Thursday, October 30, 2008
Jack's Mannequin interview
Photo: Keaton Andrew. Jack's Mannequin performs on Nov. 3 at House of Blues in Anaheim.
By George A. Paul
Andrew McMahon has no problem baring his soul in song, but fans shouldn’t assume they have the leader of Jack’s Mannequin all figured out.
“It’s not so much about revelation,” admits the singer/pianist, in a phone interview. “If you know my music, you know a lot about me - but not [everything]. In recent years, with what I’ve gone through and the way that’s been presented to people, I think there is very idealized version of me, Frankly, it’s only a small portion of who I am.”
McMahon was diagnosed with leukemia in 2005, a few months before Everything in Transit – his first release since leaving Something Corporate – was released. He endured chemotherapy, contracted pneumonia and underwent a bone marrow transplant. After going into remission and making a full recovering, the musician and his band made up for lost time. They toured with a vengeance in ’06. Both “Dark Blue” and “The Mixed Tape” received college and modern rock radio airplay, while the exceptional alt-pop album moved 250,000 copies.
Transit was often referred to as a concept album – something McMahon shied away from. “At first, I started going that direction when I was finishing it up. Then My Chem and Green Day put out concept records. To me, it almost became this mildly cliché idea. I treated it more like a storybook. It was very specific.”
Amid steady roadwork, songs for the stellar follow up The Glass Passenger gradually started to emerge. “There’s definitely a theme that is present throughout…it’s about trying to climb over the hurdles of the day and get on the other side of a heavy situation.”
Once again, McMahon co-produced with Jim Wirt (Alien Ant Farm, Live), who’s been at the studio helm since his Something Corporate days. “In a lot of ways, this was my most ambitious record…we took the idea of orchestral arrangements a little further. I really found myself having a lot of fun with the organ, synth and keyboard aspects.”
Indeed, the intense rocker “Bloodshot” features a brief synth solo a la early Rush and the dense sonic bed of “Annie Use Your Telescope” floats into the stratosphere. Utilizing nearly a dozen musicians at times (the sunny “American Love,” a syncopated “Crashin’”), McMahon learned to value collaboration and filter constructive feedback.
“We refined a new dynamic in the studio. I was working with the most people I ever had [before]. There were a lot of opinions.”
Among the most compelling tracks is “Swim,” a gorgeous, waltz-styled number with programming and an emotionally-charged vocal delivery.
You’ve gotta swim/Swim for your life/Swim for the music that saves you when you’re not so sure you’ll survive/You’ve gotta swim/And swim when it hurts/The whole world is watching/You haven’t come this far to fall off the Earth
“The tough thing about writing in that particular period,” recalls McMahon, “was people assumed because I had survived this huge ordeal and was now back at it that all the sudden things were peachy…this record and the whole process was one of the more difficult times in my life. I was forced to relive the past and a lot of situations.”
Music served as therapy, even when the creative muse temporarily shut down. “All the sudden, a song like ‘Swim’ would come out at the darkest moment” and he realized how much it was needed. “I hope people use it as a way to get through a tough day. It really saved my life. Playing it felt so real and so right. It was one of the broadest things I’ve ever written.” Initially, McMahon questioned whether fans would think “I’m pandering or trying to be universal,” then realized “I can’t think about things like that. I’m experiencing something real here.”
Diehard followers can get a firsthand glimpse during the current small club tour. McMahon says Jack’s Mannequin will do the album front to back on several dates.
“It’s going to be a chance for us to really dig in and communicate these songs…the best thing to do is put it in rooms where the people there are the ones who cared enough about the band to get on the phone that first day and get tickets - the hope being that we still have a lot of fans out there,” says McMahon with a laugh. “I want the audience to have a chance to hear these songs intimately.”
Talking with Andrew is like conversing with your best friend. He is so passionate about music. Here are additional excerpts from our phone interview at his rehearsal space in Burbank...
Q: You did the video for “The Resolution,” the first single from "The Glass Passenger," with director Stephanie Meyer.
A: Stephanie and the co-director were awesome...it was a really cool experience. The theme of the video is this idea of the tide kind of eternally rising. Essentially, I go through various shots, moving on from one location to the next, trying to get further inland, uphill from the tides…finally I take a plunge at the end and that’s where the mermaid comes into play. It’s not exactly “Splash.”
Q: Apparently Stephanie is a fan of your music. Were you into her vampire novels?
A: It’s funny. I had heard about her interest in our music from a friend of mine. Justin from Blue October had a similar story. She used music to help define and write her characters. I’d heard through mutual friends who really love her books that I appeared on some of her web sites. When we tried to find people to write treatments for the video and brainstormed, all the sudden it was like, ‘let’s think out of the box. Are there people we’re not thinking about?’ I’d been hearing stories about this woman who sold a gazillion books and has a huge following and I’ve heard she likes the band. ‘Let’s reach out to her.’ Of course promptly after that, I started digging into “Twilight,” the first of her novels. I’m almost finished with her first book right now. I didn’t want to go into it not knowing what she was about and where she came from.
Q: You toured with Paramore over the summer. Were their fans receptive to your music?
A: Yeah. It was great actually. I can’t think of a show that didn’t go well. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that being on the road at that moment, when we were really anxious to go home, learn the new material and get ready for another tour [wasn't hard]. There were elements of ‘oh my gosh, should we really be here right now? We’ve got so much to do.’ It was just one of those things. The material we were playing we knew so intimately, it ended being a lot of fun. It was one of those tours where we could really cut loose, have fun and change up the set list from night to night. I did enjoy being out there. Hayley and the dudes were a great time. There was a lot of jumping onstage with everyone else’s bands throughout the tour. We became really good friends with the dudes in Phantom Planet and Paper Route. It was good tour camaraderie.
Q: When you’re being autobiographical in your lyrics, do you ever get to a point where you think, ‘maybe I’m revealing too much of myself?’
A: I hope through my albums I’ve said some pretty bold things that aren’t really the stuff of heroes and not necessarily the stuff of idol worship, but the stuff of real living. For me, what I’ve always tried to do is present the real side of life.
Q: On the deluxe version of the new album, there’s a short film included on the DVD. What is it about?
A: It was an on-the-fly thing that me and the photographer for the record who did all these great pictures, James Michen, worked up. We went out in the middle of the California desert in this amazing old Oldsmobile station wagon. I said, ‘it doesn’t have to be a specific story.’ We were doing this for two days while we were out there. I ended up writing this narrative which is ultimately the story of how I ended up on the piano for the first time. The way it’s revealed is in an artful, hopefully Leonard Cohen way. The delivery is intentionally more poetic that just telling a story. And it lines up with this drive through the middle of the desert these guys shot. It’s not meant to be blown up into something huge. We thought it would be a fun part of the record. We had great visuals.
Q: Last year, I really enjoyed your cover of John Lennon’s “God” from the ‘Instant Karma’ tribute CD. What was it like having Mick Fleetwood play drums on it and how did it come about?
A: (pauses) Yeah. I’m speechless even thinking about it right now. It was amazing to be asked to do a Lennon cover that’s actually sanctioned by Yoko Ono and to have it be one of my favorite John Lennon songs across the board, Beatles or non-Beatles. In some respects, I really related to some of the disillusioned elements that he communicates throughout that track. When it came through that I could do it, I just freaked out. Then the suggestion came to collaborate with somebody. We listened to the track to see what made sense. My manager handles Mick Fleetwood. I’m not sure who brought up having Mick play the drums...He was amazing in the sense that he’s a great drummer, but also in that he was a really great human being. He came into a scenario where people were a little on edge, like ‘what’s it going to be like having this legend come in and play the drums?’ He came in and was so engaged in the recording process from start to finish. He came back though twice. When he left that day after his part was done, he walked to his car and 10 minutes later, he’s back in the room with another idea...Meanwhile, he’s telling us stories about being in Fleetwood Mac. We’re like, ‘that’s Stevie Nicks he’s talking about.’ But ultimately, what I took from it was ‘here’s a dude who obviously reached the top of the mountain and never left it and he shows up in the studio with a bunch of young guys to cover a John Lennon track and enjoyed himself. You could tell he loved being there and was so engaged and so into the process. For me, to actually get to make music with a guy that’s made some of my favorite songs ever, it doesn’t get any better. I’ve been really blessed in the past few years to get to meet and see and interact with some legendary performers that have inspired me.