Many of us in the dawn of our thirties are still proud to call Andrew McMahon our Garage Band King. Fourteen years ago when Something Corporate hit the scene McMahon belted the words, which echoed in the anxious hearts of skinny jean wearing “Babies of the ’80s” who “just didn’t fit in.” In turn, we poured into smoky venues, faces smeared with eyeliner and expectation that for a few hours we “could feel complete.”
At just 22 years old McMahon was diagnosed with Acute Lymphatic Leukemia. Everything In Transit, the debut album from McMahon’s next band, Jack’s Mannequin, was released the same day he received a stem cell transplant from his sister in 2005. Eight years, three albums, and one thriving charity The Dear Jack Foundation later, the ever-evolving, never complacent McMahon released a solo album, The Pop Underground.
In 2014 McMahon debuted a self-titled album written and recorded under a new band name, Andrew McMahon In The Wilderness. His new project pairs a fresh sound with the same unmistakably honest lyrics we have come to expect from the artist.
McMahon has a packed summer schedule. He is headlining his self-titled Andrew McMahon In The Wilderness album tour and is set to perform shows with Weezer and Panic! At The Disco. The husband, rockstar, and father of two-year-old Cecilia, found time to speak with me as he headed to San Antonio to kick things off.
I’ve been a fan of your work since Something Corporate so I’m pretty excited to talk to you about the all fun stuff you have going on.
Well that’s great. That’s very kind of you. I appreciate it.
I know you’re busy so I’m going to jump right in here.
No problem. No problem.
In recent years a lot of punk and emo bands have been performing 10-year anniversary album tours, which has been really fun for 30-something former scene kids. This winter you got in the on the action with the Everything In Transit 10-year anniversary tour where you performed the album in its entirety. How much fun was it to be back with the band and what was it like performing an album that was not only written an entire decade ago, but one that coincides with a significant point in your life and in your career?
You know, it was a long time coming and I just sort of like, I just eeked it out. I think if I had gone four or five months later it would have been an 11-year anniversary tour. But yeah it was great. Three-fourths of Jack’s Mannequin just toured with me as Andrew McMahon In The Wilderness, so there was just so much familiarity on the stage with me, which was awesome. And those songs on that record are so important to me. And obviously Transit was, it sort of coincided initially with just this major breakup, and I think, kind of, that break up that we all have at some point in our twenties that happens and it is sort of gut-wrenching, you know?
It sort of spun out into this, you know, me getting sick in the middle of the first tour for the album. So I think there are these threads of songs on that record that are attached to so much emotion and so much real living and to sort of put them on a stage and play it front to back, I think it conjured or re-conjured a lot of good memories and a lot of hard memories. But I think in a way it helps me sort of put that chapter of my life to bed.
Did the tour give you any fresh perspective on that time in your life?
I don’t know if I would say… I’ll tell you there was this one night… it was actually before we left for the tour, we did acoustic Everything In Transit for the Dear Jack Benefit, and if you don’t know, Dear Jack is my cancer charity and it sort of was something I started, and it kind of helped me deal with my recovery. And Bob [Anderson] came out with me and he basically wanted to play the record from top to bottom just as an existing duo. We actually had Zac [Clark], my keyboard player Zac, with us as well. And I remember on stage, not even on stage, I think it was in a little private party the night before and I remember sort of all of these crazy memories of that time sort of like flooding in, in the middle of playing down to the point where I almost, I think there was a moment where I actually had tears on stage, which is something that never happened for me.
And I think if anything, the perspective I got from it was that that record really wasn’t about being sick. So many people attached it to being sick. It was really about… it was a love story, and it was really about being heartbroken, but making your way back to that person. And I think a lot of what that record was about got lost in translation because of the dire circumstances under which it was released, at least for me, maybe not for the fans, and I think it brought me back to that initial intention of that album which was eventually sort of making my way back to my young girlfriend.
Now we can flash forward to the summer. You are back out with Andrew McMahon In The Wilderness touring with Weezer, which is one of the most influential bands in history and Panic! At The Disco. What are you most looking forward to about any of your upcoming shows, headlining or otherwise?
I mean you certainly hit it on the head right there. Weezer is a band that shaped a lot of my approach to songwriting and some of the early sounds that came out of Something Corporate were certainly inspired by the Weezer records that I grew up listening to. My second band was a Weezer cover band. I would be remiss not to say that one of the things I was most excited about is to actually share a stage with Weezer and get to see them perform, and also to share a stage with Brendon [Urie] and Panic! [At The Disco]. I toured with Panic! on one of their very first tours with Jack’s Mannequin to support them like right as they were blowing up and to see how far they’ve come and the mantle that they have been able to hold onto for so many years is really impressive and one that I’m excited to be a part of this summer.
The other side is just the chance to play for their fans, to play for both bands’ fans. I think you probably… if you follow my career you know by now, I’m not comfortable just keeping the status quo playing keyboard. I’m always trying to reinvent stuff and I’m always trying to grow my art and place it in the sphere of contemporary rock music and to be on stage in front of as many people as we’re going to get to be on stage in front of this tour is sort of a big piece of the puzzle for me to reach out and take advantage of what me and my band are capable of.
Well that kind of brings me to my next question. The new album rocks.
But it is a bit of a departure from the sound of your other albums. I find it to have more of an electro/pop/synthetic vibe. Where did you pull your inspirations from for the new sound?
I think for me, there’s always an element, I think in most of my records, in sort of pulling from a combination of palettes, you know? It’s hard to deny the influence of electronic music, obviously in popular culture, in popular music today. I’m no exception to that rule. I love a lot of music. I grew up on ’80s dance music. You know what I mean? And sort of the resurgence of that. You start seeing elements of that pop up in the first Jack’s Mannequin record because it was a scenario where I was in the studio alone for most of the record. They brought a keyboard in, but there wasn’t a guitar player in the room so a lot of stuff was keyboard centered.
I think I ended up in that same scenario on this record where it was like basically a studio with me and a producer or songwriter at any given time. At the time I was working on this record I was listening to tons of stuff. I was listening to Daft Punk and LCD Soundsystem and I was listening to M83 and Passion Pit and bands like that, I was finding a lot of inspiration in and certainly those sounds ended up sort of shaping the way we approached the sound of the record. And it was fun. It was fun for me. I don’t usually get to play a lot of the instruments on the records usually but the piano, and I kind of watch everybody else do the work so it was really nice to kind of get back to that and be able to sort of shape the melodies and the sound of the arrangements a little bit more on this record.
You released a four-song EP last year, which features stripped down versions of the songs off your self-titled album. Is that a direction we can expect you to be going in with your new, as of yet unnamed album or will it continue to be more in line with the synthetic/pop sound of In The Wilderness?
It’s so funny because I’m in the midst of producing the record right now and so those turns happen pretty quickly and it’s hard to say exactly where it will land. I think the one thing that is for sure is it’s going to sound big. It’s definitely not me sitting down at the piano, that’s for sure. I’d say it’s a variation on the theme of what you hear on the last record, but I would argue it’s quite a bit older.
Whether or not the relationship of synthetic to organic instruments is heavier, it’s hard for me to say. I’d say it’s really rhythm centric if nothing else. But it’s my songs. I think the reality is, is these records, as different as they can sound from one thing to the next, my hope is that what people take away from any of them, aside from the sonics is just that I’m trying to write my best when it comes to music. And I feel like so far with where we’re at in the record that that happened.
Are you collaborating with Mike Viola and James Flannigan again?
No. You know it’s been like sort of a hodgepodge of a million different people and having nothing to do with Mike or James and more to do with just the fact that I think my goal with any of these records especially is I’m in the middle of this “Wilderness Project” so to speak, is that I sort of stay there and that I continue to challenge myself and a huge part of that is just going out and finding new collaborators and working with different people along the way to come up with the material for the record.
I’ve been working with a guy named Gregg Wattenberg and again with Derek Fuhrmann out in New York. We did most of the record in New York, which has been such a cool kind of change of pace, and I think really formed the sound of the album. Did some work with Dan Omelio who’s written some amazing stuff. He worked with Lana Del Rey on video things. Morgan Kibby from White Sea who also plays in M83. Her and I wrote songs for this record. It’s kind of all over the board, but it found it’s home in New York with this producer Gregg Wattenberg who is helping me take all of these songs and put them on one plane for people to hear that ties all the songs together sonically.
That’s awesome. I want to ask you a couple of fun questions. What is your favorite song to play live?
Ohhh. My favorite song to play live? I mean it’s going to sound like a cheap answer, but at the moment it’s “Cecilia.” And I think to have a song that, regardless of what audience you are in front of, has sort of made its way into so many sets of speakers that some people don’t know they know it, but they hear it and they do. There’s an element of sort of watching an audience light up around a song that has made it’s way into the world the way “Cecilia” did. It is really satisfying.
It’s really a beautiful song. It’s beautiful.
Thank you! It doesn’t hurt that it’s about my daughter! It’s a good feeling.
What is the last song that you listened to?
The last song I listened to? Gosh. Hold on. Let me go look at my Spotify so I can give an honest answer. Stay right there. I’ll give you my answer. Oh. It was EL VY, “Return To The Moon.”
Do you have any tour traditions or superstitions that have survived the years?
Tour traditions. I’m not really a superstitious guy, but as far as traditions go I have, it’s a pretty basic one but it’s something that is equal parts calming and ritual prior to the show. I take about an hour before the show, I mix a cocktail for myself, and I start my warm up and I generally speaking warm up to two records, Billy Joel’s Songs In The Attic and Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds.
Andrew McMahon In The Wilderness will be playing at Nikon At Jones Beach Theater on June 30, PNC Bank Arts Center on July 2, and the BB&T Pavilion on July 5. For more information on the band and tour, go to AndrewMcMahon.com, and for more information about the Dear Jack Foundation and how you can contribute, please visit DearJackFoundation.com.