The Used 'In Love and Death': Bert McCracken Tells Intense Stories Behind Songs | Revolver

The Used 'In Love and Death': Bert McCracken Tells Intense Stories Behind Songs

Singer reveals "visceral" pain, self-doubt that imbued 2004 sophomore album
used-bert-medianews_group-the_mercury_news_via_getty_images-web-crop.jpg, Dai Sugano / Media News Group / The Mercury News / Getty Images
The Used's Bert McCracken, 2003
photograph by Dai Sugano / Media News Group / The Mercury News / Getty Images

Revolver has teamed with the Used for an exclusive, limited-edition 'Ultra Clear and Red Pinwheel With Black Splatter' vinyl variant of their 2004 album In Love and Death. Quantities are limited to only 500 copies worldwide, so order yours today!

The Used's supremely dark 2002 eponymous debut established the Utah-based act as a leading force in the new wave of maximalist emo. Their popularity surged — but behind the scenes chaos reigned. As the Used worked on their follow-up, 2004's In Love and Death, frontman Bert McCracken was facing some of the most challenging personal events of his life. Chief among these were the deaths of a close friend and his ex-girlfriend, who was pregnant with McCracken's child. The singer was also processing the death of his beloved Chihuahua, his drug use and offstage antics were escalating, and the group was often beset by internal sparring.

Amazingly, despite the difficulties surrounding its creation, In Love and Death is a much more put-together and conceptually cohesive album than its predecessor. As the axiom goes, the heavy parts are heavier and the catchy parts are catchier, but in this case that line actually holds weight. Songs like "All That I've Got" and "Cut Up Angels" showed that McCracken and Co. had the melodic chops for a convincing alt-rock crossover, while seething bangers like "Listening" and "Sound Effects and Overdramatics" proved they could hang with the metalcore kids in a way My Chemical Romance couldn't.

The band's self-titled debut was brimming with cinematic ambition, but In Love and Death took things to a whole new level — thanks, in part, to returning producer John Feldmann. Feldmann helped give the songs the ornate, grand presentation they demanded: sweeping string arrangements, production that was both punchier and brighter, and the inclusion of tasteful pianos. (The approach paid off: In Love and Death would achieve platinum-selling status and remains the Used's most commercially successful record to date.)

"Everyone [in the band] has really eclectic tastes, but for me I was always enthralled by really good piano playing," McCracken tells Revolver during a Zoom call from his home in Australia. "My mom forced me to take piano lessons, and I'm so glad she did because it's always woven its way in and out of anything I do. It's my way of understanding music. I can play guitar really poorly, but the way that I see a piano allows me to understand what's going on. The guitar, I get lost. So the piano has always been a huge part [of my songwriting].

For a band who emerged on the scene with haggard screams and angular guitar riffs, the tender moments on In Love and Death are a surprising departure. But the way McCracken balances those heartfelt — and genuinely tuneful — affairs with explosions of mosh-pit chaos sounds as masterful today as it did in 2004.

We spoke with McCracken about the "prime cuts" of In Love and Death and he went deep on the album's influences, corresponding with his idols, and how the pain and torture he was going through became embedded in these timeless songs.

"All That I've Got"
It's always worth mentioning the Chihuahua puppy I had when we were making this record. His name was David Bowie, and he was a little freak. He kind of lived in my hoodie, and whenever he got let down he would just chase stuff, super-fast like a little speedy bullet. I was at home for a while when the recording started and then I flew out and was booked on the wrong airline, so the dog wasn't allowed to fly out with me. Two days later before he was supposed to come out to L.A. with me he was hit by a car.

It rocked my world to the core. I had never lost a friend or a loved one that I really, really cared about. And I was beyond devastated, and that's crazy to say. Being in my 20s, that's my very first experience with death, and it was my very first experience with trying to deal with pain in a song. Pain in a way that was confronting, visceral, right in my face. Where I was crying and didn't feel like working on art. Just the casual pain of existence.

To me, "All That I've Got" sounded like a little funeral jam for my little puppy buddy. I just remember feeling so at peace. Right when he died, I got another little Chihuahua because I was a kid, and his name was Gordon B. Hinckley and he just passed away a couple of months ago. Which is a crazy full-circle story. My point is, anyone who's lost a best-friend pet who's like a brother, sister, or child to you, knows how devastating it can be. And there's nothing like being able to pour your emotions into a piece of art.

It's weird how songs take on new meanings and come full circle. That song is like a celebration of life in my mind. The lyrics are classic Used too, it's really ambiguous where it might be leading you in the chorus. "Far from lonely" — is that a good place or a bad place? I guess it depends on who's listening and at what point are they listening to it.

At the time, those lyrics were a sadistic stab at happiness. I was like, "I'm far from lonely, I'm so far on the other side of devastated that it's all that I've got right now." So that's why it's become this really cool celebration, because it fits so well on the other side of things. Everything is temporary. Whether or not you want to believe it, that pain or loss over something you love will lessen, it's the reality of how time passes, crawls and flies.

"I'm a Fake"
I wanted to talk about "I'm a Fake" because of the true nature of the beast of self-doubt. The song is not this sarcastic, boastful braggadocious rant. At that point in my life and I think always, I think artists always feel like, "Am I really sneaking all this stuff past them?" Because it's all just coming from the place where I have soaked all of the other stuff. Everything I've ever read or listened to in my life has all been collected in this little pool inside of my person, and that just comes bubbling out of me. I'm just regurgitating what I learned from the people who were actually good at it.

And that's exactly what the song is about. I'm a fake. Even in the poem that starts the song, "Rise the wake and carry me with all of my regrets," that sounds like a lyric that I stole from Jeremy Enigk in Sunny Day Real Estate. And I've come to peace with it, I've come to terms with the fact that every artist starts out imitating — in a form of celebration, in a flattering way — the stuff they love. I'm sure if I wrote a book it would be my top 10 favorite artists and how they tried to make epics.

When you start to find your own way around words and you start to find your own voice and your own style, I think you see the things you have unconsciously stolen a lot more clearly. So when I listen to the first two records, it's just incredible what I hear. I hear all the stuff I was listening to at the time, like Elliott [Smith] and especially Texas Is the Reason and Sunny Day Real Estate. But I'm not ashamed like I maybe felt back then a little bit, I'm more proud of the things I grew to love and listen to. Those guys kind of shaped that artist that I ended up becoming so it's a really cool thing.

But I think the reason why it resonates and why that poem resonates, other than being so stark and out of nowhere, it's just this really heartfelt, emotional, tirade. It's just this rant about something that's so precious, about human ego and our own ability to destroy ourselves before anyone else has the chance to. And I think we all possess the capabilities and I think that's why people love the song so much. We all feel like a fake when we're trying to be ourselves. Like who are we really? Our environment, the culture we come from, everything our parents taught us, not to mention our biological realities that are well beyond our escape.

"Sound Effects and Overdramatics"
This song kind of brings us full circle as well, because the chorus is actually lyrics that I stole from Blind Melon, a song called "Mouthful of Cavities." [Late singer Shannon Hoon's] lyric is, "Write a letter to a friend of mine and tell him how much I used to love to watch him smile, I haven't seen him smile in a little while." So I took the "haven't seen him smile in a little while," and we wrote to the band and asked them if we could please, please use these lyrics and not get sued because we're huge fans of the band. They loved it, they loved the jam, they were really excited about it.

I never did any interacting with them. I never want to really meet the guys I loved, loved, loved. I've never met Jeremy Enigk and I'm really not that interested in meeting him. Never met Stephen King, really not that interested. Just in case, you never know. For some reason if they felt like being a dick to me that one day and then you're just like "Aghh!" I know that they're normal people with extra-special creative minds. I've met a lot of people who I really truly idolized when I was younger, and I never really had any bad experiences. Phil [Anselmo] from Pantera is not really very nice to anyone. [Laughs]

We were in the North of California, I think in a place called San Simeon. We had rented this little place and there's cliffs out on the beach so we took the recording equipment out there one night and wrote and recorded the song out there, just the lyrical part of the song. Which was such a huge, heavy night. I remember being soaking wet and screaming for hours out there. And I got deadly ill from it. I had a serious flu, fever, aches, everything. I woke up the next morning like, Holy shit, I haven't been this kind of sick forever. It was awful, but it was amazing. I'll always remember that kind of sick associated with "Sound Effects and Overdramatics."

It's one of the funnest songs to play, it's still one of our heaviest jams. I've had a lot of favorite hardcore bands. Converge has always been one of them but for a really long time when I was younger I was just really obsessed with Coalesce, obsessed. I wrote to Sean Ingram or somehow got in touch with him, called him up, asked him if he wanted to sing on this song because I've been a longtime fan of what he did and how he screamed. I was so scared to meet him to be honest. He said he would and we flew him out to L.A. and picked him up from the airport and he came and screamed his guts out in the studio.

It was so epic, it was amazing. And after that we went to a rock show and just hung out and had a great time. It was a dream come true for me at the time. We went to, I think it was Head Automatica playing, but I brought Sean Ingram from Coalesce to this rock show and everyone was like, "What the fuck is he doing here with Bert?"

It's cool to think back and remember how horrible I was at moments. I just wanted to cause trouble, who knows why. Now that I have kids I'm like, "Why do they keep doing that?" And then I remember, "Oh yeah, because kids just want to fuck shit up sometimes." That part of me stayed around for a really long time and one of my favorite things about being in the band was just that I could get away with creating mayhem. I could get away with so much horrible behavior, behavior my parents would just be so appalled by. I think "Listening" encapsulated [that].

We had some really rough moments during that record. Recording the record in L.A. really felt like the first record we had recorded in L.A. The first record, we recorded down in Marina del Rey and we spent most of our time on the Westside down there by Venice Beach, and we were just kids. We had no idea where we were, we didn't know our way around. By 2004, we had crept around a bit and we knew who to call.

There were just a lot of moments on the record where I was like, "I don't give a fuck what anyone says, I'm young, I'm gonna fucking live my life. I'll write these songs later." Just kid stuff and [this song is] one of the biggest moments with that kind of attitude and that kind of feeling on the record.