In this recurring column, we discuss the back stories behind the creation of some of the scene’s most resonant songs with the people who made them. In this installment, Jason Pettigrew spoke with Motion City Soundtrack frontman Justin Pierre about the scene’s best neurotic pop song ever, “Everything Is Alright.”
Motion City Soundtrack’s second album, 2005’s Commit This To Memory, was an exercise in fizzing adrenaline, distilling the band’s love of caffeinated pop hooks, synthesizers and loud guitars into a blend that hinted at their forebears (read: Superchunk, Jawbox, the Rentals), but imbued with frontman Justin Pierre’s everydude persona. Not surprisingly, “Everything Is Alright” combined all of these elements into a gloriously neurotic, yet completely life-affirming pop song. If it were that easy, everyone else would’ve done it that way.
“It all kind of goes back to a screenwriting teacher I had in school,” Pierre explains. “Most people think it’s horrible advice, but it happened to hit me and it made sense. I kind of took it way too literal. Everybody in my screenwriting class—and this is in 1995, ’96 and everyone is trying to make Pulp Fiction II or Goodfellas II. The instructor told everybody to write what they know and that ‘You’re all idiots, you don’t know anything yet. How could you know how to write about this stuff if you can’t write about yourselves?’ He didn’t say it in those words, but then I started writing about people with asthma who couldn’t talk to girls. It wasn’t the most exciting screenplay, but it got me on a path to writing what I was familiar with. After a while, I could start branching out and start making stuff up.”
MOTION CITY SOUNDTRACK
“Everything Is Alright”
FROM: Commit This To Memory (Epitaph, 2005)
Is “Everything Is Alright” Motion City’s “Stairway To Heaven?”
I think so. It seems to be that [to] a lot of people who write messages to us and to me. I’ve been trying to attack an onset of social media sites responding to everyone who has ever written us a message of any kind. I finally caught up after about a year of working at it. A lot of the messages named that song in particular as helping them in some way. They heard the song and said having hardcore OCD [obsessive-compulsive disorder] or being bipolar or depressed or having someone’s parent die, they heard the song and it connected to them. To me, that is pretty profound; a lot of times I don’t know what to do with that information. I just wrote the song about me,and I don’t want to belittle any meaning it could have for anyone else. It was kind of… I don’t think the [phrase] “tongue-in-cheek” is correct, but it’s something where the verses are one thing and then the chorus is another, but it’s sort of like giving yourself a pep talk. That’s how I’ve always thought about it. Just the fact that nothing is all right. [Laughs.] You kind of have to look at yourself in the mirror and repeat the words to yourself until one day, eventually, you’re okay.
Is the chorus essentially you talking to yourself?
Yeah, I guess initially when I thought of it. It’s hard to remember. Given the onslaught of all of the things listed within the song, it was kind of me ranting. It’s so weird because [nearly] 10 years later, a lot of those things don’t bother me anymore. I think I was in the middle of some sort of weirdness that some people could label as OCD. I definitely have some social anxieties, and I guess I had a bunch of problems or things that just set me off or made me kind of fear and shrink away. I guess I utilized that in a song. I’ve been utilizing that in one form or another since that song.
So you do genuinely hate theme parks, flying, strangers, waiting in line…
At that time, yes. It’s kind of funny now singing it because I don’t think that I hate anything anymore. At least I try not to get bothered by things. At the time, it was the end of the world... I’m sorry, I forgot the original question. [Laughs.]
The ocean is still up for discussion. We were in Brazil and I made myself go into the ocean just because I thought, “I’ll never go into the ocean in Brazil again, probably.” I went in for about five minutes and it was really warm, but I was very scared of the possible organisms that lived there. The ocean for me is a scary place because of all the various ways one can die. [Laughs.] I can’t avoid flying. When the song was written, I was just starting to fly again and I think in order for me to do so, I had to take Xanax and pound lots of alcohol. It wasn’t a healthy way of flying. Eventually, I got over my fear of flying, but I did have miniature panic attacks every time we’d take off and land.
Then the OCD behavior of cleaning the oven and checking the tires. All that stuff sounds so random and arbitrary, which is why it sounds so slice-of-life.
Okay, so I don’t really clean a lot. My wife, luckily, is a cleaner and she power-cleans. I don’t understand that because when I’m going to clean something I clean it perfectly or just leave it alone and I don’t clean anything. That’s how I’ve learned to deal with that kind of stuff. This has turned into a weird therapy session and I’m realizing that maybe I should find a middle ground instead of just avoiding it.
Do you have any particular memories about the time in the studio recording the song?
My memory is really bad, so let’s start there. We typically would always seem to write whatever becomes our first single at the last minute. I believe we were in Los Angeles, and we had written most of the album when we first got there. The thing I remember most about “Everything Is Alright” was when I was out with a friend and [the band] were still recording. It was like one in the morning or something and I wanted to show off. They said, “We wanted to do something cool with the intro where the drums and guitar are really far away sounding and have you come in with the chorus, but not go into the full chorus.” I said, “Let’s just do it right now. Play it and I’ll sing it in the middle of the room with the mic in the back room picking me up.” We did it in one take and I was really proud. I just know that I liked how “in-the-moment” that was and how scary it was. I knew that if I didn’t nail it I would look like an idiot, but I came in real cocky. I think my friend was impressed a little bit.
The video is pretty great, too. Is the psychiatrist drawing a mushroom cloud on his notepad somebody we should know?
I don’t know who a lot of the actors were. I do remember that being a really fun experience. Both of the directors were super-cool. I do remember that the camera was really crazy. They had three cameras on one rig that the cinematographer was holding. It was on a Steadicam. One was focused straight on me and two were focused at angles. They somehow morphed them together in order to get the shots where I was walking down the hallway and my head was really strange. They built this entire brain wall with the lights, and it was a fake wall with books that had to fly away to reveal the band. It got ridiculously hot in there and there were so many takes. Stupid things happened and people fell over and got hurt, but there was usually a lot of laughter.
I haven’t thought about this in a very long time. Most of my stories about things mostly have nothing to do with what we’re talking about. We went to a bar after wrapping up shooting called the Bovine Sex Club in Toronto. I believe Chris [Grismer, director] right before [our video] had done the “Stars” video for Ageless Beauty and Chris [Mills] did Modest Mouse’s “Float On” video. They were talking about different things they had worked on and everybody was really into Lost at that moment. One of the Chris’ said he was bummed he had passed on Lost or that he didn’t get it or something. For some reason, I remember talking about Lost at this bar called the Bovine Sex Club, which had nothing to do with bovine meat or sex. It was weird. alt