There was a time, many moons ago, when Andrew McMahon was dancing through life as a teenage rockstar. A multi-talented multi-instrumentalist who began writing songs at age nine, McMahon co-founded an early incarnation of the Pop-Punk band Something Corporate while still in high school – and the rest is Rock-n-Roll history.
In 2004, he formed Jack’s Mannequin, and then, on the cusp of releasing the band’s 2005 debut, was diagnosed with leukemia at age 22. Eventually fully recovering, McMahon went on to release two more studio albums with Jack’s Mannequin, in addition to composing songs for the NBC series Smash (an endeavor that earned him an Emmy Award nomination in 2013) and establishing The Dear Jack Foundation, one of the first adolescent and young adult specific cancer foundations.
Now, older, wiser and under the guise of Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness, McMahon’s passion for all things musical remains his primary focus. On his latest, Upside Down Flowers, he explores a more minimalist soundscape while honing his already exceptional storytelling skills. Recently, McMahon sat down to discuss his approach to recording the album, channeling his inner-Billy Joel, finding middle ground, old friends in the trees, and much, much more.
Cryptic Rock – You have been touring and recording literally since you were a teenager. What did teenage Rock-stardom teach you?
Andrew McMahon – (Laughs) Try and find the sweet spot to take your breaks. As much as I love being on the road, it’s a way of life for me and I don’t see myself ever not doing it, but I tend to find that if you can allow a little bit of room to breathe – which is something that I’m constantly trying to teach myself to take – you find those creative moments and that inspiration when you’re able to recharge.
Cryptic Rock – Let’s talk Upside Down Flowers, which is a wonderful album. This is very much a storytelling record where there’s a kind of minimalism, musically speaking, to complement and highlight the stories that you are singing. What inspired that, and, when you sat down to write, where did you pull inspiration for the songs from?
Andrew McMahon – The beauty of this record and the way it came about, and how it was recorded, was that it was a pretty stream-lined workflow. I would write these songs, in one sense, very quickly. I’d spend a day just kind of hatching whatever the initial meat of the song was, and from there I would jump onto something else and then I would just sort of flow back and forth over the songs. When it came to the actual process of recording the songs, it was just me and Butch; it made it possible for me to play the song down on the piano and just sing it.
We would meet up in late morning in his studio in Santa Monica, and I would lay the song down and really have this story laid bare there. He would hear the words and hear the song in its purest form, and I think when it came to his initial sketch of the production – I would lay the music down and then, whether I would sneak home for the afternoon or just hang out and work on other stuff, and he would put the sketch together. I think he was being informed just by the basic piano/vocal performances; I think that allowed for the more lyrical moments even in the production. In “Teenage Rockstars,” there’s a nod to your friend playing guitar and there’s just this little finger-picked guitar line. Things like that were a lot easier to see, because we weren’t so wrapped up in all of the nuts and bolts of the process as much as we were in the words and the sentiment.
Cryptic Rock – What’s interesting is that, in 2018, so many artists are moving towards the opposite, and trying to cram as many extraneous sounds and layers into their music as possible. In effect, you did the opposite.
Andrew McMahon – (Laughs) Yeah, you know, for me, and maybe it’s to a fault at times, but I just don’t think that I’m ever really satisfied if I’m moving in the exact same direction as everybody else. I think there were some really beautiful moments over the course of the last couple of records, where the direction I was going lined up with the zeitgeist and we got some big songs on the radio and that was awesome. (Laughs) I think that those moments were super-inspired.
With this record, I just felt a little exhausted of that sound, exhausted of how it hit such a critical mass – that super-saturated, super-layered sort of Synthpop that, again, I love and I still listen to and I’m super into. I just felt like to do this justice, especially because of the way that I was writing it and the songs that were coming out, which, for me, I think even more so than the last couple of albums, were really rooted in storytelling and almost an Americana version of Folk songwriting.
It just didn’t feel authentic for me to hop into that dance party that I had become accustomed to and grown to love on the last couple of albums. I just try to let the production follow the songwriting and let those things kind of find their voice; it made me want to hear some acoustic guitars and hear some more natural drum sounds, and kind of get back to some of the Beach Boys’ melodies that had inspired me for such a chunk of my career.
Cryptic Rock – It works wonderfully. To be honest, there are some definite Billy Joel moments on this collection, which begs the question: Have you ever covered “Piano Man?”
Andrew McMahon – I mean, drunk in bars in the wee hours, for sure, it’s happened. (Laughs) Yeah, but never a version that I would want anybody to actually hear if I were sober enough to make the choice myself.
I think because I ended up getting these Billy Joel dates last year – where I got to play four shows with him – I think there was this sort of energy. I don’t know the best way to explain it other than to say that there was a re-invested energy in the catalog and what it had meant to me at such a young age. I grew up and he was like my songbook and my vibe as a kid, and really the first true idol that I ever had as a songwriter. Getting to share a stage with him and watch him play those songs that I grew up on, all sort of circled around that time that I sat down at the piano and started working on this album. I think there was a part of me that brought all of that back to the forefront of my musical thinking and my songwriting process; you hear more of his influence on this record than some of my others just because it became so relevant for me again.
Cryptic Rock – That makes perfect sense. In “Teenage Rockstars,” you discuss how, with fame, everyone loves to say that they knew you back when – which is a truth for so many accomplished musicians. What’s the craziest story you’ve heard about yourself from someone who clearly did not know you?
Andrew McMahon – (Laughs) Well, I don’t know if this totally answers the question, but it’s certainly one of my favorite stories about being at a show these days and performing. I don’t remember – we were opening for somebody or something – and I overheard a kid in the audience say something to the effect of, “Did you hear them cover ‘Dark Blue’ by Jack’s Mannequin? The original version is so much better!” (Laughs) I remember just dying laughing and going, “Oh my god!” They have no idea that it’s not only the same guy, but three-fourths of the same band who were performing it.
Yeah, you just hear all sorts of stuff – you always have to take that stuff with a grain of salt. Nostalgia is kind of a bitch! (Laughs) It’s also why I prefer to just keep pressing forward and trying to make new, relevant music, and play in the space where my contemporaries are – people who have been making music for years and people who are just becoming discovered. If you continue to play towards nostalgia, the reality is people will just keep dropping off. It may enrich you if you’re going to go and do ten-year anniversary tours or things like that, but eventually everybody’s going to get older and stop going to concerts. (Laughs) If you really are an artist, the only real way forward is to create new things that are inspired and work every day to stay in that space and stay inspired and not get cynical.
The thing is, I love playing those songs! I would go insane if people didn’t care about the music that I was writing now, and if I weren’t making new fans with the music I was creating right now. I think that is the bigger thing for me. I don’t think I’ve ever felt like there’s an end point to this thing for me. It’s easier to roll over and say, “Okay, we had our good day.” (Laughs) But I just wouldn’t be satisfied with that.
Cryptic Rock – On “Blue Vacation,” you imply that the answer to all of the chaos in the world right now is to tap out, move to an island and just live the good life. It’s hardly a political song, and yet, there’s a gentle suggestion embedded in the lyrics about middle ground. Do you believe that there are merits to being a kind of human Switzerland in times like these?
Andrew McMahon – (Laughs) Don’t you agree? Look, I think the truth lies somewhere in between. I feel like everybody is running around like chickens with their heads cut off at the moment, and so encamped in their side – and that’s easy to do. When I’m in my own private world or with my close friends, we have much deeper conversations about our opinions on these things. The thing that I’ve noticed is that by taking a little bit more of a, I don’t even want to say a moderated stance but one that’s almost a completely alternative stance which is, “Hey! Maybe we should try a little bit more peace and a little bit more love, and more positivity.” Let that be our approach for a second and put these wedge issues to the side, and talk about what’s going on in our town, in our community, and what does it mean to be a good person; rather than, “What do you think about this particular issue?” I’ve sort of found that those things, to me, are the things that open people up a little bit more.
It’s tough! You have the other side where people are like, “If you don’t take a stance right now, the whole world is going to fall apart!” I guess I just look at where people are taking their stands – for instance, social media. There’s nothing productive taking place on social media! Maybe there’s information going out there, but there’s no real conversation taking place on social media. I regularly end up looking at people’s comment threads when they post their vitriolic, hyperbolic statements. The best place that we can have these conversations is being a little bit more even-handed and having them with people who have differing opinions – and do it with less anger and more of a sense of empathy.
But in that particular song, my whole thing was just, shit, I don’t want to pick a side right now, I just want to disappear. (Laughs) There are those days where, I know what side I stand on in a certain sense, but I also feel like people are missing the point of actual human interaction versus this “Hey, I’m going to write something really nasty for the next five minutes and then disappear in a corner, and then author my response once I’ve had thirty minutes to really ruminate on how I’m seeing this person,” rather than actually talk to them.
I live in a town where my politics differ largely from a lot of people who are around me and live near me. (Laughs) I have dinners with those neighbors all the time and we have great conversations. You tend to find out, more often than not, that the things that are supposed to typify what side of the aisle you are on aren’t actually the things that are the most important to most people who put themselves in those camps. I just wish we could focus on the more practical aspects of our politics rather than these intentional, divisive topics.
Cryptic Rock – To get back to more specifics of the album, do you have a personal favorite lyric from the album?
Andrew McMahon – There’s a handful. There’s a lyric in “Goodnight, Rock and Roll,” which is: “You can try to get to heaven, I try not letting heaven get me down.” (Laughs) That is just my credo, to some extent. I think that one has always stuck with me. There’s also some storytelling lyrics on “Paper Rain” that I love: “The valley flows where the neon soars like a hand to heaven.” I love those words! [On “House in the Trees”] that bit about “Back when we were kids and my father got sick, we would hang out on the weekends” – I remember bawling my eyes out when I wrote those words. I love that song!
Cryptic Rock – “House in the Trees” is really one of those songs for people our age who have started to think back on past friendships and people who drifted away who will always hold that special place in our hearts.
Andrew McMahon – Totally. It was interesting because I found things cropping up a little bit more often. The two people I wrote about in that song, I had talked to both of them in a short window of time. They were both like “It was really great to reconnect,” and it made me feel like, oh my gosh, these used to be people that were in my life every day, all day long. It’s funny because the song has a melancholy to it, but I really do think it’s about celebrating those friendships and not having judgment for the fact that you grow up, things change, and that’s okay. You make new friends but there are those friends that, no matter where they go, they are always going to have this permanent place in your heart and in your head.
Cryptic Rock – That would truly be a wonderful song for a single.
Andrew McMahon – (Laughs) Hey, we’ll put one vote in for “House in the Trees!” Fans have certainly rallied on that one, so I’m glad to see that such a sentimental, very personal tune has connected in such a way.
Cryptic Rock – Okay, last question. At Cryptic Rock, we cover music as well as films, particularly Horror and Science Fiction. Are you a fan of either genre and, if so, do you have any favorite Horror/Sci-Fi films?
Andrew McMahon – (Laughs) Here’s the thing: I am originally a Horror fan, but my wife will not watch Horror films and she is my movie date, so. Science Fiction is admittedly not my top choice, I’m more of a jokey Comedy guy. The one Horror movie that I could actually get her to go see was Get Out (2017) and I will say that, not that I am saying anything you haven’t heard eight-million times, but we were both blown away by that film.