Time Moves Like This: An Interview with Motion City Soundtrack

Motion City Soundtrack

Despite the futility of looking back upon former regrets and past mistakes, we all find ourselves longing for a chance at a do-over at one point or another. The obvious solution to such a conundrum is to simply learn from the past and press forward in hopes of enjoying the here and now with a renewed sense of wisdom and vigor.

This common truth has been hounding at Motion City Soundtrack front man Justin Pierre lately, which would explain the forward thinking content of their latest release, titled Go. Known for their own brand of catchy, broken-hearted emo-pop, the band chose to break away from the norm during the creation of their new album, and in the process, managed to not only redefine the band itself, but also create one of the best albums to be released so far this year.

This shouldn’t strike anyone as surprising though, the band has had a knack for releasing solid albums in the past. Each of their previous four full-length albums managed to showcase a completely different side of the band in equally impressive ways. This time around, Motion City Soundtrack has drawn pages from each of its past chapters while taking a few unexpected steps forward, both in terms of music and mentality. Pierre in particular has found it worthwhile to embrace his current opportunity to just live instead of living in regret of time past. The result is a thought-provoking, introspective, yet entirely fun summer pop record. Imagine that.

Recently, PopMatters had the chance chat with Pierre shortly before the album’s release about the band’s unorthodox promotion of Go, the growing pains of the band’s members over the years, and how previously forgotten memories helped shape the new album in unexpected ways …

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Well, you’re a week away from the release of the new album. What’s the response been like to the tracks you’ve been leaking?

I think it’s been positive, but I always kind of say that. People that don’t like your band are probably not going to take the time out of their day to tell you they don’t like your band, unless of course they at one time did like you band and are no longer into the direction that you’re going. That said, I think that 95% of the stuff that I’ve been reading has been positive, so that’s a good sign.

You guys have had issues in the past with albums leaking before their release date, so you took a bit of a different approach this time by releasing songs from the album sporadically at different sites, including “The Worst is Yet to Come” earlier this week at PopMatters. Was this approach specifically meant to combat those past issues from reoccurring?

Yeah I think so, and it ended up leaking anyway, but it was only a week or a week and half before we were going to release the songs anyway, so it really wasn’t a big deal. I mean, people can get upset about it, but I think it’s just the way the world is going. People want stuff immediately so it doesn’t make any sense to fight it. It’s like getting mad at someone in traffic that can’t see you, who like, swerves or does something. Then you’re sitting in your car angry and they have no idea that they’ve affected you. It’s something I’m getting better at doing. For a while I think I used to be that mad person in the car. It happened. Let it go and then go live your life. But that’s kind of just in relation to anything not going your way. It’s so much easier to just be content with all things — good and bad.

As far as the album itself goes, you’ve released albums in the past that were all different variations of the Motion City Soundtrack Sound, but this album feels almost like a culmination of all of that. Do you feel like you’ve found your wheelhouse?

I mean, we never really tried specifically to do anything, other than I can think of a few albums: Even if it Kills Me, I know there was this weird thing hanging over us. We were scared that we weren’t going to be able to write a catchy song. I feel like we wrote all of these poppy kind of numbers. Then on My Dinosaur Life we were worried that the last record wasn’t really that rocking, you know? It was a little bit mellower, so we were obsessed with trying to sound excited again. That was not a lot of over-thinking, it was just something that we had in the back of our heads. I think it felt really refreshing to have no label, nobody to answer to — we didn’t even contact management. We just got together with our friend Ed Ackerson in the studio and we wrote a bunch of songs and we recorded them. We didn’t think about anything. The last time we did that was, I think, when we were writing songs for I Am the Movie and Commit This to Memory. So in a way I feel like the style of how we were writing back then was sort of revisited but with where we are at musically, intellectually, or what’s going on in our lives today. So I would say that’s very accurate and makes a lot of sense and it’s this weird culmination of everything we’ve done, all in one.

Lyrically on Go, you touch regularly on themes of time and mortality. Is there something that made those themes important for you to write about now?

Yeah, just the fact that I’m getting older [laughs]. For a good portion of my life, I wasn’t really living. I was just sort of trying really hard not to feel, not to think, not to do, and I was drinking a lot of alcohol and taking a lot of drugs. Just anything not to be me. Then, about five years ago, I got sober and life has just been beating me in the face, and I like it. I like who I am and I like living and experiencing things. I hadn’t realized so much time had passed and so it’s almost like I’m catching up. I’m noticing all of my friends are getting married and having kids and my parents became grandparents and grandparents die. Everything has been shifting, and now suddenly, I’m no longer the grandchild — I’m like, the parent age. I’m in the middle and everything is shifting.

There’s a song that we wrote called “Timelines” and in it is something that I remember my dad told me when I was a kid. He was teaching me how to ride a bike, so I don’t know how old I was, maybe seven? I remember we were on a dirt road and we were riding and the sun was setting and he told me, “Hey J, this may not make any sense to you now, but time moves like this,” and he snapped his finger and was like, “Before you know it, you’ll be an old man like me.” I think he noticed that I was kind of a shy kid and I had a stuttering problem and he was trying to get me to enjoy life — go out for the baseball team and try things, and meet people, and do stuff. He would say a lot of weird things to me and I would just kind of take them and keep them with me somewhere and then eventually, one day, that thing that he said those many years ago made total sense. And that’s kind of where “Timelines” came from. It’s me suddenly realizing, “Wow, what happened to the last 20 years?” When I finished eighth grade and was about to go to high school, I remember thinking, “Oh my god, eight more years of school? This is ridiculous, I’ll never get out!” I thought that was an eternity and now it seems like years go by so quickly, it’s just ridiculous. I think that’s one of the main points or main themes with this record.

I think that’s what makes the title Go so brilliant, because it sounds like the conclusion that’s supposed to be drawn from those songs. You’ve always been big on storytelling in the past. Is that something that’s become even easier for you over time as you’ve gained more experience?

Well, sometimes I look back and I feel like I keep singing the same songs, just with different words and that’s not something that I like so much. So starting on the last record, I started doing some weird stuff lyrically and then on this record I tried to branch out a little more. I think even the band had mentioned that I write all the songs, which is okay because the songs are about me, but they said something too that maybe all the drug use and drinking stuff, maybe we could just curb that a little bit. You know, there’s so many songs about that and no one else in the band really relates to those things. With this record, I think I tried to go a little more universal. I’m so self-specific to me and what I’ve done and so especially a song like “Everyone Will Die”, I remember sitting down and trying to write something that hopefully anyone could relate to. I feel like I accomplished what I set out to accomplish. I remember writing from the first part to the part where the strings come in and I sent the guitar part and words to Josh and he really dug it and sent it to Matt, who took over that song and wrote some string parts and then we all worked together [from there]. That was sort of one of the first things with this record where we were like “Oh, okay. Maybe we should try and branch out of our safety zone and instead of just writing about me, I’m going to try to write about us.” “Us” being everyone.

You talked earlier about the differences in producing this album — you took a little more time and you co-produced it yourselves with Ed Ackerson. What was the biggest difference with this approach as opposed to some of your past work with Mark Hoppus?

I think the biggest difference is that, on every other record we’ve had, we’ve had a certain amount of time allotted to do everything and we only had the 14 or 15 songs that we were going to record already pretty much written. Mark was really good at not messing with something if it seemed good. You know, if he’s got something to add to it or subtract from it, he’ll say something. He really just lets the band do their thing and then if we get there and it just isn’t working, he will then go in and kind of rearrange stuff. A guy like Adam Schlesinger, no matter what, he’ll go in and change everything and try a million different things. With this record, what was really interesting was that we showed up with ideas. We not only had some fully figured out songs, but also had just a guitar part and a melody, or Matt would have some crazy electronic song that he wrote, and he would just bring it in and say “Can we do anything with this?” We would just investigate and we just kept going from one song to another and we had several partially finished songs that we did not finish, and it was just kind of like whatever we felt like doing, we would do that. It was a lot of fun, especially with Ed. Working with Ed, he’s just really good at coming up with ideas, he’s an amazing music theory guy, he knows everything, he’s great with harmonies and melodies, and he’s an amazing musician. He also loves noise, thank goodness, and he loves feedback and craziness, and he loves mistakes. He’s kind of an all-around, do anything guy. He’s just really fun to be around. I think just taking that time that we never really had on any of the other records, that was the biggest difference.

Over the course of your career, you’ve been a band that not only has straddled the line between genres, but also between a mainstream and more underground following, and that’s stuff that matters for a lot of bands early on in their careers. But how much of that is even on your radar at this point in your career?

As far as the writing goes, when we were writing Even if it Kills Me I know I was very worried that I couldn’t write a catchy song. I was just scared because we’d had some success with songs like “The Future Freaks Me Out” and “Everything is Alright” and I was just worried that we wouldn’t be able to come up with another one, so I think we kind of overcompensated with that record. Then with My Dinosaur Life, I felt like I overcompensated trying to write songs that were angry and violent or at least had some energy to them because I feel like Even if it Kills Me was a little more “pretty” as opposed to My Dinosaur Life, which was a little more “rough”. Other than that, we really don’t pay attention to anything. It’s not like we try to do anything specific. We just write songs and people vote and they’re like “I don’t know if I dig this.” “Okay, well what about this idea?” It’s really very democratic and we just work on something and if we all are into it, then we go, “Okay, well if this makes sense, then this is a good song for us.” But we really don’t do much as far as setting out to write the next “this” song or something.

This particular group of guys that you have has been together for quite awhile now. How do you feel like you’ve grown the most as a band over the past several years?

I think we’ve gotten better at not being offended by people’s opinions. I know in the earlier years I would write a song or something and I would be like, “Okay, this is how it’s going to be. From here to here we’re going to have one part and it’s going to be one minute and ten seconds long.” Then Josh would be like, “It needs to be at least two minutes long and you’ve got to repeat the chorus at least one more time; you can’t just have it in the song once.” Then I I’d just get angry and be like, “Fuck you! This isn’t how it’s done. I’m going to do it this way.” I think nowadays we sort of hear the other people out and at least try everyone’s suggestions and then we usually know if it’s working for us as a whole or not. I think we just got better at working together. In the early years, Josh and I were both trying to battle; like who could write the weirder guitar part. Now it’s just like, “What does the song need?” It’s very song-based.

As far as touring goes, I know you’ve got some dates lined up in support of the new album — do you have any plans for further into the summer and fall?

Yeah, in June we’ve just got a few weeks of touring here and we’re also going to Japan. We’re trying to figure out some stuff in Australia, but I don’t know if that’s going to happen or not. But for sure, we’re going to Japan in July and then we’re going to be touring sometime again in the fall in the US. It’s not all 100% put together, so I don’t want to say anything, because if I say something, it’s definitely going to change and then I’ll have become a liar. [laughs]