On Oct. 4, Jack’s Mannequin are releasing their third album, People And Things. (Pre-order the album here.) Although frontman Andrew McMahon is in a good headspace these days, the album-recording-process wasn’t without its bumps: In June 2010, McMahon actually scrapped the music he had been working on and started over. In early August, McMahon chatted with AP about this and other topics—such as how People And Things was influenced by both the Something Corporate reboot and writing sessions with pals such as Relient K’s Matt Thiessen. You can find some of AP's interview below--and the rest in issue #280, which is in stores Oct. 1.
INTERVIEW: Annie Zaleski
People And Things comes three years after The Glass Passenger, which in turn came three years after Everything In Transit. I’m guessing this three-year gap was a bit less turbulent.
Yeah, it was definitely a lot less turbulent. It was a process, though—I would be lying [if I said] it wasn’t a lot of work. It was the first time I had ever actually recorded a good amount of songs with the intention of putting them out and kind of scrapped it and started over. That was kind of new for me. But it was a fun process; we worked hard, we worked a lot, there was a lot of songs written, a lot of recording. But at the end of the day, it was a lot less tumultuous than Passenger.
That’s daunting, scrapping everything and starting over. Why did you decide to do that?
Because it wasn’t right. At the point I decided to do it, it was actually a lot more empowering than daunting. I had gone through this whole process of recording a bunch of songs, and I really loved a lot of the songs…It was an experiment. I was at a place where for the first time, I wasn’t working with Jim Wirt, and we had done all of our records together. I think it was kind of to be expected that there might be some false starts, just because I was a little bit out of my element. [But] that was what I really wanted—I wanted this record to be a little bit out of my element. I’ve been recording in a similar scenario for almost 10 years, and it was like, “Let’s try to and do something different.” It wasn’t like I had been in the studio for a year recording. It was kind of on and off throughout the touring of Passenger—I would sneak in, do a song here, do a song there.
And the songs were good, but [when they] started coming together, it just felt—they didn’t feel like me or something. I don’t know how else to explain it. So I went on a little sojourn across the country from East to West this time, and while I was out there, I made the realization that it’s okay to start over. I came to the conclusion, “We’re a pretty good band. Let’s get everybody into the room together, and we’ll learn these songs like I used to back in the day when I was in high school in band practice.” So, we did that.
I came home right around the beginning of July from that trip, and I sat down with the guys at a little bar in Silverlake and said, “Hey, what do you think about going out, renting a place and kind of digging into these tunes together?” And they said, “Yeah, let’s do it.” So that kind of starting the clock ticking around. Then we went out, did some dates—I think in September or so we got into the studio and [we] got into a house out in the desert and we started learning the songs.
What was the biggest difference making an album with your Jack’s bandmates as opposed to working in the studio with Something Corporate?
To some extent, the early Jack’s records were kind of an extension of the Something Corporate process. Also,, this process was sort of a marriage of both processes. With the Jack stuff, I would go in, play the piano and sing, and then we’d build the track around that. With the Something Corporate stuff, we would learn the songs, but ultimately we would go in and record similarly; we did the drums first and break everything down. We never really tracked live with Something Corporate. But we did do the band practice element, which was similar to what we did on this one. We kind of went one step further with this record—we were down to a three-man band, so Bobby [Anderson] played bass for most of the live tracking. We would just spend a day on a song, track live—bass, piano and drums—and then kind of do the overdubs after that. So, it was a lot different. It was different not only from Something Corporate recording, but different from Jack’s recordings too. It was kind of a whole new thing.
This will be what, my fifth record? [Laughs.] Fifth full-length, at least. You can do things the same and repeat yourself, or you can try and grow and stretch and become a better musician, and learn how to self-edit and arrange yourself in a practice environment. I thought, “This was the time to do it.” We had been playing together as a band for longer than Something Corporate had played together, on the road at least. In that sense, it was like, “Okay, this is a good time to run this experiment.” And it was a lot of fun.
When I first listened to the record, it was surprising to me that the piano isn’t in the forefront of a lot of the songs. When in the recording process did you realize that in some of these songs, you were going to minimize that?
Well, you know—it was sort of, not to say my intention from the beginning, but I think a lot of what I wanted to do on this record was approach it from a production standpoint and not from a “me, me, me” standpoint. I wanted to make a sound that felt authentic, real and that was really true to each song. And I think I sort of found on these songs that the piano, while it plays a huge role, doesn’t always have to be this big. I kind of wanted to experiment with digging deeper into some of the other instrumentation and building songs from that perspective, rather than from the perspective of, “Hey I’m the piano-playing lead singer.”
You get pigeonholed into that. That’s the easy journalism hook, you know?
There’s that element—and frankly, [when I started] doing this, there weren’t a lot of people doing it. There are a lot more people doing it now, and some of that doesn’t sound exciting to me anymore. I wanted to try again and explore in a little bit more of an egalitarian way what the band sounds like and “what’s the right arrangement for this section,” not “what’s the right arrangement for my ego.”
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And that [realization] comes with age and maturity.
Whatever it is, it was definitely…It was a challenge. It’s a lot harder to play less. And that’s kind of a lesson I feel like we all learned in the band on this round. When you’re doing things in band practice and then you’re recording your band practice and listening back, you start to realize, like, “Why am I filling up that hole?” Letting the music breathe and keeping your arrangement wide open feels so good. I think in that sense, we really focused more on the vocal almost than anything. It was really about what arrangement propped up the lyrics.
I wrote down “Hostage” in my notes as one of the songs that I think is the most adult song you’ve ever written. [Laughs.] The voice especially on that one, it’s just like, “Wow, kids are really going to notice a difference.” It’s so—I hate using the word “mature,” because it makes it sound so boring, but that stood out to me. The song reminded me of Bruce Hornsby—and that’s not a bad thing at all.
There’s definitely a little nod to Hornsby in that one. When I first started playing piano, Hornsby was huge. I think I was like, nine, and those tunes were coming out on the radio. That’s kind of what I was listening to, or one of the things I was listening to [then]. And I don’t know how it happened, or why it happened, but somewhere along the way, a lot of these influences that had been a huge part of my upbringing started manifesting themselves within the songs and within the arrangements. I can only attribute that to [how] we were approaching the recording process very similarly to how guys in that era of recording would have. I think some of those classic influences just started coming to light with the people I had around me in the studio. But there certainly was a moment part way through the record where I was like, “Wow, this kind of reminds me of a lot of these records that I spent so much time dissecting and internalizing as a kid.”
I can see that. The riff of “Television” reminds me of U2, and “Release Me” is so ‘80s power-pop rock radio. It’s like Foreigner or something.
I’ve heard that before. That’s the thing: I think there was a freedom to experiment and express ourselves differently than I had in the past, because it was really about this congealing of a sound and a band rather than micromanaging every note on a record. So in I think in that sense we’ve—I hope at least—a lot of the stuff came across as a classic sound.
You were co-writing some songs with Matt [Thiessen] from Relient K. Which of those made the record?
It’s “Platform Fire,” “People, Running” and “Amy, I.”
It’s such an interesting shift these days: So many fans are almost upset when their favorite artists use co-writers. Like, it’s not the same as it coming from their brain. Is that something you were worried or concerned about?
Well, I think I kind of held that opinion for a lot of years myself. Not necessarily of other artists, but of my own art. I thought, “Well, if I’m exploring this territory with another human being, then it’s not 100 percent me.” Again, as you get older and write lots of songs, and you record lots of music, it’s very easy to become stagnant. It’s very easy to not push forward and think differently and stretch yourself, and that was really the name of the game on this record. I had named the record before most of these songs were written, and I was like, “This record is about a universal perspective on this moment in my life, and my friends and the people around me.” And I started writing music with other people before I started working on this record. I had done a track with Will [Beckett] from The Academy Is… That was one of the first things I had ever written with anybody else. And I loved it.
And then I have these friends of mine who were working on records, and they would ask me to come in and co-write with them. I found it to be such a stimulating process. I don’t really know how else to explain it. It’s just the idea of, “You can sit in your room and beat your head against the wall and work on a song,” which, of course, I did on the majority of this record. But you can also have this other experience, which is so beautiful, where you’re in a room with somebody you’re close with and you have a conversation about something real. It’s not like I called Diane Warren or Kara DioGuardi to write a song on the record. You know what I mean? These were guys who I had kind of come up with who were friends, who are in similar places in their lives. We got together and as friends had conversations about serious topics and wrote about them.
If somebody has a problem with that, then that’s completely their right to do so, but for me I think it really pushed my songwriting. I think if you listen to those songs, they’re some of the better songs on the record. I think they are, because there was a spirit and an energy and a vibe. My wife walked by when Matt and I were writing “Platform Fire,” and we were downstairs in my house in L.A. We sat down for dinner afterwards, and she was like, “It was awesome to hear you guys, because you sounded like a couple of kids playing when they’re five years old playing with their trucks in the living room or something.” We were giddy, we had a blast.
I think a lot of times the co-writes are imposed upon people, it’s more like, “You need to write a hit single.” What you’re describing is just more like pals hanging out, bouncing ideas off each other like a brainstorming session.
People who know me—and the fans who know me well—they know that I try and build a spirit of brotherhood when we’re on the road at all humanly possible. I try to take bands out with me that I believe in and that I want to succeed, and I try and open up for bands that feel the same way about my band. I don’t like to be on tours where it’s not a friendly environment, and I don’t like to be in a studio when it’s not that. So, I think for a record called People And Things, to kind of get some other perspective and build that into what I’m doing, is great. Granted, most of the songs that were co-written on this record, which was four of them, they came from ideas that were spawned in my head and then developed in conversations with other friends. It’s not like we went in and were like, “Okay, well we could be sending this song over to a Swedish pop band.” [Laughs.] It was less about singles and more about, “How do we dig deeper and become better songwriters?” You know, I really cherish the experience and probably will do a lot more of it. alt