Jeph Howard of The Used

by Trevor Morelli

In early 2001, the future looked bleak for the members of The Used. After dropping out of high school to pursue music, they often found themselves busking for food money. With little resources and no cash, the band recorded an EP called Demos From the Basement which caught the eye of Goldfinger drummer and producer Jon Feldmann. Feldmann saw potential in The Used and took the band under his wing. Two massively successful albums followed: their self-titled 2002 debut and 2004's In Love and Death, which went gold as The Used emerged as one of today's premier post-hardcore bands. Not bad for four guys from the valley town of Orem, Utah.

Although 2007's Lies for the Liars and 2009's Artwork were not as commercially successful, The Used still maintains a dedicated following around the globe. When landing in Chile in 2007, over 300 screaming fans with homemade signs greeted the band at the airport. Thousands more came to their concert later that night, the biggest show they ever played.

Their musical journey is marked in their music, with songs about drug addiction, death, and being too poor to get out of town. Jeph Howard is the bass player and writes the songs with the rest of the band. As he explains, live performance is a big deal to The Used, and they are constantly reworking their songs to keep it fresh, even if it means adding another string to your instrument.

2012 marks a rebirth for The Used. They left Warner for the autonomy of Hopeless Records, and the plan is working. Their new album Vulnerable came out in March and debuted at #8 on Billboard's Rock Albums chart. Jeph says the band is more excited than they've ever been, and that even after a decade, they're far from throwing in the towel. Here, Jeph explains some of the songs from their back catalog and talks about their new direction.
Trevor Morelli (Songfacts): Your new album Vulnerable just came out last month. How would you say that the band has grown musically in the two and a half years since your last album, Artwork, came out?

Jeph Howard: That's a really good question. When Artwork came out, I wouldn't say we were disappointed, but we kind of had a little bit of a crashing lick. We were so excited about our work and so ready for this record. We worked so hard on it and it got leaked three months early, which is such a bummer. You work on something so hard and you're so excited. You want it to come out like a big bang and a big surprise and everybody gets excited about it. But when it gets leaked, it doesn't come out like a surprise. It kind of comes out like a drool.

Songfacts: I hear you. That's disappointing.

Jeph: It kills the whole surprise, you know? So starting from that is kind of where I base Vulnerable off of, really. That was our last record with Warner. Actually, at that time, we were having some management problems. We got rid of our management. We got rid of a lot of people that were working with us. We got out of our contract with Warner and we're kind of starting over.

We went to the studio and started writing together as the band, like we used to do. Nothing was exploding like we wanted it to. I think we were just all dragged down from everything. So this happened multiple times throughout a year and a half, us coming together, jamming, coming up with a bunch of ideas and nothing was going anywhere with them. They weren't really that great yet.

Our drummer got married and had a kid, and actually our guitar player just got married at that time. We decided to go back with (producer Jon) Feldmann again, which is kind of interesting, because it's not the usual. I didn't think we actually would be, but I'm kind of glad we did for this record. But we went back to him and we kind of took it from there, starting the writing process a little differently - like having Bert start songs at the piano.

Songfacts: So the whole process was a little different than what you were used to?

Jeph: Oh, yeah, totally different. I mean, we had songs that were written on piano, but we've never had a rock record starting with the piano, so it was kind of interesting. There's a lot of hip-hop and different kind of ideas that are jumbled together.

Songfacts: When you listen to the record now, which songs for you stand out as the ones with the coolest bass lines?

Jeph: It's tough to think of the song names. I'm still not savvy with all the songs yet.

Songfacts: They probably changed a lot as you were going.

Jeph: Yeah. You don't even know, man. It's crazy. They're called something for so long and then out of nowhere we change it. I really like the song "Monster." It's not really called "Monster," it's called "Give Me Love."

Songfacts: Is there another cool bass line that you got really into?

Jeph: Yeah, that's one of the ones that we wrote actually before we went to the studio. I wrote this a while ago and actually recorded a demo version of it. I think it's pretty much the same. It's kind of poppy. I'm not a big, super big pop guy. I love hip-hop and I love Latin-based music. Anything with a solid beat, I'm really into. And I do like some rock stuff and some metal stuff. The chorus in "Give Me Love" is really to fun to play. Actually, there are a lot of songs on this record that have a very fun bass line. I can't really pick one out of it.

Songfacts: There's a new song on Vulnerable called "Shine" which has an electronic-type beat in the verses. How did that come about? Did you purposely try to write a song like that?

Jeph: That one kind of came out special like that. I mean, me and Bert are, and have always been, really influenced by hip-hop music. I think Quinn actually is hip-hop oriented, too. So we always have that kind of feeling, that kind of back beat, and that kind of love for just solid hits and stuff like that.

Songfacts: That's awesome.

Jeph: I know bass lines are the most fun, for me at least. It's always hip-hop and Latin feeling- simple but solid music.

Songfacts: The first single from Vulnerable is "I Come Alive." Lyrically, it seems to be a rebirth of the band, especially considering the new label and management. Would that be fair to say?

Jeph: I think that's very fair to say. That's the kind of feeling the whole record has, really. That's kind of why we wanted it to be the first single. It's kind of like an anthem for the record almost. But I like it, especially the chorus - "I come alive and I'm falling down."

Songfacts: A lot of the song titles on Vulnerable seem to have similar themes, such as "Moving On" and "Getting Over You." Would you say this record is about moving on from the last decade and going into new territory?

Jeph: Yeah, it's definitely supposed to be a strength, and that's the way we're taking it. That's the way we're trying to push Vulnerable. It's getting rid of everything that's guarding you and going back to your soul and back to your most tribal, most intimate self. You know, like who you really are at your core, and then from there growing and learning and staying as yourself with nothing guarding you. And that's kind of what this is. It's us going back and starting over mentally and starting over in every possible way. It's probably the best for us to be out of a label and be on our own label, like everything is just up to us now and everything is our solid baby right now.

Songfacts: I'm glad you guys feel that way. When you look back at the entire Used catalogue, which songs are you most proud of and which do you still play live?

Jeph: We play a lot, actually. We try to keep it as open to all of our records as possible. We want people to hear something from each record. We have fans that like the first record the most, others who love In Love and Death the most, and even Lies for Liars the most. Even with Artwork, some people are like "that's number one," you know?

It's kind of hard when you're touring and you only play a certain amount of time. You only get like an hour and a half and sometimes like a half hour. Trying to throw in five and a half records into that gets a little difficult.

Songfacts: Do you have a personal favorite, though? Which one really speaks to you and makes you think "I can't believe I wrote that?"

Jeph: I still love "A Box Full of Sharp Objects." It's still a pretty strong song. I think it's just the mental area we were in during that first record. It's like it was experimental.

Songfacts: That's really cool. I was thinking that because it was "A Box Full of Sharp Objects" and "Buried Myself Alive" that really got me into The Used. When I heard those songs, I thought The Used was different than anything else that was out there.

Jeph: We still play both of those live, too.

Songfacts: In a technical sense, are there any songs that are challenging to play?

Jeph: Let's see. Bass-wise, I've switched up tuning so many different times that all the songs are kind of a mess. I recently just switched to start playing 5 strings. I'm more of a 4-string bass player. I like 4-strings: it's simple, it's easy. But I'm kind of getting more excited about 5 strings lately. I think it's that low B. It's been really fun and I don't have to mess up my tuning. I can just keep it simple and it's the same. The tension is always great. For me, every song kind of has the same easiness, if that makes sense.

Songfacts: I see.

Jeph: We've all relearned them and replayed them on so many different records that nothing's easier than another one, if that makes sense.

Songfacts: That makes sense. What is the song "The Taste of Ink" about? Is that one just about your frustration as a band?

Jeph: The way that Bert writes is more open. He's not really giving you the whole picture of what anything's about, so you can take whatever you want from it.

I think "The Taste of Ink" was originally written about our situation, like us being stuck in a little small town and wanting to play music and wanting to get out there and wanting to tour. It's really about being too broke to even leave our small town. It was kind of an interesting time and that's what the song is really about - trying to get out and move and to become something. That's what it is, but anybody can take it however they want. It can be about your family.

Songfacts: Everyone gets something different out of music, right? What about "Yesterday's Feelings?" What's that one about?

Jeph: You know, I have no idea. I've never really asked Bert about that. We did used to play that song live, too, actually. We'd have two acoustic songs we'd come out and play at the same time, and that song was always an awesome live one. But I've never really asked Bert.

I think it's kind of about forgetting. Forgetting bad things that have happened and forgetting things that you've done in the past and starting over. But again, that's my take on it and my idea of what the song is about.

Songfacts: What about "I'm A Fake?" Are there ever times when you guys feel like you're faking it or dialing it in? I know that seems like a rude question.

Jeph: No, that's not rude at all, actually. We try to be as true in a song as we can all the time. I think Bert was writing that song about somebody else, putting himself in their shoes. But at the same time, music is such an evil world. It's like the music industry is a bunch of Mafia guys.

Songfacts: I read that sometimes when you guys go back to Utah, it's kind of two different groups of people: the people that are hardcore fans and love you and the others that are jealous and say things like you faked your way to the top.

Jeph: Yeah, definitely. I think that's the case with any band. Coming out of somewhere nobody knows about, you can't help but get a backlash of people that didn't hear about you and never heard about you. All those bands where we came from are all good bands, too. There's so much room for music and there's so much room for bands and art and everything in the world, especially with the Internet being what it is now.

Songfacts: I read that the song "Choke Me" is specifically about Bert and his addictions. Would that be fair to say?

Jeph: Let's see. I think that's pretty fair to say. He had a pretty hard life that he kind of made himself, in a way. There are natural drugs that don't really do anything and there are drugs that aren't natural that ruin people's lives, if you know what I mean. They kind of get confused a lot of the time and put together into one lump sum. But that's what happens.

Songfacts: Are you guys past that? Do you feel like you've moved on? Or is there anyone that's still fighting with that addiction?

Jeph: Well, once you're an addict, you're an addict for the rest of your life, you know? I'm not saying just doing drugs. You have to keep yourself in check in constant times and constant areas. I'm sure you know people like that. Everybody knows somebody like that that.

Songfacts: One more song. Can you explain what "Poetic Tragedy" is about?

Jeph: Again, all these songs are supposed to be more open so you can take whatever you want, because music, at least to me, is 50% the artist and 50% the listeners. So the listener is as much of the song as the person writing the song. To me, that's why people like certain music and don't like other music - because you're not going to connect to music that's not in your background.

I think that song was originally was about another musician or songwriter. It was a mix between a thought of a person spending his whole life writing art and then dying before he really felt fulfilled.

Songfacts: After so much time together and all these years, what's still driving you guys to make good songs and records?

Jeph: You know, we're just happy. I'm happy playing bass. I'm happy playing bass in the The Used. I'm happy playing live shows. That, after a while for some people, kind of gets monotonous and it kind of gets monotonous leaving everything behind.

That's definitely the most difficult part - leaving your entire life behind every time you go on tour and travel and play. And some people can't get past that. It takes years of practice to understand what you're really leaving behind, and then being okay to accept it for periods of time. I think what keeps us together is the love of playing live, the love of writing songs, and being able to come up with this art that we're happy with and we're excited about and we're excited to show people. There's really no comparison to that, to writing songs and coming up with music. We get that excited about it.

We spoke with Jeph Howard on March 22, 2012. Get more at theused.net
More Songwriter Interviews

Comments

Be the first to comment...

Editor's Picks

Tom Keifer of CinderellaSongwriter Interviews

Tom talks about the evolution of Cinderella's songs through their first three albums, and how he writes as a solo artist.

Joe JacksonSongwriter Interviews

Joe talks about the challenges of of making a Duke Ellington tribute album, and tells the stories behind some of his hits.

Stephen Christian of AnberlinSongwriter Interviews

The lead singer/lyricist for Anberlin breaks down "Impossible" and covers some tracks from their 2012 album Vital.

Bill Medley of The Righteous BrothersSongwriter Interviews

Medley looks back on "Unchained Melody" and "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'" - his huge hits from the '60s that were later revived in movies.

Elton JohnFact or Fiction

Does he have beef with Gaga? Is he Sean Lennon's godfather? See if you can tell fact from fiction in the Elton John edition.

Andy McClusky of OMDSongwriter Interviews

Known in America for the hit "If You Leave," OMD is a huge influence on modern electronic music.