Stage Times: The Menzingers

Guitarist and vocalist Tom May talks through the Philadelphia punk rockers’ gigging highlights

The Menzingers first popped up in the sweaty basements of Scranton, Pennsylvania, in the mid-noughties, performing to crowds that were just like them: bright-eyed kids addicted to punk rock. In the 15 years that have passed, the band have continued to reflect the audiences in front of them with songs that have charted the growing pains of life’s journey, from approaching 30 on 2017’s After the Party to embracing maturity on 2019’s Hello Exile.

On their seventh studio album, Some Of It Was True, The Menzingers are a little older, a little wiser, but continue to show that it’s OK to have not fully found yourself. “Nothing is final,” is the manta on ‘Nobody Stays’. “Live in the question/ There is no answer.”

“I hope that we’ll never stop learning or never stop being curious,” says guitarist and vocalist Tom May. “And with this age – our mid 30s – we’ve seen so much that, when examining your life, you can’t help but take some things away from it. There’s a wisdom that’s there just inevitably from being around so long. On this album, a lot of the confusion that existed in the relaying of our lives in the previous records, is now acceptance of that confusion. We decided that the one thing that’s going to remain constant is the change and the inability to fully wrestle with it.”

With The Menzingers bringing Some Of It Was True on a UK tour in February, we sat down with May to look back at their gigging careers, from Las Vegas strip clubs to life-affirming homecoming shows.

The Menzingers - "Try"

The gig that made you want to perform

I’m probably gonna misremember this and take from a couple of shows and turn them into one, so we’ll stay on the theme of the new record of the unreliable narrator. When I was probably 13 or 14, I went to a couple of local punk shows, and there was this band called Obsolete, and a local band called Wonder Dog from Scranton, playing a show in a warehouse called Homebase in Wilkes-Barre, which is a little bit further away from where we grew up. My best friend’s older brother took us there and we had seen Green Day and blink-182 music videos, so we had this appreciation for the aesthetic of punk rock – it seemed like the social scene that you wanted to be around because it was exciting and it felt powerful. I went to these shows and there was no one in charge, it was just like everyone knew each other. The person who took us, Jody Mayer, knew the bands that were playing, and was like, “Yeah, you know, that bass player is my cousin’s boyfriend” or something like that. Just realising that there was an entire world to unlock that you could be a part of. If I was gonna be on, say, a soccer team, there’s a coach, a facility and a framework that runs everything. This was something that was just kind of out there in the open, and it was exciting and violent. It was dark and started to be a little bit brooding. It was rebellious. And that was really what drew me to shows and punk rock things in the first place.

The first

All of us in The Menzingers had played in other bands. For our age, we had played a lot of shows and we had put on a lot of our own shows. We were the ones who rented out the church basement and halls; we would be able to rent out a community centre, put on your own show, charge money at the door, don’t charge money, or whatever. So we’d already been a little bit, not jaded, but you know, educated and pipelined in the whole thing. Our first couple of shows were mostly at a place in Wilkes-Barre, called Cafe Metropolis. And that was a DIY-ish venue, so it had like a little cafe in the front, and then in the back was just a show space with your smashed plywood walls and a rinky-dink PA system hanging up on some chains. But there were so many people in the area that we grew up who were hungry for this kind of thing, that national touring acts would come. So the first couple of our shows, we opened up for some bigger ska bands.

Then we had done headlines of our own. And we would just ride high all the way home – like, yeah, we’re actually doing the music that we want to do and there are people that come to see us. So we were kind of out the gate had a bit of a built-in fan base. But that was our first couple of shows, and back then we toggled around three or four names before we needed to settle on one. So we would choose a different name for the first couple of shows we played.

The biggest

Yeah, the Roundhouse in Camden was our biggest show. There were nearly 3000 people in the audience, in a legendary venue that we’d watched videos of our favourite artists playing there. There are famous photos of The Clash and f*cking Pink Floyd playing there. There are even historical posters and little tidbits in the backstage explaining where the venue came from – it was literally a train roundhouse.

It was like, this is such a huge, respectful, incredible event and we worried about it the entire time. And then when we started to play and it felt f*cking incredible. That’s like a legacy situation, you know, I can say “Yeah, in my 30s my band headlined the Roundhouse in London.”

That was actually kind of crazy, because Greg, who sings more songs than I do, had a horrible cold, cough and flu situation, and we had to get a rock doctor to come in, so tensions were very high. It was really built up. And then when we finally went on stage, the first vocals hit, the first song started to play and the lights came on over the crowd. It was really just a release.

The Menzingers - "Come on Heartache"

The smallest

Anything small in the United States is not necessarily going to be as small to you in the UK, as I’ve learned over the years, but in 2008 we moved to Philadelphia, right at the beginning of the global financial crisis. That lead to a scene where we weren’t playing bars and regular venues as much as we would, because nobody had the money to go out. But we also lived in neighbourhoods that were, you know, rougher, and there were more empty houses and all kinds of weird situations. So we played a lot of shows in basements, all over those sections of Philadelphia. I think the smallest was in our good friends, Keith and Chelsea Jasco’s basement on New Year’s Eve of 2008 into 2009. It was a very small Philadelphia rowhome basement with a ceiling that only I can fit in (I’m about 5’6), and it was just slam-full of all of our friends. And there was barely any space to move. I’m pretty sure somebody smashed out a light bulb really quickly. That was probably the smallest space that we ever played.

The weirdest

Oh, I’ve got some real f*cking weird ones, between people’s birthday parties in random states to playing a boat in Bristol that started leaking from the ceiling. That was a recent one, I do’’t want to throw anybody under the bus for that one.

But maybe one of the weirdest – at the time it was certainly the weirdest – in 2010, we did our first West Coast tour with our friends in Broadway Calls, and once we played two shows in Las Vegas in one day. One was a squat with no power and, I think, no running water, right next to one of the Air Force Bases. So we’re playing in the squat, it’s an abandoned house, there’s sand everywhere, and military planes flying over us while we’re playing. After that, we played The Penthouse Club, which is like a corporate strip club. We were playing with this older ska band from the West Coast called Voodoo Glow Skulls, that we had liked when we were younger. We played on a stage to basically no one, and there were plush couches, 20-30ft poles that went to the ceilings and dancers. It was just weird.

The worst

The worst show for me was when we played at Saint Vitus Bar in June 2013. Saint Vitus is this tiny 200-person venue in Brooklyn that has connections to the industry, and is owned by cool people. So, there are always these insane shows that happened there, like Metallica [and Nirvana]. It sounded really cool, and we get there, and the vibe was just wrong. The front-of-house guy had just come from a 24-hour Grammy party or something, and was hammered. Completely useless, pissing off the opening bands, pissing us off. It was just a weird vibe all around, we couldn’t get anything done. There were all these weird kind of stipulations and equipment issues that went into it, and I was having a weird time in my relationship at the time, all kinds of shit was going down, so I drank whiskey instead of beer while everyone else was playing. It was right at our peak; before we played bigger venues with barricades and security, and just more normal people.

This show got really out of hand and my microphone kept smashing me in the face. It was the only show I could think of that I spent the entire show angry. That’s why I was the worst show for me. That show was angry, and I started getting angry at the band.

Could the rest of the band tell you were in a bad mood?

Oh yeah, they knew. I think I pushed someone, and one of the band members was like, “What the f*ck are you doing?” And they were giving me the side eye before we went on stage for hitting the whiskey too hard. I also had this t-shirt on that was digging into my armpits, too. I’m gonna blame it on the moon. Maybe the stars were all f*cked up that day.

The best

We’ve been fortunate enough to have some incredible shows, but my favourite show that we’ve ever played was on 31 March 2017 at the Fillmore in Philadelphia, with Jeff Rosenstock and Rozwell Kid. It was a venue that had just opened up in Philadelphia as a huge, enormous, beautiful space with a brand-new sound system. We sold the show out far enough in advance to where we were just f*cking excited for it. It was not long after we had released After the Party, and it felt like the whole city was rooting for us – they wanted to show up for us, and we showed up for them.

I remember before we played the show, walking onto the stage and looking at how big the room was with one of my good friends and she said, “I can’t believe you went from where you guys were in 2008 to here, now, selling out this show” and it really kind of put it all into perspective for me. Then, the set that we played was just electric, it just felt like a new type of collective consciousness, locked in with the crowd. And they painted our name on the wall because we sold it out, so it ticked all the boxes.

Some Of It Was True is out now via Epitaph records. The Menzingers tour the UK in February 2024 – find tickets here