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"People Make Mistakes and I'll Probably Make More": An Interview with Andrew McMahon

Molly O’Brien

Having fronted the piano pop-rock group Something Corporate and the somewhat more inward-looking Jack's Mannequin, the ever-prolific Andrew McMahon is now doing something he's never done: releasing music under his own name. He tells PopMatters all about it ...

The early aughts were a boon time for that heady blend of emotional lyricism, pop punk, and indie rock called emo music. Lots of bands crashed and burned once musical tastes turned elsewhere, but Andrew McMahon, frontman of Something Corporate and Jack's Mannequin, has stuck around. Not only has he prevailed in a musical landscape where rock radio is hitting the skids, he's continuing to evolve, pushing his Southern California-saturated sound to new places and entertaining an expanding fan base that showers his Instagram pictures with likes. Even McMahon's voice itself has gotten deeper and grittier with the times.

It's been more than a decade since Something Corporate released their piano-driven major label debut, Leaving Through The Window. After three studio albums with Something Corporate and three with Jack's Mannequin, McMahon has a lot of material to work with for his solo tour, which runs through this Spring. He'll be playing songs from both bands, as well as music from his upcoming solo EP, The Pop Underground, so fans will get a real treat: blasts from the past, and tasty new tracks from the near future.

McMahon was in California when he chatted with PopMatters, prepping for what's sure to be a crazy spring: mastering his EP, rehearsing for his tour, and fitting in a bit of exercise. What kind? "I'm embarrassed to even admit it -- I'm going to a Pilates class. The first time I did it, I wrote a tweet to my fans saying, 'Guys, don't be fooled, this Pilates thing is gnarly.'"

* * *

So you were just on tour with fun. How was that?

It was great! Yeah, it was kind of funny, I basically put the band together a couple month earlier than I was planning on, and to play those fun. dates with my friends was obviously a great opportunity. It was a great tour. I certainly like touring with those guys. I was playing with Nate [Ruess] and Jack [Antonoff] in various different incarnations when I was 19 and 20 in Something Corporate, so it's good to get on the road with good buddies.

I was going to say, I saw that Something Corporate toured with [fun.'s former incarnation] the Format back in 2004, with Yellowcard.

Oh yeah, it was with them, and then Steel Train, that was what used to be Jack's band, or rather is still. And then I took fun. out on their very first tour. They went out [on tour] with us before they even had a band name. They had just came out and did a bunch of acoustic songs ... yeah, I've got a lot of history with those guys.

Any good stories from back in the day?

Oh man ... nothing that comes to mind, but that's probably just because there are so many.

So now you're headlining your own tour, and you're playing stuff from Something Corporate, Jack's Mannequin, and now music from your new solo EP. Is there any song you refuse to play?

Probably nothing that I'd outright refuse, although there's only so much we can learn in the narrow window that we've had between getting everything together for the fun. dates and getting everything ready for this tour. So there'll be stuff that won't get played, but not because of any hatred for it. I tend to prioritize my favorites, obviously, but there's not anything that's off limits, per se.

It must be interesting to go through your whole catalog for material. Do you feel anything in particular looking back on your career? Because you've been playing for a super long time now -- is it harder to put into words how it feels to be looking back?

It can be trickier to articulate the emotion. It's sort of a sweeping range of emotions that I can feel in the course of the night playing through the catalog. It's interesting. It feels good to go back to all of it -- I mean, I won't lie, it's nice to break out a set that I did for a number of years and then have a whole bunch of other material to add into that. And there are a lot of those songs that still resonate with me, like looking back on a good memory you have. It can be nice to revisit those places. You know, for me to have it all in one set, back to back, you can sort of roll through a Jack's song and then a Something Corporate song and then a new song. It has a strange impact when you do them all together like that. And I have one band playing them all, so it kind of smooths it all out and makes it feel like it's all one thing. And I think that's really what I was hoping for was this chance to play the songs I've written and not have to discriminate from one set to another which songs get played.

And you're mastering the new EP. Totally done with the recording process?

Yeah, it's finished. We basically finished it over the weekend and now we're going back and making a couple minor tweaks and adjustments.

You've said that for Jack's Mannequin, Everything in Transit was a breakup album, The Glass Passenger was about getting sick and then recovering, and People and Things is a relationship album. Can you condense your EP into one sentence?

I'm starting to listen to it as a whole and piecing things together. In a lot of ways, this record comes back to family, and to the places that I've come from. There are a lot of references to my childhood and memories of my family and of these places I've been, in that context. And I think in that sense, it was sort of the first thing I'm releasing under my own name, and I felt like getting into that sort of a personal space made a lot of sense. At least that's what was coming out of me when I was in the studio. A lot of this was written very much in a stream of consciousness. We'd put a beat up and then I'd put a piano part down and then I'd start humming until words came out. I think there's sort of a forgiveness theme. I'm 30 this year and started recording right around my 30th birthday. I think it was a moment to look back and realize that hey, people make mistakes in life and I'll probably make more of the same mistakes. You have to learn forgiveness, these things that take place that maybe you weren't so forgiving of in the past.

Sounds like a more -- I don't know -- mature album, perhaps?

I don't know. Subject matter wise, it's very reflective, but it's also really fun. The songs on this record are all super upbeat. It's definitely more of a pop record than I've made in a while, and it's very danceable. I really wanted to have that duality where there's serious subject matter but there's also this inherent sense of good feeling when you listen to the tracks. I really was hoping for something like that. I'm calling it The Pop Underground, that's going to be the name of the record, and the sound is a little more experimental, at least for me, but it's still fun.

Do you find it easier to define your own sound as a totally solo act?

I think when you go in the studio by yourself or just with one or two other people, it becomes a little easier to narrow down what you're going for. The more people you put in the studio, and the more collaborative it becomes, you can get an amazing sound, but it ends up being a little more democratic in the way you end up coming about that sound. For me on this one, I wasn't really going so much for a band sound as I was for an aesthetic. And I wanted that to have a hybrid of organic instruments and electronic instruments, and live drums and programmed drums, and take the best of what I love about music, both historically and with the modern records that I like as well. So yeah, I do find elements of that become easier to quickly get at the heart of what sound you're going for.

So what kind of music have you been listening to lately?

It's a pretty sweeping range of stuff. The record I was really into when I started working on this stuff was Miike Snow and Niki & the Dove, stuff that I think does a good job of incorporating the electronic and organic sounds. And at the same time, bands like My Morning Jacket and Andrew Bird, the flip side of that electronic coin. There's a band I've been listening to for a long time that's starting to emerge, Atlas Genius -- I've been listening to a lot of their EPs.

I've been reading this series on Grantland all about the rise and fall of rock radio, and how the end of '00s it's had this decline. I wanted to get your thoughts on this: is it better to play a more popular genre, or do you prefer flying under the radar?

I don't think it's any secret that I've struggled, over the course of my career, to get my music played on the radio, period. And a lot of that struggle is rooted in the fact that rock radio programming, as a format, has really been held hostage, for the most part, by a pretty narrow sound of rock and roll. It's tricky, because as it goes with radio, radio is formula-driven. Don't get me wrong, I love pop music and I love listening to the radio. But it's tricky with a sound like rock and roll, because its not supposed to be so formulaic, it's not supposed to be so defined. The best rock tracks tend to come from out of nowhere. It's always been one of these things where every time I put a record out, by the grace of God, some radio station plays it, people listen to it and it kind of spreads, but I follow a career path that says: I make the songs first, I have to be inspired by the songs. Of course I like to write big choruses, and I hope those choruses transcend my fan base and grow into other areas, but chasing radio around is no way to make good music. Unless you're really focused on making pop radio -- you know, that's not to say that's not a noble venture, because I love a lot of stuff that people do on popular radio, but for me, I've gotta do my thing first, and cross my fingers that someone will step up and say, "This is good enough to play on the radio." And we'll see. It hasn't hurt me so far, and I'm lucky that have a lot of good fans.

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