Andrew McMahon discusses his latest record People and Things, viewing life from a day-to-day perspective, writing for Hollywood, and being caught in between the mainstream and indie.
So it seems like with the last couple records you’ve had a somewhat difficult time putting the finishing touches on them. I was wondering if you could talk a little about that and why you think it has become that way.
Well, look, I don’t know if I would call it difficult. I know finishing Passenger was difficult. This last one was sort of on course the whole time. Ultimately, scheduling stuff and things like that got in the way. People who we were working with were trying to get schedules to fall in line, which is tricky. I think it’s an interesting thing. When you make records in the major label world, it gets a little bit tricky.
Trying to get things done and done efficiently, at least I’ve found in my world, has been harder, especially when you consider the last few times I’ve put together records for Warner there were major, major overhauls in the ranks and in the staff. A lot of people got let go and a lot of people got hired. When you’re dealing with the business side of things and you’re trying to get things finished, it can be tricky. But that said, I think my goal moving from this point forward is to make it a little bit easier, try to write and record and get in and out as quickly as possible from here on out.
Do you have a harder time starting a record, or is it easier for you to get into that flow?
For me, the process of creation is a fluid thing. I don’t necessarily know when I start a record. There’s a whole thing I go through where I’ll usually start writing songs while I’m touring the last record. I’ll start writing when I’m on the road, or when I get home in between tours or whatnot. A lot of times I’ll begin recording those just as they come out.
What ends up becoming the ultimate start of the record tends to be when one of those songs takes shape and the path gets set out before you. I think that has also been tricky and taken me longer to get these last two records out. If you consider Transit, for instance, I took the better part of a year off to make that record. The last two records I’ve been working pretty consistently and I’ve been touring pretty constantly while I work on the albums. But, no, I don’t think it’s difficult to start one. The important thing is to always be writing and always be practicing your craft. Those things end up turning into records.
With this record, especially, it seems you wrote this one all over the country in different parts. I know you wrote some back east and you wrote some in Nashville with Thiessen. Does that affect how it all comes out with how spread out you were when you wrote it?
I think, for me, travel has always been a huge source of inspiration. That said, I’m lucky to get to do a lot of it these days. I think in the past I’ve tended to write primarily at home. This was a record where I found myself inspired by writing while I traveled, and not necessarily on tour with the band. I went out to Nashville and wrote with Matt for a couple days. The song “Amelia Jean” I wrote right at the end of a long road trip. I tend to find, and especially in the case of this record, that travel is a big source of inspiration.
I also believe this was the first major album you did with minimal help from Jim Wirt, who’s been your go-to producer in the past. What was that like working without his input for once?
It was an experience, and it was sort of the experience I signed up for. It’s easy to fall into patterns and do the same things over and over again. I think the beauty of my work with Jim was that I feel we reinvented ourselves every time for each new record. With that said, it was just a moment where I was like I might as well see what else is out there, and work with a couple of different producers and engineers and musicians, and experience that.
For me, it was a really positive experience. I can definitely see myself working with Jim Wirt again in the future because I picture ourselves as sort of a life-long collaboration. I certainly feel like I learned a lot and I experienced a lot of different things in the studio, a lot of different styles of production and recording, that I hadn’t really experienced in the several years that I had been working in other production areas. I think for sure I’ll be able to apply that back to whatever I do next and everything I do going forward.
One of the things that you’ve been saying that this record is about is relationships and love on a more day-to-day basis and how that changes as you get older. I was wondering if you could unpack that a little and talk about how that shows up on the record.
The reality of where I’m at in my life, I’ve been married for five years now, and I think I sort of found my stride on this record. I realized the songs I was connecting with the most were where it broke down love as I see it now. Sort of this idea of what love really is versus what the portrayal of love is in the mainstream media or what we perceive as love. There’s falling in love, breakups, and all these traumatic things and stops and starts. The point I was in, and a lot of my friends were in, was that moment where you go, “Wait a minute. I’m in the relationship I’m supposed to be in. Now I actually have to work and fight for it.”
For me, I’ve found in the past that has been a sticking point. That was something that worried me. How am I going to write songs when I’m in a solid relationship? You start asking yourself these questions, and I found that was one of the challenges on this record. I need to write about this. I think the greatest success of the record was being able to put this fear of what a real relationship does to art and embrace it and actually talk about it. I think it opened a lot of doors for me and in a lot of senses broke down some of that fear about how you approach art in a stable relationship. That is definitely a centerpiece of this record.
Why do you think that isn’t written about more in the mainstream media?
I don’t know. I just don’t think it’s as sexy. There’s something appealing about drama, period. If you really consider it, something that’s in good standing, or appears to be at least, is a lot less interesting than something that is brand new, or fresh or exciting and blowing up in your face, I guess. The mistake of being that broad about it is you miss the fact that day-to-day in these relationships, and I think that’s what most of us are living in, there is struggle and there is difficulty. There are things worth fighting for and worth talking about. You have to zero in on the minutia, which is a little bit trickier to do in a popular art form.
You originally wrote one of these songs for a TV show and one for a film. Is that something you had done previously?
I’ve done writing projects for movies and for TV before. I have a publisher and they’ll say, “Oh, this show’s looking for this. Do you have an interest?” Most of the time I’ll just say no because I’m busy, but in the case of the song “Casting Lines,” it was originally written as an opening for this show Parenthood. The call went out that there was going to be this Ron Howard production that was going to be on TV. I was like, “Oh, shit. I’ll take a stab at that.” I really loved the original movie that the series was based on. It was a favorite of mine growing up, the movie Parenthood. So I was like, “Let me try that.”
I’m sitting here, writing a record about the general relationships in life, and I think the idea that the relationship between a parent and a child, or just family members in general, is a deep one. That was something I bit off there. Then this other thing, which was “Restless Dream,” which is another favorite for me, was written for a movie. A lot of what this record was about was taking on the writing challenge and trying to write the best song at any term and for any reason. A lot of times those little assignments put a fire under my ass and get me writing under the gun, rather than very causally if I was just writing for myself.
You have a song “Platform Fire” that was influenced by the documentary Man on Wire. Have there been other songs where you’ve drawn inspiration from a similar source?
From film? I’m sure there are. Nothing’s jumping into my brain right as we speak. A lot of writings songs for me is finding sources of inspiration, whether it be a great movie that I’ve seen, or even another song, or something I encounter in my day-to-day. Certainly, I was really inspired by that guy’s story in this particular case. What an amazing documentary. If you get a chance, you should check it out. It’s pretty sweet.
Yeah, I saw it a while back. It was pretty cool. Now another thing I’ve noticed throughout these Jack’s records is you love mentioning these different girls in your songs. How do you come up with those names and are these all based on real people?
Not necessarily. To some extent, every song that I write is based in some sort of truth. A lot of times names are just the name that comes to me. There’s certainly people along the way that I’ve met that I end up naming songs after. Annie is my wife’s middle name. “Katie,” which is on the last EP, is my sister. There’s definitely truth in some of the names. Others are symbols, or represent ideals or something I’m trying to talk about.
For instance, on this record “Amy, I” was one of these things that just came to our brains when Matt and I were writing that song. In the case of “Amelia Jean,” that’s definitely a stand-in for my wife. There’s some thought put into it, but usually it’s just the first thing that comes out of my mouth and then I end up running with it, coming from more of a subconscious place, I would say.
There’s a couple lines on the album that I wanted to bring up real quick. The first one is off of “People Running,” which I think is one of the quirkiest lines you have had: “You take your girlfriend to a drug deal/ Fall in love and now she wears a diamond ring.” How the heck did you come up with that one?
I’ll never tell [laughs]. God, that might dig a little too deep. A lot of what that song is about is the general instances that illustrate the idea of how to some extent we wander around the world a little bit aimlessly. That line sums it up pretty good. But where it came from, I’ll never tell.
Then the other one I wanted to talk about is from “Restless Dream,” where you say, “It’s funny how the words we never say can turn into the only thoughts we know.” I thought that was really simple, yet really profound. Is there a specific place where that came from?
That’s pretty much my favorite line on the record. I don’t know. I think at the point when I was writing that song, the assignment for me was to write a song about a person that you can’t really pin down. Somebody you have a spark for, but ultimately that stays locked up in your brain and never gets articulated anywhere. Like you said, there’s something very simple about that line but rings really true, especially at that time when I was writing that song, which is not necessarily about a girl, per se.
I think we all have these sorts of thoughts. Whether you’re embarrassed to say them, or too scared or whatever, the longer you go without copping to those things that are rattling around in your brain, the more space they take up. For me, as it relates to a lot of things that I’ve been through the last several years, there was a moment in this record where there was a lot of stuff that was kind of pent up that I was trying to get out but was maybe a little too afraid to talk about. Actually writing that line was pretty huge in making progress towards the positive side of that.
I noticed on this last tour you were playing that song on the piano. Did you record a piano version?
It started as a version on the piano. That’s how it began, but ultimately the piano version I was playing was meant to be finger-picked by the guitar. Then I’m on this tour and I set out to do some different things, overall trying to challenge myself night to night, and one of them became “Restless Dream” at the piano. We sort of got to digging it and liking it and having the Allen Stone guys come out and sing it. But, yeah, it was written at the piano.
What do you think is the most complex song you’ve written from a musical, pianist standpoint?
Most complex song I’ve written as a pianist? It’d probably be “Caves” off the last record I’m guessing, and even that is not incredibly complex. It’s just a little more on the classical side than the other stuff I’ve done. That’s the one I’d put up there.
When you’re just messing around, do you write any instrumental stuff at all?
Not really. Sometimes when I’m writing a song I’ll take it on as an instrumental section as I figure out what words are and what words will be, etc. It’s funny. For me, I’ve always considered the piano and my voice as tools of songwriting and getting the words out. On some deeper level, I’m probably more of a writer than I even am a songwriter [laughs]. For me, the payoff of writing music ends up being able to air some of these errant thoughts that otherwise wouldn’t get pinned down.
On this record you had a couple older songs, like “Hey Hey Hey,” end up on it, and then you released some bonus tracks of older material. Is the Jack’s Mannequin vault now getting fairly empty or is there still more stuff stowed away?
There’s a few still hiding out. There’s stuff that I don’t even know about. I’ll open up a session just about any time I get a chance and put something down, whether I even finish, or get past the first couple lines, or a verse or a chorus or whatever. A lot of that represents the best of the catalogue that’s in the vault that we have.
There is a tune that we mixed that didn’t come out with this stuff called “Balloons.” It’s actually a favorite of mine from these bizarro sessions we did ahead of The Glass Passenger that also the song “Cell Phone” came from. That song “Out of It” that you hear on the Best Buy version is from that as well. So one day that will see the light of day, I’m sure. There’s a pretty good amount of the vault out there, though.
Another thing I’ve noticed throughout your career, and this goes back to Something Corporate as well, is you’ve always been stuck in between the mainstream and indie worlds. You’ve never really had a huge hit single or top 5 record, but you sell out shows, you have a dedicated fanbase and you can get on these big support tours. I’m assuming there’s pluses and minuses on both sides of that. How do you feel being in that middle ground?
There are days where it’s frustrating, and there are days where it feels like the greatest gift and the ultimate accomplishment. When you make things for a living, you want as many people to digest them on some level as possible. I’ve been very honest about the fact that every time I make a record my hope is the most people as humanly possible listen to. I think there’s just a reality of the music machine that exists that some people get in and some people don’t. Some people have to make success on their own terms. For whatever reason, I haven’t had a song really break at radio and I haven’t had something just blow up.
On the other hand, like you said, I’ve been really blessed. I have a loyal fanbase, people who still buy records in a market that doesn’t really buy records. I have the ability to write and record music for a living, and tour for a living and not have to have a day job. I think for me that’s really all I ever wanted, was to make a living at making music.
Hopefully as time rolls on, one of these songs will catch fire somewhere down the line, and then we’ll have a hit or something. The truth is, if I can do this the way I’m doing it right now until the day I die, I’ll be a happy guy. That to me is the biggest blessing. It’s certainly an interesting thing on the day-to-day to see where it is that I fall. I can’t make sense of it most days. I just feel lucky that I get to do it.
Usually when you’re doing press or promo shots or interviews for Jack’s Mannequin, you’re the only one focused on, or the other three guys are just in the background. Is that kind of stuff weird for you?
Yeah, I think most of the promo shots for this record I’m the only one in them [laughs]. I guess it’s about marketing and something to that effect. At least two of the guys in my band have been there for a long time. We definitely try and do pictures with everyone when it’s doable. I think the reality of Jack’s Mannequin, for me, has always been it started as and continues to be to some extent a solo project. Of course I value the dudes that I play with beyond anything that I can imagine. They’re amazing guys, but at the end of the day it’s still my vision that I’m trying to put into play. For whatever reason, that seems to be how it’s played out in the pictures that go out.
Originally appeared on Absolute Punk