The Used emerged flipping two middle fingers at what passed for the rock n’ roll status quo while snatching platinum, gold and silver certifications in North America, Europe and Australia and kicking open the doors of MTV and the Top 10.
Now freed of the shackles of corporate bureaucracy and even the limitations of geography (half the band now lives abroad), The Used is creating the most spirited and vitally essential work of their career.
Imaginary Enemy arrives with the wrath of a hurricane, railing against the mainstream media distractions that keep the populace complacent about poverty, disease, war, famine and the seemingly inevitable police state decimating privacy. Even as humanity grows more interconnected through technology, self-absorbed narcissism keeps much of the West with a nose in a smartphone and their empathy obscured. As The Used’s lyricist/frontman Bert McCracken declares: “We need new heroes - or no heroes at all. We need more leaders and less Twitter followers.”
“It’s a very challenging record,” says bassist Jeph Howard, who co-founded The Used with McCracken, guitarist Quinn Allman and the group’s original drummer in 2001. “We’ve never gone this deep into these issues. This record has a lot to do with the world and what’s going behind the scenes. We hope that the people who are asleep will wake up and help”
Opening the album with a song called “Revolution” was no accident. Whether it’s the book-burning depicted in the music video for “Cry,” or any number of geopolitical topics covered across Imaginary Enemy, The Used aim to incite via a series of high-minded questions. They aren’t placing a decisive value judgment on the state of the world so much as they are demanding critical thinking and group participation.
The album’s provocative cover art features an old-school punk style montage of a variety of politicians, cable news pundits and religious leaders. The announcement on The Used’s Tumblr page surrounding the release of Imaginary Enemy included these words from the group’s frontman:
“Some view art as a way of escaping reality; others view art as mirror reflecting our sometimes sad society; we believe art can be a weapon, used to shape the very world we live.”
“The basis of any revolution starts with education,” says McCracken. “We’re not pushing a specific message, we’re just trying to open the discussion. We want people to ask questions, like, ‘what is the War on Drugs? What is the War on Poverty? The War on Terror?’ The only way to change the world is to learn about it first.”
The rich experiences gathered as an international touring act and living abroad has helped to inform The Used’s worldview. Howard moved to Central America; only Quinn remains in the band’s native Utah (Whitesides is in Los Angeles). McCracken, who now calls Australia home, has immersed himself in the work of 18th Century Scottish enlightenment figure Adam Smith, revolutionary socialist Karl Marx and “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” author and philosopher, Paulo Freire.
“There’s a systematic problem with this distracted, throwaway generation in that we don’t feel responsible for anything. Everything is someone else’s problem,” the singer explains. “The truth is that
all of humanity is interconnected and depends on each individual. We’re directly responsible for what’s going on in this world.”
It may seem crazy for the hardscrabble scallywag lead singer who openly talked about drug use to be talking about individual responsibility. But the newly centered McCracken is more lucid than ever, keenly observant of everything around him. “Yeah, maybe 10 years ago, I was too young to embrace these ideas,” he concedes with a self-aware chuckle. “But as far as changing the world? People are confused as to what that takes. It takes conversation. Identifying problems is the first step toward solving them.”
The Used’s reputation as innovative torchbearers and post-hardcore pioneers in the aggressive but emotionally melodic heavy music scene speaks for itself. The Used (2002), In Love and Death (2004) and Lies for the Liars (2007) boast empowering anthems that endure in the hearts and minds of fans across the globe. The band’s influence stretches across Active Rock and Alternative Rock radio, the subcultural artistic acolytes who populate the various stages of the Vans Warped Tour and the groups covered by publications like Kerrang!, Rocksound and Alternative Press.
The band’s first album with drummer Dan Whitesides, the adventurous Artwork (2009), featured dirty, vicious songs without jettisoning the pop-infused sensibility of their earlier work. It was the band’s only album that didn’t involve producer John Feldman, who returned for Vulnerable (2012), the first album from The Used to be released through their own Anger Music, in partnership with Hopeless Records.
Like every record from The Used, Imaginary Enemy is a diverse affair, filled with extremely heavy songs, fast upbeat tracks and more beautiful, peaceful material. The group struck a balance between the raw, quickly recorded intensity of last summer’s self-produced The Ocean of the Sky EP and the sound of the band’s first three albums. The Used returned to Feldman with 20 new songs, plus 30 leftover ideas from the Vulnerable and EP writing sessions.
“We got into the studio and decided to scrap everything and start over,” Howard reveals. “We wanted to try something completely different, which was a little scary. After working on all of this music, suddenly we’re starting over. It was terrifying.”
The band switched up the recording process, as well. Allman would record dummy guitar tracks for McCracken to lay his unique and easily identifiable voice over. Vocals were first to be finished; the finalized versions of the music came last. “We got to play around with the sound we enjoyed on The Ocean of the Sky,” adds McCracken. “We like things to sound a bit out of tune, a bit messy.” A looser, more vibe-inspired recording process coupled with Feldman’s keen ear resulted in an album that sounds free of overthinking yet as expansive, big and accessible as anything out there in the heavy-but- melodic landscape dominated by The Used.
The visceral, raw performances on Imaginary Enemy are akin to what The Used have always done live, whether back in the day on Ozzfest, Warped, Projekt Revolution or Taste Of Chaos, at major festivals, or the 2012 charity sponsored tour which raised funds for the It Gets Better Project. The big hooks found throughout the songs will energize longtime fans and new believers alike. The dark undertone prevalent in their classic songs is still there, but it’s all infused with a motivational positivity designed to both destroy and rebuild.
Like everything else in The Used’s career, none of Imaginary Enemy would have been possible without the band’s devoted fans. “We’ve really become aware of what this music really means to us and to the people we’ve touched around the world,” McCracken says. “I recognize that we have the ability to inspire people to maybe smile. And we wanted to expand on that power, the power of art, to motivate.”