An Interview with Andrew McMahon, Lead Singer of Jack's MannequinBy James Beale
October 16, 2010
Andrew McMahon is a busy man. Lead singer, pianist and songwriter for the bands Something Corporate and solo project Jack's Mannequin. He also produced a documentary entitled "Dear Jack." Of course, the documentary wasn't made under the best of circumstances as it chronicled his leukemia treatments following 2005's "Everything In Transit;" Jack's Mannequin's first album. He is currently in remission. McMahon founded the Dear Jack Foundation for cancer research and will play a benefit show with both of his bands on Nov. 18.
On Oct. 14, Jack's Mannequin played at Burruss Hall after a summer touring with Something Corporate. Planet Blacksburg sat with him just before the show and asked about the next album, his progression as a songwriter and a recent shakeup with the lineup of Jack's Mannequin.
[Edited for content]
Planet Blacksburg: Is this your first time playing in Blacksburg?
Andrew McMahon: You know, well, it's hard to say. Maybe it's the first time Jack's did, but about six years ago we did the same gig with Something Corporate here at the school. So we've been here before.
PB: How do you like it? What do you think of the town?
AM: I haven't seen much of it, to be perfectly honest. We kinda got in last night and stayed in Roanoke by the airport and just came in this morning, but I mean, from the drive in it looks beautiful.
PB: Do you make any changes playing a college crowd? Do you make any changes in the setlist or your performance?
AM: Not generally, I mean, I tend to find that the college audience is pretty similar in certain respects to our regular audience. We just kinda try to play the tunes that people like, and go from there.
PB: Is your first show with Jack's Mannequin after playing with Something Corporate this summer?
AM: No, we actually did one more college show a couple weeks back. But yeah, it's the second.
PB: Is there any change, consciously or subconsciously, between playing with the two [bands]?
AM: Well, it's a totally different experience. You know what I mean? Obviously, I rock my same piano stylin', and I have my thing that I do, but yeah, from one band to the next it's definitely a difference stage experience for sure.
PB: During to the summer tour with Something Corporate, did you notice any thematic difference in the songs between Something Corporate and Jack's Mannequin?
AM: Yeah, aside from the fact that some of those were written when I was pretty young, in that sense, thematically speaking, the tunes are just from a different time. Obviously Jack's, in that sense, the themes are a little more personal because at least when we started when it was kinda my solo project and kinda a solo vehicle, so lyrically speaking, it's a little more specific than some of the early Something Corporate stuff.
PB: Do you look back at some of the early lyrical content negatively?
AM: No, not at all. I mean, you'll have your moments when there will be a song or two where it's like, "Wow, I really wrote that," but when you're writing songs when you're 16, 17 years old, and you're talking about things that are relevant when you're 16 or 17. Actually, truthfully, going back and replaying the tunes, it was kinda a neat experiment to play them after having so much time away from them to revisit it and to see how they've matured and evolved. Some of the themes and things like that actually still feel relevant and they take on a little bit of a different life.
PB: So, after playing the summer tour and now going right into recording the next album with Jack's - will that make any difference?
AM: Yeah, you know, I internalize everything. I can't say I could point to a specific [way] how it will affect the songs or how being out with the band again did affect the songs. In some sense, how I'm approaching recording the record is more similar to what we did back in the Something Corporate days. At least for the last two Jack's records, I basically built everything with speakers. I would go and play the piano and then do a vocal and then kinda build the song around it, whereas with these tunes we've been sorta holed up and doing band practice and learning how to play live before we go in to do the studio recording. So I guess in a sense I took that from the tour as well.
PB: A critic said that for "Everything In Transit," you were writing "just for fun," while in "The Glass Passenger," you were writing with a purpose. Do you agree with that?
AM: Uh...no, I wouldn't necessarily think so [laughs]. I mean, with Transit, in some senses it was a little bit more happenstance. I would just kinda write the songs and then go in studio and whoever could record and however we could get musicians on. It was definitely a different experience, the way it unfolded. I think with Passenger, a lot of that record, in a way, became a very difficult...it was a very difficult record for me. Transit was definitely the easiest record I've made in a certain sense...well, the living of it was pretty difficult, but yeah, it sort of flowed, but with Passenger, I think just because of the complexities surrounding that particular period of time, it was a different bear, for sure.
PB: How far through are you for work on the next album? Is there a tenative date?
AM: We've got about six tunes basic tracked that still have work. My goal is to have it done by the end of December. Every time I say that...[he knocks on wood], but yeah, that's the goal, if it goes according to plan, then for the release, I'd think some time in spring or summer.
PB: I was wondering what the recording environment is like. On your website you said you like to get out and "recharge," so are the sessions stressful at all?
AM: Well, I wouldn't say stressful. Particularly right now, we're having a lot of fun doing the record right now. I kinda stopped - I essentially recorded most of an album already, and kinda canned it, and said I'll approach this differently, and try it in a different way, and that's kinda what we're in now. It's actually been really kinda pleasant. We've been out in the desert, in this amazing little house by Joshua Tree National Park [in California], and it's been a pretty good vibe. With that said, after five or six days of that, taking a minute to breathe and collect yourself and to take stock is always important for sure.
PB: Like you said, The Glass Passenger, was a difficult time in your life and seemed, to me at least, to focus a lot on your leukemia diagnosis. Will this next album have a similar type of focus?
AM: No, I think the record that we're making now isn't as conflicted in that same sense. You know what I mean? Passenger, in a way, I was trying to avoid writing a lot of that stuff. And I ultimately had to. But with this record, it focuses on themes of love, and on the complexities of love, and I think that's the heart and soul of what's been written for this record. So, yeah, it's definitely different. You'll hear elements of what I've gone through for sure, but it's definitely not the focus of this particular record by any means.
PB: The benefit concert for the Dear Jack Foundation, how did that come about?
AM: You know, we were basically just trying to get to a place where we had an annual event where we could generate a pretty good amount of dough. I've been going out, every other year or so doing a tour where we give the proceeds back. The fact that we're all at home in Los Angeles and don't have to travel, It's easy to get local crew guys and stuff like that so the expenses go way down, versus a tour, and we'll be able to have stuff like a silent auction, you know, all the kinda extras that go along with it. But we just thought it would be a good time to have an annual benefit that we can churn some money out of.
PB: Going back to what we were talking about earlier, will playing both bands back-to-back be difficult for you?
AM: I think in the spirit of the event, I don't think it'll be a [problem.] What we're trying to accomplish with our statement isn't as much about either of the bands as it is about trying to generate money for the cause, and it'll probably be pretty celebratory, fun and relaxed, I'd assume.
PB: Also like you were saying, most of your songs are already autobiographical, and then the documentary Dear Jack puts a lot of yourself out there. Does that worry you at all?
AM: Yeah. Yeah. Absolutely, there's no question. You know, it's always been the kind of art form that I've pursued, the self-exposing kind of art form. Even in the Something Corporate days, there was a lot of honesty in those tracks. I think...I don't know if I would've chosen to do the documentary, you know, I wouldn't have made a conscious effort to make a documentary. But when we realized that all this footage existed, in a very much kind of journal/diary form, it occurred to us it was powerful enough and maybe important enough that that's why it ended up being recorded in the first place. But yeah, but it was a tricky, tricky time, willing to put that out and sort of reconciling that people would see so much of a window into what the world looked like to me.
PB: On your website, you announced your bassist, Dr. J, left the band. Can you talk about that process and how you'll continue?
AM: Obviously, to some extent, I'd prefer that's a part of our world, but yeah, ultimately, it gives him a chance to focus on his band and obviously, we're all still close. [Points out towards the stage] He's playing with us tonight. But yeah, as far as it affects the way Jack's moves forward, it doesn't really. I think we've got some new blood in the mix now, and we're really happy with Mike, and yeah, we're just going to just keep on piling through.
PB: Is [Dr. J's band, Kid is Qual] opening tonight?
AM: Yeah, Jon's opening up the ship.
PB: Are we going to hear any new songs on the setlist tonight?
AM: Not yet. Because we haven't gotten them placed, where it's like we put finished guitars and stuff on anything just yet, we're gonna take a minute, let them sort of simmer for a second, before we start bringing them out. But I'd imagine we'll start throwing in one or two later in this year.