Filed under: Interviews | Tags: Andrew McMahon, Interviews, Jack's Mannequin, Juice Jam 2009, Something Corporate
Just before Jack’s Mannequin hit the stage for Juice Jam 2009, 20 Watts’ Caitlin Dewey caught up with legendary frontman Andrew McMahon for a little face time. They talk about McMahon’s songwriting, his upcoming personal documentary and the possibility of a Something Corporate reunion. Check out the interview from Juice Jam 2009, which happened on Sept. 13 at Skytop Field on the campus of Syracuse University.
20 Watts: Some of our readers might not be familiar with Jack’s Mannequin or what you do. So could you tell us who you are, what kind of music you play?
Andrew McMahon: Well, my name’s Andrew McMahon… [and] I don’t know, I think we just sort of play melodic rock ‘n’ roll. I happen to play piano, so people tend to focus on that. It’s pretty traditional, melodic, kind of pop rock ‘n’ roll.
20W: And you’ve been playing piano since you were how old?
20W: When did you decide you wanted to be a full-time musician?
AM: Then. Well, I think it was pretty immediate for me. I discovered the piano as an act of songwriting. The first thing I did was write a song. I had always tinkered as a kid but as soon as that first song came through me, it was over, there was never really anything else after that. And I was making my first demos when I was ten years old, playing school assemblies and things like that all through elementary school and middle school and I started my first band in high school, so it was pretty much my trajectory since I was a little kid.
20W: Now, you’ve put out two albums as Jack’s Mannequin and many releases as Something Corporate. The two Jack’s Mannequin albums in particular are very personal albums, and that appeals to people. Can you tell us what was going on in your life during the first album and during Glass Passenger – what influenced your songwriting during those times?
AM: The first record was definitely – I hate to use the cheeseball term – like a coming-of-age record. But it really was, you know? I was 22, I had made a pretty seismic shift away from Something Corporate at that point which was — needless to say – scary. But it was also this very enlivening moment in my life, with ties to a lot of people and a lot of things and experimenting with this idea of living on my own for the first time – probably for the first time ever. I started my first band in high school and got away from my parents with my successful rock band. But I stepped into sort of a familial environment again with Something Corporate. A lot of the record is about a break-up that occurred during that period of time and how that really tweaked with my heart and my head – and I think – all colored with thoughts of finding myself alone for the first time. And that’s where the first record came from.
The second is a little cloudier than that because the subject matters are a myriad and equally confusing. It was a pretty confusing period of time. It was a crisis of confidence that spawned a lot of that album — the aftermath of recovering from having gotten sick, and finding my voice again against my fear of losing my way altogether. I think a lot of Passenger is tinged with the question mark of whether or not I am finding my voice and even if it’s working when I find it. It was a hard one to make, but I think it also set me free of from a lot of those demons. Hopefully it paved the way for the next thing too.
20W: Yeah, let’s talk about your next album! Are you working on anything now?
AM: Well, I’m always working on stuff [laughs]. I definitely have spent a lot of time in the studio between Passenger and now, sort of trying to get closer to those ideas and figure out what the theme of that will be. It’s very much in its infancy now, but I rented a little house down by the beach where I’ve hatched my best stuff, and I’m sort of trying to reconnect with where I hatched some of my best stuff.
20W: What do you think is your best stuff?
AM: Well, I think it’s scattered throughout the records. Transit is sort of my best collection, where my best pop music lives in one spot. I just think that clear-headedness -– those songs that come quickly and are inspired from start to finish, and you don’t have to work at one song. You spend a week or two weeks refinining so that a thought is so clear that it just comes out. I’d like another solid batch of ten that I could say were my favorite.
20W: As a longtime fan, I’m curious to know which of those songs came easiest for you.
AM: Well, you name them, I’ll tell you if they did [laughs]. In the early days, when you’re young and you’re writing, you’ll write fearlessly and just put stuff out and not even think about it. I mean songs like “If U C Jordan” [laughs] you know, that shit came in ten minutes. It probably would have been better if I put it under the shelf. But yeah on the last record, songs like “The Resolution,” “Swim” and “Crashin’,” all those came easily. Transit was a lot of easy writing, all the way through, because I had so much to say. Transit was that moment where I was like “This is you, this is your chance to speak up.”
On the Something Corporate stuff, “The Astronaut,” that one wrote itself quickly. “Me And The Moon,” there’s definitely a drug-addled Amsterdam story there. But yeah, my perception and my memory are probably widely out of sorts with what actually happens. You tend to put on rose-colored glasses when you look at your past.
20W: You also have a documentary, what can you tell us about that?
AM: Well, it’s heavy, but it’s finally a movie – something that took us years of editing and re-editing. It’s a hard thing to make a movie about recovering when you’re still doing it. In the past year, and having used Passenger as a torch to cauterize those wounds, made it a lot easier for me to look at this and gain perspective. It was really just a couple of months ago that I sat down with the directors and said, “This is what’s wrong with the movie. I know this now because it’s over.” And I think that’s what you’ll find in the movie, that I was not well in this really prolific and really satisfying period of time in my life. And sort of having to pump the brakes and watching it disintegrate and rebuild itself.
20W: It’s interesting to me that you chose that medium…
AM: Well it sort of chose me…
20W: How did that happen?
AM: A label back in the day, back when I signed – probably about halfway through the making of Transit at that point – the record company, the first thing they did was give me a video camera. They said to film in the studio. They wanted to know what was going on or to use it for extra content. And because I had separated from my girlfriend and was sort of on this new exciting journey, it became this sort of obvious thing to sort of chart it with this camera. It sort of became my ancillary best friend. I was shooting anything and everything – tape after tape of stuff that you would never even imagine – little art movies and little home movies, and I had gotten very confessional with this camera, and if you listen to the sound bites throughout Transit, a lot of them came from those videos.
When I got sick, it had become such a part of me that in the hospital, I needed my keyboard and I needed my camera. It was sort of art therapy. I filmed with my left hand as they were putting a PICC line in my right. It became this place for me to keep it all and get it off my plate and it was really natural. A couple of friends a year after my recovery said “Would you consider letting us see these tapes and put them together to tell this story, and use this story to let people know that there’s a hopeful side to this.”
It seemed like a good idea at the time. It turned into a lot more than I expected it to be. It ended up being a big part of my life, but again having perspective and boiling it down to make it a movie, it did a lot to heal me. I don’t know at what stages in the process of recovery this will be a helpful tool to people but I think that, if nothing else, it’s a good education on what somebody goes through from a very personal viewpoint. Ninety percent of the interview footage was shot by me in the midst of it. I think it’s a very honest portrayal of the disease and what it’s done to the person.
20W: You’ve really done a lot to reach out to other people by starting your charity [The Dear Jack Foundation, for leukemia awareness and research]. What can students at this school do to help?
AM: Well, you guys have a Light the Night Walk. You can join the Jack’s Mannequin team. Over the last couple of years we’ve raised a couple hundred thousand dollars just through those walks. Last year we raised over $100,000 just from that team. This year I think we’re up to $50,000. You can sign up at dearjackfoundation.com to be a team walker. Truthfully, whether it’s us or whether you do it with some other team, Light the Night and Leukemia Lymphoma Society are great places to start. If you want to contribute to Dear Jack Foundation, it’s our conduit charity to channel money to different foundations and organizations we feel are making an impact on the cause.
20W: Awesome! So I guess I have some more music questions now. You’re about to embark on a solo tour. How do you feel about that? Have you ever done a solo tour before?
AM: Scared! And no, this will be the first. It was largely because we’re going to be doing premieres of the documentary along the tour. It’s expensive for me to tour the way that I tour. It makes money when I’m going to the 2,000-seat venues, but I obviously didn’t want to do that on a solo tour, because I wanted it to be a more intimate affair. The goal was that through merchandise sales and various different fundraisers to use the tour to contribute to the walks as well. I decided to go out alone, driving the car across the country—
20W: Oh, you’re not going to have this swanky tour bus?
AM: [Laughs] No swanky tour bus. I’m going back to as basic as I’ve ever gone, actually. I’ve been touring so constantly since 2006 that I’m almost hitting my last legs. But I know that I want to be out to support the documentary, and I figured this is a good way to do it. I love driving, that’s one of my huge inspirations, just getting in my car, putting in CDs and rolling. I threw this idea out, “What if I got in the car and brought my camera again and released this documentary in a very personal way?” That’s where it came from. I still have to go home and learn all these songs — just me and a piano. Bob my guitar player is going to come out and sing some harmonies and play some acoustic stuff. But yeah, I’ve got a lot of music to learn… it’s exciting. It’s fun after being on the road — God, it must be eight or nine years now.
20W: It has to be exhausting.
AM: Yeah, but to say that I’m doing something I’ve never done before is cool. It’s a challenge and sort of a final frontier in a lot of respects as far as my abilities go.
20W: There have been a lot of Something Corporate reunion tour rumors flying around. How true are they?
AM: It’s not untrue. It’s not scheduled. It’s not planned. It’s conversational at this point. But there are conversations that we’re having. You know, I just haven’t seen the guys lately, but we’ve been talking about it. It’s just a matter of finding the right time. I mean I definitely will have one last round of Jack’s Mannequin headlining. We have to make up all of the dates that we canceled to accommodate the Fray tour. So that’ll probably happen in February, at which point we’ll open up the conversation.
20W: My last question for you. I saw your MGMT cover, and I’m kind of curious if you personally are into the more indie/obscure scene, or if you tend to listen to things like The Fray. What are you listening to right now?
AM: Well, that MGMT record was my favorite of the last couple of years. Regina Spektor’s new record is probably my favorite right now. I don’t lean towards indie music per se. I mean, recent stuff that’s come out that I really dig is like Low Vs Diamond, I love their record. And I listen to a lot of classic rock, but also, I mean The Dead Weather is something I’ve been listening to a lot lately. Anything Jack White, I’m a pretty big fan of. Dare I say, I’m having a little bit of a guilty pleasure with this Owl City record right now too.
I’m a melodic sort of dude, and I gravitate towards anything with a melody. Whether it’s signed or not is irrelevant. Yeah, but the MGMT record was massive for me. I love The Fray dudes and I really enjoy their songs, but I mean that’s not really what I listen to. It really just depends on the mood. I’m a big Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers guy, and I’m a big Beach Boys guy. So I gravitate towards those things and fill in the blanks with the modern music that really turns me on, which at the moment is Regina…
20W: I reviewed it and I wasn’t into it, but maybe I’ll give it another listen.
AM: Have you spent any time with it?
20W: I listened to it a couple of times.
AM: It’s so fantastic. I think she’s really brilliant. I really love that record. I think “Laughing With” is just one of the better tracks that’s come out recently. But you know I’ve been checking out bands like Gaslight Anthem, I listen to everything, I always have. If it’s got a good melody and a good hook, there’s a good chance it’s in my CD player.
— Caitlin Dewey