Interview: Andrew McMahon In The Wilderness

Earlier this month, I was lucky enough to be able to sit down and chat with Andrew McMahon. Andrew, who is well famed in the alternative scene for his tenure in Something Corporate and Jack’s Mannequin, is finally stepping out on his own to do a ‘solo project’ of sorts, entitled Andrew McMahon In The Wilderness. The record is incredible – filled with huge pop numbers and quite possibly, very unexpected given his former bands. I spoke to Andrew about the shift in sound and how it all came together, while discovering a few things about my favourite Something Corporate songs…

This new record is coming out under the name ‘Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness’, but throughout your career, you’ve released records under so many different guises. Why the switch to AM in the Wilderness this time?

Well, you know, it has more to do with it being time to move on from Jack’s Mannequin and knowing that Jack represented a certain time in my life, and that it was time to wind that down. When faced with the idea of putting out music again, whether or not to start a whole new moniker and kind of hide behind that, or to come out with my own name, well I thought ‘okay, there’s gotta be Andrew McMahon in this title somewhere’. I felt like it was a little disingenuous not to recognise the amount of collaboration in this project and also to, in a sense, represent the time that I was living in when I wrote these songs. I think that ‘In the Wilderness’ is a pretty fair assessment at what it felt like to be outside of making music for major labels, which has become the norm for me over the past ten or twelve years. It’s also a fair assessment of making music without the cover of a band and of what went into approaching this independent process, instead of one which had a lot of protection.

I take it that your songwriting process has changed throughout these different incarnations, but in particular, how did this record come together?

Some things are a lot different, but other things don’t change at all. I think that my goal for writing a song is very much the same – I want these songs to serve the function of answering questions of my daily life and connecting my subconscious with the universe a little bit. The process of figuring out what’s rattling round in my brain is still the same, and I try to take those things and communicate them in a universal way that makes sense as pop music. Certainly with this record though, I was much more open to collaboration. I had a handful of trusted friends who I got in a room with on and off throughout the course of making this record to bounce ideas off throughout the process.

This record, and The Pop Underground EP, have had more of an electronic influence – why the shift, and what have you learned from it?

Well, there’s a combination of reasons. It’s something I’ve always been interested in, and even if you listen to Everything in Transit, on songs like ‘Dark Blue’ and ‘Miss Delaney’, you start to hear elements of synths trying to crop up. I think it’s a factor of both the classic records that I used to listen to growing up as a kid in the 80s, when there were almost no live, no acoustic instruments on those records, but also a resurgence of electronic music in general at the moment. It’s actually in an evolutionary state now with so many people making music at home on their laptops rather than in proper recording studios. It’s hard to escape that influence, and as a modernist and someone who likes to play into the contemporary sphere of music, I think it was a no-brainer to access those some of those sounds.

When you say people are making stuff in their bedrooms, did you move around a lot and access different spaces and studios when you were recording?

Absolutely! I try in general when I’m working to not to lock into one space particularly so that I can keep it fresh and let the environment itself be a stimulus for the writing and the production. The writing started in a very sparse stage, where I wrote a handful of songs up in this cabin in a place called Topanga Canyon in LA and then I headed over to work with one of my main collaborators and producers, Mike Viola. He has this great little garage, and there’s an element of this record that I’ll always associate with Mike’s garage! But after that, when we were getting to the point of finishing songs, we moved into LAFX Studios. So we moved around quite a bit, and at each stage of the project, you need different things. It used to be that you’d hole up in a studio that cost a few thousand bucks a day but with independent records, you don’t really have the budget to throw that kind of money around, so you go where the gear is that you need for that day.

So, do you think that the different influence that each of these spaces had led to having such a wide blend of musical styles on the record? You’ve got big pop numbers, 80s influenced songs, very piano-led tracks – was it a challenge to thread all of these together in one record, especially when you’re recording all over the place?

When you start a project and you have all these disparate threads of songs, there is always this moment where you think ‘Oh my gosh, how are we going to make this work together?’ A big turning point for the record was when James Flanagan, who I wrote ‘Cecilia and the Satellite’ with, we did a lot of that production in the first day that we had met and written that song. James ended up being the thread that unified a lot of the sounds of the record. He came in as a co-producer and really focused the vision. We ended up using a lot of the drum sounds and keyboard sounds that James helped match as sort of a unifying thread throughout the record, and that helped in a big way.

The forthcoming birth of your daughter was a huge influence on the record, most definitely in Cecilia and the Satellite (which I think is really the shining star of the record, by the way), but lyrically, you also delve back into past relationships, old memories and so on – how do you balance the old and the new when you write?

Half of it is a step into the future and the other half is looking at the present day and gazing backwards and saying ‘how could things have been different’? I think there was a part of me finally out of the haze of my twenties and the confusion of these post-illness years, and a lot of things happened in the haze of my recovery, and I was trying to say ‘I’m okay with all of this, but I want to talk about it a little bit.’ I wanted to make sense of it, shed some light on it and see how I’m moving forward. The landscape of new sounds allowed me to talk about some of these more nostalgic themes and allowed me to shed some of that, I guess.

One thing that you haven’t lost throughout all of these records is the theme of space, which crops up on all of them in one way or another – what’s its significance to you?

You know, [Andrew laughs], there’s a part of me that feels as if I’m meant to be floating around in space somehow. I have these dreams on a regular basis, that I’ve had ever since I was a little kid, where I’m in space. And it’s funny, because depending on the time of my life, it’s either amazing and I feel totally at home or it’s terrifying, because I’m looking at earth and trying to make my way there. It’s a metaphor that I’ve always connected with, and there’s always the awesomeness of looking out into the distance and thinking ‘wow, we are really just these small beings sitting out there in the middle of the universe.’

Did you want to be an astronaut when you grew up?

Are you kidding, I think I still do want to be an astronaut!

Last year, you did a solo tour that was literally just you and your piano – I really enjoyed it from an audience perspective, but what was it like as a performer to do that? Would you repeat the experience again some day?

I think I’m actually set to repeat it in February in the UK! It’s funny because for all the years that I’ve been playing and singing, I didn’t start doing these solo shows until a few years ago. There’s a nakedness to it that can be scary, but then there’s also this other side of it where you can connect a little more deeply to your voice and your piano. In that sense, I think it can be both an awesome way to play a show and to see one.

Yeah, I suppose that it’s very conversational and very laid-back – not pretentious or anything like that, but it was just really nice to have that connection.

Like you said, those shows end up being conversational and you can do something in a show like that which you can’t necessarily do with a full band, so I like to do a combination – I’ll do the full band sets, but I’ll build in these acoustic shows so that both me and my fans can experience as many different live atmospheres as possible.

And a bit of a personal ask, but where did ‘Me and the Moon’ come from? It’s really the first instance of a song where it’s not from a personal perspective (and still, one of few even today) – what inspired that?

I remember writing the piano part first, and it was this very intricate melody, and the first thing that came out of my mouth was ‘It’s a good year for a murder.’ Needless to say when that’s the first line of a song, it means you’ve got a lot to live up to, and it’s also a tough thing to sell as a pop song. So I found the easiest way for me to pitch that was as a story about this murder, but more about the idea of suburban sadness. I think growing up in the suburbs, you see a lot of unhappy people, but when you see people who have a lot of these traditionally happy things like a house and a family but aren’t happy, that was really what I was aiming to tackle.

So finally, for anyone just discovering your music, there’s a lot of it to digest, and all with very different styles – where would you suggest they start?

Well first, I’ve gotta say this record, because it’s my brand-new record! I think if you want to get to know me now, then that’s a no-brainer. But after that, I’d go to Everything In Transit, and then Leaving Through The Window – so all the beginnings.

Andrew’s amazing new record, ‘Andrew McMahon In The Wilderness’, is out now on Vanguard Records. Find out more at andrewmcmahon.com

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