Greg Mendez Got Clean, Honed His Craft, And Made The Best Album Of His Life
Greg Mendez has been around for a while, but you might not have noticed. He’s been a fixture of the Philly DIY scene since 2006, when he landed in the city from the New Jersey suburbs, though he didn’t put out a full-length until 2016. That was Phone Records, which was followed by ¯ \_(ツ)_/ ¯ in 2017 and Cherry Hell in 2020. His fourth album, a self-titled release out this week, is a quiet masterpiece. Mendez’s unrefined, plaintive voice, his piercing melodies, and his conversational but haunting lyrics all mark him out as one of the best songwriters to come out of a city teeming with great songwriters.
The album was recorded while Mendez was on workers’ comp after getting a concussion during a construction job, so some of these songs, he reckons, almost literally fell out of his head. You can imagine just such a scenario playing out with lead single “Maria,” a moment of random and unrepeatable genius. The song centers on a simple but lovely repeating melody in which Mendez off-handedly recounts a time he got arrested a crack den, ending up as a truthful and poignant encapsulation of the frustrations and comforts of addiction: “Earlier that day we were both clean/ But then somebody said/ Come back to me, because it’s easy/ Come back to me, I’ll make you happy.”
Addiction rears its head in most of these songs. Mendez got clean from drugs in 2015, and many of the songs are either taken from the years before that (closing track “Hoping You’re Doing Okay” shows up on a demos collection from 2009) or looking back on them. A lot of it, too, is about complex and painful love, whether platonic or romantic. It’s about seeing a dark side of yourself or of somebody that you love. It’s often darkly funny, too: “You got the radio playing and all I can think is to change it to some shit I hate / It’s better than something that you like,” Mendez sings on “Best Behavior.”
Below, read an interview with Mendez about his history in music and his writing process.
How did you first get into music when you were a kid?
GREG MENDEZ: I guess just nothing else made me feel like that. It really made me feel less alone in a way that nothing else did. Like, songs felt like little worlds that I could go live in for a couple minutes, if I didn’t like the big world. I mean, I guess that’s also the reason I wanted to make it, was because I wanted to do that for myself and maybe other people hopefully.
Do you remember any of the first songs or bands that you heard when you were a little kid?
MENDEZ: Yeah, I liked anything that I heard on rock or country radio. I grew up in suburbs for the most part, so it was definitely culturally a desert. But just stuff I heard on the radio. I think the first CD that I really got into was my dad’s Queen Greatest Hits CD, and something about the chord changes and the harmonies and the melodies I just really liked.
What were you like as a kid?
MENDEZ: I was kinda shy. I think I found it hard to connect with people. I got bullied for sure. Had a lot of problems in school. Almost got expelled from elementary school.
MENDEZ: There was one kid who would bully me every day, like beat me up, call me names. And he had this group of friends, and they would all go along with it. And one day there was this Scholastic book fair in one of the classrooms, and I wanted this book, and this kid took it, and he was gloating about it. And I just grabbed it out of his hand and smacked him in the nose with the spine of it.
That’s awesome. How did you start playing your own music?
MENDEZ: I had to fight a lot to get a guitar. My mom wanted me to take piano lessons at this church we went to, and I wasn’t really into it as a kid, which I regret, ’cause now I wish I was good at piano. But I was like, “I want a guitar, I want a guitar,” and it was always no until my dad got me the worst acoustic guitar you could ever imagine. Small and really hard to play. He got me that and this VHS tape that taught you a couple chords, and he was like, “Well, if you can do it on this I guess you can do it.” And I kinda just started from there. I think that was in middle school, like maybe 12, 13.
What kind of music were you into back then?
MENDEZ: Like punk, pop-punk, nu-metal. My aunt was a punk in the ’80s, and she actually got me into all the classic kinda stuff. She was like, oh, here’s this Offspring CD, but also here’s this Black Flag CD or whatever. She got me into things like that, just by being like, hey, this is where this comes from.
What’s the story of you moving to Philly and starting to put music out?
MENDEZ: I moved to Philly in 2006, and I was doing the solo stuff at that point and putting songs up on MySpace that I recorded at home. But I was also in an indie-pop band called Airports that was more like what was going on at the time, like big orchestrated Wolf Parade kinda thing. When I got here was really the first time that I was really introduced to a music scene, with, like, house shows and stuff like that. Everyone was really nice and everyone seemed for the most part really supportive of each other.
At the time what I was doing was pretty… I mean, not that it’s particularly unique, but here at that time, it wasn’t really what was going on. But I felt very accepted anyway. And it was where I made a bunch of friends and the first time that I was like, oh, all these people that I know are making really cool stuff. Then the Hop Along, Algernon [Cadwallader] stuff started, like I started becoming aware of that, and it was really cool. It was just cool to see people doing what they wanted to do, and making their own space for it.
What was the progression from then to putting out your first full-length in 2016?
MENDEZ: It was kinda fraught, to be honest. I had a lot of struggles with drugs and stuff. There were a lot of times I didn’t have a place to live, and I was kinda bouncing around here and I’d go to New York for a while and come back. I was just very untethered. So I wouldn’t be able to say that I was just doing this the whole time. I wish I had been. But it wasn’t really until probably like 2015 that I got clean and was able to focus my energy on being able to do what I wanted to do, which was this.
Was that a conscious decision, to focus on songwriting once you got clean?
MENDEZ: It was a conscious decision. It was always what I wanted to do. I feel like everyone I’ve ever known who’s been an addict like that, there’s always something where you’re like, when I stop this, this is what I’m gonna do. It boils down to something to live for, I guess. There’s always something like that, and that was it for me. I wanted to make records and play shows and see the country.
Did you make music at all during those years before you got clean?
MENDEZ: I did at some points. There were times where I didn’t have an instrument, but for a lot of it I kept hold of that. I mean, some of it I was busking for money, so the guitar was one of the things that I had. And I would write songs, and there were some times where I had the ability to record for a little bit, and I’d do some stuff and usually it was bad and half-assed. But sometimes some of it was good — like I brought back some of those songs and re-recorded them on this album. “Hoping You’re Doing Okay” was from 2009, and “Clearer Picture (Of You)” was 2011 or ’13, somewhere around there.
This is your fourth full-length. Is there anything you’ve learned going into this album?
MENDEZ: I definitely think I got a little bit better at the recording side. And also the arrangements. I don’t have any training in how to do that. I just feel like I did a better job of the way that the different instruments are working together.
What were you going for with that?
MENDEZ: Well, if I’m being completely honest, what I was going for was not what happened at all. In my mind I started making this and I was like, I want it to sound like the Beach Boys. And it does not sound like the Beach Boys at all. There was one song that kinda did, but I cut it. ‘Cause it sounded like the Beach Boys if like, Brian Wilson didn’t understand music.
Was there any kind of overarching feelings in the stuff you were focusing on lyrically on this album?
MENDEZ: I think it kinda ended up like that, but I don’t go into it trying to do that. I just really focus on the sounds a lot. When I’m making a melody or something I’ll sing gibberish lines, and sometimes one of the lines will come from that, and I’ll just build them out from that. I just try to follow the feeling of it I guess. ‘Cause any time I’ve tried to write lyrics where I’m like, okay, I’m gonna talk about this or I’m trying to say this, then it always feels like I’m hitting something with a hammer. Instead I try to just keep going with the feeling.
What kinds of feelings do you find yourself drawn to?
MENDEZ: I guess that people think the songs are sad a lot of the time. But I don’t know if I really think that. I kinda like things that feel like a bunch of different things at once.
What do you think the connecting threads are of the songs on this album, lyrically?
MENDEZ: They just ended up being these weird little stories and memories. I do feel like a lot of them are saying the same thing maybe. I don’t know what that is exactly. A lot of it comes back with addiction and stuff. I feel like a lot of it is about that, but also relationships between people and how those things can be similar in a lot of ways. And I feel like a lot of them are about both. Or, “about” is a weird word. But I do feel like a lot of them kinda came from the same experiences that I had and people close to me have.
I’m interested in how you feel like addiction and relationships can be similar. How do these songs deal with that?
MENDEZ: I mean, I kinda think that one way to look at addiction is a very toxic relationship. I feel like the dynamic is similar, where it’s like, you can know that something is bad for you but still feed into it because it’s giving you something that you want. I think the songs are just like little snapshots of it. I don’t know if it says anything in the grand sense. I think there are some songwriters who really are able to weave a… not a moral, but take things from life and then make this thing that gives some kind of explanation or insight. And I don’t really know if I can do that.
A lot of the lyrics seem to deal with seeing a dark side either of yourself or of somebody you love, and just the absolute complexity of being a good person or loving someone. What do those ideas mean to you?
MENDEZ: I guess I just think that every love is complicated. You know, even one that is overwhelmingly good for your life. I feel like lately a lot of things are very cut and dry. Like, oh, this is good and this is toxic. And I just feel like in my experience everything is — I mean, a lot of times one is significantly more one thing than the other. But even in there, if you look further, it’s all in everything to varying degrees.
I really like your voice as a lyricist. There’s a real sense of humor or wryness that you approach these songs from. How have you come into your voice as a lyricist?
MENDEZ: I think it is something that took a lot of work. I think in my earlier stuff especially, I really wasn’t happy with the lyrics, like I was very embarrassed of everything. I was hiding behind things that didn’t make sense, and maybe trying to sound smarter than I am or something, and just kinda obscuring things. And looking back on those, I’m just like, these are bad and they don’t really make me feel anything. So I think over time, I just kinda moved further and further away from that, and closer and closer to just being real, I guess. And there’s some stuff on this record that I don’t want some people to hear, honestly. But, you know… that’s fine. I guess.
What do you get out of writing music? What does it do for you to write these songs?
MENDEZ: I think I’m kinda addicted to it, honestly. Definitely like a compulsion. It doesn’t always feel good. I was about to say it feels good, but it doesn’t always. But sometimes it does, and that’s a feeling that I don’t get anywhere else. Yeah, so I think I’m chasing that.
Greg Mendez is out 5/5 on Forged Artifacts.