Frontman Justin Pierre dishes on the band’s latest offering My Dinosaur Life, what influenced it, not taking himself so seriously, and writing songs he believes in.
How did you like playing the special album shows last year, as well as doing the whole Dinosaur Trail adventure?
I enjoyed doing both, but each was terrifying in their own way. Having to relearn or re-remember songs we hadn’t played in years was difficult, but not nearly as difficult as I thought. We had a ridiculous amount of fun in Chicago. Traveling solo across the nation made me anxious at times, but the humans who came out were very kind and seemed into what I was attempting to do.
What exactly is the meaning behind the title My Dinosaur Life?
It started as a goof, then became something else. I think what’s great about the title is that it can have different meanings depending on how you look at it. For me, in the context of the songs on the record, it’s about feeling out of place with your surroundings, sometimes your own skin. But that’s just one aspect.
What went into creating the album, both musically and lyrically, and how would you compare the process to your previous experiences?
The process was changed greatly by the fact that halfway through writing this record our drummer broke his arm. We had a lot of problem solving to do. Part of the record was written via the Internet; sending song ideas back and forth, adding parts to them along the way. I’m not sure I did anything differently in the lyrical department other than I was more open to the idea that I didn’t have to understand everything I was doing all the time. In the end, it all worked out.
What was it like working with Mark Hoppus again? Did he challenge you to do anything differently this time?
It was a trip working with him again. His greatest asset is that he doesn’t get angry and he doesn’t dictate. If he thinks we could do something different in a song he’ll make suggestions, but he’s not out to change things just for the sake of putting his stamp on them. We told him we wanted to make a rock record and he was into that. It’s great working with someone who really likes your band.
What impact did Tony’s injury have on making the record?
I kind of answered that in the third question. Problem solving became the main issue. We knew there was no way we could record an album without him, so it was a matter of pushing back the recording date and having faith that he’d be healed by then.
Your vocal approach changed somewhat on this record, as you tried deeper and more expansive ranges. What went into that?
The only thing I was conscious of was that I wasn’t going to limit myself to my own abilities. I’m not a screamer, but if the song needed some screaming, I was going to do my best to facilitate. I was very caught up on the last record with writing parts I knew I could perform live. On tour, performing songs from the first two records, I was constantly losing my voice. I consider that my greatest flaw in thinking to date.
This time around, I didn’t even warm up when I went into the booth. I just did whatever the song needed, knowing full well I’m not going to be able to do that for two months straight every night. Recordings last longer than any one show.
What’s the story behind “@!#?@!?”
It’s an age-old tale of us vs. them. I don’t want to give too much away, but most of us turned to video games when we didn’t make our prospective middle school sports teams.
Does “Pulp Fiction” have anything to do with the movie? How did you come up with its catchy wordplay and the slasher film simile?
No. It has more to do with the genre of stories that particular phrase has been used to describe. The first verse of this song was written in a hotel room in Osaka, Japan while I was vacationing there in October of 2008. It came very quickly and I didn’t understand it all at once. It was more about how the words sounded together than what the words meant; that was secondary. The obvious influences on this were people like Craig Finn and Stephen Malkmus.
This was one of the first songs I wrote lyrics for. I then took this approach on a number of other tracks we were working on. Honestly, I wanted to come up with another line for the second half of the chorus instead of repeating the slasher film line twice, but I couldn’t find one that was of equal or greater value. No idea how that line came to be. It just popped into my head and it was the truth, thus it became law.
I admire that most of your lyrics, both past and present, have a major autobiographical component to them and are very honest. What’s it like expressing your life in song?
I don’t know any other way to do it. If you don’t at least start with something real, even if you exaggerate the shit out of it, the work becomes pointless. At least that’s how I feel. For me, it has always been about the words, and finding the right way to express your feelings and thoughts through them.
The lyrics also seem to have a tension between opposing pessimistic and optimistic worldviews, which I’m sure gives you plenty to write about. How are you able to coexist between the two, and then weave in pop culture references and quirky humor?
I feel that I tend to take myself too seriously. I don’t ever want to be that person. So to kill that particular part of my personality off, I tend to tell honest truths and make fun of myself with every opportunity. It’s sort of like therapy in a way. Once it’s out there, you can’t hide from it and you simply have to keep existing.
For some reason I have a vast knowledge of television commercials and useless pop culture knowledge from the ‘80s. For example, I remember coming home from school every day and making a makeshift milkshake with Nestlé’s Quick while watching Inspector Gadget. I used to sing the theme songs to the products I used while I made things with them: “Sweet dreams you can’t resist, N-E-S-T-L-E-S. Nestlé’s makes the very best…”
How has your writing style changed over the years, if at all?
I have no idea. I just try to do the best I can do under the circumstances in which I am doing it. New music, books, movies, life experiences come into play; and by new it could be things from decades before that I am now just discovering as well. Sometimes I make a conscious effort to attempt a specific thing, other times things just happen on their own. That last sentence sounds awful vague, but it’s the truth.
Is there anything specific that influenced “Skin and Bones” and “The Weakends?”
I had a lot to do with the writing of the guitar parts and organization of “Skin and Bones,” but less to do on “The Weakends.” We all write our own parts, but some of us come to the band with almost whole songs worked out. “Skin and Bones” was like that for me. “The Weakends” was the culmination of all of us in the studio, if I remember correctly.
As far as words go, “The Weakends” is definitely a positive/negative song. For me, it’s about procrastination, with a slivery thread of hopefulness tacked on the end. “Skin and Bones” is about coming to terms with accepting a doomed fate.
I was a film major in college, and appreciate and understand your similar passion. Have you done any film-related work recently?
Over the last six years I have made four short films (written & directed), directed a handful of music videos, acted (badly) in a few shorts and done some voice work. The most recent thing I’ve done was voice the character of Tommy in Matt Pizzolo’s Godkiller animated film. That was fun, but terrifying as I am not an actor. But he got a useable performance out of me, haha.
I am currently planning on releasing the short films I’ve made on a DVD in the near future. I may make one more to add to it before the end of this year. It is a long process when you have no money and everyone works for free or very little. There is hope of a feature one day, but that may be after my music career is over, as I gratefully have very little time to do much else.
If you had to equate My Dinosaur Life with a film, what would it be?
I can’t think of one that exists, but if there is one person who could do it justice, it would be Terry Gilliam.
What was the dance sequence in the “Her Words Destroyed My Planet” video like to do?
It was incredibly hard, as none of us are dancers. Could you tell? We had 24 hours to learn it and a total of eight takes to do it in. The kids were straight up genius, and we had a lot of fun working with them.
What is your biggest pet peeve about pop music/culture?
I don’t think I have pet peeves, but I do find the whole herd mentality of everything completely amusing. Some things make sense, but most of it is just random and baffling. What makes one brand of stocking better than another? Where did this musician come from and why are they so popular? Taste cannot be argued, and mine is quite ridiculous. I find it more fascinating than upsetting.
As a longtime MCS fan, I love how you’ve developed a great relationship with your fans. Being that this is your first official major label release, are you worried that might become diminished? Is huge mainstream success even something you’d like to have?
I’ve already achieved all the music goals I ever set out to do. In fact, I achieved that goal in 2004 when I headlined First Avenue in Minneapolis. So now I’m just along for the ride, however long it lasts, doing my best to write songs I believe in. Not much has changed with the move to Columbia other than there are a lot more people working with us, and I’m seeing a lot more of us on the Internet and in magazines and newspapers. But we’re still able to do what we do, and that’s all we’ve ever wanted.
Originally appeared on Mammoth Press