Frontman Andrew McMahon goes into detail about making The Glass Passenger, as well as touches on his cancer experience, the Dear Jack documentary, originally learning piano as a coping mechanism, and holding onto hope in the midst of hopeless situations.
Are you still living in Orange County these days or have you moved up to L.A.?
I’m in L.A. I moved up there a couple years ago just to make the record-making process a little easier. The commute pretty much killed me during the first Jack’s Mannequin record, so I’ve been up there for a little bit, but it’d be lying if I didn’t say I wasn’t eager to make my way back south again.
On the first record, you weren’t able to do a lot of publicity at the start of it. Are you excited to be doing all that stuff this time around?
Yeah. I think being in a position to actually get out and support the album that we spent all this time creating is a luxury we weren’t afforded on the last record. For this one, we’re eager to get out and play the songs while they’re fresh and spread the word about the album.
The Glass Passenger was originally supposed to come out earlier in the year. What led to it getting delayed?
A handful of things, but primarily it not being ready. We started working on the record – gosh, the first song we recorded for the record we recorded two summers ago while we were supporting the Everything In Transit record. We were in and out of town for months at a time, but we would kind of circle back and book studio sessions here and there.
Then finally I guess towards the middle to the end of ’07, we really started digging in. I think at that point we assumed we would be finished with the album by the original release date, which was sometime in April or May. The truth was when we got to the beginning of the year, we had a lot of work done that we were really happy with, but I don’t think any of us were satisfied that it was finished. So, we just kept on working.
We obviously got in trouble when Alternative Press put out their most anticipated records, so of course the pressure turned up at that point to put the album out. I think that maybe in some way it was sort of a conscious effort, at least on my part, to try and slow it down for a second and not just rush a record out because people are looking forward to hearing it. We took the philosophy that if people are excited to hear it, we might as well spend a little bit more time and make it that much better before they do hear it.
So, you know, it was a combination of things, but mainly it wasn’t fully ready to be delivered and we still had more work to do. We were still writing songs up until probably about May of this year. Then you have to service it to press, and do all those things, so that holds it off an extra couple months. Needless to say, we’re excited to have it finally making its way out there.
How many songs did you end up recording for the album?
I haven’t taken a complete count yet. I know that we have, between the album tracks and the b-sides, something like 21 songs that will probably be heard in some capacity over the course of the next year or so. Then from there, we probably recorded another five or six that we either didn’t finish, or scrapped, or just kind of put on the backburner. So, you have somewhere between 20 and 30 songs, I’d say.
How did you whittle those down to the ones that actually made the album and then arrange them for the final track listing? What was that process like?
It’s gradual. You record songs and you hear them back. I think especially with an album like this, you have a lot of time on your hands to listen. There’s some songs that maybe we loved at first, but after you get a little perspective and put them up against the other songs, you realize maybe they’re not as strong as the others. It’s pretty much instinct, and listening and trying to put the ones you love on the record.
Trying to get the track listing right was one of the harder elements of this album. Even after we got the first batch of songs done and we were hoping that we were close to having a finished record, once I tried to put them together, it was one of the main things that drove me to write more music because it didn’t feel like they were really fitting together just right. It’s just kind of one of those processes you go through. When you get closer, you keep running song lists, trying to listen to them all the way through and hear if it flows.
What’s the story behind the title The Glass Passenger?
It was actually a lyric that was part of a song I had written during the course of the sessions we were doing for the record, but we never actually got to the point of recording it. I think the idea in general is that you don’t ever really know what to expect. A lot of times you think you have it figured out, but you’re really just getting pushed along with everything else. Sometimes you’re not really in the driver’s seat, I suppose.
It sounds like on the record you seem to be really stretching yourself vocally and doing some things you haven’t done before in the past. What was the inspiration for that and was it challenging for you?
Yes and no. It’s funny because from record to record that’s always something, whether I do it intentionally or just as a part of my voice growing, you try to do in all aspects in your career and your work. You try and play better. Sing better. Write better. I mean, every time I make a record, that’s obviously my hope. On top of that, we had toured the Everything In Transit record for so long, and that was a record that was not an easy record for me to sing. So I think the combination of that stretching my voice helped it to play in this record a lot.
Then, truthfully, just having gone through the whole cancer thing, I truthfully came back with a completely different voice [laughs]. It really was kind of a bizarre thing, just the effects of what my body had gone through. It really altered the voice that I have. For a while, it was actually a lot higher. I think because there was some sort of shift in whatever hormones I had in my body, and things like that. Then it eventually dropped, and it was like my range was completely different on the outset of being on all of that stuff. In turn, I think it played out in my singing voice on the record, for sure.
When you guys are writing songs do most of them start out on the piano?
Yeah, pretty much every song I write, I write on the piano. Sometimes you’ll get an idea when you’re driving in your car, walking down the street or whatever, and the melody will come into your head. Some songs you’ll have a good idea in your head before you actually sit down and play it, but most times I would say the song is hashed just sitting at the piano and processing whatever inspiration you have at that moment to write. The piano has always been my main writing tool.
Probably the song that most blew me away on the album is “Caves.” How did that song come about and when did you write it?
I can’t say I remember exactly when “Caves” came about. I think it was sometime in October or November of ’07. It was definitely one of those really inspired sort of things. I recall that chromatic, the little piano melody that is sort of the hook of that song, was something that I had kind of woken up out of a dream with this little melodic idea. I was moved to go upstairs and sit down at the piano late at night. I wrote that little piano hook and the first verse, saved it on my laptop so I wouldn’t forget it, and went back to sleep.
That sort of set up this week or two long writing process in this rehearsal space that I had near Glendale, this like ghetto hole of rehearsal space. That’s where I spent a good week and half to two weeks writing most of that song, with the exception of the lyrics for the second half. A lot of the lyrics and rock section of that song were written while we were in the studio. But, yeah, it was definitely one of those inspired songwriting sessions where rather than really forcing it or having to think too hard, a lot of those words, I think because they had been pressing on me for a little while, just kind of came right out.
That’s really the only song that you wrote directly related to the cancer experience, right?
Yeah, I think there’s no question throughout the record my perspective has been to speak symbolically about it more often than not. I don’t know if I was really avoiding it as much as I try my best to write what’s in the moment. I think towards the end of the record I started digging back a little bit more with songs like “The Resolution,” and then a couple of these b-sides that we recorded. “Caves” was really the one song that I figured because it came about so naturally and it sort of wrote itself more than anything, it ended up being the place where I channeled a lot of that situation into that song.
It seems that several of the songs, like “Swim” and “The Resolution,” have this positive bent towards them. Do you think there’s an overarching theme that runs through The Glass Passenger?
To me at least, the record itself is really symbolic of trying to get past a little bit of the history that had been laying on me from the previous years. I think a lot of those songs were written in what I would consider moments where I felt a little bit beaten up and dragged down. A lot of the material from the record is trying to overcome that feeling.
I think that maybe you hear it in the lyrics and songs like “Swim,” and “Spinning,” and “Crashin.” A lot of those songs were written out of some sort of necessity to find that hope and find light in situations that felt less hopeful. To me, the songs on this record are directly reflective of that process and the process of trying to overcome, I suppose.
How did you arrive at picking “The Resolution” as the first single? Was it originally going to be “Swim?”
Seriously, I didn’t pick it [laughs]. I think it got to the place where we definitely had the songs we would have picked for first singles. When the record was finally delivered to the label, and the various different people who have to go out and actually work the album to radio and all the other places, once everybody got their hands on the record there was sort of a unanimous feeling within the label that “Resolution” was the single. At that point, I didn’t actually share the opinion.
I also kind of contribute it to the fact that you get a little bit of vertigo when you work on something for so long. We were so absorbed in this album for well over a year that I had to compete with the idea that maybe I was a little too close to it. There was a general feeling that this was the song that was going to get us to where we needed to go, get us to the second single, and get us to where we hopefully could release “Swim” as a single, which is my hope for the future of the album. Seemingly, so far they’ve been on the money because there seems to be a lot of interest and a lot of people are excited about it, so I can’t complain.
Switching gears, I know the documentary Dear Jack has been shown at some film festivals already. When is that going to be released on a large scale?
We’re still working out the details. My gut tells me that it will be released first in broadcast form on television, and my guess would be on one of the music television channels. I’m not sure which, and when and how, and all the specifics. I understand the music business, just having been involved in it for so long, but the movie business is nothing I’m an expert in or have any real valid opinion about [laughs].
I let the guys make the movie and signed off on that, and I’m proud of the work that they’ve done. I’ve sort of left it in their hands, and my management and the agents who are shopping around to find the best home for it. Like I said, my guess is that it will come out in a broadcast form first, and then we’ll probably release it on DVD shortly after that.
Have you seen the final cut of the film and what did you think of it?
Yeah, it’s like a horror movie. You know what I mean [laughs]? Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s important to see that experience in such an honest and pretty raw light. It’s really powerful. But having lived it once, it’s not something I’m eager to go relive too often.
So the only times I’ve ever watched it was whenever we were at certain stages where they were looking for approval, and feedback and whatnot. I’ve probably only seen it a total of three or four times since we began working on it. Also, it’s hard to be objective about something like that when you’re sort of in the movie [laughs].
It’s one of those things where you have to defer to people who oftentimes aren’t even aware of the situation. That’s been a part of the process with the movie, stepping back from it and letting people who don’t even know who I am or who the band is or what I went through, let them see it and see what the impact is on people who have no previous knowledge.
That’s where I think we got our best feedback, is from people who were completely unaware. That’s when you know if what you’re doing is powerful, or if it’s only powerful because people contextualize it against the fact that they know you were already aware of the situation. But I don’t make a point of viewing it too frequently, that’s for sure.
You also have a charity foundation called Dear Jack. What’s the latest on that and how has that been going?
It’s going great, actually. We’re in the middle of hosting a huge effort on behalf of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. They do these massive walks all over the country to raise money for blood cancer research and awareness. Right now, I think the Jack’s Mannequin team has already raised $15,000. Obviously, the foundation itself collects money throughout the year on behalf of various different charities, so the foundation will be making a large donation to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society in addition to the efforts of the people involved in the walks this year. So, it’s going really well.
I think over the past few years we’ve donated almost a quarter of a million dollars to various different charities and organizations. It’s something I feel very proud of, not only that I can be involved in it but that people who are just music fans and fans of the band actually get behind a cause that means a lot to me and have raised large sums of money on its behalf. I’m pretty impressed with the kids that we have supporting the foundation. They’ve been excellent.
Have you been in contact with anyone who has been going through a similar experience to what you went through?
Yeah, there’s probably about four or five kids at this current time, and then a handful more over the course of the past few years that I’ve been in contact with them and their families. I give my best to offer some source of inspiration to them and some source of, hey, I’ve been through this like you have.
I try and use my experience to at least help some other people get to the other side of it. It’s a hard road. I think you find that after you’ve gone through it, you find yourself reaching out to people who have gone through the same things, and do your best to help them along.
In addition you started a label a little while ago called Airport Tapes & Records. What’s the latest on that?
Right now, we’re really working the Treaty of Paris project. That’s the big thing for us. At the moment I’m not exactly sure what my next move will be with that, just because my focus right now is obviously so intensely attributed to the Jack’s record. My anticipation was that this record would be out a lot sooner, so we were originally going to have Treaty out with us on the road last year, and we didn’t really get to spend the time developing them. Now that this record’s coming out, my goal is to really have them under my wing and do my best to get their music out there to as many people as possible. From there, we’ll start looking into potential further signings, etc.
I know you probably get asked this all the time but what’s happening on the Something Corporate front.
There’s some discussions about possibly putting a handful of dates together next year to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of the inception of the band. At this moment, you know, like I said my focus is Jack’s Mannequin. I think the reason I moved on to Jack’s Mannequin is because I was finding this was where I was getting my inspiration from, having the ability to creatively control a situation and see a song through from beginning to end.
There’s always going to be a part of me that loves Something Corporate and everything that we’ve done. I love our fan base. I want to find inroads to make my way to the fan base and actually take care of those fans and play some shows for them. But, right now my focus is Jack’s Mannequin.
I heard recently you were trying to pick up the guitar. What’s that been like?
A failed attempt thus far [laughs]. From time to time I try and pick it up, but the truth is, between our time on the road and our time in the studio, etc., the ability for me to pick up a new instrument has not been an effort I have forged with too much success, I would say [laughs].
How did you originally get started out playing the piano?
There was always a piano in my house growing up and I was always drawn to it. I would sit and play little songs when I was a kid, and finally I had a friend’s father teach me how to play a Jerry Lewis song back when I was in fourth grade and about nine-years-old. That happened to coincide directly with the passing of a close family member.
In some way, just having learned a couple of chords and a little bit about how to play the piano, I started using the piano to write songs to help cope with the loss of my uncle. That was really how it began. I sort of sat down and pulled from Jerry Lewis’ “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” and started moving that chord around on the piano. I wrote songs for a year with that basic principle in mind, and then I started studying classical music and other disciplines when I was in fifth grade. That’s kind of how it began.
So, last question. When people are listening to The Glass Passenger, is there anything in particular you’d like them to take away from the record?
It’s really hard to say. My goal with my music in general, and specifically with this record, is that people find what matters to them in the record. What this record represents to me is something that frankly in some ways isn’t a very relatable experience, other than in its universal themes. There’s the idea of trying to break free of a mindset and a past that maybe wasn’t so pleasant. I think those are the more relatable themes. The idea that there is an underlying hope, even in the most hopeless of situations.
I think for me, that’s the broader spectrum on this record. I always say that if this album finds somebody on a bad day, and whether it picks them up or whether it just says, “OK, well at least I understand there are other people that are sitting there with me right now.” Hopefully, that’s what this record can do for some people.
Originally appeared on Mammoth Press