The Beautiful, Isolated Mind of Bert

Lunch with The Used's outspoken vocalist Bert McCracken at SXSW

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Photo by Julie Worsham

Less than 12 hours before we meet for lunch, a young man named Rashad Owens tried to avoid being pulled over by accelerating through the parking lot of a Shell station in downtown Austin, TX. He turned down the closest street, but it happened to be a one-way street; he was now heading against the flow of traffic. He made his next immediate right on to a street they call Red River, but that street, normally a two-way, was barricaded off, now technically a no-way.

Since our this was happening the first night of South By Southwest, there were still dozens of people milling about in the street outside of Mohawk, a popular Austin music venue, also on Red River. Chino Moreno’s new band, ††† (Crosses), finished their set earlier, wrapping up Night One for mostly everyone, but these late-nighters, filled with life, didn’t want to go home just yet.

At Rashad’s speed, he now had no way of avoiding the inevitable. One eyewitness said it sounded like “popcorn popping in a microwave the way the car went through people.” Rashad managed to get through the barrage of life, matter and debris he was creating, even getting through the next light at 10th.

His speed couldn’t handle turning left at 11th. His car hit two more people as the car came to a crashing halt on the far corner of 11th and Red River. He attempted to flee, but was tasered and charged.

The next morning, mostly out of respect and partially due to their proximity to the crime scene, Vans — the shoe company almost synonymous with Warped Tour and youth culture — opted to shut down their events scheduled for this morning. Bert McCracken, vocalist for The Used — a band almost synonymous for being the voice of two generations of youth culture — walked up Red River to Stubb’s for lunch with me today, passing that same Vans where, just half a day earlier, Rashad would ultimately be responsible for the deaths of four human beings.

After our introductions, McCracken is mulling over a phrase audibly: “It’s a ‘dog eat dog’ world out there.” He’s arrived with band manager and owner of Anger Management Group, Sean Akhavan, and I’ve been hanging out with the band’s publicist and owner of Big Picture Media, Dayna Ghiraldi, who is partially distraught — one of her PR friends broke some important bones in last night’s tragedy, and the phrase McCracken is mulling somehow got tied to it. We all agree the phrase doesn’t really apply, but the phrase itself was all McCracken needed to start mentally exploring this new avenue. “By its very nature, it’s an intriguing and vile proposition,” McCracken continues, somewhat under his breath. He has the type of mind that would indulge the philosophical implications of a domestic species eating its own. As I would come to learn, the man is not one to lightly or mistakenly use words or phrases. Even children learn the phrase “dog eat dog,” but McCracken’s in it for the long-term, wondering if he’s ever considered the phrase as it relates to his reality. He actively works — and I do mean works, though most people would probably think of it more like homework — to sharpen his mind.

Sometimes, that work is mulling the etymology of childhood phrases. Other times, it’s studying, reading, being a student of your game; it cultivates relief by allowing you to define exactly how you’re feeling. “I came across a quote the other day,” McCracken tells me within the first few minutes of our conversation. “It sums up my life in the last two years. ‘There are two types of people in this world: Those who believe there are two types of people in this world, and those who don’t.’ I don’t.”

Looking back on my time, I get the impression McCracken puts out intellectual feelers here and there, similar to this one, searching for mind-sharpening conversation. He lets this moment linger a beat and continues. “Whether you’re reading fiction, nonfiction, essays or poems, you learn so much, regardless of what it is. We’ve forgotten how to learn in this country, a little bit.”

“We are taught how to take tests,” I offer, encouraging the conversation. His counter-offer, swift and immediate, was also very deliberate, a redefining caveat to his initial statement: “We learn how to follow people.”

As it would turn out, one of the things I appreciated the most about McCracken was his willingness to travel down the rabbit hole with you. As long as you can talk about it, he’ll indulge you, go toe-to-toe with you, test you — if that’s what it takes. He’ll do it because he knows he can handle almost any fight — it can’t be worse than death, and he’s not scared of that.

He’s a hugger. I love that, because I am, too; he made sure to hug me before I left. He’s always been an outspoken guy who has done it his own way, but after saying our goodbyes, I realized, now that he’s put down the bottle, he’s got a lot more love to give. Prepare for your hug, World.


 

You’ve figured out how to write the big catchy hooks to get people into your world. Tell me a little bit about your world, especially in regards to this new record.
The emphasis is far from trying to sell anything or trying to capture anyone’s attention any longer. We live in a kind of separatist-based society. That’s basic society from the beginning of time. After the Neolithic Age — after man was civilized — we have separated ourselves. It’s class-system separation. If you look at the wealth inequality all over the world, it’s a pretty devastating situation.

The point of peace is to be able to have arguments about personal beliefs. Unfortunately, at times, beliefs close doors and also make people irrational. There’s something to be said about disagreeing with someone and finding that connection through disagreeing.
That’s what we’re really trying to push. We’re trying to open people’s eyes to a more conscious effort of art. We do believe that art should be used as a weapon to destroy borders and barricades.

How did you bring that into Imaginary Enemy when you were writing it? I also know that you got sober fairly recently.
If we’ve experienced addiction or know anyone who’s suffered with addiction, then we understand that it makes people slaves. There’s not a lot of room for consciousness in that downward spiral of shame and guilt. I wasn’t ready to begin to talk about any important issues, anything facing our world. I was—

When was this, two years ago?
I quit about two years ago, yeah.

That’s what you were feeling when you quit?
In a big way, I wasn’t feeling anything. I feel like alcohol had taken everything. I guess “spiritual” is a tricky word. I do believe that our spirit is in the molecules of water between the neurons in our brain. It’s logical.

When people separated the spirit soul from the body, it was a damning incident for human beings, probably as bad as when we anthropomorphized a God, a man dictator, a sky-Mao in the sky. These things bring troubles for human beings. Whether or not we want to admit it, that’s another thing.

With addiction, it takes everything you could be passionate about and everything you could have strong feelings about and waters it all down.

I had to quit. My wife was going to leave me. I love her a lot.
It destroys lives. A big emphasis should be put on healing. There’s a lot of persecution in the world. If you have somehow gotten yourself into a tricky situation, it’s a lot easier for people to judge you and put you in that category of criminal activity or immoral activity, whatever it is.

Before all these laws, prohibition drug laws, and all this… What we saw last night with alcohol, 25 people hit, 27 people hit, whatever. Two people dead. (Editor’s note: The confirmed number dead as of printing is four.)

It’s pretty unbelievable.
It’s about assessing what works for the world and what doesn’t. We’ve got a lot of money propped up against big issues, which is tough.

Tell me what works for you, then. You got it together. Something in your brain triggered and said, “I’ve got to quit,” then you wrote one of the best records of your life. How did you make the connection?
I was brought up in a family where books are really important. My mom’s a schoolteacher. My dad’s a constant reader, as well. I’ve always had a passion for reading. … The banking system of schooling where I make a deposit in your brain, and then you’re made to regurgitate it out onto a test — you don’t retain any knowledge.

We’re taught how to take those tests, not make those grades.
I studied education pretty strenuously for this record. There’s a Brazilian revolutionary named Paulo Freire. He wrote a book called “Pedagogy of the Oppressed.” Bottom line, he’s trying to say that if you teach people who they are and who is oppressing them, there will be an inevitable revolution. It comes with education.

Once we figure out the United States’ place in the world and what has gone on up until this point — for us to be saying, “How dare Putin invade this tiny place?” when we’ve invaded everywhere in the whole f-cking world — it takes a little bit of clarity to indulge in that kind of consciousness. People should be aware that, with a little professional help, getting on top of this addiction is so worth it to take your life back, as you probably know.

You have no idea.
It does get so much easier than you might think, in that first week, month or even six months. Things get better.

You learn to operate without it. For a long time, it was a crutch for me.
It is for everyone. It’s the way we cope and deal with issues. The more we learn about genetics, the more we’re learning that addiction might not be genetic at all.

Really? I hadn’t heard that.
The majority of addiction comes from abuse, whether it be mental, emotional, physical, sexual.

I could see that being true.
Who knows? This country has a problem with criminalizing addiction.

You feel shameful a lot, publicly.
In the 19th century and 20th centuries, it was treated as a public health issue. People would receive help, empathy and sympathy for addiction instead of prison. We should put people in prison we’re scared of, not people we’re mad at.

Here’s your dichotomy: You’re smart enough to know what you need to do, but you have to dumb yourself down to make it palatable. How do you wrestle with that?
I don’t, really. That’s (long-time band producer John) Feldman’s job. To be able to write what I want in the moment and keep it pure and important to me, and then, with that common ground aspect to what a producer does, he will tone me down.

It’s a fight in the process. When I absorb the actuality of what I’m trying to say is working, he’s keeping me from saying things people wouldn’t understand. Political ideals like socialism and communism, people are way confused about what they really are.

They think it’s a bad word.
You say the name “Karl Marx” and people get really freaked out. It was nice to have him as a…

Safety net?
Yeah, that’s a good way of saying it.

It sounds like you got to experience whatever you needed to (experience) to write what you needed to write and had a good person vetting you on the other side.
Feldman really has that eye for what might work on a general level. He doesn’t understand politics at all. He was really like, “If I don’t understand that, they’re not going to understand it.”

A perfect marriage.
Yeah. We can yell at each other. We can fight until we want to cry. I can peace out. Then, an hour later, it is what it is.

It all goes back to that mentality of all being on board for the same thing. It sounds like you found the guy you trust to do that. Or not — maybe you hate the guy, and that’s why it works.
(Laughs) No, he’s family.

Did you start the process of writing Imaginary Enemy two years ago when you had that awakening moment, or did you wait?
For me, when I got sober, there was a lot of aftershock. There were about six or seven months where I had to step out of the world.

You don’t normally get that opportunity because of who you are. How did you manage that?
I guess I got a little time. I went to outpatient rehab.

Oh, you did. Excellent.
I got a little time to adjust to a new life and learn how to live again. I got professional help. I stuck to the Anonymous meetings for a little while. Depending on the type of person you are, that can really, really help, being around like-minded people who have experienced the same kinds of things I have.

A lot of people’s ideas, what people are maybe afraid of or irritated by, is the whole 1920s back door Christianity that comes along with AA. It was structured around Christianity, and “You need to surrender your entire life to God,” but, honestly, human beings don’t need to do anything. Every human being on this planet is completely different. Nothing that anyone else says is going to work exactly like they think it works. It’s more like, “Whatever works for you.”

I do advocate professional help. I do advocate being around people who understand the problems you’re dealing with. It’s important for people to try to find that help and heal their lives and receive their “spirituality” back.

The disease takes your humanity away.
It sucks your humanity away.

What was it like growing up? It sounds like your parents were fine.
I had a good family. Nobody’s perfect. My dad wasn’t perfect. Very, very contentious relationship. We fought a lot. I was abused in other ways growing up, as well. Everyone has a story to tell. There’s no such thing as an easy life, but we get the opportunity to learn who we are. There’s no happiness without sadness. The people who have been through the worst things can also be afforded the most happiness in life.

You’ve got to know what bad is to appreciate what good is.
Honestly, as humans, in our own misunderstanding of the world, the fact that there really isn’t happiness without sadness, it leaves us really confused about what they both are.

We search them both out.
For us, all happiness could be is the absence of sadness, and that’s not really what it is.

With the globalization of our world now, it’s easy to reach most parts of the world with a small portion of work.
Globalization has been a continuing practice. They called it “colonialization” before that, and before that, they called it something else.

The Crusades?
(Smiles) …the struggle of class systems. Beliefs have a big impact. They force things. They force history in a direction. We all understand that history is written by the winners.

It’s so subjective. It’s like music. What you like about my record and what you don’t like about my record, for some reason, in the United States, we’ve found our opinions to be f-cking bloody important. There are almost seven billion of us. I think mathematically, logically, our opinions are meaningless. Worthless.

I think it would be accurate to say they’re a drop in the bucket.
Everyone has passions. To have a more positive focus on the bigger picture, like you said, we are all connected in some bigger way.

Let’s talk about that connection because, earlier, you said you know the spirit to exist between the spaces in your brain. … Can you talk a little bit more about that? How do you view your own humanity?
Our brain is 98 percent water, 99 percent water, and we understand that people can lose more than half their brain and still function.

Right. Phineas Gage, is that his name?
Right. Your brain dries out even in bed, right? I think that spirit or instinct or whatever you want to call it — I mean, I love science and I love the idea that things are naturally subject to be disproven at every moment.

Well, that’s the goal of science, right? Make a hypothesis; try to disprove it. If you can’t enough times, it becomes a fact. “The world is flat.”
No. Ultimately, we get the opportunity to be who we are, regardless of the facts. But that kind of emphasis on how important we are as individuals has gotten out of control. I think being who you are — the best you can be — is to look out for the you on the other side.

What is that other side?
The other side of the world. You in Africa. You in Syria. You in Kiev. You in Thailand. You in Turkey. You in Venezuela. The bigger picture. These people are all — this uprising is all the same. It’s all the same movement, it’s all about the same thing. It’s a few people that have all the power, money and a few things.

With power comes money.
You can’t eat without money, you know.

Well, you can grow it.
Grow money?

No, you could grow food.
You can’t grow food without money.

Or land. You’d have to buy the land.
Monsanto owns the seeds, now, anyway.

When it comes to writing to a record, how much do you let your mind return back to those places? I know in my first six-to-seven months sober, in doing a lot of self-searching, there were a lot of things that I explored and experienced that I never would have before.
When I quit drinking, I was able to read again. That’s part of the whole seriousness with my writing. I write a lot outside of poems and lyrics. My inspiration was refueled at that point through my ability to be present. I wasn’t focused on my hangover or my next drink.

That’s where I lived: The time between the hangover and the drink.
I was the same guy, man.

At first I would tell myself, “You know, maybe I’ll have a drink when I’m 40.” I had left the door open because I was so used to that being a part of my life.
I had to close the door.

I did. I realized that once I started to go get help.
I couldn’t even be sober for a day without closing that door, because I had been there for so long. Justifying, rationalizing it to myself, kind of placating the situation and really saturating myself with lies.

And, I’m way better at drinking than everyone else.

Sucks when you’re cursed with a good liver!
My dad’s side of the family, all f-cking professional drinkers. My mom’s side as well. I fully support and I think people should embrace any type of mind-altering substance. I mean, I have a daughter now. To say these things are very brave.

Scary.
Yeah. If my daughter wanted to smoke pot at 16 or 17, I would hope she would do it in the house and I would pretend I wasn’t there or something. The most important thing is to teach people about these substances. Drugs? Sex? Such taboos in my house growing up that I wanted to do drugs and have sex.

A lot of middle-class kids with Christian parents, they don’t get the opportunity to ever explore for themselves. They’re forced to have a specific opinion, and if they don’t accept that, then they’re in trouble. That’s the way it goes. That infrastructure is really hard to disrupt in America.
I think there’s something to be said for pre-conditioning. … These kids should know they can think whatever they want, they can do whatever they want, but when you react to something instead of act, a lot of times, you’re going to walk in the wrong direction.
It’s important to put yourself in other people’s shoes at all times and understand. I hope that people respect where I’m coming from, but in order for them to do that, I have to respect where they’re coming from.

You present an interesting conundrum because, being who you are, you have a stage where you get to tell these people to open up their minds, but they’re sitting there at 16 with their parents looking at them like, “You can’t listen to that guy.”
It’s important to lead, and I think if you look out into the scope of educated, intelligent people, the smartest men in the world have the most important questions to ask.

They also know that they’re not the most important, those people.
Good point. You know, like Socratic Law tells us, the more we know, the less we will know. Always.

At what point do you consider something that’s necessary for living an addiction?
Addiction runs through every aspect of fundamental life. If you’re addicted to food, you’re addicted to cigarettes and drugs, or work and sex, and all of it. All of it. Everything.

I only recently learned how to eat, when I got sober, because,for a long time, I would drink my dinner.
I’m really healthy at home, but I do drink a lot of meals. I drink a lot of kale.

Smoothies, juices. I started juicing, that helped a lot. It’s expensive though.
How f-cking backwards is it?

I know, right?
We buy chemicals, and a bunch of genetically modified everything for cheap as f-ck. That’s not how it is where I live, so I’m really lucky. It’s really hard to find something unhealthy to eat where I live.

Which is Australia?
Yeah.

Tell me a little about that. What prompted you to move over there?
My wife’s Australian, so that was really my in. I really appreciate the bigger world we live in. I think a lot of people should be able to get outside their own little world if they get a chance. It’s really nice to experience other cultures and understand that the U.S. is one place on a big-ass planet.

People can’t even fathom that here you’ve got one store, one shop for everything. You know what I mean? Like, that’s not how it works where I live. If we want meat, we go to the meat market. If we want fish, we go to the fish market. If we need toothpaste, we go to the pharmacy. I’m attracted to protection of small independent business. I’m attracted to a more safe, carefree lifestyle. I’m attracted to less people being shot down with guns.

Drunkenly driving through a crowd of people.
I drive around in Australia and I’m subject to a police checkpoint Breathalyzer any where at any time.

Really.
They’re everywhere. If you’re pissed off about that thing, we’re two steps toward a more communist socialist type of system.

That was my next question. Yeah, you got right to it.
I appreciate it.

You do?
I think either you have to go one way or the other with government.

So anarchy or…?
Anarchist or communist. … I think everyone should read a little bit about true political anarchy. Read some Noam Chomsky and you’ll understand it’s not about everybody doing exactly what they want whenever they want. It’s not about that. It’s about pure respect. It’s about the fact that human beings really don’t need other human beings telling them what the f-ck to do. Period.

Then you have bad human beings who will do bad things. How do you account for that?
If every human being is a police officer, every single human being is accountable for every other human being, it will take care of problems.

The old Texas mentality of, I’ve got a gun, don’t come up here.
No.

Even if it’s a bad person coming up?
Especially if it’s a bad person coming up. Take them in, feed them dinner and teach them how to be a good person.

Jesus said that.
No, he didn’t.

Oh, yeah?
Jesus said, “I did not come to bring peace on Earth, I came to bring the sword.”

He also said when there’s a man on the side of the road, you should feed him because he’s your brother like I am.
That has nothing to do with not fighting for what you believe in.

I’ll agree to that.
Jesus was a political anarchist. He wanted to take down the Roman Empire. If Jesus was alive today, he’d be printing counterfeit American dollars in his basement, plotting against Republicans and Democrats.

Which is what we all are doing.
We should be. … There’s no one left who would say that the U.S. government is fine. There’s no one left that would say the situation in the United States is great.
Before we go on, we know one thing for sure: We don’t know what he said. No one does.

Fair.
Even Josephus, who was one of the first historians.

I wrestle with the thousands of slaughtered nations at the hand of God. Because as a believer, how do you deal with that?
Well, if it wasn’t God, people would be killing each other for something else. Right? I think systems create competition. When have we had an example of a human being devoid of a system?

Our bodies are systems. We’re mechanically—
I’m not talking about biological systems. I’m talking about structured social systems.

The connection between all of us in the world.
I mean, I am interested in the history of Christianity and of Islam and Judaism and we can learn a lot from that. It teaches us to be rational people. Like I said, fundamental beliefs make people so irrational, they claim you don’t belong on this piece of land. This is our land or this is our building or this is our belief you wrote something against. I was reading this book, “Joseph Anton: A Memoir” by Salman Rushdie. … To understand that people are so afraid of freedom and of what other people believe they’re willing to murder people.

How do you cope with irrational thought? How do you deal with a Noah, for example?
You move along. There’s no changing some people’s beliefs. If we can’t talk about it and have a rational discussion about what I believe versus what you believe, there’s no time to waste time. I find it fascinating, because I may believe, but I believe because I believe it as a fact. I may not be OK with everything, but that’s kind of where the faith element comes in.

If you look at these things, they can’t be facts. Right there is where you have a problem.

Jesus was a fact. You don’t think Jesus existed?
They know that he probably existed, but everything that you think you know about Jesus is far from true. If you want to get into factual historical evidence of religion, then start with Islam, because that’s the only religion that didn’t wait 150 years for somebody to write about it.

So Mohammed, right?
Yes.

Wrote it down for himself? There’s a lot of similarities between Islam and the Quran and the Bible.
No, there’s not.

Yeah, there is. There’s a big flood in both of them.
Sure, there’s a big flood in the history of humans.

Sure. You would maintain that we’re all part of this race that’s moving forward and things happen.
Not yet, nobody’s arguing that.

I think it’s interesting to say you’d rather go anarchy or communism, because both of those are probably the two scariest words in American culture.
If people understood what true anarchy was, it wouldn’t be scary. If people understood what Marx was talking about, where the labor owns the production, the means of labor, it’s so simple.

If music structured in a communist way, if that’s what we were presented with, then the artists would own the means of production to the art. Bottom line, it would be amazing. Artists would get paid.

The Internet is helping that along.
It is coming, slowly, and we’re actually trying to start a revolution in this little world of music, too. We’re starting this project called Gas Union and it’s going to be the first ever free music record label. We’re trying to make everything free. If it’s already free, why spend all the time stopping up all the holes in the wall when we could break the wall down and all ride?

Yeah, you and I are similar because I made the magazine free. I believe, in the future, all information will be free.
Of course. I mean, how amazing once we’ve moved past this monetary funk and food is free and medical help is free and cures are free and freedom is free.

Freedom comes with a price, Bert. That’s what they tell you.
(Smiles) It shouldn’t.

Public police reports and the Austin-American Statesman contributed to the facts reported in this story.

The Used was posted on April 10, 2014 for HM Magazine and authored by .