Interview: Andrew McMahon of Jack’s Mannequin
By Tyler Sivero
I recently had the chance to speak with Andrew McMahon of Jack’s Mannequin about the band’s new album People and Things. Andrew McMahon was raised in Orange County, California and formed Jack’s Mannequin as a side project from his high school band Something Corporate. He has worked as a solo artist and has an incredible amount of musical talent. Andrew not only was diagnosed with cancer right before the tour of Jack’s Mannequin’s first album, but he also survived it and continued to write music. A few years ago USD showed his movie Dear Jack that shows his battle from his view.
Now in their seventh year, Jack’s Mannequin released a third album about a month ago. As mentioned earlier, the first album was intended as a solo project by Andrew but turned into a three album series after his unexpected battle with cancer. I was able to ask Andrew about his battle and how it affects his writing as well as what it means being from Southern California himself.
Tyler Sivero: How did making the new album People and Things feel different than your others?
Andrew McMahon: In a way it was approached almost as a hybrid as the processes of Everything in Transit and The Glass Passenger (previous two albums). With Transit there was a freeness to the recording process that was something I’ve always looked to recreate. Passenger was tricky because there was a lot of things going on behind the scenes. For one, I was recovering and then two there was major restructuring at the record company. That definitely made that record hard to create, period. With this album my goal was really to have a good time and to keep it feeling free, creative and inspired at every step of the way. I think in that sense I tried to approach it in a way that would make it possible to keep it fun, free and inspired. With this record the biggest difference and approach would have to be the way we recorded the songs. I mean usually the way I’ve recorded the Jack’s records has been where I go in with my piano and my vocal and lay those down vocals first and then build the band around the piano and the vocal. With this record I started doing that and it just didn’t seem to be working the way I wanted it to. I sort of did a 180 and I got a couple of guys I’ve known for the last several years. We sort of just went into a space, learned how to play these songs and sort of jammed on them until they sounded right. Then we took that into the studio and recorded together. I think you sort of pick that up on the record; you sort of pick up that sense of freeness on the tracks. It’s sort of more a live approach to producing an album than I’ve implemented in the past.
TS: You’re first album was a solo project and the second album, like you said, was a response to you recovering from cancer. A lot of people have said you are straying away from the original piano rock found on Everything in Transit. Glass Passenger strayed from it and it seems like this is also heard on People and Things. Is this a trend?
AM: I mean that’s hard to say. I certainly still play the piano and the piano is very much a part of the songs and the music on both of those records. I don’t know if that’s something I’m straying from. It’s hard to be objective about stuff like this. As an artist you just do what feels right. You do what feels good in the moment. I know with this album I didn’t necessarily put the piano out in front. I didn’t necessarily do that consciously. I think I did that from the prospective from what I like to always do and what is right for these songs. These songs seemed to be presented best in the fashion that they were presented. From record to record it’s hard to say what’s going to come next. I think that’s why I like to make records. For all I know the next record I make will just be me and a piano, or it’ll be me and a symphony, I might not even be on the record. For me I try and follow the songs wherever they take me. When I sit down to write a song I’m not really thinking about how it’s going to be perceived or whether or not it’s a piano rock song or a ballad or a song id rather hear a guitar on. I’m just thinking about what makes me feel good when I hear this lyric or sing this melody and how do I position that so that people will get it. And for me that’s all I can really think about when I make these records.
TS: What is the meaning behind the new album title People and Things?
AM: There was something about the starkness and the broadness of the two words together that conjured the same feeling that I got when I thought about the songs on this record. It’s a record about relationships, it’s a record about my life in the time I was living it when I wrote these songs. I sort of felt that in a lot of ways because what was so central was the idea of the human relationship and how it makes you feel. I just thought when you really look at life that is the universal thing. It’s how we connect with the people around us and how that makes us feel. With me the concept of People and Things seemed sensible to me. I think as it relates to the language on the record there is sort of a tone to this, that it approaches love from a little more of a transparent and less hyped angle. Its not about break ups and make ups. It’s about the stuff in between, kind of the grittier stuff. I thought in that sense it was a very broad sense.
TS: Did you encounter and unexpected problems or challenges when writing this record?
AM: I mean you always come up against some things. There were definitely a couple. For one, I had done an early version of the record that I wasn’t totally thrilled with. It was the first time I’d ever got that far down the road with production and said, “I’m going to start over”. So that was tricky but it was the right thing to do. Where I think certain problems can scare you or make you lose your confidence, I think that moving on from that version of the album I gained the most confidence in my step and felt really empowered by that. I think the other thing that happened with this record, which was also what happened with the last record, was that there was a huge shakeup with the record company in the middle of the recording process. They basically fired half the people I had worked with for the last five or six years. That certainly was a tricky transition to make. Ultimately it worked out fine but when you’re recording to ultimately have your record released by a group of people and then all of a sudden that whole group of people is fired in the middle of the recording process; it can be a little nerve wracking.
TS: I attended the show in Ventura a few months ago. I noticed one of your band mates looked a little different and later you mentioned that he was a new member. Can you give some explanation on this and tell me a little how the band has changed over the past six years?
AM: I think like anything we had come to an impasse and we made a change. John our old bass player, who is still a very dear friend, was kind of going in one direction and I think we all recognized that. At that moment we decided that we would bring somebody else in ‘cause you have to keep going. I wasn’t going to stop playing music. So Mikey joined the band, which was over a year ago now. Obviously, recently we’ve been doing a lot more touring with him. I think it’s been a really positive thing for us. Mike is a fantastic musician. Not only is he a great bass player, but he’s a guitar player and he sings. He was a new energy for us, which at that moment was something I think we really needed. We had been on the road a long time and there’s been a lot of drama in the Jack’s Mannequin world since it started considering everything that happened to me in 2005. I think it gave us a new lease on our existence on the road as a band. I certainly felt, especially with this last tour with the new record out, that there is a very fresh, excited energy out here. We’ve really benefited from having a new person in the band.
TS: I know you grew up in Orange County, CA. What does growing up in Southern California mean to you? How does it impact you in being an artist? Do you use it as an inspiration?
AM: Absolutely. I consider Southern California home. To me, the V-necks to the Pacific ocean and writing music is really what I find to be the most inspiring. I was living in L.A. for the better part of the last four or five past years and in February. I made my way south back in to Orange County. Largely because I felt I was missing out on some of the inspiration I had found there. For me being from Southern California is imperative to my artistic process. It is really important to me and has been a constant source of inspiration.
TS: So I see how you get inspiration from southern California and things such as your battle with cancer. What else as a writer inspires you to write your music?
AM: I think for me, I gain a lot of my inspiration from traveling. There’s a huge factor from being in motion and being available to see and experience new things. My personal relationships and the people I meet in my everyday and how those relationships play out in my life become a huge source of inspiration as well. I’ve been really honest. I write my truth the best as I can. That’s what inspires me. When I write it really comes down to it being an affect of the everyday. It being a representation of what I see on a daily basis. I find a lot of my inspiration in the minutia, the little things, the little moments that add up to a feeling and make me sit down and want to play the piano.
TS: Jack’s Mannequin has been around for six years now. Do you still plan on recording with the band and touring after this? Are there any future plans for the band?
AM: Jack’s on the road and Jack’s in the studio are two different things. For me I love the guys I play with and I hope to play with them for many, many years to come. I think there is a factor for me that I am starting to consider. That being the reality of Jack’s Mannequin is that it was meant for one record. I wasn’t really shooting to make Jack’s Mannequin records for the rest of my life. I wanted to make this story about being home in California for the summer. It just so happened that in the course of making that album my life took a radical turn that I just never expected. I felt like there was unfinished business that made the Jack’s Mannequin story three records rather than one. I certainly am in a moment right now, regardless of the fact that I have every intention that the band I play with on the road with will stay my band for as long as I’m playing. I don’t know how useful the name Jack’s Mannequin really is to me anymore after this. I think I might be in a moment where I do step out of that and have a different experience in the studio and take my excitement over where modern music has gone and build a new experiment and explore myself and my music in the studio in a different way. I haven’t fully hashed that thought so it’s hard to say. At this point I kind of feel like the sky is the limit and I’m just really thrilled to be lucky enough to be out here and have people still coming to the shows and buying records and still seemingly enjoying what were doing. I think whatever we do next is going to be an expression of my excitements being a part of the modern music world. To go out and make something under what ever name it may be. I know that I’m excited to go do it and do it as soon as possible.
Although Jack’s Mannequin just finished their American tour for the new album this last weekend in Pomona, you can still buy their new album on iTunes. I highly recommend taking a listen to it. If you’ve never heard any of their stuff take a listen, including their original album. Andrew McMahon is a very talented musician that I look forward to hearing about in the future.