Q&A With Jepha Howard of the Used
Space: When it comes to physical newspapers, there never seems to be enough of it. But on the web, there’s room aplenty – and that capacity allows us to expand a Now Hear This concert preview item about the Used that appears in the September 13 Westword to a full Q&A with Used bassist Jepha Howard.
The chat begins with a discussion about “Pretty Handsome Awkward,” a Used video that can be found in two versions: one that’s YouTube-approved and another that includes a shot of a dragged-out Howard baring his testicles. From there, Howard, who was born in Colorado Springs, touches on the challenges inherent in launching a band in Orem, Utah, where he came of age; discusses how the difficulty playing gigs helped the musicians develop as songwriters; corrects some misinformation about the group that’s floating around the Internet; reveals that the meaning of songs such as those on Lies For the Liars, the act’s new CD, are often different for him than for any of his fellow players; and dishes about touring, fans and injuries sustained onstage, be they minor or serious.
At this point, he should be Used to it:
Westword (Michael Roberts): I was looking online today and I came across this post on a Used fan site: “The Used released a second and, in my opinion, way better version of ‘Pretty Handsome Awkward.’ How is it different? You can see Jeph Howard’s testicles near the end. Don’t watch it if it makes you uneasy.”
Jepha Howard: Really?
WW: Yeah. So, I must convince, I went to YouTube and watched the video there way more closely than I probably should have, and I could not see your testicles. Are they there?
JH: YouTube won’t have it. They’ll take it off. YouTube doesn’t have nudity at all – if you consider balls nudity (laughs).
WW: So is there a version that shows the boys?
JH: Shows the boys hanging out? Yeah, it should be around somewhere. It’s pretty funny. I thought it was funny, at least. That’s why I wanted to do it. There are tons of trannies around Santa Monica Boulevard in California. It’s like trannie central, and I just find that intriguing for some reason. Every day during the record, one of the other guys and I would go down to this diner that’s right on Santa Monica, and it’s kind of a trannie hot spot. We’d go down there to eat and just watch. It was like watching a movie. You’d never know what was going to happen. All these nine-foot tall girl-guys would come in. I thought it was neat, because it was a different world I’d never seen before. I guess that was what inspired that.
WW: So this was your first foray into dressing in drag?
JH: First on film, yes.
WW: You’ve opened the door now. When were your previous forays in dressing in drag.
JH: It’s all just jokes – like, whatever. Like, just pick dates (laughs).
WW: When you saw yourself in the clip, were you surprised how good you looked? Or did you think you wouldn’t fit in on Santa Monica Boulevard?
JH: I think I could fit in on Santa Monica Boulevard. I tried on like five different dresses. It was pretty funny. They were doing my makeup for, like, five hours, and they got a little gem crazy around my eyes. There’s so much sparkly gem madness going on (laughs).
WW: The video isn’t a total joke, but it does have a sense of fun about it, and there are so many bands that won’t go there: They seem afraid to crack a smile. I know you’ve made a point of saying you’re not screamo or emo. Is that one way that proves your point – that you’re a rock band willing to have some fun?
JH: I don’t know. We really don’t think about things like that. We do what we do, and we do what we want. That video did have a deep meaning to it, and we just kind of played around with that meaning in a way. It was supposed to be sort of a from-hero-to-zero fairy tale, almost. Like how it started out with [Used lead singer] Bert [McCracken], not necessarily meaning Bert, but just using him as the character in this case. And he shows up at this huge event, and he’s a really important person at this event – it’s something so big, so important. And sort of at the end of the video, he turns out to be a loser and a waste. And it’s supposed to be for all of us – like trying to set off the awkward vibe as much as possible. There’s a scene where they show [Used guitarist] Quinn [Allman] just standing there looking really, really awkward, and there’s a ton of girls around him dancing, but he’s the odd man out.
WW: I’ll bet those moments for you guys are a long ways back, but it sounds as if you remember them vividly…
JH: Oh, man, that stuff always happens.
WW: It still happens?
JH: Oh yeah.
WW: I would think at this point, you guys get recognized often enough that instead of having girls ignoring you, they’re all over you.
JH: It’s still awkward, though. There’s always awkwardness that happens to everybody in life.
WW: So tell me what it was like to grow up in Orem, Utah. There’s this assumption on the part of people who aren’t that familiar with Utah that the Mormon church is this all-powerful entity that rules everyone. Is that true or exaggerated.
JH: Kind of both. Originally, I was born in Colorado.
JH: Colorado Springs. I lived there until I was, like, eight, and then I moved to Utah County and lived there twelve years or something like that. But it’s hard to explain. I only know that because I pretty much grew up in Utah. It’s hard to say if the church really ran everything, because I don’t know how other places are. But I know alcohol’s all watered down, or at least beer is, and the church pretty much dictates that. And, like, bars, if you want to go to a bar, you have to be a member. You have to sign up with them and pay a membership fee. There’s only private clubs, no bars, really. And they have these weird rules on alcohol, too. I really don’t understand them. And on Sundays, everything’s closed. So you can tell everything really is pretty much run by the church. There’s enough people there who aren’t Mormon, but there are a lot who are. A lot.
WW: How does the bar rule effect places to play for bands like yours when you were just starting out?
JH: You can’t play, really. Utah County and Salt Lake is a whole different story. It’s an hour away, which isn’t that big of a drive, but it’s such a different scene in Salt Lake than it is in Utah County. When we were growing up in Utah County, there was nowhere to play. There was, like, veterans halls and people would rent out some shitty warehouse. There’d be, like, one club, and that club would get closed down, or they wouldn’t allow us to come back. We get kicked out of a lot of shitty little clubs, for really stupid reasons. The very first show we ever played, we got banned that day from it. It was pretty funny. Some kid got his front teeth knocked out after we played.
WW: But they blamed you for it?
JH: Yeah, they blamed us, and wouldn’t let us play anymore.
WW: So did you have to make that drive to Salt Lake to play regularly?
JH: It was hard. None of us had any money, so none of us had a car. We only played Salt Lake one time before we got signed, I think. We didn’t really concentrate on playing shows. We were more interested in writing songs. It was too much of a hassle for us. It was like, “There’s no place where we can play. Nobody’s going to let us play. Fuck it, let’s write some songs. Let’s do our own thing.” So we just concentrated on music more.
WW: In a strange way, did that help you develop? A lot of bands overlook the songwriting part of things, but you guys focused on it.
JH: I think it really did, actually. Who knows what would have happened if we’d only played shows instead of sitting down and being like, “Let’s do this song. Who cares?” It could have gone either way, but I really think it was better for us the way we did it.
WW: Wikipedia says the roots of the Used stretch back to a band called Strange Itch, but that doesn’t show up in other bios. Is that accurate? Or one of those weird, inaccurate Wikipedia things?
JH: It’s kind of true, but not really. It has nothing to do with the Used. We were in a lot of shitty bands when we were growing up – a ton. And it was just one of the shitty bands we were in. It was before we started focusing on the music.
WW: How old were you when you started playing in those shitty bands?
JH: I think I was seventeen, eighteen. They were bands that had been around before me. I just kind of joined with them for a little bit. And then we all came together. We were kind of the losers of all the other bands.
WW: So all the losers gravitated together?
JH: Yeah, that’s kind of how it worked out (laughs).
WW: Was Dumb Luck the first real band before the Used?
JH: No, that wasn’t a real band, either. The Used was the only real band we were in. We worked and worked in those other ones, but we didn’t know what we were doing. We weren’t really ready. And we didn’t really know what to do about songwriting.
WW: So once the Used got started in earnest, you’d learned enough from those other experiences that you were finally able to push forward?
JH: Yeah. It was more like a learning process – like going to school in a weird kind of way. Like, “This isn’t good. We’re not good at this. We don’t know what the hell we’re doing.” Problem was, I think we tried emulating other bands too much, instead of just being ourselves. That was the problem. And once we got into the Used, we were like, “Fuck all of this. We don’t want to sound like anybody, and we don’t not want to sound like anybody. We just want to write our own songs and do our own thing and not do anything we have to, or anything we think we have to.” And I think that’s when we hit gold. It’s all about really being yourself. As lame as that sounds, it’s pretty true.
WW: When you were first trying to get signed, was there a bias against you guys because you came from a place that no A&R rep had probably ever heard of?
JH: There were lots of jokes. Like, “How many wives do you have?” It was always something like that. But it wasn’t so bad. I think record companies realize that there are a lot of bands that kind of come out of nowhere. Everybody just kind of listened to the music more, which was awesome. That’s what it’s all about – the music. We’ve met a lot of good people along the way.
WW: And you also toured like crazy once the lineup finally settled down. What’s the most shows you’ve ever played in a year?
JH: We had a pretty high record. Like, five years ago, it was like 362 shows in a year. Well, maybe that’s not right. We were playing double shows for a couple of shows and we’d have at most a day off every month. It was pretty intense for a while.
WW: How widely were you touring? Was that in just the Western region? Or coast to coast?
JH: We were going all over. Anywhere anybody would let us go, we’d go.
WW: Traveling that much back then, given your vegetarian lifestyle, did you have to bring your own food because you might not find it where you were going?
JH: Nah, vegetarian’s easy. It’s not a big deal. You can go anywhere and get what you want. You can even go to McDonald’s and say, “I don’t want meat. Give me a Big Mac with tomatoes on it.” It’s always been really easy.
WW: At this point, there’s a big part of your fan base that’s really young: fourteen, fifteen. Have you guys thought about why people in that age range connect to your music so much?
JH: Well, our song meaning’s have kind of changed, but they’re all pretty much the same. They’re all life stories, and they’re all about moments. Those are definite Used themes: moments. And the very first record, I think it’s more about angst and rebellion, where you want to destroy everything, almost, or get away from it. And I think a lot of younger kids connect with that. It’s hard not to go through the same stuff growing up. Everybody does, and I think our first record is more based off that – growing up. And the second record has more of a love overtone, lost love. I know Bert’s longtime girlfriend passed away during the record, so there’s a huge undertone of loss and sorrow.
WW: Those are very universal themes.
JH: Totally. And the third record, it has a different vibe than anything we’ve put out before. It’s more of a fun, rock vibe. There’s still anger, but it’s a different kind of anger. At least that’s the way it feels to me. I try not to hear what Bert writes the songs about. I put my bass part into the songs, and I want my bass to sound a certain way, just like Quinn does when he puts his guitar part into it, or drums or whatever. And we all try to make the music sound a certain way. But when Bert comes in with the lyrics and melodies, I still have that vibe from when we started writing it, and I want to keep that. I want to keep what my idea of what the song’s about together. I think that matters more: what you think the song is about as opposed to what the person who writes it feels the song is about.
WW: So no matter what lyrics he writes, the song still means what it originally meant to you when there were no words at all?
JH: Yeah. Or maybe I’ll get a new meaning from it, when I hear the melody. And even when I listen to the lyrics, I don’t want to find out what he was writing about, because it could mean anything in the world. It could be about his dog, or his mom, but to me, it could feel like it’s about my dad – when I was eight, and me and my dad were just hanging out. To me, that’s really important – getting what you want out of a song as opposed to getting what somebody else wants.
WW: That’s true for listeners, too. It’s nice when they can interpret a song for themselves rather than being told, “This is what it’s about.”
JH: Yeah. I think that’s more important, personally. And everybody has different opinions about the music. Like, a lot of people who really like our first album hate our second album, and I understand. Everybody wanted us to go heavier, but we didn’t, because we didn’t really feel like it. We’ve written a lot of heavy songs, so there’s a lot of heavy ones on the second and third, and there’s a lot of EP stuff we put out that has, like, some pretty aggressive, heavy stuff. People like what they want, and that’s cool.
WW: On the new album, there are some moments that come pretty close to ballads. Are those as much fun to play as the heavier songs?
JH: All the songs are fun to play to me. I love playing bass. That’s one of the biggest highlights I have in my entire life. Every day is sort of a bonus for me. Being able to play songs with my friends that we wrote, and being able to tour with them and hang out all the time. It’s great. I’m pretty lucky.
WW: Well, maybe not always lucky. I saw an interview clip where you were talking about having been bashed in the head onstage a couple of times. You were showing off lumps. Is getting injured onstage a regular occurrence for you? And what’s the worst you’ve been hurt playing?
JH: Me, personally, I’ve been pretty lucky, knock on wood. I’ve hit myself a bunch of times, I’ve fallen off shit, I’ve bashed my face a bunch of times, but nothing too bad. I’ve slipped and fell off things. Stages can be really slippery. We’ve played stages where I swear there’s a sheet of ice on them. But Bert’s broken his leg onstage before – his ankle. And luckily that’s it, hard as it is to believe. Like when we were playing on Warped Tour, Bert jumped off the speaker stacks. Those things are, like, fifteen feet above kids’ heads. They’re way up there. That’s a jump. And he was just diving off back toward the crowd. Didn’t even look, just jumped, and he did it every single day of the Warped Tour. Madness – but he didn’t get hurt.
WW: And nobody beneath him got hurt, either?
JH: No, nobody got hurt at all. Bert’s kind of a tiny guy, so it was okay. And he jumped off, like, a drum riser, which is like a foot tall, and he landed on his ankle wrong and he broke it (laughs). Shit happens.