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Andrew McMahon / Jack's Mannequin - 12.8.07
|In early December of 2007, I went into the studio with Andrew McMahon in Santa Monica when he was finishing up the new Jack's Mannequin record. We originally shot a video of the interview, which you can watch here, but I've also transcribed the full text of the interview since many of the questions were left out or edited in the original video.|
Obviously, everyone wants to know about the new album. Why don't you tell me about how it's going?
It’s going good. We're getting close. The track “Cell Phone” has been around for a while- that track was recorded in the Everything in Transit sessions at the very end. We didn't have time to finish it, so that one's been around for a while, but we sort of started with the song "What Gets You Off" which was July of last year. It's been a work in progress since then. Obviously we've been doing lots of touring since then and we didn't really get into the bulk of it until this summer, but it's been a long road. Here we are, early/mid December, and we have about ten songs. It'll probably be a ten-song record. There are ten songs that I'm really in love with, which we played you earlier. Now we’re just kind of tidying things up, doing new vocals, hoping that maybe another song comes up. I'm always in the mood to keep recording until the last minute possible so we're doing that. I just have some vocals to clean up and overdubs here and there. We're getting there though; we'll probably start mixing in January. It's close. Obviously, that's barring any major feedback that scares us, you know, that people really don't like it but I feel pretty confident about it. It's a good representation of where I'm at right now I think.
For those ten songs that you were talking about, when did you start writing those?
I write constantly and it tends to be that when I'm writing a record, I tend to write all the songs while I'm in the process. I mean, most of the songs that you heard were written this summer or later. Even some of my favorite stuff- like there's four or five songs that we just started working on in the middle of October. Maybe even a few more than that. I tend to write for the record. I've been in and out of the studio, there's a lot of scratch material or things that we've ditched. Probably as many songs as there will be on the record are ones that we’re not going to use. I mean… I've lost my train of thought. Sorry, repeat the question and I'll answer it again.
Oh the question was just about when you started writing the songs.
Oh right. Forgive me. So like I said, most of it has been written post-this summer. I think the first few songs, like one of the first songs I played you was originally called "Doris Day" but I rewrote the chorus so it's not actually called "Doris Day" anymore. I think in the Alternative Press article, they have "Doris Day" listed as a song. But yeah, it's all been this summer or later for the most part.
Is this album going to have a linear concept like the first one?
I'm still deciding. I tend to write mainly in a very autobiographical way as most people already know by now. There are some songs, like on the last record, that are a bit of a departure from being purely autobiography, that venture into other themes or tell more of a story. There's a song called "Bloodshot" that's much more of a character study of other characters other than myself but I mean, that I possibly relate to. There's a chance that it will be linear. I mean, I want it to be a little less visual as far as the album packaging goes. The last one was more cartoon-like and it kind of had that vibe of putting all the pieces together for people to decipher although it didn't take much to decipher it. It was very obvious what the themes of that record were about. This one is a little more cryptic. I mean, I'm very upfront but I think that I took the chance to explore different methods of communicating as far as the lyrics are concerned in this case. Some are really obvious and some are really heart-on-sleeve when it comes to what I'm talking about, while others are a little more mysterious. That's why it's kind of a toss-up right now as to whether I'll go in that direction completely. It's still, in my opinion, a continuation of the story in the first record. I mean, it's my story and it continues to be so, but it all depends on what happens when we start moving the songs around and seeing what sounds good next to each other.
When you were writing these songs, did you have an objective in mind or did you have a goal or were you more just writing your thoughts down and seeing what came out of it?
You can only do so much as a songwriter for my songs. You know, you have to come to a place that's spiritually connective. I think the way that I approached writing this record was really just to let the songs come. Let the songs come, see what they're saying and then once all the pieces fall into place, see how they're speaking to each other. A lot of that didn't come together until this last month. It wasn't until now that we've really started diving into the older material and things that had been around since the summer. Finally when these new batch of songs came along, themes started to develop and I started sort of writing into those themes a little bit.
For me, I was scared of writing, you know, "the cancer record," and I was scared of writing, you know, I mean I'm not in the middle of a breakup so I'm not going to write a breakup record. It was so easy to be thematic on the last record because it was very obvious as to what I was going through. You know, it was a dude in the middle of a tough time with a girl. I mean, that was really what it was about. The themes that have developed in my life since then have become a little more complicated and I wanted to approach it and be tasteful in my approach. I wanted there still to be fun and upbeat songs on the record, granted that the things I've been up again the past few years have been a little bit darker. I took my time writing the music for the record and trying to find, if nothing else, a thread of hope through most of these songs. I think a lot of the themes that have developed in this record are like, yeah, it's been a struggle, and life is a struggle and the idea of kind of finding… using the songs to get through the struggle and finding light in the struggle, and I think that's a pretty common theme in the record. It was one that developed naturally; it wasn't one that I found just kind of off the bat. It took me sort of to find the hope to find the songs and then record them.
You said you were scared of making "the cancer record." Did you purposely avoid the topic? How did you integrate major events like the cancer and your marriage and things like that into your songs?
Well, it came about naturally. For me, in the beginning, there were a couple of songs that existed before all of this. I definitely hit a period of writer's block and it definitely had to do with the fact that I wasn't sure how to approach the sick thing in the songs. I wasn't sure how to approach a completely different relationship that I was used to, in sort of a high school relationship sort of thing, which is what I was used to writing about. You know, the make-up/break-up thing is a pretty easy source of material when you’re young and single. One of the things that got me through was this song "Crash" which I played for you. I was like "Ok, maybe you'll figure this out." It was a song about trying to find my voice again and trying to find how to talk about these things that are a little more complicated. That song helped me to break the ice a little and it kind of spawned a lot of the sessions that followed.
From there, the song "Caves" which is the long, symphony thing that's on this record, it's a seven-minute three-movement piece of music, and that was the song where I woke up and it was in the middle of the night and I heard this piano melody in my head and I went to my piano and started writing it. It was kind of the first time that the words, as they related to what I had gone through, started emerging. That was… [plays piano at this point]. It's like, I played that and it kind of got scared because the first thing that came out was [more piano]. It was real operatic and, you know, it really got high and did a lot of things that I had never really done when I was writing a song before. That kind of just helped me break through and write honestly about what that was like, and that kind of just got it out of the way for me, I didn't feel like I needed to focus on the past as much, since I had finally written the song that had blocked me up a lot. It was hard, I didn't really want to write sad songs about being a sick dude. I just don't think that's what I'm here to do. Writing one that was sort of this big symphony and got it out of the way for me, it really helped and it opened me up to writing on other subjects and more complicated subjects and I think I got through one of the more complicated ones in one song, so that helped for sure.
Briefly, while we're kind of on the topic, let's move away from the album for a second. How are you with the sickness as of now?
I've been in remission for two years now. Over two years now. That's something that will never be a thing of the past and especially since, it's not like I'm a big public figure or anything but in some way, I do have an audience and I think it's something that I find that at least some people are interested in, and I can't avoid being "that guy" because people won’t exactly let me. It's something that I'm always going to be connected to in some way or another, but I'm feeling healthy and great now and there's nothing really on that front. I mean, I could sit and worry about it but that's no way to live, so I just keep pushing on. I've been really lucky and grateful for my health.
Back to the album…is there anything that you want people to get out of it? How do you imagine their reaction to it will be?
It's so hard to say every time, and it's kind of terrifying actually. I had been working on the record and playing live shows in tandem for so long, and it finally got to where I was finally writing these songs that were a stretch as far as what people had heard me do before. Obviously, it's a scary thing, going into a new record. Even going back to Something Corporate records, going from Leaving Through The Window to North, that was a bold undertaking and I don’t know that it necessarily went over as well as Leaving Through The Window, but it was a huge point of growth for us and it was a huge point of growth for me. You have to accept that in this business, people might end up seeing you grow or hearing you grow over the course of your records, and I think that it's scary for what reactions might be. I mean, I don't know and I want everyone to love what I do. I consider myself a pop musician and I want to make music that hopefully will be popular. I mean, I try and make myself happy first. I try not to put out anything that I'm not totally satisfied with, and you know that's the biggest struggle, to please myself to be honest.
From there on, we're playing songs for you guys and we're playing stuff around. The reaction that we're getting from playing stuff around seems to be really fantastic. I just want people to pick up the record and hopefully it plays into their own story and what their life is and what their happiness and struggles are. I consider myself a person like everyone else and I take my time writing my records because I feel like it captures more of who I am if the period of time that's captured in the course of an album is a year or two of your life as opposed to two or three months. I think that you have a much greater chance of hitting on themes and points throughout those couple of years that could play into someone else's life in a larger way. You know, all I ever hope for with the records is that, whether everyone likes every song on there or, you know, people would prefer me do this or that, at least they pick it up and find a handful of songs that they really connect to, and if they're having a great day or a bad day, just that somehow, a handful of those songs finds them at that place and time and really speaks to them.
I think this record has a really cool universal message and I hope I'm right. I guess that's all I can say is that I hope I'm right.
You admit yourself that you consider yourself a pop musician. Do you ever feel pressure to make something sound more pop? You said this album is a little more complicated and dark at times; do you feel like there is pressure to keep things more lighthearted and fun?
No, definitely not. I mean, I sort of have created a scenario where I have to operate and I have to be able to write the songs that are in me. When I say that I'm a pop musician, I don't mean that I'm not willing to go and make songs that are not just like your stereotypical radio pop songs. I think that'll be reflected in this record, there's a lot of “trippier” moments on this thing and a lot more experimental kind of stuff that happens within the pop format. My biggest pressure is always from me and it's usually to please myself in my writing and in my growth and in my development as a writer and as an artist and as a live band and all of those things. That pressure can never be superseded by anyone else's.
There were definitely ideas going into the record, not to say about how the record should sound but you know, how to work on it and how to approach it. I've dealt with my label directly on these things and they were really great about working with me and the kind of musician that I am, which is a real blessing especially in this business. I see a lot of bands pawned off on the same producers and the same scenarios to make these records and I've been blessed that I have a record company and a management team who I think want to see me on my own journey and they want to see me make my own music on my terms because frankly, that's how I've made it since the beginning. I'm not some big celebrity and I haven't sold a million records, but the people that work with me, I think that they like what I do and they like to see me really succeed. They sort of would never want that forced because it wouldn't be satisfying for any of us, you know, eight years of making music and our fourth record, or well, counting the Something Corporate EP, it's my fifth release, and you know to cash it in all of a sudden and try to be some act that makes some cheesy song to get on the radio, it's just not the path I'm on right now.
Are there any guest appearances on this record?
Not yet. Since the first record was recorded, I put my whole band together to play live and they're some of the best musicians out there. You know, really, they are, they're just fantastic, and my recording team, Jim who's my producer, plays bass and guitar, and CJ, who is engineer and co-producer, he plays drums. So we have so many musicians and we have this kind of extraneous family that all filters in. I mean, you've seen it today, this is like a normal day and we'll just be hanging out and somebody will show up and a lot of times it'll be like "Yo, get in the booth and sing!" And you know, that's what I love about Jack's and that's what I love about this process is that it's so free. We involve a lot of different musicians. I think there's one song on this record that has about fifteen different people who contributed something just because they were in the room. It's been mainly my band; it's not to rule out that there won't be any guest appearances on the record. There are a couple of people who I've reached out to who most people wouldn't even know, but some things might pop up and I have some friends who might come by and sing for a little bit, but you know this really has been more about, in my opinion, this group of people who helped make this last Jack's record happen, which was assembled from a huge pool of musicians and just music people that I've worked with over the years. On this record, it's like all of them are involved and it's kind of like a big community making this album right now.
You're obviously the main songwriter and composer behind the songs, but since you say that there are so many musicians and others who contribute to this, what degree of creative control do you have over everything?
Yeah, I mean, I write all the music and myself and Jim produced this stuff and I think that everyone involved in this record understands how I work. I mean, it's not easy always to work with me. It can be tough because I have a really specific vision and a really specific goal in mind when I bring a song to the table, and that's why this really works. I think people know I have that vision and they play into it and we all vibe off of each other and we have this great dynamic. I'll bring a song into here, I'll usually have a couple of verses and a chorus or something, and I'll bring it to the table and I'll say "This is what I have today." We'll all listen to it, and I'll take feedback from people. You know, maybe if we're doing a really upbeat kind of drum thing, it'd be cool to break it down in this section or something like that. We kind of feed off of each other in that respect, and to some extent, everyone knows that when it's all said and done, my goal is to leave here with me happy. I know it sounds horrible, but I really believe that having a unified vision and having someone behind a vision really helps in whatever you're doing, being pointed and all. We all have a mutual respect for each other that allows songs to develop and allows everyone to give so much input and help develop the songs once they come through the speakers.
For the album, what are the plans for release date, touring, etc.?
We're going to have most of the record mixed by the first or second week of January, but it's my understanding that we're hopefully looking at an April or May release date, and then having the band headlining and touring in early May, doing a full headlining tour then. I'll probably do some college shows in February just to get out playing and to play some of these songs live and start getting used to them before we get going and play them out full scale on tour. The hope is to have the record out by April or May and that would leave me having the record done by the end of this month and mixed in January. Like I said, I always like to provide for "What if a great song comes in the next few weeks?" We have a little bit of a window so that we don't have to have anything submitted until the first week of February, so there's a chance that two or three songs may pop up. On the last record, I thought I had the record done in December last time, in 2004, and I ended up writing "La La Lie," "Dark Blue," and "Into The Airwaves" after the record was supposedly finished. There's still always a chance that it might get pushed back because my head might insist on pushing out more tunes, but I think April/May.
I assume there's no title yet?
There is actually! I put it online yesterday, I put it on the website. I'm calling it "The Glass Passenger."
And what's the explanation behind that?
Well, it's rooted in a lyric that, when in my first attempts to wrestle mortality in the form of a song, I wrote a song called "Hey Hey Hey We're All Gonna Die" which was a little bold, that ended up not making the cut, but there was a lyric in there that referred to the glass passenger. I think it's just behind the idea that, well, if it's specifically referencing myself, I can't necessarily say that, but I think it's more referring to the idea that things are fragile, but we're all being carried and I think we're all on our path in that sense. As fragile as things are, we're still getting there. I think that's a lame layman's on-the-spot analysis of the record title, but if nothing else, it rhymes.
Tell me a little about Dear Jack.
The charity or the film?
I meant the film, but both I suppose.
The charity was an idea that just came when I was in recovery. We had so many people who came out of the woodwork to help and donate money and people, our fans, they were doing fundraisers on their own, just because I expressed to people not to send me things or money but just to take care of people who have this disease. If nothing else, that would make me feel good that we're contributing. I mean, when I was sick I had these great doctors and people who took care of me when I was sick, and if we were in a position where people were excited to get on board and make a difference, I might as well start a non-profit myself and help wrangle funds via my fans and other interested parties and then, each year, we sort of sit back and find a handful of charities to dole the funds out that we've collected. It's more of a conduit to charities. I don't sit there and we don't have an office and specific initiatives or anything. We collect money and find charities that are making a difference in the way of blood cancers and cancer in general. A lot of them are geared to children's cancer as well, because that's where a lot of research is done in cancer and obviously it's just sad to see kids sick too. Dear Jack was the name I came up with, it was rooted in the name of a song I had written for a friend of mine, the same friend who I named Jack's Mannequin after, not knowing that I was going to be sick and also a friend who had childhood leukemia just by coincidence. I had written this song long before I was sick, so it seemed like a shoe-in for the name of the charity. We've raised well over $100,000 in the past two years or so and continue to do so. Obviously when I'm on tour and when I'm back doing things like this, we'll do more heavy fundraising push as well. But yeah, it's something that makes me feel good to know that my life was spared up to this point, and I survived my cancer. It seems like most people who dealt with something like that find themselves really motivated to help other people to survive. I think that's what it stems from, and my manager, my booking agent, everyone contributes and helps. It's cool to see a cynical business and a lot of people you wouldn't expect to be reaching out and helping, they're all reaching out and helping. It's nice to see people's hearts and see people really care about something other than themselves. That's what the charity does.
And the film?
The film… that's a whole heavier subject, haha. I imagine it'll probably start surfacing in 2008.
Well, where did it come from? At what point did you decide to do a film?
It's kind of a long story really. If you go way back to the beginning of Jack's and if you look on the website, well, it was on the old website anyway, but I was given a video camera by my record company, when Maverick signed me, and I was in the process of finishing the first Jack's record. They said they would buy me a video camera and told me to videotape the record, while you're in the studio, we'll cut clips together, it'll be cool stuff for the internet. It just so happened that during that time, I was separated from my now-wife, we were on a break, and I was kind of lonely to be honest, so I spent a lot of time, once I got the camera and I was in the studio, at least once or twice a day I would just sit in front of the camera and talk to it. I know it sounds fucking retarded but I did! I would sit here with this little Canon camera and I would say "well, today this is what we're doing in the studio," but eventually it turned into more of a dialogue with my video camera where I would just say like, "It was a weird day today." If you listen to a lot of the stuff, the little blips in the Jack's record, the sound of the boardwalk and the little dialogue at the end about how the record is done, all of those were just little clips off of my handheld. A lot of the sound effects were just clips from my video camera that I had as my little companion in the front seat. I took it with me on tour and I documented this whole period of my life. It just so happened to be there when I got sick, and I kept talking to it and I kept using it as a sort of art therapy or something. If I had something that was on my mind and I didn’t want it in my head anymore, I'd tell it to the camera.
When I got sick, I just started filming everything with no intention of it ever seeing the light of day but it was just there and I was filming things. I filmed procedures being performed and me and, getting really sick, I insisted that other people film. They would say "I don’t want to film this" and I'd tell them to film it, it helps. I just kept doing that and I amassed just dozens and dozens of tapes. I put them in my closet and called it a day. Then I was having a conversation with Jacob Marshall, who plays drums for Mae, and I can't say 100% how it unfolded, but somehow he knew or I had told him that these tapes existed, of the things that I had filmed. I was just shooting the shit or catching up with him, and he and Benji, who also tours with them, approached me and said "Hey Benji is a filmmaker and he did all the Mae DVDs and would you consider letting us put together a documentary?" To which I said yes, and it's been through various incarnations, you know. We had two great guys on the team who came from various different sources in the entertainment business, one guy named Corey [Moss] and one named Josh [Morrisroe], who are great editors and filmmakers, they got involved in this project. They sort of helped us take what we had started, and they turned it into this pretty powerful movie, and I commend them because they did an excellent job. It was weird, it was hard, I couldn't watch it initially. It made me sick at first because it was BEING in the hospital, you know, it was BEING sick. So we have it now and it's close to finished, and we're starting to prepare for submitting it to some film festivals and things like that and find a debut for it and hopefully find a home and some distribution and things like that.
I think it's a powerful thing, it's a weird thing to put yourself out there like that, it's pretty intense and pretty personal but in the same breath, to have something like that on film, it's just an accident that it even happened and even seeing the footage, I've never seen…it's pretty dark. It's really hopeful though and I thought this could really help somebody, if I were in my situation and it helps, I think it would help someone who is dealing with the same thing or who is dealing with that. It'd help them get through it to see someone who has deal with that and has made it through to the other side. I think it's almost an obligation on my part to show people who are facing any sort of sickness that they can get through, even when it looks like you cant. There are definitely some moments in this movie that show that, so we'll see. I'm curious to see how people react, it's really heavy to watch and it's powerful. It's powerful to watch.
What are the plans for its release?
There's no plans as of yet. This is one of those things that I gave them the tapes, I let them put it together, I obviously checked it to make sure I believed in it and thought it was great, and that it was a great movie for what we were trying to accomplish, which they did and I sort of take my hat off at this point. I don't know anything about the film business, I don't know anything about making movies, I'm not in that world. We have a great agent who is working with the film and these great filmmakers who have made it, I've conceded to them to find a great home for it. Obviously, I'll make sure that I sign off on where it ends up of course, so it doesn't end up in some bizarre spot, airing in a porn theater or something like that, but that's really it. I don't know anything about this business. It took me years to learn the music business, I don't need to learn the movie business. I'm letting the movie guys deal with the movie, but hopefully we'll get some updates in the next couple of months that will indicate what festivals it'll debut at, and hopefully from there we'll secure some distribution for it.
The past couple of years, you've been working on so much – where did the Airport Tapes & Records label come from?
Airport came from a couple of friends who were working with a record label in the valley, an upstart little indie label. They asked me to come in and do some A&R for the label, it sort of developed from there. Now, Casper, who a lot of people know who works with me and actually tour manages Jack's, you know, has been working with me on the label side of things. He found this great band Treaty of Paris from Chicago, and I got a whole bunch of their acoustic demos and really fell in love with their ambition and songwriting and their live show. I was excited, I saw a lot of what I saw in myself when I was in Something Corporate in these guys, you know what I mean? Their level of hustle, their dedication, level of writing good songs, it really turned me on, at a time when frankly, I wasn't planning on…I had the outlet where if I wanted to find a band and sign them, and Casper was so passionate, he brought me their music and I felt in love with their songs. I said, "Let's do this and let's take a band under our wing and try and get them out there."
Really, the idea behind Airport was to give bands a place to hatch and to give bands a place to find their feet and find their sound and develop and, you know, working on this Treaty project, I'm glad that my responsibility actually played out into what I felt like what turned into a really great record and a really great opportunity for this band. You're talking about a band who, before the record, had done their own touring, had been doing all their own tour dates, and then watching them, they're out now with The Spill Canvas and they're going to do dates with Yellowcard and MxPx and All Time Low. It's like seeing a band from being a local band to touring as a national act, it's really kind of nostalgic, truthfully, to remember that period of time when the band is just starting. My goal with the label is to give some cool bands a home and in this music business, as it is now, not to make these promises like "We're going to get you all over the radio!" You know, it's not how it happened for me, we had to fight tooth and nail for what we got and my goal is to find bands who are willing to fight that fight. We signed Treaty, obviously I've been working on this record, but in the new year hopefully we'll look towards making a new signing and bringing someone new into the fold as well.
11:49 PM on 01/24/08
All I need are sounds of ecstasy.
great interview, i cant wait until this comes out. this record is one of my most anticipated album of '08.
03:16 AM on 01/25/08
Is there ever going to be another Something Corporate album?
06:58 AM on 01/25/08
Great interview, although a little slow at times.
10:47 AM on 01/25/08
he has a lot to say .. enjoyed it .. thanks for doing this Paul ..
11:22 AM on 01/25/08
Second that....S.C. wasn't even mentioned..or did I just read too fast?
11:44 AM on 01/25/08
Thanks, Paul! Great interview.
12:34 PM on 01/25/08
Great job with the interview. How I'd love to just hang out with him like that for a bit and listen to some of his new tunes.
12:38 PM on 01/25/08
He gets asked about Something Corporate in almost every interview and it's always the exact same answer... it was actually pretty nice to not see it in this one.
12:49 PM on 01/25/08
I love Andrew and I'm ridiculously excited for this album
01:13 PM on 01/25/08
great interview. :) i'm really excited to see the "dear jack" movie. it sounds really effecting. i love the short videos benji has done with mae, i'm sure the movie will be really good.
02:30 PM on 01/25/08
That hurt my eyes, but good read.
Why were some questions edited out of the video though?
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