'The Used': Bert McCracken Tells Personal Stories Behind Debut's Standout Songs | Revolver

'The Used': Bert McCracken Tells Personal Stories Behind Debut's Standout Songs

Singer offers revealing look inside post-hardcore stalwarts' 2002 self-titled record
theused-bert-2002-by-jeffkravitz-web-crop.jpg, Jeff Kravitz/Getty Images
The Used's Bert McCracken, 2002
photograph by Jeff Kravitz/Getty Images

Revolver has teamed with the Used for an exclusive, limited-edition 2LP 'Bone and Ultra-Clear Pinwheel With Maroon Splatter' vinyl variant of their 2002 debut album The Used. Quantities are limited to only 500 copies worldwide, so order yours today!

The Used's 2002 self-titled debut is about addiction, depression and heartbreak — and the messiness of dealing with all of those circumstances at once. Lyrically, the platinum-certified emo classic is a personal, squeamishly intense gut punch, and musically it's just as gnarly: sinewy post-hardcore guitar leads, visceral metalcore screams and an artfully exaggerated take on the pained singing style of Nineties emo bands like Sunny Day Real Estate and Texas Is the Reason.

In 2020, the record sounds just as dark and intense as it did at the turn of the millennium, but frontman Bert McCracken is in a much different spot. The 38-year-old is on a Zoom call with Revolver from his yard in Australia, where he's lived with his wife since 2013. It's sunny and warm on his end of the call, and his cheerful, polite and thoughtful affect feels like a lifetime removed from the scuzzy, immature and notoriously difficult rockstar he was back in 2002.

Now, he says he's been in full dad mode during this year without touring, and he's more likely to glow about his six-year-old daughter and her kindergarten graduation than boast about the youthful hedonism that went hand-in-hand with his band's breakout album. However, even though he seems to feel like a completely different person than he was back then, McCracken still has a great fondness for the album that spawned iconic Used songs like "The Taste of Ink" and "A Box Full of Sharp Objects," which were brought to life by Goldfinger frontman and beloved producer John Feldmann.

"That whole record, those songs are so fun to sing," McCracken says lovingly. "They're so in the range, and most of the songs when you record with Feldmann, he tries to find the perfect tension on your vocal cords."

McCracken was in his very early 20s when he wrote the songs on this album, so many of them were directly inspired by his harrowing teenage years. The vocalist grew up in a strict Mormon household in Utah where he says he had to hide the rock CDs he loved growing up from his parents. When he was 16, his parents disapproved of his punk-rock lifestyle and kicked him out, which led him to drop out of high school, get into hard drugs, and endure a stretch of homelessness. Joining the Used — and somehow getting the opportunity to record an album with an idol like John Feldmann — quite literally transformed McCracken's life, and when he recently took some time to reflect on that era, a number of full-circle moments came into focus.

"Some of the stories kind of link up in a postmodernist, fiction-like way," he says. "And some of the stories have profound impacts on my life, obviously."

Below McCracken shares the stories behind the songs he considers to be the "prime cuts" of The Used — an invaluably personal record for the singer, and an endlessly influential album for metalcore, emo, pop-punk and post-hardcore bands alike.

"On My Own"
This is probably the most special and profound slow/soft song on the planet, in my world. I couldn't believe what we had created after we recorded it. I remember just listening to it as loud as the speakers could go on headphones just over and over on repeat for weeks and just being kind of obsessed. Like I had stepped out of my own body and was listening to it in this otherworldly, kind of, Who are these people who made this beautiful song?

We kind of hustled Warner Bros. at the time. We were going to record at Abbey Road in London, but it was all booked up. So we booked studio time at Olympic studios, where probably more legendary stuff happened. Rolling Stones, Jimmy Page, the list goes on and on of the people who had their mouths close to these mics that we sang on. We're sitting there looking at their cigarette burns in the vocal booth, it's a really legendary moment.

We got to record there for a week-and-a-half. We wrote "On My Own" while we were out there, and the very beginning of it is just the sounds you'd hear when you're getting onto the Tube. I think you hear the Tube announcer saying something briefly. As soon as that starts up it's just this crazy blast of nostalgia for me. I can remember what London smelled like the first time I was there. I can remember the little French bakery that we ate at every morning across the street and had proper croissants that I'd never tasted.

I remember the flat that we stayed at and what I was listening to at the time, the double disc for Aphex Twin's Drukqs had just come out and I was ruining my head with it over and over, blasting it really early in the morning for everyone else in the flat. Life was exciting. You go visit a new place like that and you're immediately just enamored and enthralled and, "I'm moving here someday." [Laughs]

We wrote the song in the studio [and it was] the first time that the guys ever helped me out writing lyrics. So we were all just sitting there brainstorming, throwing ideas back and forth. To be honest I don't even remember where my head was at and what the song was exactly about, it just feels like that timeless [feeling where] there's something comforting about the loneliness.

It's in those moments where you've had the worst night of your life and when the sun goes down it seems to suck all the energy and the life and the happiness that you might have once known, and you are faced with the looming dark shadow of the reality of depression. And at some point in the night, for some people, unfortunately not for others, something clicks and everything kind of turns over and it's almost like it's morning but it's not, and you're in this different night. You know that everything's gonna be all right and you remember why you felt that happiness you felt.

I think that's what the emptiness and the loneliness of the song kind of represents to me. That moment when, I don't know how or why, but suddenly I feel OK. Maybe it was because of the music — or maybe not, maybe it was because of a book or a movie. It's one of the favorite moments for me onstage. It's a pleasure to sing, it's incredible to get lost in it and those notes are at the top of my range, so belting that out really feels like I'm getting in touch with the emptiness of the song.

"The Taste of Ink"
This song is a really cool example of how amazing John Feldmann is. When we first demoed the song, the verses were the same but it had a completely different chorus. The chorus was, "And I know that it takes time, so I'll make time / And all I can say is that it takes time, so I'll make time." Those were the words to the chorus, which kind of sounds classic Used in a way but a little more muddled than what the song ended up truly representing.

Feldmann loved the song, we got out there and he's like, "Let's do something crazy and rewrite the chorus." And we were all a little bit bummed out about that, only because of artistic pride and ego — I didn't really love the chorus all that much. Although it was kind of true to the kind of Nineties post-punk/indie stuff I was listening to like Texas Is the Reason and Sunny Day Real Estate.

The opportunity we had was really, really insane. Just to be out in L.A. recording a demo with John Feldmann just seemed like this crazy other world. It's hard to internalize a moment like that without something like art, without something like poetry or a song to be the vessel that carries those emotions before you, because they just don't seem real. That feeling of, Wow, I can't believe this is happening to us, we've wanted this so badly for so long — that it is a kind of perfect capsule of that moment.

The chorus is a bit campy and is a bit childlike, which we couldn't help ... be anything other than that. Being beyond excited to where we couldn't contain our childlike selves for wanting to do little dances all the time and just being incredibly elated. We walked down to Venice Beach, we sat down on the beach for ten minutes with an acoustic guitar, somebody started strumming out that chord progression and the chorus was written instantly. It was meant to be. It was a really special moment, I think it really makes the song just that much more special for me as well.

"Poetic Tragedy"
This song was a poem that was written maybe a few months before I started jamming with the guys. It was in this moment where I had this life-changing transition in my high school days. I ended up going to this dropout high school program for the hopeless few who were probably not going to graduate. So there was this program called Unified Studies where you're in this one class all day and the teachers are hippies and you might go camping and go out in the woods and draw a picture of the trees, stuff like that.

When I joined that class and started going to this different school, I met a whole group of new friends and was introduced to a whole new group of new music and started smoking weed for the first time. I really got obsessed with a few different records and a few different artists, and Blind Melon was definitely one of them at the time. I was just so obsessed with Shannon Hoon and his voice.

I wrote this poem called "Poetic Tragedy" about his death and I thought it was such a waste that he probably accidentally overdosed just like so many people did: when they're clean for a while and they come back to using and they use as much as they did before and it's just too much for them to take. When I met [the Used] they had this really dreamy, meandering instrumental that felt so right for that song. I think it's the only song on the first record that Feldmann didn't try to touch the chorus.

There's a huge difference between "Poetic Tragedy" and the rest of the songs as far as pop structure. Most of the songs on the record have a Beatles-y a/b/a/b/c/b song structure where the chorus is catchy and repeatable. But this song is a more bulky structure, the chorus is different both times and it ends in this big chorus kind of thing. It's a totally different structure. But I think Feldmann understood the song like we did and how powerful and meaningful it was, and yeah he left it alone.

We've tried to remember why we wanted five ride cymbal hits at the beginning, and I haven't had any idea why. But it's just a really fun little crazy thing. Why would we ever want to put five? We probably had to fight Feldmann for that to stay on the record, it seems like something we would've fought with him about back in the day. Like, "No, no the five had to stay man." Really funny.

"Blue and Yellow"
I've told so many people that I wrote that song about them, it's pretty funny. … One time I was dancing with [actress] Kirsten Dunst at a Morrissey club night and I told her that song was about her, I gave her the demo. It was before the record even came out. She was like, "Wow, thanks." [Laughs]

I really wrote it about this girl I had met while we were recording the record. I have a good friend from Ventura, his name is Aaron Older, he was the bass player of a few different bands: Sugarcult, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, a couple other bands. But we stayed good friends. Our very first tour was Sugarcult, Reel Big Fish, Goldfinger and the Used. And one night I drove up from L.A. to his friend's house in Santa Barbara and his friend's little sister's name was Gina and, yeah.

It's just one of those crazy love stories. I met this girl that night, instantly thought she had broken my world and fell deeply in love with her. So there's a few songs on the first record that are deeply, deeply influenced by our short little couple hangs together. Especially that song. I remember sitting in the parking garage of the hotel we stayed at. It's a crazy part of the first record when I met that girl and I just left L.A. and was like, "I'm done with the band stuff, I'm just going to go live in Santa Barbara." I turned my phone off for two weeks and everybody was scrambling looking for me, it was a pretty huge, crazy deal.

I don't remember how or why I ended up getting back to L.A. but I remember sitting in the parking garage before I got the wrath of hell from John Feldmann. But we hadn't quite finished that song yet and I wrote the chorus of that song in a heartbeat in the garage. Those moments when love feels desperate, those are good moments to write a poem.