When Andrew McMahon sang that his life “had become a boring pop song and everybody’s singing along” 10 years ago, he was only half-right. McMahon has quickly risen into the pop music spotlight with his newest project, Andrew McMahon In The Wilderness, and it’s anything but boring. The single “Cecilia And The Satellite” off the band’s self-titled record has made waves in the radio world—charting as high as six on Billboard’s Hot Rock Songs chart.
Previously known for the Drive-Thru Records darling, Something Corporate, and the rocking Jack’s Mannequin, McMahon has finally taken his talents solo. And while it seems like he’s always making music, McMahon has long been a multifaceted individual.
Back in 2005, McMahon was diagnosed with leukemia and received life-saving stem cell treatment the same day as the release of Jack’s Mannequin’s seminal debut album, Everything In Transit. Starting and running the Dear Jack foundation to raise money and awareness for teenagers and young adults with cancer has been a major part of McMahon’s public persona since 2006. Recently, the foundation has started 72K Challenge, which hopes to raise $72,000 by the new year to represent the 72,000 young adults diagnosed with cancer each year. A partnership with the Love Hope Strength organization is another one of McMahon’s charity efforts. The organization, which accompanies McMahon on tour, collects samples from as many people as possible to create a registry of possible bone marrow donors.
I had a chance to catch up with McMahon before a run of East Coast tour dates and to discuss his ever-evolving musical persona and how things have changed over his 15-year career.
Most musicians tend to stick with one band or one sound most of their career, why switch your musical identity three times now all with pretty different sounds?
I guess I get bored easily (laughs). I think if you listen to the… earlier projects, I think the sound of each record is pretty dramatically different from its predecessor or even the ones that come after so I think it’s always been important to me to evolve musically and evolve with the music of the time as well and stay contemporary, and I think that’s how I’ve always approached my creative tasks.
Have you ever felt backlash from these changes in sound?
I would actually argue that I’ve gotten much less backlash than I even expected. I mean, I usually brace myself for people to be really angry about the changes that take place and moving on from one project to another and certainly people are passionate about their music in the same way and sometimes those are hard pills to swallow. But I will say that I’m lucky to have fans who’ve followed me through all three projects and have been open to those changes. So I usually focus on them rather than any of the detractors I suppose.
How have you seen the music industry change in your 15-plus years in it?
Well it’s a lot more difficult to make money in the music business than it used to be, which I think has perpetuating some negative changes, but I think some of the changes have been really positive. There’s certainly a weeding out element of people getting involved because they think they can strike it rich and I think you see that in the music that was being created from the time I started, which was definitely a much more gluttonous phase of the music business. There was a lot of money being made and spent to now where it’s gotten a little bit leaner, but the artists that you have making music in this era are much more resourceful, they do a lot of the work for themselves and they have to stay constantly on their toes to be relevant, and I think in that sense music has gotten better with those changes.
With Jack’s Mannequin it seems like you stuck only play Jack’s songs, whereas now you play a bit from each of your groups—why that change?
Well I think a big part of taking on my own name was being able to house all of my music in one place and one stage. I have fans who’ve been with me through multiple acts and I felt that if I was going to go on and do something new it was important to say, “This is me.” And I’m in all of these songs that I’ve written over the years and the setlist focus is going to be whatever I’m going to be promoting at the time so people can hear the new music, but it’s also to let them know there’s going to be something from all these different eras of my life and my career and songs that I’m proud of from each stage played in these sets.
How does it feel to be getting a lot of serious airtime with some of the songs on the new record?
It’s awesome… I’ve always wanted as many people as humanly possible listen to my music. My goal to have that be the case, I’ve never steered the process so that it’d work that way. It’s always been a dream to write the songs I write and make the sounds I make and hopefully find my way to a larger audience and the fact that that happened on this record is really exciting for me.
Is there a sense of irony that your biggest single came once you were off a major label?
(Laughs) There is certainly a sense of irony in that. I think it’s poetic justice in a lot of respects. I love so many of the people I worked with at the labels over the years; I really did have strong, dedicated teams who worked for me at those companies. But I think the tough thing about a major label and the same thing that’s tough about a really large organization whose objective is to buy a bottom line is that art and music and these things you sort of have to be more willing to go with the gut, you have to be willing to take risks to push something through and sometimes when it comes down to major labels, [that] becomes much more the motivator behind decisions than what’s good for the artist.
And I think going to an independent label, it gave me a chance to work with a team who’s dedicated, but also really smart about the way they spend money so that we can focus on what we needed to and work a single for a year rather than for a couple of months, which is usually what happens when you put out a single on a major label.
How has the 72K Challenge been going?
It’s been going great, I think we’ve crossed the $50,000 mark which puts us a little bit ahead of schedule before the holidays so I’m pretty confident that we’re going to get there, but obviously we’re still looking for new donations and you can go to dearjackfoundation.com to put those in. But yeah, it’s been a cool rallying point to see people so motivated by it and spreading the word through their social media and through their different avenues online so they can bring their friends and family and it’s just been really cool to watch.
What’s it been like to coordinate with Love Hope Strength? What were the logistics like to get them on tour?
The great thing about Love Hope Strength is that they’re really self-contained. And we certainly made what I would say is a really neat partnership between Love Hope Strength and Dear Jack because you know they do this, they go to concerts and they volunteer and sign people up for the [bone marrow] registry but the reality of having someone on stage who understands what the registry is has led to I think a much more significant conversion rate of audience to actual signups for the registry.
So we basically carry some of the tools with us, they travel with us but their volunteers are all self-contained and the Dear Jack volunteers come out and yeah, they do most of the coordination on our behalf and we give them the space anywhere they want it so they can do their work.
Andrew McMahon In The Wilderness will be playing at Terminal 5 in New York City on Nov. 18, Starland Ballroom in Sayreville, NJ on Nov. 24, The Paramount in Huntington, NY on Nov. 25, and The Fillmore in Philadelphia on Nov. 28. For more information, go to andrewmcmahon.com. To donate to Dear Jack’s 72K Challenge, go to dearjackfoundation.com.