It can be hard enough for start-up bands to make it these days; between plummeting album sales, soaring touring costs and fickle fans there are plenty of landmines set to derail your efforts. And it’s harder still when your frontman is diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia months before your debut album is released. But Andrew McMahon and Jack’s Mannequin have persevered through the tough times, and plan to release their third studio album later this year. As the Orange County four-piece gets set to hit the road with Guster and Augustana, we caught up with McMahon to talk about the upcoming album People and Things, explore the deep connection he feels with his fans and clear up all the confusion about what’s going on with Something Corporate.
OS: This new album has been pushed back a few times…
AM: [Laughs] What else is new?
OS: True, not the first time we’ve had to wait a bit for a Jack’s Mannequin album. [Laughs] So why the delay—have there been problems with the recording process, or are you just trying to get everything exactly right?
AM: There are no problems, only solutions, right? No truthfully, I guess you could file it into the “perfectionist” category. And just timing—there’s sort of a lot of moving parts over here. I think a huge part of what I like to do—especially when finishing a record, which I can see how it can be frustrating to fans—is that I tend to like to sit back and listen a little bit and make sure it ages well. So yeah, that was part of it. We definitely finished most of the record in like, December or January, I want to say. Then we mixed it and got to the place where we knew we were happy with the recordings but we weren’t quite there with the mixes, so I went in and did another couple weeks. Just sort of did some touching up, and actually did a little work with Rob Cavalla, who now runs Warner Brothers and produces a lot of great records. He came in and we did one song with Rob at the end of the record and just finished mixing. So it is mastered and done now, I can officially say. It sounds awesome and I’m stoked, and hopefully we’ll have a release date for you guys in the next couple weeks. I’m definitely crossing my fingers.
OS: The two songs we’ve heard from the new record so far—“My Racing Thoughts” and “Hey Hey Hey We’re All Gonna Die”— both sound like they have a very classic rock, Springsteen/Billy Joel vibe. What kind of music were you listening to as you as you wrote People and Things?
AM: You kind of nailed some of it on the head there. I think for me—I don’t know if I’d say the biggest influence on the record—but certainly a turning point in the record for me was watching Paul Simon play the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame concert last year. Or it could have been a couple years ago now, for all I know. But I made an early version of this record that was truthfully almost too modern, and too pop. These are both things that I love a lot, but I just sort of felt like I was in this moment where I’d been playing and touring for so many years, and I had gotten to a point where I play with a band who are excellent musicians, and we’re capable of doing so much more than what ends up coming across sometimes as kind of cheesy, overproduced pop. So for this record it was like, “Let’s strip it down further than we have before, and let’s make this super honest.” And I really did rely more heavily on my earlier influences, the stuff I was listening to when I was growing up… guys like Paul Simon, and Billy Joel, and Bruce Hornsby and Springsteen. I think that a lot of those earlier influences, for me, came bare in this record. Guys like Tom Petty and even guys like The Counting Crows. I think this record as a whole speaks more to where I came from and what I grew up listening to, maybe more so than what I listen to now I suppose.
OS: You’re a very autobiographical writer, and your struggle with leukemia was a pretty prevalent theme of The Glass Passenger. Did that affect this record as well?
AM: I think to say that it didn’t would be a lie. I think it affected me differently, and I think I certainly—where Passenger I think played out in a very toxic way in my life—I think this record was a lot more healing. And I think my overall demeanor and my head space when making this record was a lot more positive. Even the harder spots, it was really focused on “Okay, this is how we’re gonna do this in the healthiest way possible.” With Passenger, I was just in such a sort of fucked up head space as it related back to so many other things that had nothing to do with my music, that it affected everything. It affected the way I perceived what we were doing in the studio and in turn, the way that things came out. There were just land mines everywhere, you know? [Laughs] I think with this record, certainly I had a lot more space from the troubles of the past, and I think in that sense I was able to talk about things that were a little more relevant to me currently than the ideas of what I had gone through when I was sick. This was the first time that I really was able to talk about how some of what had gone on during Passenger ended up affecting my personal life and my relationship and my relationships with friends and people at home. I think in a lot of senses that’s what People and Things ends up being about. It’s kind of, “Okay, you got through this. That’s over. Now you’ve got to figure out who you are and where you are without all that stuff, without framing it against all those other dramas that are now done.” I think that’s where this record comes from.
OS: Because you chose to document your struggle with the disease on film and release a deeply personal record in The Glass Passenger, your fans seem to really feel a really intense, close connection with you. How does that affect your work with Jack’s Mannequin?
AM: I think it really gives me reason for pause when I’m making things, and especially when I’m finishing them. I certainly feel like I have a sense of obligation to these people who have made it possible to live my dream on a daily basis. It’s sort of a dangerous relationship, because I do feel intensely bonded to these people. I really do. It can be a scary thing, because as an artist the number one thing you have to operate with is abandon, to some extent. You have to be willing to throw everything out to do what’s right for that moment. Sometimes these thoughts of having to please people and keep people interested in what you’re doing and staying relevant—especially as you get older as an artist—they do creep in. So I try to strike a pretty delicate balance. I really try to focus all my attention with the fans when I’m at the shows and try to maintain that closeness when I’m at the gig, and then I do tend to come home and hole up, [Laughs] and not show my hand too early, just so I don’t let it affect what I create, I guess. That’s a big part of it.
OS: Jack’s Mannequin will be on tour with Guster later this summer… how do you feel about going on tour after recording so long? Do you prefer one over the other?
AM: Truthfully, that’s a question where on a different day I’d give you a different answer every time. I love both so much. Granted, being at home and being in the studio is easier in that you’re not traveling, you’re not away from the people you care about and all that. But being on the road… it’s invigorating. I do this because I have a nomad spirit and I like to be constantly moving. I think the highlight—or one of the things I always look forward to—is just that sense of constant motion. Every day is a new day. You wake up in a different city and you have an opportunity to do that day differently than the one before. So you didn’t have the best show the night before? You can erase that with the show that night. It’s a pretty good way to keep yourself focused on the moment at hand—to wake up in a different place every morning.
OS: And speaking of tours—you had the reunion tour with Something Corporate last year, and now there’s a lot of conflicting info out there regarding your plans to play together again or record some new material. What’s going on there?
AM: [Laughs] It’s funny, because I feel like I’m always really direct about where it is that I stand with Something Corporate. But because I like to leave the possibility open that we would do shows again at some point, I don’t say we’re broken up. And we never say we’re broken up because we’re all still really good friends, you know what I mean? I would feel weird saying we’re broken up and then get together and do a reunion tour and be like, “Now we’re back together.” I don’t think we’ll do records. I can say pretty confidently that I don’t think I’ll make another Something Corporate record…anytime soon, for sure, and who knows if ever. Something Corporate was a period of time in my life, and it was an amazing period of time, but it was still another period of time that’s not now. But I love those songs, and I love the fans that love those songs. I like to leave open the possibility that maybe in a few years we all do get a month off and we can go jump on the road together and do some shows. I love playing with those guys.
OS: You mentioned that Something Corporate was a certain period of time in your life, so what has it felt like to return to those songs from your past now that you’re in a different place?
AM: I mean, it’s certainly a different experience. You certainly have a different experience with the songs. But to that extent, the first Jack’s Mannequin record I wrote six-and-a-half years ago, you know? And I still play those songs. I think my goal every time I write a song is that it’s a song that when I’m done with it, in twenty years it’ll still mean something. I think that’s kind of the challenge of my every day—to write these songs that I’m gonna like enough in ten years when I’m playing on the road. Because I plan on being there. But actually when we went out I loved it. I had so much fun playing the old songs, and sort of feeling—in a weird way—that they still seemed relevant to me.
OS: With all the touring you’ve done between these bands, you must have some crazy tales from the road.
AM: Oh, God, yeah. [Laughs] Every day there’s another story. I could go into detail for hours, but you probably wouldn’t want the recorder going. There’s all sorts of stuff, for me to just pull one out even seems impossible. We’ve had days where we’ve almost been arrested, we’ve had to sneak out of snowstorms when we’re the only vehicle on the road, driving for sixteen hours at ten miles an hour…We’ve done all sorts of crazy shit. But that would take a lifetime, to tell you all that.
OS: One last thing: if you weren’t making a career out of your music, what do you think you’d be doing? Do you have some other hidden abilities that your fans don’t know about?
AM: You know, not really. I sort of found this thing I liked when I was about eight or nine years old, and I never stopped. It sort of didn’t help me develop other areas of interest that much. If I were a betting man, I truthfully could see myself in some sort of element of design or aesthetic, like architecture or some other sort of design in a larger scale. I love buildings and shapes and the way things get put together. I could see that being something I could really find interest in.
OS: Awesome. Well, it doesn’t look like you’ll have to go with plan B.
AM: Hopefully not! But you know whatever, maybe one of these days I’ll get old and go to school to become an architect. I doubt it, but we’ll see.
Check out Jack’s Mannequin on tour with Guster this summer, and don’t miss People and Things (when it finally does get released)!