The Used guitarist Quinn Allman is a happy man. He's just released Vulnerable, the fifth album from this highly engaging alt rock band. He got married back in August 2011, has a little five-year old boy and is coming to understand what's important to him. "Life's going great," he gushes. "I've been really lucky." That sense of optimism and what Allman calls positivity is at the heart of Vulnerable, a record the guitar player describes as "Kind of carefree and more enjoyable album for us. It was really fun to make." Where earlier records required months of in-studio grinding, this one seemed to fall from the fingertips in effortless style. The band brought back longtime producer John Feldmann to oversee this new batch of songs that not only harken back to the breakneck tempos on their first album but look forward with more elaborate arrangements and more highly stylized guitar riffs.
While Quinn was talking, you could hear his little boy in the background wanting to spend time with his daddy. Thinking the interview was keeping him from his paternal duties, I offered to cut it short several times. "It's OK," he said. "He's with his mom."
UG: Maybe Memories was one of the first songs you worked on with Bert McCracken. Would this song become a sort of template for the music to follow?
Quinn Allman: I think so, yeah. I think at the time I was just cookin' up ideas on my eight-track and I was really influenced by Refused at the time. Obviously the Used sort of came out of that young inspiration on that song. I had that on my eight-track and Bert came over and laid down a vocal. I wasn't there actually; I had to work. Once he put his vocals down to it we kinda saw that his style fit to really aggressive parts but really melodic parts. Everything kinda after that we sorta tried to think less about the technicalities of things and really gear it towards more of a melody. Yeah, I guess I could say dynamically it did give us a little bit of a template to know that Bert could hit those notes and he could sing and when there was a part that called for a heavy part we could pull it off. But I think we kinda wanted it to be more melodic. We were really influenced at that time by some heavy, heavy influences like Converge and Ink & Dagger and a lost of east coast music like Jawbox and that Dischord stuff.
Yeah, Fugazi. We kinda wanted to do something that was interesting but still melodic and not too far on the heavy side. But yeah, it definitely gave us a good idea of what we could do.
So both sides of the Usedthe heaviness and the melodicwere already there on the The Used album. Songs like Blue and Yellow and A Box Full of Sharp Objects contained both of those types of elements.
Mmm hmm. I think a big and very strong influence on us was Nirvana.
Yeah, sort of off-center chord progressions and melodies and stuff like that. Yeah, it was really there from the beginning. After that record we didn't really want to fit into some of these other categories like the screamo categories and those kinds of things. We sit around and sing Elton John and the Beatles and classic music and Fleetwood Mac and 80s music and everything. But as youngsters we wanted to find something more like Nirvana.
Talking about the Beatles, you actually recorded part of The Used album at Olympic Studios in London?
Yep, that's right. That was a total trip. Our producer John Feldmann, he kinda wanted to do a songwriting trip/free vacation under the record budget. So we went out there and booked some time in there and we had sort of pre-arranged with Nick Ingman who did Portishead, Bjork and some Radiohead stuff. He did string arrangements so that was kind of the main objective was to go out there and have this guy do the strings and while we were out there we wrote two or three songs. We sort of basically recorded them there and then took them home and finished them.
That must have been cool recording at the same place everybody from the Beatles to Led Zeppelin worked at.
It was great. I remember sitting outside the studio sort of in the lounge area and there's a photograph of John Lennon and Mick Jagger on a couch. And if you look at the picture and you look down, the actual couch they're sitting on is right there underneath the picture.
That is cool.
We were in there and Bert was singing through the same mic presthat were freestanding outside of the producer's consolethat John Lennon sang through. And stuff like that was really cool.
You've used strings on virtually all of your albumswhere did that element come from?
Yeah, it's definitely the Beatles and I would say all kinds of music like Radiohead. Honestly our influences are all over the board and with John Feldmann he gets really involved and he's like, Let's try to do a string section here. Any idea he has and we balk our heads at it, he's like, Let's just try it. If it doesn't work let's not do it. So we're down to try anything and especially in that period of time we were still learning. We were exposed to so much in the studio and just how easy it was to get a MIDI keyboard and put down a string arrangement and go, Wow, that's cool or whatever it is. It's kinda letting go of the personal attachment to the parts that were being played.
Did you think along those same lines regarding your role as the guitar player?
I think I started to let the guitar just be a texture and not a fundamental thing. Just an augmenting instrument. With that comes room for other things and other ideas and just wanting to try new stuff.
The 2004 follow-up, In Love and Death, would go on to become the band's most successful album?
It did well and you're probably right on that. I don't know figure-wise and sales-wise and all that.
Why do you think In Love and Death touched so many Used fans?
I think we kinda made a splash with the first record and it was a little more aggressive. And I think the second one just sort of opened it up to a little bit wider of a fan base and was more melodic. I think that the album dealt a little more with loss and at the same time there were some really heavy influences about relationships. I think the first record was a little more about like a dismal situation whether it's a relationship with drugs or dependency in some ways. I think the first one was still uplifting and I think the second one dealt with loss. Bert's girlfriend had died during the making of that and his dog died like a few weeks before that. So there was that kind of thing.
But you were able to channel those emotions into the music and not succumb to them.
Yeah, and I think there was a lot of energy from our first record that got people really anxious and I think that had something to do with it. The first one was such a surprise for everyone but the second one was more real life, day-to-day and relatable. I don't know but people were able to connect to it. A lot of people love and hate that record so that's a good thing. People just kind of have a reaction one way or the other to it.
Right around this time you recorded Queen's Under Pressure as a duet with My Chemical Romance. Did you feel an affinity with that band?
Absolutely. I think what they've done is great. I think they've taken a more grand approach and they've taken their music and created a huge brand around them and a theme. They have big ideas and they've taken big risks and it's paid off for them. They're awesome guys.
You've known the guys in My Chemical Romance for a while?
We took them out on their first European tour and we were really good friends right from the beginning. We definitely influenced each other for sure. It was just the right thingI kind of just came up with it as a joke. It might have been pushed on us a little bit by our A&R guy at the time because we had the same A&R guy. He was like, You know you guys should tag team something together and Bert and Gerard [Way, singer for My Chemical Romance] pretty much spearheaded that for us to do a Queen and David Bowie thing.
For the 2007 album Lies For the Liars original drummer Branden Steineckert leaves and is replaced by Dean Butterworth. Did that change impact on the band's sound?
A little background on it: we decided to part ways with Branden and we were writing in the studio to record. We didn't have anyone and we didn't really want to bring anyone in.
How did Dan Whiteside get involved?
Me and Dan had recorded a bunch of songs at home and he came out with me and we were living in L.A. So he was there the whole time and he'd be sitting in the control room. John Feldmann and Dean had their friendship [Feldmann produced Good Charlotte's earlier albums] and it goes deep and so Dean is kind of John's go to studio drummer guy. He came in and he was able to play anything but he doesn't have the personality or some of the flourishes that Branden or Dan had. But he's able to play basically anything you can imagine. He's very intuitive and just hearing a track once and going in there. And keeping it really simple so we're not going in there and redoing stuff. It was great because we had someone there that was a totally awesome guy and open to any ideas. Yeah, it was kind of just a learning experience and we'd never really done that before.
When you toured Dan Whiteside played drums. How did that happen?
About three-quarters of the way through we wrote about five more songs and we had Dan actually play on those. I remember getting a call from John and he was like, Hey, I just wanna say I'm sorry. I was pushing Dean on this record so much but now I realize Dan's the best drummer. He's one of the best drummers I've ever worked with. He's definitely your guy and he has my vote. It just worked out good. Dan was kind of patient and it gave us time to sort of wean him into the band and for him not to come him and have tons of pressure on his back. So it worked out really well.
It took a long time for you to write all the songs for Lies For the Liars?
Umm, yeah it did. I think we worked on that for like about a year on and off. We ended up putting out a digital release of the B sides from that record and two or three from old records. We were sort of in a pickle there without Branden.
The Bird and the Worm sounded like it was more elaborate than the types of arrangements you'd presented on earlier albums.
Yeah exactly. We really orchestrated each song and I kinda look back and I'm, Yeah, there's not quite a consistency to the record or whatever. Because one song like The Bird and the Worm is a full string arrangement and the next song sounds like Aerosmith and a blues rock kind of jam and the next one has got a swing to it. So I think we were getting into a little bit more of an open rhythm and a rhythm-base to the songwriting and just mostly working out the rhythm.
So the songs grew out of grooves initially rather than riffs?
To me that's always been my philosophy and I kind of got that from my dad that rhythm is the illusion to music and to everything really. Whether it's the melody there's rhythm and in a phrase there's rhythm and in the way we talk and basically everything. So we were just a little bit more open to different rhythms and things like that. Ideas came from the guitar but then we'd really just started to block out the rhythm in our head and use different instruments to cut time with those and subdivide it. Just take a little bit more laid-back approach to it I guess.
The Artwork album back in 2009 marked the entrance of Matt Squire as producer. Why did you replace John Feldmann?
We really only had done everything with John and that this point we sort of felt like everything we knew was John. I guess we kinda looked at Lies For the Liars as being a little bit over-produced at the time and we wanted to do a dirtier record and just more of our own thing. We called in Matt just because he was a cool guy once we met with him and he recorded bands from all kinds of genres [including Panic! At the Disco and Boys Like Girls.] We already knew what to do if John was there and we sorta had those built-in expectations like, This isn't good enough. That's not a strong enough chorus or this isn't catchy enough. So we just sorta wanted someone that would let us do whatever we wanted and he definitely did that.
"A big and very strong influence on us was Nirvana."
So Matt Squire was the other side of the scale from John Feldmann in his approach?
He was really hands off and pretty much was there working with Bert and recording vocals. We had everything ready to go probably six months before we went into record. Me, Dan and Jeph had all the songs demo'd.
When we last spoke for the Artwork album you'd said, I'm not really a guitar player. Looking back at the Artwork album and moving forward, do you still think that way?
Umm, I think I've sort of split the difference from that now. Because I sort of see where for the Used, the guitar had been one of the main sort of things from the beginning. The simple ideas I would come up with on the guitar, I just sort of started to see they weren't there on Lies For the Liars and they were just kind of taking a backseat like I was saying. And so I think that now I sort of see the role the guitar plays a little bit more with the Used's sound and I definitely want to keep it there.
So you really saw your role as the guitar player changing on Artwork?
Mmm hmm. I think it kind of like came back into having parts where people would listen and go, Oh, that's Quinn right there. That's his style. Have a signature or at least a little bit to it. I found that is important and not just people but I and the band, we all kind of like to cling on to our guitar part. That evolved definitely but I still feel like, Yeah, I play guitar. I'm not a guitar player kind of guy. I think there are all different kinds of textures and tones and I do a lot of looping and that's like how I write everything.
Looping is a big part of what you do?
Without my Line 6 DL4my green pedal? I'm pretty much useless. I've learned about everything in and out and how to do it on that pedal. So yeah, I don't know where I was going with that.
No, it makes perfect sense.
Right. It becomes part of the instrument and part of my relationship with the guitar.
You brought back John Feldmann to produce Vulnerable. Why the return?
We had to sort of wait. We took a while because we knew we were gonna get pushed out of our deal with Warner Bros. But we didn't want to record anything because technically until we were let go, it would have been property or demos underneath Warner Bros. because we had used their money to fund doing demos. So we really kept everything on the backburner. When we were talking about who we wanted to have produce it, we were coming up with blanks. We were like, Well, we pretty much have every song ready to go and we have everything written. We're 50 to 75 percent there. We have like two songs that are good and five that might be alright.
Working with John Feldmann again was an easy choice?
We were pretty close and the easiest thing was to just go in with John. You could finish two songs in a day; no questions asked and no problem. I think at this point we'd rather work that way rather than sitting in a room and working on an arrangement for hours and hours and hours. We've gotten to a point where we're intuitive enough where we can imagine what the song's gonna be. It's a lot easier to make changes to a song that's in your head and just throw it down on a keyboard with drums. We wanted to go in there and make something different. We'd gone off our label and we were totally independent and we were like, Let's do something that we're more attracted to and that's more enjoyable for us. So we definitely wanted to kind of make a more experimental side to it but still have rock and live elements in there. There have been a few records that have really influenced us soundwisethere's a Brand New record called Daisy.
I don't know them.
Yeah, there's this band called Brand New, which is kind of ironic.
Oh, the band is called Brand New. I'm being stupid.
Yeah yeah. Just the engineering on the record and the liveness of the sound. How big it sounded and open and raw. We definitely wanted to take that sound and be able to sort of fuse that into a Nine Inch Nails kind of thing. We wanted to fuse something and do something new. We were on our own this time and we kinda wanted to make something that was electronic and dirty and we didn't want to do something that was a polished up rock production.
You mentioned before that Lies For the Liars was possibly a bit over-produced?
We kinda knew working with John Feldmann we'd have to be careful with that. Bert was more involved in this record than he has been with any other record except for maybe the first one. He'd go in and if he didn't have lyrics he'd just make some up and just throw it down. The next day he'd have the whole song written so I'm kinda rambling on about it.
Not at all. Hands and Faces is a pretty different kind of song for the band.
When we went in the studio we didn't really have a bridge. We were like, Let's do like an underwater sort of breakdown and it's kinda got the white man's reggae vibe going on. We sorta slowed everything down and that came afterwards. But the idea for the song really just started when Bert and I were talking about an Outkast song we liked called Hey Ya! [Sings] Heeyy yeahh and there was that bassline and Bert literally made it up on the spot and we put a little drumbeat to it and he had a little bit of a rhythm to it. I'd say the music was done in 15 minutes initially and I think a few days later we had it all the way done. Yeah, so we worked really fast and we were doing like two or three ideas a day. When we actually went in and recorded, I'd say it took about three weeks.
Bert sounded amazing on This Fire. There was something really remarkable about his voice on that song.
Yeah, thanks. I think that's a good resister for him. It's a good key and a little high for him. That song kinda came together because we were toying around with doing a sort of Eleanor Rigby sort of style or an ELO kind of vibe.
William Control did a co-vocal with Bert on Now That You're Dead.
He was just in the studio one day. The vocals on that song were completely done and then we were like, Do you want to do some backups or whatever? So we just sorta did the call-and-response vocals to that.
Getting Over You is one of those classic Used ballads with acoustic guitars and strings. Where did your love for the acoustic guitar come from?
Just whatever fits the song. It's a tone that's a little bit more soft-spoken and more enchanting. As far as like with the ballads or anything like that, it's just kind of a natural go-to call. You don't want to over-saturate anything so it's just kind of naturally there. I just kind of naturally go to what seems to want to be there.
"We were on our own this time and we kinda wanted to make something that was electronic and dirty and we didn't want to do something that was a polished up rock production."
Kiss It Goodbye is one of the faster songs on the record and has what sounds like a pretty difficult riff in it. Does it take any kind of preparation to be able to pull off a song like that in the studio?
Kind of. A lot of the ideas really just start with a little bit of input whether it's Bert, Dan or Japha or just anybody saying, Maybe a Rage Against the Machine kind of riff would work there. Just even mouthing some kind of an idea. I usually just start with something rough and say, OK, there's gonna be a riff there. Again I just kinda drew that outta my ass and everybody seemed to like it at the time and we just sorta built on it. A lot of times it just happens out of nowhere. There are some things I like taking my time and making sure they're right. I sort of built on that riff a little bit after I had recorded it.
The album closes with Together Burning Bright. Lyrically the record seems to end on a positive note: I think it's gonna be alright/I think it's gonna be OK. Is the band trying to tell the audience that we're going to get through this thing called life?
I think it's yes and no. I think it goes to being in any situationany relationship or any situation you're in. I say it all the time and I mean it sounds crazy but when I'm stressed out and there's no money and things are backing up I'm like, You know what? It's gonna be alright. Whatever. We'll get through it. It's really open-ended.
You're also working with a band called Evaline. How did you get involved with them?
I produced their first album at my house, which was my first attempt at engineering and producing and all of that. That was back in '06 and honestly they were just some kids on the Warped Tour that handed me their demo and I checked it out. I happened to listen to it but I don't listen to all the demos all of the time but I liked the vocals and they had an interesting sound and I said, Hey, let's try it out. Come out to my house. So it just sort of happened naturally. But since then they've recorded several things and done some stuff. Their drummer went on to play for Placebo shortly after we recorded that record. So yeah, I've kept in touch with them and we've just been friends and they're self-producing all their stuff now so it's good to see them taking it in their own hands. One of the guys in the band is like an engineer/producer himself so it just worked out good for them. I think the whole recording process they went through with me, I kinda took off from John Feldmann so it's just sort of transcended into other people's experiences. But yeah, they're a great band and I can't wait to see what they do in the future.
You'll be going out on the road and playing the new songs?
We're about to. We do a headlining tour that goes through about the middle of June and then we're on half of the Warped Tour. Then we'll take a break and jump back out and go to South America and Europe and all the good places and probably wrap up about this time next year.
Looking forward to playing songs from Vulnerable?
It's crazy because at first we wrote half of the songs in our practice space and then a lot of it just off of our phones with little ideas. And then when we get to play em live they sound great. It's just amazing that they worked out and they actually sound better than some of the songs we wrote live or whatever. They translate really, really well.
You feel positive about the new album?
We all feel great about the record. It's kinda got the positivity and there's some uptempo songs that are kinda like the first record a little bit and some new stuff. We've all changed so much in our lives. We're all married now and half of us have kids. So we found that we enjoy the band a little bit more. We used to sweat over it all the time and worry about the relevance but we just enjoy making music and wanna do it the way we wanna do it and it worked out great. So we're just lucky to be able to have the guys in the band that we do and everybody gets along and everything is really good. Like there's no taboo or egos really. Everybody has sort of leveled the playing field with each other. We just work as one whether or not we like a song or don't like a song.
Photo credits: Jack Jeffries
Interview by Steven Rosen
"I started to let the guitar just be a texture and not a fundamental thing."