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"I've Never Been the Coolest Kid in School": An Interview with Jack's Mannequin

He graduated from high-school piano-rock outfit Something Corporate into a mature pop songwriter who also hangs out with Tommy Lee. Andrew McMahon sits down to talk with PopMatters, explains his blog posts, and why he recorded his most recent album twice ...

Be careful about what you write because it will ultimately come back to bite you.

Or, at least so said Andrew McMahon at a recent tour stop in Seattle as he and his band, Jack's Mannequin, continue to travel the world in support of their latest album, People And Things. That response came after being reminded of a recent blog post he penned for his band's website that went a little like this ...

"... It's hard to know when you've made something great, but it's good to know the bar is still high. To this day I regard transit as my most perfect record and reading everyones opinions it sounds like we more or less agree with each other on that. I have spent a good deal of my last several years in the shadow of that record and the circumstances surrounding it. When transit was conceived I was in a blissfully miserable place in my life. One that managed to look something like happiness. It was mania at it's best, really. I didn't eat, I didn't sleep and I didn't mind one bit. I had something to prove and I was intent to prove it. I could argue that I have spent the past 6 years recovering from some sickness I contracted, but that would be a half truth. The crux of my recovery has more to do with how that sickness took me from such an inspired moment in my life. It's taken me a long time to admit that, but with each new admission a foot steps in the right direction. ..."

That lowercased "transit" he refers to is, of course, a reference to Everything In Transit, Jack's Mannequin's debut album that crossed McMahon over from Warped Tour veteran to pop music prince once and for all. By now, you've all heard the story: the day he finished the recording sessions for the record, the singer was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a rare form of cancer of the white blood cells. This, in turn, prompted the singer to delay all touring support of Everything In Transit until he figured out how the rest of his life would play out. As it goes, McMahon went on to receive multiple forms of treatment before undergoing a stem cell transplant from his sister, all resulting in an eventual clean bill of health. He has since put out two proper full-length releases, 2008's The Glass Passenger and the recently-released People And Things. All three records feature his signature blend of piano-driven pop rock that could be found in the CD player of everyone from your best friend's mother to your best friend's somewhat hip older brother.

But even with all of that said, what's all this being-careful-about-what-you-write stuff?

"The thing about Transit is that it was just a period of time in my life," he said while chuckling in response to the question of that September 19th blog post and the differences between his first and third records. "I was the most focused I've ever been. It was good to be in a scenario where I was free from a record label. I was able to follow the music every step of the way with that record. When I'm listening to it, there's more a feeling of it being nostalgic now.

"But," he made sure to add, "I can say that I am equally as proud of this record."

As he should be. People And Things debuted at No. 1 on Billboard's Alternative Albums Chart and No. 9 on the magazine's Top 200 list. On it, McMahon's piano playing is decidedly less prevalent than it was throughout his band's first two releases. Still, from the raucous, folk-like sing-a-long nature of "Hey Hey Hey (We're All Gonna Die)" to the heart-on-your-sleeve candor of first single "My Racing Thoughts", People And Things most certainly sounds like a Jack's Mannequin record, if nothing else -- it's just a tad bit more mature than the group's previous two outings.

That was done on purpose, McMahon said. In fact, as most fans may already know, he took his band back into the studio to rework a lot of the songs that make up the album in order to get that grown-up, more evolved texture. What most fans may not already know, though, is that the notion of completely scrapping a set of songs in favor of what made up People And Things is only half-right.

"A lot of those reports aren't entirely true," the singer explained while referencing the thought of writing two different albums. "When I was recording the earlier parts, a lot of it was scattershot. I would go into the studio in between tour stops or whenever I had time. We found enough about it that just wasn't cohesive. It didn't all connect the way it should have, so we went back and approached the songs in a different way. So in the end, we didn't rewrite the album, we just rerecorded it."

One of the differences between Everything In Transit and People And Things is the absence of his friend and collaborator Tommy Lee. Yes. That Tommy Lee. The two hooked up after finding they had a couple things in common: 1) they both shared the same manager and 2) they both loved North, a record from McMahon's other band, Something Corporate.

"He's an amazingly fun dude to be around," the singer said of the Motley Crüe drummer. "He was a close friend at a bizarre time in my life which led to the even more bizarre friendship that we have. But we really hit it off when we first met each other.

"I've never been the coolest kid in school," he continued. "But I've reached out to a lot of the older cats who helped form what rock and roll is today. I've been able to work with [Elvis Costello's] Pete Thomas and [Tom Petty's] Steve Ferrone and I feel I've certainly gained a lot from digging deeper into rock and roll. I've been lucky enough to work with some of the elder statesmen of rock and I am grateful for that."

So with all of his experience collaborating with some of the heaviest hitters popular music has ever seen -- and with yet another chart-topping album in his possession -- what could Andrew McMahon possibly hope for, looking ahead?

"I'd love to work with Brian Wilson or Tom Petty," he admitted when reflecting on what's left for him to accomplish. "But as for the next thing I do, I just want to crawl in a hole and do a record. I've been able to identify closely with the indie rock scene lately as the major labels begin to lose their grasp on things. And I've been blessed with the help of a lot of those outlets in my career. But I just want to do something really fast. I want to crawl in a hole, and make an album quietly and quickly without having to ask for budgets or producer credits or anything like that.

"Then," he quipped with the same devious chuckle he displayed so honestly while detracting his blog post written a mere two months ago, "I'll deliver it to the label and that will be that."

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