopefully, this time in quarantine can give people a little bit of perspective on how having human connections is really just a step beyond the social media world.

I noticed you’re not on social media outside of your Facebook page.
I’m not on any of that. There’s been times in the past where I’ve had brief moments. When Twitter first started, I think I had a Twitter for a couple months. And when Instagram first started, I think I had an Instagram for nine months or maybe even almost a year before it became this insane target-market advertising data heist that it is.

I have a lot of time to think about the world being eight years sober – meaning I haven’t had a drink in eight years and I’m quite the alcoholic. Part of my approach to sobriety was to dive head-first into the world and the problems of the world. Around 2012-2014, the differences in caste and class systems became really apparent to me. I think that it’s hard for me to look outside of the agendas. If I’m going to spend my time doing something, I’d rather do it with people that I love and trust. I don’t love or trust these billionaires. All these things we’re learning about social media are dangerous and detrimental – especially now that I have two daughters, understanding how sick and disgusting social media can be for young women.

But it’s not my job to preach, and The Used does have an Instagram and a Facebook and all that stuff. Understanding that that’s the way things work now doesn’t change the fact that it’s incestuous and hideous. I think it’s taken a lot of the emphasis away from the things that are truly important. Hopefully, this time in quarantine lockdown during this pandemic can give people a little bit of perspective of being outside and experiencing things, and (how) having human connections is really just a step beyond the social media world. I know that I’m not above their algorithms. I’m susceptible to the same type of things that every other human is. So, for me, just like for everybody else, it became a scroll trap where I was just flipping and flipping and flipping. I could have been reading a beautiful poem or doing something productive with my time. Instead, I was just either feeling inferior or jealous or angry or satiated by meaninglessness.

The Used 2020

The Used 2020

What have you been up to in quarantine?
Reading is my connection to my favorite parts of music. I think that the combination of rhythm and melody with a beautiful poem that is heartfelt is… That is the most powerful place you can be in. One thing I’ve done that I’ve never done before is that I’ve never had a setup to record myself as far as a studio, just making ideas and jams and recording them. Since we’ve been home, I’ve set myself up with a little studio with the help of the band, and (I’ve been) trying to record some stuff. It’s a wild world. It seems easy until you’re in there, trying to click and all the stuff… I’m really, really horrible at it. I was never that savvy when it came to computers, so yeah, testing my abilities, but it also gives me this really cool outlet where I can just put down any idea and work on it (or not work on it).

I’m not afraid to single out where I feel like problems are, and I’m not afraid to talk about the truth.

With regards to Heartwork, do you think you and the band will be able to do a full-length tour?
Well, I guess the future is just all up in the air. Hopefully things go back to a sort of measured kind of normal and we’re able to do a full-blown rock tour. I can’t imagine that’s happening this year, but we will see. I know there’s a lot of politicizing of this virus in the U.S., which we just don’t see that much here. I mean, people are pissed that they have to stay home, but an Australian will be compliant because we’re not experts in virology or epidemiology.

It just seems like such an American thing to mistrust the experts. Like, “Oh, the experts, they all have this agenda.” How it got to the point where if you want to be careful about the virus then you’re some crazy left-wing liberal Democrat, but if you don’t want to stay at home you’re a Trump supporter. It’s like, give me a fucking break already (laughs). I think a big part of the problem is the U.S. has a very divisive political system, this two-party system that creates extremes at every turn. A very divisive president, as well. That’s not a pro- or anti-Trump statement; he’s just a very divisive man.

I’m not afraid to single out where I feel like problems are, and I’m not afraid to talk about the truth, but when media outlets are playing into his hands and actually reporting fake news (laughs) – it’s an awful, awful thing. On the same side of it, I just can’t believe the situation that the White House is in. It’s wild. The Trump situation is kind of a worldwide virus in and of itself. I think a lot of people are looking to that playbook of “deny, deny, deny and lie, lie, lie.” It’s a sad, sorry state, but humans are resilient, and I think that, before we know it, we’re going to see the other side of this thing and history will look back on 2020 with wide-eyes.

What is the craziest, most weird, or most fun thing you and your family have done during quarantine?
We have been cooking more than ever and that’s not necessarily weird or strange. I’ve been cooking pretty seriously for 15 or so years, and I have a wide array of… like, my resume for dishes is quite extensive. I shot a pilot for a cooking show back in 2006 or 2007, and I have a stockpile of recipes that I’ve written myself. I’m a very confident chef in the kitchen, but I’ve never been able to cook rice. For some reason, I have such a serious problem with rice.

Isn’t rice one of the easiest things? I don’t cook.
I don’t know, I don’t know. Maybe it’s just a problem with me. Growing up in Utah, we ate a lot of potatoes (laughs). But I have a sure-fire, 100%, fool-proof rice cooking strategy now, and that’s what I’ll take away from 2020 and this pandemic – perfectly cooked rice.

Bert McCracken of The Used was posted on May 29, 2020 for HM Magazine and authored by .