Minnesota rock band Motion City Soundtrack is on the rise

by Chris Riemenschneider

Star Tribune (Minneapolis) (MCT)

27 September 2007

Lead vocal Justin Pierre, center, of Motion City Soundtrack, sings during rehearsal with other band members, August 28, 2007, in St. Paul, Minnesota. The loud and melodic pop/punk quintet has quietly become the Twin Cities' biggest rock band. (Tom Wallace/Minneapolis Star Tribune/MCT) 

Josh: We feel like we’re lucky. We don’t feel like we deserve anything.

Justin: We were talking about the fact that we’re lucky we’ve gotten far enough to be putting out our third record.

Josh: Our goals for the longest time were just to be able to pay our bills and headline (Minneapolis club) First Avenue. Now, it’s like, “Wouldn’t it be great to have a gold record,” and it seems ridiculous that could even be a goal. But every record we’ve released has doubled the sales. So double of our last one would be gold (500,000 copies sold).

Jesse: Every record has doubled. All two of them.


Sharp exchanges like this, whatever the topic, let you know that the members of Motion City Soundtrack have been around each other as much as any married couple over the past five years.

In that time, the loud and melodic pop/punk quintet has quietly become the Twin Cities’ biggest rock band—thanks in large part to how often its members crammed together into a tour van, then a bus, and more recently a plane (they’re in England this very week).

All signs point to MCS getting even bigger now with its third album, “Even If It Kills Me,” which came out Sept. 18 on Epitaph Records.

The disc was co-produced by a trio of respected bandleaders-turned-producers: the Cars’ Ric Ocasek, Fountains of Wayne’s Adam Schlesinger and Girls Against Boys’ Eli Janney.

The first video from the album, for the weepy rocker “Broken Heart,” premiered on MTV’s teenybopper tastemaking show “Total Request Live” last month despite a low-budget quality. The next video, for the Weezer-ish “This Is for Real,½ should do even better since its director filmed hit clips by the Plain White T’s and Death Cab for Cutie.

On the day “Broken Heart” broke onto “TRL,” though, the guys in the band (ages 28 to 31) seemed happily removed from the fanfare.

They spent the afternoon practicing at the Profile Music Center in Minneapolis, in a room that—no kidding—doubles as a reception space for Somali weddings. With ornate canopies and gold fixtures, it was a sizable leap up from the grimy hovel of a rehearsal space where the band did its first Minneapolis Star Tribune interview in 2003.

It’s still the same five guys: Singer/guitarist Justin Pierre and guitarist Josh Cain, the Twin Cities natives who formed the band around 2000; keyboardist Jesse Johnson, whom they recruited while working at a pizza shop; plus Matt Taylor and Tony Thaxton, the bassist and drummer who moved from Richmond, Va., to join the band just weeks before the recording of its Epitaph debut, “I Am the Movie.”

Seated on plush couches intended for wedding guests, the band members coolly recalled the successes and challenges in their own marriage.


Jesse: There are bands that have been signed for one week and blow up.

Josh: Do you mean Panic! at the Disco? It happens, that’s a fact. We just weren’t one of those amazing instances, so we hit the pavement instead.

Jesse: Which was fine. We were willing to literally go broke trying to do this. A lot of other bands get to that scare point and break down and get a job. We were at that point in December (2002) right before we got signed. We were like, `Is this it?’ We couldn’t pay our bills. I’d sold all my other musical instruments.

Josh: There were even many months after we signed to Epitaph when we struggled. We were all living on like a $500 a month stipend. Which is tough when your rent is $700.


Motion City’s members are clearly doing better. This year, a few of them became homeowners. Josh even got married three weekends ago, fitting it in between random summer gigs such as Lollapalooza and an ambitious fall headlining tour.

The band isn’t rich; it’s “comfortable.” Its second album, 2005’s “Commit This to Memory” (produced by Blink-182’s Mark Hoppus), sold close to 250,000 copies, but a lot of money was lost to promotional costs and bootlegging. Guesses are that 30,000-plus copies of the CD were illegally leaked on the Internet before it went on sale.

Motion City also hasn’t earned much in the way of radio support. It’s not edgy enough for hard-rock stations that spin Korn, and so far it hasn’t come across as mainstream enough for Top 40 outlets that play Panic!

Touring has unquestionably been the band’s main vehicle.

“They were patient and worked their way up, stage by stage,” said Kevin Lyman, founder and producer of the Warped Tour, where MCS ascended over several summers.

Lyman recalled how the guys regularly met with fans on tour and showed “that good Midwestern work ethic that they probably learned from their parents.

“It seemed like they had a plan and didn’t think it had to happen overnight. They snuck up on becoming leaders of this scene vs. pushing it down everyone’s throats.”


Tony: Our best show: the Chicago Warped Tour `05.

Justin: That last Varsity Theater show in Minneapolis was actually one of the most fun ever.

Jesse: For me, the best was playing (London’s) Wembley Stadium with Blink-182. It was even more surreal than we thought it’d be, because we flew in that day, got there, and it was just (crowd cheering).

Josh: That whole tour was amazing. The Manchester show was our biggest ever, the crowd was 17.5.

Jesse: Yeah, 17 and a half people showed. It was great.

Motion City Soundtrack, the loud and melodic pop/punk quintet has quietly become the Twin Cities’ biggest rock band. (Tom Wallace/Minneapolis Star Tribune/MCT)

You have to attend a Motion City gig to understand how big the band really is. High-schoolers and collegians who look straight out of an Urban Outfitters ad sing along to the songs (all of them!) like Springsteen fans hearing “Born to Run.”

At the Varsity Theater last month, the sellout crowd already knew all the words to “Broken Heart” (issued just a few weeks earlier on iTunes) and even some of the lyrics in “This Is for Real,” which wasn’t even available yet. Not legally, anyway.

“They’re basically a punk band with melodic songs, the kind that can stick in your head for days,” said one of those fans, Fred Smith, 22, of Richfield, Minn., who got into MCS as a radio DJ at Luther College. “I think a lot of the music industry overlooks them because they’re a Midwest band. But not for long.”

Tiffany Payne, 25, of Minneapolis, claimed to have seen the band 30 times and expects to see them plenty more. “I think they’re just one step from being the next Fall Out Boy,” she said.

In the crowd after the show, the band’s guitarist (and nearest thing to a leader) was happy with the new songs’ reception.

“We’re really excited,” Josh said. “We got to spend more time on this record than our others. It’s definitely the most work we’ve ever put in.”


Josh: It was weird, and not in a bad way, to go from recording with two guys who are close to our age and we’d hang out with to working with a producer who, you know—there he is, Ric Ocasek!

Justin: Everything about the sessions was completely different. With Adam and Eli, it was always, “Try this. Try this. Try this.” With Ric, he told us he liked what we did on the demo and he didn’t want us to mess with it too much.

Matt: The last record we did, everything had to be perfect. We did take after take after take. Working with Ric, we’d think the guitars were out of tune, but he’d be, “Perfect!”


The sessions for “Even If It Kills Me” started with Schlesinger and Janney—longtime friends who co-produced together for the first time. MCS had opened for both of their bands.

Since Weezer’s debut (“The Blue Album”) was Motion City’s No. 1 influence—a disc that Ocasek produced—the members jumped at the chance to work with the music vet, even though Schlesinger and Janney were already aboard.

After some careful mixing, the mish-mash of recordings was made into one surprisingly cohesive album. There’s an obvious boost in melodies and poppy polish in all the songs, from the big-chorus opener “Fell in Love Without You” to the insanely catchy “Calling All Cops.” Even some of the more diverse tunes reinforce the band’s frantic-but-melodic mold, including the piano-led ballad “The Conversation” and the stormier rocker “Hello Helicopter.”

Ironically, the album’s least-cohesive element is the lyrics—the product of one guy.


Justin: I write them, but they all help out. Usually I just get told that the lyrics aren’t any good.

Jesse: Just because you wanted to say “beer” on “Together We Ring in the New Year,” and it didn’t sound right.

Josh: And on this record we vetoed “erection.” We were like, “That sounds terrible.”

Justin: What’s wrong with erections? They happen.


“Even If It Kills Me” finds Justin sounding strangely stuck between bursting bouts of giddiness and depression.

This bipolarity is evident even from the singles, “Broken Heart” and “This Is for Real,” flip sides of the romantic coin. Justin did break up with a girlfriend during the writing, but there’s something more serious going on here.

The frontman openly confessed to entering rehab after completing the album. He did a three-week stint for alcoholism and some drug abuse. He only brought it up, he said, “because if it gets out there, then I don’t have to hide it.”

Justin clearly had/has the support of his bandmates, known to be pretty straight-laced rockers. Josh even took part in the family sessions during Justin’s treatment.


Josh: I assume that being in a band with an alcoholic is a lot like having a family member who’s an alcoholic. We’ve had to deal with a lot of bad stuff, so it’s not like we’re a group of guys that has never talked about our emotions. We’ve had our Metallica “Some Kind of Monster” moments.

Matt: The last three months, we really have talked to each other more. There are no more avoidance tactics, which only work for so long.


The rehab stint came during some much-needed time off for the band, including a six-week stretch early in the summer that was its longest break in five years.

“It might sound cliched, but we all had a chance to do some growing up,” Josh said.

Of course, the breather was short-lived. They were in New York last week. Next month, they head out on a headlining tour that lands back Minnesota on Nov. 24.

They’re vying for TV gigs, too—probably including an on-air “TRL” appearance.

But you won’t catch any of them griping—least of all, it seems, Justin.


Justin: We just shot our video for “This Is for Real.” Everyone was complaining because we had to get up at like 3 a.m., and I remember thinking, “The worst thing about my day is I have to get up to shoot a music video. That’s awesome.”

Josh: It was hard for me. I had to sit through three hours of makeup for my costume.

Justin: Aw, poor you.

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