Photo credit:Brendan Walters
Andrew McMahon wouldn't know how to stop making music even if he tried. Having been in different bands since he was in his early teens, from Something Corporate to Jack's Mannequin and now making solo records, this week saw him release his highly anticipated new album Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness. Fusing catchy melody over an ever present piano, Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness has everything fans have come to expect from the great songwriter. Measured lyrics and careful attention to detail weave themselves throughout the album. However, the record is in many respects a departure from what Andrew has released before. With an experimental production style and decidedly modern pop edge, don't be surprised if Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness manages to infiltrate the pop charts.
I caught up with Andrew for a quick chat about the record, song writing and fans.
1) You've been in a number of different bands and are constantly changing your sound and approach to music. What prompted you to start Andrew McMahon in the Wildnerness?
I've found that I thrive when I'm out of my comfort zone and have something to prove. Jack's Mannequin told the story of my 20's and those were hard years. I was ready to tell a new story and leaving that creative space, one I'd inhabited for nearly a decade, felt a lot like being in the wilderness. Hence the new moniker.
2) You've become a father and there is a sense of reflectiveness in listening to the record. Are these two things linked in your mind in some way?
Yes and No. There is no question that you start to reflect on your life when you realize you will soon be in charge of another's. That said, a good deal of the reflecting on this album had to do with finally being out of the haze of my cancer recovery. I swept a lot of things under the rug in the years following my cancer, a large part of starting over creatively was rooted in getting myself out from under those years and working on getting my head straight.
3) You're a bit of a musical chameleon. While your music has always been anchored in melody, every record you've made sounds slightly different. When writing music are you conscious of your attempt to change things up?
I'm always looking to grow sonically from record to record. If I didn't take chances with my sound there would be no point in making records. I'm a modernist at my core. I like to pull from a combination of classic sounds and blend them with sounds that are starting to appear in the modern vocabulary. I don't tend consider these things when I write because I feel like a classic, well-written song will work with any style of production. I do however consider the sonics and where the songs will sit in the landscape of music music when I dig into the tunes in the studio.
4) You've been through the major label process and have now chosen to release this record on an indie label. Have you noticed any big differences to how music is approached when dealing with an indie label over a major?
The reality of this record is it was made before I did a deal. I always prefer working like this. It's nothing against labels or how they work, but making music for the majors was always a hard process for me. To make honest music is a lot like walking around naked, and it's not something you want to do in front of people you don't know well. At least not me. I like to make records with a select few people who I trust and who will tell me the truth in a productive way. With the landscape of major labels always shifting and new people coming and going every few months there was just no way I could be comfortable creatively. The irony of all of it is that making the move to an indie I've been more collaborative and open to criticism on this album than I ever was in my days on the majors. It's not to say I didn't love most of the people I worked with on those records, but the system as a whole made me feel self conscious and it slowed the process down too much for me to be happy.
Photo Credit: Brendan Walters
5) What was the song writing process like for the record and was it cathartic in a sense?
There were a lot of different approaches to the writing on this record. It was everything from sitting alone in the middle of nowhere writing really confessional stuff, to getting in a room with friends and digging into stories that we could all connect to. There is no question the songs on this record gave me a platform to shed some history while moving into the future and in that sense it was deeply cathartic.
6) The piano is often a driving force in your music, there is a distinct lack of piano in a lot of pop music today, which I feel your record could help reverse! Why is the piano so prominent in your music, is it the instrument that you feel best helps articulate your thoughts?
I have a theory about singer-songwriters. It doesn't apply to everyone, but it certainly does to me and a lot people I've been in the studio with. The basic idea is that most writers have a circuit that runs through their hands to their instrument and makes it's way to the world via the voice. When that circuit is strong and you keep the writer connected to their instrument, the song has the best chance of connecting with an audience. I developed my circuit at a really young age, sitting at the piano and singing and writing songs with my hands and voice. The further I get from that the harder it is for people to connect immediately. It was really important to me that no matter what road I went down sonically with this record that I believed in the piano parts and built the tracks around it and my voice.
7) Were there any records that you were listening to while making this album that helped as a springboard for ideas?
It was a combination of a lot of things. I listen to satellite radio in my car and I'm always combing spotify for new records. When I started writing the album I was digging into the Lorde EPs, then it was the new Daft Punk,Vampire Weekend and Broken Bells records. I was on a big dance kick as well listening to lots Robyn and Martin Solveig. I wanted those influences in this music, but I also wanted to trace some of those influences. Theres no question that a lot of what we consider modern now, is a re-imagining of sounds that were popular when I was growing up. So I started digging into old Don Henley and Bruce Hornsby records. At my core I figure I'm a lot more like those guys then any of the other bands I've referenced here and it was important to me to be true to myself and not just make an electronic record, because that's what you do now. Bruce Hornsby, Tom Petty, Don Henley, those guys thrived in the 80's as rock musicians successfully incorporating a palate of modern programming and synths without caving to it and I tried to use them as a barometer for when I'd gone too far and dial it back.
Photo credit: Brendan Walters
8) The production and instrumental elements of the records are also pretty expansive. How did you approach the production of the record and was it a challenge or an exciting process of discovery?
There's a term my producer Mike used a lot and I'm sure he probably heard it somewhere along the way as well. When we'd start a demo for a song he'd say "lets splash some paint around". I really loved that and in a big way it sums up the process. This record travelled through 4 or 5 studios and passed through a few very capable people's hands before it was finished. Every step of the way it was all about splashing paint around. Having fun, playing with the instrumentation and the approach to an arrangement until everyone in our camp was psyched. The early days of the demos was a lot of hit and miss, but as we got deeper in we honed our palate it became a lot more obvious what we needed to do. At every step it was challenging but it was the kind of challenge you wake up excited to take on because breaking through feels so rewarding.
9) You have a lot of fans that have stayed with you as you move through different projects and very vocally support you. This is a hard question to be objective about, but why do you think they've stayed over the years and feel this strong connection to your music?
I think of having fans as a two way street. People approach this differently and I'm not saying there is one right way, but I believe in shaking every hand and signing every autograph, because without these people I would be a guy in a garage writing songs no one ever heard. I have always cared deeply for the people who buy my records and see my shows and I think they feel that. I also try and tell the truth and expose my faults and be vulnerable when I write and I think I attract fans who appreciate that approach. The other side of it is that I really do respect my fans. While I start by making music for myself I am never pleased with it unless there is an audience who loves it. Pop music is a commercial art form and at the end of the day I try to always be accountable to that. The people who have followed my music for years know this and I think it keeps our bond strong.
10) Finally what are your touring plans, will you hopefully be making your way to the UK?
I have a solo tour coming together in the new year. I'm hoping to get 5 or 6 UK shows together!
Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness-Cecilia and the Satellite
Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness is out now.